The dining room was full of appetizing smells. Dean looked at the table in delight. For someone who was used to re-heated cottage pie and scrambled eggs on toast, the food they were eating this weekend was a sumptuous treat. He breathed in the smell of the quiche nearest to him. Delicious. But his nose betrayed him and he was taken back to the smell of cooked cheese years ago.
He had just come out of hospital. He had been placed in a care home whilst he re-learned the skill of walking. Some of his doctors thought this was not possible, but he had insisted on trying. He would not be tied to a wheel-chair for the rest of his life. They said his determination pulled him through the weeks he lay on death’s door, and, in spite of the pain, he continued to fight to get back on his feet.
Grilled cheese on toast was a frequent supper dish at the home. They had a tight budget and medical expenses took preference over those allocated to house-keeping. So cheese was quick and easy. He was happy with that. He enjoyed the meal. But he could never smell cooked cheese without remembering the battles he had with himself during that time.
He was determined, but it was hard. Very hard. Anger washed through him. His brother, Victor, who used to visit him from time to time in those days, told him he was his own worst enemy. No one was pushing him to do this. But Dean remembered thinking perhaps that was the problem. No one was pushing him because nobody cared. In the end, he and Victor had had a ferocious row and his brother had not come again. He was dead now. Dead of a heart attack five years ago. There had only been the two of them. So now, instead of the hope that one day his brother would come and say to him, “I care,” there was no one.
It was lonely. To be completely alone was lonely. People said you could be alone in a crowd, and that was true too. He looked at the people around him. Many were already seated and eating. One of the men who had been at his table at breakfast came across the dining room towards him.
“Hello, Dean. Can I help you with that tray?
“Thank you. I’m afraid I don’t remember your …”
“I’m Gordon,” his helper said, picking up the tray.
“Oh yes, of course, I’m sorry. We had breakfast together.
“Don’t worry. None of us expects you to remember all our names. It’s easier for us as most of us have kept in touch over the years. Come and join us. I think you’ve already met Mary. Do you know Bekka? She told her story about Noah last night.”
And he led the way to the table he had just left where two women greeted Dean with warm smiles.
Yes, it could be lonely in a crowd. But sometimes, when you’re part of the crowd, it can also be entertaining.
Most of the younger people went off after lunch in groups of twos and threes to walk, play tennis, or use one of the hotel’s sailing boats which were available for hire.
Dean declined all the offers of company and made his way to his room. The sun, which had streamed through the windows first thing in the morning, had moved around and now the bedroom was a cool oasis of peace.
Kicking off his shoes, Dean lay back on the bed. He felt weary. It had been an emotional, and somewhat confusing, two days. He was having second thoughts about talking to Rob at supper. Perhaps it would be better just to ignore his feelings and not get involved in any heavy discussions.
As he lay there wrestling with his thoughts, he was lulled by the soporific ‘tok, tok’ of the tennis balls on the courts which were to one side of the garden. Somewhere a woman laughed, and he could hear people talking as they prepared to go out for the afternoon.
The sounds softened, and he slept.
He was falling … falling … falling. There was dust everywhere and people were coughing. It was not a free fall, but rather controlled, like being in a lift. He opened his eyes. Straight above him, was a hole in the ceiling. Four faces peered down at him anxiously. They were letting out ropes.
Four of them.
He knew their faces. Rory, Mike, Simon and Rob. Behind them, he thought he saw Mary. He tried to sit up to see what was happening around him.
But he could not.
Panic ripped through him. He tried to clutch the edges of the bed he was lying on.
But he could not.
His mind raced. What was happening? Why was he unable to move?
Falling … falling.
At last the bed on which he lay came to a gentle rest on a solid surface. He could only presume it was the floor.
Feet. He could see feet – surrounding him.
He was afraid. He flinched as ropes came clattering down around him. He squeezed his eyes shut – at least he could still do that.
“When I open my eyes let me be awake, please. God if you do exist; if you are there, let this be a dream. Let me wake up”.
He heard a voice.
‘My Son, …”
His eyes snapped open. There was a man leaning over him, smiling at him. What was that smile about? He strained every muscle to leap to his feet and get away. Every muscle, to escape from this strange place, from this man who loomed over him.
But he could not.
‘My Son, your sins are forgiven.”
His stomach churned. His heart beat a rapid drum roll. He could feel the sweat on his palms and his forehead, yet he could not move to wipe it away.
He heard voices from the people around him, higher up, out of sight. The owners of the feet. They sounded angry. Accusing. What sins? Were they accusing him? Was he being charged with some wrong-doing?
The memories whipped through his mind. The girl he had walked out on when he left Ranburne High, closing the door of their flat and walking away.
The teachers he had bullied when he became Head of the English Department at the next school where he taught.
The argument with Victor. The disagreement with his neighbours,
On and on they went, roaring through his mind like a runaway train.
‘My Son …”
On no, he was back again, this strange man.
He fought against the bonds that held him, pinning him down; chaining him to his present reality.
This time, he knew he must face this, to get rid of this awful sensation of being trapped, chained. He must open his eyes and face the man.
So he did.
Those deep brown eyes looked down on him. They did not condemn him. The smile on the man’s face was for him alone.
The voices swirled above their heads but they – these two – the man and Dean himself – could have been the only two in the world.
The smile grew wider.
‘My Son, your sins are forgiven.”
And the roller-coaster stream of misdoings fled screaming away, leaving only silence and calm.
He knew then he was forgiven.
‘I say to you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
He became aware of cheering from the watchers on the roof. The rest of the voices had fallen silent. He felt the man’s hand on his clammy forehead. The coldness of his fear faded, to be replaced by a sense of well-being. The man reached down and took his right hand to help him up.
He felt himself groping for his stick. Stretching, reaching. But he was rising to his feet. There was no pain. He could get off the bed alone without help.
He could move!
He could dance!
His whole body twitched as he knocked his stick over and it clattered to the ground. He was in a cold sweat, gasping for air. His eyes opened wide and he realised, with a faint sense of regret he was in his bedroom at the hotel. It was a dream. He had been dreaming. But what a dream! Shaken, he lay there, thinking about what he had just experienced. What did it mean? It had been so vivid. He could remember it in clear detail.
It was like the dreams he had shared with the Class of 1990. Just the same as those.
Someone in the garden called out.
“Thanks for the game. It’s half past four. I’m going to shower and get ready for the next session.”
The voice faded as the speaker hurried away.
Half past four! He must get up and prepare for the evening. He wiped his forehead. He also needed a shower. Struggling to his feet, he made his way to the bathroom, but the whole time he showered and dressed, he could not get the dream out of his mind.