Knaves over queens, p.51
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.51

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

  In addition to her power to visit Betty, Angela discovered that the gaps around her dreams had become crowded with an awareness of everyone who had touched her since that first day. At least if they were asleep too. She found that when the paramedics from the ambulance changed shift they left her dreams but if she concentrated during the day she could sense them sleeping too.

  ‘Ta da!’ Sarah wheeled a new chair into Angela’s room. ‘It’s a loaner, but it will have to do until wheelchair services come up with a replacement for your other one. They’re still trying to say that you broke it and have to pay for a new one. Mrs Mason has been telling them that’s ridiculous and that you can’t even move.’ She parked the chair by the bed and shifted the hoist into position. ‘I told her to say it was the chair collapsing that put you in hospital! Manufacturer’s fault. You should sue them!’

  Sarah struggled to get Angela into the new chair. She had always been able to bend Angela’s stiff legs into the necessary angles. Now she puffed and panted and had to get Jordi and Jimmy to help her. Jordi shouldn’t even have been asked, he was a resident not staff. Even then with all three of them straining and Jimmy turning the air blue with curses they could only move Angela’s legs when she did her utmost to relax them. Finally she was in and they wheeled her into the common room.

  That night Jordi and Jimmy were added to her dreams. Jordi peaceful in his narrow bed in the room four doors down. Jimmy sleeping open-mouthed on a sofa that looked as old and as worn as Betty.

  Angela’s return to the common room was greeted by a round of applause and she grinned around at the smiling faces, her eyes blurring with tears. Fat old Charlie relinquished the control and returned to his chair slapping at his bald head. Jordi put on an animal show for her because they all knew she liked them, and everyone sat and watched the varied challenges of the African honey badger for the next twenty minutes.

  Shirley and Renée came across the room to welcome Angela back, and thereafter she became aware of their eyes on her more often, as if they somehow sensed a fellow XTA. But if they did then neither of them said a word. Both joined Angela’s night-time crowd, though Shirley had barely touched her, just brushing the side of her shoulder with one of the dangerous-looking spikes that served in place of hands. Great for picking up litter, Shirley always said, picking your nose … not so much.

  Betty and Angela’s experiments were limited now to the times when Betty could visit Angela in her room. The old lady announced herself intrigued by the trouble the doctor had experienced getting the needle from Angela’s arm and by the efforts Sarah had reported as necessary to get her into her chair.

  ‘Some of those aces are as strong as an ox. Tough as old leather too.’ Betty reached for a stainless steel bedpan. ‘Just … let me …’ She managed to slide it between Angela’s arm and side. ‘See if you can give it a squeeze, dear.’

  Angela tensed, an action which always pressed her arms tight against her. Betty’s eyebrows rose above her glasses. ‘R-relax now, dear.’ She reached forward and a moment later brought the crumpled remains of the pan into view. The faint pattern of indentations across the curved and flattened pan looked like the marks a rib cage might impress.

  ‘I’m just going to try something else, Angela. It won’t hurt.’ Betty took a pair of nail scissors from her bag and gently traced the point across the back of Angela’s hand. She frowned and tried again. ‘Not a mark!’ She put some effort into the action. ‘Well … dear. The good news is that I can’t put a scratch on you. The not so good news is that if you need another operation or an injection we could be in trouble …’

  They carried on with their experiments. Angela concentrated on learning to talk. At Betty’s insistence she also checked on how strong she was when visiting Betty. It seemed that some of her strength manifested while she was visiting, but far from all of it. In Betty’s hands the stainless steel bowl, which Angie had crushed without the slightest effort, was stiff and difficult to untwist, but she could do it, and when the metal tore and left a jagged edge it scored a red line across her hand that hurt but didn’t bleed.

  Two days after Angela’s return to society a strange irritation at the back of her mind during Strictly Come Dancing caused her to concentrate on what she now called her list of ‘contacts’. She quickly became aware of the smaller ambulance man, Simon, lying amid a veritable sea of beer cans. He was asleep but choking, with vomit bubbling from his mouth. Without thinking she reached out to him and a heartbeat later she found herself choking on a mouthful of sour puke. She rolled over coughing and spitting. Oddly, the first thought that occurred to her was that she hadn’t used any of her time in Betty to eat anything. This horrible stuff drooling from Simon’s lips was the first thing she had tasted in years. It wasn’t in the top ten things she would have put on her list. Or the top thousand.

  Groaning, Angela stood Simon up, finding him to be even harder to balance than Betty, and backed him into his armchair. The strength she brought to Betty didn’t manifest here and every action was a struggle. She wiped his mouth with his hands and wiped the hands on the arms of the chair. There was no voice at the back of her mind. Wherever Simon was he wasn’t watching her or his body. A sudden and marvellous understanding struck her. She could reach for any of the sleepers. As long as they were dreaming she could reach for them across whatever distance stood between them and visit!

  Angela spat more of the taste from her mouth and looked around the darkened room. Enough daylight bled through the heavy curtains to show that every surface lay cluttered with cans or books or magazines, half-eaten meals, everywhere crowded with rubbish of one sort or another. Angela felt more like an intruder than a visitor. She hadn’t been invited. Simon wouldn’t want her sitting there in his man’s body looking at his room, tasting his vomit. But she knew he could have died. Sally Jenks had choked on her own sick at Carstons the year before. There was supposed to have been an inquiry. Rose was supposed to have checked on her and have her on a monitor. Somehow it had all gone away. Hushed up, Betty had whispered. And only the empty chair in the common room had remained to remind them that there had ever been a Sally Jenks.

  ‘I should leave,’ Angela said with Simon’s mouth. The words came out slurred and funny. She wanted to help him, but she didn’t know how. It made her sad. Maybe his big friend Dave would help him. ‘Goodbye.’

  She reached for her body and a moment later was seeing from her own eyes.

  ‘Angie?’ Jordi was bending over her. ‘Are you all right?’

  Angela made her ‘yes’.

  ‘Away with the fairies was she?’ Shirley called from across the room.

  ‘Back with us now.’ Jordi returned to his seat. ‘Well, don’t go having a fit, Angie. I don’t think there’s any midazolam left!’

  Angela had heard as much from Betty. On Angela’s care plan it said to give her point five of a millilitre of midazolam if she had a fit, and then point five more if she hadn’t recovered after ten minutes, and then to call the ambulance. The stuff was a powerful sedative and for reasons Angela didn’t understand there were people who would pay to suffer its numbing confusion. This meant that for the best part of two years Jimmy had been helping himself to bottles of the stuff from the stores, along with diazepam tablets, morphine in solution, and anything else with a street value. There was a strict accounting system of course but Rose just signed the medicines off against the names of the patients for whom they were prescribed, fictitiously increasing the discretionary component of their doses. Of late, things had grown much worse. Jordi had been the one to explain it to Angela, whispering his observations beneath the strains of The Great British Bake Off on Channel 4.

  ‘You know who Booksie is, don’t you?’ Angela didn’t and Jordi didn’t wait for an answer. ‘He runs that gang, the one that owns Southerns Estate and Green Road down to Thrush Oaks. He’s hardcore. Been in prison for glassing a bloke down at the Ram’s Head. Anyway, he got sick of Jimmy lording it about and taking such a big cut o
ut of what he steals from here. So he signed up for a job as care assistant. Helps with his parole officer or something. He got Jimmy to get Rose to fix the paperwork so Mason took him on. So now there’s no middleman and Jimmy is just Little Jim again, and Booksie goes straight to the source and takes what he wants. Only what he wants is a lot more than what Jimmy used to take. He’s eating into the standard meds. Charlie hasn’t had a tranquillizer in three days, that’s why they’ve got him locked in his room. And Renée’s had nothing for her pain. That’s why she’s crying. And—’ Jordi fell silent as Booksie crossed the room with an armload of blankets. ‘He’s got that Jenny working for him too now. She doesn’t look very happy about it but she’s too scared to say no.’

  Angela stared at the doorway through which Booksie had departed. Jenny had been looking worried rather than sulky since Angela woke up. Angela knew Betty was right about seeing the real person not the face they showed to the world. She’d looked out from Betty’s eyes and that didn’t make her Betty any more than Jenny looking at the world from the face of a fairytale princess made her something special. But even so, despite all that common-sense stuff … it hurt Angela to think of the girl being frightened or sad. She had no Prince Charming to save her, so maybe Angela would have to do it.

  Booksie was a problem for the future though, and Angela’s future had always been crowded with problems, most of them due to her own body’s relentless assault on itself. For now Angela’s priority was to rid herself of the memory of a mouthful of vomit by creating better memories. Her visit had alerted her to the opportunity to taste again. And not only to taste the things she had loved before they started to feed her through a tube but to taste the forbidden foods. The stuff that wasn’t mush. The stuff that had to be chewed and whose aroma had driven her to distraction over the years.

  When Betty came into Angela’s room that evening their practice led in a very different direction. It was easiest to explain it to Betty with her own mouth, the words still awkwardly shaped even though the tongue that spoke them had been doing so for decades longer than Angela had been alive.

  ‘I want to eat.’

  Angela listened hard for Betty’s answer, tingling at the back of her mind. Hearing Betty when Angela was visiting her had always been difficult but they were getting better at it. It seemed as though Betty wanted her to wait, but her mouth was watering and the hunger that had been gnawing at Angela all day seemed suddenly larger than her stomach, larger than the room.

  Angela lurched to her feet and walked Betty towards the door, her gait ungainly and over-cautious. Betty sounded as if she were disagreeing but it was hard to hear above the roar of Angela’s appetite.

  For the first time ever Angela left her room on two feet. She tottered down the half-lit hall to the kitchen. The door opened with an alarming splintering noise that reminded Angela that Jordi had told her they kept it locked to stop him helping himself to sugar at night. Betty’s cry of protest rang out in the back of Angela’s mind but the damage had been done now and she could smell something incredible that drew her through the doorway with irresistible force.

  Sniffing hard and with drool running down her chin – Betty’s chin – Angela located the source of the aroma. A large two-handled stainless steel saucepan … and revealed within when she lifted the lid, the leftover stew from that evening’s meal.

  Angela reached in, dipped Betty’s gnarled fingers into the cold slop and began to feast.

  At first it was difficult to remember to chew, and although swallowing seemed to take care of itself Angela choked several times simply through trying to devour the stew too quickly. The taste was beyond anything she had ever imagined, so rich, complex, bursting with so many flavours. Sensations overwhelmed her. She ate without thought, revelling in every mouthful, tears rolling down her cheeks. The stew told stories to her tongue. The primal joy of chewing hypnotized her. She could do this forever. This and nothing else. Just sit right here and eat and eat and eat until she was as old as Betty.

  It was only the lights going on and Jordi’s gasp of astonishment behind her that brought Angela’s feasting to a halt. With a cry of dismay around a full mouth she fled for her own body.

  Experiments with food thereafter were rather more controlled and limited in duration. Betty accepted Angela’s tearful apologies and genuine contrition, and was always sure thereafter to bring something with her to Angela’s room for a taste test. Humbugs proved to be a favourite!

  On Friday Jenny came in on the morning shift looking subdued. She kept her gaze on the floor and avoided the residents. She had been starting to warm to Shirley but today she wouldn’t look at the old lady. Angela watched her the whole time and when at last she briefly raised her head the girl revealed a black eye. Angela watched enough television to know that men hit women but somehow she had thought that only happened on the shows, like people getting shot, or billionaires marrying prostitutes. It was no mystery who had done it though. Angela knew the answer to that one even before she heard Renée say it to Shirley. Booksie had done it.

  That Sunday Betty had the night shift with Sarah and a Filipino woman called Mai who only ever worked nights. Management called it the graveyard shift but Carstons was anything but quiet after lights out. Residents needed to be turned, to be changed, to have meds, to be reassured, to have new linens … any number of tasks.

  Jacey Lomas needed new sheets and Betty, finding the linen cupboard bare, was about to go down to the laundry for more when a door down the corridor banged open.

  ‘Jordi?’ She squinted. ‘Jordi Barron! What are you doing out of bed at this hour, young man?’ Jordi was one of the good sleepers but now he lurched down the corridor like something from the Night of the Living Dead in plaid pyjamas.

  ‘We have to tell,’ Jordi slurred.

  ‘What are you talking about now?’ Betty took his shoulders and steered him back towards his room.

  ‘Booksie, we have to tell about Booksie,’ Jordi said. Then as Betty got him back into his room. ‘It’s me, Angela. Jordi is asleep.’

  ‘Dear Lord! You can do that?’

  ‘Yes.’ Jordi took hold of the headboard and tried to lift his bed. ‘He’s not very strong though. I think the better the bond is the more of my strength comes through. Anyway …’ Angela gave up on lifting the bed and sat Jordi down on it. ‘… we have to tell the police about Booksie.’ Angela had watched a great many police shows on television and had considerable faith in their ability to deal with the likes of Booksie.

  ‘We can’t, dear.’ Betty took Jordi’s hand in hers. Angela saw that she was trembling. ‘You don’t know these people. They’ll follow you home and put bricks through your window. And that’s just the start of it. They don’t care about the police. Half of them are too young to charge anyway.’

  ‘I can do it,’ Angela said.

  ‘You, dear?’ Betty shook her head. ‘How are you going to tell them? Not like this, surely? You’ll only end up getting poor Jordi into trouble.’

  ‘Get me my word cards and a policeman and someone to hold them for me. I can do it. Booksie can’t hurt me.’ The word cards were very slow and laborious but if someone held them up and paid close attention they could tell which of the four sections on the card Angela was staring at, and gradually, piece by piece she could build simple sentences.

  Betty called the local police on the following morning and told them that a resident at the care home wanted to report a crime. A day passed in which Angela could settle to nothing. She visited the paramedic Simon and raised him from the fetid pit of his bed to tidy the flat while he slept. She reasoned that it was okay to invade his privacy when he clearly needed so much help.

  In the end she barely dented the mess, but she did get all the cans and bottles off the sides and floor and into the correct recycling bags. She left those by the front door and was considering how she might leave a message for Simon when the alarm by his bed began to blare. She hurried him back to bed and tumbled him on top of the
duvet just as he started to wake. She was gone before he realized she had been visiting.

  Back in her chair at Carstons, Angela came to her senses with a shudder. It was a strange thing to wear a man’s body and she didn’t like the smell in that flat or the plates of congealed food. Betty said her husband had been a drinker. Angela hoped Simon would stop soon or he might join Betty’s husband in the graveyard over by the Westland Bridge. It seemed a strange thing to have a body that worked and didn’t hurt and then to want to poison it.

  ‘Angela?’ Shirley’s voice. The old lady had taken the seat beside her. ‘Off dancing with moonbeams again?’

  Angela made her ‘yes’.

  ‘You’ve been doing a lot of that, dear, since your illness.’ Shirley leaned in close. ‘Thick as thieves with Betty too. That’s all right with me, dear. You keep your cards close to your chest. It’s not always wise to show anyone what card you’ve turned.’ She tapped her nose with her left spike. Angela was always afraid the old lady was going to put her eye out or something, but of course Shirley never did. She’d had fifty years to practise with the ‘gift’ that XTA brought her. She told a story that for years she’d had to wear special plastic covers on her two spikes ‘for public safety’. In the end though she had argued and won the case that they were part of her body and not subject to restrictions any more than Muhammed Ali was expected to keep his fists in an iron box. What the powers that be might do to Angela though if they knew what tricks she could perform … Angela didn’t like to think of it. She agreed with Shirley. Hers was a card to keep hidden.

  ‘I have to go, dear, I’m sorry.’ Betty looked worried. ‘I thought they would come within the hour but this is ridiculous. I called ten hours ago. I rang them just now and they said an officer had been assigned but couldn’t say when we might see him. The woman asked if I could bring you to the station. I asked her if they had a wheelchair ramp for those steps yet. That shut her up.’

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