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A Death : A True Story

'No!' he shouted. 'No! Haven't you already asked that?! Haven't I already told you?!' Brian

threw himself back into the chair, clutched his forehead and groaned. 'Talk, talk, talk! Why don't

you do something?' I leant back too, but at a more leisurely paced reclination, stopped the erratic

scribbling on my notepad, a futile pretence at note taking and surreptiously glanced from one to

the other. I felt uneasy and mildly defeated, for yes, as the couple well knew, I had already asked

that question. Brians wife had rang me the day before, concerned for her husband who had

developed persistent headaches. I tried to indefinitely defer the appointment; after all, headaches

are rarely that worthy of serious attention, but she had calmly delineated his aliments and

persuaded me through the urgent but dispassionate concern in her voice to make an appointment

for the following day. I reluctantly acquiesced and instructed my secretary to make an appointment.

And here they sat. June and Brian Cook, apprehensive, even nervous. I hadn't made much

sense of his discomfiture, despite his obvious pain until Brian started to mention of a recent trip to

Africa and I, despite my twenty odd years of experience as a consultant jumped to conclusions. I

had hoped of descriptions of fever, every third or fourth day, flushes of heat respiration, but these

symptoms were resolutely discarded by the man sitting opposite me. And yet ... I had to be sure; so

I persisted at repeating the questions, even at the risk of again provoking the man's anger. 'Any

feelings of lassitude, languor?' I asked. Brian scratched his ear, not unfortunately in reflection upon

my question but in pain. With his little finger he violently probed its inner recesses. It seemed a

convulsive movement, as a medic I thought it was a nervous response, a tic, brought on by his

present condition. His wife spoke for the first time since we had formally greeted each other. The

impression she had given me over the telephone was vindicated; even though there was an unease

caused by her husbands underlying illness an effective calmness prevailed.

'Doctor, we can see that you have to eliminate the possibility of malaria, but, we know it's

not that. This was our third trip to Africa - Brian's work involves painting and photographing the

I nodded, not doubting either their experiences in that country or of, now, their conclusion

in dismissing the possibility of malaria. 'How long were you in Africa?'

'Five months.'

'Which part?'

'Livingston.' I smiled: memories. 'It's near - '

'Hotel Victoria?' I asked.

She started in surprise. 'Why yes. How do you know of it?'

'My wife and I spent our honeymoon there.'

'Oh.' Her smile faded as she looked at her husband. I bit my lip and inwardly cursed at my

inexpedient comment. I turned to look and Brian. He had been a tall, good looking and muscular

man. Had been, for the pathetic frame of the man trembling in his seat seemed incongruous with

any romantic ideal of an explorer. June looked back towards me, an apologising glance as if to

imply he's not normally like this, he's not ... he's ..' I observed his frenetic twitchings, disconcerted

but pretending objectivity. I'd heard of the man, probably through a Sunday magazine colour

supplement, and had even once, some time before, seen an example of his work, a desolate

landscape with a single tree dispending its leaves downwards. It was an image I could recall easily.

A graduate of the Ruskin school of drawing the article had said - a promising future. And yet as I

sat there every creed that my profession exalted, I felt a presentment of ... how dare I say it?

of destruction creep upon me, a terrible prescience that this man would not live.

I stood, shaking my unease away. 'Well Brian,' I cheerfully announced, 'let's have another

look at you.' He placidly followed as his wife and I led him to the couch. June stroked his head

while I prepared the tests. All I could do was repeat the same examinations, hoping for a clue,

something I had missed the first time. But my results were only routine; a slightly higher

temperature than normal, a slightly raised blood pressure, but nothing that - then suddenly, an

almost imperceptible, a tiny puckering of the skin in the forearm, as if a pin had been pushed up
outwards from within. A single moment, a single movement - then it vanished. I stared closer,

ready, waiting. But nothing. It had a been a trick of the light. Or a muscular spasm. I placed his arm

by his side. He lay there with his jaw clenched shut, a thin film of perspiration forming on his face.

I speculated on the possibility of a brain tumour, as a cause for Brian's encephalic twitchings. I

made a mental note to ring a colleague. But should I commit him to hospital in the meantime? I felt

undecided; if his previous behaviour was anything to go by he'd object, and strongly. His indication

and determination to retain some autonomy led me to a decision that I knew was not necessarily in

his best interests - that he should go home. 'I'll arrange a head scan at the local hospital, I'll ring a

friend straight away. A neurologist. But June, I want you to take him home now. I think you'd take

better care of him than if he went straight to the hospital. She helped Brian to get dressed while I

prescribed painkillers. I felt misgivings at letting the situation ride, as it were, as if suddenly I'd

become aware of the futility of their visit to see me. His wife thanked me for my time, but as she

led Brian out through the doorway I thought she cast a look back towards me, a mildly chiding,

reproachful glance, that seemed to depict her disappointment or frustration at me. So this was the

Doctor Richard Thomas Croft, that flash had told me, and yet he could do nothing? I mumbled a

goodbye, but then, and much against my professional judgement I called her back. 'Wait I'll - ..'

She turned. '.. I'll give you my home number. Just in case.' She took a pen from Brian's pocket

and scribbled the dictated numbers upon her palm.

'I'll only use it in an emergency.' she said.

I nodded. 'Let's hope you never have to.' I cast a last look at Brian propped up against the

wall, head swinging back and forth in slow undulation. It absurdly reminded me, before he was

turned away, of the gentle rocking of a metronome, the swaying clock that ticks a life away.

At dinner Helen, my wife, commented upon my abstracted mood. I explained the strange

events of the day, my concerns over Brian's illness and she listened carefully as she always does,

before giving me her opinion.

'Atropos will cut the thread of life, when she will.' I turned and looked at her, somewhat
puzzled. I thought she was suggesting I adopt a more distant, more professional approach, but she

continued, 'But let this young lady not become your Siren, hm?' She gave a wry smile.

I laughed as her meaning became clear. 'It's not like that!'

' Ah, but you've never given out your home number before?'

'That's true! I agreed, before attempting to counter, But then, there's never been a case

like this, for me, before.' She threw me a look of disapproval and I realised my efforts to allay her

feelings of disquiet had failed. I was about to begin my explanation again when by an awful

coincidence that can only occur in the real world, the telephone rang.

'That's her.' Helen said.

'I think not.' I dismissed. But within a few terse sentences the conversation ended. I rang

my colleague and explained the situation and directed him to the hospital. I knew he'd make the

arrangements in the theatre before I arrived. I turned to my wife. 'I have to go.'

'Yes. I understand.' Gone was the gently taunting, gently provoking tone used earlier. I

kissed her goodbye and she murmured a few consoling words. 'I do hope you can do something

for him.' she said. June had indeed rang me but in a state of panic. Brian's condition had deteriorated

in the few hours since I'd seen him. And to such an extent that he had attempted to jump from their

second floor flat window. Only the good fortune of having friends present prevented his suicide. I

cursed my mistake. I should have disregarded my personal feelings concerning his 'autonomy', his

'indignation', and had him committed forthwith. But was the attractiveness of June a factor too, in

that hesitation, as my wife suspected? Brians friends were holding him down as I arrived,

sustaining kicks, cuts and bruises as they attempted to restrain his convulsions. I prepared an

anaesthetic and, after a protracted struggle, managed to insert a needle. And yet even unconscious

his head twitched and jerked in minute and involuntary spasms. The friends and I stood back and

looked down. I could see the fear in the other faces, the fear that could not reconcile the known

with the unknown, the fact that the Brian they had known, once so recently fit was now so very ill.

'There's something very wrong, isn't there.' June asked, touching my arm. 'It's far worse than
you thought isn't it.' she continued, now a statement, not a question.

I tried to reassure her, 'We'll take him out of the hospital, give him an X-ray, then cut a

small square from his skull - don't look so worried! - it isn't a serious operation, I've executed many

hundreds ...' My voice trailed off as I realised the grotesque pun.

She gave a thin smile in return. 'As long as you don't kill him, I'd appreciate that.' she

acknowledged, smiling wanly. I tried to take him in the car rather than waste time ringing for an

ambulance. Another mistake. The convulsions got worse as the vibrations seemed to exacerbate his

condition. June held him tightly to restrain his thrashings and prevent him falling off the seat. As

we arrived at the hospital the smooth and impersonal mechanisms of the emergency services

slipped into gear. I went to consult my colleague who was already washing in preparation. We

donned our green surgical gloves and suits while I rapidly explained the events of the day. The lack

of results from my tests and the earlier seemingly meaningless clue on the forearm. A nurse had

already completed the shaving the hair from Brian's head. The tufts of hair fell to the ground,

flocculent petals. I strangely recalled his picture and that solitary tree. My colleague instructed the

nurse where to clamp the head and pointed to the spot where lines were to be drawn to guide his

incisions. I inspected the X-ray plates taken while we had been changing. It seemed slightly over

exposed, cloudy, but revealed nothing. A high pitched whine filled the theatre as the minute circular

saw was tested. My colleague dispassionately checked revolutions per minute on a small dial then

passed on to other testing procedures. I envied him then, his clinical indifference; to him Brian was

just another body, just another slab of meat to be cut into and examined, whereas I, albeit briefly,

had known Brian not merely as a patient, but as a man with a name, and even in that short hour I

had talked to him a fragile relationship had established itself. I weighed up the pros and cons of our

respective posts, and I won, or so I thought - I at least had known the person, and it was that affinity,

however brief and ephemeral that gave a meaning to my job and career. I thought too of June who

now sat along the corridor, fretfully picking her nails as she had earlier in that day, now resigned to

the interminable hours of waiting. My colleague leant over Brian's head and began. A tiny eruption
of blood as he sliced and peeled back the skin. A nurse handed him the circular saw as he grunted

an indecipherable command. The disc began to cut into the bone, the high pitched whine wavering

a moment, becoming lower before resuming its normal key. A minute passed. Another slice at right

angles, then, eventually, another. The square completed, he delicately prised out the bone with a

pair of tweezers and looked up. I could see the crease under his eyes that told me he was smiling.

'Stage one completed!' he joked. 'Entry point established. All present and - ' A scream. He turned

in annoyance towards the nurse, about to admonish her unprofessional - but I gasped too as I

followed her gaze. We couldn't help but step back in horror as from the square emerged, triumphant

after their long captivity, a trickle of darting black dots. They began to scan the bald white dome,

hesitant at first in their exploration of their new world. But they had survived the long journey, one

continent to another, and in the end, their journey completed, the minute spiders had prevailed;

progeny of the eggs laid in Brian's ear.

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