The machine murmured softly beside his bed. Gently vibrating. Every thirty seconds or so, something deep inside it moved and made a whirring sound. A rhythmic click tapped out a 4/4 beat in a somnolent tempo.
Pumping fluids in; pumping fluids out.
Her son slept soundly, as he had become accustomed to doing these past few weeks. The machine was a feature of normality to him now and no longer provided the stimulus to resist sleep.
The metronome effect was hypnotic. There was no doubt about that. But instead of easing Julia to sleep, it was the backing track to her waking nightmares.
Tommy’s kidney failure was a severe and fast-acting case but he’d taken
to dialysis well. He’d taken it in his stride. But Julia took nothing in her stride.
She sat by his bed crying most nights. Hiding in the shadows of the dimmed
lights. A book lying open on her lap. Glassy, unseeing eyes. A distracted and
desperate mind, searching frantically through the past ten years of memories
for just one clue that this might have been her fault. For something she’d done
wrong. For just a hint of blame. Because if there was blame - even if that blame
was hers - then Life wasn‘t so cruel after-all. It wasn’t random and it wasn’t
If there was blame, Julia thought, then Life wasn’t arbitrary. And this
mattered, because if Life was arbitrary, then it was also without hope. It could
do what it wanted, and if it wanted to take Tommy, it most certainly could.
But consciously, Julia knew that these nightly torments were hopeless. She
could dredge up her past for as long as she wanted. She could agonise over
long-gone choices. But the truth about Life was that it could take Tommy. Even
if she was to blame, which really she knew she wasn’t, there was not a thing in the world she could do.
Life was arbitrary and it was merciless and it just wasn’t fair.
Without even being aware of it, she caressed the four-month bump beneath her T-shirt.
No amount of scouring her memories would identify some thing that she could do differently this time round. The baby inside her had as much chance of health and as much chance of ill-health as Tommy had. And this thought filled her with no comfort whatsoever.
Julia hadn’t noticed the doctor appear. He was standing at Tommy’s bedside, bent slightly and peering at the digital display on the dialysis machine. Jotting a few notes.
He straightened up and looked at Julia. “Are you okay?”
There was an expression on his face, which Julia read as concern. His gaze never shifted as he slid his biro into his shirt pocket and put his notes away.
Julia slammed the lid on her thoughts like a box of dark secrets. Like she’d been caught doing something shameful.
She offered him a polite smile. “Fine, thank you,” she said.
The doctor nodded to the book in her lap. “Not keeping your interest?”
“Just tired is all,” she said. “I’m going to turn in shortly. What is the time, by the way?”
The doctor checked his watch. “Midnight,” he said.
There was a momentary silence. The hum of dialysis and nothing else.
“I haven’t seen you before,” said Julia.
The doctor removed his notes again. Slid the biro from his breast pocket. He scribbled something down and peered over his trendy black-rimmed glasses. “I’m the new guy here,” he said. “You won’t be seeing much of me, though.”
Julia saw he was wearing an ID badge, but in the dim light and with tired eyes, she couldn’t make it out.
“Is that right?” she said.
The doctor nodded. “I come and go.” He put his notes away again and looked at her. The redness in her eyes was not just a lack of sleep. He could clearly see that. He glanced at Tommy. Tommy was fast asleep. Oblivious to the tubes snaking up beneath his bed sheets. Conveying the fluids that flushed out toxins from his body.
He looked back to Julia. “I have a feeling he’s going to be fine, you know,” he said.
Julia smiled politely. She’d heard this sort of empty and detached optimism before. But people had no idea what the future held. They never knew how depressing it was to hear those gestures of empathy, without truly understanding the things about Life that she understood. Their ignorance seemed to make their goodwill gestures hollow and meaningless. Like words mechanically stuttered out by a socially conditioned automaton.
The doctor stepped round to Julia’s side. He sat on the edge of Tommy’s bed and leaned forward. Julia felt a momentary discomfort with his sudden proximity, but then she saw something. It was a flicker in his eyes. A compassion that she had never seen as sincerely and intensely as this.
“You think I’m just another well-wisher,” he said. “Uttering cheap imitations of empathy to satisfy a sense of moral obligation, rather than actually trying to offer you comfort.”
Julia felt the warmth of embarrassment in her cheeks. She was horrified to find that she was actually ashamed of herself. That somehow she’d been caught with her private thoughts on display. That the façade of polite smiles had just been lifted like a scab to expose the cynicism beneath. And that she might have actually hurt the doctor’s feelings.
“I just tend to think that people have no idea what they’re talking about,” she said.
The doctor smiled. “They don’t,” he said.
“So what makes you different?” Julia was immediately aware of sounding unnecessarily hostile. She reprimanded herself.
But the doctor smiled again. “I know things,” he said.
Julia frowned. She looked at Tommy. His chest rising and falling beneath the sheets. Deep in sleep. Deep down within the timeless and surreal creations of his subconscious.
“Could someone like him really ever be fine?” she said.
The doctor leaned closer. “More than you could ever know,” he whispered.
Julia looked at him. Into his eyes. The humming and the 4/4 ticking seemed to fade. To recede back there somewhere. With the shadows. With unimportance. Isolating them both in a soundless and private moment where all that mattered was this. Julia submitted to the feeling of comfort offered by the look in his eyes. Where there was more than just compassion and understanding. Where there was wisdom too. And it felt safe, and honest. It felt right to trust him.
Tears welled up in her own eyes. Her bottom lip quivered.
“It’s okay,” said the doctor softly. “It’s fine.” There was still a smile on his face. Of understanding. Of knowing.
“You can help him, can’t you?” It was a statement rather than a question. It was something she just seemed to know.
The doctor nodded gently. “There are things that I can do, yes.”
The tears swelled. Rolled down her cheeks. “Please. Please will you help him?”
“I would be happy to, Julia,” he said. He raised his right arm. Extended his closed hand and turned it over. Slowly opened his fingers.
Julia glanced down. The object sitting on his palm was a little silver box. “What is it?” she said, unable to look away.
The doctor was looking at it too. “Open it,” he said.
Julia reached out with both hands. Felt a tingle in her fingers as they made contact. She lifted the lid carefully and peered inside the box.
“It’s a bean,” she said, surprised.
He smiled. “It’s more than that.”
Julia looked back down and her face lit up. “It’s a kidney bean!”
“And if Tommy swallows it whole, Julia, I promise you he’ll be fine.”
“He’ll get better?”
“All tickety-boo and as right as rain.”
Her tears had stopped. There was something else in her eyes. It was
something the doctor had seen many times before and it flashed with that
all too familiar glint.
It was greed. And it was just what he was waiting for.
Julia reached out again to pick out the kidney bean. But before her fingers
came close, the doctor snapped the lid shut.
Julia looked suddenly up at him, and the doctor saw the vaguest flash of
anger and hate before the confusion settled in.
“I thought it was for Tommy,” she said.
Her eyes were pleading. Desperate to understand. He looked back at her with the keen-eyed perception of a businessman.
“But I can’t just give it to you,” he said. His voice had a frostier edge to it. “So I propose an exchange.”
“An exchange of what?”
The doctor smiled again. It had no charm anymore.
“A contract, dear Julia, is the exchange of something I have from which you may benefit, with something that you have from which I may benefit. And, as it happens, you do have something I am interested in taking possession of.”
Julia wanted the bean. She really wanted the bean. And she had to have it - there was absolutely no question about that. She had to have it. She absolutely had to have it.
“What is it that you want?” she asked. “I’ll give you anything. Just please help my son.”
This seemed to please the doctor. Julia looked at his smile, then glanced at his ID badge, where now she saw a name.
Dr R. Stilzchen.
She waited for him to answer. To name his price.
But instead, he looked down at Julia’s baby-bump. Her hands slid instinctively across it. They interlaced protectively.
The smile on his thin lips looked nothing like the smile of a caring man. Of a man who understood.
It looked more like the grin of something animal. Something only disguised as human. Something with glistening scales, and a cold reptilian malice beneath a mask.
Dr Stilzchen licked his lips.
“Who are you?” Julia asked. There was something so familiar about the name Stilzchen.
His smile widened. Bulging eyes fixed greedily on her bump.
And then it came to her.
“Let’s do business,” he hissed.
And with the ravenous glee of a deal on the brink of completion, Rumpelstiltskin rubbed his hands together.