Sammy Wilson's Dilemma

By Ron Waywell

The Hospital had been so good during his wife’s last illness that Sammy Wilson, now on his own at seventy-two, felt that he should give something back. Helping with Hospital Radio had seemed just the thing. But when he saw the empty bed, he wasn’t so sure any more. He grasped his clipboard more firmly and moved down the ward, fearing the worst.

Why had he become so emotionally involved? Oh, it had been fine at first; he looked forward to his twice-weekly trips to the studio, where he’d made good friends with the two ladies who completed his team. The studio was a small, windowless room in the basement of the hospital, and Sammy wondered how they’d managed to pack so many records and tapes into the racks around the walls. A cramped soundproof cubicle at one end of the room housed two record turntables and tape decks; the whole system worked very efficiently.

In deference to his age, Sammy had been assigned to three wards on the ground floor; one of these adjoined the Men’s Coronary Care Unit. He was furnished with a clipboard, a ballpoint pen, an identity badge, and a set of instructions that he soon knew by heart: Always ask the sister for permission before entering the Ward. And then the spiel: "Hello! My name’s Sammy and I’m from Hospital Radio. Tomorrow night’s request night for patients. Would you like us to play you a record?"

At first Sammy was distressed at seeing so many people in physical and mental anguish, but he concentrated upon another instruction—"Try not to get emotionally involved"—and soon found that he could quickly gain the patients’ confidence. He took pride in helping them choose a record that they really wanted, and soon became quite expert in gently jogging their memories.

Very often a patient would want to chat, and Sammy’s gift of being a good listener sometimes made him the recipient of many personal and private problems. However, he soon learned how to ration his limited time without causing offence. But not becoming emotionally involved was another matter!

At the end of his rounds, Sammy would return to the studio with his list of requests and assist the two ladies in extracting the records and compiling a programme for the following day. Sometimes, especially if there was a full programme and the music requested was similar, two patients would share the same record (Sammy invariably got more than one request for "Nessun Dorma," sung by Pavarotti).

And so the weeks went on. Sammy felt useful and began to come to terms with the loss of his wife. He made friends with the nursing staff, most of whom called him by his first name, and he liked to think that he was doing a good job.

But then he met Leonard Ockley!

Thursday afternoon started out like any other. Sammy had been to Men’s Surgical and Women’s Surgical, and then went on to the Coronary Care Annex to complete his rounds. As usual most of the beds were occupied, and the nursing staff had their hands full. Sammy knew that most patients liked to be called by their first name, especially after he had given them his own, and he automatically glanced at the name tag at the head of each bed he visited.

And there he was: Leonard Ockley, a very frail white-haired man in his late seventies. Sammy hesitated for a long moment when he saw how poorly Leonard seemed. The man lay quietly, eyes closed, propped up by pillows and wired to a heart monitoring machine. Even to Sammy’s untutored eye, it was obvious that Leonard’s heartbeat was very irregular.

Sammy was about to move on when Leonard opened his eyes and stretched out his hand. Sammy sat down quietly by the side of the bed and enfolded the hand between his own. "Hello, Leonard," he whispered. "How are you? Do you feel able to talk?"

A puzzled look came into the old man’s eyes. He held on tightly to Sammy and struggled to sit up straight. "Hello," he murmured. "Do I know you?"

"No, not yet," smiled Sammy. "My name’s Sammy. What do they call you? Leonard or Len?"

As Sammy explained why he was there, the apathy faded from the old man’s eyes, and he began to take an interest. "Ee," he said. "I love music. There’s nothing finer than a good mixed voice choir. Used to sing in one myself—Coppul Choral Society. Ee, that were a long time ago." And he gazed fondly back into the past.

It soon became apparent that Len was very knowledgeable about music. It also became plain that he was a very lonely man who was pathetically pleased to have someone to talk to. Sammy soon knew more about him. A retired cobbler who lived in Carnforth, his wife had died of cancer six months previously. They’d had no children, and, according to Leonard, there were no close relatives. The old man seemed utterly lost.

At last Sammy got up to go. "Right, Len," he said. "Glasgow Orpheus Choir singing ‘Lark in the Pure Air’—Friday night, eight o’clock, after the visitors have gone." And then, almost as an afterthought, he added, " By the way, I know two people called Ockley. It’s an unusual name. I thought perhaps they might have been relatives, but apparently not. Dorothy and Joe Ockley. I’ll be seeing them tonight at Sequence Dancing. Are you sure you don’t know them?"

The bleak look that came into the old man’s eyes caused Sammy to sit down again quickly. "This Joe Ockley," said the old man, gazing fiercely at Sammy. "Is there anything different about him? His right hand, for instance?"

Sammy knew immediately what Len was talking about. "Now you mention it, there is. One of his fingers is bent into the palm of his hand. Something to do with tendons."

"I thought they were still in Coppul," muttered Leonard to himself. "Or even dead by now. So Dorothy’s still alive?"

The distress in the old man’s eyes so perturbed Sammy that he reached over and took his hand again. "You know them, don’t you?" he said gently.

By now tears were rolling down the other’s cheeks. "Yes, I know them. It’s my brother—and Dorothy."

The tale that Len told seemed straight out of a cheap magazine, but judging by his evident distress, Sammy knew that it was true. Two brothers in love with the same girl. The girl jilting one in favour of the other. Animosity between the brothers leading to a permanent estrangement. No pulp fiction, this!

The old man seemed to read Sammy’s thoughts. "Now, don’t you dare tell them about me!" he threatened as Sammy got up to go. "Don’t you dare!" He turned his head away and closed his eyes. For him, Sammy—indeed, the whole world—had ceased to exist.

On his way out Sammy had a word with the ward Sister and briefly mentioned the family estrangement. "Perhaps I shouldn’t say this," the Sister murmured, "but someone needs to know. Between you and me, Sammy, I don’t think he’s going to make it. He’s lost all interest. He just doesn’t want to live. In a way I can’t blame him. He’s not had a single visitor since he came."

That night at the Stella Ballroom, Sammy waited for Joe and Dorothy Ockley to arrive and agonised over what action he should take. He kept hearing Len’s parting words: "Don’t you dare tell them I’m here!" And yet the old man needed someone. What to do?

But Dorothy and Joe were coming through the door, Dorothy as usual in a hectoring mood. Sammy sometimes felt sorry for Joe. He was such an inoffensive man, and completely under his wife’s thumb. Old Len’s not missed much, Sammy thought rather cynically.

And perhaps it was that thought that finally decided Sammy. He left the dance without telling Joe about his brother and spent a restless weekend wondering whether he’d made the right decision.

On Monday afternoon Sammy was back on duty. He entered the ward fearing the worst. Len’s bed was empty—sheets and pillows pristine, ready for the next patient!

The ward sister was coming towards him and Sammy asked, "Len Ockley. Has he…?"

The ward sister smiled and pointed to the other side of the ward, "No, there he is. We’ve moved him."

Sammy was delighted to see Leonard sitting up, deep in conversation with his neighbour, who was well enough to sit by the bedside. They were obviously enjoying each other’s company immensely.

The sister was speaking: "I don’t know what music you played for him, but it’s worked miracles. He’s struck up a friendship with Mr. Briggs. Apparently you played the same music for both of them. Choral music, wasn’t it? Anyway, go and have a word with him."

Sammy was amazed at the change in Len. The old man greeted him with delight and introduced his companion. "Sammy," he said. "I want you to meet Alf Briggs. He’s a past president of Warton Choral Society, and he’s invited me to join as a social member. Pity I’m past singing, but I’ll enjoy the rehearsals. And the room’s within easy walking distance."

Then Len reached out and clasped Sammy’s hand in a remarkably firm grip. "Thanks for the music, Sammy," he said quietly. "You people are doing a grand job. God bless!"

Copyright 2002, Ron Waywell

About the Author

Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.

Ron Waywell passed away at the age of 86 in 2008.

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