Extract from : Absolution
Nothing but white.
No sense. No awareness. Only white.
Nothing more than the ebb and flow of life.
She tried to lick her lips but her tongue was swollen, and immobile as leather. Something rigid filled her mouth; she could taste chloroform and rotten meat. She sensed her face was covered, her mouth and nose blocked. Panic rose until she could not breathe, and she tried to roll her shoulders to break free. Deep-seated agony skewered her stomach, and she lay still, thinking she might die if she moved again.
A voice, indistinct, insistent, was repeating words over and over.
There was a distant memory… somewhere… too far away to be recalled…
She felt a prick in her forearm, and sank down deep into the dark once more.
He hadn’t noticed DI Forsythe pass him on the stairs, and looked back at the sound of his voice.
‘Good to see you, McAlpine. How are you? We weren’t expecting you back for a while yet.’
‘I’m fine,’ he said bluntly.
‘Sorry to hear about your brother, Bobby was it?’
‘Robbie,’ answered McAlpine mechanically.
‘No matter how heroic he was, it’s still a terrible accident.’
McAlpine’s only response was a casual shrug of thin shoulders.
‘How is your Dad coping?’ Forsythe persisted.
McAlpine flicked his eyes up the stairs, wanting to get away. ‘He’s as you’d expect.’
‘And your mother?’
McAlpine looked past him to a powdery, white patch of damp plaster. An image of his mother screaming burned into his consciousness, sobs racking her emaciated body so violently he heard her rib crack, as loud as rifle fire. The doctor holding up the syringe, tapping it to draw clear fluid into the plastic chamber, putting his knee on her chest to hold her still as he exposed bare wasted flesh to the needle…
He glanced at his watch. ‘My mother’s fine,’ he said flatly.
Forsythe tapped him on the arm, a touch, nothing more. ‘If there’s anything I can do, just let me know. We’ve missed you in the office.’
McAlpine nodded up towards the DCI’s office. ‘Do you know what he wants me for? Graham?’
‘DCI Graham to you,’ corrected Forsythe. ‘There was an acid attack on Highburgh Road, about two weeks ago, the 26th.’
‘I know. So?’
‘Surveillance at the Western, a watching brief. The lassie got it right in the face, very nasty. She’s been in a coma until now but there are signs of recovery. The minute she talks, we want somebody there.’
‘So I’m bloody baby-sitting.’
‘Think of it as a gradual return to work. You start tomorrow, day shift for now. All those pretty nurses in black stockings, they’ll be all over a handsome wee laddie like yourself,’ Forsythe chuckled. ‘Gives a new meaning to getting back into uniform.
On the twelfth day she woke. She lay, not moving, and knowing she could not move, her face dry and crusty, so tight she could feel it crack. Something had happened, something so painful, she couldn’t remember. And something else had happened – something wonderful…
Her brain gently probed each of her senses.
Her eyes were covered; she had a feeling of daylight from somewhere, yet all she could sense from her eyes was cold emptiness, a void where something warm and comforting used to be.
Her ears were full of fog, but she could hear somebody trying to move around and not cause disturbance, the flick of newspaper pages, swing doors opening and closing, soft bleeps and pings, the constant low hum of fluorescent lights, whispers…
She couldn’t breathe through her nose, but she could still smell burned flesh, and fresh air tinged with the tart smell of anaesthetic.
There was a tube in her mouth. Something was keeping her breathing, wafting air in and out of her lungs, pain on the breath in and pain on the breath out, a peaceful calm in between.
She sensed somebody, someone else breathing, their face close to hers, a touch on her arm. She couldn’t tell them she was awake. She wasn’t sure she wanted them to know…
Glasgow, July, and midday on the hottest day of the year. The sun streamed in through the high Victorian windows of the Western Infirmary to highlight the dancing dust motes. It was his own fault. He’d told DCI Graham he’d rather be back at work than sitting at home watching dust settle.
And here he was, back at work – and watching dust settle. On a Saturday.
The cheap plastic seat was making his bum numb and his brain wasn’t far behind. Five minutes finished the Daily Record quick crossword. He made a start on the Herald’s little stinker, and got stuck at five down. He started doodling ampersands in the margin, waiting for inspiration.
Nobody spoke to him. He was invisible. Though he’d been smiled at a few times by a slim redheaded nurse, her light blue cotton skirt swinging as she passed. Her shoes squeaked annoyingly on the lino, leaving a little trail of marks.
She had fat ankles, ugly feet. His interest died.
His glance kept returning to the clock, the jerky long black hand showing how slowly time moves for the living.
He thought he’d better phone home and find out how his mum was doing. Not that he really wanted to be told.
She heard a scream, a strangled cry that rose to a howl; felt skin rip from the roof of her mouth, blood swamp her throat. The tide of air stopped. She choked.
The ventilator tube was abruptly removed, and something else was thrust into her mouth, something that gurgled and bubbled as it sucked the blood out.
A hand patted her as if comforting a frightened horse. Another voice – female – spoke kindly as the needle went in, and she felt herself floating again…
A baby. A daughter.
They had almost made it…