Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
The man sat in the small kitchen, staring at the little brown bottle placed on the table in front of him, as if challenging him. He had been staring at it for a long time, as if the intensity of his action would clear his mind. The bottle was about two inches high, with a white plastic cap and a label with his name on it. The label also held two messages. The first said ‘Take one in the morning and one at night before bed.’ The second message was even more explicit. ‘Keep out of the reach of children.’ He stared at the bottle; perhaps it held some answer. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand. It was very light, and the glass was cold to the touch. Even at that moment, with his mind a maelstrom of emotions, he marvelled a little at a bottle made of glass and not some plastic material. He held the top, squeezing it in at the sides and after several attempts the top was free. He tipped the white tablets onto the table, one tablet scuttling away and dropping off the edge of the table lip. He bent to pick it up and replaced it alongside its brothers.
He rose heavily and went to the sideboard, picking up the whiskey bottle and glass before returning to the table. He poured a large measure of Famous Grouse in the glass and sipped it. It was sharp and biting to his tongue, but he took a larger swallow. He had already drunk half the bottle and it didn’t taste any better with repetition. He put the glass down and counted the Prozac, moving them sideways on the surface of the table. Fifty-six. They were lined up like soldiers. That should do it, shouldn’t it? He put a tablet on his tongue and took a gulp of whiskey.
Did he want to do this? Did he want the alternative? He swallowed two tablets and a further mouthful of whiskey. There were no answers, only questions. His hands hurt, his head hurt and his mind raced. There was no peace, no rest, and no sleep, each day was just like the day before, only worse. He took another two tablets and some more whiskey. He kept drinking and popping the pills until he was almost gagging. The Grouse bottle was now nearly three-quarters empty, and he was fast becoming totally drunk. He counted the remaining tablets. There were eighteen, but maybe it was only seventeen. He started to count them again and stopped, giggling at his own stupidity. Eighteen or seventeen, it didn’t matter a stuff. He took two more and a further mouthful of the fiery Scotch before staggering into the small lounge and trying to sit down on the settee, but he missed and ended on his bottom on the floor.
This was better.
His head no longer hurt, his eyes were closing and even his hands seemed to have lost their feeling. He slipped again and lay down on his back on the floor. He was feeling better already, warm and sleepy. God, he could use a sleep, a sleep without dreaming. What was the dream? It was Maria and that dreadful, obscene day. Strange, it didn’t hurt anymore. His mind was fuzzy, and he couldn’t focus it. This was certainly better. He could no longer think. He didn’t want to think any more anyway. He moved slowly and lay on his side and looked at his hands in front of him. He opened the right hand, with its scarred red flesh, and tried to do the same with the left. It came halfway open, the fingers curled inwards towards the palm, like a hook. They didn’t hurt anymore either. Thank God.
He was drowning, choking in the depths of the sea, gasping for breath, gagging and coughing as his lungs filled. The sea was a sea of vomit, hurling itself from his stomach. He retched and retched, his throat, mouth and nostrils filled with foul tasting bile. He was on his hands and knees, his chest heaving. At last he stopped and lay in the pool of his own vomit, crying helplessly. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was supposed to go to sleep, without dreaming, and not wake up again. Finally, he staggered to his feet and weaved uncertainly into the bathroom, ripping off his clothes and throwing them aside. He stood in the shower, holding his face up to catch the stream of cold water, rinsing his mouth and nose.
At last he stepped from the bath, carelessly drying himself, before putting on a pair of jogging pants, trainers and a sweater. He went out into the night air, his eyes streaming with tears. His head hurt, his hands hurt, and his brain was in turmoil. Jesus, this was not how it was supposed to be. It was cold, but he staggered on, his hands knotted in anger, until he reached the main road. The bus was on his side of the road, a double decker. He waited until it was almost beside him and he walked in front of it. The world dissolved.
It wasn’t supposed to rain until later. Afternoon or early evening the radio had promised. Damm it! He zipped up his rain jacket and pulled the red collar up around his neck. What to do, go on or go back? Bugger it, I’ll go on. There didn’t seem to be another soul in Snowdonia. No bloody wonder! The clouds closed in, reducing his vision to about thirty yards. Christ, it was bloody June, the height of summer and here it was, pissing down on the sodding Welsh mountains.
He tightened his backpack straps, lowered his head and tramped on. He had come to climb Snowdon and climb Snowdon he bloody well would, if it killed him. The rain got heavier, flattening his hair against his head, and insinuating into every crack in his clothing, running down his back and soaking his waistband. His boots squelched, his socks were sopping, and the water bubbled up through the eyelets of his lace holes. Bloody boots weren’t worth the bloody money he’d paid for them. Inside the chest pocket of his jacket the camera bumped against his body. He sheltered beneath a rock overhang and rewound the film, removing it from the camera and cramming it into his trouser pocket. He suspected that he was too late and that the film had already become soaked. God knows what it would print up like.
He moved on. The path became steeper and more slippery. On several occasions he almost lost his footing, cursing each time. Then he stepped on a rock, loosened by the rain and tumbled off the path falling on to his right side and rolling down the hill grabbing vainly for a handhold. He cracked his head against a large, black and very immovable Welsh boulder.
He lay still for some seconds, he thought, but on looking at his watch, he saw to his surprise that it was over thirty minutes since the last time check he had made. He couldn’t see out of his right eye. He rubbed at it with his gloved hand, achieving no effect at all. Groggily he pulled off the glove and tried again. His hand came away from his face red with blood. “Oh, shit!” Gently he felt his forehead, his fingers exploring carefully a long gash above his right eyebrow. “Oh, shit,” he said again, wincing in pain.
He lay back against the rock and wiped his face with his handkerchief, which was instantly soaked in blood and rain. At least he was now able to see out of his eye. Thank God he had not been blinded. “Shit!” He said for the third time with immense feeling. He rummaged in his backpack and found a sweatshirt. It was wet, but he ripped it into strips with his knife and roughly bandaged his head.
“There’s no point you are sitting there on your bum in the rain, just swearing. Come on, big brother, on your feet. You’ll catch your death if you don’t move your arse.”
He looked up in pleasure. “Arthur! I didn’t know you were up here.”
“Always here for you, bruv. Take my hand, let’s get you off this bloody mountain.”
Together they staggered down the hillside, Arthur’s right arm around the injured man’s shoulders. The younger man encouraged his injured brother, joking, cajoling, and threatening him in turn. Finally, they reached the National Park shelter. “You’ll be all right now, they’ll patch you up. I’ll be going. Take care, Steve.” He hugged him tightly and was gone, walking swiftly off into the low mists enveloping the hillside.
The warden was out of the shelter, running towards him. His arm circled the injured man’s shoulders even as he slumped to the muddy ground. “Easy, boyo, you’re all right now.” The man gently untied the bloody cloth. “Jesus, how did you get down here with that head?”
“My brother, he helped me.” He turned unsteadily. “He was here, a second ago.”
“No, you’re imagining things, old son. Mind you, you have had such a hell of a crack on the skull, you’re probably concussed. I wouldn’t blame you for imagining things, but you walked down here on your own. I watched you the last couple of hundred yards.”
They dressed the wound roughly and packed him off in the Land Rover to Capel Curig where a doctor inserted eight stitches and sent him in an ambulance to Llanrwst Hospital for an x-ray. It was just a precaution the doctor told him. He felt too unwell to dispute it. In the hospital it was decided that, although the x-ray was clear, he was concussed and it would be wise for him to stay the night, as a ‘precaution.’
They back each other up, these medical guys, he reflected hazily. He slept until the next day, and on discharge took a taxi back to the car park at the bottom of Snowdon to collect his car. The rain had stopped, and the sun proclaimed its innocence in respect of any misbehaviour on the previous day.
He drove back to Hay, to his parents’ house, with a splitting headache and a large bandage. The closer he got the more agitated he became. He didn’t know why, but something was wrong. The looks on his parents’ faces when he arrived at the house told him he was correct.
“Have you heard?” His father spoke roughly.
“Heard what, Dad?”
“The Sir Galahad was hit; forty or fifty boys are dead. Arthur was confirmed as one of them. It happened yesterday.”
“When I was on the mountain?” For the first time the memory of Arthur on the hillside returned to him.
“What have the bloody mountains got to do with it? Your brother is dead.” His father shrugged and turned away. Steven and his mother held each other.
His surroundings were white, nearly totally white. He wondered if he was dead. Had he succeeded with the bus where the booze and tablets had failed?
“Well, good morning. Welcome to the world.”
The speaker was black and standing at the foot of the bed. He had a round pleasant face, and spectacles, which gave him the appearance of a rather friendly but mildly surprised owl. He was wearing a white coat with a stethoscope poking from the breast pocket.
“Where am I?”
“Not, if I may say so, the most original question I have ever heard. Where do you think you are?”
The man at the end of the bed raised a finger in approval, inclining his head as he did so. “That’s very good. I suppose the white coat and stethoscope are a bit of a give-away. Would you like to try to name the hospital?”
“Where the hell is that? No, this is Kingston General. You know Kingston? In Surrey?”
The man in the bed said nothing, just continued to stare at the black man, who moved round to the side of the bed, pulled up a chair and sat down. He took his hand to check his pulse while carrying on the conversation.
“What’s your name?”
“Yes, your name. What do people call you? What do you call yourself? I’ll give you a clue. I am Dr Marcus Blackwell. Yes, I know, very apropos for a West Indian doctor, but I blame my parents. So, what did your parents call you?”
“I don’t know.”
The doctor rubbed his jaw. “Your pulse is normal, by the way. All right, we will have to call you what we have on your admission card until we know something more definitive. We call you Fran Cotton.”
“When you came in you had no wallet or money on you, no ID of any kind, nothing, not even a watch, just your clothes and they came from Cotton Traders. You know, the company started by Fran Cotton, who played rugby for England.” The doctor indicated the bedside cabinet. “They’re in there. Check if you like.”
“How long have I been here?”
“You walked in front of a bus. You remember buses? Big red things run by Ken Livingstone. Frightened the life out the driver. He reckoned that you did it deliberately. Did you?”
“I don’t know.”
The doctor looked hard at the man in the sheets. “My friend, I have no idea whether you are telling the truth or are simply a very good actor. However, your blood tests indicate that you had had a skinful of alcohol and prescription tablets on the night of the accident, so you may have been trying to kill yourself. Only you and God know.”
“What’s the damage? What have I done?”
“Well you are either very lucky, or unlucky, depending on your state of mind when you stepped off the pavement. You are badly bruised and shaken. You have been in and out of consciousness since you arrived, but there is nothing broken. The bus driver was pretty alert for three in the morning and managed to almost avoid you.” He raised his hands. “There is no brain damage, as far as we can tell, at least no more than you started off with.”
“Can I leave?”
“No, you need to stay a bit longer. You won’t be playing football for a week or two. In any case, if you don’t know who you are, where are you going to go?” There was no reply and he continued. “Two bits of information for you. The police were here to speak to you.”
“Yes, a young women PC. Lynn Edwards, I think she said she was. Investigating the accident. She looked about fourteen. Said she would come back later to talk to you.”
“And the second bit of information?”
“Yes, your hands. They have been badly burned, probably quite recently, and you have had a number of reconstructive operations. Not every surgeon in the country can do this work. It is specialised. I could probably find out who you are in a day or two by asking around. Do you want me to?”
“No, I thought not. Very well.” He got up. “I am a busy man, Mr Cotton, and there are many patients in this hospital, most of whom are more deserving of my time than you. I will see you later.”
Steven McCann lay back on his pillows and stared at the screens around his be. ‘Jesus, Steven, you made an awful bollocks of that. I don’t mind being dead, but I don’t want any little girl copper asking me questions.’ He began a careful exploration of his body, his hands moving slowly down his legs, across his chest and finally his face and shoulders. Most of it hurt, but not unbearably. He moved his legs and arms in experimental fashion, and all moving parts seemed to be working. He tugged back the bedclothes and gingerly swung his legs over the side. The floor was cold and his body in motion hurt a great deal more than in repose.
“Oh!” He bit his lip. “Oh, shit.” He sat on the edge of the bed for some minutes before attempting to stand up. A wave of pain shot up his legs and through his back, forcing him to sit down very quickly. Suddenly, he realised that his lower lip was bleeding, the salty taste of blood in his mouth. It took three attempts, but at last he was standing upright, rocking backwards and forward. He noticed he was wearing a white gown which had no back in it and which was tied around the waist with a ribbon. He examined it in horror but could not think of anything to do about it. Whichever way he wore it his bum or his dick would be exposed.
Now for the next step, walking. It was a bit better than he had imagined and he walked round the cramped space several times before resting again on the bed. Finally, he went to the screen pushed it aside and walked into the ward. He was marching painfully towards the exit when a nurse took his arm.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“To have a pee.”
“No, you’re not! It’s back to bed for you, my boy. I will get you a bed pan.”
He pulled his arm free and shook his head. “No! I am going to the gents.” And he did.
He was grateful to be back in bed, even with Sister Moroney glowering at him. He could walk, that at least was something. The sister meanwhile removed the screens from around his bed, and he surveyed his fellow patients with a kind of horror. All were male, mostly elderly, and many asleep. One grey haired old man lay on his back, breathing noisily through his mouth. Another had some type of canopy built over his legs and Steven suspected he had had an amputation of some kind. They all appeared to be waiting to die. He made up his mind to leave. If he was to die, he would do it in his own way.
That night, around two thirty, he noticed the nurse on duty get up from her desk and walk over to the adjoining ward. He could just make out the top of her head as she sat talking to her opposite number in the next ward.
He got out of bed, quietly opened his bedside cabinet and walked quickly to the toilet. It was a matter of thirty seconds to slip into his clothing and leave the toilet again. The nurse was still talking, and he could hear low feminine laughter from close by. At the end of the ward was a small office with the door wide open. A white coat hung from a hook. He removed the coat and put it on and walked down two flights of stairs and out of the front door. He dropped the coat onto the railings at the entrance to the hospital and walked quickly away.
It took a few minutes to orientate himself, but soon he recognised a few buildings and began walking. He had no money and walking seemed his only option. Jesus it was cold! He tried walking more quickly, to keep warm, but his body protested. He regretted ditching the white
He was very weary when he reached his flat and ached from head to toe. He took the keys from under the mat and let himself in. The smell was overpowering, with pools of congealed vomit and stained clothes everywhere. He opened the windows and fell into bed.
Dr Blackwell studied the empty bed. Mr Cotton had done a runner. The doctor was fairly certain that he could identify his erstwhile patient from his hands, but there again, why bother? If someone was determined to kill himself, he probably would do so. Blackwell’s concerns were with helping those who wanted to live, not those who preferred to die. He phoned Kingston Police Station and was told that PC Edwards was now part of a murder team and would be out of circulation for some weeks. No one else was interested. Blackwell shrugged and continued his rounds. God knows he had enough to keep him busy.
For some minutes after waking up, Steven remained motionless in bed. There were two reasons; firstly, he seemed to ache in every bone and sinew, and secondly, he tried to assemble his thoughts into some kind of order. Had he really tried to commit suicide? Already his mind was starting to tell lies. No, he had been half drunk at the time, and it had all been a mistake. Christ, what would Colin Wood have made of it had he known?
He eased himself painfully out of bed. “I hope that bloody doctor has more important things to occupy his time than checking his surgeon mates for details of a patient who’s legged it.”
He surveyed the disgusting mess in his flat and turned away to make some coffee. Time to clean up and destroy all the evidence. His conscious self knew what the unconscious half was doing. In a week or two, he would have put this to the back of his mind. At least until the next time. It was the middle of Sunday afternoon when the phone rang. His heart thudded. Oh God, the hospital, or the Police. He picked up the handset.
“Yes,” he said thickly.
“Mr McCann?” He didn’t know the voice.
“Who wants him?”
“It’s Roderick Phillips, from Hay on Wye.”
An alarm bell rang in Steven’s head. “Hay, did you say?”
“That’s right, in Wales.”
“I know where it is. I’m Steven McCann. What do you want, Mr Phillips?”
He knew what the man was going to say even before he spoke.
“It’s your father, Professor McCann. He is dead, a heart attack last Monday. We have been trying to contact you for days. I’ve left messages on your answerphone, phoned your mobile, but this is the first time I have been able to get you.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been away. I’ve only just got back and haven’t checked the messages.”
He listened dully as the Welshman continued. Father’s solicitor, funeral provisionally fixed for Wednesday. Is that OK with you?
“I said ‘Is that OK with you?” The Welsh accent came through very distinctly as Phillips raised his voice.
“I’m sorry, Mr Phillips. Yes, all those arrangements are fine.”
“Will you be here for the funeral, Mr McCann?”
“Wednesday, you say?”
“Wednesday, yes, at two in the afternoon.”
“Yes, I’ll be there. Thanks for letting me know.”
He sat down, and for a brief instant the image of Arthur on Snowdon came to him.
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019