“Guv! Just had the Royal on the phone; sounds like they’ve got DI Tyler!”
Gene couldn’t remember moving from his desk. He couldn’t remember driving here, or walking the long corridors searching for Sam’s room. He couldn’t remember waiting to be allowed in. He was simply here, looking down at last on the broken body, hands clenched in pockets to stop himself reaching out.
It was even worse than he’d expected. He sweated as he looked down on the still figure, so small he barely registered on the tranquil spread of crisp white cotton. Sam embossed his lonely shape on a child’s portion of the bed, and his face was the starkest white Gene had ever seen on someone still living.
There didn’t seem to be enough of Sam to measure for the box.
“How long?” he muttered.
“I said, how long? How long has he got?”
“Mr Hunt, we need to discuss this outside.”
“No, tell me now. Tell me how long, I’m not leaving him until... Just tell me, OK, how long?”
“Mr Hunt, you must come away, please, come with me now.”
“GET YOUR BLOODY HANDS OFF ME! YOU TELL ME NOW, HOW LONG HAS HE GOT?”
A hand closed round his arm, tight as a vice, and pulled. “Mr Hunt. I must ask you to wait outside now. You’re distressing Mr Tyler.”
He ripped away from the constraining hands; four of them now, inconsequential specks at the edge of his anguish.
He faced them, roared again, “TELL ME! YOU’VE GOT TO TELL... “ He caught the last shreds of sanity, forced himself to calm down, voice cracking. “I’ve got to know, please, tell me, I can’t - how long?” and something in his tone finally got through to wherever doctors keep their compassion, husbanded carefully and meted out only in desperate straits, in the hope that it will last the course.
A voice spoke firmly behind him. “I will discuss this with you outside, Mr Hunt, and then you can come back in, if you keep quiet. Mr Tyler needs to feel safe. We can never be sure how much a coma patient takes in of his surroundings, and you, Mr Hunt, are in danger of undoing all the good we’ve been able to do so far. Please. Come with me now.”
Dazed, glancing over his shoulder at the fragile figure in the bed, Gene moved where the arms guided him. He couldn’t feel the floor for some reason, couldn’t tell if he was putting his feet in the right places.
He felt the air change on his face, some subtle change in the noises around, and he could no longer see Sam behind him.
Abruptly, he found himself seated, a cup of water at his lips.
“Drink it, please. We need you to calm down. You’ve misunderstood, Mr Hunt. Mr Tyler is not going to die. He’s a very lucky...”
Through the roaring in his ears and the black and red clouds behind his eyes, Gene heard the nurse speak calmly. “Here, Mr Hunt. It’s all right, I’ve got you. In the bowl, OK?” He strained forward and brought up his breakfast, his lunch, all the whisky he’d downed while he waited.
Gasping and shuddering at the bitter taste, burning up and chilled to the bone, he put his head down in his hands as the corridor slowly took form around him. The nurse bent down to put a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you OK now? Mr Hunt? Can you hear me? Squeeze my hand if you can understand what I’m saying. I need to know you’re OK. Mr Hunt?”
Dragging in a lungful of acrid whisky-tainted air, feeling the clammy sweat break out again, he pursed his lips and breathed out slowly, shakily. Gaining some form of control, he opened his eyes and tried to find the words.
“Is he ... ? Did you say he’s ... ?”
“He’s going to live, Mr Hunt, although he’s going to be very weak for a while. Luckily, there’s been no major organ damage; he was found just in time. He’ll live, Mr Hunt; that’s about all we can promise at the moment, but it’s more than we could be sure of when we brought him in.”
Gene managed the smallest of smiles, still breathing deeply, and brushed at his eyes impatiently. “So how long will he be in here then? When can I – when can he go home? And how soon till he can get back to work?”
“Mr Hunt, you don’t seem to understand; this man has very serious injuries! It’s possible he’ll never walk again. He has a chest drain for a punctured lung, he’s got bruised kidneys, two broken ribs, a cracked right femur, compound fractures to the left leg.... He’s been starved for at least a week and has suffered severe beatings on a number of separate occasions. He’s a very sick man.”
“I’m not asking ’cos I want him back at work you daft tart! I want him lying in that bed as long as it takes him to get better; there’s nothing to him. But, I need to know, because the moment he wakes up he’s going to ask. Guaranteed.” That’s after ‘what year is it?’ of course. “And I’m going to be here to tell him, so you’d better tell me, love, OK?”
“Please, Mr Hunt, keep your voice down! It’s going to be a while before he wakes up. He’s been through a terrible experience and we’ll be keeping him under for at least a few days until we can be sure there’s no new infection. Then he’s got weeks here while we make sure all the bones are knitting properly. We’ll let the family know when they can make arrangements for his recovery at home. Which reminds me, there’s no-one here yet; who’s the next of kin, do you know?”
“That’ll be me. Hasn’t got anyone else.”
“Oh. I hadn’t realised he was a relative of yours, DCI Hunt?”
“Well, he’s not. Strictly speaking, that is. Not as such. He’s...”
“He’s my DI. And a bloody good one at that, and I want him back at work in one piece, have you got that?”
“We’re doing our very best for Mr Tyler, you can be sure of that. Now, if I might suggest, you don’t look too well yourself. This has been a bit of a shock for you; you need to get some sleep and perhaps come back in a few days.”
“Not going anywhere. I’ll sleep in there, don’t want those bastards coming back for him. He might be able to identify them. When he wakes up, he’s going to find me right there, waiting.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Hunt, but I can’t allow that. We have to let Mr Tyler have peace and quiet. You can see him tomorrow for a few minutes if you ...”
Moving. Pinpricks, gnats biting at his arms, red clouds. Pulling; shoving. A door. Shouting. Firm hands, a half-nelson confidently applied. Comprehension, slowly dawning.
“Get off me Ray, I’m staying. He needs protection.”
“Guv. Sit down, shut up and listen to me a minute.”
Struggling. More shoving, a chair coming up to meet him. Knees on the cold floor. Face on the chair, banged down hard enough to bruise. Pain enough to clear the mind.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re so bloody keen to stay here with the twonk, but I do know this: hospitals like people who stay quiet and do as they’re told. Them’s the ones who’s allowed to stay, Guv, all right? Nice quiet well-behaved people who don’t upset the patients.”
Sharp, bright blue eyes. “Got it, Guv? Gonna behave yourself if I let go?”
Just nod. Do it. Stay.
He sat on the chair, getting his breath back. Looking at the tubes and bandages and wondering what was going on in there. If you could get plasters for the mind.
“See? He’ll be OK now, he’s not unreasonable, he’s just a bit, you know, doesn’t like people messing with his team. Tell you what, love, he gives you any trouble, you give me a bell straight away, OK? Here’s the number, you just ask for Detective Sergeant Ray Carling, all right? Or, better idea, how about if I buy you a drink tonight? For your trouble, like. And you can tell me how the Guv’s been. If I need to come round and sort him out again for you.”
He sat in the chair and wondered how long it would take for the bones to heal and the fear to fade and the world to start again. If it would be the same.
“I’ll be off now then, Guv. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, OK? I’ll send Cartwright in later, see if you need anything. Dinner, like. Can give you a lift home later if you want, you just tell Cartwright, she can phone me. Guv? I’ll see you later then, OK?”
He sat in the chair and watched Sam breathe.