Fever in the Night
Nathan Bennett carried an armful of branches to a bonfire and laid them in red flames. The wood caught fire but he couldn't hear it crackle. He never had since birth. Then he felt a movement of air, looked up and saw a young boy run past with staring eyes and open mouth. Nathan spun round and faced a lime tree whose branches were getting pruned. At its foot, a twelve year old boy had been sawing at one branch. He had, while Nathan's back was turned, accidently cut his arm and started to bleed. His face was contorted in agony. Large red splodges marked the ground at young feet. The youngster must be screaming. Nathan launched himself over a felled branch, landed on daisies and cropped grass, then pounded up to the boy.
Twelve year old Fergus Egen had turned white. He staggered from side to side. His eyes grew wide with horror. Nathan also felt scared but tried not to show it. Using sign language he ordered the second boy to fetch help, then Nathan gripped Fergus by his wrist and raised the injured arm to reduce the flow of blood to wounded flesh. Nathan applied pressure around the cut and managed to slow the bleeding.
Close by, curly bluebells coloured shade from youthful leaves. An earthy path lay mottled by light and shadows. Two white butterflies rose from spiky tussocks. The first petals showed on a hawthorn bush. Earlier that day, hearing friends had said that birds were singing. This late spring morning seemed entirely at odds with Fergus and Nathan's distress. Ropes hung from the lime tree. Stumps of its branches were pale against darker bark. Nathan's arms started to ache and sweat stung his eyes. He felt very isolated but told himself that it must be worse for the boy. In the distance, sheep nibbled on green pastures. A river meandered in bright sunshine; its cool waters changed from the colour of ancient bone to shades of quartz crystals. A horse waited to pull heavy logs, for tractors hadn't been invented. Nathan yearned to sign reassurance but needed to keep on pressing round the wound. Strong fingers grew sticky with blood and the smell of it tormented his nose. Anger and impatience invaded his mind. Fergus's teeth chattered with shock.
At last the Head Gardener, Mr Orme, appeared. He was followed by the boy Nathan had sent to fetch help. They hurried past lime and cedar trees, down a grassy slope and stopped by the casualty. Mr Orme pulled a bandage from his pocket and quickly bound Fergus's injury. As the boy lowered his arm, Orme rounded angrily on him.
"You stupid boy! I've got a hundred things I'd rather do than play wet nurse to you! Go and get a coffee, and then I'll expect you back here, at work and making a perfect job of it."
Fergus began to cry. Nathan was taken aback. Shouting made it hard to lip-read, but it was obvious that Orme was blaming the victim. Nathan asked Fergus to translate, then began signing.
"With respect sir, an accident like that could've happened to anybody," he began. "I had one or two near misses when I was new here. Don't you think Fergus should see a doctor before he goes back to work? I can finish the job here; I'm stronger and more experienced anyway."
Mr Orme hesitated. Wood smoke drifted over them. An ant ran over his left foot and into short grass. The Orme asked "do you know how much it'd cost to pay a doctor?"
"Yes but I think we should cough up for it," Nathan replied. "I'm sure His Grace would approve."
"He's not here, is he." (Their master held a post in the British Army and was then serving in West Africa). Orme stroked his chin, clearly wondering what might happen when His Grace returned. Then Orme said "all right, take him to a doctor but don't let it happen again."
As a woodpecker drilled on dark grey bark, Nathan thanked his boss, abeit grudgengly, then escorted Fergus from the scene. Had they been of equal rank, Nathan would've punched Mr Orme on the nose.
That evening Nathan lay on his bed, in a dormatory above the stables. He was still clothed but tired. Aromas of orchids denned in his nostrils, though soon they would be ousted by more earthy smells. His bedside table carried a pitcher and ewer, white and cobalt like a rush of spring water.
Nathan couldn't stop thinking about Fergus and how Mr Orme had treated him. The youngster could be annoying; he had put a frog in a drawer in their kitchen, and Cook had screamed when she opened said drawer and the amphibian sprang out. Then again, he was a quick learner and already had the Latin for many trees. Nathan hadn't always been perfect at that age. He and his best mate had attempted to explore a nearby cave, without any adults, but a shepherd had found them and thwarted their plan. Today the twenty-four year old Nathan saw that it had been a reckless idea. Returning to Fergus, nothing he had done merited Orme's reaction.... did it?
Had the Head Gardener been prejudiced to begin with? Nathan wondered, shifting his position due to a lump in his pillow. In the next room people were running and calling out in alarm, but Nathan couldn't hear their clattering feet. Mr Orme believed in Darwin's theory of evolution. According to gossip, he took it to mean that some people were more highly evolved than others and so were entitled to rule over those others. In extreme cases, some Darwinians claimed it was good if the less evolved came to harm, as it left only their superiors to rule the world. Nathan took a different view. If everybody had evolved from some kind of ape, then surely his boss was as much a primate as everyone else. If they all came from the same ancestor then they were all brothers and sisters, weren't they? Nathan wasn't even sure if Darwin was right, but if he was....
A door burst open. One of his workmates entered the whitewashed dormatory and signed "Nathan, come 'ere! Fergus is poorley, I thinks its blood poisoning!"
Nathan scrambled off his iron framed bed and raced to the next room. Fear clutched at his heart. He found Fergus lying on a similar bed, drenched in sweat, teeth clenched, eyes wide with terror. An adult gardener sat beside him looking worried. Their housekeeper stood over a white sink, scrubbing a bloodstained bandage. Another boy peered round the door but the woman ordered him out. Nathan bent down and examined Fergus's injured arm.
"What can we do?"
Fergus singed "am I going to die?"
Nathan shook his head, but it was a default reaction to calm the boy. Blood poisoning could prove fatal. Nathan racked his brains but nothing came. He struggled to focus on his friend Mary-Anne. She worked as a nurse so perhaps she had mentioned.....
Nathan spun round and signed to the housekeeper "have we got any sphagnum moss in the kitchen?"
"No," she replied "but it grows near the ponds that feed our fountains."
"Yes I know it does. Keep an eye on Fergus; I'm going to get some."
Nathan threw himself out of the dormatory, down timber stairs and across a cobbled yard. He ran up a path that lead through mixed woodland of limes, ash, oak, pine and spruce. Twilight had fallen, but butter-coloured azalias stood out in poor light. There hadn't been time to get a lantern, but Nathan knew this route well and never faltered. As his feet struck bare earth he felt the recall through his shins. He forgot his earlier tiredness and reached a man-made pond, circular home of reeds and dragonflies. Crouching low, he felt around until he felt sphagnum under callused fingertips and pulled up lumps of it. It contained iodine which helped in treating injuries. The young man squeezed water from soggy moss, then hurried back through the woods with Venus rising behind him.
Nathan returned to the dormatory and parked himself at Fergus's bedside. Nathan carefully undid white bandages, then pressed sphagnum onto the injury and bound it there with strips of bandaging. The housekeeper checked his work and tightened the dressing. That other man looked doubtful but clearly had no alternative suggestions. By now night had fallen. Candles lit rows of beds and naked floorboards, like a Carravagioesque painting. Fergus lay sweating and shivering on white cotton. Worried adults took it in turns to watch over him.
As Nathan sat by the sickbed, ideas crept around his mind. Not all were new, but this crisis had brought them into focus. He had known years of happiness working in the garden here, but when the old head gardener retired things changed. His replacement, Mr Orme, was proving to be much harsher on their apprentices. He was also far less understanding towards Nathan. There was, for reasons not fully understood, a cluster in this area of people who were born deaf, Nathan and his father Joseph included. Most local people had learned some signing, but Orme was a hearing outsider and so still acquiring that language. He and Nathan didn't like each other anyway.
Candles warmed the night air. Nathan flet terrible but fought to stay calm in case Fergus needed help. Nathan wiped some sweat off Fergus and then, as his charge quietened down, wondered if he should look for another job. The trouble was, he would have to find another area where people could sign or he would end up jobless and in a workhouse. Years earlier his parents had moved to an industrial city, but Dad now worked in a mill where the din of machines had caused his colleagues to lipread. Some people who started work in those places ale to hear lost their hearing due to the noise.
Nathan turned his attention to Fergus. Something was changing. The young man gritted his teeth and goosebumps rose on his arms.
In the next room, other gardeners lay in bed but all had trouble sleeping. Most of them were tossing and turning. Some sat up on firm mattresses, with sore eyes and aching heads. Then a door swung open and a black shadow came in, followed by Nathan. He signed, and his hand threw a shadow on the white wall, a shape larger than his fist, repeated in mirrors which there was no ignoring. It was a thumbs up. The fever had broken and Fergus would live.
Such was Nathan's relief that he felt blood draining from his head. Fighting an urge to chortle he stumbled and clamped one had to the wall. One of his workmates got him to a bed and sat him down on it. Another man went to check on Fergus. People started to smile and relax. Nathan's chest heaved, as if he had run a marathon and he signed "thank you" to God. Outside the window, leathery wings propelled a hunting bat and honeysuckle clung to walls of stone.
A few days later Nathan felt recovered enough to think about his next move. He decided to write to his parents and ask their advice before deciding anything. Having written and posted a letter to them, he continued to work as usual. He and his workmates finished pruning that tree. A roe deer jumped up and ran when the biggest branch fell. They didn't burn all the timber but sold some to a carpenter who made furniture for estate workers. Nathan steered clear of Mr Orme whenever possible and suspected his boss of avoiding him. Would that reply from Mum and Dad never come? Nathan hadn't felt so impatient for years.
At last, a letter addressed to Nathan arrived. It came on a hot day when flies buzzed under trees, dogs panted loudly and yellow buttercups contrasted with dark green sedges. Nathan took the letter upstairs, slit its envelope, sat on his bedside chair and started reading it. he recognised his mother Ruth's handwriting and smiled whilst thinking of her. After the usual affectionate preambles, her message read like this.
You know how you're thinkin' of lookin' for another job. How about writing for a magazine? There's a fair few that are about gardening, do you not think? Your Dad said you shouldn't do anything precipitous, but I think its time you showed a bit of spirit. Your new boss sounds awful to me, he does really, and you won't make things any better sittin' on your bum, will you.
You'll 'ave to be careful lookin' for a new job; you're right about needing workmates who can sign, but do you know there's a magazine out that's aimed at deaf people? Its called "The Deaf Standard." I've cut a piece out of one copy and put it in with this letter. 'Ave a look an' see if its anythin' you fancy.
While a welcome breeze blew through an open window, Nathan picked up the smooth, springy cutting Mum had sent. There were two advertisements on it and both were black and white drawings. One showed a palm in a pot. The text described it as "The Queen of Palms, suitable for drawing rooms," then named the company which supplied it. The other promoted a rubber hose that was shown rolled up and fixed to a garden wall. There was, on the other side of this cutting, a name and address for that publication, also an article on a new school for deaf children.
Mum's letter continued saying:
The man who started this magazine, Mr Mason, is a deaf signer like you and your Dad. He used to work in the offices of a local newspaper, but they got themselves a telephone and of course he couldn't use the damm thing so he lost his job. Well he said he wasn't goin' to let life get the better of 'im, so he used his experience working for a newspaper to start a magazine of his own. It isn't all about gardening but some of their readers must like it or they wouldn't bother with these adverts.
Could you write a column about gardening, offering people advice on their gardens at 'ome? I reckon you could laddie. If they don't 'ave one in this magazine, ask if they want to start one.
Lots of love
Nathan shifted his position on his chair. He thought about Mum's suggestion, hardly noticing when a dandelion seed wafted in through the blue painted window. His first reaction was "I couldn't do it; what do I know about writing? It would mean leaving my friends and a place I love." He smelt tobacco that a pal had smoked and felt reassured,
Then he remembered the pain on Fergus's face when the fever gripped him, strong as an iron bed frame, also that Mr Orme hadn't been near the boy while his life was in danger. How long could he stand to work with that man? Then again, ought Nathan to stay to protect their apprentice? like a stickleback guarding his eggs.
Nathan felt a tap on his shoulder, then realised he had been too deep in thought to notice when Fergus approached. Having got Nathan's attention, the boy thanked him for treating his, Fergus's, injury and probably saving his life.
"I came to say goodbye as well," the youngster explained while standing between two beds. "After what happened, Dad won't let me work here anymore. He's going to take me home soon."
Fergus looked relieved and Nathan didn't blame him.
"All the best mate," the young man signed. "Keep in touch."
Stomach turns over.
Heart pounds faster.
Summer moved on. Hundreds of stars rotated in the northern sky. Water levels fell, exposing mud banks and rocks in local rivers. Hawthorn blossom dried and shrivelled. Ducklings grew up - if the pike allowed them to. Nathan missed Fergus more than he'd expected to. By now he had followed Mum's advice and written to that magazine. There had as yet been no reply and he wondered about contacting another garden. Then, a letter with his name on it landed on the coarse doormat.
Nathan felt uncomfortable. He was on a street down which heavy horses pulled carts, cabs and an omnibus. Vibrations from all this traffic penetrated his body. He was accustomed to horses and carts, but not to so many of them. Anxiety and excitement jostled in his mind. Drizzle wet his cheeks. The pavement was damp as frog skin. He walked round a flower seller and the scent of her wares had a soothing effect. Nathan joined a long line of people heading for work, passing a butchers, a drapers and a pottery shop. Stripy awnings jutted out from brick walls. A church spire rose above everything else. Nathan missed a landmark and, feeling annoyed at himself, turned and set himself right.
Would he get on with his prospective workmates? If not, how easy might it be to get another post? Would the etiquette in his new job be very different to that in his last one? Nathan didn't want to look like some country bumpkin. Had he remembered to pay the rent for his new lodgings? Oh yes, he certainly had.
Nathan entered a three story building, ascended its carpeted staircase and walked into an office, feeling better in its relative calm. Oak desks, chairs and filing cabinets lay before him. Three men in suits greeted him in signing, then one of them guided him to his new work station and explained what was expected of him. Part of Nathan wondered if he was dreaming. Brass handles gleamed on a drawer, was it really his desk? Whorles in its timber looked like ripples in a stream. His grey moustached colleague showed him where the mess room, toilets and fire escapes were, introduced his new workmates, then escorted him back to his seat. At the older man's approach, an office boy stopped laughing at some private joke while an adult pulled his tie straight.
All that morning Nathan Bennett read letters from readers who were enquiring about their gardens or house plants, and jotted down notes on how to advise them. Tension eased as time passed. A whiff of beeswax polish flirted with his nose. Everyone else was polite and friendly towards him. At lunchtime, that man who had greeted him crossed the linoleum and asked "well Mr Bennett, how do you find your new duties?"
"I'm enjoying them Mr Mason," Nathan replied. "The work is different from what I'm used to, but I like it."
"Excellent," Mr Mason replied with a smile. "I wish you luck in your new position."
Last edited by IanG; 08-06-2018 at 08:28 AM..