The Boatman’s Journey – Read an extract

It is 1980. Leonard Gardner is confined to a nursing home suffering from aphasia. This extract introduces him to Kate, a young care assistant who has arrived to have lunch with him and explain how she hopes to work with him through his art.

When the gong sounds, we all stir like Pavlov’s dogs and heave and shuffle to the dining room, those that can. Others are wheeled off to the feeding bay. I’m halfway across the room when a nurse stops me.

‘Mr Gardner, you have some company today. It’s one of our new care assistants – she’s going to have lunch with you.’

There’s a moment of panic – does she think I need feeding too? I’ve not reached that stage yet and I hope they shoot me before I do. But then I see the young lady who came to my room. She’s here again – how odd. She smiles, takes my arm and says, ‘Hello Mr Gardner. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve invited myself to lunch.’

Her voice is pleasant, quiet with a slight lilt, not from these parts, I think. I didn’t notice when she came before. I’ve never had company for lunch. Will the food taste better, I wonder? Perhaps she’s brought her own – I’ve seen visitors do that. They bring out sandwiches and a flask, not trusting what’s on offer here, what it might be laced with. But when we sit down at my usual table in the corner and face one another across the blue checked cloth, there’s no sign of a lunchbox, just the large straw bag which she puts on the floor by her feet.

‘So, what’s on the menu today?’ she asks, surveying the room brightly. I hope she’s not expecting too much. Food is always predictable – soft and wet, but working here she’s probably used to that. Today it’s shepherd’s pie with cabbage and peas. The young lady takes her helping from the trolley as it comes round, the dining assistant checks her list to make sure I’m not forbidden anything. Anything more solid than mashed potato is out of the question, but it’s not easy to complain. I poke at the tasteless mass in front of me, swallow small mouthfuls, try to empty my plate. They tell me I have to keep eating, otherwise the muscles will die and I’ll never speak again, apparently. It would help if the food were just a bit more appetising.

Either my companion is very hungry or doesn’t want to dwell on what she’s eating, but in a few short minutes her plate is clear. Such solid constitutions the young are blessed with. But then she pushes her plate to one side and clasps her hands together on the table as if something is about to begin.

‘I expect you’re wondering why I’m here,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry my last visit seemed like an intrusion. Has your wife spoken to you?’

My wife has said nothing of importance for years, except the day she told me I was coming here. I could try to tell her about William, but that will only complicate things. I don’t want her wearing that sad, puzzled look, the one they get when I try to speak.

But the young lady doesn’t look puzzled at all. She has brown eyes, a small face. A dark curl escapes from behind her ear and falls across her cheek. She hooks it back, and in my head a corner lifts, stirring a dusty layer in the old house by the lock.

‘This must all be a bit of a mystery to you, so I’ll explain.’

She smiles a lot, shows her lovely teeth. I force down my lunch and try to be encouraging this time. The others are looking in our direction, our corner of the room a welcome distraction. I manage to finish the shepherd’s pie and put my knife and fork together neatly on the plate before it’s whisked away by the washer-up. Then I turn to face my companion and concentrate.

‘I’m an assistant care nurse,’ she says. ‘I haven’t been here long and Walter – Staff Nurse Robinson – wants to start up a new programme of activities for the residents. He’s asked me to…’

There’s a pinch in my stomach where the shepherd pie sits. Am I an experiment then, a lab rat?

‘Don’t worry,’ she says, picking up on my dismay. ‘It’s not an experiment, nothing like that. It’s more…’ she pauses, searching the yellowed panels on the ceiling. ‘It’s more a kind of therapy.’

Now I think of white coats and couches and people with more money than sense.

‘I’m not talking about psychoanalysis, of course! This is different, but we’re hoping it will help – help you find things you may have lost.’

Like words you mean, and making sense?

‘Sometimes it can bring back things from the past, a memory of people or experiences that may have become distant or buried under more recent events. Especially if there’s been some trauma. It’s simply a way to help you move forward, to move on with your life.’

Will it get me out of here? If it works, can I go home?

‘Of course, there are no guarantees but we hope it will help towards your recovery. It’s all quite new, very innovative. I suppose you’d call it a… project. We’re on a project – together. It involves trust – and by the end, hopefully, you’ll have some insight, some understanding.’

Is this what William was talking about? It still sounds like an experiment. The young lady takes a notebook from her straw bag and while we wait for pudding she writes in it, looking up at intervals. She’s working something out, there’s anxiety there, as if she thinks I might disappear.

I nod slowly, still cautious, but she has an open, earnest look about her that puts me at ease. The trolley comes back, stacked with dessert bowls and an oversized tin of strawberry jam. This means semolina. The dining assistant serves us both and plonks a spoon of jam on without asking. I’m old, so I must like jam, must have a sweet tooth. I don’t, as it happens, I only eat Kit-Kats because William brings them. I feed the biscuits they leave me to the birds outside my window – digestives go down very well with the starlings.

I push my dollop of jam to the side and eat round the edge of it. My companion is tucking into hers, swirling the jam into whorls of pink and purple. She looks up and smiles, a flash of glee.

‘Can’t help it,’ she says. ‘Has to be done.’

When she’s finished, she puts her spoon neatly in the bowl and wipes her mouth on a napkin. ‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘Best meal I’ve had for weeks.’

I find this hard to believe, though I do know what it’s like to be hungry. Hunger years leave a mark that never fades.

The dining room is emptying and one by one the residents are wheeled back to the French windows for the post prandial nap. We mobile ones are left to our own devices. My companion asks whether I’d like to go outside. ‘It’s a beautiful day and… please don’t quote me on this but canteens always smell of cabbage, don’t they?’

She slings her bag onto her shoulder and stands by my chair while I get to my feet. Not hovering, just waiting as if she has all the time in the world. As I make my way to the door, I hear her tuck in my chair.