holliesbirchesThe Heart Ward

Wild West Yorkshire, Saturday 18 December 2010

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HERE AT LAST is the end of my series of sketches drawn during visiting times as my mum-in-law Betty has finally been discharged in time for Christmas after almost 9 weeks in the cardiac ward. And what better Christmas present could a son-in-law ask for?

My first sketches, of leaves, were drawn in the resuscitation ward on the 25th October. I've done precious few drawings elsewhere since then.

Weeks later, as we walked from the car park for an afternoon visiting time, I took a photograph of the ward from the outside. It's a redbrick extension to one of the oldest blocks of the hospital and it has long narrow windows rising the full height of the wall between each bed.

“Do you know where that is?”, I asked Betty, who had already spent a month or more within those walls. She frowned as she looked at the little LED screen of my camera, then looked up at me quizzically, as if I was trying to trick her.

“Is it a prison?” she asked.

La, La, La . . .

One of Betty's fellow patients came over and chatted to me one afternoon this week as a I drew the twin trunks of the holly (left) and I asked her about her accent - to me she sounded a bit like Greta Garbo. She was French but not from France, she explained; she'd grown up in Algeria.

“It's a beaPlastic surgery and burns unit, Pinderfieldsutiful country, but I never want to return."

Her brother and his heavily pregnant wife were murdered and mutilated in the uprising that drove out the French, while her parents were able to escape to France, though I guess that they lost everything. She escaped the carnage as she had married an English soldier at the end of World War II.

Even over half a century later, a nurse tapping her arm and singing “La, la, la . . .” as he took a blood sample, reminded her of her French relatives and brought back painful memories from long ago.

Drawn from Memory

E45 and jugThe next afternoon I gave her a copy of my booklet, Drawing on Reserves. I guessed that she might enjoy looking at it, or even, despite her illness, that it might encourage her to try her arthritic hand at drawing again. She told me that leaves and trees were amongst the natural subjects she liked to draw and that her husband, who died twenty-one years ago, had always encouraged her to draw when they went out to Sandal Castle and other local places. He'd wait patiently for her to finish her drawing.

“I had all my drawings in a sketchbook, but, when I moved house after his death, it was lost.”

Did she draw at school? Yes, she loved drawing, but when she handed in the drawing of a hawk that she'd done as homework, her teacher refused to believe that it was her own work and she made her stay after school. She was forced do the drawing again, and so she was able to prove that she had been telling the truth. Her mother was similarly sceptical of her drawing talents; she insisted that she give up her art classes and to take sewing instead; her mother felt that sewing was more useful than drawing.

ginger aleI pointed out to her the page in my book with drawings of fruits, insects, birds and wild flowers in ballpoint pen on scraps of paper which I'd drawn at the hospital grounds as we'd waited by Betty's bed in A&E one long summer's day several years ago when she'd had her first heart attack.

I didn't get to say goodbye in person today to my friend from Algeria as she'd had been taken ill overnight and had been moved to a high dependency ward.

She'd seen me drawing and I feel that she was downloading her memories to me. It makes me feel as if I have some kind of responsibility or connection which is why I felt I wanted to pass on her story.

Richard Bell, illustrator


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