Lionel watched discreetly in the edges of his vision as a bald man in an orange gown walked across the crowded waiting area and knocked on the examination-room door. The door opened and a female head emerged, inquiringly. The man produced a folded letter from his sleeve and offered it. A hand emerged from the doorway and received the letter, and then hand and head withdrew and the door closed with a soft click. The man, a chemo patient, perhaps, turned towards the seats where Lionel sat, his sandals squeaking on the green vinyl floor.
A ringing sound, like an alarm clock, somewhere close by. Lionel took his mobile from his jacket pocket. No, not his. He thumbed the screen and opened the news app. The stories were slow to load. No signal. Mobile data is always terrible in hospitals. Just as well. No news is good news. He put the phone away and stared at the sandals and shins of the man facing him. Not knowing where else to look, he switched his gaze to the wall over the man’s bald head, and then he closed his eyes.
His head dropped towards his chest, and he dozed. The voices of the other patients slipped loose from all meaning and seeped into his fragile flickering dreams and took on new meanings. He jerked awake, hurting his neck, and dozed again, and woke again, until he wished that they would call his turn so that he could go home and sleep.
A cough caught his attention. For the first time, he looked directly at the man who sat opposite. Was this the same man he had watched earlier? He wore the orange robes of a Buddhist monk, not a dressing gown. And he wasn’t exactly bald, either, because a dense dark stubble covered his head. Not a chemo patient. He was Chinese, possibly. Asian, anyway. Crinkled eyes behind black-framed spectacles, cheeks brown and healthy.
The fingers of the monk’s right hand danced a complicated pattern against his left. He doesn’t talk? A vow of silence? From his facial expression, it seemed he was asking a friendly question. Lionel shrugged his shoulders and down-twitched his lips and flashed his palms to show that he didn’t know any sign language. The monk nodded and smiled in understanding, and sat back in his chair.
The morning was nearly over by the time Lionel stepped into the examination room. A nurse sat on the high stool beside the scanning machine, a pair of large headphones resting around her neck. She patted the fake leather of the padded bench.
“Take off your jacket and shirt, and pop up here for me please.”
Pop up. Always that phrase. They must learn it in medical school.He did as he was told. She attached three electrical leads to his torso.
“Have you had one of these before?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe. It all tends to blur.”
She squeezed some gel from a tube onto his solar plexus. Cold. A faint familiar smell that he couldn’t quite identify. She held a microphone to his chest and used it to smear the gel in circular motions while her other hand turned dials on the scanner. The machine hissed and whistled, harshly, like a radio receiver that was badly tuned, and she grimaced and decreased the speaker volume. Lionel peered at the jumble of shadows on the scanner screen, but it was indecipherable, so he fixed his eyes instead on a peeling patch of ceiling paint. It triggered a deja-vu memory, just out of reach, of an island that he had seen somewhere, sometime, and wanted to visit, or maybe just imagined.
The smell of the gel… he remembered now, it reminded him of the stuff that condoms is coated in. There was another room with peeling paint, and another woman. They had met in a bar. Eye-contact, a shared drink, and somehow they were back in her apartment. Curtains in her bedroom that didn’t block the light properly, so that he hovered on the brink of wakefulness, dreaming, and knowing he was dreaming, of the woman who lay in the bed beside him. Dreaming of her thighs, her green eyes, her breasts, and the lotus flower tattoo on her left hip. Their hangover headaches taking hold as they gave up on sleep and rose and showered and dressed. He saw that she had no tattoo after all, and her eyes were brown, not green.
“All done,” said the nurse. She handed him a large sheet of rough paper and he used it to wipe the gel from his chest, his stomach, his flank.
The doctor’s chair squeaked as he swiveled. He studied the results of the scan, turning the pages one at a time, shielding them from view in the brown folder. Lionel’s attention wandered to the framed diplomas on the wall. Latin. Unreadable. He thought of his own parchment in its cardboard cylinder, abandoned in the dust on top of his bookcase.
“How are you feeling, by the way?”
Never sure how to answer that question. “OK, I guess, apart from the insomnia.”
The doctor extracted one of the pages from the folder and laid it on the desk between them. He set the folder to one side.
“I don’t want to worry you, but there’s something here that we should address.” He tapped the page with a chewed plastic pen.
Lionel looked where the doctor indicated. It was a Rorschach mess of blacks and greys. “What is it?”
“A sadness, most likely.”
“A sadness?” Lionel raised a hand to his chest. “But… how did that happen?”
“It’s hard to say. Some people are prone to them. Something gets misaligned. Out of whack. Is there any family history?”
Lionel shook his head. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. We didn’t…” He gestured with one hand to show that he couldn’t finish.
“Hmm. I’m going to recommend a placebo.”
Lionel wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “A placebo? Will that help?”
The doctor scrawled illegibly on a prescription pad, tore off the sheet, and presented it to Lionel with a flourish and a smile. “It’s quite a strong one. It will help if you believe it will. That’s what a placebo does.”
The pills didn’t help. Lionel took them anyway, for ten days, and then he lost patience and poured them into his tea. As a sweetener, they were more effective.
His insomnia got worse. Without quite remembering how, he found himself walking through the city at night. There were few cars, and even the drinkers and the taxi drivers were home in their beds. He went east, with no destination in mind, only a direction. Whenever he was unsure of his course, he glanced at the roofs of the houses to see what way the rusted satellite dishes were facing, and this reassured him. They always faced south, like the moss that grows on trees. Or did moss grow on the north side of trees? His certainty faded.
At the edge of the city, he came across an all-night shop, spilling light onto the footpath. Just beyond the pool of light, on the cold ground, two people were cocooned in sleeping bags, invisible. He envied them. A mid-sized dog stood beside them and watched him approach, but didn’t bark. Inside the shop, a tired-looking Indian student was unbundling the early editions of the newspapers and hefting them onto the shelves. It was later than Lionel had realised. He bought a bottle of water for the walk home. The exchange was silent, each man knowing his part in the ritual.
Outside again, and the dog had left the sleepers and was sitting upright in the middle of the empty car park. It stretched its neck and scratched itself vigorously with a hind paw, both eyes closed in slits of pleasure. It stood then, ears twitching and alert. Not a dog. A fox, orange-brown with black paws. He could never have mistaken it for a dog, and yet somehow he had. It trotted away, and he followed to the edge of the car park. He was tempted to follow it a bit further and see where it went. He might be able to see the stars more clearly if he was away from the lights of the city. Just a mile or two, and then he could go home.
The fox moved at a fast pace, its head low and the tip of its tail trailing the ground in its wake, and Lionel hurried after. There was no street lighting, so they walked in moonlight. The road sloped gently upwards and zig-zagged as they entered the foothills, so that they came to a place where the lights of the city were stretched out on the plain below them. To the east, above the road, was a field of grass as tall as Lionel’s waist.
The fox had stopped and was looking directly at him. Glow-eyed, it held his gaze for a long moment, and then it turned and padded through a gap in a hedge and into the long grass. Lionel walked to the gap, and looked back at the city, and at the brightening sky, and hesitated. It would be dawn soon, and the stars were fading. He looked at the narrow trail that the fox had taken. If nothing else, he could follow it to higher ground where he could watch the sunrise, and then he could go home. He had never seen a sunrise before.
Turning sideways, he squeezed through the gap and up the dirt path. At intervals he glimpsed the fox slipping between the swaying grass or cresting over a hillock, or he saw a paw-print where it had squeezed under a fence. They crossed several fields in this way, Lionel climbing over the fences and being careful not to slip as he jumped down onto the dewy ground. Gradually, the spaces between sightings grew longer, and he realised that he had lost the animal and that he himself was lost. Looking back the way he had come, the path through the fields was no longer obvious. The lights of the city were hidden by the rise and fall of the land. There were no sounds of traffic or civilisation and no satellite dishes to guide his way. He walked to the nearest line of trees and pushed his way through the branches, hoping there would be a road on the other side.
Beyond the trees was a large manicured lawn. It sloped down to a brown brick building that curved around three sides of a cobblestone yard. A private school, maybe, or an old house converted to some modern use. Beyond the roof slates, dawn had already arrived in the clouded sky, discreetly, and without drama. He stood in the shelter of the trees, reluctant to trespass, suddenly tired.
At that moment, a deep chime sounded from within the building, as if from a great bell, and birdsong burst up from the branches behind him. The tone billowed and ebbed, impossibly pure, and Lionel could feel the breeze waxing and waning in harmony with it, and the whole waking world being tuned and aligned to the deep clear note, and something shifted inside his chest. As the last echo faded, a door swung open on one side of the courtyard. An orange-robed monk stepped out. He held the door with one hand and covered a yawn with the other, and a procession of monks emerged single-file into the chill morning, their black sandals pattering on the cobbles, their arms folded inside wide sleeves, their heads lowered.
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