The drive back to Wandsworth was largely conducted in stony silence. As far as I was concerned Roger could shove his matrimonial break-up statistics up his arse along with his “holier than thou” attitude. In all honesty, I was taking umbrage based on a couple of remarks which I had chosen to interpret as criticism. If they were, the criticism was obviously justified by the circumstances I now found myself in, but in my current mood I was not likely to engage in honest introspection.
I tried reminding myself that this was the friend who, years before, had probably saved my life by building a snow shelter when we found ourselves stranded in the middle of a whiteout, skiing off-piste near Klosters. This was, of course at my insistence and against his better judgement. We had seen the weather coming and started to get a move on, but it had pounced on us. Before we knew it, we could hardly see our own hands and our comms were useless. In the rush I went over on an ankle, broke it and passed out. Roger dragged me into the small copse we had been skirting around and scooped out a hollow behind a slender tree trunk for us to shelter in. I tried to remind myself of this now, but it did not work – instead I found myself detesting him for being so fucking sensible.
In fairness to Roger, he made several attempts to elicit my opinion of “Mr Parsons”, but gave up in the face of my monosyllabic answers. He volunteered the opinion that we should expect to hear the initial results of Parson’s researches within twenty-four hours and, if my identity really was up for sale, the horse trading could take a further three or four days after that. That nugget of information earned him a sceptical “Hmm”. He observed quite rightly that Parsons’ church warden-like manner made his name seem especially apt, which elicited a ‘So what?’ After another couple of attempts at conversation he frowned and gave up.
It was not until we were most of the way across Clapham Common that I rationalised quite why he was getting on my nerves. It was not the “holier than thou” undertone that I had been picking up since my first phone call regarding my misdemeanours. I had always found the notion that a solicitor could have the cheek to claim any sort kind of moral high ground highly entertaining. Normally a whiff of Godliness from Roger was a cue for mickey taking, not anger. It was not even his, as yet, unspoken opinion that chickens were coming home to roost. I knew that was doing the rounds of his sanctimonious little cerebellum and more or less took it for granted.
I suspect the answer took so long to hit me because it was the one I least wanted to hear. It was his earlier suggestion that perhaps I was not the only one with wandering feet. I was angry at his suggestion that Liz might have looked, or worse still, gone elsewhere. Even as the thought hit me I began to feel my stomach tighten and my fists clench.
How dare he suggest that I was some sort of...cuckold? Yes, yes, that was the word, cuckold; some poor, sad bastard who crept through life with his face to the wall whilst his wife shagged around. Is that what he thought of me?
I was about to let rip when the further implication, the one I had really been avoiding, forced itself forward. What if he was right? It was not Roger’s suggestion that was winding me up, it was the possibility that he had hit the nail on the head. I was in danger of shooting the messenger. My rage switched to Liz as surely as if I had just heard her sworn confession in court.
How dare she go off fucking someone else after all I’d done for her? After all I’d given her? A list of all I had provided burst into my mind as evidence of her ingratitude: foreign holidays, a two million pound house on Wandsworth Common, a lifestyle most women would die for, and two bloody kids in boarding school, or university, or wherever the fuck they were. Jesus! And this was how she treated me! I could barely control the urge to punch the dashboard.
Roger glanced across at me as we waited to turn right at Clapham South tube.
‘Are you alright?’ he asked, though to the best of my knowledge I had said or done nothing to make him think otherwise.
‘I’m fine,’ I replied tightly. Inside I felt as if I was about to explode and I suppose it must have shown in my face.’
‘You’re not are you? Listen, you’ve had a hard day and things look like they’re all going tits up at the moment. Meeting Parsons doesn’t help; my other clients find he gives them the creeps, but he does get the job done.’
‘It’s not him,’ I snapped in an attempt to cut the conversation short.
‘I guess it’s Liz then?’
For fuck’s sake, why couldn’t he let it go?
‘Just leave it will you! I don’t need a shoulder to cry on, least of all yours.’
My wounded ego was looking for someone to lash out at and, as so often in the past, Roger was in the firing line.
‘Why don’t you just call me once you know what that bloody man has found out and send me a bill for today.’ I had adopted a haughty tone in an attempt to salvage my wounded ego and assume some kind of authority. Roger’s response came as some surprise.
‘Fine, I’ll do that,’ he replied coolly, ‘and if you need any further help by all means call my secretary.’
He kept his eyes firmly on his driving as he turned right off Nightingale Lane into Thurleigh Road and pulled in outside my house. He did not speak as I got out of the car and drove off without any further acknowledgement.
There were no lights on again and the basket on the other side of the letterbox was jammed with junk mail and flyers, but nothing personal addressed to me. I tried to muster some annoyance on behalf of the rainforest, but my heart was not in it. I clicked on the hall light to create some sense of welcome and paused to survey the entrance hall to my family home. It felt strangely alien, as if I was no part of it. The pictures I had collected over the years had long since been relegated to the walls of the upper floors and replaced with expensively framed prints by fashionable artists from galleries in Kensington and Chelsea. The elegant bay tree in the “aged” bronze planter lacked permanence; it was “managed”, along with all the other plants in the house, by some trendy Battersea florist who ensured that the “sub-tropical planters were rotated on a monthly basis to reflect seasonality” or some such costly bullshit I recalled Elizabeth boasting proudly about.
The house was double-fronted and to my left lay the open-plan lounge, which had been knocked through to an everyday dining area back in the Eighties when everything had to be open-plan and knocked through. Thanks to some expensive interior designer’s vision, a visitor could start here and complete a fairly unimpeded circuit of the ground floor. For some reason I took this tour now, indulging my black mood for all it was worth as I inspected the results of my life’s efforts on the domestic front.
The left side of the house was the most lived in. The kids and their friends had gradually commandeered the lounge, or Entertainment Zone as I now liked to think of it, for their Play Stations, desktops, laptops and general electronic paraphernalia. When I still had some influence over the home environment, this was a separate room and reflected my minimalist taste with plain white walls used to display my collection of Peter Blake and Edouardo Paolozzi limited edition pop art prints. In those days the house had been a joint venture and Liz had completed this effect with a dazzling collection of Lalique glassware from a shop in Camden Passage and some superb original African ebony carvings which she bought in a flea market in Cape Town on a family holiday. That had all gone.
Now my prints adorned the upstairs landing to “prevent them getting damaged”. How the fuck they were likely to get damaged hanging on a wall was anyone’s guess, but the decision was announced during one of my periods of penance when I was in no position to argue. The putsch had been achieved with a smoothness and swiftness which, in hindsight, suggested some careful pre-planning. For the first time it struck me to what extent Liz had exploited my philandering ways to marginalise my role in the family beyond that of simply bread winner. She had pushed me away, so who could blame me for looking elsewhere? Which came first, the embryo or the sperm? I warmed to this theme of self-justification as I moved into the “breakfast room”, i.e. Liz’s unofficial office.
The Georgian mahogany dining table which had come with me as a wedding present from my family home in Dorking was folded down and shoved into a corner, where it sat buried in pamphlets and business documents, along with a scattering of female bric à brac and an empty mug she had obviously been too sodding busy to wash-up. Jesus!
Pride of place now went to a work station from some modern and suitably expensive boutique like Ikea; not one of the cheap, functional jobs I had seen in Spy School earlier that day. This was home to an Apple desktop which looked powerful enough to run a N.A.S.A space programme. Small wonder she was constantly going off on computer training courses – and she always used to swear modern technology was beyond her!
Suddenly, a most unpleasant thought popped into my mind. What made me think that all these computer courses, or indeed, seminars and training courses, were what she said they were? How could I tell from a random email or phone call that she was where she said she was? Besides, she invariably said she was in some Premier Inn or Travelodge where she could just as easily be shagging her brains out with her latest lover. I tried to dismiss this image but Roger had, intentionally or unintentionally, sown a seed in surprisingly fertile ground and this seed was taking root. I pictured her face transported with ecstasy, her eyes fixed on a distant point and her hair spread out over a pillow, but it was not my back she was digging her nails into; my blood suddenly boiled with rage again.
The fury was so violent that I sat down at the breakfast bar to recover from it. I had read Othello at school and, insofar as I had been able to relate to the emotions of a mediaeval, Moorish military hero as a fifteen-years-old, English schoolboy, I had been highly sceptical about jealousy’s ability to so entirely consume a man’s rationality. Now I had to concede that Shakespeare had a point. I found myself taking deep breaths as I fought to steady my pounding heart. My ears were singing and the colours in the room looked artificial.
The moment passed and I needed fresh air which these days could only be accessed via the mandatory conservatory that was bolted onto the length of the rear wall. The bloody thing was Liz’s choice of course, made from “sustainable hard wood” and “sympathetic stonework”, and costing more than an average house elsewhere in the country. I made my way through the predictable bamboo furniture with its predictable bamboo plants from our predictable Battersea florist and out onto the Norwegian hardwood decking we had spent a fortune on because grass wouldn’t do anymore.
I noted with vague satisfaction that the pathetic patch of greenery we flatteringly referred to as a garden was being adequately tended to by whichever illegal immigrant was currently doing it – I spent enough time tending to human beings to be much bothered with horticulture. The garden was not, in fact, small by London standards, but the mahogany table had reminded me of my generously proportioned childhood home in Dorking and this piece of urban bonsai paled into insignificance by comparison. I was in the mood for a bit of nostalgia. It did not last long – it never did when I really focussed on my childhood.
My father came from a wealthy background. He was a wealthy career officer in the Navy who never missed an opportunity to put the oceans of the world between himself and my mother, and consequently me. I remember he was a big man with a ruddy complexion and a shock of dark hair, who used to pick me up and hold me out at arm’s length for inspection, and then plonk me back down again and ruffle my own shock of hair. If this seems unaffectionate by modern standards I didn’t care. I was too blown away by that brilliant uniform. I later realised that the smell I associated with him was whisky.
He always turned up late in the evening after endless, increasingly impatient assurances from my mother that “He’ll be here soon”. Shortly after I was inspected and plonked down and a ship-related gift from some foreign port was handed over, they would kiss me good night and retire to the lounge, which they presumably imagined was sound-proofed. Sometime after that the shouting would start. I would sit under the stairs praying it would stop, and, when it eventually did, I would sneak upstairs and continue my vigil from behind my bedroom door until I heard them stumbling up the stairs exchanging stage whispers about things I didn’t understand. That was not important; all I cared was that they had made it up. He’d be gone by the morning.
Years later, at the piss-up following his funeral, a drunken Lieutenant-Commander took it upon himself to explain to me with evident pride that “the Old Man” had girls in ports that didn’t even appear on Navy charts. I was only fourteen at the time, but I got the general idea. He died, without warning, of a cerebral haemorrhage whilst out on unspecified “manoeuvres”, which, given his colleague’s leering testimonial, had a disturbingly euphemistic ring. My mother didn’t appear to shed many tears behind her half-veil.
My mother made little secret of her resentment at the interruption my arrival made to her devotion to tennis, and made sure the mistake was never repeated. She was an early champion of Conovid, the original contraceptive pill, though only the desperately naive would have wondered why she was so keen on it, during my father’s lengthy absences. I was too young to question the never-ending stream of young tennis coaches that visited the house. I only got upset when one of them ate the Mars bar I had secreted in the back of the fridge to make it taste more like an iced-lolly.
At the earliest opportunity she insisted I follow the family tradition (one generation) and packed me off to a South London boarding school to “get me out from under her feet”. Given that her feet were principally employed running round the manicured lawns of Dorking Lawn Tennis and Squash Club I cannot imagine how I ever managed to get under them, but I went regardless. By the time I got there my older brother (by seven years) was just leaving. We were still in touch, but not close. He dedicated himself to prize roses and accruing wealth in the City whilst his shrew of a wife tried to attribute moral significance to her championship of their local W.R.V.S. Our only common interest was Stamford Property Holdings Ltd through which we administered the family home and a few other investments.
That was quite enough of Memory Lane.
I went back into the kitchen and turned left into the dining room. This had once been a proper, separate dining room, but it was now accessed from the kitchen by an archway. In fairness to Liz this made perfect sense compared to the hatch that had been there before, so I looked around for something else to be angry about. I did not have to look far.
Why the fucking hell did I let her swap the antique, Georgian, mahogany table now sitting in the corner of “the breakfast room” for the dreadful, “contemporary” tinted-glass and chrome thing with the white plastic chairs that now took pride of place. Once the table was replaced, the antique, oak Welsh dresser we had travelled all the way to Monmouth to inspect and purchase on a measly house officer’s salary had to go. Thankfully I did manage to rescue it for my study where it now squatted sullenly in a corner laden with books and files; a sorry end for such a fine piece.
I had, however, reserved my disgust at my wife’s philistine behaviour for the floor. I was now standing on what Liz assured me was “Black Oak” flooring. Personally, I had never heard of black oak trees up to the moment when I got back from a long weekend conference at Queen Elizabeth’s in Birmingham to find the Victorian terracotta floor tiles had been ripped up and the woven silk carpet I had haggled for at a souk in Marrakesh had been replaced. When I protested she had explained in no uncertain terms that she was sick of “living in a fucking morgue” and that I could piece the shattered tiles back together again if I felt so bad about it!
As I stood there reliving this act of tasteless vandalism I felt real rage welling up, but it did not happen. Self-pity took over instead. What had I done to deserve this? I’d worked all the hours God sent. I’d passed every test and overcome every obstacle ever thrown in my path. I had studied and I had slaved. I had sat next to pompous bores at countless dinners who saw it as their self-appointed task to guide me along my thorny career path. I had achieved; I had become successful; and most of all I had provided for my family. And this was all the thanks I got for it: an empty house full of other people’s possessions!
As final affirmation of this cruel and ruthless dispossession I moved on through into the “space” which had once served as our best lounge, but was now reserved as a salon for Elizabeth’s coterie of Wandsworth women. This pampered clique devoted themselves to various good causes and endless shopping. Most were conservative with a small “c”, though some flirted with the Liberals despite the general consensus that gays should stick to hairdressing and interior design. They had voted for Thatcher principally because she was a woman and Blair because he was more Conservative than Thatcher. They hated Brown and were currently suspicious of Cameron’s smarminess though he was quite sexy. They found the poor repulsive and vaguely threatening.
Decoratively, the room was straight out of the pages of a Laura Ashley catalogue, replete with chintzy fabrics and floral wallpaper. Salvaged floorboards, a Rococo framed mirror, and a marble fireplace (not original) had been installed at vast expense; when it came to prefabricated haut couture, it had everything. Everything that is, except a scrap of originality.
Upstairs, I sat down at the Edward and Roberts Victorian writing desk in my “cell”. In fairness, it was not that cell-like in reality. True it contained a single bed for my periods of penance, but, unlike any cells I’ve seen on television, it also boasted an en suite shower and toilet. It was, in fact, the second master bedroom which I had commandeered as a study-cum-den when we moved in. By the time we had reached that rung on the property ladder we were past the stage when every room was littered with bodies the morning after a party. We were of an age when guests took the hint and buggered off around one in the morning. They were working people and needed their beauty sleep as much as we did. As a result, Liz and I had the master bedroom, and I had my study, which still left a single bedroom each for the kids and the generous loft conversion for any stray visitor.
Artworks that had once held pride of place downstairs now filled every available space on my “cell” walls, which undoubtedly made it the most valuable, occasional, prison space in Britain, if not the world. Every other space and surface was cluttered with the bric à brac of a lifetime – I kept it untidy to make it feel like a real den.
I turned on my twenty-one inch screen iMac as I idly inspected the mahogany bookshelves lining the wall on either side of my desk. They were mostly filled with medical books, some of which were well-thumbed text books from my student days. Separate from these was a quite impressive collection of rare medical tomes, mostly from David White’s in Canterbury and Nigel Phillips in Hampshire, as well as those I had picked up abroad over the years. As I waited for the computer to load I pulled out my pride and joy, a vellum bound copy of the 1655 Armamentarium Chirurgium by Scultetus. This beautifully illustrated guide to the world of German surgical technique in the Middle Ages never failed to surprise me with its anatomical understanding.
It was, in fact, my very first adventure into the arcane world of rare, medical books. I bought it as a student, thinking it would help me with the jump from schoolboy Latin to medical Latin. Soon I was marvelling at the intricacy and accuracy of the drawings that began, all those centuries ago, to turn back-street barbers into the professional surgeons of today.
For some reason, this evening, I could not lose myself in my usual sense of awe and admiration; the illustrations seemed flat on the page and the Latin incomprehensible. I gave up trying to read it, or even marvel at it, and simply thumbed through it for its reassuring permanence in my increasingly unstable world. I lost interest entirely and gazed unseeing at a limited edition print of David Hockney’s “Homage to Michelangelo” on the opposite wall.
My computer’s homepage flashed up on the monitor, notifying me that it was ready. With an effort I dragged myself out of my reverie and aimlessly shoved the mouse around the screen until it alighted, as if by its own accord, on the email icon. I hesitated, not sure that I wanted to see what it might contain, and then clicked the mouse.
As usual my inbox was full of spam which I duly selected and deleted. Then there were what I thought of as “suppliers” messages: one asking if I wanted to renew my rowing club subscription in Putney, another inviting me to pay my Orange phone bill online. Amongst all this was one I could not ignore or casually delete. The sender’s box read: Stamford, Liz (medic...
I sat, willing myself to open it, despite the curious sense of dread that had seized me. Surely I had deleted that fucking woman’s email before Colleen could see it, so what was I worrying about? My guilty conscience was playing tricks on me! At least she had finally got in touch. This was routine: a good sulk then a rapprochement, usually involving some trivial domestic matter like remembering to put the bins out. A frosty conversation would commence at arm’s length followed by an apologetic gift (from me, obviously) and finishing with a weekend in Paris, or even Amsterdam, if Liz had stood on her pride too long and wanted to make up for lost time. Alright, it had taken longer than usual, but maybe she was more pissed off than usual. Perhaps this called for somewhere more exotic than Europe; New York or the Seychelles perhaps.
Buoyed at the thought of sex on sandy beaches with the added spice of rekindled lust, I clicked on the message. It read:
Colleen has forwarded to me the latest email from this slut in Moscow. I know you have had the snip so you can’t have got the silly little bitch pregnant, but the very fact that she claims you have done so proves you screwed her, particularly in the light of your past record. You have treated me like a doormat for far too long and I have had enough. Annette and I will be staying with my mother over the weekend. I will be returning to London on Tuesday. I wish to meet you to discuss the terms of our divorce. I have already applied for Ancillary Relief and submitted a Form E to the court disclosing my income etc.
You will have to submit one as well, but I know what a liar you are so I have gone to the trouble of drawing up a list of your assets including the ones you might neglect to mention. I want this out of the way a.s.a.p so, if you wish to discuss this now and save yourself being done for non-disclosure at a later date, I suggest we meet at my solicitor’s offices, Harper, Peach, and Associates, 23 Church Rd, Barnes SW17 at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. If that does not suit, name an alternative.
Do not give me any shit about being snowed under with work, my solicitor says that can be construed as non-compliance in court. She will be conducting negotiations on my behalf and you may wish to bring a representative with you. Kindly reply to this email and do not try to phone me - she has advised me not to talk to you.
I got up and walked over to the mahogany side-table on which sat my silver Deco drinks tray with the Regency ship’s decanter and near-matching crystal tumblers that Liz had given me for my fortieth birthday. In a daze I turned a glass upright and poured myself a king-sized measure of the Dalmore single malt that Pete had bought back for me after his first term at Stirling. Apart from a couple of shots to toast his return, it had, up to now, remained untouched. I now downed half a glass and topped it back up, then returned to the computer. I slowly reread the message as the initial shock passed and the first hit of the alcohol gave me a lift.
Okay, so she was pissed off, but thankfully she had not fallen for this pregnancy nonsense. Sure she really wanted to jerk my lead this time and threatening divorce was her only option. I’d heard it all before even if this time it sounded more ominous. Big deal! She wasn’t the only one with a lawyer (a nasty little memory of my last parting with Roger flitted through my mind, but I ignored it).
She would hardly emerge spotless if any mud-slinging started and what would that do to the kids? She wouldn’t want that, would she? Thanks to the scotch, I could not quite put my finger on what she had done that I could throw back at her, or quite why our grown-up kids would be particularly affected by a parental divorce in this day and age, but I was quite sure they would. It was about time she realised what side her bloody bread was buttered on!
I took another big swig and barely noticed the smooth burn of the scotch as it ran down my oesophagus. The bombast turned to drunken anger and I turned my malevolence on that bitch Colleen. How dare the sly little cow go telling tales to my wife? She was supposed to be my fucking secretary! Whatever happened to the loyalty between secretary and boss? I already knew the answer to that – the jealous bitch couldn’t handle rejection – but I rehearsed it to fuel my rage a bit more.
Suddenly a sober thought hit me. How did she know about the “pregnancy” email? I forced myself to picture the sequence of her arrival that morning. The scene floated muzzily back into my mind. That was it! I had been reading that fucking email when the cow walked in. No I hadn’t, I was reading my reply! She fannied around taking off her coat which gave me the chance to send it then delete it. Yes, I definitely deleted it and then bloody Katya’s previous mail. The certainty grew as I remembered my hopeless attempts at casual conversation and my hasty departure; I had definitely deleted them. So how come Elizabeth had seen them. Even in my befuddled state the answer was plain enough. The fucking bitch was checking my Recycle Bin! In my panic I had forgotten to empty that. Fuck!
In truth, I was a bit careless about computer security at the best of times. I came from the generation that did not grow up with P.C.s in their bedrooms and confined my relationship with computers to their immediate use to me. I was not interested in their inner workings and was hazy about whether it was possible to entirely delete a computer’s memory short of destroying the hard disc.
That however was not the issue. The issue, as I was now beginning to realise despite the befuddling effect of the Dalmore single malt, was that Elizabeth was not threatening legal action based on the chance opening of an email. She was actively encouraging Colleen to spy on me and the jealous cow was happy to go along with it. Fine, so the gloves were coming off and people were beginning to show their true colours. Well bring it on! I took another swig of Dalmore’s, clicked Reply and typed:
“See you then”.
The blow was hard. It landed squarely between my shoulder blades and knocked me forward. This was no friendly thump on the back from a colleague, a realisation borne out by the fingernails that raked my face as I straightened and turned to face my assailant. Through the blood and shock I made out a shrill voice screaming:
‘You killed him, you killed him, you murderin’ fuckin’ bastard!’ It was a coarse, female Cockney voice, roughened by a steady supply of cheap cigarettes.’ I knew this woman. I knew her voice if not her name. Her husband had been impaled on a forklift tine at work. It had pinned him to a wall piercing his lower, left-side abdomen and rupturing his intestines. By the time the ambulance had crawled through late afternoon, rush-hour traffic to get to him, peritonitis had set in and the antibiotics came too late to halt it. They had unhooked the man from the tine and forced a route back through the traffic but, by the time he reached me, it was hopeless. Despite a five hour attempt to piece the mess back together, he had not recovered from the accident and nor, it seemed, had his wife.
I threw my hands up to protect my eyes and felt warm, wet blood on my cheeks. This left me open to a punch in the solar plexus which she promptly delivered with a force and accuracy that suggested considerable experience in the art of street-fighting. It winded me and I doubled over as she assaulted my shins with a couple of well aimed, and very painful, kicks from her pointed, leather high-heels. I vaguely wondered how she could stand up, let alone attack someone in the damn things.
Thursday morning had not started kindly; ten-year-old single malts are no smoother than any other brand of alcohol the morning after. Paracetamol for the headache, orange juice and two bottles of Evian for the dehydration, and a slice of toast thick with marmalade for blood sugar had all been employed in an attempt to ease the hangover. None of it had worked. Now, in a corridor just around the corner from my office, I was being battered by the vengeful wife of a dead patient!
Enough was enough! Adrenaline kicked in, swamping the hangover, as I grabbed her by the hair and shoved her out to arm’s length.
‘I didn’t kill your damn husband, you stupid woman,’ I shouted as she continued to punch the air and land more vicious kicks. ‘The fork-lift driver did. I tried to save his bloody life!’ The hangover was gone, but the alcohol was still in my system, overriding my usual self-control. I was not going to take this insult to my pride and, more importantly, my person, lying down. I twisted the handful of matted hair harder to discourage the kicks, but it made her worse. I drew back my fist.
‘You cunt, you bastard, you total fucking cunt!’ she screamed at the top of her voice. ‘Get off me you fucking cunt!’ This was accompanied by more wild swings and a kick which narrowly missed my groin, tearing the thigh of my trousers with her heel. Unsurprisingly, this was attracting attention and people were standing, staring at the commotion as others were beginning to hurry towards us. The motion caught my eye and I unclenched my fist.
Instead I decided to administer the traditional cure for hysteria, principally as revenge for the kicks and punches, but, before I could aim a suitably hard slap round the face, she was enveloped by a burly porter who had clearly diagnosed the symptoms of the situation with an alacrity no doubt born of experience. She tried a reverse head-butt, but he avoided it easily and dragged her away from me. She tried stamping on his feet with her sharp heels so he shoved her arm up behind her back, spun her around and pinned her face-first against the wall. He was not particularly gentle and the impact knocked some of the fight out of her.
‘Damn you, you stupid woman,’ I snarled, my anger taking shape and growing, ’what’s your name?’ How dare this bloody woman have the nerve to walk into this hospital and assault me? Other people have lost loved ones without taking it upon themselves to attack people who have done nothing but try to save their lives!
‘You should fuckin’ know, you prick; you killed my fuckin’ ‘usband, you tosser!
‘It says Sharon ‘ere sir,’ commented my rescuer helpfully, indicating a tattoo on her right shoulder above her halter-neck style top.
‘Is your name Sharon?’
‘Mind your own fuckin’ business, you murderin’ cunt!’
Just as the urge to re-grab that fistful of hair and bang her head on the wall threatened to become unbearable, reinforcements arrived in the shape of a Staff Nurse and a member of Hospital Security. The Staff Nurse, Jeanette if my memory served me correctly, made straight for me, concern written all over her face.
‘Mr Stamford, Mr Stamford, are you alright sir?’
In my fury I had completely forgotten the bleeding scratches across my cheeks.
‘Yes, yes,’ I resisted her attempt to usher me away from the scene, as she gazed in concern at my injuries. ‘You,’ this was addressed to the security guard, ‘call the police now! I want this woman arrested and charged with assault. Do you understand me?’ The man nodded dumbly and got on his walkie-talkie.
Despite the Scotch the night before, old habits die hard and I had been in work at my usual seven o’clock. I had run through general paperwork and then taken myself off on my ward visits, principally to avoid Colleen’s arrival. I was not ready for the confrontation with her that I could feel simmering inside me. I had reviewed my post-op patients and spoken to a couple of new arrivals, and was on my way to my morning’s Outpatient Clinic when the attack occurred. Now, as I left Casualty, despite a ruthless piece of queue jumping, I was running an hour-and-a-half late.
The blasted woman’s claw marks ran from my forehead to my jaw and had proved quite difficult to treat. The blood from the deeper scratches had congealed but, after a careful clean-up, that left eight parallel scratches of varying depths and widths running down my face. The Opsite dressings left me looking like a patchwork mummy. Given the amount of barely concealed amusement this afforded my fellow professionals in casualty, I dreaded to think what effect it would have on my patients; however the alternative, to face the public apparently having been assaulted by some sort of wolverine, was out of the question.
As I headed down the corridor I made a conscious effort to slow down and get a grip; the public could wait, they always did. What were this morning’s shenanigans all about? Had someone put that blasted woman up to it? I could not think why unless it had been done to throw me off balance. I could not imagine what Liz had to gain from such a stunt. What about these identity theft people or their customers? Could it be some method of trying to get involved with me? That did not seem to make any sense. I tried to remember what that creep Parsons had said...something about watching out for people I didn’t know trying to get familiar. Well, you couldn’t get much more familiar than that bitch this morning, but where was that going to lead? If I had my way, straight to prison on a charge of assault and that was it!
I gave up. A single malt hangover plus headache, assorted cuts, bruises and scratches, the imminent collapse of my marriage and the possible theft of my identity, whatever that meant in the real world, were more than I needed on a Thursday morning. What next?
The waiting room was crowded with seats, wheelchairs and trolleys full of patients in various degrees of sickness, injury and disease. This was not a part of my profession I relished at the best of times. It was cash and kudos, not compassion, which had pointed me towards medicine and in particular surgery in the first place. From the outset I loved the drama of the operating theatre and the distinction of Mr before my name; wherever possible, I left the human side of suffering to the clinicians and the nurses. Given the morning to date, I was not looking forward to this.
I checked at the desk for messages and asked the receptionist which consulting room I had been allocated. I could have guessed given the separate knot of patients, with expressions ranging from very bored to distinctly pissed-off, which was gathered outside Room Three. I swept passed them, eyes averted, leaving my facial dressings to suggest an explanation for my tardiness. With a brief smile to myself, I recalled a former Scottish tutor, Professor Samuels, who opened every lecture with a brief discourse on the perils of apologising to patients. “That’s a can of worms, a can of worms that’s very hard to put the lid on!” he would conclude, much to our amusement, in a voice that sounded remarkably like the doom-laden Private Frazer of Dad’s Army fame.
Thankfully Hailey, the rather shapely, West Indian stoma nurse who regularly ran my clinics, had taken charge and averted outright rebellion. All concerned had been weighed, had their temperatures checked and their blood pressures taken before news of the assault and my injuries had been relayed to her; armed with that she had been more than capable of quelling any further revolt.
Hailey always had a calming effect on me. I had toyed with the idea of making a pass at one time, but had failed to detect a crack in the wall of steady professionalism she exuded. The photograph on her pin-board of her long-standing partner “Benji” peering over a pair of boxing gloves was a further discouragement.
Now she really took charge, informing each patient that he or she was: “Only allowed ten minutes due to the doctor’s serious injuries.” I had warned her not to say I had been assaulted by a patient’s partner in case it gave them ideas. More importantly, I did not have time for well-meaning, but pointless expressions of sympathy.
Thanks to Hailey’s determined chivvying of the patients, I was soon ahead of the game and snatched a moment to check my emails while an outpatient was undressing. There was a note from George suggesting we meet for lunch in the cafeteria to talk over my afternoon’s theatre list. I replied in the affirmative.
Slightly to my surprise, and not a little relief, there was nothing more from Katya. Perhaps my earlier reply had done the trick, though a voice in the back of my mind whispered something about not counting my chickens. There was nothing further from Liz.
More curiously, there was another email from Carmichael. I was about to select it when Hailey warned me that the patient was ready for examination so I left it unopened and made a mental note to Google it on my phone at lunchtime.
Despite Hailey’s best efforts the clinic over-ran, so it was not until after my meeting with George, over a sandwich and a desperately needed two cups of espresso and a bottle of Evian to wash down more paracetamol, that I was able to return to Carmichael’s email. I still had half-an-hour before afternoon surgery, so I went outside for some fresh air.
At last, seated on a bench in one of the hospital gardens, I fished out my phone and re-Googled my emails. Aside from the usual spam which I sent on its way, there was the unopened message from Carmichael and a new one marked: SYNNOTT, Mandy. Christ, that was quick! Mandy was P.A. to Dr Sejad Chaudhuri Kd, our most esteemed Medical Director and a thoroughly smarmy little bastard to boot. Our paths rarely crossed, thankfully, and the only reason I could think of that he would want to talk to me now was in relation to this morning’s contretemps. I selected that one first. It read:
Dear Mr Stamford,
Dr Chaudhuri has asked me to arrange a meeting with you at your earliest possible convenience. The first window in his diary is for 8.45am this coming Monday if this would suit. Please confirm this appointment or suggest a later alternative a.s.a.p.
PA to Dr Sejad Chaudhuri Kd, MSc, PhD
St George’s Hospital
That did not say a lot. Even reading between the lines, the only thing to deduce was that my “convenience” did not come into it. This was a summons before the beak first thing on Monday! I quickly reviewed my conscience and concluded it was clear: I hadn’t sworn at the woman, apart from a possible “bloody” and that hardly counted in this day and age, and I hadn’t retaliated physically even though she thoroughly deserved it! God knows what he wanted. No doubt it would all become clear. I clicked on Reply and answered with a simple ‘Fine’.
Chaudhuri dealt with, I opened Carmichael’s message. This was altogether more interesting. It ran as follows:
Just a quick note. Somewhat unexpectedly, I’m back to Bonnie Scotland this weekend to sort out a few things on Saturday morning with Maggie regarding the divorce and wondered if you would like to join me. You and I can stay in a hotel to avoid any unpleasantness she may be planning, so you can take a look around trendy Glasgow while I am dealing with her. I am still a club member at Knockhill Race Track so, once she is out of the way, we can spend the afternoon there. We can even have a go on a proper race track if you fancy it.
I had planned to take the train because I will be hiring a van to bring down more of my stuff to London. However, it occurred to me that you might be persuaded to give that Aston of yours a run up the motorway. I’ll sort the petrol and perhaps have that go behind the wheel you promised me. I have already chatted up your secretary and ascertained that you are not working this weekend and your wife is away on business, so how about it? I’ll be leaving after work on Friday and returning in the van on Sunday afternoon.
Let me know a.s.a.p. if you are interested as I will need to book a train seat if you are not and they can be like hen’s teeth at such short notice on a weekend.
This really was my day for surprises. We had only met once and now he wanted to elope to Glasgow! He didn’t want to stop off at Gretna Green on the way did he? I grinned, somewhat painfully, for the first time in days, and read it again. Okay, so it was unexpected, but it made a certain sense. We had already established we were both petrol heads and surgeons so we ought to find something to talk about on the way, and I might even find it in me to be as frank about my marital status as he had been about his! Moreover it seemed we could both do with some company right now. I pictured a romp round a race track in a genuine racing car and found it rather appealing. I found the thought of getting away from London and the emptiness of Thurleigh Road even more appealing. I did a mental check and concluded that he was right; I had absolutely nothing better to do. I clicked the Reply button and wrote:
Great idea. Suggest we meet this evening to talk over details - same place, same time as Tuesday.
I closed my phone and left the garden to scrub up for afternoon surgery with a lighter step in my stride.
‘How long d’you think it will take us?’ I enquired. We were sitting in the Fox and Grapes studying the RAC Route Planners on our phones.
‘Depends how naughty we want to be in that Aston of yours,’ Ham replied. There’s fuckin’ speed cameras every ten yards up the M1 mind, and it doesn’t get much better on the M6.’
‘So about a week then?’
‘I’m only joking; it’s not that bad. Getting out of London and up to Birmingham’s going to be the worst part. By then the rush hour will have died down and it will get better as the evening wears on.’
‘Right, so how long then?’
‘I reckon about seven hours if we don’t hit a bad delay, maybe six-and-a-half if we’re lucky.’
‘So if we left at three-ish we’d be there about ten?’
‘Aye, traffic permitting; how is your list looking for tomorrow?’
‘Pretty good. I’m in surgery all morning but nothing is threatening complications. Even if I overrun, I should be done and dusted by two. That leaves an hour for odds and sods and I’m away by three. I’ll pack an over-night bag this evening.’
‘Good. I’d been toying with the idea of a furniture-removals weekend before this meeting with the Bitch came up, so I’ve kept the afternoon pretty clear too.’
‘Right, I was going to ask you about that. You said in your email that you were planning on driving stuff back. How’s that going to work? You said you had a van or something. D’you want me to follow you?’
Ham shook his head and grinned.
‘Glasgow to London behind a van in an Aston? You’d go fucking nuts! No way pal, I wouldn’t ask that of my worst enemy. I’ve given this some thought and the best bet is to leave you to get up when you’re ready in the morning. We party hard over the border mind, so you might well be glad of a lie-in on Sunday morning. I’m used to it, so I’ll be getting an early start. It could easily take me a couple of hours more than it’ll take you.’
So I’ll just make my own way back when I’m ready?’
‘Aye that would seem best. I’m renting the van from the company that is storing my stuff, so one of the guys from their London depot will collect it on Monday.’
‘If you don’t mind my asking, why bother to drive it back yourself?’
‘Because you’re talking at least eight hundred pounds sterling if I pay someone else to do it.’
‘Surely that’s not so bad for a man in your position?’
‘You haven’t seen what the Bitch is trying to do me for! Besides, “Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves” as my dearly departed mama never tired of saying.’
‘So it’s true what they say about Scotsmen, then?’
‘Maybe, but not all of us were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, you know.’
‘Why, d’you think I was?’
‘How would I know? Let’s just say I was talking in generalities. D’you fancy another drink?’
I shook my head.
‘No thanks, I think I’m due an early night. I’ll catch you tomorrow.’
‘Okay, ‘til then.’ He raised his glass in a farewell gesture and drained it. I glanced back as I left the pub; he was at the bar ordering a refill.
I clicked the start button on my CD player and adjusted my black leather Bardi recliner as Neil Young’s plaintive tones filled the den. Finally satisfied with the head-to-leg height ratio, I picked up the Scotch I had poured myself in advance. My conscience murmured something about watching my own drinking before scrutinising Ham’s, but I reminded myself that I had had a particularly stressful day and, besides, I had stopped off at Sainsbury’s to pick up some proper food on the way home so I had eaten. Home, incidentally, was as deserted as usual.
My face was feeling a little better since I had removed those bloody dressings – bloody in both senses of the word. A close inspection in the bathroom mirror had reassured me that the damage was gory, but superficial. There was a bit of a gash in my left eyebrow, which accounted for all the blood at the time, but they had stuck a couple of stitches in that in casualty. It looked like it had perhaps been caused by a ring, though I only had a memory of her clawing at me. That is shock for you. Otherwise the wounds amounted to nothing more than red weals with pin-prick scabs in a few places; they would fade soon enough.
Neil Young rapidly began to irritate me. In my current mood, social protest was sounding more like whingeing. I jumped forward to the guitar solo in Hurricane, then turned the damn thing off altogether. I settled back in the sudden silence to think.
It was not difficult to produce a substantial list of things that were bothering me given recent events, but there was something new that I needed to put my finger on. Was it the forthcoming meetings with Liz or Chaudhuri? No, I would deal with them as they arose. If Liz wanted a divorce the ungrateful bitch could have one and I would fight her all the way for every penny. As for Chaudhuri, God knows what that bureaucratic little creep wanted, but it couldn’t be anything unpleasant. I was the victim. Not even the management approved of their doctors being assaulted.
That, as far as I could see, left my trip to Scotland with Ham and whatever my creepy chum Parsons might come up regarding this identity theft business. I wondered why the two thoughts arrived together. I could see no logical connection there, but suddenly I was experiencing the sort of tingle I get when a biopsy report confirms a possible diagnosis; a sense that I was definitely onto something.
I took a sip of my Scotch, but all thoughts of getting pleasantly inebriated had gone. I replaced my glass on the table beside me and concentrated my thoughts instead on all that had passed between me and Ham. He had joined our medical team from Glasgow Royal and arranged to meet me for a drink. Nothing wrong there, in fact, I felt a bit guilty as the more senior incumbent for not having contacted him. In the course of the meeting I had discovered that we shared marital problems and a love of fast cars; not so strange amongst doctors, and grounds for a relationship that went beyond the common ground of work. In this analytical mood I was even willing to acknowledge that we were probably both feeling in need of a bit company. True, this trip to Scotland had rather accelerated the bonding process, but it was natural enough that he would still be in the middle of a house move and glad of company on a long, boring drive, particularly if that company was willing to provide an Aston Martin DB7 Volante for transport.
I recalled finding him hard work at our first meeting - tense and a bit humourless - but that had evaporated as soon as our attention turned to my car. I dismissed that as social awkwardness. I also wondered about his earlier remark about my being born with a silver spoon in my mouth. True, I would probably be considered “well spoken”, even “posh” by some people, but that was hardly grounds for assuming I came from a privileged background. I knew that he came via the Scottish state school system, most notably Edinburgh’s Royal High, but only because I’d read it on his C.V. when I interviewed him. He had no reason to know anything about me beyond my professional reputation unless he had done some extra-curricular research. I toyed with this idea, but it all smacked a bit of paranoia when it could just as easily been a throw away jibe from a man who had worked his way up from a tougher background.
I turned my thoughts instead to the meeting with Parsons. Were there some clues here? I found myself wishing I had kept an open mind and listened more closely to what he was saying. In fairness, his lecturing manner was enough to make a trained interrogator switch off. Again, I forced myself to recall the conversation. Unfortunately, at the time, I had dismissed it largely as an attempt to scare me into parting with a lot of cash. Now I was not so sure.
What if the possibility he had spelled out for me was correct? What was it that he was actually suggesting I could be threatened with? Blackmail, obviously, but not simply financial blackmail based on my fling with that damn Katya woman; more worryingly, blackmail aimed at extracting confidential, professional information from me, in effect, involving me in a form of espionage. It all seemed a bit John Le Carré to me, but, on reflection, I had to accept that spying went on and that I had access to information that could be of interest to governments. I began to mellow towards Parson’s logic, if not Parsons himself.
But what had he said that was making alarm bells ring? I had not even mentioned Ham. Okay, think! I had asked him what I should look out for, but what had he said in reply? At the time it had seemed like a non-answer and I had dismissed it. It was something about strangers. I racked my brains. That was it: I should watch out for people I didn’t know trying to get familiar. That was it, word-for-word; I could hear him saying it.
So how did that fit Ham? Well, until quite recently we were total strangers and he had undoubtedly made the running when it came to breaking that down. Furthermore it was he who had pursued the initial contact with this proposed trip to Scotland. True, his motives all added up and his cover story all made sense, but you would expect that. On the other hand, it all seemed a bit rushed: one minute we were new colleagues, the next we were off to Scotland for a knees-up. I already had reason to suspect he knew more about my background than he was letting on. So far he had done a pretty good job of getting inside my defences, insofar as I had any.
Right, enough paranoia! What about the practicalities? Assuming for just a moment that he was some sort of mole, or spook, or whatever the jargon was that the spy writers used, how did that fit in with what I knew about him? Well, for a start he was a fully qualified proctologist which is hardly a two-a-penny job description! It would be no mean feat to recruit such a specialist to spy on me, even if it was thought that I was worth spying on! Modesty aside, I still found it hard to picture myself as a secret player on the stage of international politics.
Okay, but what if he had been recruited from way back? What if he was already a spy on someone’s books before I became a possible target? He had already made a gentle dig about my privileged background; perhaps that was a glimpse of a much deeper resentment. For all I knew he was a dyed-in-the-wool communist!
If that was so, unlikely as it seemed, how did it fit with recent history? Was there sufficient time between my trip to Melbourne and his arrival in Tooting for him to have been alerted to my fling with Katya and then engineer a transfer to St George’s?
There I hit a rock. I simply did not know the sort of time scales on which these people operated. This business with Katya had been going on for several weeks and Melbourne was nearly a couple of months ago. Why had she taken so long to contact me with her first email? Perhaps she was genuinely who she said she was and had fallen for my charms! After a struggle, she had been unable to write our encounter off as a one-night stand and had set out in pursuit. It was perfectly possible, indeed likely, that she had only recently discovered she was pregnant.
Alternatively, the time lapse could be explained as the time needed to buy my identity from Katya the prostitute and then sell it on to a suitable espionage agency. They, presumably, would only have bought it knowing they had someone in place to move in on me, i.e. Carmichael.
Fuck it! Either was theoretically possible and unless Parsons came back with something positive, there was nothing I could do at my end....except, of course, be on my guard. That was it! Forewarned is forearmed. There was no point becoming paranoid. If Carmichael was more than he seemed, then it should be easy enough now to keep him at arm’s length. If they were wrong, I could look forward to a pleasant weekend and a well-deserved break from my bitch of a wife.