STORIES
...from the 'pen' of CHRIS GREGORY  
 

 

 
 

WHITER THAN WHITE
by Chris Gregory

Jeremy drove past Malvern Street Hospice on his way to work every day. Nowadays he never gave it a second glance. Its faded Georgian facade just seemed to blend in with the other buildings. He was much more concerned with trying to negotiate the contraflow system, which involved him changing lanes to join the stream of traffic which flowed into Cathedral Row. More often than not, the lights would turn red at exactly the wrong moment. Or some flash bastard in a Porsche would cut him up. By the time he arrived at the Agency it would be half past nine and he'd have to make the usual excuses.

The route to work also took him past the first flat he'd shared with Carla after they'd got married. Of course, it was a top floor flat, so that even if he'd leaned out of the car he'd have been hard pressed to see it. As it was, it just flashed past him as he turned the corner of Corporation Parade into Malvern Street. In any case, Jeremy wasn't at all interested in the past. Whenever Carla showed friends their photo album he'd squirm in his seat. "You really used to look like that...", they would laugh.

Jeremy did his best to avoid anybody who'd known him when he'd looked like that. Luckily, hardly any of them called by these days. Often, Carla would nag at him to call Josie and Terry but he usually found some way out, thank God. Sometimes old Spike would stop by and bore them stupid with stories about his bloody job at the Advice Centre. Stupid turd could be earning a decent roll. Instead he spent his time dealing with deadbeats and dossers who probably deserved all they got. As Jeremy always said to Carla, none of the old gang were like them. They just hadn't moved with the times.

Malvern Street was jammed solid. Jeremy tapped his foot on the clutch impatiently. A lot of copy to catch up with today. No doubt Williams would be waiting with his usual sneers. Late again, eh, Jeremy. Been calling in on that Hungarian piece again for a swift one before breakfast, haw haw. Creep. He wound his window down and wiped his brow with his tie. This was the last thing he wanted. He'd even made the effort to think up an excuse to tell Carla why he'd have to leave for work early. Terrible traffic congestion. Then that bloody bitch Michaela turned out to be at the wrong time of the month. He leaned over and tuned in to Metropolis Radio. G'morning, punters! It's Ken Bright's Breakfast Show,coming up. The light stayed red. But now it's nine o'clock, so it's over to Jan Michaels at the Metropolis Newsdesk. Beep beep beep.

Jeremy's hands sweated on the wheel. Some old codger in a dirty grey mac was taking ages to get over the pedestrian crossing. The old sod looked like he'd be better off put out of his misery. And finally, reports from Heathrow say that passengers can expect delays of up to eighteen hours at major airports, due to a strike by air traffic controllers. He eased into first gear. All he'd have to do was remove the handbrake,and...

Finally the old man stepped up onto the pavement. That's all from the Newsdesk. And now back to Ken. Metropolis Radio, ooo ooo ooo. Welcome back, punters. It's Ken Bright here. Bright and early. Ho ho. The light turned green. Jeremy lurched forward. 'I should be so lucky', the radio played. 'Lucky, lucky, lucky....'.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the juggernaut turning out of Cathedral Circus. He slammed on the footbrake and the clutch. In the split second before impact the only thought he had time to have was that the car had been through an M.O.T. only two days ago, and that everything had been checked out, certified, stamped AOK.

An invisible force lifts Jeremy up. The car is knocked up onto the pavement outside Malvern Street Hospice. His head is crushed against the dashboard. There can only be a split second between when he is hit and when he passes out. But in that second, everything goes into slow motion. The steps of the Hospice come closer and closer. At the top of the steps sits Hilda. She is alive, in a long white nightgown. Her face is cracked and smiling. Her hands are held out in an open gesture. She is calling, calling to him...

The first thing Jeremy saw when he woke up was a dark shadow, which loomed over him, threatening him. He sat up, gripped the shadow by the throat and twisted, like he was holding a steering wheel.

More dark shadows, actually two other nurses and a hospital porter, arrived to rescue Nurse Cathleen. Jeremy's hands went limp. He lay back on the hospital bed. "Lucky..." he mumbled. "Lucky, lucky, lucky..."

"May all the saints be praised!" Nurse Cathleen rubbed her neck gingerly. "At long last he's come round!" But when she looked down again, he had relapsed.

Jeremy's eyes are wide open. Hilda sits at the end of the bed. She smiles radiantly. She looks younger, like she was when she first moved into that flat below them, before the chemotherapy and the operations. Her silver-grey hair shines. Her eyes sparkle. She smooths a long, thin, hand on her white nightgown. "I've come to see if you've kept your promise..." Her voice is serene. "Remember?"

"Look, Hilda, I-" He holds out his hand. But when he touches her, the whiteness of the crisp hospital bedsheets and the whiteness of Hilda's nightgown merge into one.

"It looks like you're coming round again." Nurse Cathleen stood at the end of the bed, two clean white towels folded neatly over her arm. She fingered the bulky stop watch on the front of her apron. "You wouldn't be thinking of strangling me this time, would you?"

Jeremy blinked. He tried to sit up. "Just settle down now. Don't be getting yourself excited." Nurse Cathleen busied herself rearranging the Get Well cards that had built up by the bedside. 'BEST WISHES FOR YOUR RECOVERY' said one, 'FROM ALL AT OPEN REEL'. "I'm sure you'll have a lot of questions to ask. We'll deal with that tomorrow, or the next day. Right now you need some rest. You've got to get your strength up."

The whiteness of everything in the room is dazzling. The weakness is overcoming Jeremy again. Cathleen's voice chatters on, then gradually fades away. Faces and places sweep before his eyes, so fast it's impossible to make them out at first. There is Carla, shaking her fist accusingly at him. His mother, shaking her head. How can you possibly think of going out looking like that? All the old gang crowd around the bed, laughing and pointing. Spike and Netta and Josie and Terry and Charlie. Then Williams and Robson and Jane Smart from Open Reel advancing, pushing the old gang out of the way, crowding him. Then hundreds of Open Reel ads in fast motion...

Sophistication. Pure sophistication. Wicked delights. A dark, slinky woman in a black leotard raises one eyebrow slowly, flickers her devouring eyes, licks her lips, and sensuously consumes every last mouthful of the Coffee Creme. She licks her lips again, satisfied.

Cut. A screaming guitar intro. Yeah, Go For Freedom. Go For Comfort. Go For Style. A Man Can Go Places In A Volvo. Close up on the hand gripping the gear lever, thrusting it down.

Cut to tyres screeching.

Cut to Jeremy's wedding day. Carla's dress billowing . Whiteness. Sheer Whiteness. From Miracle Acdo. The One That Gets To The Heart Of The Wash.

Cut to the Damned gig at Bolton Poly. Jeremy jumps high, sends out a line of spit. It hits Rat Scabies square in the face. Whoo!

Cut to Malvern Street Hospice. In the background, the nuns glide silently around. Hilda makes the effort to raise herself up. She is weak, but there is a faint gleam in her eye.

"Finally managed it..."

She shows Jeremy and Carla the painting she has just completed. It shows a young woman with short spiky black hair and a young man with his head shaved up one side, leaving a narrow strip of hair standing up. The strip is dyed green at the back, purple at the front. The figures lean together. They are both naked. The girl's breasts are pressed into the man's chest. His hand rests on her thigh. The painting is not in Hilda's usually sharply-defined style. The colours are blurred, the lines unsteady, the proportions of the bodies somehow not quite right. "It's beautiful" says Carla. "It's a pile of garbage" Hilda tells them. "My hands won't stop shaking any more. Look-"

The hands are bony, wasted. The skin is drawn tightly across her trembling fingers.
"I wanted the two of you to have it." "It's a brilliant likeness," says Jeremy. "Don't patronise me." Hilda's face flushes momentarily. "You're just trying to keep a dying woman happy." Carla leans over the bed. "Hilda, you must rest. Don't get yourself so worked up. Let me help you with your pillow." She smooths the pillow down. Hilda slaps her hand down. "Stop fussing. There's no time to mess around. I may be going to meet Him...." She points upwards, with a sly grin. "...soon, but I have a little spirit left in me yet. Now listen, you two. I've got something to say. Something I won't have vthe strength to say again." She leans forward and takes both their arms in a faltering grip. The corner of her mouth shakes. The words are slurred. "Now listen to someone over twice your age who's made an awful lot of mistakes. This is something I really care about. I've lost a lot in my life. Family, friends, lovers... Now I'm on the way out myself. But since you moved into that flat you've been like a real son and daughter to me."

She wheezes. "I've got one last wish. Now, I know you've both been seeing other people on the side. Don't look at me like that. I wasn't born yesterday. I've prayed and prayed. I've searched for guidance. Now God has given me the strength to tell you both to stop this nonsense." Her grip on their arms tightens. "I want you both to swear to me that you're going to stay together. You're throwing away everything. Don't try to deny it. I can read the signs at my age. You shouldn't mess your lives up like I did. You know, when I was younger, there was this man. This man on a cruise ship, who... but I don't have the strength to tell you. You wouldn't want to know about it amnyway. Now look me in the eyes. Promise. I'll be your witness." "Of course, Hilda," says Jeremy. "Of course..." "Yes..." Carla sobs. "Yes..." Hilda gives them one of her long, penetrating looks. Then she relaxes her grip. "Bugger off now," she says. "Time I got some rest."

Nurse Cathleen checked Jeremy's temperature, and tucked in the crisp white bedsheets. For a few moments she stood with her arms folded, observing him breathing. Every so often his whole body would jolt slightly. She fingered her stop watch and sighed. Such a pity. And there had seemed to be so much hope for him. She fought back a tear. No use letting it get to you in this job. She shook her head. Certainly, the Lord worked in strange and mysterious ways.

"You'd better wait here." Carla leaned over the passenger seat to give Jack a long, lingering kiss. "I shall be as quick as I can." "You're sure this is really worth bothering with? What's the point of seeing him? He's practically a stiff as it is. " "It's all panning out fine with the insurance money. Best not to take any chances, though. They did tell me he'd actually woken up. Hard to believe, I know, after six months. But don't worry. They say there's very little chance he'll make a recovery. Eventually he'll just stop breathing. Then we'll get the full dividend. In the meantime, let's play everything cool."
Jack kissed her again. "I should have fixed those brakes better than I did. Still, how was I to know he'd crash outside a bloody hospital? Suppose you've gotta take the rough with the smooth." She felt his hand squeeze her left breast. "For God's sake, Jack." She laughs."People can see us." "What the hell. Hey, why don't you just slip a pillow over his head while nobody's looking, put him out of his misery?" He ran his other hand up the inside of her thigh. "Cut it out! Save that for later. Meet me here in half an hour."

"I do wish there was more hopeful news," Nurse Cathleen told Carla. "So sorry to get you here on a false alarm. But I swear that yesterday he did look as if he was going to wake up. You must be so brave..." "Some things you just have to get used to..." Carla twisted her handkerchief between her fingers. "I keep hoping against hope that one day he might speak to me again, just once..." She sniffed. "Don't be upsetting yourself, my dear. It may have been a false alarm this time. But who knows? It may be a good sign. Now you get yourself home." "But I can't leave him. What if..." "Don't let's be having all that again. You go home now. No point in upsetting yourself so." "Yes, yes... I suppose you're right."

The reels of film spin in an endless loop, faster and faster. The slogans keep flashing in front of his eyes. Don't be Bitter with Burton's Bitter. Happy Dogs eat Happidog. When your kidsa go off to school, don't forget the golden rule. Dress them bright, dress them in white. Wash their clothes in Miracle Acdo. Miracle Acdo. Whiter than White. Whiter than White. Whiter than White...

Nurse Cathleen had just cleaned Jeremy up as usual. She arranged his head carefully, so it was supported by the pillow. He looked so peaceful now. And so handsome. She glanced behind her quickly, to make sure nobody was approaching, then leaned over and stroked his thick black hair. Then she reached further down to pull up the bedsheets. It was impossible not to notice the erection stirring in his pyjamas. And he felt so warm...

She gave another quick glance behind her. Then she sank to her knees by the bedside, crossed herself, closed her eyes, clasped her hands together tightly and begged The Lord for guidance, and for mercy.

END

 

COPYRIGHT CHRIS GREGORY (C) 1999-2002 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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