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The Unadopted Road (exert)
by June Scott

Joe's large frame seemed to dominate the long ward, let alone the bed. The authoritative sister in severe navy blue and crinkled white cap put the fear of death into every patient. I often wondered why, as to my mind, her chief role was to do her best for them, helping them cheat death not to lay in fear of it. Suddenly she turned. Her broad rubber shoes advanced towards us in tune with her ample body.

'Steindene?' she bellowed. The four of us huddled together for moral support'

'A word……' She motioned us to her office - a sterile chamber - one wondered what tortures lay there.

'Next of kin?'

Betty followed her in believing her days to be well and truly numbered. Then the door closed.

'Typical,' muttered David.

Mrs Fletcher screwed up her eyes and peered through the ward door. 'Joe seems all right,' she said. 'D'ye think we dare go in?'

As a man David and I shook our heads.

'Not if you value your life mam. Best wait - we don't know what news the sister has for Betty.'

'You mean something's wrong?'

'Don't know!'

'Oh poor Betty ... What if Joe's on his last legs?'

I nearly corrected her to say he only had one and a bit but felt the time to be inappropriate.

'What if it's gangrene I knew a sailor ……. he was on your dad's ship that happened...'

'Mother!' pleaded David

'But what if…………? She bit her lip. She didn't dare continue It didn't bear thinking about.

The solid sister's door swung open and three pairs of eyes riveted on to Betty. Questions tumbled in our heads which we dare not transpose into words. Our main concern... ... Was Joe going to live?'

Betty averted her eyes ... no clue there. Sister Parker stood behind her, a serious expression hammered into her face.

'So I'll let you tell him Mrs Steindene ... I think it's best coming from you. My stomach did a cartwheel. We'll have to be strong for Betty I thought... I wonder how long he's got?

The stiff white sheets pummelled up into a thousand knots. It was strange looking at Joe minus cap. In fact it was strange looking at Joe minus pipe! We stood around the bed looking at the bad tempered figure therein. The mouth still slanted at an angle - unable to forgo the habit of a lifetime. Tho' no pipe was clenched between the pursed lips, the latter was set in readiness should the filthy unmentionable find its way back there.

A shaven Joe was something else to get used to. I was able to see pink parts of skin never before to have seen the light of day. In spite of the pain he seemed to look much younger. A lost foot had taken years off him! In fact, dare I let my imagination run completely riot - he could be taken for a rather good looking man - that's if you could get used to the wandering false teeth!

'Joe,' Betty faltered, pulling up one of the heavy unwieldy metal chairs on offer to visitors. I thought then, and sometimes still do, what a clever way to get rid of people cluttering up the ward - NEVER make them comfortable enough to stay! Looking around at the sterile misery of all the other occupants, I couldn't imagine anyone in their right mind wanting to spend one second longer than necessary in this outpost of authority.

Sister Parker stood behind Betty, her lips set in a grim line. Joe glowered. He sat upright with folded arms, head turned in the opposite direction to the tyrant. His strong muscles twitching beneath the blue and white striped pyjamas. Somehow, I gathered, that for once Joe had met his match.

'Right, Mr. Staindene, I'll leave you with your wife!' and with a triumphant toss of her head, turned on her heel satisfied that she had carried out her duty to the full.

I wondered whether sister had glued Betty to that particular seat so determined was she for Joe's wife to deliver the bad news. I cleared my throat.

'Betty .... If you like, we'll leave ... as its ... personal.'

But instead of shaking like a scared rabbit, a half smile danced at the corners of her mouth. David's mother shot her a quizzical look.

'No, I want you all to stay.' she said with a firm voice.

Joe's head turned to face his wife, his expression truculent. He's bearing up quite well I thought considering he's about to receive life shattering news.

'Joe.' Betty's voice seemed to take on some new found authority. She slowly leaned forward smoothing the top sheet with her hand in preparation for her delivery.

'Joe, sister's had a word with me.'

The arms remained folded while the chest heaved producing a grunt in the throat. All our eyes remained fixed on Betty. She continued...'Apparently you're not doing what she tells you.'

'That sod!' he bellowed.

'Please keep your voice down.' Betty glanced apprehensively at the other beds where the visitors averted eyes told her that yes, they had heard his outburst.

'Just get me bloody well out of here.'

'You'll have to be patient.'

'Bloody patient woman!!'

This time David's mother intervened. 'You know Joe, its hard on everyone not just you - now listen to Betty!' Another grunt with folded arms.

'Sister says you're breaking the rules' Betty began.

'I'll break her bloody neck, that's what.'

'Joe you've got to stop it.'

'Stop what?' How often had I heard that remark from the not so innocent?

'Where have you got it?' She began rummaging among the contents in his top drawer.

'Get you bloody hands off...' But she was too quick for him. Out came his toilet bag. She felt the contents from the outside, and then with a knowing look, let them fall onto her lap. The bacy tin came first, followed by the pipe itself. I might have known that the last thing Joe would have in his toilet bag would have been soap! Deftly she prised open the tin revealing the mass of dirty tealeaves!

'Oh Joe, how could you? Where did you get these?' she demanded.

'None of your bloody business!'

'Well, if that's the case!' She stood up to leave but his strong hand restrained her. For once I saw the vulnerability behind the pale blue eyes. He said nothing but his grip imparted to her what his speech could not. All he knew was his strength, This was what he had offered her as a young man and it had worked. Now he had to try and make it work again - but this time he was handicapped - and badly so. His grip on her arm told her this and much much more. It told her that he was frightened. It told her that he loved her and his family. It told her he was frustrated, he was miserable, he was lonely .... It also told her he needed her. Something again he had never said. Yet here he was a wounded animal unable to take care of himself let alone his own. His pride was hurt -hurt badly! He wanted to tell this lovely woman that he loved her but all that came out of his mouth were expletives. Anyway, if he started on that nonsense, everyone would think he'd gone soft and this was the wrong time for that. He was already weakened bodily so he had to be even stronger mentally. He had to show them all that he was still the strong buck. He was the leader of the pack and let no one forget it. If he showed weakness now- God knows what would happen. They all needed him otherwise why were they all there around his bed? Yes he was going to continue to be strong- he was the boss. That was the way the Lord meant it to be, and he, Joe would make sure that that's the way it would continue. Sister had told him it would be about ten months before he could be fitted with a new foot. Well if that's the way of it, so be it. He knew he would be in and out of hospital for a while yet. That bloody wound ~ how it throbbed. How he longed to scratch the missing toes. It drove him mad ... but he mustn't let Betty see any chink in his armour. For her, he was going to be exactly as he was:- awkward, obstinate, boorish and selfish. That would make her feel secure. She would know then that everything was right with his world and if everything was right with his world, then it automatically followed that hers was in tact also.

'if you must know, I got them from Eddie Thompson. At least he thinks about me.'

'What because he brings you tea leaves to smoke and a rotten old pipe... Betty sat down again, happy in the knowledge that Joe was not excluding her. That she couldn't bear. His bad habits, his foul temper, she could - but not his exclusion. Gradually his grip lessened on her arm. Once he saw her seated, his belligerence began to wane and in its place an unknown vulnerability surfaced.

'She told you..' he faltered. 'Ten months.'

Betty nodded. She dare not trust herself to continue. It was O.K. to fight with Joe - that was her common platform. Admonishing him with her usual phrase of 'Oh Joe how could you?' was her stock in trade, but seeing him so utterly helpless, so utterly dependent, crushed the air inside her ribs and no sound came forth.

Their relationship was on an entirely new footing now - one that she had to learn. It was like courting again - AND this time she would have to be the one to come a courting. She would have to be patient. SHE would have to woo HIM. Even in her intense anxiety this thought brought a wry smile. She'd never been the one to make the first move or any move come to that! As a young girl, her life had been protected. She'd never gone out to work as other young girls had. She'd known nothing but farm life - her father's first and now Joe's - and the only man who'd ever come a courting was himself and that was only because he needed a wife - not because he'd felt the sap rising. His father had died when he was fifteen, and then at twenty one, he found himself orphaned by his mother's fatal heart attack. So what was a young man with a farm to run, to do? Replace his mother with a wife of course! And this he duly did.

'Got the crutches today,' he continued slurring the false teeth sideways as he spoke. He pointed behind the bed head. 'Be home in a few weeks with these.' I could see that Betty didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Joe under normal circumstances was one massive handful - but a disabled Joe - with only one good leg was a terrifying prospect. She tried to look cheerful encouraging even, and then as if grasping inspiration from thin air, blurted out:

'Yes we've got it all arranged.'

He looked quizzically at her. Then becoming braver with her new found idea:

'David and Ruth'Il help out!'

I was glad that I had my uncomfortable steel chair for support. I shot a quick glance at David, but being in true tradition of 'men together' so to speak, he deliberately avoided my piercing eye and wholeheartedly volunteered his farm management skills to Joe, every weekend for as long as was needed. I wondered then, if ever the word negotiation had ever become part of this man's vocabulary.

'You know me Joe ... you can rely on me,' preened David on my left. More than I can I muttered. Then giving a more gutteral sound to his voice, now that words like 'management' and 'in charge' were being bandied about, he leaned forward conspiratorially, the sinews on his bare bronzed arms tightening to the occasion, and with undisguised delight, said:-

'You'll want me in charge of Billy then eh?'

Now we're getting down to it I thought. He couldn't resist rubbing poor Billy's nose in it could he?

'He'd appreciate your help,' cooed Mrs Fletcher. 'until he gets on his feet .... You were such good friends at school.'

I sat dumbfounded, outnumbered by four to one. What could I do? And yet if I complained I would come out as that spoilt town bitch. Looking at Mrs Fletcher and Betty, and even Joe, I felt guilty if I so much as tried to change the course of these plans.

'If you could Joe slurred again. 'He'll need help with the harvest. It'd give Bob and Stan a break .... God knows what we'll do when they go .....

'You'll be out by September,' Betty comforted.

'Not with me new foot....'ave to wait 'til beginning of next year for that.'

 

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