Voicemail

Bang, bang, bang!

Someone’s knocking at the door.

“George! George! Aren’t you awake yet?”

I open my eyes, feeling confused about where I am. The alarm clock on my bedside table reads seven forty five. I sit bolt upright and swing my legs clumsily out of bed.

“I’m up mum! I’m up!”

“You’re going to have to hurry,” she calls. “Else you’ll miss the bus.”

“I know,” I mumble. I cringe inwardly because my voice is almost as clumsy as my legs. It’s been like that ever since my accident.

I gather some fresh clothes and step into the shower annoyed with myself that once again I forgot to set the alarm. My memory is not exactly what it once was either.

Standing naked under the cleansing downpour I rub some anti-dandruff shampoo through my greying hair. When I get to the six inch curving scar where my head was once cleaved open by unforgiving twisted metal I shudder and close my eyes.

The water falls across my shoulders and I wish for what seems like the millionth time that it could wash away the memory of my car spinning through the air as I hurtled through the windscreen.

I know I’m lucky to be alive. But it doesn’t feel like it most of the time. These are things that I never tell. Not to my doctors. Not to my therapist. Not even to my mother.

On the outside I’m a brain damaged wreck of a man – a simpleton who’s hard pushed to keep down a job and too much of a liability to take care of his own family. Well, that last bit is true.

My wife Leila can’t cope with my seizures and memory loss. Not to mention the sudden mood changes. She also says I scare the children and that they’re afraid of me.

I step out of the shower and towel myself off. Turning my face this way and that in front of the mirror I stare at my scarred face and wonder what it is that they’re so afraid of.

My grey hooded eyes stare back at me, cloaked with an insatiable hunger. I know what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that the man I once was is lost forever.

I dress as quickly as I can, frustrated at my fumbling uncoordinated fingers as they wrestle with my shirt buttons. After checking my appearance in the mirror once more I go downstairs and see what’s for breakfast.

A familiar, comforting smell drifts into my nostrils as I enter the kitchen. But try as I might I can’t recognise it.

“Hi mum,” I say pecking her on the cheek.

She smiles as I sit at the breakfast bar. Something’s cooking on the stove, sizzling as she chases it around the pan with a blue handled spatula.

“What are we having this morning?” I ask polishing my fork on my sleeve.

For some reason her shoulders sag.

“Same thing we have every morning George,” she says over her shoulder. “Eggs and ham.”

“Oh.”

This is news to me. Another memory lapse I guess. The ham and eggs are delicious. I wash them down with a cold glass of orange juice. Feels like my first. But mum assures me I’ve been drinking orange juice for most of my forty two years. Will my broken mind ever stop playing games with me?

Glancing at my watch I jump up in horror.

“Gotta go,” I say stumbling over the legs of the bar stool.

“Ok. Go, before you miss the bus. I don’t want you walking it again,” she says fussing over my collar.

It makes me feel like a little boy and suddenly I’m over whelmed by anger.

“Leave me alone!” I snap. “I can do it myself.”

Her hands freeze in mid-air. For a second she looks wounded and then she relaxes.

“I know George, I know,” she says patting my shoulder patiently. “Have a good day and I’ll see you after six.”

I look at her gentle face and I feel like scum. I want the ground to open up and swallow me. But I know it won’t. She’s almost eighty. She should be pottering around in the garden and making patchwork quilts not running around after me.

“See you later,” I mumble planting a kiss on her cheek. The word sorry stays stuck in my throat.

It’s only a few hundred yards to the bus stop but even so I know she’s fighting the urge to accompany me.

Instead I have a cell phone in my pocket and I’m to ring her the moment I get there and once again when I get to work.

I hate this. But I know it’s the way it has to be.

Ignoring my resentment, I do as I’ve been asked and phone her once I reach the bus stop, but I keep it brief then sit back to watch the world go by.

The ground at my feet is dry and the warm heady breeze picks up the dust and whirls it around in dusky orange spirals. Two children hurry past, no doubt on their way to school. With their back packs full of books they giggle as they walk along. The little girl has pigtails and is eating an apple.

Two uncomfortable thoughts pop into my head unbidden.

1. 1.They’re probably about the same age as Josh and Ally, my two kids – both of whom live in Denver with their mother.

2.2. Even though they’re a fraction of my age I bet they don’t have to call their mum to confirm that they made it to school.

As though they sense my gaze both children turn round and poke their tongues out cheekily. My mood changes again as if by magic and a scowl falls like a shadow across my face.

The boy gives me the middle finger and the two of them run away making me feel like some monstrous pariah.

There’s still no sign of the bus. A warm rain slowly begins to fall in fat heavy drops dampening the parched ground. Somewhere overhead clouds rumble as they roll through the sky like a slate grey pyroclastic cloud.

I look up and smile enjoying the feel of rain trickling down my face. Peace descends and my dark thoughts start to recede. Suddenly a massive bolt of incandescent brilliance lances out and blasts me effortlessly through the air.

Searing heat and a blinding light engulf me. It feels as though I’ve been hurled into the heart of the sun. I want to scream but I’m in a place where sound no longer exists. My eyes slam shut as my consciousness hurtles towards forever.

When I wake I find that it’s now pitch black dark. My head feels like it’s full of rocks when I try to move. I remember the lightning bolt and wonder if I am dead. Part of me hopes so.

My legs hurt. Feels like cramp. I stretch them out and groan. My feet hit something metallic – I think they’re empty beer cans rattling. It evokes a painful memory. I’m confused.

Suddenly the silver light of the moon illuminates my surroundings. I’m in a car parked in a layby. All around me trees stand rustling, like an audience waiting for something to happen.

Reaching up I turn on the interior light. My heart leaps into my throat when I catch sight of myself in the rear view mirror. I twist it towards me for a better look.

“No scars!” I whisper. My mouth hangs open. No speech impediment either!

I run my hand through my hair and find the biggest scar of all absent. Tears spring to my eyes. It must be a dream. A cruel dream.

I feel the urge to prove it to be so – burst this wicked bubble of unreality.

I look around the car taking everything in. The empty beer cans in the passenger seat and in the foot well. The wallet lying open with my wife Leila and the kids smiling up at me from that dog eared old photo I keep in there. My mobile is here too lying on the seat flashing away impatiently.

I know what this is. This is the night we rowed and I drove off, never to return. The old me died that night. Crazed with drink I crashed the car and after that moment nothing was ever the same again.

I pick up the phone to check my voice mail. I cringe, knowing what I will hear.

“That’s it George!” Leila shouts in my ear. “I’m not letting you do this to us anymore. We’re finished! It’s over!”

The line goes dead as the message ends. I hang my head and weep quietly. This all feels so real. Another crate of beers sits on the back seat and I seriously think about opening a can. It’s not like it even matters.

But no. I need to know what’s in the other two messages. The ones I never bothered to listen to the last time round.

I press the button with a shaky finger to play the message.

It’s her again. She’s crying.

“George! Where are you?” she sobs. “It’s getting late. I want you to come back.”

Then in the back ground I hear Ally. I think my heart is going to break.

“Mummy, where’s daddy?”

“It’s ok baby,” Leila says hoarsely. “Daddy will be back soon. Go back to bed and I’ll come tuck you in.”

I think I can hear her breathing softly down the phone. I suspect she’s still there either trying to compose herself or waiting for Ally to leave the room.

“Come home George,” she says finally and then the line goes dead.

If only I had heard that message before. Maybe things would have been different. Maybe they still could be…

Steeling myself I listen to the last message.

“George,” she says simply. “I love you. Please call me.”

I looked at the clock. She only sent it twenty minutes ago. This was starting to seem a lot more convincing to me. Maybe the lightning has thrown me back in time and given me another chance? Or maybe the other scenario where I was brain damaged was a drunken hallucination? I have no way of knowing. But I’m going to do as she asks anyhow. I’m going to call her.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

“George?” she says in a small voice. “Is that you?”

“Yeah.”

“For god sake! Where are you? Tell me where you are. I’ll come get you,” she says doing her utmost to hold back the tears.

“You would do that for me?” I stammer in disbelief.

“Yes George. I want my man back,” she says in a low voice.

I hold the phone to my ear and smile at the softly waving trees outside.

“Don’t you worry baby,” I tell her. “I’m coming home. My car’s parked in the layby at the top of Birch Tree Hill.”

The Donor (Ad Infinitum)

There are some things you just instinctively know without needing evidence. I guess you could call it intuition. Others might describe it as a sixth sense. But I don’t believe in any of that crap – usually.

Only today I’ve woken up disoriented in a perfectly crease free bed. My concept of how long I’ve slept is distinctly muddled. It could be three hours. It could be three days. It certainly feels as though it was a deep sleep.

Normally I’m a light sleeper. In fact lately I’ve been suffering from insomnia – hence my surprised reference to the crease free bed. I can tell by the light trickling through the slats of my blinds that it must be late. A quick glance at my watch reveals that it’s eight twenty seven. The day has already begun without me.

In the world outside my window I discover every thing’s wrong as I it can be, just as I had suspected. There’s a snow plough passing along the street, clearing the way for the residents and delivery vans to go about their business. There must be at least two feet of snow out there.

“Put the central heating on!” a voice in my head commands. I ignore it and continue standing and staring, frozen to the spot.

Next doors children squeal with delight as they build a rotund snowman and fire snowballs at each other from behind snow covered cars. The sky above them is brightest cornflower blue and the sun blazes down on them just as it had done yesterday. Only yesterday it had been summer. The start of June to be precise.

“Get dressed and shovel the snow from your driveway,” the voice in my head commands again.

Stuff that! I’ve got a phone call to make. I lift the receiver, dial the number and wait…

“Hi Mom. It’s me, Aran.”

“Hi honey! I’m so glad you called. We were worried when we didn’t hear from you on New Year’s. Especially when I saw Glenda yesterday. She says you haven’t been sleeping again. Perhaps it’s time to get something from the Doctor. You can’t keep going on like that.”

“I know…I know.”

Glenda is my ex by the way…we split up just before Easter.

“It can screw up your mind if you don’t get your sleep,” she warns me.

“Glenda did a pretty good job of that already Mom.”

“Don’t say that…I know she has her faults. But she really does care about you.”

I can hear the concern in her voice so I decide not to mention the fact that it’s winter outside when it’s actually supposed to be summer. Or that the guy on the SKY news channel keeps referring to Hilary Clinton as President Clinton instead of Senator Clinton. As I grip the phone next to my ear I can feel the stubble on my jaw prickling my knuckles. There must be about two or three days’ worth there, which is odd because I distinctly recall shaving yesterday. It’s almost like I’ve lost three days of memory during which the world has moved on six months without me.

“Glenda’s a nice enough person in her own way,” I reply through gritted teeth. “But she’s just not part of my life any more. We have nothing in common.”

There’s a pause.

“What are you saying Aran? What about the twins?” she asks in disbelief.

I have no notion of what she’s talking about.

“What twins?”

“I don’t know what’s going on here son but you need to see someone. Forgetting to call me is one thing but your boys too? Just what is important to you these days? Glenda is the mother of your children. It would be a mistake to cut off all contact with her. You told me you wanted to keep things amicable.”

She sounds very upset.

“What is it? What’s going on?” she demands.

“I don’t know!” I reply in desperation. “It’s like I woke up this morning and everything was all wrong.”

“We all have days like that son. Why don’t you go and see Doctor Code at the drop in clinic? He’s a nice man.”

“Yeah, maybe I will.”

“Good. Let me know how you get on.”

“So what exactly has been happening?” the Doctor asks. His voice has a vague drone like quality that grates on my frayed nerves no end.

I want to laugh at his crazy bushy white eyebrows and Disney character bow tie but the desire to appear as sane as possible prompts me reign in the urge. Instead I calmly tell him everything and show him my three day beard growth.

“I’m afraid this is outside my area,” he admits, looking at me closely. “I’ll have to refer you to a specialist.”

Oh no! Please don’t suggest a shrink!

For a while his hands fly across a thin silvery keyboard until they became a blur of harmonious motion.

“There,” he says. “I’ve re-referred you to a good friend of mine called Professor Ultra. He’s a specialist in this kind of memory disfunctionality.”

“Ok. Thank you. Although I’ve got to tell you there must be some kind of mistake. I’ve never seen Professor Ultra before.”

The doctor smiles benignly.

“Not that you remember.”

What does that mean? I ask myself.

Later, when I get to the hospital across town I find the waiting room full of strange folk. I suppose they ought to make me feel normal but somehow they’re only heightening the not so secret fear that I’m losing my mind. I try not look at that man over there, locked in a cycle of repeating the same series strange of movements over and over again.

He stands up. Raises his hand. Looks at it, and then sits down again. Then repeats the whole process again and again and again, ad infinitum. Perhaps.

There’s a child too, who does nothing but walk round the perimeter of the room over and over. Everyone’s behaviour here is quite frankly bizarre. The man beside me seems normal enough thankfully.

“Have you been waiting long?” I ask him.

“Bout two hundred days,” he says, turning to me with strangely large eyes. I try not to stare. They are like brown puddles of dirty mud.

“Oh. Well hopefully you won’t have too much longer to wait then,” I say with a nervous smile.

“Aran Simms, please,” calls a nurse looking up from a folder.

“This way,” she says to me opening a door.

Inside Professor Ultra looms behind a desk, larger than life and disturbingly still. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an enormous man before.

“Still feeling the effects of the reboot then?” he asks in an emotionless voice. “I thought all that would have been sorted by the removal of the corrupted files.”

Oh God! What is he talking about? A chill runs through me like the blade of a knife.

“I need to perform a diagnostic. Step into the chair over there and I’ll see what I can do.”

In the centre of the room stands a futuristic looking chair, festooned in tubes, wires, readouts and a myriad fantastic shiny dials. I want to turn and run right out the door but if I do that what hope do I have of getting better? This guy is an expert on memory and I badly need him to do his job.

With a painful gulp I lower myself into the chair and close my eyes to await my fate.

“Shit! What are you doing?” I shriek, suddenly looking down a few moments later.

“Lie still,” he commands. He has one arm up to the elbow inside my actual chest cavity. All the skin, flesh and bone from my neck down to my navel is gone in the absolute sense, as if it has never even been there at all. In its place is a bottomless black cavern, like the depths of outer space but without the brilliance of the stars. Long lines of neon numbers, symbols and letters rush past, sideways, diagonal, horizontal and every other which way you can think of.

I lie back and groan miserably, flinging my arm across my eyes.

“I’ve gone mad,” I whimper. “I can’t go on. Make it stop. Make it go away.”

The nurse pities me and holds my hand tenderly.

“You haven’t gone mad Aran. You’ve just got no understanding of what you truly are because your files are corrupted. The reboot damaged them. Every single human, animal, tree, road, house, cloud and star you see and ever have seen is a simulation. None of what you have experienced since ‘birth’ is real. It is merely a simulation of something real that exists far, far, far away on another plane of existence. Legend has it; the makers call this world of ours a game. They like to spend their free time controlling us. No one knows why. It’s just the way it is.”

“Very well put my dear,” Ultra says with obvious admiration.

As I look down he makes a lunge for two glowing red strands of code floating within my innards.

“Gotcha!” he says, then draws them out, twisting and writhing like poisonous snakes.

“Nurse, fire up the vaporizer,” he cries, trying to hold on.

She touches a button and a circular trapdoor I hadn’t noticed before opens up in the floor. With great effort he subjugates the errant code and hurls it with great force into the disposal unit. Flames shoot up scouring his face and torso but he stands his ground boldly until the roaring passes. Eventually the room falls silent.

Sparks suddenly pour from my chest lighting up the blackness inside.

“What now?” I cry turning my head back and forth hopelessly.

“There is too much damage in there. I’m sorry,” Doctor Ultra replies peering in. “I’m afraid the only thing left is for your character to retire from the game.”

“Isn’t there another way? Please! You’ve got to do something!”

“But doctor, if he retires from the game the rest of Simworld will certainly be affected in one way or another,” the nurse says.

“That is how it works, both in our world and theirs,” replies Professor Ultra cryptically.

All my senses are leaving me. I’m no longer afraid. The two of them look at me gravely- chest cleaved open like a Thanks giving turkey and exposed to the world. Or should I say worlds?

“However, there is a way for him continue, in a manner of speaking…” Professor Ultra says slowly. “We can donate healthy strands of his code to perpetuate the existence of other Simworlder’s that have bugs in their system. Give his life to save lives, so to speak. What do you say Aran? Is that what you want?”

I can hear him but it’s unbelievably difficult to summon the strength to reply. Another fountain of sparks bursts forth from my chest. Ultra and the nurse dive for cover.

When it has passed, I just about hear the professor say these words;

“If you want to give life to others squeeze my hand and I shall make it so.”

I think I can hear him breathing but I know my senses are not to be trusted. My time here is almost over. I wonder if there will be anything afterwards? He places his hand in mine and I use the last of my energy quota to express my fervent wish.

“Let’s do it,” he says to the nurse gripping my hand tightly as my eyelids shut out Simworld for the last and final time.

Ground Zero Mark Two

They were coming I could hear them. They wailed for no purpose because the one they sought to rescue was beyond all help. A flash of blue whipped round the corner. Dad was here. And on his tail in hot pursuit was the emergency response unit.

“What has he done?” Dad said gruffly, as he trotted up the front steps.

I ran into his arms with a painful sob. But in that moment there was no comfort on earth that could soothe away my agony.

“Where is he?” a voice asked.

It was the ambulance man. I pointed up the hall.

“In the bathroom in the end bedroom.”

Dad went off to join him. All alone I listened to their muffled conversation. More people arrived. I didn’t know who they were. I found I could not simply sit there anymore. I was in the way.

“He’s gone hasn’t he?” I said, appearing at the bedroom door.

“Go on out Sam,” Dad chided. He looked visibly upset. I stood just far enough away so that I couldn’t see, possessed by the notion that if I did not see then it couldn’t be real. My wish was to be blind to it all in the hope that it would serve as a barrier between me and this very bad dream.

But there were bits of him everywhere. The room, the house, my mind. Everything was full of him. It howled the message loud and clear that within these walls lived someone who could not cope. The hopeless chaos of his last few days lay between every wall and corner. The unmade bed, the unwashed clothes, the food uneaten and rancid. I saw it all now, but it was way too late. He was gone and he wouldn’t ever be coming back.

“This is all my fault,” I said blankly.

“You’d better take her out of here,” the medic told Dad.

“It’s all my fault!” I sobbed. My face felt like a screwed up rag. I collapsed against the door, unable to stand up.

“This is not your fault,” Dad said tearfully. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

Before we left, the man in the bathroom had something to say. He came out for a moment and stood just outside the door.

“I’ve seen many of these my dear,” he said, in a sombre voice. “But there is one thing that I can tell you for certain. It’s never anybody’s fault.”

Briefly a light glimmered inside of me. Then it was gone, extinguished by guilt.

We went into the conservatory where there were two cane sofas faded from years of constant sunlight. The memories in that room overwhelmed me. We had spent many hours in it – watching our children play in our beautiful garden, giggling as they ran through its secret places. Above the raised voices of the emergency services I could hear the memory of their laughter echoing through time. This was our family room, the place that we loved best. It was sullied now by the darkness of this shadow. There would be no sunlight for us here again.

“Samantha, I’m Constable Hall,” said a voice, interrupting my thoughts. “And this is Constable Ellis.”

Breaking out of my daze I saw there were two police officers standing to the left of us.

“First of all, I want to say how sorry we are for your loss Samantha.”

This unleashed another tide of weeping as it brought home to me with unapologetic starkness that this was as REAL as it gets.

“I know this is not a good time, but I’m afraid we have to ask you some questions.”

In some unspoken way he made it clear that he wanted my father to leave.

“I don’t want you to go Dad. He can stay can’t he?” I pleaded.

“Constable Ellis will sit beside you, she’s our female liaison officer. We’ll keep this as brief as possible,” promised Constable Hall.

The female officer took my father’s place but comforting the bereaved was not her forte.

“We need you to tell us what happened today Samantha.”

He took out a note pad and waited for me to begin.

Surely he cannot be serious?

I dragged my ragged tissue across my eyes and tried to compose myself enough to speak.

“Take all the time you need Samantha.”

I nodded, unsure of where to begin because like footstep in the snow the details had already begun to fade and merge together. This made the telling that much harder. I broke down over and over each time I remembered anew. After I recounted the events, another set of officers interviewed me, sifting through every minute fact. I became dimly aware that they were checking the details against my first account. Hopefully this was procedure rather than an actual line of enquiry.

The house was full of people. My mother and father were there. They were overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. Our family doctor arrived. He took a peek at me crying and then rushed off to attend to Stephen. Some of our neighbours were there also. They came in and prayed with me. We were all in a state of shock.

Suddenly a man appeared beside me, younger than I, dressed in a very sharp suit. I had no idea who he was or why he took me by the hand. The tears in his eyes made no sense to me. But all the same I leaned on his shoulder and wept a steady river. The beads stood out like molten metal and rolled off the expensive cloth.

“I am so very sorry,” he said. His voice almost broke with emotion. Although we were strangers the two of us were in agreement that none of it made any sense.

He held me for a while then handed me a card. I was literally too blinded by tears to see what was written on it.

“I work for a private ambulance company contracted by the government to bring people to the mortuary. I want you to know that I’ll be taking care of Stephen today and that you can be rest assured that he will be treated with dignity. I also want you to know that I am on call twenty four hours a day and that if you need anything at all you can call me. This is my number.”

His compassion was so genuine. I could hear it in his gentle voice. I thanked him as best I could and he left me with the others. None of them knew what to say. As time went on I felt increasingly dazed.

“Make sure she stays in here while we move him,” someone said.

“Where are they taking him?” I mumbled, standing up to see.

There was a trolley being wheeled down the hall cloaked in a white sheet.

“They have to take him to The Royal in Belfast. In cases like this there is usually an autopsy,” someone said.

My stomach roiled.

The children must never know about any of this. I must protect them.

That was the first I had thought of them. My mind collapsed in on itself at the thought of telling them.

“Dad,” I cried, in an anguished voice. I gripped his hand and stared out into the garden at the bright blue slide and scattered toys.

“What? What is it Sam?” His voice was tender and raw all at the same time.

“What am I going to tell the kids?”

Not My Bed

“Can I have a word doctor?”images

“Sure you can.”

Although Dr Lowry was extremely busy he came in to address the patient’s concerns.  The man was dying.  It was the least he could do.

“Isn’t there another bed some place?”

The man’s jaundiced eyes slid sideways in the direction of his fellow patient.

“Is there a problem with this one?  I’m sure the nurses could get you an extra pillow if necessary.”

“No, no.  It’s not the bed.”

He lowered his voice a notch and leaned in a little closer.

“It’s the company.”

The doctor nodded as understanding dawned upon him.

“I see.”

The face of the patient in the bed next to his suddenly lit up as a well-built man entered the ward.  The two of them shared an intimate whisper as the visitors hand caressed the back of the other man’s neck.

“Oh great.  Now we’ve got two Negros,” muttered his disgruntled neighbour.

“We have a strict policy in this hospital Mr Peters concerning racism and homophobia.  So I strongly suggest you keep those views to yourself.”

“You don’t understand.  I was raised this way,” he said as if this were an acceptable explanation.

“That’s no excuse.  I’m going to draw the curtain now to give you and them a little space.  Hopefully by the time visiting hours are over you will have got yourself together.  I’ll be round shortly to check your catheter.”

As he pulled the curtain around his bed Mr Peters realised the two men next to him were tenderly holding hands.

“Christ!” he hissed.

The Doctor gave him a hard stare before hurrying away to attend to his other patients.  Hopefully he’s not going to be any more trouble, he mused, stuffing his stethoscope into his top pocket.

The curtains around Mr Peters moved to and fro with the breeze coming in through the open window.  It was a lovely afternoon outside.  The air flowing freely through the ward was warm and gentle, filled with the scent of cut grass and freshly massacred daisies.  It made a welcome contrast to the faint odour of urine and antiseptic hand gel.  Mr Peters tried to concentrate on this instead of the sickening conversation drifting from the couple next door.

“I’ve been really worried about you Carl.”

“Hey…there’s no need to be.  As soon as my blood sugar levels are right they’ll let me home.  Then we can get back to redecorating the living room.”

“Can’t wait.  I’ve missed you,” murmured the other.

Disgust writhed like worms through Mr Peters’ skin.  Desperate to block out their voices he struggled to pull his cushion from beneath his head.  When visiting time was over Dr Lowry found him fast asleep with it still pressed against his ears.

“Are we that bad?” the man called Carl asked him.  He seemed to think it was amusing.

The doctor gave Mr Peters a look that warned him to watch how he answered. 

“Since you ask – yes you are.  Not everyone wants to hear every sordid detail of your so called ‘relationship.’”

The doctor rolled his eyes and helped Mr Peters into sitting position.  As he checked his blood pressure and other statistics Carl calmly observed the other patients on the ward. 

“I’m sorry that we offended you,” he said evenly when the doctor had left.

Mr Peters said nothing.  It was as though no one had even spoken.

“If love is so offensive to you I’m guessing you must have led a very lonely life,” Carl continued.

Still Mr Peters said nothing.  His mind was too busy trying to block out his surroundings – most especially the young man who stubbornly insisted on addressing him when he clearly didn’t want to engage.  Talking was a waste of energy.  He hadn’t got long left according to the doctors.  His kidneys were shot and in the absence of a matching donor there was nothing that they could do.  Dialysis was the only thing keeping him alive now.  Time was running out.

When they came to take him for dialysis after dinner the infuriatingly placid young man beside him actually wished him good luck.

“I don’t need luck!” snapped Mr Peters.  “I need a damn kidney!”

The nurse helping him into the wheelchair frowned at his cantankerous response.  Rudely he waved her away and gingerly lowered himself into the chair.

“And I’m not lonely either!” he spat back as he placed his feet rather awkwardly on the footrests.

“Course not,” said Carl. 

As they wheeled him away Mr Peters glared intently at his knees.  He didn’t need anybody, least of all an opinionated gay Negro.

In a distant room in another part of the hospital, the dialysis machine hummed away for three hours cleansing and purifying his blood.  It didn’t seem fair that he must spend what little time he had left consumed by this mind numbingly boring occupation.  But he could no more change the fact that he was sick than a leopard could change its spots.  He was what he was and that was just the end of it. 

“This is not my bed,” he protested when they returned to the ward.  The nurses were trying to lift him into the neighbouring bed.

“This is Carl’s bed,” he told them.

“Don’t be silly now Mr Peters.  It has your name on the board.  See?”

The nurse pointed up at the small white board and he discovered that sure enough it did.

“Wrong bed Steph.  His is the one next door,” a nurse called out from across the room.  She came over to help them lower him into the correct bed.

“Are they trying to put you in the wrong bed Andrew?” she smiled tucking in the sheets around Mr Peters.

The dialysis he’d just had meant that he hadn’t the energy to reply. 

“You get some sleep now.  It’s visiting time in a bit,” smiled the nurse called Steph.

Although his eyes were almost closed when they left him he could still hear their voices receding as they made their way down the corridor.

“He never gets any visitors.  Don’t think he has anyone.”

“Aw…that’s sad.”

“Yeah, but it’s not surprising given his personality.”

“I guess not.  Anyway, I’m going to recommend we move him tomorrow.  Two Mr Peters in the same ward is an accident waiting to happen.”

“I was just thinking the same thing.”

At visiting time the next day tea trolley came by and bought Mr Peters senior a cup of tea and one of those dry oatmeal biscuits.  He felt much better now.  The post dialysis rest had done its job.

“Want me to close those curtains again for you mate?” asked Carl helpfully.

“No.  Why do you ask?” he responded irritably.  In his annoyance his spilt his tea all down his front and dropped his biscuit.  Carl shot over with a handful of tissues to help him soak it up.

“Wouldn’t want you getting all offended again.  That’s all.”

“Why the hell would I get offended?”

“Well for one you’re really good at it.  And two, that man and his partner over there just kissed.”

Mr Peters shooed him away.

“Go on with you.  I’ve got this,” he said dabbing at the tea stains.  When he’d done he drew himself up indignantly.

“You’ve got me all wrong,” he announced.  “I have no problem with love – as long as it’s decent love, between a man and a woman.”

“Ah.  I see.  And can you be sure that Mr Yorke’s partner over there really is a woman?  It can be hard to tell in this day and age, believe me.”

Mr Peters stared hard at the couple opposite not realising that it was Carl who had planted that tiny seed of doubt.  The ‘woman’ was dressed and made up garishly so it was hard to tell with any certainty what specific gender she/he belonged to.  For all he knew she could have just been an extrovert.  It was hard to say.

“Why don’t you go over there and find out?” Carl suggested.

Mr Peters flushed scarlet.

“Because that’s none of my business!” he blustered.

“So why is my love life your business?”

Andrew Peters could think of nothing to say.  He’d never encountered anyone like Carl before who had the consistent ability to display such calm even when putting across a very difficult argument.  The only person who came close was his sister Edith.  She had died in a gas explosion aged thirty two.  There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t miss her.

“My mother was raised by people like you – people who just couldn’t accept the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.  Her and my father eloped and spent the rest of their married life in Bristol.  She never saw her family again.  Such a waste.”

“What was their problem with it?  The marriage I mean,” asked Andrew.

“My father was black – born in Johannesburg.  Here is a picture of them on their wedding day.”

Carl held open his wallet to show Andrew Peters the faded photograph of them inside.  At the sight of Carl’s mother adorned in pearls and white lace something like a thunder bolt shot through his bigoted heart.  It was Edith!

“Right Mr Peters.  We’ve come to move you to another room.  Stephanie here will bring your things for you,” announced Dr Lowry appearing without warning beside him.  He and three nurses started to fuss around the bed, pressing this lever and pushing that.

“Wait!  I need to talk to this young man!” cried Andrew.

“You do surprise me,” said the doctor not missing the irony for one moment.  “But I’m afraid we have to keep to schedule and this has to be done now.  If you two genuinely want to chat I’m sure something can be arranged later.”

Within a few minutes they were pushing him along the corridor towards another annexe of the ward.  Andrew was becoming increasingly distraught.

“But he’s my nephew,” he told them over and over clutching frantically at the lapels of the doctor’s white coat.  “He’s my sister Edith’s son.”

“Who?  Carl?”

Andrew nodded.  The doctor smiled in that ‘we know you’re losing it now pal’ kind of way.

“He’s the son of my sister Edith.  I didn’t know!  You must believe me,” Andrew pleaded.  “Please let me see him!”

“You need to calm down Mr Peters.  You’re not doing yourself any favours here,” warned Dr Lowry taking his pulse.  Frustrated at the lack of understanding, Andrew struggled to stand up.

“Nurse, ten ccs of diazapene please!”

“I think it wise to monitor for at least the next two hours.  Keep me informed,” said the medic injecting a small amount of sedative into Mr Peters’ arm.

“Now you just sit back and relax Andrew.  It’s important that you enjoy the time you’ve got left.”

Four hours later after a seriously deep sleep Andrew was considerably calmer and ready to welcome his first ever visitor.  The young man from ward three East was sitting in the padded chair next to his bed looking surprisingly happy to be there.

“She was an amazing woman my mother.  She displayed a unique serenity in everything she did,” said Carl looking off into the distance.

“I should like to have known her,” said Andrew quietly.  “She sounds like a very special person.”

Carl smiled and his eyes did a little dance of emotion.

“You have no idea.”

Neither of them said anything for little while.  It was Andrew who broke the silence.  He needed to fill in the gaps.

“How old were you when she died if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I was just seven.”

“So I’m guessing your father took care of you then?”

Carl shot him a haunted look that lasted all of point zero zero one seconds.

“They both died in the same explosion.  I lost them both.  Some people said I was lucky to have been at school at the time.  I for one never thought so.”

“So who raised you?”

“Three different foster families.”

Why did no one tell us Edith had left an orphaned son?   Thought Andrew trying hard to conceal his inner turmoil.   Almost immediately he knew the answer.  Certain members of the family probably had been told but they didn’t want a black child in the family.  He himself had been in the army for several years and had simply been informed that Edith had moved away; that she wanted nothing more to do with anyone.  She intended to travel the world and seek out work where she could along the way – or so the story went.

He felt terribly hurt for a long time but he thought he had no choice but to accept her wishes.  He hoped that one day she would return and that they could pick up where they had left off.  But it wasn’t to be.  Seven years later news had broken of her untimely death in Bristol.  With no family or friends to object, his parents had buried her as a spinster and had hidden the existence of Carl from everyone.  From the very start the man in front of him had been abandoned for being what he was by his very own flesh and blood. 

A deep sense of shame descended upon Andrew.  If only he could ask his sister for forgiveness.  But to do so was impossible.

“I am very sorry for the way I have acted son,” he said reaching out to grasp Carls shoulder with his gnarly hand.  “I hope you can excuse the ravings of a stupid old man.”

It was quite a gamble he was taking.  Carl had no idea why he had suddenly turned right around like this.  He didn’t know that his mother was Andrew’s sister.  For all Andrew knew he might just say ‘screw you’ and walk away. 

As always Carl took a second to reply, just as his mother Edith always had.

“I’m glad you’ve made your peace with this.  My mother – I mean your sister would have approved.”

Andrew sucked in a deep breath.  Who had told him?  How did he know?  Carl saw in his expression those unspoken questions.

“The nurses mentioned what you had said when they wheeled you from the ward earlier.  They never expected me to believe your words.”

“Neither did I.”

“I want a DNA test to prove it.   Will you consent?” asked Carl taking hold of his hand as though it might break.

Andrew nodded and twelve hours later they had the results in front of them.

“So it’s true,” Carl breathed.

“Are you surprised?” his uncle asked. 

He wasn’t.  He could see Edith as clear as day now peering out from behind those soft brown eyes of his.  She was always so gentle and always so kind.  Carl was her son without doubt no matter what the DNA results said.

“No,” said Carl flatly.  “I’m not.”

Andrew blinked.  This was a last minute reprieve he never expected.  After years of loneliness and isolation he had discovered family and a warmth he thought he had lost for good.

“I want to give you my kidney,” Carl told him.  “They tell me we’re a match.”

Andrew’s lips trembled slightly.

“I know you do.  It is just what your mother would have done.  But I wouldn’t have taken hers either.  I am what I am – a sick, dying old man.  And I won’t risk your life even fractionally to change that.”

For the first time since he’d known him Carl relinquished his calm and rested his head briefly against his uncle’s shoulder.

“A day can make all the difference in the world can’t it?” he said. 

“Yes it can.  And I’ve a few more of them left yet…” said Andrew with a smile.

Winter 2013/2014 in Northern Ireland

After a colourful Autumn Northern Ireland has now moved into Winter.  Beautiful sunsets have softened the starkness of frosted fields and naked trees, stripped by the winds that have buffeted the land.  The nights have been clear at times too, tantalising us with the prospect of a glimpse of the aurora borealis or maybe even the comet Ison. As always I feel fortunate to live in such a beautiful place.  I only wish I had more time to enjoy it.  Here are some of the pictures I’ve taken so far this season.  I hope they inspire you to venture out yourselves and see what can be discovered in your part of the world.  Good luck x winter 2013 126 winter 2013 109 winter 2013 075 winter 2013 034 winter 2013 047 winter 2013 016 winter 2013 295 - Copy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Snowflakes

Is it true, that I have dared?
To think differently than you?
I guess it must seem strange,
That I have broken that taboo.

I’ve pulled the tangled threads,
Of the questions in my mind.
And cut the cords of bondage,
So your lies no longer blind.

Your authority is empty,
A dark contagious plague.
Designed to rein the masses
And influence the vague.

What a waste of life it is,
To surrender your own will
To those that cannot comprehend,
What lies beyond the hill.

They forget about the snow,
And the lesson contained therein.
Not a single snowflake is the same,
No, you’ll never find its twin.

Their beauty lies in difference,
And their failure to conform,
Remember that and mark it well,
When you’re told you’re not the norm.