Numbers in a Hospital Ward – December 1924

“And how does your father like the change to a hospital ward?” was the question I heard one (unseen) woman ask another.

“Oh, he doesn’t like it so well as his own room at home,” was the reply, “there aren’t so many things to count.”

How very strange, I thought to myself, and pondered over it at intervals for days, perhaps weeks. Here was a sick man fond of counting things and missing the numbers. While I had been wearied and distracted by the impervious impulse to count everything in my bedroom through long hours of pain and sleeplessness and loneliness. The stripes of the wall-paper, the festoons of roses on the frieze, the pictures on the walls — even the spaces between these; the window panes, the bed railings, even the folds of the window curtains would not be overlooked.

It was maddening but I had no authority over my sick brain. While I was resolving that I would not count the pictures on the left hand wall any more, another part of my brain was subtly, unconsciously to my will scanning the curtains, and finding one fold more on each side than it had previously noted.

There was one happy result of this curious propensity, for the counting of my pangs seemed to take my mind partly off the pain. They came in spasms, and the time it took them to complete their circuit was carefully noted by that semi-conscious intelligence which was actively making a record of everything it could divide into numbers.

It did not therefore sound at all odd to me to hear that there was another sick person with the same subordinate intelligence morbidly active. It was only after many days that my brain was gradually freed from the effects of chloroform, brandy, nervous shock, prolonged sleeplessness, and I realised that the question and answer quoted above were the creation of my own confused dreamings, as were many other of the strange sayings I fancied I overheard.

But while I lay in that weary sickroom reluctantly counting the folds of the curtains there were fortunately beautiful living creatures to be seen through the open window, and the joy of their beauty was greater than the vexation of the inescapable numbering of them. A tiny flock of geese, for instance, seven or eight.

Whether seven or eight, seventy or eighty, what did it matter? Yet that inexorable law of the mind demanded that I should be satisfied they were all there every morning. It was beautiful to see them form into line as they came down the slope of the field. Sometimes they would give a sudden squawk — harsh, but strangely musical — flap their big wings in unison and flichter more swiftly at the steepest part of the slope. Beautiful creatures! I wished then there had been seventy rather than seven.

The grazing cattle were, too, leisurely in their slow grace to annoy me with the numbering of them. Rather I envied their enjoyment of the juicy herbage, and wondered if I should ever find the same pleasure in a meal.

A flock of gulls flew high across the firmament, the morning sun glistening white on their wings and outstretched breasts. How glad I was that it was not possible even to guess how many there were, winged creatures appearing at that height hardly to be of this earth.

Nor could the most disordered imagination do more than admire the circling of a flock of plovers or lapwings a few miles away by the seaboard — sure sign of autumn and approaching winter, for it is of the middle of October that I write. That circling of a flock of lapwings is one of the most beautiful movements in nature, whether observed miles distant on the horizon or close at hand, where the sudden flash of the white under-wings can be seen as they all turn as if by secret signal.

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