The sun was high and shone with warmth lighting the ward up for the first time in months. It was May and Mark was almost healed enough to leave. He had finally left the wheelchair in March and in April had struggled to walk without crutches. Now he could walk and he walked to his sessions with Jane, rarely having to lean on the arm of the porter for aid.
Though still thin and ill looking his bones had fleshed out and his muscles worked with aches a pale copy of their former screams. His cheeks had some patches of colour and his hair had grown back from the wispy thread it had once been. For almost a year he had struggled to regain his strength and mobility and as he neared his final sessions with Jane he grew impatient for his release.
Angela visited him every week and though she still often wept when she thought of her lost child she had left her depression behind her. Sean and Angela had spoken of marriage and maybe another baby. Her future seemed a little brighter, her vitality and life, once empty, was slowly being refilled. Not near to the brimming level of before but she now felt hopeful for the months and years ahead.
She still had bouts where she would stop, unable to focus on what she was doing; she would sit and cry by herself in a dark room grey to her eyes. But the tears seemed to heal her now rather than drain her and though she despaired she found comfort and love in the arms of Sean and the friendship of Jane. Anna had gone back home yet they kept in contact by letter and through Jane.
Angela was best friends with Jane now; their time together and Jane’s comfort and help while Angela recovered had seemed to build a friendship that had lasted while all her other friends had drifted away to new jobs in other towns. After a long period of speculation the decision to close the small town’s hospital had been taken and slowly it packed up, closing wings and shifting the patients to the large hospital in nearby Hinton and Doctor Ullman had already taken a senior position there along with many of the other staff at Lewiston.
The hospital closure meant everyone working there was preparing to leave town to find new jobs. Jane remained though. Her husband didn’t want to move and her practice could continue from home, there was always call for a physiotherapist and she was the only one in town.
Sean stayed in the hospital, partly from an inability to find a job in the next town and also because Angela didn’t want to leave her best friend. And mixed with this was something neither spoke of, even to themselves, a strange unwillingness to go. As though, despite the gradual end of everything in their lives, the town that had brought so much heartache and suffering still had a place for them, something more was to come.
And so the four of them remained as the hospital quietly laid off those who remained and prepared for its official closure in June.
Mark looked up from his breakfast as the door to the ward opened. He had been moved in here in March by his own request. The wards were slowly emptying and he could have stayed in his single room until he was discharged tomorrow but he wanted the company. He didn’t talk much but the presence and chatter of the others calmed his impatience to leave. He had managed to convince the doctors to discharge him early and he was anxious and excited for the following day.
He planned to head straight back to his home and, after due preparation, to make the transition again. His mind was consumed with the idea, the thoughts of transcension; he couldn’t concentrate on the inane conversation of others even when he was addressed directly by those laying beside his bed. Luckily the others talked only about going home, news from their families; if they recognised Mark as the emaciated, almost-corpse-like figure from the papers almost a year ago they didn’t ask, either from politeness or from a fear of the answer.
Mark smiled as he saw the figure come in. It was Angela taking deep breathes as she re-entered the place that held the memories of her recovery after the miscarriage. She gave Mark a quick smile as she reached him and sat down by the bed.
“Just passing, thought I’d visit.” She said softly.
Mark smiled. He knew she’d come to rid herself of her demons, to revisit the place that still haunted her.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Better. I spoke to Anna on the phone the other day. She says I’m making great progress. Jane and Sean keep telling me how much better I am than after…”
She looked down at her hands. “I don’t feel I am though, sometimes. “ She brightened though and flashed a smile. “Still at least most of the time I’m my old self. I miss it though. How I used to be. I feel…. I’ve aged.” Her smile weakened. Mark looked at her, seeing in her a pale mirror of how he had felt about coming back.
“At least you’re not a skeleton.” She looked up at him, confused. Then she realised and smiled.
She looked at Mark as though she’d only just noticed him. “You’ve recovered now though,” she said, surprised. “Last time I saw you, you were still a waif, you look…” “Human?”
Angela grinned. “Yeah.”
“The doctors wanted to discharge me in three weeks. I convinced them to let me go tomorrow. They couldn’t find a reason to keep me. I can walk now.”
“Where will you go?”
Mark answered, astonished, “Home of course.”
“Back to Poplar Road?” Mark didn’t notice the surprise in her voice.
“Of course, I…” he paused.
“You’ve always said you had never seen the place before.” She replied slowly.
“Well… I… I remembered I used to live there.” He stammered.
“Why didn’t you tell the police?”
“Don’t you even think about it. I’ve only just got them off my backs. The last thing I want is that Inspector sniffing around again. I just want to put it behind me. I just want some peace.”
“In your mansion home.”
“Who are you Mark? You live in a mansion, yet the papers said the police couldn’t find any bank account under your name, or any paperwork or anything. You don’t have any money, yet you live in a huge mansion in the best part of town. And you definitely remember more than you let on.”
“… I… I can’t….”
“…remember. Of course.” She sighed. “I thought we were friends, yet you treat me just like the police; stony silence whenever we get to your life.”
Mark flushed, “I’m sorry. You are my friend, the only one I’ve got. I just…can’t…”
“I can’t…tell you. I’m sorry.”
Angela sighed. Forget it then. But I won’t let you get away that easily next time.” she replied with mock admonishment. Mark smiled as he saw the tension go and the old glint of playfulness in her eye.
“Anyway, we’re having dinner on Friday night, me and Sean. We wondered if you would do us the honour of attending, in celebration of your recovery.”
“I would be delighted.” Mark replied with a grin, surprised at the conviction in his voice. One night wouldn’t hurt he thought. I can transcend the next day.
*** *** ***
Jane sat down at the table and handed Angela’s cup of machine-brewed coffee to her. “So, how’s life then?”
“All right.” Angela replied. They sat with a cup of coffee in the staff room at the hospital. Such moments of rest seemed to be getting more frequent for Jane as the hospital wound down and Angela would often come round to share a coffee with her in her break period between sessions. Angela hadn’t returned to work, there seeming little point now the hospital was closing.
“Sean’s wonderful. He wants to wait until next year before we get married. We’re thinking of moving to Hinton in January, to be nearer his mother. And in the spring we’ll finally go through with it. I finally sold my flat last Saturday. We’ve been living together ever since I came out of hospital but it felt proper suddenly when the flat was sold. As though the last link to single life had been cut.”
Angela smiled to herself. “I’m finally starting to feel moments of happiness again, my old self seems to have returned.”
“Good for you. I told you it would get easier with time.”
Angela paused “…Yeah. So how is your life then?”
“Oh, the same. George turned down a promotion last week because it meant we’d have to move to London and he didn’t want to leave his home town. I don’t know why, this place is turning into a ghost town day by day. The hospital’s closing, shops are shutting in the high street. All my friends have already moved away except for you. I mean it wasn’t a big promotion; the higher tax bracket would have left us without any more money than we have now, probably less, but it would have been a start. And we could have got out of this place.”
“And left Nick?”
Jane didn’t reply.
“You can’t just string George along you know. You said he’s starting to talk about having kids. If you have children you’ll never escape. If you don’t love him you should leave now.”
“But I do love him. It’s just… he’s so…”
There was a pause, “…Yeah.”
Suddenly Angela heard a commotion from outside the door and the door was flung open. A tall, unshaven man with dark black hair and dressed in scruffy clothes burst in.
“You bitch!” he cried. You know what your bastard husband did?”
“Nick! “ Jane cried, standing up. “I’m at work.”
“He only fucking phoned me. I told you not to phone my house, he must have heard you talking and pressed redial when you left.”
“What did you tell him?” Jane cried, alarmed.
“What do you think I told him? I said I was a patient. I don’t fucking need this Jane. I don’t need to hang around some bored little housewife; I don’t even need to stay in this grotty little town. And I certainly don’t need some fucking faggot phoning me up and whimpering at me down the phone.”
“Don’t say that about George.” Jane exclaimed angrily.
“I can say what I like. Leave him and you can fucking phone me whenever you want. Or don’t leave the prick, but don’t fucking call me. If your bloody husband starts hanging around, pissing me off, then I’m not sticking around for you to make up your fucking mind who you want to be with.”
He turned and stormed out of the room. “Nick!” Jane cried. “Nick. Wait!” The door slammed shut behind him.
“That’s your wonderful lover?” Angela exclaimed, amazed. “He’s a complete bastard.”
“He’s just got a short temper. He can be really romantic though.”
“He’s just using you Jane. Run away. Run away now.”
Jane looked embarrassed. “But I think I love him.”
“What about George. He loves you. Nick obviously doesn’t.”
“He does. He didn’t mean what he said. And anyway, he did tell me not to phone him.”
“What the hell kind of relationship is that.” Angela sighed. “You shouldn’t let him use you Jane. You’re worth more than that.”
“But I love him.” She paused. “And I am thinking of leaving George.”
*** *** ***
As the cork came free of the bottle’s neck with a satisfying pop the doorbell rang. Jane and Angela were in the kitchen chatting as Angela finished the last touches to the meal she had prepared. Sean had offered to cook but Angela had refused, the hours she chose to spend in the kitchen seeming a kind of therapy to her, the old adage that work kept the mind free of troubled thoughts had a sort of truth to it but mixed also was that she enjoyed it. Angela had always been creative and she loved making things for other people.
Before she lost her baby it had been rare that she had let Sean cook for them and his meals since had been bland even to his palate, Angela eating automatically, untasting. Now she was back in the kitchen and the sounds of her doing the thing she loved made Sean’s heart rise. He loved her to be happy and the last months had killed him. The loss of his child, the loss of his fiancee to her own loss. His helplessness to help her and his own suffering had been terrible yet he was practised at hiding and controlling his emotions. He had believed that he had to be strong for her even as his heart wept inside, not realising that she had needed him to share her sorrow rather than his strength.
Now though that time was passed and both had dragged themselves out from their pain and despair, in small ways gradually finding comfort in each other and hope in the other’s love. Tonight the smells of cooking food began to waft from the kitchen and Sean smiled to himself in joy as the familiar smells of Angela’s cooking reached him. The candles on the table in the dining room danced reflected off the glasses and shining cutlery. Sean placed the wine on the table and rose to the door.
The doorbell rang again as Angela came out from the kitchen behind Sean. He moved towards it, the silent face of wood enlarging in his vision and the sharp buzz woke him from his reverie. His eyes focused; the hall, the door, the handle, opening. Eyes widening, adjusting to the dimmer light of the street: and before him was the face of the man who had broken into the hospital emergency ward eleven months ago. The cries of the nurses, Ullman’s scream as his assailant’s fist bent him at the middle with a blow that ruptured his intestine. His own sharp pain as he crashed to the floor, the stranger’s face, wild, fearful, raging in its intensity. The corpse on the bed, still breathing, ribcage hacking air into tortured lungs and the smell. The smell of rot and death.
“Mark” Angela cried. “You’re right on time.”
Sean’s eyes widened in surprise as his memories vanished and the man at the door coalesced into Mark, not the stranger who had tried to kidnap him. But still so similar it was uncanny. He was unable to speak for a moment. Mark also was staring at him with a tilted expression.
“Have we met?” he asked.
“No… no I don’t think…” Sean managed.
“But of course you recognise him Sean.” Angela cried. He whirled around to her, surprised, wondering if she saw it too. “You operated on him when he came in last year”
“Yes, of course.” Sean replied quickly. “I don’t really notice the faces of my patients.” The man gave a short laugh.
“No. I doubt you would. I take it you’re Sean”
“Yes, sorry. Sean Docherty, come in, come in.” The man did so, stepping over the threshold with a smile that made the resemblance fade and made Sean question his memory. Yet he remembered that first vision. He remembered the uncanny certainty he had felt and he would study the man’s face all evening as he did so.
“I’ve heard so much about you.” Mark smiled as he shook Sean’s hand.
“Same here,” he replied.
*** *** ***
Jane left, her husband arriving in the car to drive her home. It was late, the candles burned out, the food and wine gone, the dishes washed and cleared and the curtains long pulled. Angela lay in Sean’s arms, her head on his lap and smiled up at him.
“That went well. I enjoyed that.” Sean smiled absently.
“Do you think Mark had fun?” Sean didn’t reply. “I think he had fun. He got on really well with Jane.”
“Angela.” The tone in Sean’s voice stopped her. She paused, rose, sitting up and studying Sean’s face.
“Mark…I think…” He stopped and looked fully at her.
“What about him”
“You know when he was brought in last year, that man who broke in and tried to get him?”
“Yeah, I remember. It was awful.”
“I think… I recognised Mark when he arrived tonight. He looked like that man.”
Angela didn’t say anything
“I know. I thought I was mistaken but all night I was thinking about it. The similarity is remarkable.”
“What, like a twin.”
Angela sat back against the cushions. She remembered that day. She hadn’t got a good look at the man who burst past her and pushed Sean over. But she had seen his face for a few seconds and the violence of the situation had burnt the image into her memory with clarity. Surely she would have noticed any similarity, she had spent the past year off and on looking after Mark as he recovered.
“It wasn’t exact.” Sean continued. “That guy didn’t look half starved, he looked healthy, almost glowing. But…”
The silence hung between them.
“What does this mean…?” Angela asked hesitantly.
“Perhaps…” Sean trailed off as the phone rang.
He rose to answer it. Angela watched as his face slowly fell. He answered with soft, almost whispered replies, curt, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘thank you’, ‘goodbye’.
He turned to her, his face ashen and she rose to take him to her arms.
“My mum. She…she’s dead.”