Fatal Promise – Angela Marsons

The late April sunshine bounces off the bluey black denseness of the hearse that is too vast to hold the coffin despite the array of mockingly bright blooms swamping it. A coffin that is sickeningly small. Pure white with brass hinges, carried on the shoulders of four family friends, when in truth it could be carried by fewer. One strong pair of arms would do. Tears stream down their faces; four burly men who try to outdrink each other every Friday night. Four men’s men that burp and fart and congratulate each other. But now they weep and make no effort to hide it. It’s acceptable. They will not be judged. The church is deathly silent as they reverently traverse the aisle to the top of the space. Despite their tears, grief, and sadness there is great concentration. The coffin is small and light, no match for the combined strength of mates who met on the rugby pitch. But who would want to trip, stumble over the raised edge of a carpet, or entangle their foot in the strap of a handbag spilling carelessly out of the aisle? Who would want to drop the coffin? Who would want that as their claim to fame? Who would want to be the subject of that drunken Friday night anecdote? And as I well know, the tighter you try to hang on to something, the more you focus on it, the easier it can slip from your grasp. Every gaze follows the small white box as it passes by. There is something repulsive about such a tiny burial coffin.

But what repulses also fascinates, I realise as I watch people crane their necks from the far sides of the church. People want to see the incongruous oddity. The macabre short journey of life and death. A strangled sob sounds somewhere behind me, but most people’s horror has rendered them mute. The sorrowful glances slide from the coffin to me. I don’t react to their stares or the sympathetic expressions, held too long in case I glance their way and they can show me how deeply they mourn. I don’t wish to share their grief and I’m not willing to share mine. Mine has become useful. It is a living breathing entity that has changed in shape, size, and colour. It no longer weighs me down like a burden, it feeds me.

It is like the air that I breathe. It enters my body as oxygen, something pure, something good. But then it transforms and expels as something different, poisonous. Eventually, the crowd follows morosely on the short walk to the corner of the cemetery that is filled with colour, flags, cuddly toys, angels and cherubs. Mourners are speaking in hushed tones behind me. I know that they cling to each other for support. Arms entwined as they make slow respectful steps. The minister appears at the grave, a hole more suited for a decent-sized tree. Not a life. A plant, a bush, but not a life.

He reads from the bible as the coffin is lowered. The sobs behind me turn to grief-stricken howls, shrieks that could not be contained inside now set free to disperse amongst the trees. And it is done. The coffin is in the ground. Hands land all over my back, reassuring, comforting. Some brief, some linger. Everyone wants to offer something, some indication, a token of their grief. They want me to know. They want me to share. They offer it as a gift of their own humanity.

And I don’t give a fuck. My comfort doesn’t come from them. Neither does it come from the knowledge of eternal peace. It doesn’t come from the platitudes and clichés, the well-wishers, cards, flowers or the phone calls. It doesn’t come from the short time we had together. It comes from the rage. It comes from the white, hot anger that burns in every pore of my body, every atom of my being. My comfort comes from the plan. My comfort comes from the knowledge. The knowledge that everyone responsible will die.

ONE Kim breathed a sigh of relief as the nurse completed the cut of the fibreglass cast with a cast saw. All five toes appeared to be intact. Finally, she could feel fresh, clean air circulating around the mummified skin. She groaned out loud with pleasure as she reached down and scratched a spot halfway down her shin. A taunting itch that had been driving her mad for six long weeks. ‘Feel good?’ asked the nurse, smiling. ‘Hell, yeah,’ Kim said, raking the area so hard it was reddening beneath her nails. And yet, after six weeks of torture the scratching of her flesh was not producing the level of satisfaction of which she’d dreamed. There had been nights she’d been tempted to use her own circular saw to release her limb for a scratch but she’d resisted, anticipating the pleasure of this moment. It was over all too soon.

The nurse passed her a wet wipe which she gratefully wiped all over the flesh indented from the cast. The nurse threw the cast to the side as Kim moved her right leg to the edge of the bed. After six weeks of additional weight attached to it she had the sensation that her left leg was going to rise up and float away. A steadying hand rested on her thigh. ‘Not so fast, Inspector,’ said the nurse with a knowing look. ‘Doctor Shah will be with you in a minute. The cast is off but you’re not out of the woods yet.’ She finished with a soft tap as though speaking to a child. ‘Yeah, and I’ve got places to—’ ‘Aah, Miz Stone,’ said Doctor Shah. ‘I see you are your usual patient self this afternoon.

’ ‘Doc, I just want to get back—’ ‘It is frustrating when the body is not so easily commanded by the will of the mind, no?’ Kim narrowed her eyes at his light breezy tone. Doctor Shah peered at her over his glasses, as he had done the day she’d been wheeled in following the death of her colleague. His calm, soft voice had punctured her rage as she’d fought to get off the hospital bed and flee. She’d had no idea where she wanted to go. All she’d known was that her colleague lay broken at the bottom of a bell tower and she’d been forcibly removed from the scene. She shook herself back to the present, as Doctor Shah placed a hand on each ankle, as though gently holding her in place while he spoke. ‘Lift,’ he said, tapping her left ankle and then hovering his hand in mid-air. There was a delay of a few seconds as her brain sent the instruction to muscles that had lain dormant for weeks. The leg lifted and touched the outstretched hand. It faltered in mid-air before her upper thigh muscle controlled the descent back to the bed.

‘To the left,’ he instructed. ‘And to the right,’ he said. ‘There will be muscle weakness and this should be built up slowly. The leg is not normal yet,’ he said, again peering over his glasses. And didn’t she know it? Her milky white flesh bore the marks of the plaster imprinted into her skin. A two-inch scar ran down her shin where the fractured bone had forced itself through. ‘The X-rays show that the bones have healed well, however…’ he said, pausing. Nothing good ever came from however, Kim thought. ‘You still need to be careful. There will be pain and the leg muscles will be weak from inactivity.

I’d like you to come to physiotherapy three mornings—’ ‘Doc, you know what I’m going to ask?’ she said, cutting him off. ‘You need to understand that your leg needs time and gentle exercise to repair properly. The mending of the bones is only the first step—’ ‘Doctor Shah,’ she pushed. He sighed dramatically in the face of her impatience. He nodded towards the crutches she’d leaned against the paper towel dispenser to the right of the door. ‘I’d like you to continue using them until you’ve completed a couple of physio sessions.’ ‘Doc,’ she pushed again. ‘Providing you stick to light duties, preferably behind a desk, then I see no reason for you not to return to work.’ Kim swung her right leg to the edge of the bed and shimmied her left one along using her hip and buttock muscles. ‘So, I’m officially signed off, right?’ He nodded gingerly as though he felt it was a decision one of them might live to regret.

Kim lowered herself and held up a hand when both Doctor Shah and the nurse moved forward to assist. She placed her right leg down then followed with her left. A jolt of pain shot from her shin bone right into her hip. She stumbled. The doctor reached to stabilise her but she shook her head and hung onto the bed. She did it again trying to ignore the sensation of weightlessness that made her think her leg was going to levitate of its own accord like a stage show magic trick. She understood that her leg had spent six weeks encased in safety and the feeling of instability now unnerved her. She focussed hard and took another step forward. Still pain but not as blinding and this time she was expecting it. She ignored the sweat beads forming on her forehead as she took another step.

Doctor Shah had stepped back and was watching her movement. She took another step. Towards the door. ‘Don’t rush your recovery,’ he said, as she took another step. Her hand was on the door handle as she thanked him. His kind eyes acknowledged her words as she stepped out into the corridor. She closed the door, leaving the crutches firmly behind her. She moved slowly along the hospital corridor. She had forgotten how far she was from the main entrance. She had entered the hospital with two additional legs and six weeks’ experience in using them.

Ten steps she counted as she reached a set of lifts. Each time she placed her foot down it felt a little more natural, like a distant memory returning, but the effort had brought on a wave of nausea. She took a second to rest against the wall, frustrated that her muscles were still waking up. ‘May I help you, miss?’ asked a red tee-shirted volunteer. His name plate announced him as Terry. She shook her head as he opened a door to the right of where she stood. ‘There’s a chair,’ he said, pointing inside to the small space. ‘Just take a minute,’ he said. ‘You look like you’re about to pass out.’ ‘Thank you but I’m fine,’ Kim said, moving away from his kindness and towards the hospital main entrance.

As she neared the automatic doors she spotted the taxi she’d instructed to wait. She couldn’t reach it fast enough. It was time to return to work and her team. And although her team would never be the same again, she’d been away from them for long enough. TWO Doctor Gordon Cordell pulled up in front of the apartment block and marvelled at the speed of his change in fortunes. There was nothing about his life that hadn’t altered in the six weeks since the investigation into the death of Sadie Winters at his old school, Heathcrest Academy. Every aspect of the elite facility for the privileged and wealthy children of the Black Country had been investigated. That same investigation had uncovered the fact he’d performed an illegal abortion on Sadie’s sixteen-year-old sister. Not that he’d had a choice. When presented to him by her father, at least three weeks over the twenty-four-week legal limit, he had foregone the mandatory agreement of another doctor to satisfy the Abortion Act requirements and performed the termination anyway.

Thank God he had kept no records of the procedure and what was left of the Winters family weren’t shouting about it from the rooftops. But that bitch detective and her team from West Midlands Police had tried their hardest to bring charges against him. And had failed. The secret society of the Spades had come together and protected him. He had been grateful for the day when he was eleven years old and had been invited to join one of the four secret societies that existed at Heathcrest. He had relished the prestige of being a chosen one and had enjoyed all the benefits and connections of the brotherhood that continued beyond school. Once a Spade, always a Spade. And as expected his fellow Spades in high places had come forward and shielded him. Until the danger had passed. And then they’d sent him the card.

The satisfied sigh of relief that he was untouchable had been silenced when he’d opened the envelope to find a ripped playing card. The nine of spades had been torn into bits and sent to him. No note. No explanation. Not that he’d needed one. He’d understood the message loud and clear. The Spades had protected him for one reason only: they hadn’t wanted the police to destroy him because they had wanted to do it themselves. Within forty-eight hours of opening the envelope he had been fired from his job as head surgeon at the private Oakland Hospital in Stourport-on-Severn. His brand new Lexus had been collected the same day, and his wife had thrown him out two days later when she’d learned why he had lost his job. The Spades were not upset because he’d performed the illegal abortion.

They were upset because he’d been caught. Within a week of expulsion he had been employed by Dudley Health Authority who were pleased to have him on board. As well they should be, he reasoned. He had been educated at the best schools in the country and his record was impeccable. His official record, of course. While not even close to the high six-figure sum he’d commanded at Oakland, the salary afforded him the opportunity of paying the mortgage on the home occupied by his wife with enough left over for rent on the one-bedroom apartment in Dudley and the nine-year-old Vauxhall he now drove. It was all temporary. He knew that. This was his penance for being found out. This was his punishment for the police having got too close and bringing the whiff of scandal to a secret society that was steeped in tradition.

But his fortunes would change in good time. Soon there would be a Spade that wanted his help. There would be some Lord or member of the cabinet with a careless teenage daughter who had a problem that needed taking care of by someone who could keep their mouth shut. And that was when they’d bring him back. His old job would suddenly be available again. His Lexus would appear on the drive of his five bed, four bath barn conversion in Hartlebury, and his wife would welcome him home. His home once more. But for now he would perform routine surgeries on the dregs of humanity for the NHS for a pittance of what he was worth. ‘Oh Doctor…’ ‘Not now, Mrs Wilkins,’ he snapped, passing by the front door of flat 1A as the elderly woman peered out. Ever since he’d foolishly mentioned that he was a doctor she had assaulted him with an ever-changing list of symptoms almost on a daily basis.

‘But, I just—’ ‘Sorry, can’t stop,’ he said, reaching the first flight of stairs. He could still hear her protests but he wasn’t going back. He was just glad she didn’t have access to the internet. She’d have found one life-threatening disease after another. He mounted the two flights of stairs while adjusting his breathing. His bulk didn’t take well to the absence of a lift, but in a month, he had shaved over sixteen pounds from his twenty-two stone weight. And although he didn’t wish to prolong his excommunication from his real life for longer than necessary, he secretly hoped he could shift another stone before returning home. His wife, Lilith, had tried dozens of diets, without success, and he had constantly told her less food and more exercise was the only way. He enjoyed a certain smugness and anticipated the ‘I told you so speech’ with relish. These stairs, and not having his meals readily cooked for him, were working a treat.

He ignored the laboured breathing, white stars behind his eyes and the sweat on his forehead as he opened the door to his temporary home. It was a flat he’d kept for some years but only for a night here and there. He stepped straight into the lounge which he swore got smaller each day. An archway led to a boxy kitchen with no window and too many wall cupboards. A door led to the bedroom which then led to the shower room behind. It was still the stark empty box it had been the day he’d taken the keys. He walked straight through to the bedroom loosening his tie as he went. After the first few days, Lilith had allowed him to return for a suitcase of clothes. She’d told him to take them all but to touch nothing else. He smirked.

She hadn’t noticed him swipe the bedside photograph of his two boys, Saul, already a surgeon and Luke in medical school. Small triumph, but a triumph all the same. He reached into the bottom of his case to take out the photo, as he always did. Placing it beside his bed admitted a permanence about his current situation that he was not prepared to acknowledge. His pudgy fingers met with the silk lining of the case. He frowned as he moved aside his spare pair of shoes and two pairs of socks. He felt nothing but more silk and the securing strap. He looked around the room even though he knew he had not removed it from its safe place in the suitcase. ‘Where the hell?…’ His words were cut off as a blinding pain shot through his head. He fell forward as the sound of shattering glass reverberated in his ear.

Stars darted in front of his eyes as the nausea rose in his stomach. His consciousness threatened to desert him. He swallowed the saliva in his mouth to ward off the sickness. He blinked rapidly hoping to outrun the descending darkness. ‘Hello, Doctor Cordell,’ said a smooth, calm voice behind him. He fought off the nausea to turn and view his attacker. The voice was not familiar, but as he turned, he realised that the face was. It was a face he had seen before but he couldn’t recall where. ‘What the—’ ‘Shut up, Doctor Cordell,’ said his attacker cutting him off. ‘Lovely boys you have,’ Cordell heard, as he tried to blink his wavering vision back to normal.

Only then did he realise he’d been struck with the photo. The picture of his wonderful sons. The photo was thrust into his face. ‘The time has come for you, Doctor Cordell. It’s time for you to make a choice.

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