Knaves over queens, p.49
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.49

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  ‘Nice dry pad,’ Sarah said. Angela liked that she called them pads. Sarah wasn’t always kind but she talked to Angela as if she understood, and that was worth more than kindness alone. She was a solid woman in her forties with a red slab of a face, big flabby arms and a sharp tongue, but she said that she called a spade a spade, and since she called a pad a pad Angela was prepared to believe her about spades. Some of the other staff called pads ‘nappies’ however old you were, as if you were a baby still, and Angela didn’t like that.

  Jenny returned with the feeding tube and Sarah attached it to the plastic button in Angela’s belly.

  ‘Urgh, that’s so weird.’ Jenny made the disgusted face she had made so often since arriving earlier in the week.

  ‘The milk goes straight into her stomach,’ Sarah said. ‘It’s all she has, special formula milk and water.’ She gave Angela an unsmiling look. ‘When you was little we used to feed you mush. Awful chore it was. Doctors told us to stop ’cos of the choking. Half of it was ending up in your lungs, Angie.’

  Angela remembered the taste. They only ever gave her three things: apple puree, creamed potato, and vanilla yoghurt. She had loved them all. She wanted to have them again but nobody had ever asked her opinion on the matter and it had been two years since she last had a spoonful – apple, it was. Five years since she tasted something, ten years since her mother had brought her to the care home and said she might be staying a while.

  ‘We always let Angie lie for a while before hoisting her back into her wheelchair,’ Sarah explained. ‘If you’re in too much of a hurry you’ll see that milk again and this time you’ll be having to wipe it out of her hair, then hoisting her back onto the bed, changing her clothes, cleaning up her chair, then feeding her all over again. Better to be patient. It saves time in the long run.’

  Jenny nodded, looking bored. ‘At least she doesn’t talk. The retards with a mouth on them just go on and on …’

  ‘We call them special needs,’ Sarah said. ‘Management don’t like to hear words like that. It’s like they cross a new word off the list each year. Can’t call ’em retarded. Can’t call them spastics. They don’t even like it if you say handicapped these days. It’s disabled, thank you very much.’ She shook her head as if minding her mouth was the worst of it. ‘Let’s have her up then.’

  They rolled Angela back and forth to get her sling in place then used the mechanical hoist to lower her into her wheelchair. Sarah could lift Angela easily enough. She said she’d seen more meat on a butcher’s apron. But there were rules. And anyway, since the operation to straighten Angela’s spine with a set of titanium rods and thirty-two screws to fix them in place, it hurt when someone picked her up wrong, so she preferred the hoist.

  ‘We’ll wheel her into the lounge. You can normally park her in front of the TV for a few hours before she starts whining. You like the telly, don’t you, Angie?’

  Sarah finished strapping Angela into the chair, a lap belt, harness, and headband all serving to keep her in place. She didn’t look for an answer to her question. The truth was that Angela preferred conversation and having books read to her. But the television was definitely better than being left facing the wall. That was what Rose and Jimmy did with her if they were angry about something. It didn’t have to be something Angela had done, though it was often a punishment for soiling herself on their shift. Jimmy called her Veggie instead of Angie. Rose laughed every time.

  Sarah wheeled Angela into the common room with Jenny in tow, looking sullen.

  ‘It smells in here. Something rotten.’ Jenny wrinkled her nose.

  Angela smiled around at the other residents whether they greeted her or not. Some could, some couldn’t, some chose not to. The news was on so that meant Charlie Smithson had the control. Charlie always wanted the news though it seemed to Angela that he only wanted it on to establish his credentials as a news watcher, since he never paid it any attention. He sat in the armchair at the end of the room, gazing out of the big window across the rooftops of the old people’s home next door. He wasn’t old enough to join them over there, but he was old. A fat little man with a rim of grey hair and a shiny bald pate that he would slap at from time to time as if flies were constantly settling on it.

  They would all watch the news now until Charlie went to sleep. If you tried to take the control from him he would bite, and if that didn’t work he’d wail so loudly that you could never hear the new programme.

  About two-thirds of the twenty residents at Carstons had some level of mental impairment to keep their physical disability company. Most of the staff acted as if all the residents were mentally incapable. They were like that even with Jordi, who could answer nearly every question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and could explain how a television actually worked. They treated him like an idiot because his arms were small and twisted. Rose and Jimmy called him J-Rex because the dinosaur had useless little arms too. Sarah said he only knew the answers because they were repeats on UK Gold. But Angela thought that even if that were true then Jordi was very clever to remember them all.

  The two cleverest residents were indisputably Renée and Shirley, both XTA since long before Angela was even born. The two old ladies had turned their cards when they were both girls of Angela’s age. Xenovirus Takis-A had disfigured and disabled both of them. Renée claimed that they had been great beauties before the virus had struck them down. Shirley maintained that Renée had always looked rather horsey and that the virus had simply changed people’s opinions about which end she most resembled. In America, Renée said, they would be called jokers and shunned, forced to live in ghetto communities. Shirley said that if she had to catch XTA then England was the best place to do it, and that if anyone called her a joker she would stick them with the bony spikes that had replaced her hands and which she referred to as her needles. Angela, who spent a lot of time listening and a lot of time thinking, though more through circumstance than inclination, thought that Carstons Residential Home was probably quite similar to a ghetto in many ways, and given that having any visitor was a great rarity they were being pretty well shunned here too. The main difference was that here they were being shunned alongside the victims of far less exotic viruses and injuries.

  Charlie proved more resistant to sleep than usual, and in the third cycle of the news Naga Munchetty cut from the piece claiming that it was now ten portions of fruit or veg daily needed for health benefits to breaking news. The big screen flashed footage of Captain Flint involved in a dramatic rescue from a burning building. This of course set Shirley and Renée going. Any time an ace was mentioned, be it on the TV, radio, in a newspaper or just an offhand remark, the pair would launch into a who’s who of yesteryear’s aces, when superheroes were real superheroes, when taller buildings were leapt in single bounds, bullets pinged off with never a wince shown, and time was still found to save kittens from trees. The current breed, the ladies maintained, were all lazy good-for-nothings addicted to the internet, cocaine, and celebrity in equal measure. None of them were worth the dead and twisted that XTA left in its wake. All apart from that nice Redcoat of course. They both adored him.

  Angela liked the two old women of course but she always felt they perhaps made too much of the hardships they endured. They had after all reached her age as perfectly normal girls, able to talk and eat and touch and walk and run, able to care for themselves, pursue their own interests, kiss boys and dance. And they could still do most of those things. Angela would swap lives with either one of them in a heartbeat, even now, even exchanging her seventeen for their seventies. She would swap a year of hers for a day of theirs.

  Her aches roared rather than whispered today. She felt hot then cold. Ever since Sarah had come to hoist Angela out of bed that morning she’d been sweating then shivering. She didn’t remember feeling so strange before or so bad.

  The evening shift came in as Charlie fell asleep and Mr Jenkins filched the control to change channel to Strictly Come Dancing, which was very po
pular at Carstons.

  Rose and Jimmy came through the common room together. She was a hefty woman in her thirties with mean eyes and bitten lips, he a touch shorter, a touch younger, and a lot skinnier. Angela always thought Jimmy’s face looked to be on the point of a smile that would light him up, but whenever she smiled at him she got a scowl in return, or that grin that meant one of Jimmy’s cruel tricks was coming.

  The residents kept their eyes down and their conversation to mutters as the pair passed by. Jordi called them Rosie and Jim rather than Rose and Jimmy, after a children’s programme that was on TV when he was little. But he always waited until they’d left before he said it.

  ‘Rosie and Jim!’ Jordi operated on the principle that if something was funny once then it was funny a hundred times. He started to hum the theme tune.

  ‘Now, now, Jordi!’ Betty came through, glasses in hand as she wiped the rain from them. ‘You’ll catch more flies with honey.’

  ‘I don’t want any flies.’ Jordi put his nose in the air.

  ‘Angela, you’re due a feed and medicines, aren’t you, my lovely?’

  Angela opened her mouth in a yes though she wasn’t hungry. Betty never forgot her feeds. Betty had a kind word for everyone and she knew so many wise sayings. More flies with honey. Angela wasn’t sure what it meant but she filed it into her memory. It sounded important. She didn’t like flies. In the summer they would crawl on her face and she couldn’t stop them. Once Jimmy had smeared jam on her cheeks and left her in her room by the open window. She had dozens of flies on her when Betty came looking for her.

  ‘Oh dear! Oh dear!’ she had said. ‘Let Betty sort you out. Who’s done this?’

  But Angela knew that Betty knew who had done it. Over the years she had come to understand that Betty was afraid of Jimmy. He knew where she lived and had unpleasant friends on the estate. His younger brothers ran with a gang and Betty thought that Jimmy stole residents’ medicines and sold them on the street through his tearaway siblings. Betty had once said that management had so much trouble getting staff that if she complained about the likes of Jimmy and Rose then the ‘powers that be’ would just insist that she retire. ‘And then who would be here to keep all of you safe?’

  Angela didn’t like the mean things that Rose and some of the other staff did to her, but compared to the pain she suffered every hour of every day, and the difficulties confronting her at each turn, they were relatively minor inconveniences. She had rather suffer a thousand of Jimmy’s casual cruelties than lose Betty. Betty loved her and she loved Betty.

  Betty said that Jimmy was a bad seed, but more than that he was bored and frustrated. Rose too, she said, had never seen her lot in life as looking after disabled residents in a care home. Betty told Angela that Mrs Mason, the house manager, said most of the staff were at Carstons because they had run out of choices. They felt themselves stuck in a hard, dirty job for minimum wage because it was all that was on offer.

  ‘When you put someone where they don’t want to be they kick against it, Angela. And often as not it’s the ones that can’t defend themselves that get kicked.’ Betty had shaken her head and tutted. ‘It’s not about the salary, dear.’ She’d put her withered hand on Angela’s permanently clenched fist. ‘Though God knows a few more pounds would be very nice. It’s a calling. You have to have love in your heart. You have to see the person before you.’

  These were words Betty echoed now as she watched Angela make an effort to track Jenny across the room. ‘Pretty girl, isn’t she? It’s paint, Angela, paint and skin. You have to see the person before you. Not just the wrapper they arrive in. I was a pretty one too, once. Not that anyone would believe it now.’ A wry smile. She kept her voice low, just for the two of them.

  Angela didn’t answer. She felt strange, her heart pounding, her flesh tingling as if a million flies were crawling over her. She tried to concentrate on Betty’s words.

  ‘Being too pretty twists how the world sees you and how you see the world. She’s probably a decent girl in the middle of it all, but she’s been spoiled. Don’t you worry none about her.’ Betty sniffed. ‘Don’t you go mistaking the crust for the pie. Take Renée, she’s got a heart of gold if you get past that clever mouth of hers. And let’s be honest, that XTA didn’t do her any favours in the looks department. But she’s worth ten of our new princess.’

  Angela listened. Her hearing was the only part of her that had ever really worked well. All the while she struggled to keep her wandering eyes on Jenny, fighting to turn her head to follow the girl. She’d never seen anyone like her, not face to face. She wanted to be beautiful too. It didn’t matter that everything Betty said was true.

  ‘Angela! You’re burning up!’ Betty’s hand was on Angela’s forehead and it felt like a piece of ice. ‘Are you okay, darling?’

  Angela didn’t know if she was okay. She knew that she did feel hot. She knew that Jenny had stopped at the archway to the kitchen corridor and was staring at her now, her eyes wide. She knew that the girl was everything she had ever wanted to be.

  ‘Angela! You’re shaking!’ Beside her Betty was on her feet. ‘Jordi! Get Mrs Mason! Now! Hurry. Tell her Angela’s not well. Tell Sarah too—’

  Angela didn’t understand why she was falling. She had fallen twice before. Jimmy had dropped her on the bed once. But she should be in her chair. It was all very strange.

  ‘Oh my G … Call an ambulance! NOW!’ Betty sounded scared. Angela didn’t want Betty to be scared. She didn’t want to be on the ground either. Hitting the floor hadn’t hurt at all. There were pieces of her wheelchair scattered all around her.

  ‘She’s having a fit.’ Shirley’s voice.

  ‘A seizure.’ Renée’s voice. Both of them sounded frightened too. Angela didn’t know why. She had fits most weeks. They just gave her the meds and made sure she didn’t choke.

  Jenny stood where she was, not going for the phone, not coming to help, just frozen. She filled Angela’s vision and for a moment Angela saw with a clarity that her damaged brain had never once allowed her in all her seventeen years. She saw Jenny’s face with preternatural clarity. Every brush stroke of the foundation, every blemish beneath, every pore, she felt the beat of the girl’s heart, the rush of her blood, the pulse of her fear.

  ‘… turning blue …’

  ‘… get her midazolam …’

  ‘… off the floor!’

  Betty’s voice seemed to be coming from far away. ‘You’ll be all right, darling, you’ll be all right. You gotta breathe, is all. Just take a breath. Let the air in, darling.’

  Angela could see Betty crouched over her, on all fours with her face just above hers. Only she saw it all wrong, as if she were on the other side of the room, watching. She saw herself lying, twitching and twisted, with parts of her wheelchair still strapped to her and others scattered around her. The wheels lay on their side close by.

  One of Angela’s arms twitched and she saw Betty thrown aside.

  ‘No!’ The shout sounded in her chest. She saw herself lying there. Across the room. It made no sense and she wanted Betty, but the old lady looked hurt and Angela had done it. A blackness crowded her vision and for the second time in short order she was falling.

  What followed was darkness and confusion. There was pain too. Lots of that.

  ‘Her organs are failing.’

  That sentence reached in at some point and she chased it around in the darkness as it made tight little circles inside her skull.

  ‘I’ve called her mother.’ Betty said that and she sounded so sad that it made Angela want to cry.


  ‘It’s not right. She deserved so much more than this.’


  ‘She’ll be in a better place.’


  ‘We’ll take her home.’

  The darkness thickened and Angela understood that this was death and she wasn’t scared.

  And then she opened her eyes and daylight was str
eaming over her. She was in a bed. She struggled to focus. It was the hospice wing at Carstons. The home kept three medical beds for residents who were very ill. It wasn’t unusual for residents to come back from hospital to spend their last few days here when there was nothing more to be done for them.

  Angela drew in a deep breath. She didn’t feel as though she was dying. She didn’t feel any better or worse than normal. Betty! She remembered Betty being knocked aside and she struggled to turn. Somehow knowing that she couldn’t turn over never stopped Angela trying. Her mother said that it was probably memory. When Angela had been very small she had been able to roll from side to side. Unlike most children whose skills increase as they grow, Angela’s had only faded. It had taken just ten minutes without oxygen during her birth for the motor cortex of her brain to die. She had been expelled into the coldness of the world grey and limp and unable to howl about the indignity of it all. Any chance to speak or run or touch had been stolen from her by indifferent chance just before she was born. It had been ten years since she could even roll from her side to her back. That should be long enough to stop trying. But Angela tried again. And failed again.

  She wanted to see someone, to know what had happened, so she began to cry out. She had no words but she could be loud when she wanted to. In her head she was calling for Betty. The noise she made was all vowels but it didn’t take long for someone to come and the person who came was Betty.

  ‘Angela! You’re awake!’ Betty came into her line of sight with a broad smile showing the even whiteness of her dentures. ‘You’re awake! And so loud!’ She was having to shout to make herself audible over Angela’s cries.

  Angela stopped shouting. Her voice sounded very loud even to her.

  ‘Let me get a chair.’ Betty turned away to find one. ‘I’m so pleased! So pleased. How do you feel?’

  Angela felt hungry. She smiled. She had worried that Betty was injured. She wondered how long she had been asleep, and what a coma was, and if her organs had failed. She opened her mouth but of course her questions stayed on her tongue where they had always stayed.

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