“I work at the zoo. With spiders.”
“What?! Brrr! I could never do that. I’ve got a morbid fear.”
Sarah leaned over the bed to insert a digital thermometer in Ben’s ear.
“Ah, but that’s because you don’t know anything about them.”
“I know they go for me at home!”
Ben laughed, but it gave him a coughing fit, making him scrunch his face up in pain. Sarah looked at the display on the thermometer and made a note on Ben’s chart.
“Careful there. You’ve got a couple of cracked ribs. We’d better not talk anymore.” Sarah’s warm tone and smile belied her advice.
“No, but seriously. You know that they’re more frightened of you than you are of them, don’t you?”
“Then they must be absolutely terrified.”
Ben began to laugh again but stopped himself with a wince.
“I hope you don’t kill them, though.”
“Funnily enough, no. That’s my mum’s fault. ‘If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.’ Very superstitious, she was.”
“So, what? A cup and a postcard?”
“Yeah. Unless they really go for me, then it’s a slipper!”
Ben smiled, his eyes sparkling despite the pain and the circumstances: his right leg was in plaster to the hip and raised on a rig.
Sarah busied herself, plumping up his pillows and smoothing down his blanket; she was due in another ward, but they could wait.
“You needn’t worry though. . . .”—Ben read her name off the badge on her chest— “. . . Sarah. I wouldn’t bring my work home.”
With any other patient, Sarah would have given this kind of comment short shrift. But from Ben . . . now there was a sparkle in her eyes too.
She placed a conspiratorial hand on Ben’s forearm, and left it there just long enough.
“I’ll be seeing you later,” she promised over her shoulder as she left the side-room, a new spring in her step.
Ben’s morning wasn’t going so well: the alarm hadn’t gone off and he was late for work. But things were about to get worse; Jackie was calling him.
“I thought I told you to do the washing up before you left!”
“Hi, Jack. How are you?”
“What does it sound like? I have to do everything in this house.”
“Now that’s not fair, is it? I cooked the other ni—”
“I don’t care. I did it last night, and if you do the cooking, the other person does the washing up. That’s the rule.”
“Look. I told you before I left that I was running la—”
“Then you should have done the washing up last night!”
She hung up. Ben gripped the steering wheel hard and slipped into musing why he stayed with Jackie, something he’d been doing a lot recently. He’d loved her once, as far as he could remember. But with each passing day, things were becoming more and more unpleasant, and the reasons to stay together fewer and fewer. And he was sure that she was feeling the same; these rows over humdrum things were reflections of something fundamentally not right for either of them. They had no children, which should make it a little easier to do what, deep down, he knew needed to be done. He’d speak to her that evening.
Resigned, he shook his head and turned to look out of the side window at apparently happier people going about their morning business. He’d only taken his eyes off the road for a moment, but when he turned to the front again, there was the young girl, looking back at something and stepping off the kerb.
Ben’s reflexes kicked in; he braked and swerved simultaneously, missing the girl but skidding crazily across the road and into a post with a grinding crunch.
What began as a dull throb in his right leg quickly became excruciating agony. He tried taking deep breaths to ease the pain but each one was like a dagger in his chest.
The last thing he remembered before he blacked out was the sirens.
Emily was dawdling. She didn’t want to go to school but she had to, of course, especially today – there was an important end-of-year Maths test first thing. It wasn’t her strong suit, so she’d had to study doubly hard. And now as she dawdled, she tried to go over in her head the principal formulae she imagined would come up, but with little success. Her mood turned black: a resistance to school per se, and a sense of doom at what she perceived to be foregone failure in the test.
But then she saw it: a man in the middle of the pavement doing a funny little dance, skipping on the spot and slapping his head wildly. He pirouetted, bent over, rubbed his hair, stood up straight, skipped some more, then ripped off his jacket and threw it to the ground. Finally, he balanced shakily on one foot while stamping the pavement in an arc with the other, then bent over again, holding his knees and panting, exhausted.
Emily burst out laughing at the impromptu show—it was like watching a clown at the circus. All at once her mood lifted; she might fail the test, but the dance had cheered her up and somehow given her a much more philosophical handle on the day to come. She might have stuck around for a possible second act but she was already late for school because of her dawdling.
She kept an eye on the man, though, to see whether he would start up again. And as she carried on walking and looking back, she heard a violent screech of brakes close by, the sound of skidding and a sickening crash.
“So you don’t reckon, then?” Sarah’s flat mate Lisa was grilling her on the night before.
“Nah, I don’t reckon. He’s good looking and all that, but he’s as boring as hell. What do you think he does?”
“As a job you mean?”
“Yeah. What would you say is the most boring job possible for a man?”
“I don’t know. Let me think . . . Accountant?”
“Ha! First time!”
“Nah, really? I imagine there must be interesting accountants out there somewhere, though?”
“I’m sure there are, but he’s not one of them.”
“You’re not having much luck, are you? So, back to the dating site again, then?”
“Suppose so. Shame because he really was good loo— AAARGH! JESUS!”
Lisa came rushing into the bathroom to see what was up. Sarah was pressed against the wall opposite the bathtub, shaking.
Lisa followed Sarah’s trembling finger and peered into the bathtub.
“Blimey! That’s a big ‘un.”
“It’s a MONSTER!”
“I’ll fetch a shoe.”
“No! No! Get a plastic beaker from the kitchen. And a postcard—there’s one from Charlie on the kitchen table.”
“Okay. Don’t worry. I’ve got this covered.”
Lisa disappeared leaving Sarah still pressed against the wall, transfixed with shock and fear.
Lisa rushed back in with the beaker and postcard. She leaned over the bathtub, plonked the beaker down and slid the postcard under it.
“Okay. That’s done. Now what?”
“Throw it out of the window.”
“Yeah, yeah. Quick though. And don’t bloody drop it on the way!”
Lisa carefully ran her hand under the postcard and lifted it and the beaker up.
“I can feel it scurrying.”
“TOO MUCH INFORMATION!”
“Okay, hang on.”
Lisa made her way gingerly across the living room.
“Open the window then, Sarah!”
Sarah ran round her friend, giving her a wide berth, and flung the window open, moving aside to let Lisa pass. Lisa got to the window and emptied the contents of the beaker, tapping it on the ledge to make sure it was empty. She looked down to the street.
Sarah joined her. There on the pavement directly below them, a man was skipping on the spot and slapping his head.
Sarah pulled her friend away and quickly shut the window.
“Bloody hell! Just my luck!”