Dina winced at the rattle of the doctor’s stethoscope as it landed in the tray. She would open her eyes if she could be bothered.
The doctor spoke as if he cared, “I don’t know what to say. A choir, or ice skating, or wild swimming… something new can help with grieving…” He trailed off.
She struggled to respond, hardly listening because of the weight trapping her inside. How could the doctor understand the desire to live in a better past?
The shock of sudden cold stopped her breath for what felt like hours, not seconds, and was followed by all over tingling. She spluttered like an old engine and continued downstream. Blessed numbness erased the pain in her head, wiping everything clean.
Leaves clogged her throat, green and fresh, choking her with vitality. Branches floated on the surface of the river, catching at an arm and then a leg. The water swept her past too fast for anything to grab hold.
Further downstream through gaps in overhanging trees, the last of the autumn sun warmed the back of her neck, reminding her of something that she immediately forgot. On the bank, impossible to see, an adder coiled tight to absorb the last of the heat.
Dina swam on, long curly hair – too thick her mother had said – trapping twigs and other debris. Floating through clear patches where she could kick and paddle. The water’s soft and silky. Breast stroking through a silty brew of bracken.
Later, as she towelled off, her limbs turned to frozen lumps, warmth creeping up her toes. A forgotten sensation, gone long before Aaron’s illness. At one with it all, an inner glow.
Someone was wiping her brow with a flannel. The coolness gave her brain-ache.
“It’s alright, luv. You were in the amphitheatre. Though why you’d want to go there with all the young ‘uns that were drinking and fighting and eating McDonald’s, I don’t know.”
Dina couldn’t fathom it. “What I…”
“Have a nice sleep. You’ll be alright.”
“Leaves,” she said.
“What d’you say, luv?”
“Oh, you sleep it off, dear.”
She opened her eyes. Lids heavy, like they’d been taped down for too long. She was surrounded by strangers, in a bed that squeaked whenever she moved, sliding across the plastic-coated mattress. Warm water in a plastic jug. Strong tea in a white mug.
“You have a visitor, dear.”
Now she was laughing to herself, leaves, left, leaf, leaves.
“Come on now, luv, he has come all the way from Barnsley. It’s Graham, isn’t it, dear?”
The nurse turned, revealing a large shape, silhouetted against too-bright lights. “Dina, it’s Graham.”
She squinted, trying to remember what had happened. There had been a man. He’d been kind when she was lost, said he’d got off a train and was on his way for a night out. Was this him?
“He brought you here from the amphitheatre. Said you’d eaten something. Saved your life, probably.”
Had he? Dina made another effort to open her eyes and found herself staring at a man with eyes the colour of blue water like the Mediterranean, not the Sheaf or the Don.
“Too hard,” she said
“I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Blinding light replaced the welcome shade cast by his body, and she wished she’d tried harder. Tomorrow, he’d said, but did he mean it?
Sunlight dappled on the brown water, making it hard to see below. Ducks quacked in alarm, scattering in a cloud of feathers. Did they think she was a shark?
This time when she opened her eyes, dust motes hung in the hot, dry air. The murmur of voices too insistent to ignore. She longed to be back in the water and felt like a marine mammal captured and alone.
“Doctor Salvage wants to take a look at you, luv.”
Dina sighed, too tired to resist the prod of cold implements pressed against her skin. Too tired to answer the many questions. She did not want to be Dina anymore. It was time to be someone or something new.
“What do you think, doctor?” A harsh voice she’d heard but ignored. “There’s nothing wrong with her. It’s all in her head.”
Dina drifted and thought about catching one of the branches that that stroked her arm. The trees were thinning out and the sky was growing wider, more open, making her insignificant and invisible.
A young, female voice asked her something else, and she tried to form words in her head before she opened her mouth, but they trickled away through her fingers. She remembered the doctor’s name – doctor Salvage.
“Check when Michael Carlisle will have a bed.”
Dina tried to put meaning to the words but couldn’t force it to matter. Anyway, doctor Salvage wasn’t speaking to her anymore.
Dina’s hands were pale shadows beneath the surface. Bubbles released from the riverbed tickled her sides. Something touched her toes, forcing her to swim faster. Her mind was full of electric eels and giant pikes with teeth and the sky vast and empty. The last of the trees lay ahead on the right. They seemed more important than the others. Perhaps because beyond, there lay nothing but sea and sky. Dina angled her body away, content to find the waves and salty depths.
The figure at the end of her bed was familiar. A name rose from somewhere inside. Graham. He’d come again. What did he want? How was he?
“Hello Dina, glad you’re a bit better today.”
She stirred, reaching, reaching and stretching until she felt the rough bark on her palm and the leaves tickling her arm.
Who was Graham? Why was he here at her bedside?
“I’ve brought you flowers and a bar of Cadbury’s. They said you weren’t well enough, but I reckon you must be stronger than they think.”
Warmth spread from her toes up.