The dishwasher hummed faintly on the last stages of its cycle. The kitchen was wonderfully cosy.
‘I’m scared. I’ve been awake for a long time. I couldn’t not ring you.’
‘I’m glad you did. Is Mike there?’
‘No, he’s in New York. Anyway, I can’t talk to him.’
‘I know I’m doing the right thing, I still know that. There’s no way I can go down the other road.’
‘This isn’t just pride talking, is it? If so, forget it. Doesn’t matter.’
‘It isn’t pride.’
‘Has something happened?’
‘No … not really.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes, then.’
‘I’ve had awful backache. I don’t mean gardening backache.’
‘In the middle and a bit lower down. Not between the shoulders.’
‘All the time?’
‘On and off.’
‘But more on.’
‘Just for a few days.’
‘Do you want me to come over now?’
‘Christ, no, please. I’m just scared, Cat. I haven’t been scared before. I’ve had it all under control.’
‘Part of the problem?’
‘I don’t know. But tonight … everything … death … tombs … earth in my mouth … oxygen masks … going under … pain. Awful pain they can’t do anything about.’
‘Give me half an hour.’
‘No, listen –’
‘And I shall need a double espresso.’
Cat clicked off the phone.
In the field, the grey pony loomed out of the night and stared at her, ghostly white, over the fence. ‘You broke my dream,’ she told it, and let the car slide down the slope for some yards before starting the engine and turning out into the dark lane.
Karin opened the front door. She was wearing a long white waffle dressing gown, and her hair was tied up. There was never anything unkempt or dishevelled about her, Cat thought, even in the early hours of the morning. But she had lost weight, too much weight too quickly, and her face had a new look – something about the eyes, something about the prominence of the bones.
Cat kissed her on both cheeks and gave her a long hug. Her body felt slight.
‘You’re a saint,’ Karin said.
‘Nope, just a doc.’
‘And a friend.’
‘Did you really mean double espresso?’
‘Maybe better tea?’
‘Definitely better.’ Karin filled the kettle. ‘I didn’t even ask if you were on call, I was in such a state.’
‘It got to me. I don’t think it has until now.’
‘It had to.’
‘I didn’t know what to do. I’ve never been so scared. I haven’t looked death in the face like that until now. I didn’t care for its expression.’
‘Apart from the frights, how have you been?’
‘OK, until I got backache. That’s a bore. What do you suppose it is?’
‘I’ll have a look at you in a minute if you like. I don’t know. You said it wasn’t gardening backache but have you been working out there? You know how it is – first warm days of the year, everyone goes out to dig and we get the fallout.’
‘I haven’t been working in the garden.’
She set two full mugs in front of them. Cat noticed that, for once, Karin’s was plain Indian tea too, not herbal.
Karin shrugged. ‘Tired. That’s nothing.’ Her skin, always beautiful, had a transparent sheen.
‘Will you go for a scan?’
‘Oh, Cat, what’s the point? We both know what it is, what’s happening to me. Why have it underlined? I’d rather not know.’
‘That isn’t like you.’
‘It’s like this me.’
She lifted her mug, took a sip of tea, set it down again, and looked across at Cat, her eyes brimming with tears. ‘What’s going to happen?’ she said.
‘I am being absolutely truthful when I say that I don’t know. I need something to go on, Karin.’
‘OK then, I’ll do it for you. Secondaries. Probably in the spine. I’ve been coughing as well. So, lungs too. But I’m not going to go to hospital, I’m not seeing an oncologist. When I need a doctor, I’ll have you if that’s OK. I’m going on with my healer. I’ve an appointment tomorrow. It really helps.’
‘I’m being stricter with the diet as well.’
‘What are you eating?’
‘Vegetables, a bit of fruit. Water. They recommend coffee enemas.’
‘Absolutely, categorically not, Karin. You can do yourself a lot of harm. Listen, it isn’t what you are eating that’s worrying me so much as what you are not – you need good nourishment. Of course you need fresh fruit and veg, but you also need milk, eggs, bit of cheese, lots of fish, a bit of yeast to give you extra vitamin B, wholegrains – oats are best. A couple of glasses of good red wine every evening.’
‘You’ve just crammed a dozen toxic substances into one sentence.’
Cat snorted and poured herself a second mug of tea.
‘What can you do about my back? And my general mopes? Do I live with those while I get better?’ Karin’s eyes were huge and anxious on Cat’s face.
‘Depends. If you had a scan so that I knew what was wrong with your back I’d feel happier about treating it. I mean, paracetamol is all very well … I would like to prescribe a mild antidepressant … one of the newer kind, the SSRI group. But I suppose they’re full of toxins. Some aromatherapy is said to have uplifting properties but I’m no expert. It’s nice and cosy though.’
‘I know, I go every week. It’s cosy … not sure it’s much use.’
‘If we do pinpoint what’s wrong in your back, I’d possibly send you to see Aidan Sharpe. He’s very careful, I have a lot of faith in him … he wouldn’t treat you at all if he didn’t think it was right. It might well help the back pain.’
‘But he would want you to get a scan too.’
‘OK.’ Karin sounded suddenly exhausted and defeated. She sat, staring down into her empty mug.
‘I think you should start on the course of antidepressants. They’ll work quickly … a week and you’ll start feeling better. If you’re still serious about tackling this your way – or my way, come to that – you need to be on top and you’re not. Let’s get your mood up and your fighting spirit will come back. Deal?’
Karin was silent for a moment. ‘Go over it all again.’
‘Right. See me later this morning. I’ll get them to put you in at half eight, before the rest of surgery. I’ll have a look at you, prescribe your tablets so you can start at once. And book an MRI scan at BG. For a time when I can come with you. It’s a bit scary. Meanwhile, you go and get a double dose of sweet smells and then come to lunch and I’ll put some decent food inside you. Don’t look like that, it’s our own eggs and they’re organic. Let’s go from there. And don’t let things get like this again. Talk to me, talk to Chris, ring us whenever. Don’t ever sit here brooding, especially when Mike’s away. Things grow.’
‘God, they did.’
‘There’s a trick about the nightmares too. Write down the gist of them – keep pen and paper by the bed. In the morning, take the paper and put a match to it. Watch it burn and grind up the bits to ash. You’re burning up the nightmares so you won’t have them again. Old-fashioned trick cyclists’ tip.’
Cat wound her scarf round her neck and picked up her car keys. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’
Chris was awake when she got back into bed. ‘Is Karin OK?’
‘You’re a good girl.’
Cat pressed her face into his warm back. ‘She had that look,’ she said. Chris grunted, understanding.
A week later, she drove Karin to Bevham.
Something had happened since her visit in the early hours of the morning. Karin had lost her vibrant and powerful confidence in the road she had chosen to take and twice telephoned Cat, once to ask for the scan, the second time to agree to the blood test which would tell them more about her condition.
‘Though I don’t understand what anyone can see from looking at a blob of my blood.’
‘They’ll look for tumour markers.’
The result had been worrying and the blood test had also shown that Karin was anaemic.
‘Which accounts for your tiredness lately. We can help with that.’
It was never easy, knowing how much to tell a patient and in what detail. When she had first come to the surgery Karin had preferred to get on with following her own treatment plan, taking each day as it came and not investigating too much into her physical state. So long as she felt well, she was well, had been her firm line.
Now she did not feel well.
‘I want to know. I have to be able to see what I’m up against. You can’t fight an enemy if you don’t know how strong it is.’
‘OK, I’ll try and help, though these things are always relative, you know. Seeing what a scan or a blood test looks like is one thing, making any sort of prognosis is another.’
Now, as they went along the bypass towards Bevham, Karin said suddenly, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’
Cat laughed. ‘No. No, I don’t think I do.’
‘But you do believe …?’
‘If you mean in God, I have to. I’ve seen too much to let me believe otherwise, and I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t.’
‘Why not ghosts then?’
‘Not sure … I suppose I think they’re unnecessary. And there’s so often a rational explanation of so-called ghostly sightings.’
‘So you don’t think we come back?’
‘Not as ghosts in the usual sense. Do you?’
Karin did not reply, but after another moment said, ‘What about places which have a bad atmosphere. People would usually say haunted, but anyway, places that have a definite sense of evil surrounding them.’
‘Yes,’ Cat said quietly, ‘I do believe in those. I don’t know why it is so, but it sometimes definitely is. We once went into a house in France when we were on holiday, before we had the children – a pretty house, charming really, and it was a lovely evening. We were looking for a room to stay in for the night and someone had sent us there because the hotel was full. When we walked in I had the most appalling sense of fear … there was evil in there, it hit me in the face the moment I walked in. Nothing happened, there was nothing to see … but I couldn’t have stayed there. I couldn’t wait to get out again.’
‘Did you find out why?’
Cat shook her head.
‘I’ve had the same experience with people. I remember a waitress in a restaurant in London … Just some pleasant ordinary little bistro, about twenty years ago. When she took our order it started and it got worse … she was a witch. I’m still convinced there was real evil about her … the friend I was with felt it too. But what was it really? She didn’t look at all unusual but I didn’t want her near me.’
‘Have you been having night frights again?’
‘A bit … nothing much. Your coming over jinxed them.’
‘Good. But if you do, talk about it. Don’t bottle it up.’
‘I’m still afraid.’
‘What about your healer?’
‘I talked to her about it yesterday. Now there’s the very opposite in a house. I’ve never been anywhere like it. When you walk into the garden, before you even get to inside, you have this incredible sense that it is a healing place. There is such an air of peace and goodness. When I go, I just drink it in. I want to stay and be wrapped in it. Nothing can get to me there. These places … good vibes, evil vibes … I want to understand it.’
‘Is it to do with being near death, Cat?’
‘I don’t know,’ Cat said. They turned into the hospital entrance as an ambulance came screaming out. ‘I simply don’t know.’
His hand which was holding the scalpel froze. Beneath it on the slab the chest cavity of the elderly woman was already exposed. He was working very late, comparing this heart and the diseased arteries surrounding it with the fresh, healthy one of the girl. It was absorbing, fascinating.
The sudden noise of a vehicle outside shocked him. It had driven up to the unit, turned, and stopped not far away. Now, after the closing of a car door, there was silence again. It was after midnight. No one came here at this time. The security guard patrolled the main avenue of the business park and once in a while approached the turning into this side road, but he knew the sound of that van, which always reversed noisily without bothering to come to the end. He waited. The lights here could not be seen from the main avenue, or by anyone walking up the side of the building. He had gone to a lot of trouble to make absolutely sure of it. But he was disturbed and his concentration had gone.
He looked down at the cadaver, annoyed. He could return her to the drawer still opened, because he had by no means finished his work, or sew her up roughly to begin again next time he came in. He had never been interrupted in this way before. It changed things and even the smallest change troubled him.
He waited, but there were no further sounds outside, and in the end, he was able to close the chest and restore everything quite calmly and without panic.
He hung up his gown, scrubbed his hands, checked the machines, switched off the lights and locked the building. Outside, it was cold and very still with intensely bright stars.
He walked softly up the road a short way. A white van was clearly visible and there was a strip of light under the door of one of the lock-ups. So far as he knew, it was simply a store, without any office facility. He had never seen anyone there before.
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