The room blurred into focus and I could see a short, fat, brown nurse looking at me curiously.
“Is it that bad?” I asked.
She tried to smile but failed. “Many burns patients make good recovery from facial disfigurement,” she said.
She patted my hand. “We’ll look after you, don’t worry.”
It’d been a blustery November evening when I’d left the warm, lighted office for the cold, dark street below. Unusually, there were no cabs outside so I determined to walk down Charing Cross Road to Tottenham Court Road Tube station and take the train one stop to Holborn where I had a first-floor apartment. At least there were shop windows to look in and passersby to observe. I’d reached Macaris and had been window shopping for guitars – an enticing selection of Gibson Les Pauls graced the display and I hankered after a ‘62 Gold Top reissue, a cool four grand – when I spotted a black cab coming along with ‘For Hire’ displayed. On impulse I stretched out a hand and the driver pulled out of the speeding city traffic and up to the kerb. I opened the door but just then felt a hand on my arm.
“Excuse me, I need a cab urgently, my mother’s very ill, would you mind?”
Feeling annoyed, I turned to find a forty-something woman with a thin but pleasant face and fair hair held back in a pony tail. “Laura!”
We stood looking at each other in surprise. Ten years had passed and it showed on both our faces I guess. “OK, hop in.”
We clambered in and Laura directed the driver to St. Lawrence’s hospital then settled back, staring at me, her face yellow in the light of street lamps and shop windows. “How are you? Are you with anyone?”
“I’m fine,” I lied, “and I’m on my own.” I didn’t need to give her my life story since we’d parted company all those years ago. “What’s up with your mum?”
“She collapsed. They’ve induced a coma. They’re running tests, they think it may be her heart.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, and I was. Trudy was a lovely woman and had always treated me with kindness.
As we drove, Laura told me she had remarried, to Basil, a golf professional, but that his constant touring had become too much, especially with a young child, “Henry, he’s nearly ten now.”
“Where’s Henry now?”
“He’s with Sally, my sister at the moment. You remember, she lives in Fulham. Where I am now’s just too small. I’d give anything to have a larger place but with Basil gone I’ve got no money.”
A thought occurred to me. “Anything?”
She gave a shallow laugh. “Well, practically anything.”
“Well, look, I’ve come into some money. Uncle Fred died and left me his two up two down in Battersea. And there’s an annex.”
“What would you want for it, then?”
I hesitated. “Well, how about a kidney?”
There was a stunned silence. Laura looked away then back at me. “You mean I give you one of my kidneys and you give me the house? That’s cruel, Frank, but, I guess it’d give me and Henry the space we need.”
I was on dialysis, suffering the endless waiting of the transplant list, and I knew, from an incident when we were married, that Laura’s kidney was a perfect match. “No, that’s not what I meant. I’ll bet you my house, Fred’s house that is, against one of your kidneys. I know a guy who’ll take it out, no questions asked, and it’s completely safe. You don’t have to worry on that score, you won’t even notice it gone.”
Laura looked me directly in the eyes and I noticed how dark they looked with the pupils distended. “What bet then?”
“How about a game of chess? With an arbiter to ensure fair play, of course.”
“OK,” she said, with an ironic half-smile. “Let’s shake on it.”
We did and it was set in stone. Laura had been university chess champion but what she didn’t know was that I’d been having private coaching from an International Grandmaster for the last five years and my game had gone through the roof.
Just then there was a sickening thud and we were both thrown forward. In front of us, the back of a London bus. I could see flames licking the bonnet. I tried my door but it was locked. I banged on the driver’s window but he was slumped forward, unconscious. I was aware of the smell of burning rubber then black smoke began to fill the cab. Laura was hammering on her door, screaming for help at shell-shocked passersby, then all I remember is a thunderous explosion.
“I won’t worry then,” I replied to the nurse. Nurse Gonzales as it happened. But I knew something. As soon as I was well enough I’d have a DNA test run on young Henry. It was too bad about Laura’s death but the timing was right and I might, just might be in line for the son I’d always longed for.
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