Her day had dragged like no other she had experienced; she’d had a couple of quick calls from Elaine to say there was no change.
How was she keeping?
Probably not that much different from you by the sound of your voice.
Come over about four, all the visitors should have left by then and the doctor will be doing his rounds; you should be alright to stay for a few hours then.
She had nothing else to do, certainly wasn’t in the mood to go back to work. She headed home and went for a long run, hoping the endorphins might counteract her feelings of helpless anguish, the guilt of last night’s angry thoughts about him while he had been fighting for his life just a few miles away, almost bleeding to death on his front doorstep.
‘Dear God, I may not believe in you but I’m pretty sure he does, something like that must keep him going, don’t let him down now, please, it’s not fair on him, all those who’ve come to depend on him. I meant it, that promise, I keep my promises.’
By the time she got back an hour and a half later, hot, exhausted, focused, her helplessness transmuted, she knew that where there had once been two beasts there were now three, the newcomer terrifying the others into quietude with its screaming, frothing savagery. Its name: vengeance.
Helena arrived at four on the dot. If anything, the checks were tighter, the looks more suspicious, as if the full seriousness of recent events were only now being fully appreciated. She had stopped to buy some flowers, a bouquet for the woman lying beside him, some King Alfreds for him, some grapes, the usual, her IPOD with his favourites sorted into his special playlist.
Elaine ushered her in.
“I felt so terrible, this morning after you left, before… I forgot to thank you for what you did for my husband and I… It was you, wasn’t it? You don’t know…”
“Pardon? Oh, that was him. He asked me, how could I say no? Besides, I can see why you matter to him so much.”
That’s it, be kind to the woman, it’s not just about you and he. She’s utterly devoted.
A brave smile in return.
“The doctor should be here any minute, do you mind if I stay to hear what he has to say, report back? I’ve been here all day and need to go back in to the office; I’ll come back tomorrow morning if they let me.
Then a furtive glance around, head bent forward, voice basement level low, “The office word is that they are onto something, a way of tracking his betrayers, I pray they…”
The doors open and in walk two doctors, one clearly a senior consultant, with nurses fluttering about them like moths. They brush aside her attempt to question them, saying simply “Later.”
They spend considerably more time with the woman in the adjoining bed than with him, surely that’s a good sign? The consultant comes over to see Elaine and her, nervously brusque, clearing his throat. “Who are you? A relative? Colleague?”
Elaine spares her blushes,
“Helena’s his fiancée.”
“Oh, I see. Shall we take a seat over there?”
“How is he? What’s the prognosis, just the truth please; your best estimate?”
“He was very lucky in a way. The leg should be fine; it may need a bone graft, but I hope not, just time and rehab. He’s kept himself fit, that will help. The second bullet must have been a ricochet. It had broken up before it entered and had lost some of its velocity. It hit him at the top left of his rib cage, just below the shoulder, broke two of the ribs but didn’t make it as far as his heart or other vital organs. If it hadn’t been partly spent… Our worry is anoxia, oxygen deprivation to the brain, caused by his blood loss, especially the leg punctures. Those neighbours of his obviously knew what they were trying to do.”
“What do you mean… when will you know?”
“We’re keeping him medically sedated until we’ve got the physical wounds stabilised, his bloodwork has settled down and the trauma begun to subside. Maybe twenty-four hours, maybe longer, I’m sorry. But at least he’s got a much better chance of a full recovery than that poor woman beside him. If you’re here this time tomorrow, I’ll update you. Don’t despair. Just sit with him if you can, try to talk to him; some patients who’ve been in comas tell me that’s helped, goodness knows why, but the workings of the human mind are still a mystery really.”
A smile and then he heads away, probably endless more calls on his time. Elaine follows shortly after, relieved not to shoulder the burden of sitting by his still figure, not knowing where to start.
People have come in to visit the woman next door, must be family by the sounds of crying. Man pops his head round the screen, sees her and apologises, disappearing again. So how does this start? What to say? Is there anything recognisable left in there? Don’t think it. I’m sorry, it just slipped out. So how does this begin? You were clear in the church, tell him really how you feel, what you think, your hopes, what you truly want… You’ve never really been able to before, not even that time, it always just seemed to go wrong when he looked at you.
Two hours later when the nurses changed shifts, one looked in to see how things were, saw a well-dressed woman, head bowed low to the patient’s ear, hand on his right one, just whispering. Those were sometimes the best and worst moments of her job.
He’s naked, walking across the desert scrub, feet not feeling the discomfort, and has started down the sharp scree slope towards the river below him, the hot air rising behind him, obscuring the view back. The desert runs right to the river’s edge on this side but, on the other, there are faint glimpses of green and tree tops through the river mists. No bright lights, no feelings of transportation, just walking as if with a pre-programmed map in his head. The river seems familiar, but his thinking is diffusing, as if his memories were fading away in the arid wastelands behind him; he can’t place it, name it. He looks back one final time before the drop to the valley floor hides the plains behind. In the far distance, is that another figure, blurred by the rising heat, coming this way, running even? Well if this is what he thought it was, there would be plenty more to follow.
He turns east again and heads downwards to the riverside. He hesitates before stepping in, the rushing sound of water falling downstream, plumes of mist and spray from large falls; it must be, difficult to judge distances here. He puts a foot in; the water’s warm but fresh, delightful, sandy bottom too. He pulls the other one in. A young woman steps down through the mist on the far bank and steps into the water, her body and legs are indistinct, shifting, but her head, neck and arms are wonderfully, indubitably her. She smiles.
“I promised Jovanka, I’d join you one day, I’ve kept faith with you all these years. I’m coming.”
He’s halfway over, the water up to his waist. Her voice is in his head, clear, that heavy Balkan accent, that slightly husky lilt he loved so much. She puts out a hand to stop him, make him look behind. A woman’s at the top of the slope, racing down, tumbling, rising, sliding in her urgency. He looks back to his wife.
“Why are you here? What do you want of me?”
He’s puzzled, “They killed me, I’m coming home to you, as I promised.”
“Why? Don’t you have anything worth living for, them, her, those to come?”
“I’m done now, it’s for others…” Fear. Uncertainty. “Don’t you want me, aren’t I welcome?”
“Yes, but not today, not now.”
Crushing now, the water at his waist is strengthening, deepening, the roar from downstream rising.
“What do you mean?”
“You aren’t finished there, not yet. You must return to them, those to come, her… She’s there behind you, on the river bank, calling you, she can’t enter, can’t see me, just you. She’s frightened, like you were with me.”
“But I promised you, no others…”
“I know,” she’s smiling now, “but I never asked that of you, remember? Do you think I would want the one I love, who saved me once, to be unhappy all his days? You still don’t understand, do you? Here all is unity, simplicity, like those Scholastic philosophers you told me about in the hospital thinking I couldn’t hear; we’ll still be one when your time comes to cross the Jordan. Now, go back, before it sweeps you away down there; that you don’t deserve.”
She turns solemnly, without even a farewell, and walks back up into the mist. The river is raging now, up to his chest; it’s hard to fight the flow.
Helena’s there behind him on the bank, hands outstretched, willing him back, tears in her eyes; he catches hold before he loses his footing and lies prostrate on the bank, exhausted, shattered, bereft.
He looks up. Helena’s at the top of the slope looking sadly down at him, as if wondering, and turns on her heel and walks out of sight. He stumbles, crawls back up after her, but when he reaches the top there’s no one in sight, just the desert heat obscuring the view.
The staff asked her to leave, nicely, but it was no suggestion. Almost six hours she had been there. A rambling, incoherent, discursive monologue; she would die of embarrassment if it had been recorded and were played back to her. Poor him, if he were still in there somewhere, don’t say that, that might have tipped him over the edge. The staff explained it was better she take some rest, freshen up, perhaps return tomorrow afternoon, that nice older lady had said she would pop back in the morning, these things are often a marathon, not a sprint.
She left, got into a cab. She couldn’t reach the others, didn’t have their contact details, had only met that young man Sam a couple of times; they wouldn’t know what had happened, the authorities were not disclosing the identities. Her home, wrong word, her tomblike dwelling, was draining her like a leech, the loneliness greater than ever, desperate for resolution. There’s only one person I can talk to. Her cousin answers, sounds sleepy, must have gone to bed.
“They shot him; in the news… He’s badly hurt. They say he’ll live, his body will recover, but… they don’t know about his mind…”
“I’ll be straight there, I’ll stay. Filthy…”
She had never heard her cousin swear like that before, she was always so measured, in control; he must have got to her too.
© 1642again 2018