2,196 words – approx. 7 minutes
The first time it happens is on a Tuesday, an accident. It’s her twelfth day on in a row, all of them thrumming with latent danger. The ward is short-staffed, and there’s no time to think if she’s to complete her rounds. She has to operate on instinct alone, and even that might not be enough.
She has a system, but this is coming under increasing strain as more patients are admitted, each of them needing regular water, or pills, or to be helped to the bathroom. She scuttles up and down the low-ceilinged halls, the chlorine tang reminding her of swimming pools. Her own bathroom breaks are timed for when she is already going down those corridors, so she doesn’t have to go out of her way and lose precious seconds.
There is a constant ache behind her eyes.
Perhaps this explains what happens. The situation has been difficult for several months, but it is particularly bad today. She has raised this repeatedly with management, but they always tell her the same thing: everywhere has the same problem; it’s unavoidable; we just have to do the best we can in the circumstances.
It’s a simple oversight: a tick on her checklist scrawled too hurriedly, and covering two boxes instead of one. This means that Reginald Graham does not get his lunchtime medication or water, and by the time she reaches his bed in the mid-afternoon, he is limp and still. When she places her hand over his, it is dry and papery. If she gathers it in her fist, she’s sure it will crinkle and crackle. She allows herself a moment alone here, alone with a corpse.
A small, polite cough makes her turn around. It’s the type of cough someone makes to get your attention, and there seems to be a hint of amusement in it too, as though its owner has caught her distracted by something slightly inappropriate.
“Hello, Sophie.” The voice is rich and deep, not unfriendly, and seems to come from all around her. The figure in front of her is tall, and wearing a long cloak that is either black or dark purple and billows and ripples around him. It must have been him who spoke, but he gives no indication of this, and his face is hidden by the hood that hangs over him.
Sophie can’t speak at first – her voice is trapped at the back of her throat, like water in a faulty tap. The man stands patiently as she recovers it, and when she does she tells him, “I’m sorry, I have to go. I’m rushed off my feet.”
“There’s no need to go,” he replies, kindly, and Sophie believes him instantly. “For as long as we talk, time will stay still. Look.” He extends a hand from beneath his cloak, and Sophie is surprised to see that it is thick and pink and young, not the gnarled, knobbed, aged thing she had expected. She follows the direction of his pointing and sees that the clock on the wall is stopped, and outside there is no movement – even the bird that was flashing past the window is frozen, suspended perfectly in flight. Perhaps it is a trick of perception, but the air around her seems thicker too, smudged somehow.
She realises, now, who she is speaking to. It doesn’t alarm her. It is as though an old memory, something forgotten as a child, has surfaced.
“Why can I see you?” she asks.
“Because you are connected to this death,” he explains. “It would not have occurred without your lack of attention, and so you can see me now.” The calm with which he speaks strips his words of any accusation, and Sophie looks at the darkness that masks his face with a kind of awe.
“Will you take your hood off? I want to see you.”
A chuckle, hearty and genuine, surrounds her. “No. If I did, it would cause you untold damage. You will see me at your death, and not before.” He reaches out and places a hand on her shoulder. He has a light touch, and it is surprisingly warm. Sophie is certain that he can feel her trembling, and she has to fight the urge roaring within her to grab his hand. If he does notice he says nothing, and when he leaves and the air returns to normal and time starts again, she is not aware of the shift itself, only of it having happened, as though she has crossed the soft boundary between waking and sleep.
Years of long and frantic days have left Sophie tired and uncommunicative in what little time she might have had for men. Yet she wakes the next day with long-forgotten gears grinding inside her, tiny sparks, the excitement of the new. She is smiling when she pushes herself out of bed and into the shower. She does not examine the thought closely – it might disintegrate in the light, and so she lets it curl itself around her, twisting like smoke, as she washes, drawing her hands slowly up the length of her body.
For the first time in years she is late for work.
Her schedule, however, offers no mitigation, and her lateness knocks her off kilter. She feels she is stumbling through the morning, and for a time this lack of rootedness forces all thoughts of the previous day from her mind as she tries to find a way to set herself down solidly, to gain a little purchase on the day. The other nurses, equally at the mercy of their superiors’ targets and time limits, notice nothing and bustle around her, their faces carved with the brisk, grim lines of long-provided care. But each time Sophie rushes past them, or hears the clatter of their shoes as they pass the berth where she is tending to Mrs Morton’s bedsores, something chips away at her.
The thoughts flit against the confines of her mind like a fly trapped beneath a glass: have they seen him? Have they spoken to him? Has he laid a hand on their shoulder? She works quicker, more ruthlessly, to stave off these unbalancing questions, until she has accumulated enough time to make a cup of tea.
“Hi Soph!” beams Karla, walking into the cramped kitchen as Sophie pours the water from the steaming kettle. Sophie looks up quickly, then back at her mug. It is almost overflowing.
“Hi,” she says, manoeuvring her body in a show of making room at the sink. Karla, ignorant of the hostility filling the small space, busies herself washing out a hospital-branded mug.
Has she seen him? Smiling, friendly Karla, with her protruding teeth and uncontrolled hair? And if she has – Sophie takes a wide-eyed gulp of tea at the possibility’s unannounced emergence – is his hand not strong and white to her, but smooth, black, and slender? She eyes Karla over the steam of her drink, lip rested absently on the rim, trying to identify any flicker of kinship.
“Soph? Are you alright?” She could ask her. A few careful words and she would know. But the secret (and it is a secret, she realises) is too far buried, and there is no comprehension in Karla’s eyes, and the words wither in her throat and they fall from her mouth, dried, curled petals, as she shakes her head and explains that she is just a little under the weather. She leaves to Karla’s sympathetic coos, and her knees buckle as the enormity of the risk she almost took falls upon her. She has to lean against the wall as her unspoken words shiver across her chest – how close she had come to revelation, and to betraying him! All for a chance of momentary relief. The boundary she has selfishly skirted has shaken her, and she hurries off to attend to Mrs Morton and her bedsores.
Later, the death of Gladys Elizabeth Morton will be a news magazine show staple, a hotly-debated national topic. Sabre-toothed interviewers will interrupt their guests to ask how this could have happened, and the guests will, depending on their allegiances, blame either a lack of management oversight, a culture of underfunding and long hours, or insufficient market discipline. The Minister will appear on the nightly news and vow to take immediate effective action to prevent this ever happening again. He will see this as a demonstration of his inflexible compassion, his iron love. He will resign three days later as more names and photographs, the originals of which stand lonely on mantelpieces, appear on newspaper front pages.
All this is to come. But at first, all anyone knows is that shortly after a visit from Sophie Kendall, Gladys Elizabeth Morton, mother, grandmother, aunt, and lifelong RNLI volunteer, died of what will later be suspected as a morphine overdose. Central to this suspicion will be the clipboard that Sophie now clutches to her chest. It will be impossible to tell whether the number on the chart is an error, deliberate, or an attempted covering of her tracks.
She is backed up against the wall, waiting for him, scanning the room to catch his entrance.
“Hello again.” He appears in a blind spot to her left. She doesn’t see his arrival, but here he is, and the air has again thickened and fogged.
“Were you expecting me?” she manages to ask. There is a pause. He seems to be thinking.
“I hadn’t given it much thought.” And then, as if to soften his statement, “I’ve been rather busy.”
This from the man who stops time with his presence! But she doesn’t say this. Instead she shrugs, as if it’s no big deal, and waits for him to speak. As she waits a yawn swells in her throat.
“Tired?” he asks.
“Just a busy day.” She doesn’t explain that a little life has been drained from her every time a colleague has glanced at her, their holding unknown suspicions or questions.
“You look like you’ve been working very hard.” Sophie doesn’t know how to reply to this. She unconsciously reaches her fingers up to the soft, crimped skin at the corner of her eye. When she speaks again it’s with force, to regain control of the situation.
“Do you see many people again?” There is a moment before he answers, during which Sophie pictures a smile rolling across his mouth.
“Some.” She is not sure what to make of this, but doesn’t like to ask. In any case, there is a more pressing question.
“The last time we… I saw you, you said I wouldn’t see your face until I die.” She takes his silence as confirmation. “Has anyone else? I mean, before they die?” She cannot entirely keep the desperate tone from her question.
“No,” he replies. A rush of gratification fizzes through her. Her other fears seem inconsequential now; they fall away in the wake of this news. It no longer matters if Karla has seen him, or if his hand has rested on others’ shoulders.
“And any time I am connected to a death, I will see you?” Again his silence concurs. “But when I die, I’ll see you – but not after that?”
“Correct.” Sophie can’t say why, but she thinks he is pleased with her reasoning. And so is she. A plan has begun to form – a plan that allows her to see him until she can stand it no longer, when she will finally look upon his face. Before it can ignite, however, he is gone, and the tick of the clock can again be heard. It is some time later that Sophie realises that this time he did not place his hand on her, and this uneasy fact scrapes against her consciousness until she is raw.
Cameras snicker like locusts outside the courthouse when Sophie strides through the crowd with customary silence, ignoring the questions they still bark at her more out of habit and ritual as much as in expectation of an answer.
Her silence to date has been the focus of several headlines about the case: Silent… but deadly?; The silent killer? The Daily Mail, which carried the original interview with Mrs Morton’s distraught family and has broken the news of many of the other suspicious deaths, is the exception, preferring its own Angel of death? refrain. The question marks draw thin veils over the accusations; no-one, it seems, is in any doubt as to the truth of the allegations, nor the outcome of the trial.
And today, Sophie will break her silence. She has the stage, and later, with the shard of razorblade tucked into her sock, the curtain will fall. But before this, while her audience watches, she will make her declaration, and they will cry out in recognition, or learn of his existence for the first time. Some will corroborate, and all will understand.
The smallest flicker of doubt assails her as she climbs the steps to the microphone. It stays there, a tiny speck in her vision, as the judge addresses the court.
She knows what it is, this doubt. She opens her mouth to speak.
There are others.