THE MAGPIE, By Elizabeth Bridges.

The ward was quiet for once. No clattering trollies, giggling nurses, coughing patients. Even the TV in the day room was silent. Amy relaxed against her pillows and closed her eyes.

Admitted to hospital the week before with a broken hip, she had been continually bombarded with noise. She longed for the peace of home. Living alone since Ted had died six years ago, she had become used to being able to exclude the world when she wanted, or welcome it into her home when she chose.

Amy was eighty six years old. Until the age of eighty she had always been at the bidding of others. First her ailing, demanding Mother, then her employer, Sir Edmund Holt, to whom she had been housekeeper, then her beloved Ted and their two children. They had always been a joy. Amy thought of the first time she had seen Ted. He had come to work as Sir Edmund's gardener. He had looked so thin. She instantly planned to feed him as many nourishing meals as possible in the kitchen.

Sir Edmund had been furious when they told him they were going to be married. He snarled, "I suppose you can have the lodge house. I shall expect you both to go on working for me and don't have too many brats."

They had two much‑loved children, Andrew and Jenny. Then Ted was called up for the War. Sir Edmund grumbled but he had no powers to keep Ted at home. For six years Amy reared the children, cooked and kept house for Sir Edmund. She lived for Ted's letters from she did not know where, and welcomed him home at the end of the war. Once more he was painfully thin, so again she fed him nourishing meals, shamelessly scrounging anything beyond the rations. Sir Edmund had mellowed with the passing years. He welcomed Ted back into the garden, and seemed to enjoy his company.

When Sir Edmund died, a lonely bachelor, he left his house and all its contents to Ted and Amy. The solicitor told them, "He had no close relatives, and in his strange way he thought the world of you both. After all, you have been loyal to him for a great many years."

Stunned by the turn of events, they moved into the house that Amy had looked after for so long. In a short time she had cleared out furniture she disliked, and had stamped her own personality on the house. Ted turned the garden into a profitable nursery, working long hours. Often Amy worked beside him.

"Come along, Mrs. Robinson, time for tea," The nurse broke in on her thoughts. The peaceful few moments were over. Four o'clock. She must get herself ready for Tracy, her youngest grand‑daughter who had promised to call in on her way home from college. That would be at about five o'clock so there wasn't much time. Amy pulled herself up by the "parrot perch". She tried to ignore the pain that shot down her leg. She must be sitting up for Tracy. Although Amy loved all her three grand‑children Tracy was undoubtedly her favourite.

"May I have some hot water and my hair brush, please nurse?"

"Wait just one moment, Mrs. Robinson. I'll fetch them when I've given everyone else their tea."

At a few minutes past five Amy saw Tracy coming down the ward. Her shoulder length blonde hair swung to her stride. She looked so like her Mother, Jenny. Amy's son Andrew and his wife had emigrated to Canada twenty five years ago with their two children, Lucy and James. Amy had been to visit them four years ago for James' wedding.

"Hello, Gran. You're looking heaps better to‑day." Tracy bent over and gave Amy a hug and kiss. Amy loved the feel of Tracy's skin and the scent of healthy youth.

"It's so good to see you, young Tracy. Have you heard the latest from Canada? James and Sarah are expecting a baby in the new year."

"Yes, it's great news. By the time it's born you'll be fit and able to go and spoil your first great grand‑child. I've brought the pens and notebook you asked for. Are you going to write your memoirs? I hope you'll let me be the first to read them."

"I've done nothing worth writing about. No, I want to list my possessions. It will be good exercise for my brain."

"Mum told me that you have decided to give up your home. It must have been a hard decision to make. We all know how many happy memories you have there of your life with Grandad."

Amy's eyes filled with tears. Then she smiled," When I fell down those stairs I had plenty of time to realise that your Mother had been talking sense when she was trying to persuade me to sell up."

Tracy stayed for about twenty minutes relating tales of college. Amy hoped it didn't show that she was getting tired. She wanted Tracy to stay and loved to hear about her life, but was half relieved when she went with a wave and blown kiss from the doorway. The Doctor said Amy would probably have to stay in hospital for some time.

Jenny came to see her. "With the money from the house we should be able to find a good place for you. I'm looking for a flat so you can have some independence, but if there is a warden we won't need to worry."

Over the next week Amy filled Tracy's notebook with lists of furniture in each of her rooms. She decided how she wanted the items to be disposed of, either to the family or to go into her new home. There were also her "collections". Amy smiled at the memory of Ted calling her a Magpie. She had collected things for as long as she could remember. rom the usual shells, stones, stamps, picture postcards of childhood, she had become more selective. For her first birthday after they moved into Sir Edmund's house Ted had given her a glass‑fronted display cabinet, with a porcelain magpie as its first occupant. She loved choosing other porcelain models. She also collected silver and thimbles. She wanted her collections to go to her grand‑children. Jenny would know how to send the thimbles and silver to Canada. The cabinet and porcelain was for Tracy. She had always enjoyed the stories Amy told about each figure.

As Amy became acquainted with the other patients she enjoyed trying to place them in their own environment. She was sure one was a head mistress. She had everyone organised. She even had a list of visitors which she ticked off when they had called to see her. Amy wondered if there was a duplicate list in the school staff room.

Further down the ward another lady held court, but with quite a different group. Her visitors looked as if they would be more at home on a race course. The men were red faced, prosperous, noisy. The ladies were elegant, with penetrating voices. Her neighbours grumbled, but she was oblivious to complaints. The lady in the next bed had been in and out of hospitals for most of her life. She knew the routines and treated the ward as a second home.

The girl on the other side had come in for an emergency operation three nights before. She was recovering at an amazing speed. She had arrived on a stretcher, white faced, her eyes wide with fear. Her husband grasping her hand looked even more terrified. He had come each evening, his eyes fixed on his wife as he strode down the ward. To‑night he would be so relieved to see her sitting up. Already she was getting ready for him.

The tiny lady across the ward, older than Amy, seemed to shrink each day. Amy couldn't wish her to go on struggling with life. She prayed that she could slip away without any more pain. Amy soon learnt the names of the nurses. When they found her to be a sympathetic listener they used to tell her their problems and joys. She heard about the straying boyfriend, a husband's promotion, the children's exam successes, disturbed nights with the baby.

Amy gradually became stronger, encouraged by the nurses and doctors who all came to love and admire her. She progressed from a wheelchair, to Zimmer frame, to walking sticks. "I think I must accept that a walking stick is going to be my companion from now on," Amy smiled.

The other beds emptied and filled. Amy comforted the student nurse who was on duty when the tiny lady died, as she had lived, quietly and without complaint. "Her time had come, my dear. She was ready to go. We couldn't wish her to suffer any more."

The young nurse sobbed, "She was such a lovely gentle lady. She never had any visitors. I tried to find time to chat to her as often as I could."

The head mistress, collected ‑‑ Amy was sure ‑‑ by two of her staff, made a dignified exit. The young girl went home after a few days on the arm of her adoring, protective husband. She would certainly not be allowed to lift a duster for quite a while. The lady in the next bed was still there, keeping everyone's spirits up with an endless string of anecdotes.

When it was Amy's turn to leave hospital the nurses who were going off duty came to wish her well. Those on the ward waved from the windows as Jenny and her husband John helped her into their car to take her home for a few days. Her grand children were each delighted with their collections. Tracy hugged her. "Thank you, Gran. You're a dear. It's a beautiful gift and I'll treasure it always. I'll come and see you often."

She handed Amy a flat, square parcel while Jenny and John looked on, smiling. Inside was an album of photos of Amy's old home ‑‑ the rooms, the garden, views from the windows. "What a wonderful present! I can't think of anything that would give me greater pleasure. Bless you."

As the car drew into the drive of Amy's new home, she leaned forward in excitement.

"It's beautiful! I know I will be happy here. Thank you, both of you, for arranging everything."

It was a rambling Georgian manor house set among lawns, with cedar and beech trees. A lake could be glimpsed beyond. John and Jenny each took an arm to help Amy up the wide stone steps leading to the front door. A tall, middle‑aged woman came out to greet them, a warm smile lighting her face. "Welcome, Mrs. Robinson. Your daughter and son‑in‑law will be taking you to your flat. Then later I'll show you round and introduce you to the other residents."

Amy's flat was on the first floor, reached by a lift. Windows overlooked the side of the house where clipped hedges led to fields and a hill across a valley. Her favourite furniture had been arranged for her. A vase of dahlias and chrysanths stood on her desk. As she turned round to absorb everything she stopped. In one corner stood her cabinet filled with all her porcelain models. Hanging from the handle was a card. She tried to read the words but her eyes misted.

Jenny gently took the card and read, "Dearest Gran, bless you for giving this to me. I know how much it meant to you. I want to lend it to you for as many years as you can enjoy it. I'd much rather hear you tell the stories again. You tell them so much better than anyone else. See you soon. Love, Tracy."

Amy sank into her arm chair. Jenny knelt beside her and put her arms round her. "Mum, we all love you and want you to be happy here."

John turned to the window, blew his nose and wiped his eyes, as overcome as Jenny and Amy. A pair of magpies flew up from the lawn and perched on the stone balustrade. John drew Amy over to the window. "Look, Mum, there are even magpies to welcome you. What is the old saying, 'two for joy'? Now you can be certain everything will be all right."

The new beginning.


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