Blessed morphine … the pain is receding. Sister looks down on me and smiles.
‘Are you feeling more comfortable now, Hector?
I nod and murmur my thanks. They are universally kind here at St Anthony’s. She leaves the room softly. I fall into a light sleep.
Time passes. Minutes, perhaps half an hour or so. And suddenly I am wide awake. Someone is standing at the end of the bed. A girl in uniform, a care assistant I guess. I think I have not seen her before. Yet there is something almost familiar. A memory …
‘Hello Father,’ she has a faint accent. I think it may be German. They must have told her who I am, though soutane and surplice are locked away in the cupboard by the door. Probably they will remain there. I think I shall not robe for Mass again. ‘Sister asked me to come and see how you are.’
I peer at her, squinting a little to try to make out her name badge. There is something about her hair – a chord of music drifts through my head. Debussy - La fille aux cheveux de lin. And her eyes – she smiles with her eyes.
‘My name is Isolde …’
Yes. Of course. Your name is Isolde. And I begin to wonder if I am dreaming.
* * *
Her name was Isolde. I can remember when we first met. It was on a river boat, hired for a party given by the parents of mutual friends. She told me that her father was in the Swiss diplomatic service, on a posting to
. She was a few months past her
seventeenth birthday, and I just a year older. Her English was near perfect,
yet she seemed somehow to be out of place there. And because I was inclined to
shyness then, we stayed talking together, perhaps finding security in each
other’s company. And I think by the end of that evening, several hours later, I
was already in love with her. We had become soul-mates in the briefest space of
In those days there was still an essential innocence that was common to most young people who found themselves in love. By that I mean, there was not the urgency to consummate, to sleep together at a time when they barely knew each other’s names. The age of free love had not yet dawned, although it was very near and would in the not so distant future affect us both in very different ways. Then there were codes of behaviour and unwritten rituals to be adhered to. Yet I cannot imagine otherwise than that our hand holding and gentle caresses were any less exquisite than the long nights of passion that seem to be the norm today. No – I don’t think I am being old-fashioned: I really believe that something precious has been lost in the search for and indeed the insistence upon instant gratification.
As the weeks went by we met often. We would take the train out of
to be in places where we could be alone together and delight in each others
company. Yet even then we knew that our time together must draw to a close.
Isolde had gained a place at the London University
of Lucerne to read English Literature,
and would be leaving
in the autumn. At the same time her father’s posting would end and the family
return to England .
I suppose I had hoped that I might visit her there, perhaps at Christmas, but I
perceived a barrier: Isolde’s family were strict Lutherans and I was a
Catholic. And besides I was … I am, black. Switzerland
One day late in the summer, as we lay on the grass beside a wide estuary in Kent she raised herself on one elbow, looked down on me with those smiling eyes and put her forefinger to my lips. I had voiced my sadness at the thought of our parting, wondering when we might, eventually, see each other again.
‘We will write. Often. And then we will see!’ But I think that even then she knew that her future and mine were set upon different courses. And I think that was because she knew me better than I had ever realised, better even than I knew myself.
A great flock of geese rose from the mudflats below us, scattered across the sky and then drew together again forming into a ragged skein, and made eastward to the sea. Isolde turned to gaze after them, and I sat up to watch with her and listen to their calling. She began to murmur, to half chant what I took to be verse. I did not recognise it:
And on a morning, such a morning as there might have been
In the deepness of time, and in a time of innocence,
When a shimmering ocean swept across the bay
I saw the geese …
And I wondered at the unencumbered grace of that formation
As it curved sunward. And when they lost themselves
In the fierce glare, and then gave voice, it was as though
They passed beyond the confines of this world.
For how could the tuneless call of great wild birds
Be so uplifted? For I thought I heard that morning
Not the brash, mournful cry of marsh fowl
But echoes of another firmament. I heard, it seemed to me …
Her voice faded. I wondered if what followed was lost to her. But then she turned to me with a look of expectation that said ‘go on – this is ours!’ I must have read it, or something like it before, because the words came to me quite effortlessly and to my complete surprise:
… I heard, it seemed to me
The sound of trumpets at the Gates of
‘Yes!’ That is it, exactly!’ And she leaned over me and kissed me.
Two weeks later she left took a flight with her parents to
And I never saw her again. Geneva
* * *
Isolde has been a regular visitor to me over the past few weeks, since that first time when she stood at the end of the bed as I drifted out of sleep. I believe that the child has become fond of me. This evening, long after she should have gone off duty, she is sitting with a pad in the chair to one side of the bed, sketching the biretta placed on the bedside locker.
She is silent, and I say to her, ‘Why do you stay on here? I am sure you have friends you would sooner be with.’
She shakes her head. ‘They can wait. They have time.’
She makes no direct response to my question. ‘If you must know, I feel ashamed to think that you – Father Hector Ademokun of the mighty Roman Catholic Church – have not had a single visitor since first I met you.’ She smiles. ‘I am trying to make up for the failings of my fellow men and women!’
Isolde knows something of my past. She knew very soon after our first meeting that, half a century ago I had loved her grandmother more than I have ever loved anyone since. And she is the only other living soul who has known this. But does she know that her grandmother – dead these last five years – has never, for one single day, been absent from my thoughts? Indeed we were – are – soul-mates. Nothing can change that. Not even my faith, or the crumbling remnant of it that still lingers.
She told me that the Isolde I had loved never married. Swept up in the movement towards free love and the illusion of freedom, she became pregnant when in
, shortly after graduating.
She returned home to a shocked and reproving family and gave birth to a girl
who would one day become Isolde’s – this child Isolde’s – mother. She spent
much of her life as a recluse, writing – quite successfully – and painting. America
‘I really miss her. She was a lovely grandma to me. When she died, she left me a painting, one of her best. I think it is perhaps the most precious thing that I own.’
‘What is the painting of?’
‘A flight of geese. They are flying towards the sun across a glittering sea. I think … sometimes I think, that it is a vision of heaven.’
* * *
I am very near to the end now. The staff here at the hospice are beyond praise. I have no pain and I am sometimes even comfortable. As I said … blessed morphine!
Isolde has come to see me, as she does several times a day now. She pulls the chair close to me.
‘Father – I am … I am going away for a few days. Home. To
So I thought I’d come … come to say goodbye’ Switzerland
She takes my hand. I turn to her and I know that a tear is rolling down my cheek. I will never see her again.
‘You have been so very, very good to me. I ask myself, why?’
She does not answer immediately, but instead says:
‘Grandmother … grandma, loved you so, so dearly.’ And then, ‘you know why I …’ and her voice catches and falters.
I think I am falling into a dream. Perhaps my last. She leans over me, and that beautiful flaxen hair falls across my face. Her lips brush my forehead.
And I know at last that we never lose those we love, because we see them for ever, deep in the eyes of their children. And of their children’s children.
Outside in the park, where I am told there is a wide lake where waterfowl nest and find sanctuary, I can hear the cry of the geese. And their calling reaches a crescendo, like a mighty fanfare, as they rise together from the water.