Comatose, p.1
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       Comatose, p.1

           Graham Saunders
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Comatose


  Comatose

  By Graham Saunders

  When life clings by a fragile thread it seems that nothing is impossible. Even reality can fracture and send a girl to a place beyond imagining where she may even stumble upon an unexpected romance. While back in the everyday world life goes on, crimes and plots unfold and the comatose are left to the care of the merciless... Unless a man can overcome his disbelief and save her.

  ***

  Copyright 2017 Graham Saunders

  Table of Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  About the author

  Prologue

  It had been the coldest winter in fifty years, the rivers had frozen and the birds had fallen from the sky when the invading fleet from the north beached their feared longboats on the coast. They carried with them a precious cargo bundled in furs: the chief's wife was ripe with their first child. They made camp some miles inland and rested by chance next to a place long held sacred by the Britons. They lit fires on the ridge and prepared to defend their position but no fighting men came to desecrate the hallowed place. Ingrid's labour was hard, the wise women gathered to her aid but it was to no avail, the child did not live to see his second sunrise and the horns of anguish rang out across the valley.

  Wise council was sought and the seers cast their runes and chose a place in a shady grove. The site was cleared and made ready, they called it Heilagr – the holy place. It was a place for the infant to rest. It took fifty men fifty days to haul the great stone up from the valley floor. They carved the stone with their ancient mystic symbols to keep the child forever at peace in this foreign land. They then lay it over the sacred resting place of the first-born infant. The sea mist settled over the guardian stone and the mists of time flowed on like a deep dark impenetrable river.

  Centuries later when the stone had sunk from sight beneath the fertile soil, and the invaders and the invaded had become one, the place was still revered as holy. It had been chosen well for the site marked a point of intersection of the three great ancient monoliths of the district. A focal point of the energy that was thought to link the earth with the turning of the heavens. As time passed closer to the present, such superstitions were lost and the sacred memories faded. Forests grew and were cut down. The land was farmed and left fallow until the foundations for a humble cottage were dug and the ancient stone was rediscovered. The meaning of it's sacred carvings were lost to time and the massive stone would not move. Not by the muscle of men nor by the straining team of six great shire horses, so it was left to rest. Left to make a substantial foundation stone for the humble structure.

  Chapter 1

  Somehow already into her twenty second year, Emily Wilcox sat quietly in front of the picture window of her small white walled cottage. The slow movement from the violin concerto filled the room with its mournful melody as it resonated from the stereo and lulled Emily into a state of reverie. Her view spread out across the small walled garden to the wind blown dunes and out beyond to the distant horizon. On a clear day a narrow ribbon of blue stitched together the landscape with the ever changing sky. Today the sea was not visible. A heavy sea-fog had rolled in from across the temperate autumn water and enveloped the cottage in a blanket of stillness and quiet. There was hardly a breath of wind yet to stir the tranquillity. The old apple trees loomed out of the fog; the remaining russet brown leaves dripped with heavy dew from the saturated air. Closer to the window the unmown grass pulled the moisture from the heavy air. Emily watched as the drops slowly formed and pooled on the leaves, occasionally catching a flash of light as the fog momentarily let a shaft of early morning sun filter through and sparkle against the liquid prisms. The fog had brought with it a quietness to the landscape and to Emily a contemplative mood.

  The scent of espresso coffee and buttery toast still hung in the air. It was not yet cold enough for the crackle of an open fire, but the fog was an early sign of the irresistible change of season. The season of heavy coats and rubber boots, of muddy paths and hot soup. On the side table were Emily's riding hat and gloves. The keys to her classic blue Citroen 2CV, the Deuxche as her French born mother called it lay alongside her riding helmet.

  Emily worked as a veterinary nurse at the local clinic. She had always had an instinctive empathy with animals and seemed gifted with a magic touch, able to calm and comfort the most troubled of them with the gentle touch of her slender fingers. Although she loved all animals, it was without undue sentimentality. Beyond her working life, her special fondness was reserved for horses. She had earned something of an enviable reputation for her equine empathy and was thought of as the closest that Hegfold had to a local horse whisperer. Emily, with her natural modesty, dismissed this; all most animals needed was patience and kindness and it would usually be returned in the same way. Emily knew it sometimes needed to be tempered with firmness, but there was no secret, no mystic knowledge. Her reputation with horses had happily given Emily a welcome opportunity to work with Margaret Jenkins who ran the local riding stables.

  The flamboyant owner of the riding stables had bought, on an overly optimistic whim, a dark chestnut bay gelding. He was almost black in some lights; majestic but brooding. Juno was a magnificent animal, as proud and wilful as he was powerful. As highly strung as he was beautiful to watch as he paraded around with head up and high tail flowing and dancing in the air. The flash of his eyes challenging any one to tame him.

  Emily had accepted the challenge. Margaret soon discovered that Juno was completely useless for any but the most experienced riders. His purchase had been a mistake; Juno was simply not at all suitable for her establishment. It was a business from which Margaret derived her income and as such needed to attract riders of all abilities not leave them running away in terror from flailing hooves. But Juno was such a magnificent creature that she had asked Emily to see what she could do to calm him so that he might eventually earn his keep with the more experienced of the weekend riders for whom she cheerfully catered. Both Margaret and Emily thought there was slender chance of success but the effort, before bowing to the inevitable and selling Juno on to someone who could handle him was surely justified for such an animal. Emily soon developed a rapport with Juno and she put his wild temperament down to earlier ill treatment by some unsympathetic owner in the horse's early life.

  The foggy dawn had risen on an autumn Saturday and Emily had arranged to take Juno out for exercise. He needed the exercise to maintain his fitness and to accustom him to being ridden. She had made some progress with the animal and they now shared a mutual confidence but only she and Margaret were able to ride the horse safely and even Margaret, a skilled horse-woman in her own right, was still a little nervous when in Juno's saddle. Emily was unconcerned by the morning fog, riding in the stillness and muffled countryside of a foggy morning was not without its charm. The fog provided isolation and privacy from the world at large gave vent to one's imagination. Somehow the bond between horse and rider was strengthened by the seclusion.

  Dressed in jodhpurs and an old ex-army khaki sweater complete with leather elbow patches, Emily looked every inch an experienced young horse-woman. The sweater had been left behind by a long forgotten admirer whose eventual disappearance, painful at first, ultimately scarcely troubled Emily. He
had been a mistake and the error was soon recognised by both parties who parted precipitously but amicably All that was left of him was the sweater which she wore occasionally perhaps to remind herself to be more careful in the future. It was of course was rather too large for her but its comfortable bulk was unable to disguise the attractive form of the young woman beneath its masculine cut. She had her long hair tied back in a soft knot, from which unruly wisps escaped across her slender neck.

  As Emily sat gazing out onto the morning stillness she sipped the remains of her rich coffee and watching the fog gently swirl to the languid air currents. Her thoughts were drawn back to her childhood. The cottage, had been owned by her paternal grandparents; as a child it had always been a haven for her, an escape from her rather turbulent home life. Her mother Suzanne was originally from France and was now alone with no other family apart from her two children. She had never fully disclosed her previous history, and guessing that it had been a painful one, she was rarely pressed for more details. Suzanne had been working as a waitress while also trying to cope with an infant boy when James Wilcox, Emily's father, had rescued and married the attractive but rather troubled French woman who already had a young son to an absent father. Emily had never really known her father; he had died tragically when his Norton motorcycle had encountered a patch of damp swirling leaves on a morning not unlike the one that spread before her through the window. The front wheel had lost its grip on the slippery surface, there was a speeding lorry coming the other way... No one was really to blame, a coincidence of space and time that sent its ripples out and changed the world.

  The accident was another burden for Suzanne who found herself alone again. Alone but now encumbered by two children. James' parents, Mary and Bill, did what they could and helped to raise Emily. Tony, Emily's half-brother was a difficult child and spent his early years clinging to his mother. He was never really able to accept Mary and Bill. Maybe he saw them as intruders into their life and he grew increasingly hostile to them for reasons which no one, not even Tony, could reasonably fathom. It was not really surprising that the cottage had been left to Emily when the time came. Not surprising perhaps, but it angered Tony that he only received a few thousand from his grandparents' will. In fact what Tony inherited was, in monetary terms, little different from his sister's inheritance but he would never accept that. He spent his inheritance quickly and frivolously and then looked towards his sister's cottage with growing envy and festering resentment.

  As Emily drained her coffee mug, her thoughts drifted to a conversation she had had with her grandparents. Emily had been sitting quietly and stroking her grandmother's affectionate old cat which they had named Bozo in a moment of quixotic humour. As Bozo purred with contentment on her lap, the old couple told her of how they had met over fifty years earlier. That they had found a lasting love which they shared together in the cottage. They had been instantly captivated by something in the humble building, it was all they ever really wanted. Somehow they had stumbled on the secret of a happy life, contentment with sufficient material comfort rather than finding frustration in striving for an excess. Bill and Mary touched on how, over the years, their mutual love had grown even stronger. It was with a tearful eye that Mary confessed to Emily that the prospect of living without Bill was one she dreaded and could hardly contemplate. In the event Mary died first and it was only a few weeks later that Bill followed her.

  Emily became the owner of the cottage. Mary and Bill were gone now but their presence, at least from Emily's perspective, lingered in the cottage filling the place with a feeling of warmth and safety. Somehow Emily felt that her grandparent’s memory and love was absorbed into the fabric of the building. She knew that she could never leave this cottage; she owned it but, in many ways, the cottage seemed to own her. She felt spellbound by something that drew her to the place. As if she had become part of the fabric of the cottage as much as the stone walls of its construction. She was grounded in the place and found everything entrancing: the squeak of the garden gate, the flowers and fruit trees of the garden and the lingering memories that stretched back to a time beyond mortal memory.

  Deep in her reverie Emily had let the time slip by unobserved. Suddenly aware of the wall clock, she was pressed into a rush. Leaving the breakfast dishes unwashed and her well thumbed book of poetry still open on the sofa, she let the door clack shut on its lock and raced out into the damp still air towards her little car.

  There was no time to look back she was gone.

  Emily sped off with the all the eager power that the two cylinder Citroen could muster. She steered the car down the tree lined lanes winding through the swirling mist to the riding stables with a contented heart. The Deux Chevaux, balancing and leaning on its long suspension and narrow tyres was soon crunching up the broad gravel pathway which curved round a stand of tall lindens and up to the stables. Emily could already see Juno, his head peering over the stable door. The horse watched the familiar figure walk towards him. There was a recognition in his dark eyes; he now recognised Emily as a friend. Margaret Jenkins also spotted a friend.

  "Darling, hello. Can you be an angel and saddle the beast yourself? I've got a bunch of teenagers due any minute and Kate hasn't turned up yet... probably out partying last night." She suggested with a wink as she hurriedly kissed Emily on both cheeks and disappeared across the muddy stable yard without waiting for an answer.

  Margaret could be a little overwhelming for some, always in a hurry, always with a loud and expansive voice she appeared in a flurry of blond curls, red lipstick kisses and often left as quickly as she had appeared through a trailing cloud of cigarette smoke. Emily liked Margaret. She liked her straight forward, no nonsense personality; her generosity of spirit, her unwavering loyalty. But like many others, she appreciated Margaret in small doses. Her friendship, once given, was resolute, steadfast in quality but the quantity was to be savoured, to be sipped like a fine wine from time to time; too much was apt to give you a hangover. Margaret's three ex-husbands would all attest to a somewhat similar conclusion.

  Recovering from the whirlwind encounter, Emily greeted Juno in a much quieter way.

  "Hello handsome, how are you today?" She gently slapped his neck and rubbed the sensitive base of his ears. Then brought her fingers up to the soft velvety warmth of his muzzle. Juno sniffed in the scent of her skin, he would follow her, be led by her to the ends of the earth. The sweet smell of the horse, a mixture of musky sweat and grassy breath was something almost primal; compelling, like a lingering memory from a time when domestic horses and people were reliant on each other for their mutual survival. She put her nose close to Juno's head and breathed in his scent. As she smiled at the sensation she could feel Juno's response and see the hint of a nascent kindness growing in his once wild eyes.

  By the time Emily had brushed Juno's dark coat to a glossy sheen and saddled and bridled him, the watery sun had started to shyly peek though the clearing fog. Juno nuzzled Emily's pocket in the expectation of a piece of apple or carrot. He was never disappointed by her and today he accepted a piece of sweet green apple. The rattle of his bit and curb chain could be heard as he crunched while Emily led him in a slow clopping walk onto the forecourt. She could hear the excited gabble of the teenagers now and wanted to be gone before they upset her nervous mount. Margaret's commanding voice could be heard directing her young charges with her usual overwhelming enthusiasm. They were coming this way at a rate of knots; it was time for Emily and Juno to be gone.

  Swinging up into the saddle in a single effortless motion, Emily found her stirrups and urged Juno into a sedate trot along the bridle path and out through the lifting mist towards the bottom meadow. Once through the gate and onto the smooth grassy surface, using a barely perceptible nudge of her calf, she pushed the horse into a slow loping canter. Emily rode well without conscious effort; there had already developed the beginning of an understanding between the horse and rider and they moved together effortlessly like a single bein
g. Emily described a wide figure of eight using most of the field, the gelding changing legs at the crossover flattering to deceive that he might one day aspire to become a dressage horse. Emily had no such expectation, Juno had a long way to go before he could even be unleashed on the most confident of the casual riders that frequented Margaret's stables.

  Juno was breathing more heavily now, he was warmed up and the still humid air was turned to steamy breath as the horse exhaled into the cool morning. Emily watched his relaxed yet alert stance, ears forward enjoying the workout. The oiled leather of the saddle creaked softly with each roll of the canter and she found the repetitive sound of the languorous gait almost hypnotic. Emily was growing increasingly confident that Juno may not be a lost cause after all. He was definitely worth the trouble and she would spare no effort to turn him into a gentle and relaxed member of Margaret's stable. It would be achieved with kindness and gentle persuasion so that his spirit would remain intact. Emily took a deep breath, inhaled the sweet air and smiled to herself at the prospect and the undoubted progress already made.

  Out across the fields behind the old stone wall built five generations ago, a speeding shape darted, flashing white against the vegetation. Badger, the neighbouring farmer's fox terrier was out sniffing down rats. Through the gorse hedge he caught a glimpse of the loping horse and rider as they approached along the fence line. He instinctively crouched down in the long grass waiting with flailing short tail for his moment. There was no malice in the dogs mind, it was a game, it was what fox terriers did. Emily leaned forward taking the reins in one hand and patted Juno on his neck.

  "Good boy." she said easing him back into a sedate trot.

  At that exact moment Badger made his move and rushed from his cover, barking with excitement as he ran alongside the horse. Juno reared, snorting with panic, twisting sideways to avoid the dog and then, harnessing all the speed that his powerful body held in reserve, he bolted at a full gallop.

  Emily lost one of her stirrups which beat against the horses flank. Fighting to regain her balance she leaned forward in the saddle which only urged Juno on faster. Badger kept up the chase barking with joy at the sport. Juno's ears were flat against his head and the whites of his eyes flashed, spittle spayed from his mouth and nostrils, the horse sank deeper into panic as the loose stirrup still beat against his side. Badger was left well behind now as Juno cleared the fence into the farmer's land. Emily was just a passenger; she had no control despite sawing with the reins her mount was still galloping in blind terror. Down the field towards the water course he charged, the ground becoming slippery with folds of mud and slick long grass. Then Juno turned sharply, Emily could still hear the dog's excited call as they headed back up the rise. She saw with growing horror the barbed wire fence ahead. She leaned her weight back and pulled the horse with all her strength, she had to slow him, but all she achieved was to unbalance him into an awkward stumbling gait. They were closing in on the fence at speed now, Emily tried to turn her horse but he was still blinded by a terror that had its roots in some ancestral memory of primordial predators. Juno's eyes flashed, he stumbled for an instant, slithering sideways, legs scrambling in the soft earth, so that when he leapt at the fence he was out of step, the angle was too acute; he was never going to clear the savage barbs of the wire.

  Brendan Smith was grubbing out ragwort, an unwelcome and poisonous invading weed that seemed to regenerate as fast as he could deal with it. This was a job which should have been completed long before autumn. Badger's incessant barking although off in the distance was starting to annoy him. He stood up and stretched the ache that was starting to develop in his lower back. It was truly backbreaking and tedious work and not what a farm manager should really have to do but labour was short and expensive these days for a subsistence farmer with just a few acres from which to scratch a living. He dragged his sleeve across his brow looking up towards another sound, a sound far more disturbing than badger's bark. It was the unmistakable scream of a panicked horse, a horse in deep distress, a horse in pain. It was in the near distance and he dropped his spade and ran without thinking to the source of the anguish. The sight that met his eyes was heart wrenching. The pitiful animal, bleeding from deep gashes to its flanks and neck was trapped by a hind leg entwined in the strands of the fence. It clearly had a broken foreleg and was unable to stand. From the amount of blood an artery must have been ripped open. The sight was bad enough but the worst part was the sound the horse was making, a scream of pain and terror. A sound that would wake Brendan in a cold sweat for months to come. He pulled out his phone and called the emergency vet number. He ended the harried conversation with the plea through a barely controlled voice:

  "Please hurry, and Ken I think you'd better bring your captive bolt gun."

  The second call was to Margaret Jenkins.

  She arrived, out of breath and flustered within seconds of the call and sank to her knees at the sight before her eyes.

  "Oh no Juno my handsome boy, what have you done to yourself?" Margaret was in shock, the blood drained from her cheeks as her shaking fingers wiped the sudden tears from her eyes. Then with an aching realization she called out to Brendan in renewed panic. "For God's sake Brendan, where's Emily?"

  Brendan had not even thought about a rider; the sight of Juno's distress had been all that had held his attention since stumbling on the shambles.

  Margaret ran along the hedge calling for her but there was no reply. She looked up back towards the stables. All she could see was a nervous group of teenagers, shocked into unaccustomed silence, unwilling to come closer but unable to avert their eyes. Margaret found no sign of Emily. it was Brendan who spotted her broken body first, she had slid roughly along the side of the hawthorn hedge to the right of Juno and only her polished boots black and shining were now visible. The young woman was not moving.

  Regaining some of her composure Margaret staggered closer to her friend. She knelt in the mud, closing her ears to Juno's agony. Brendan had taken a pace away, he felt out of his depth, the blood had drained from his face, he wanted to be sick. Margaret called to him to ring for an ambulance. He had already done so, but could hardly remember what he had said. It was an instinctive reaction to an emergency; he thought they had told him to remain calm... He closed his phone just as Ken's Land Rover slewed to a stop. He had been driving not far away and had made a rapid diversion taking only minutes to arrive. As the vet pulled his six foot frame from the driver's seat and caught sight of the chaos, his worried face looked as grey as his prematurely silvered hair.

  "Can you look at Emily first Ken?" Margaret asked, her voice quivered with an uncharacteristic tremor. "I don't know what to... I know it's not your field of expertise Ken... We've called for an ambulance... Oh God... Oh God."

  On hearing the name Emily, Ken suddenly became even more anxious.

  "Emily... Emily Wilcox, Oh no I didn't know she was involved, let me see her."

  Emily was a friend and colleague who worked with him at his veterinary practise; Ken was visibly shocked as he saw the girl's unmoving body under the hedge.

  He made his way past Juno who was still in distress but was quieter now, as the loss of blood had sent the horse into deep quietening shock. The animal lay trembling and breathing heavily the blood still gushing. Ken made eye contact with Brendan and nodded, without needing words, a confirmation of the need for the humane killer.

  As he reached the prostrate and desperately familiar shape of his young assistant he pulled back the hawthorn branches from her head and shoulders, and saw with deep concern that her neck was bent at a grotesque angle. A finger held against her carotid artery showed a thready pulse but there was no response to his voice nor his touch; her pupils were dilated and her open eyes registered nothing.

  "Emily can you hear me?" There was nothing, not even a flicker of her eyes. Ken turned to look at Margaret "I don't want to move her I fear she may have a broken neck, but at least she's still alive." He took off his jacket an
d laid it over her to keep her warm until more help and equipment got there.

  "Brendan, there's a blanket in the back of the Rover, could you grab it for me." When Brendan stumbled back with the soft blanket Ken placed it over Emily's pale and broken body with the delicacy of compassion that could only have come from a close friend. He gently stroked her cheek in a futile but somehow needed gesture and then quickly turned his focus to the things he knew about, to the suffering horse.

  He had no need to examine the gelding; there was only one humane thing to do. He took Margaret's cold and shaking hands in his own firm grip.

  "You know what I have to do." He said to her.

  For once Margaret was unable to speak; no words would come and she just nodded as her eyes filled again with stinging tears. She looked away into the distance at the eternal but ever changing sea as it lay visible through a dip in the rolling green landscape. In a hollow a stand of oak trees seemed to float on a lake of mist that still swirled in the chill air. It was still a beautiful place but the view could do little to bring her peace in this tragic moment. Margaret jumped visibly at the crack of the gun when it finally came. It seemed to all of them, as the echo of the shot finally faded that the world was suddenly filled with oppressive silence. Margaret allowed herself finally to fully answer the call that her emotions were demanding; to weep for her horse, for her young friend and for herself.

  After an eternity they heard the distant wail of the siren echoing across the valley as the ambulance raced to the scene of the accident. Slowly the sound got louder and somehow more insistent until, as if reaching reaching a climax, it suddenly fell silent as the vehicle left the road and turned up the farm track at the bottom of the lane. The sudden silence leaving a vacuum which was almost as disturbing as the wail it replaced. They watched the ambulance make its slow bouncing way across the rutted fields. A police car followed behind allowing the ambulance to reach the scene first. The medics were proficient and professional in assessing the situation. They worked fast but without rushing and soon had Emily immobilized and secure on a stretcher. They messaged back to the hospital with details for the intensive care unit, and an alert for the spinal department consultant. It was evident to all the onlookers that the situation was grave and as the ambulance finally made its way back at a much reduced speed, they wondered if they would ever see Emily's smiling face again.

  They had to contend, through confused thoughts and emotions, with questions from the police. They wanted to know of Emily's next of kin and collect the names and addresses of the witnesses and the first ones on the scene. Margaret was able to give them details of Emily's mother. Her address and where she worked. All too soon Suzanne Wilcox would be drawn into the unfolding nightmare.

 

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