Stretching from the white beaches of the Indian Ocean to the banks of the broad Swan River, there was a city. At the top of the city was a hill, covered in the natural scrub and low trees of the Australian bush. And at the top of the hill there was a huge park – a mixture of lawns, manicured gardens, and large expanses of bushland. Kings Park rose above the clean skyscrapers of downtown Perth, above the freeway interchange, and over the beautiful river. The avenues of the park were lined with towering eucalypts, planted in memory of soldiers who died in the First World War. Those quiet roads now played host to families who came on weekends to ride bicycles, buy ice creams, and throw coins into the wishing well.
Most of the tourists would go to the war monument, a great obelisk at the park’s edge, to take in the stunning views of the city and of the many sailing boats at play on the water far below. But those who knew the park well knew there was a better place.
Hidden in the interior of Kings Park was a spiral lookout tower, a winding staircase of silver steel, four storeys high. It crowned a grass fairway, half a mile long, which ran from a quiet garden up a gentle slope to the highest land in the park, at the base of the tower. On either side there was dense bushland, so the fairway itself made a long slash of bright green, when viewed from the tower, running down the slope and pointing away from the city centre to the quiet suburbs in the west. The tower was a little too inland to get a good view of the ocean, but the rolling, pretty suburbs, seen over the bushland of Kings Park, were reward enough for the climb. One could look east, instead, to the city skyline, or south, to the branching expanse of the river. This was the place to come to appreciate the beauty of the city and all the promise that it held.
Kings Park could be a quiet place during the week, especially away from the tourist places. Early in the morning, before the dull groan of traffic on the freeway would begin, there was tranquillity and solitude to be found in the park’s interior. It was a favourite with joggers and walkers, somewhere to find a route less frequented by others, somewhere to keep fit and to take in the fresh park air at sunrise.
And so it was, one summer morning in February of 1996, that a young jogger took her usual route, starting at her home in Nedlands and entering the western edge of the park. It was very near dawn when she began her run. By the time she had reached the bottom of the fairway and was preparing for the long run to the top, where she would climb the spiral tower and rest before running home again, the sun had already risen above the eastern horizon. The jogger would be running towards the light. She paused, summoning the energy to attack the long incline. At her side, her dog waited obediently.
Dogs were not allowed in Kings Park, but Perth, for all its youthful innocence and optimism, was not as safe a city as it once was. Young women had recently disappeared from the nightclub districts, so the jogger had decided to flaunt the rules and take her large dog running with her. It made her feel safe. The big, red Irish Setter was glad of the exercise and it bounded excitedly around her feet, eager to move on.
The jogger began her long run up the fairway. It was the most difficult stage of her route, every morning. She was dressed in a light pair of shorts and a T-shirt; it was too warm for a tracksuit. In a few hours, the day would reach thirty degrees Celsius, and by the afternoon, closer to forty. Even at first light it was uncomfortably warm. The jogger began to sweat as she trudged up the long incline. It would take a few minutes to reach the tower.
The dog, let off its leash, bounded ahead with long, effortless strides, then looped back behind the jogger and ran beside her for a while before racing ahead yet again. The fairway was deserted, for which the jogger gave silent thanks. It was the solitude of running that she loved the most.
At last, the jogger reached the spiral tower and stopped. It was her custom to rest here, to climb the tower and look out over the city. She told the dog to stay and stepped onto the steel staircase. She climbed quickly, jogging up the tight helix, pulling herself along with her outside hand on the smooth safety rail as she went. The tower moved slightly under her, reverberating with every step, and swayed, just barely, in the warm easterly breeze. It was an odd structure to climb: sturdy enough, but with a life of its own, moving just a little, as if to let the jogger know it was aware of her presence. At the top, the jogger turned slowly to take in the full compass of the landscape around her. It was always special, being up there. She never grew tired of it.
The jogger was suddenly annoyed to hear her dog barking. She looked down, to the bottom of the tower, but the dog was not there. Then she looked west, along the fairway, and saw him. He was two hundred feet or so from the tower, on the southern edge of the fairway, running into the trees and then out again, trying to attract her attention.
Worried that someone might hear the dog’s frantic barking, the jogger cursed under her breath. “Oh, bloody hell. Here we go.”
She made her way down the stairs as quickly as she could and ran onto the fairway. It took her nearly a minute to reach the dog. She was sure someone would have heard him by now and that she would get fined. This time, she spoke loudly. “Sam! Shut up! Come here! What’s wrong with you?”
The dog would not settle. It bounded up to her and barked furiously, ignoring her commands. Then it ran into the trees, where it had been before. The jogger followed, annoyed. She was determined to retrieve the dog and put him back on his leash.
And then she stopped, suddenly, and went no further.
The dog had brought her far enough.
Lying in the scrub was the body of a young woman, still dressed in an old pair of jeans and a red pullover. The lifeless head was slumped to the side and there was froth at one corner of the mouth. The dog nuzzled and sniffed at the body, which was half-sitting up against the trunk of a small tree. The eyes were open, blue and vacant. It was an horrific sight.
A woman’s scream rang out across the park as the jogger realised what she had found. She felt sick. Months later, she would tell friends that she should have stayed, should have checked the body for a pulse, but that it would not have made any difference, for the girl was dead. At the time, however, the jogger was gripped with such terror that all she could do was run. She feared the killer was still nearby. She didn’t see the scene clearly. She didn’t notice any of the obvious clues, which the police would later point out made her fear unjustified. All she did was turn and run, run as fast as she could, away from that place of death. She ran east, past the tower, onto the bitumen road that led down to the war memorial, to the places where there would be people. The dog followed her.
The jogger ran down the road for three frantic minutes, before she came at last upon a cleaner working near one of the still-closed food kiosks by the war memorial. She tried to tell her what she had found.
The cleaner, a portly woman, twenty years older than the young jogger, at once told her to calm down. It took a minute or two for the jogger to blurt out a description of what she had seen. Then the cleaner made her sit down. She telephoned the police while the jogger cried – more tears of fear, and of the relief of fear, than of sadness.
When the police arrived, they could see the jogger was too distraught to revisit the scene. A young policewoman stayed with her, while the other constable called for support and for an ambulance before driving quickly to the spiral tower. He knew he needed to check if the woman was dead. It was the worst part of police work.
By the time the constable had parked the police car and run down the southern edge of the fairway, he already doubted he would find the woman alive. It would be another nightclub murder, he supposed, another abduction. He went two hundred feet past the tower, like the jogger had said, looked into the scrub, and found the body.
He felt for a pulse. There was none. The body was still quite warm and not rigid. She could not have been dead for long, perhaps only half an hour. But there was something wrong, for a murder. There was no blood. There was no wound. Instead, there was a plastic intravenous drip bag, connected by a long, clear, snakelike tube to a catheter in the vein of the woman’s forearm. The bag was half-empty. It contained a fluid, an ugly, dark green colour. The constable pulled the dead woman away from the small tree she rested against, thumped on her chest twice in a vain attempt to restart her heart, and began CPR. It was not up to him to pronounce her dead. He knew it was futile, but he blew air into her dead lungs and compressed her chest over the heart between breaths, until the ambulance arrived.
The ambulance drove straight down the grass fairway and parked only metres from the body. The medics, two serious young men, asked the constable to step aside. The shorter of the two took over the CPR, pressing an oxygen mask over the dead woman’s face, but he shook his head to indicate there was no real hope.
“What’s happened here?” said the taller medic.
“I dunno, mate. Looks like some kind of drug overdose. I thought it was another murder, at first. But then I found this.” The constable indicated the intravenous drip set, still hooked up to the woman’s arm. Since he had removed it from the tree, where it had been hanging from a sturdy twig, the drip bag was on the ground next to the body.
“Ah, Jesus,” said the medic, in disgust and sadness. He pulled angrily at the clear plastic intravenous drip set tubing, ripping it away from the catheter in the dead woman’s arm. “Jesus Christ.”
The young constable didn’t know what the medic was talking about, but before he had time to ask, the medic spoke again.
“Okay, let’s move her.”
The tall medic and the constable lifted the body onto a stretcher, while the second medic continued pumping the oxygen mask. In the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, they would intubate her, they would shock her heart to try to make it start, and they would go through all the motions of trying to revive a person that was long since dead. Sometimes, they knew, you could be lucky and pull someone back to life, but the tall medic knew that would not be possible in this case. All because of the dark green fluid.
The constable was left alone at the death site. Just after the ambulance left, a second police car drove down the fairway and parked where the ambulance had been. A police sergeant got out and walked over. The officer with him stayed in the car, working the radio. Detectives had to be called and the scene would need to be quarantined and photographed.
“Is this where you found her?” said the sergeant.
“Yeah, Sarge. She, uh, was probably already dead.”
The sergeant nodded. “Show me what you found, then.”
The constable looked a little pale. “She was here, against this tree, sitting up. There was a ... a drip in her arm.”
“An intravenous bag?”
“What was in it?”
“I dunno, Sarge. Take a look.”
The sergeant took the drip bag from the constable. He held it up against the sky and looked through it. The dark green fluid was poorly transparent. “Any sign of a struggle?”
“No. She was just lying there.”
“I didn’t think so. This isn’t murder. It’s suicide.”
“You mean, a drug overdose?”
“No, son. What would a junkie be doing out here? Nah, I’ve seen it before. This lot’s a suicide rig.” The sergeant held up the drip bag.
“They call it green dream. It’s a concentrated anaesthetic, pentobarbitone sodium. They make it green, to make sure nobody uses it by mistake. She must have known what she was doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you get the dose wrong, you go into convulsions. It’s pretty ugly. Smashes up the body up pretty bad. She must have known exactly what she was doing. Look at the ground – she went peacefully.”
“Jesus,” said the constable. Now he understood what the medic had been so angry about. There would have been no chance of reviving the woman, with her body full of an anaesthetic overdose.
“Are you all right, son?” The sergeant put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “This your first suicide case?”
“Yeah. Sorry, Sarge.”
The sergeant spoke with sad irony. “You’ll get used to it.”
When the two policewomen knocked on the door of Ruth MacDonald’s large home later that day, it was to bring the kind of sad news they were trained to bring, that the old woman’s granddaughter had passed away that morning. She had been declared dead by doctors in the Emergency Department at Royal Perth Hospital, after prolonged attempts to revive her. The cause of death was an overdose of pentobarbitone sodium.
Ruth would later discover a letter, the last one that her granddaughter, Sally, ever wrote. It would arrive in that afternoon’s post and it would confirm what the police had suspected, that it was suicide. But when Ruth answered the knock at her door and spoke to the policewomen, she did not yet know any of that.
Strong, as always, Ruth replied simply. “Oh, no. That can’t be.”
Then she asked them inside.
That day broke her heart more than any other day in her long life.
Where the broad expanse of the Swan River branched to the south and briefly narrowed to a humble channel under the old Canning Bridge, it ran into a quiet body of water too shallow for the big boats from the wealthy sailing clubs of the north shore. This was the Canning River, which snaked gently south and then east through the southern suburbs of the city. It was a river that Ruth MacDonald had known most of her life. She had taken many quiet walks along its shores over the years and found much peace and reassurance there, first with her husband so many years ago, then with her young family which fate had stolen from her, and, in the end, after her husband’s death, she walked the riverside path alone.
It seemed to Ruth, after seventy-five years of living, that life had led her slowly and relentlessly to being alone. She still remembered the happy day when, as young woman, she had met Fred MacDonald, her future husband, almost fifty years ago, in Melbourne. Ruth had been a simple girl and her family had no money, but they had prized her education. She had risen to become a schoolteacher, a profession of which she was proud, and had met Fred at a community dance, held in the gymnasium of the school at which she worked. The dashing young man had an honest optimism about him, which Ruth had liked, and when she got to know him, she soon knew that she would love him. It was just after the war and Fred MacDonald spoke of business, of moving west and building a new life there. After the wedding, they had left the city of their birth and come to Perth, which, at that time, seemed like a country town compared to the sophistication of Melbourne.
At first, things were hard, but Fred kept his promise and after a succession of lowly jobs he found a future for himself in printing. His business expanded over the years from one tiny print shop to a chain of modern copying centres. MacDonald Printing allowed Fred and Ruth to live a comfortable life. Ruth was able to stop teaching and to raise the family she had always wanted. Eventually, they moved to a stately home in Mount Pleasant, a quiet suburb on the western bank of the Canning River. Ruth had walked the banks of that river for more than three decades, before the fateful day that two policewomen had come to the house and informed her that her beloved granddaughter, Sally Johanssen, was dead.
Ruth was a survivor. Her experience with grief started early. Although each successive blow seemed like more than she could overcome on her long path to loneliness, she had in fact become stronger with each passing year. As a young mother, she had lost the eldest of her two children, James, to influenza, before his first decade was out. Some kinds of pain are too great even for words and Ruth became silent and withdrawn for a time, after that first great loss. She always suspected that the death had forever traumatised her only remaining child, Claire, who had been eight years old when her brother passed on. The second blow came unexpectedly and cruelly, when Fred had died of a heart attack, nine years later. He was barely forty-five years old and he was the only love Ruth would ever know. When he died, a part of Ruth died along with him, never to return.
Fred had left a sizeable estate. Although Ruth would not be rich, she was able to keep the large riverside home that she so loved. But as Claire grew from a child, confused by grief, into an angry young woman, she became more and more alienated from Ruth. When Claire married and left Perth with her new husband, a Dutchman named Karl Johanssen, ironically it was to return to Melbourne. The family history had gone full-circle. Ruth had lost Claire, almost as much as she had lost James. And then she was alone, with her house, and the river.
When Sally was born, although the child was on the other side of the vast continent that is Australia, the news was a joy to Ruth. Claire did not prevent Ruth from having contact with Sally, and over the years, in letters, and in occasional trips, Sally came to love her grandmother as her favourite relative. And Sally needed every ounce of that love, for the man Claire had married, against Ruth’s wishes, was a violent alcoholic. It nearly made Ruth’s blood boil, when she heard the stories from her granddaughter about Mummy being hit by Daddy, about the smell of booze on Daddy’s breath, and about the nights when he would not even come home at all. Claire had seemed, to Ruth, to have become a lost woman many years before, but when Karl turned his drunken anger away from Claire onto his defenceless daughter, Ruth lost all respect not only for him, but for Claire, the mother who would let her daughter be beaten. Claire did eventually separate from Karl, but not before Sally had been forever traumatised by the beatings that came senselessly and unpredictably from her father.
Ruth was a compassionate and strong woman, but when Karl died, drunk as he had lived, taken by a car accident, she found she could shed no tears for the man. And then, one of the happiest things that had ever befallen Ruth came to pass. Sally came to live with her.
In the turmoil of her violent home, Sally had found an expression for the love she craved, in the love of animals. Sally liked horses and dogs, although she had neither for herself, and her mother had let her keep a cat. As a teenager, Sally dreamed of becoming a vet. She was a good student at school and she wanted desperately to enter veterinary college. Claire had met a wealthy Canadian engineer, after Karl’s death, and had set her mind upon marrying him and emigrating, but Sally could not bear the thought of going to some strange new country with a mother she could never trust to provide her with even the most basic things a child needs: safety and love. It was then that she hit upon the idea of going to live with her grandmother, in Perth. Sally was eighteen, a little older than her classmates, and she could make her own decisions. Claire seemed almost not to care, but Ruth was overjoyed.
Sally came to live in the old house by the Canning River, finished her final year of high school and did well in the university entrance exams, gaining entrance into the veterinary studies program at the local university. The day she got the letter confirming her acceptance into the course, she was ecstatic. She had run into the house and hugged Ruth. It seemed to Sally that the misery of the past was at last behind her. A new life could begin.
In Ruth, Sally had found the family love she had always wanted and never had. In Sally, Ruth had found a living part of the family that had been taken from her years before. For a time, the future seemed bright. They lived together, as the only family they truly knew, for almost six years, before Sally graduated and left to begin work as a veterinary surgeon.
When the police officers had told Ruth, barely a year later, that Sally was dead, they could have had no comprehension of just how great a loss it was to Ruth, of how it seemed like the crowning sadness of a life of many sad events, and of how it left Ruth more alone than she would ever be able to express. Nor could they fully understand the crushing pain that Ruth felt at the knowledge that Sally’s bold determination, to move beyond the violence and the heartbreak of the home she grew up in, had failed, that the innocent young woman had not been able to escape the past, and that, rather than moving forward to a better life, she had stumbled, fallen, and ended it all. The cruelty of this fate was more than Ruth could bear.
She had not cried in front of the officers. She had been polite to them, thanked them for their time, and seen them out. Then she had locked the front door, gone to her recliner chair in the library, sat down, and wept. In the evening, she had checked her mailbox and found the suicide note, which Sally had written and posted the night before. Reading it, Ruth wept so hard she could barely breathe.
Nearly two years had passed since that awful day, and Ruth had her own demons to deal with now, in both her mind and body. She had not blamed herself for Sally’s death, but she always wondered if there might have been something she could have done to prevent it. And when one day she had gone to see her doctor, complaining of chest pains, and he had sent her to have X-rays done, and CAT scans, and MRIs, and when all the scan results were in, and a surgeon told her she had to have a biopsy done, and when the biopsy came back as cancer, Ruth was almost relieved. It was not that she wanted to die, for she wanted to live, but that at least the uncertainty of when and how her death would happen was taken away. Ruth was a practical woman and she knew, at that time seventy-four, that she was not getting any younger. The news of her cancer at least gave her something tangible she could fight. She knew that her lymphosarcoma would be the final act in her life story. But it seemed that not even this malignant cancer could defeat Ruth MacDonald, for the disease went into remission. For the last twelve months, she had been relatively well.
The knowledge that the end of her life was coming made Ruth want to change a few things. She was lonely and she didn’t see the point in living out her last little while by herself. It was true that she liked solitude and that she enjoyed her quiet days working in the garden, or reading, or walking by the river, but there was also something inside her that made her want to help someone other than herself. Perhaps it was the feeling of helplessness, that she could not save her beloved granddaughter now, or perhaps it was just Ruth’s practical nature, that she wanted to, in some small way, do something to help her fellow man. In any case, she decided that she would contact an aid agency and offer to take in a boarder, perhaps a young student needing a safe place to stay, or a foreign student come to learn something of Australia, or perhaps someone recuperating from a hospital stay, needing a halfway house before they launched back into the world at large. As fate would have it, it was someone in the latter category the agency suggested. Ruth made the agency promise not to reveal that she herself had cancer, because she wanted to live as normal a life as possible, as long as her remission lasted, and anyway she wasn’t given to discussing private matters with strangers. The agency agreed.
And now, on a boiling-hot November afternoon in 1997, Ruth watched a taxi pull up at the front gate of her riverside home. A man got out and opened the gate, with some difficulty, then hobbled down the path to her front door using a walking stick to steady himself.
Ruth stood on her front verandah and waited for him.
She saw a handsome man with a sun-browned face that was creased with lines of laughter and lines of grief from thirty-nine years of living well. He had short, dark, straight hair, flecked with grey, and a tallish, athletic figure, now crippled. He looked the kind of man, Ruth thought, who must have wooed many admiring women in his day, with his movie-star looks, but there was something pathetic about him now, as he limped up the front steps of her home and onto the verandah, resting heavily with every step on his walking stick, held in his right hand. And as he finally greeted her, Ruth could see that there was much hidden behind his well-practised charm and much belied by his boyish smile. He seemed immediately complex to her.
The woman that Michael Andrews saw standing by her front door, waiting for him as he painfully made his way towards her, had a strong, dignified face, deeply wrinkled and without make-up, and the look of someone dressed for work in the garden, with sensible, green slacks and a big, white shirt. She had a thin figure and was a little taller than average but her back was straight and she was not frail. Her hair was a uniform silver grey, it was long and straight, collected back and wound into a bun. She looked more like someone in her mid-sixties than the aging old woman the agency had described. She was obviously still a very active person, whereas Michael himself found it a tremendous struggle merely to walk. He liked her, at once.
“G’day. Mrs MacDonald?”
“That’s right. And you must be Michael Andrews.”
“That’s me. Pleased to meet you. How you going?”
Ruth took Michael’s outstretched right hand and shook it. “Fine, fine. Looks like you’ve got some luggage coming.”
Michael leaned on his walking stick. He turned a little to see the taxi driver pulling bags out of the cab, a white Falcon sedan.
“Where do you want these, luv?” said the driver to Ruth, when he had made his way up the path and to the house.
“Second room on the left, thanks.”
“No worries.” The driver took the suitcases in, then went back to the cab and collected the rest of Michael’s things: a couple of cardboard boxes packed with books and mementos, and a large, soft suit-bag which the driver layed out on the single bed in Michael’s room. When the driver had gone, Ruth led Michael inside.
“Well, this is your room, Mr Andrews.”
“Call me Michael, please.”
Ruth smiled. “I’m Ruth. Breakfast and lunch are up to you, but I’ll serve dinner every night at seven. You’ve got your own bathroom, at the end of the hall, and you’re welcome to use the sitting room, over there. You can see the river from the front windows. There’s a big garden out the back, that’s my hobby. I’d like to think someone other than myself could enjoy it. You’ve been indoors, in hospital, quite a while, the agency said.”
“About three months.”
“Well, summer’s on the way. It’s beautiful out in the garden. And there’s the river, just across the road.”
“It’s lovely,” said Michael. “You’re very lucky to live here.”
Ruth thought for a moment. “The agency told me about ... your accident. I just want you to know, I’m very sorry.”
Michael felt uncomfortable. “Thanks.”
“But I won’t pry. If I know hospitals, you’ve probably had every nurse and social worker in the place asking you about it. They’ve probably even sent you to a shrink.”
Michael grinned. “Every Wednesday. I still have to go.”
“Well, you won’t get any questions from me.”
Michael said nothing.
“Right. Come and I’ll show you the rest of the house.”
In truth, the agency had warned Ruth to keep a close eye on her boarder. The doctors at the hospital, concerned by his slow recovery, had called in a psychiatrist. Michael was under therapy not just for his physical injuries but for post-traumatic shock syndrome and clinical depression. Although Michael was a good man who would never be a danger to anyone, he might well be a danger to himself, after what he had been though. It was probably this very warning that made Ruth agree to take him on. She still thought of Sally often, and this was as close as she could get to helping her.
The house was a big, quiet, stately home. It had only one storey, which meant no stairs for the disabled man to climb, other than the steps which led up to the wide front verandah and those which led down from the back door to the peace and privacy of the rear garden. From the verandah and from the big windows of the adjoining sitting room, there were pleasant views of the Canning River. The high ceilings of the old house, the heavy, red clay tiles sheltering its roof, and the cool, polished floorboards underfoot, made for comfortable living in the melting-hot summer. There was an old kitchen with a pot-bellied stove to warm it and the small dining room beside it, in winter, and there was a library at the back of the house, to complement the sitting room at the front. The rest of the house, Michael did not venture into. He assumed the other bedrooms and storage rooms would hold secret memories for the old woman, into which he would not want to pry. He had been impressed by Ruth’s not invading his own privacy – it was a courtesy he wanted to return. After the tour of the house, Michael excused himself and went to his new room, to rest. He felt constantly tired, in those days.
When Ruth knocked on his door to bring his dinner, a couple of hours later, Michael thanked her profusely. The food was delicious. It was Ruth’s custom, she explained, to eat in the library over a good book or watching television, and she encouraged Michael to make use of the sitting room for his own mealtimes. Something in the tone of her voice made it clear that she preferred to eat alone, and it was a routine that they would soon settle into. Ruth would cook dinner, Michael would thank her for it and he would always take the time to compliment her on her cooking, and then they would eat separately, being the intensely private people they were.
Michael, of course, paid for his room and board, and Ruth was glad of the extra income. She spent it on books or on the garden. But at the end of that first day at Ruth’s home, Michael knew nothing of the routine which would develop, of how comfortable he would come to feel, and of how much he would value Ruth’s friendship. What he knew was that he had had a life and he had lost it, that he was in a lonely room with nowhere to go.
He felt very alone.
Loneliness was a new feeling for Michael, something which he had scarcely known before in his life. He did not like it. It was a kind of emptiness, an inescapable longing, which was so much in contrast with the contentment and love that he had known for fifteen years. He had no idea that a life could go from so good to so indescribably empty, without any warning, until it happened to him. He had heard stories of terrible tragedies which had befallen others but his own charmed life had never made him feel any such unbelievable pain, until now. And were it just the pain, the loneliness, and the loss, that he had to deal with, it might have been something he could cope with, somehow, barely, but greater than all of those things, since the accident, was the guilt which he felt, for he was no good.
The accident – there’s a euphemism, he thought bitterly, as he sat in his quiet room on that first night in Ruth’s home.
There was a big jarrah wardrobe opposite the bed, a small writing desk and chair, and even a comfortable recliner chair, as well, as if Ruth had guessed he might want to spend time alone, reading, thinking, pondering, in this little room. But Michael sat on the bed. He didn’t bother to unpack his suitcases, and only one of the boxes had been opened. Michael had put a framed picture of his wife on the desk, where he could see it from the bed. Three people were dead because of him, and he would never see Marie again, for she was one of the three.
Michael didn’t believe in accidents. He was a pilot, a trained professional, and a professional makes decisions and those decisions count. If a storm is gathering, a pilot should know it, know where the storm is, which direction it’s moving in, what altitude the big storm clouds are flying at and how best to avoid them. A pilot should know his aircraft, what it is capable of and what it is not capable of, and the hard line between the two which separates life from death. Michael blamed himself for not knowing the difference, for pushing his aircraft beyond the envelope of what it could survive, and for ending three lives. Most of all, he blamed himself for not being one of the dead. He had killed his wife and his two closest friends by putting his aircraft on the wrong side of that hard, unforgiving line.
And, that night, it was all he could think about.
Ian and Diane Rogers had known the Andrews for the best part of two decades. They loved Michael for his charm, his good humour, and his rock-solid confidence. Michael was a man who inspired trust in everyone who knew him, an experienced pilot who for several years had flown small and medium-sized aircraft for charter companies and small airlines. Diane even admired him for his rugged good looks and for his turquoise eyes that always seemed to twinkle with the hint of a smile, although she would never have admitted this to her husband, whom she loved dearly.
But no one admired Michael more than his wife of fifteen years, Marie. Michael’s respect for her was equally profound. Her career as a research biologist, studying the insidious process that makes a normal, healthy cell turn cancerous and how that change might be treated to save a life, had always deeply impressed Michael, as much as his glamorous job as a pilot had attracted Marie. They complemented each other perfectly. Michael’s single friends, mostly young pilots who shared his passion for the sky, men who valued their freedom above everything else, would nevertheless tell him, from time to time, that, “You’re a lucky bastard, Andrews, to have a woman like her.” And Michael would never argue, for he knew that he was lucky, and for fifteen years he had been so.
Ian and Diane were high-school teachers. Ian was a scientist, Diane, an artist. Ian, Diane, Michael and Marie were an inseparable group. Their friendship went right back to their days at university. They had seen each other make the first, tentative steps in their new careers, they had volunteered as best men and bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, and they had travelled together.
On holidays, Michael enjoyed his role as chief pilot and tour-coordinator. He would fly them all down to Esperance, on the impossibly beautiful, remote southern coastline of Western Australia, or to Margaret River, a short hop south of Perth, a fertile district dotted with wineries and lodges and fine restaurants hidden in forest groves or overlooking rolling pasture. He would fly them inland, over the desert, to the old mining city of Kalgoorlie, or out over the ocean to the little island of Rottnest, a diver’s paradise. He would fly them north to Monkey Mia, where dolphins swam along the beach and played curiously with eager tourists, or even further, if it was a long holiday, to Broome, with its stunning beaches and huge tides that left big boats balanced on the sand. These were the many good times the four had known.
But three months before Michael had come to stay with Ruth, when he still had good legs and his characteristic, jaunty walk, when his blue eyes still twinkled with laughter, when his closest friends still trusted him, and when he still had Marie by his side, Michael took them all on the last trip they would ever make together.
It was late on a Sunday afternoon, the tenth of August, 1997, when Michael obtained clearance from the tower, opened the throttle wide and raced down the smooth runway away from the safety of the ground and into the sky. Michael had always loved flying. Marie loved it too. From the first time he had taken her flying, the thrill had never grown stale to her. As the Cessna 172 gradually climbed, Marie looked out over the tiny airport of the southern town of Albany. Ian and Diane were in the back seats, tired after a long day of sightseeing and eager to make it back to Perth for a good night's sleep before Monday morning reared its ugly head.
It was cold and wet. A light drizzle fell from the overcast sky. As a rule, Australian winters are mild – it rarely snows anywhere, except at the top of a few low mountains, and the most that has to be contended with is heavy rain, strong winds, and occasional hail or frost. But the wind coming in off the Southern Ocean in the dead of winter is icy cold, and the air was heavy and damp that evening. Michael had checked the weather forecast carefully before he had decided to fly, and although there was rain predicted, he saw no problem with making the journey back to Perth safely. Michael turned the aircraft north and trimmed for cruise. And the journey began. Marie squeezed his knee and smiled at him. The engine droned. Ian and Diane fell asleep.
Before the flight, Ian had walked around the little Cessna, following Michael as he performed the customary preflight check of the aircraft. Michael had checked the control surfaces, made sure the luggage was stowed properly, visually verified the fuel load was adequate, checked the engine, and even kicked the tyres – an old habit of dubious importance but part of the routine. Michael was a safe pilot and he never took stupid risks and never left anything to chance. It was a philosophy that had kept his flying accident-free for the best part of two decades. And whatever little mishaps had arisen in that time, he had handled with the level-headed, cool demeanour that good pilots cultivate and that keeps good pilots alive. Ian, on the other hand, not burdened with the serious task of preflighting the aircraft, spent his time distracting Michael and making jokes.
“Yellow and white, eh? You’d think they’d come up with better colours for an aeroplane that yellow and white, red and white, blue and white. Who comes up with these colours?”
Michael was checking the engine oil. “It’s an aircraft, mate. Aeroplanes are those wind-up toys kids chuck around in parks. And what colour it is has got nothing to do with it.”
The girls were waiting impatiently to board the plane. Diane spoke up. “Huh. That’s a typically male comment. What’s the most important thing about a car?”
“Colour,” said Marie. “Ask any marketing executive.”
“Well,” said Michael, closing the engine cowling. “Yellow and white will have to do. Anyone who doesn’t like the colour can wait for the next plane. Any takers?”
“It’s a bit old, isn’t it?” said Ian. “Is this one of the old training tubs from the flight school? Another cheap rental?”
“Don’t knock the 172. I learned to fly in one of these, you know. It’s a fine aircraft. This thing is the Old Faithful of aviation, and there’s one thing about Old Faithfuls: they never let you down.”
“You boys finished yet?” said Marie.
“Yep,” said Michael. “Let’s get goin’.”
The flight had been uneventful, if a little bumpy, until Marie noticed Michael fiddling with the radio. He looked annoyed. Despite barking his callsign and position into the microphone on his headset several times, he was getting no response.
“Ah, shit,” he grumbled.
“What’s up?” said Marie, over the engine noise.
“The bloody radio’s on the blink.”
“You sure? There’s some storm activity. Maybe it’s interference.”
“Nah. Bloody thing’s fucked up again.”
Marie shrugged. “I thought Bert had fixed it.”
“That’s what he told me.”
“It worked fine, on take-off.”
“Yeah. Looked fine on preflight, too.”
“Any chance of getting it going?” said Marie.
“No. Last time this happened, Bert had to take it apart.”
“Hmmm. Well, that’s not good.”
“He reckoned it was gonna be fine, now. It passed the checks.”
“So, we’ve got no radio.”
“Not a cracker,” said Michael. “Shit.”
“It’s not Bert’s fault.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just, I’m worried about those storms.”
“With the radio out, I can’t tell how bad they’ll be, up ahead.”
“You want to turn back?”
“Ah, I’m not sure. Weather wasn’t good at Albany, when we left. Might be worse behind us than in front. It’s a tough call.”
“Hmmm.” Marie was silent for a few minutes.
“Look at that lot. That’s gotta be bad news.” Michael pointed at several towering columns of cloud, ahead and to the left and right. Visibility was poor and it was starting to get dark but what had Michael worried was clear enough: cumulonimbus clouds, great storm stacks reaching up high, white monsters turning slowly dark.
“You think we can go through it?”
“Maybe, if we go around the cells, but if the storm cells coalesce, we’d be stuck right in the middle of it. I think we’d better turn back.”
“Ian and Diane won’t be happy. They’re supposed to be at work tomorrow morning.”
“I know, luv. But it’s just not safe.”
“So, you want to go back?”
“Yeah. We don’t want to take a 172 into that kind of weather, not without a radio. Anything smaller than a jetliner doesn’t want to go through that. The windshear could toss us around like a leaf.”
“I know,” said Marie. “I just didn’t want to disappoint them.”
Michael patted his wife on the knee. “You’d better wake ’em up.”
While Marie woke up Ian and Diane, and told them that they had to turn back to avoid the storms, Michael banked the plane, turned 180 degrees and reversed course.
“Is it really that bad?” said Ian, sleepily.
“Afraid so, mate,” said Michael. “Sorry.”
“What a bugger.”
“It’s okay, Mike,” said Diane. “Better to be safe than sorry.”
Michael had gone quiet. He seemed distant.
“Something up?” said Marie.
“Look at that.” There was a big storm, dead ahead.
“This is getting worse, isn’t it?” said Marie.
Without a radio, there was no way Michael could get an accurate picture of where the bad weather was, of how thick it was in each direction of the compass and of which route and altitude he should take to get out of it as quickly as possible. The light was failing rapidly. Soon it would be completely dark. It was a freak situation, incredibly unlikely, but Michael’s training told him not to waste time thinking about that. He simply had to deal with the situation at hand. There was no time for philosophising about how they had gotten into it. That time would come later, much later.
A flash of lightning answered Marie’s question.
Suddenly, the plane bucked up, then dropped. Diane felt sick. The plane must have dropped a hundred feet without warning.
“Windshear!” Michael yelled tersely, as he settled the aircraft back into level flight. He knew that a violent updraught must have stalled the wing, bleeding them momentarily dry of the aerodynamic force, lift, which kept the plane flying. The engine could be running perfectly, but with a stalled wing, without lift, the plane would drop like a stone until Michael could correct the controls and level it out again. Up here, at five thousand feet, Michael knew this was not such a problem, but down low, near the ground, a drop of only fifty feet might prove fatal. He flew south, trying to maintain five thousand feet, while his mind worked overtime to find a solution.
The sun had disappeared beyond the horizon. Only the afterglow of dusk remained to light the rural scene below, miles and miles of almost flat, gently-rolling farmland, dotted with trees and powerlines, grazing cattle and dirt roads. The scene was just barely, if at all, visible from the aircraft, thick in the storm. Lightning flashes bathed the wings in light between moments of darkness. The horizon was a ruby line, rapidly fading.
“Marie,” said Michael, “we’re in trouble.”
“Mike?” Marie had never heard him say such a thing, in all the years they had flown together. She was suddenly worried.
“Guys,” Michael repeated, “we’ve got a bit of a problem, here.”
Ian and Diane leaned forward, struggling to hear him.
“The weather’s closing in and I don’t see a way out of it. Without a radio, there’s no way to guess which way to fly. It’s getting dark ... and in pure darkness there’d be no hope of landing unless we could make it to a lighted airport.”
“Right,” said Ian.
“What do you think we should do?” said Diane.
“Well, if that windshear was any indication of things to come, it might be too dangerous up here. I’m having trouble maintaining altitude, so we can’t outclimb the storm. If we hit more serious turbulence, it could damage the airframe.”
“You mean ... we could stop flying?” said Ian.
“I’m not saying that. I just think it’s too dangerous up here. There’s still some light, and there’s an airstrip near here, on Johnsons Farm. If we want to take that option, we can ...” Michael stopped talking. The plane had suddenly dropped again. It was a sickening feeling, like being in a lift with a snapped cable, plummeting straight down.
“Hold on!” Michael yelled.
Then he spoke calmly, once he had the aircraft in a long, gentle dive to pick up speed and restore the airflow over the wing after the stall. “We’re down to four thousand feet.”
Marie knew what Michael was going to say. “We can’t keep going like this, can we, Mike? Not in the dark.”
“No. I don’t think so. I think we can’t.”
“Well,” said Ian, as calmly as he could, “we’d better put her down, then. We’d better land, while there’s still light.”
“You’re the pilot, Mike. It’s your decision,” said Diane. She trusted him instinctively. He had never let them down before and it was reassuring to her that Michael was in command. He would get them through this in one piece, that much she was sure of.
“Okay. I think we should land at Johnsons Farm, while there’s still light. Tighten up your seat belts. This could be a little rough.”
“Okay,” said Ian.
Marie said nothing, but shared a private glance with Michael. She, too, was sure that he would get them through safely.
Michael slowly lost altitude, maintaining a steady rate of descent and a safe cruising speed as best he could in the violent weather. At last, he could just make out Johnsons Farm, in the near darkness, and the farm’s dirt airstrip. Fortunately, Michael had landed at this farm several times before, during his charter work, and he felt comfortable that he could find a safe approach to the airstrip, even in the poor light.
As he turned onto the final leg of his landing pattern, lined up perfectly on final approach and sinking past five hundred feet, Michael’s thoughts were calm. He thought only of the task at hand, which was to set the aircraft down safely – a difficult job in the dim light, with strong crosswinds and the rain and lightning of a violent storm falling down on them from above. The other three occupants of the plane were nervous, because they did not have the task of flying to occupy their minds. All they had was hope.
For Marie, it was probably worst of all. Michael hid the seriousness of the situation quite well from Ian and Diane, but fifteen years of marriage allowed Marie almost to read Michael’s thoughts. She could see it in his face: this was serious and they might not make it. There was no time to talk about anything. Things were happening fast and Michael needed complete concentration. Marie simply tightened her seat belt a little more, gripped the seat firmly, and waited.
The little 172 stopped bucking and weaving so much, as it neared the ground. At four hundred feet, Michael was reasonably happy with the approach. At three hundred, he decided to go ahead and not to abort the landing. He was lined up well, drifting down to the near end of the airstrip as the altimeter indicated two hundred feet. Silently, Michael gave thanks that the turbulence was smoothing out. He felt confident.
Nevertheless, he still considered the risk of fire. Under ordinary circumstances, in an emergency landing in calm conditions, he would have liked to shut down the engine, switch everything off, and glide to the ground without power on. If anything should go wrong, that would give him the least chance of a spark igniting the gallons of aviation fuel that still slopped around in the tanks. On the other hand, if he cut the engine, he would have no way of aborting the landing if a violent gust were to grab the aircraft and push it off course at the last moment. He might need the engine to go around again. The decision was already made: he would not switch off until the aircraft was grounded and travelling too slowly to become airborne again. It was a decision, along with the decision to attempt the landing at all, which would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The plane gradually lost height as it swooped in at a high landing speed over the long, dark path of dirt that passed for a farm airstrip. And then – suddenly – there was a terrible, malignant jet of wind, violent enough to blow old strips of corrugated iron over the airstrip. Michael would later remember the sight of those bits of tin, which had covered a nearby well, fluttering across the airstrip like silver leaves.
The sudden gust, like the hand of an angry giant, took the small aircraft and wrenched it to the right. It happened far too quickly for Michael to correct. The left wing was pushed up at an absurd angle and the right wing stalled. Michael had the control wheel twisted to the left, pushing forward desperately to try to correct the stall and the simultaneous quarter-roll to the right, but the raised left wing was caught even more effectively by the wind and it went past vertical. For Michael, events now seemed in slow motion. He fought at the controls but knew it was beyond controlling.
They were flying on their side now, plunging vertically down and only an instant away from colliding with the ground. Although the sudden lurch of the plane rolling was a sickening feeling to all the passengers, Ian and Diane, in the back, were probably less horrified than Marie, since it was only Marie who had a clear view of the ground rushing up at them and of how imminent the impact was. She knew, in that split second, that they would probably not survive. And then the instant was over.
The right wingtip hit the ground. And that was the end of being airborne – they were no longer flying. The little plane, wrenched over by the wind, caught by the ground like an animal in a trap, began a sudden, horrific cartwheel. The right wingtip gouged a furrow along the wet ground until the left wing came flipping over the top, spinning the plane end over end like a gigantic toy, and finally turning the whole mangled aircraft upside down, then smashing it into the ground with unthinkable force. It skidded to a halt. The occupants were already unconscious.
“I’m telling you, it’s a bloody plane!” said the farmer’s grown-up son.
“Get out of it, Jack. For Chrissake, nobody’d be flying in this storm.” Reg Johnson was annoyed. He was trying to watch television.
“Listen, Dad. I saw the strobe light. Somebody just tried to land on our strip. I saw it come down. Come on! Get off your arse.”
Reg Johnson let out a heavy sigh. “Are you sure?”
“Fuckin’ oath, I’m sure, Dad.”
“Well, if a plane did come down in this, they could be hurt.”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“All right,” said Reg. “Get the Land-Rover, and the first-aid kit. And tell Mum to stand by the radio. We might need to call for help. Bloody hell. Right in the middle of the fuckin’ footy, too.”
By the time the two men had bumped across the paddock in the four-wheel drive and reached the airstrip, in the now-complete darkness and the driving rain, they realised a plane had indeed come down. Caught in the headlights, as they drove along the dirt strip, were white and yellow pieces of debris. Reg Johnson had stopped joking. He looked sad.
“Oh, shit, Dad.” Jack had seen the plane, which the long line of debris had led them to. It was by the right side of the airstrip, shining in the beam of the powerful spotlights of the Land-Rover. It didn’t look an aircraft but like an ugly pile of twisted metal, like a scrap dump. The plane was upside down and mostly unrecognisable.
“Come on, mate,” said Reg. “There might still be people alive in there. Leave the lights on.”
Jack turned off the engine, grabbed the first-aid kit and, together with his father, jogged over to the wreck.
They came to the pilot’s side of the plane first. Michael, like the other three people in the plane, was hanging upside down by his seat belt, and, unlike the other three, was still alive. His face was pushed against the door window and it was stained with blood. He was completely unconscious.
“I found the pilot!” Jack yelled. He pulled at the door but it was too buckled to open. “Can’t get the bloody door open. We’ll need the winch, Dad.”
“Right, mate. Get back to the car. I’ll set up the cable. And make it quick. This bloody thing could catch fire. I smell fuel.” Reg took the winch hook from behind the roo bar of the big Land-Rover and, as Jack played out the line, ran back to the wreck and planted the winch hook over the bent edge of the pilot-side door.
“Ready, son. Let her rip. Gently, now.”
The door buckled further, under the pull from the winch, then popped open. Michael’s head flopped down, hanging vertical.
Reg put his cold fingers in front of the pilot’s mouth. He felt breath on his hand. “Jesus, he’s still alive! Help me get him out!”
Together, the two farmers undid the seat belt and cradled the unconscious man, as gently as they could, out of the aircraft. It was still raining. They carried the man to the side of the Land-Rover. Reg yelled again at his son. “Get a tarp out of the Rover, mate. Cover him up. Keep the rain off him. I’ll check the others.”
Reg stuck his head into the cabin of the wreck. He shone a waterproof torch around, and soon wished he hadn’t. The two in the back, a man and a woman, were obviously dead. The back of the cabin was crushed around them and there was no way to get the twisted bodies out. It was not a sight for the faint-hearted. Even Reg, a toughened farmer, felt sick. He turned his attention to the woman in the front seat. He noticed that the engine block had come back, pushed rearward by the impact, and crushed the lower half of her body. He felt for a pulse. There was none. She was dead.
Reg made a mental note to check the pilot’s legs. They might have been crushed, as well. Then he came out of the wreck and walked to the one man he could still do something for, the survivor. “Right, son. Help me get him in the back of the Rover. Careful of his legs. I think they might be broken.”
At that moment, as Reg and his son gently lifted Michael into a half-sitting position, in preparation for lifting him into the truck, Michael’s eyes opened. He gasped a little, confused and dazed.
“He’s awake, Dad,” Jack whispered.
“Crikey. Poor bastard. Would have been better if he’d stayed unconscious. Nearest doctor’s an hour away. He’s going to need some morphine, or something.” Reg looked at Michael and raised his voice enough for the dazed man to hear. “Okay, mate. You’re gonna be all right. Don’t try to move, eh? Just sit still. We’ll look after you.”
Suddenly, where there had been no pain, there was a searing cacophony of unbelievable pain, a shooting agony that made Michael feel his head was going to explode. He almost blacked out again.
Reg repeated his command. “Don’t try to move. Lie still.”
A moment or two later, Michael managed to open his eyes again. Then he suddenly remembered: he was in a crash. He had crashed the plane!
“We’ll get you to a doctor, mate. Don’t worry,” said Jack. “But first, we’ve got to pick you up and put you in the truck. Okay?”
Michael could barely speak, for the pain, but he managed to croak out a few pathetic words. “The others. You’ve got to get the others. There’s ... four people in that plane. Three people ...”
To Michael’s horror, as he looked past Reg’s shoulder, to the wreck, he saw some small flames starting, despite the rain, near the front of the smashed fuselage. “It’s on fire ...” he breathed.
Reg looked around. “Ar, shit. I was afraid of that. Right, son, we’ve got to move this man and move him quick. That lot could go up any minute.”
Michael tried to protest. “No. You don’t understand ... there are people in there. My wife ... my wife’s in there ...”
Jack and Reg lifted him up, ignoring his disorientated protests, and lay him out as best they could in the back of the Land-Rover.
Michael was crying now, half from concussion and disorientation, and half from frustration at not being able to get these two farmers to listen. Didn’t they realise his wife was in there? His friends were in there! The physical pain was almost enough to make Michael black out again, as the Land-Rover bumped slowly over the paddock on the way back to the farmhouse, but the physical pain was surpassed by the emotional pain when a loud crack, the sound of an explosion, whipped across the landscape. Michael never saw the fireball directly himself, only a flash of light, but later, in his nightmares, he would imagine it over and over, and no amount of explanation, from old Reg Johnson, or from the counsellor at the hospital, or from the bloody shrink that he had to report to every Wednesday, that Marie, Ian and Diane were already dead when the horrific fire engulfed the wreck, could ever soothe his fractured conscience, that his friends had been devoured by flames. Michael’s pelvis was fractured, and both his legs, but it was the rip in his conscience that came closest to killing him.
Jack worked the radio. “Mum, get on the blower and get an ambulance, fast as you can. This bloke looks like he’s peggin’ out.”
Time had stopped, in Michael’s world, stopped precisely at the moment the right wingtip of the old Cessna had swung down like an axe into the wet ground of Johnsons Farm, splitting first the ground and then the aircraft itself. Since that moment, time meant nothing.
Michael knew he deserved to be dead. Why should he have been the one to survive? He would have given anything for Marie to have lived. If he could have chosen, he would have laid down his life for her without hesitation. But she was dead. And he had killed her, for no matter what the aviation authority said – that it was a tragic accident caused by a freak gust of wind – he knew only that his wife was dead and his closest friends were dead and that his heart was still beating.
Michael had always accepted that one day he might meet his death in an aircraft, and that was a trade he was willing to make for a lifetime spent celebrating the freedom and beauty of flight, but for flying to have killed the people he loved while he was at the controls was more than he could reconcile. Those people had put their faith and their trust in him. They didn’t deserve to be dead. He did. And so the three months in the hospital, barely able to move, meant nothing to him. And when the counsellors came to his hospital bed, and then the psychiatrists, he would tell them anything just to get them to go away, to leave him alone with his thoughts.
There was still the memory of his life before the accident, his happy life, which he could see in his mind almost as clearly as he could watch the river through the big windows of Ruth’s sitting room. But he could no more get back the life he once had than he could reach through the glass and touch the distant waves. His happy memories were diamonds, beautiful but sharp, and they cut at his tortured mind whenever he thought of them. Yet the happy memories were the only thing he had to hold onto. Without the past there was no reason to live, and he knew that Marie would have wanted him to live. But it was hard.
A month had gone since Michael had come to stay with Ruth. The days passed quietly. Christmas was approaching and it was hot. Michael spent most of his time inside, keeping cool, thinking, reading, sometimes watching television, or just looking out from the sitting room to the river beyond. Ruth went for long walks in the evenings, by the river, and during the day she gardened, or read in the library. She seemed to have an innate respect for Michael’s privacy, as if she must have known what it was like to go through a terrible loss. For this quiet distance, Michael was deeply grateful.
As the weeks passed, Michael became a little more mobile. It was easier for him to walk further before resting, and he did not need to take quite as many painkillers to control the ache from his healing fractures.
One morning he limped down the hallway to the back door and stood there watching Ruth work in the hot sun. He marvelled at the old woman’s stamina. She was watering her roses, carefully spraying the hose at the trunks of the bushes, not on the leaves or the flowers, since the sun would burn these if the water droplets settled on them.
The truth was, Ruth thought often of her own great loss. It had been nearly two years since Sally’s suicide and Ruth still felt the pain of it. As she worked in the garden, Ruth would think back to the happy times she had shared with her granddaughter, to the six years they had together. She remembered the day, after Sally’s fifth and final year of the veterinary course was over, and all the exam results were in, and Sally had passed with honours, that Sally showed her the first piece of mail addressed to Doctor Sally Johanssen.
“Well, you’re a doctor, now,” Ruth had said.
“It sounds strange, you know, Gran.”
“You should be very proud, Sally.”
“I am, Gran. I am.”
It was a happy day. Ruth was very relieved that Sally’s degree was finished. It had been a gruelling and stressful course for the young woman. Although it was wonderful having Sally staying with her, and their life at home was happy, Sally had often returned from a day at the veterinary college looking exhausted and on edge. There were times she would stay up all night studying, and other times that she would not come home at all, when she was on emergency duty. The young woman would do lectures and practical work all day and then study at night, or get up to deal with emergency cases in the small hours. Sometimes Ruth had worried that the stress might be too much for Sally and that she might not make it through the course. Ruth knew Sally wanted to be a vet more than anything, and that Sally would be crushed if she did not make it. More than once, Sally had come home in tears. On one of these occasions, the surgery lecturer had yelled at her during a practical surgery class, as if Sally were not a hard-working student, worthy of respect and courtesy, but a nobody, a nothing, someone who should be lucky to be addressed with anything above contempt if she were to make the slightest mistake. To Ruth, there was something unhealthy about that kind of culture, where one’s whole self-esteem was supposed to come from attaining the title of Doctor, and until one had done so, one was not worthy. But although some of Sally’s friends did not make it through the course, Sally herself weathered the storm and graduated. The greater struggle, sadly, she did not survive, and Ruth could still barely accept that Sally had died only a year after graduation.
One day, Michael wandered into the library. Ruth was outside, in the back garden as usual, and he could see her through the little windows when he pulled aside the crepe curtains. Michael hadn’t spent much time in the library, until then, and now it intrigued him. Ruth must do a lot of reading, he thought. The walls were hidden by big jarrah bookcases, seven feet high, packed with books of every description. There was a whole section devoted to gardening, and another to thrillers—Agatha Christie and the like. The thrillers were in large print. The old lady’s eyesight must have been failing a little. Michael came across another section, three shelves of medical textbooks, or to be more precise, textbooks of veterinary medicine. These were an unexpected find.
Ruth had said nothing to Michael about her family and Michael could only suppose that her husband had been a vet. He turned his attention to the framed family photographs on the sideboard. There was an old black-and-white wedding photograph, which looked like it was from the forties, of a young Ruth and her husband. Another old photo showed them with two young children, a boy and a girl. Then there was one, in colour, of her husband, a little older, standing proudly in front of a shop named MacDonald Printing. This ruined Michael’s theory that he had been a vet. Strangely, there seemed to be no adult photographs of the boy and the girl, who would have long since been grown-up. There was, however, a modern, colour picture, from the eighties, Michael guessed, of a teenaged girl with long, straight blonde hair. Then there was another of this girl, but now grown into a young woman, standing with her arm around Ruth. Michael recognised Ruth’s garden, with the rose bushes in the background, as the setting for the portrait. And then, the final photograph solved the mystery. There was the young woman again, who was quite beautiful, with her long hair tied back and a stethoscope hanging over her shoulders, kneeling by a big German Shepherd. Even the dog seemed to be smiling, its mouth open and panting. There was an engraved plaque on the frame, which read, ‘Dr Sally Johanssen and Emmy. January, 1995.’ Michael guessed the young woman in the photograph would have to be Ruth’s granddaughter, although in the month he had lived here, he had seen neither the woman nor the dog. Silently, he chastised himself for being so snoopy, and left the library.
There were few visitors to the house, and little to disrupt the routine. On quiet afternoons, Michael would relax in the sitting room, and Ruth would read in the library. The week before Christmas, Ruth got out an old photo album and sat in her recliner chair in the library, put on her glasses, and turned the pages, slowly. She came across a picture of Claire and Karl, not long after they had gotten married. Miserable bastard! she thought, and decided she would rather not look at old pictures, after all. She got out another book, a gardening volume, and settled back to study how to grow a better rose. Little things, she had come to realise, meant everything in life.
Once a fortnight, Michael would write out a cheque for his room and board, and every Wednesday he would leave the house by taxi to see the psychiatrist and to have physiotherapy. The physiotherapist wanted him to go more often, but the psychiatrist counted herself lucky that Michael came at all. The psychiatrist, a wise young woman who had seen men like Michael before, made him take antidepressants, and he duly swallowed down a pill every evening with his dinner. She also asked him probing questions about his inner thoughts and about how he felt, questions which Michael skilfully deflected with his charm and with a wry smile, giving vague answers designed to keep the woman out of the private sanctuary of his pain, his guilt, and his grief. He never showed his annoyance with the psychiatrist’s questions, but it was obvious to her that he was the most dangerous kind of patient: one that did not want to be helped. And so she had the agency request that Ruth keep a close eye on him, for he might well be suicidal.
To her face, Michael always referred to the psychiatrist by her first name. He tried to circumvent the power structure of the doctor-patient relationship by turning things into a friendly chat over a cup of tea, where no really important questions could be asked. He was invariably successful at this. But behind her back, Michael referred to the psychiatrist only as, “That bloody shrink.” Psychiatrists, Michael knew, were like any other group, a mixed bunch, some of them were good and many of them were bad. Actually, this one seemed to be good, but he still did not want to have to see her. What could she possibly know about what he had done? What could she possibly know about how it felt? Medicine was irrelevant.
“Are you taking your medication?” the psychiatrist asked, one Wednesday afternoon, eight days before Christmas.
“Yeah,” said Michael, nonchalantly. He hated being in that little room, with its padded leather swivel chairs, its immaculate carpet, and its cheerful pictures on the walls. It reminded him of being in hospital, and anyway, as a pilot, he had always had a healthy distrust of doctors. With a signature on a medical report, they could stop you flying. The only difference now was that he didn’t care whether he ever flew again or not. It didn’t matter any more.
The psychiatrist looked at him. “How are you feeling?”
Michael flashed a smile. “Oh ... good as can be expected.”
Sometimes silence was more effective than a question.
Michael felt uncomfortable. “How about a cup of tea, eh, Kathy? I don’t suppose you’ll give me a beer.”
The psychiatrist laughed. She pressed the button on her intercom. “Mandy, could you bring us some tea?” Then she turned in her chair and faced Michael once more. “Have you been walking?”
“Not much. I’m still a bit stiff.”
“So, you’re living by the river?”
“Yeah. In Mount Pleasant.”
“Must be nice, there. Maybe you can go walking, soon.”
“Maybe. Another couple of weeks, maybe.”
“If you can walk, maybe you can fly.”
Michael nearly lost his composure, but he kept himself in check and answered the question as calmly as he could. “No.”
The secretary brought in the tea. Michael was glad of the interruption. Then she left them alone again.
“That’s good tea, Kathy. Irish Breakfast tea, for an Irish girl?”
“Hmmm. So, how are you feeling, Michael?”
Michael looked at the clock. “Quite good, actually. Time’s up.”
When Michael arrived home that evening, Ruth greeted him at the front door and led him through to the kitchen to give him his dinner. She got his plate out of the oven and put it on the large kitchen table. Michael watched her. He was in a desperately bad mood. He felt morose, far too much so to be charming, so instead he hid his sadness behind exasperation.
“That bloody shrink! She thinks she can read minds.”
“If you don’t like your doctor, you could get a new one.”
Michael felt ashamed. “Ah, sorry, Ruth. I’m just tired.”
“Thanks for dinner. It looks nice.”
“You get some rest, Mike. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Yeah. I suppose I will.” Michael picked up his plate and started to walk away.
“Oh, and Mike ...”
“I don’t like shrinks, either.”
Michael nodded, but he couldn’t manage a smile.
Ruth watched him trudge up the hallway to the sitting room. She was becoming increasingly concerned about his grim moods. Sally had moved out of Ruth’s home shortly after she graduated, to live at the veterinary clinic where she had worked, so Ruth had not seen, first hand, the kind of moods that a suicidal person exhibits. When Sally had come to visit Ruth, she had seemed all right, just a little distant, and although she complained bitterly of the stresses that her new job involved and seemed very disappointed with it, Ruth had never suspected that her granddaughter would soon be dead. It seemed to Ruth, now, as Christmas approached, that Michael was more depressed than ever, and she was worried about him.
Christmas, Ruth knew, was one of the hardest times for anyone who had lost someone dear. It was not a matter of religious faith, for neither Ruth nor Michael were religious people. They both came from secular families and they both saw life in their own ways, with their own personal dignity and their own secret faiths that no religion could define. Ruth was a kind-hearted woman, strong in spirit and practical in her approach to life, and she believed that life, apart from all the tragedy and behind all the suffering, was fundamentally good. She had a kind of intangible faith, that it was good to be, good to live, and good to care about others as well as about oneself. She had no particular fear of death – it was just the natural way of things – but she was glad to be alive, glad despite everything that had happened to her, glad despite the countless times her heart had been broken, and glad that she could help another person, before the end. Michael was also a person who valued love, and he thought it enough reason in itself to live, and enough reward. He didn’t know what happened after death, and he was prepared to accept that he didn’t know. Somehow he couldn’t believe, like others did, that one particular religion was correct and that all the others were wrong, that one particular segment of humanity was worthy of being saved and worthy of greater respect because of the particular faith they held, while the rest of humankind was doomed to perish or to suffer or to be lost, simply because they held some other faith or none at all. Michael was a peace-loving man and he could never accept the countless wars and violence caused by the clash of different faiths. Now that he had lost the three people who meant more to him than anyone else in the world, and now that his beloved Marie was dead, he sometimes thought it would be easier if he were a religious man. At least then he would have some kind of reassuring belief in where his dead wife now was – in the salvation of her soul or in the continuance of her consciousness. If it was true that it took courage to have religious faith, Michael thought, it was also true that sometimes it took courage not to have it. Michael had to find the valour to face these three deaths alone. So it was not the religious significance of Christmas that made it such a difficult time, but rather the absence of loved ones.
As the twenty-fifth of December drew closer, Michael remembered the many Christmas barbecues he and Marie had held for friends over the years. He remembered the happy times, the friendship, the laughter, the gifts, the tradition of it all. Fifteen long years he had loved Marie and his life had been full of the joy of her genuine love. That was all gone now. His two closest friends were dead, with her, and Michael could not face up to seeing his lesser friends after what had happened. This would be the first Christmas in over a decade that he had been alone.
Ruth might have been equally sad but she was older and wiser than Michael by three decades. There was a sadness in her heart which never left her, yet she had come to the time in her life where she deeply knew the truth of the old expression, that it was better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. At seventy-five, and with the secret knowledge that her cancer must surely soon come out of remission, and having seen people that she loved come into her life and then leave her life so many times, Ruth knew that all good things came to an end and that the endings did not make those things any less good. Ruth held on to the things which had been, to the love which she had known, and to the memory of the dear people who had been part of her life. Ruth was sad and happy at the same time, sad for the endings and happy for the beginnings and for the good things that came from those beginnings. She knew that Christmas was going to be much tougher for Michael than for herself. And it worried her.
When Christmas Day arrived, Michael received a telephone call from his brother. Christopher Andrews explained that business was going well, Sydney was as busy as ever, and that more cars were rolling out of the manufacturing plant than in any previous year – he might even be going to New Orleans, on a bonus trip. Then he asked how Michael was holding up. Michael replied that he wasn’t doing too badly, and changed the subject by saying he hoped Jessica and the children were well. Chris said they were fine. Michael was not close to his brother and he found the phone call uncomfortable. The two brothers always spoke at Christmas, since their parents were no longer alive and they were all the family they had. At the end of the call, Michael simply hung up the phone, grateful that the strained conversation was over.
Ruth received an unwanted telephone call of her own. It came from Canada. Claire told her it was snowing in Calgary, and that John Ford, her engineer husband, had just been promoted from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor, and so they would be buying a boat in the summer and looking for a cabin on the lake. Ruth tried to be polite. Soon the call was over. She had no time for Claire, not since she had learned of Claire’s failure to protect Sally from Karl’s drunken rampages, and Ruth was not impressed by a token phone call at Christmas.
For the evening meal, Ruth made roast chicken, and for dessert she made a Christmas cake, a heavy fruit cake decorated with plastic holly leaves. She even dredged out a favourite bottle of brandy. This was unusual, since neither Ruth nor Michael normally drank in the house. Ruth’s drunken son-in-law had been enough to make her request of the agency that her boarder would have to agree not to drink more than occasionally. Since Michael rarely drank, except socially, and since he had not socialised since the accident, this had worked out to be an easy arrangement. But Ruth knew Christmas called for a drink or two, and she had set the kitchen table specially for the occasion, strung decorations up as a surprise for Michael, and made sure there was beer and wine. It was the first time they had really sat down to eat together. Ruth brought out the chicken, and then a bottle of beer for Michael and a glass of wine for herself. Michael had been very sad, that day, but he didn’t want to spoil all the work Ruth had gone to, so he tried to be cheerful.
“Thanks, Ruth. This all looks lovely.”
“No worries, Mike. Is that beer all right?”
“Yeah, it’s good.”
Ruth took a sip of her wine. “They make this stuff down at Margaret River. It’s my favourite. Try some.”
Michael poured a little for himself. “Mmmm. Not bad.”
“Well, don’t be shy. Dig into that chook before it gets cold.”
“You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble, Ruth.”
“Nonsense. It’s Christmas. Anyway, I need cheering up, after the phone call I had today. My daughter called, from Canada.”
“Yes. She just calls me so she won’t feel guilty. I can’t stand talking to her, these days. She never has anything to say. And it just reminds me too much of ... things from the past.”
“I know what you mean. I had the same call from my brother, today.”
“Well, let’s just put all that behind us, eh?” Ruth lifted her glass. “Merry Christmas, Mike.”
Michael clinked his glass against hers. “Merry Christmas.”
After they had devoured the roast dinner, and then the Christmas cake, and finally savoured Ruth’s old bottle of brandy, Michael excused himself for a moment.
“I’ll be right back. Don’t move a muscle.”
He ambled down the corridor. Michael didn’t use his walking stick any more but it was still uncomfortable to walk and he still limped. He felt better, after the hearty meal, and he had something he wanted to give Ruth.
A few minutes later, he returned with a gift-wrapped present. It was heavy. He handed it to Ruth and sat back down at the kitchen table. “There you go, Ruth. That’s for you.”
“Michael. You shouldn’t have. I mean, you didn’t have to get me a present. I didn’t expect you to ...”
“I know you didn’t. It’s just something little.”
“Well, thanks.” Ruth ripped the wrapping paper and out fell three hardback volumes, in large print, of Agatha Christie thrillers. Like a little girl, Ruth flipped through each one in turn, excited. “But this completes my set. How did you know?”
“My ... my wife used to read them. She had the whole collection. In your library, I noticed you had a section for Agatha Christie, but you were missing one or two.”
“They’re bloody hard to find in large print,” said Ruth.
“A friend of mine owns a bookshop. She made a few enquiries.”
“Thank you so much, Mike. That’s a lovely present.”
“No worries, Ruth. I’m glad you like them.”
“Well ... I have a little something for you, too.”
“Oh, no. Dinner was enough, really.”
Ruth ignored him, got up and disappeared into the library, then returned with a floppy package wrapped in gold paper. She sat down and handed it to Michael. “There you go.”
Michael took the package and opened it. It was a large, expensive, dark blue, woollen pullover. “This is too much, Ruth. You shouldn’t have.” He stood up and tried the sweater on. It suited him perfectly, matching his dark hair and blue eyes. “It’s great, Ruth. Thanks a lot. It’s really great.”
“I knew it would suit you.”
Michael sat down, still wearing the jumper.
The kitchen radio was playing 1940s big band music, Glen Miller tunes—fast, upbeat numbers. For a moment, Michael seemed to have forgotten about his pain. Then some slow songs came on, still played by the rich, smooth banks of brass and woodwind that make up a big band.
“You know, Mike, when I was young, this was my music.”
“I like it too, Ruth.”
“Well then,” said Ruth, with a mischievous glint in her eye, “would you like to dance? It’s Christmas and I feel like dancing.”
“Yes, dancing. Do you think we old folks can’t dance?”
“No, no. Of course not. It’s just that ...”
Ruth looked at him sternly.
“It’s just that I can’t dance.”
“No. Never have. Marie wanted me to, but I ... I never did.”
“Why not, Mike?”
“Well, I’m a pilot, not a dancer. It’s just not my style.”
“Bah! Nonsense. Not your style, indeed. You’re just chicken.”
The brandy had gone to their heads. Michael replied, uninhibited. “Hey, fair go, Ruth. I am not chicken.”
“Oh yes you are, Mr Andrews. You are too afraid to try.”
Michael looked at her. “All right then, Ruth. Let’s dance.”
“But you said you couldn’t.”
“I can’t. But if you reckon I’m chicken, I’ll give it a go.”
Ruth considered this for a moment. “All right, Mike. Help me move the table, if you please.” The two of them got up and lifted the table to one end of the large kitchen, being careful not to scratch the polished wooden floorboards. “Perfect. Now, come over here.”
Michael followed her, obediently.
The radio big band was playing a slow shuffle.
“Now, take my hand. That’s right. And put your other hand on my hip, there. Now, in time with the music, all we do is just shuffle left and right. You see? Just like this.”
Michael struggled to follow her. For one thing, he still couldn’t walk perfectly and it wasn’t easy to get his injured body to dance, even just a slow shuffle. On top of that, he had no sense of rhythm and kept stepping wrong. Ruth was patient with him, however, and did not laugh at his pathetic efforts to dance. Even with the brandy inside her, and her head a little light, she knew this was the first time the grief-stricken man had done anything so positive since he had come to stay with her. Michael was unaware of the change in himself. He was too busy trying not to step on Ruth’s toes.
When Michael was starting to get the hang of it, Ruth embellished the lowly dance a little by stepping back from Michael and doing a simple spin under his raised left arm. “That’s right. Just hold up your left hand, and I spin underneath it.” She smiled.
Michael laughed. He had completely forgotten himself, forgotten the accident. Here he was, dancing with an old lady, in her kitchen, to fifty-year-old music, and loving it. He felt silly, and a little drunk. And he laughed, really laughed, for the first time in four months. Ruth danced with him for a few minutes, then they moved the table back and sat down again.
“There you are. I told you, you could do it,” said Ruth.
“And I told you, I wasn’t chicken.”
“No, you’re not.”
Michael raised his brandy glass. “Merry Christmas, Ruth.”
“Merry Christmas to both of us.”
Michael nodded. A lot seemed to be said in silence, as if they both knew there were some things that were best left unsaid, things about how they missed the people that were not there.
That night, Michael had the first sound night’s sleep he’d had in a long time. There were no nightmares. He dreamed of dancing. He dreamed he was dancing with Marie – something he had never done in real life. It was a happy dream, a wonderful dream, a magical dream.
In the morning, when he woke up, and the dream was over, and he realised it was only a dream, he cried.
Neither Ruth nor Michael celebrated the New Year. It came and went quietly. Ruth had gone to sleep long before midnight, since it was her custom to be up early and working in the garden. The only concession Michael made to the change in the calendar, from 1997 to 1998, was to step out onto the front verandah and watch the distant fireworks that arched high above the cityscape. They reflected in the river and they reflected in his eyes. And then they stopped, and Michael stood alone in the darkness for a few minutes, and then he went to bed.
In January, Michael had surprised Ruth by taking to painting watercolours. He would sit in the garden, under a tree to keep out of the sun, and paint sketchy portraits of the rose bushes or the garden statues, of the lemon tree, of the small backyard fountain, and occasionally even of Ruth. He never asked her to pose but simply included her in a garden scene or against the backdrop of the house. The pictures were more about colour than shape – the efforts of an amateur impressionist. Most of them were really quite bad but a few of them captured something of that time and place, enough to be called ‘interesting’ or ‘reasonably good.’ Michael didn’t show his pictures to Ruth and Ruth didn’t ask to see them, although sometimes she would walk by him in the garden and glance at what he was doing, and he didn’t mind.
“I didn’t know you painted,” she said, one such day.
“I had a ... a friend. She was an art teacher. She and Marie made me try it. I didn’t want to. I thought it was too ... sissy, you know.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what I thought, back then. But this friend of mine wouldn’t listen. She got me a painting kit for my birthday. Marie was in on it, of course. A bloke knows when he’s defeated. So, I gave it a try.”
“And you liked it?”
“I hated it. Couldn’t paint a bloody thing!”
“What made you keep it up?”
“Not what. Who. Marie – she had an argument with me. She said I’d never try anything new. I said that was bullshit, but she was right. Anyway, I took some lessons. Actually, it was okay. I didn’t mind it. Marie thought it was hilarious. She was funny. She could read me like a book.”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“Oh, coupla years. I’m not very good, but it’s something to do.”
Ruth looked at him for a second. “Well,” she said brightly, “I’d better get back to my pruning. I’ll leave you to it.”
The watercolour pictures that Michael painted seemed strange to him. They were all right, but it was as if there were a distance between him and the paper. He could look but he could not feel. He could see the colours, and paint them, but he could not touch them in his heart, where it mattered. There was a detachment about him. He had thought, at Christmas, that maybe he was getting better, that maybe he might even learn to smile again and not have to force the smile. But it had not happened. Food now seemed bland to him. The flavour was there but it meant nothing. The world seemed that way, too. He could look at the river, or the garden, or the fireworks, but the scenes would not touch him. Things seemed somehow grey. Above all, things seemed pointless and meaningless. What did anything matter?
Ruth felt better to see Michael painting. At least he was doing something more than just sitting around going stale. She was doubly pleased when she noticed him taking an interest in aviation again. The agency had told her that Michael had been a pilot nearly his entire adult life, first as a weekend enthusiast and then as a professional. Yet Michael had never mentioned flying to Ruth and never shown her any open interest in it, until recently. He was not even close to being ready to fly again – he had not even been to an airport, since the accident – but Ruth had seen him reading trade magazines and one night she had caught him in the library, watching a video of an air show. Michael was embarrassed when she walked in.
“Oh, Ruth. I ... uh ... sorry. You probably want to read.”
“No, I’m too tired for reading. What are you watching?”
“Oh, nothing. I’ll turn it off. Hang on.”
Before he could get to the remote control, to switch off the television, Ruth spoke, her curiosity piqued. “Is that ... is that a Tiger Moth? That plane, there, the yellow one, is that a Tiger Moth?”
Michael looked at her, surprised. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Sit down, Michael. I’d like to see this. Huh – look at that!”
Michael didn’t know what to say.
“Do you know, my husband once flew in a Tiger Moth. He was so excited about. It was the only time he’d ever flown in a light plane.”
“Was he a pilot?”
“A pilot? Oh, no. It was a joyride. But he loved it. They made him wear a leather cap and goggles. They even gave him a scarf. They don’t make planes like that any more.” Ruth looked at the image of the old biplane. “The one Fred went up in was yellow, too.”
Michael remembered his conversation with Ian, before the accident. “It’s a fine ... plane. Lots of them were painted yellow.”
“Where is this?”
“Oh, it’s the air force base, up at Pearce.”
“So these planes are all from Perth?”
“Oh, no. They flew in from all over the country, for the air show. It was a great show. I bought the video, coz I knew some of these old crates wouldn’t be flying west again for a while.”
“It’s just like a time machine,” said Ruth. “That old plane looks exactly like the one Fred flew in, all those years ago.”
“Did you go up, too, Ruth? Did you fly?”
“Me? Oh, no! Fred was always braver than me. He climbed down out of that cockpit, waving his arms and telling me what a great time he’d had. He told me I should try it, but I was too afraid. It didn’t look safe.” Ruth realised what she had said and suddenly went silent, ashamed of herself.
Michael knew Ruth had not meant to say it, so he tried to change the subject. “Did your husband fly again?”
“No, no. Fred was always busy with the business. He enjoyed his work, too. You know, he always wanted to be his own boss, and he was.”
“I know what you mean.”
“What’s that plane, Mike?” Ruth pointed at the screen.
“That’s an American one. Funny, it’s called a Tiger, as well.”
“I don’t like it as much as the Tiger Moth. It’s too modern.”
“Sometimes it’s nice not to have a hundred-knot wind in your face, Ruth. Those old planes weren’t too comfortable.”
Ruth was not impressed. “What’s that one?”
“That’s another golden oldie. It’s a Piper Cub. You don’t see too many of those around here. It’s like a modern design, with that high wing and a closed cockpit, but it’s still a bit of a vintage.”
“Hmmm. It’s not romantic,like the old biplanes, though, is it?”
“I reckon you’re probably right, there, Ruth.”
“What about that modern one, with the black stripe?”
“That’s a Cessna 210. It’s a nice touring ship.”
“And that’s another one, then, in the red?”
“No. That’s ... that’s a 172.” Michael felt a stab of sadness. “I’m a bit tired, Ruth. You can watch. I think I’ll go to bed. Goodnight.”
Ruth wondered what she had said.
By now, Michael could walk well enough to go across the road to the river. He spent a lot of time sitting by the riverbank or walking a short way along the bicycle path. He would go out in the heat and watch the seagulls. He avoided the river on weekends, when there would be boats about and too many people picnicking, playing with their children, or – at night – netting for prawns, but on weekdays, during the heat of the day, there were few people about and Michael would watch the gulls whirling and drifting in the hot summer air. His thoughts brought him no peace, they were just the same old thoughts that kept going around and around in his head and which never provided him with any answers. It was the same guilt and the same misery. There was nothing new. The river was not beautiful to him. It was simply there. The motion of the gulls merely gave his eyes something to look at, while inside him the bitter tide of his emotions ebbed and flowed.
He wasn’t really getting better at all. The psychiatrist knew it and Michael knew it. The only thing he was getting better at was giving people the illusion that he was okay. In truth, he was worse than ever. The world seemed more empty and more pointless to him with the passing of every meaningless day. What was there for him, now? Life without Marie was hardly life at all, and life, knowing that he was responsible – no matter what anyone said – for Marie’s death, and for Ian’s and Diane’s, was barely something that he could open his eyes to each morning.
Sometimes he wished that he would fall asleep and that the morning would never come. That would be justice. He couldn’t live with his guilt. Michael Andrews was losing the battle to live, and he was trying to hide that fact, from the psychiatrist, by cheerfully reporting he was painting again, and from Ruth, by heeding her encouragement to go walking. And so he came across to the river and thought the same thoughts and felt the same guilt and watched the world grow greyer and greyer. The long slide had begun. The slope that he would have to climb to get up again was getting steeper and more slippery by the minute. Michael was dying.
The greyness came to him often, stronger and stronger. Not quite two weeks after Christmas, he went outside near midnight and looked around at the garden. There was a bright moon which bathed the garden in an eerie false twilight. Above him, the stars were dim. It had been six weeks since Michael had come to live with Ruth and nearly five months since the accident. He had hoped that he might have forgiven himself by now, but that hope had grown faint. He had hoped that leaving the hospital would lessen his pain, once he got back into a more normal environment, but he only felt worse. The emotional pain was unbearable. His bones had healed and his spirit had broken. Michael went back inside. He went to his room.
In the room, he closed the door and looked at the heavy doorframe – a man could hang from that, he thought. He remembered W.B. Yeats’s famous poem about death and about flight: ‘In balance with this life, this death.’ It seemed to Michael that it would be a perfect balance, to die now. He didn’t care about himself and perhaps his death would atone for what happened, in some way putting right the injustice that occurred when he lived and the others died. And, besides that, there was also the pain to be considered. For all his contempt of himself, for letting his friends die, he still did not believe that he must continue to torture himself by living in such an empty world. There was nothing for him here, any more, and his grieving was beyond description. He did not hate himself so very much that he would consent to living a life of misery, and a life of misery was all that he could see ahead of him. To die seemed both justice for his failings and the only truthful answer to Shakespeare’s old question. There was a kind of crazy courage that a suicidal man can know, which Michael had that night. To Michael, the idea of suicide did not seem crazy, it seemed like the only just and fitting ending to his life, and to him it would certainly not be an act of cowardice but one of courage, to both pay his debt for what he had done and to boldly choose the second answer to the great question: not to be. But he could not do that to Ruth. He could not have her find his lifeless body swinging from a rope in this room. He couldn’t do it here. And he was not ready, not yet. He still had to make peace with the turbulent thoughts inside him. He didn’t want to die confused. He wanted to die in one mind. Michael could not hope for any peace from his crushing guilt, but at least he wanted the storm in his mind to grow calm and for the end to come without confusion. But it would not be tonight. He couldn’t do that to Ruth.
Michael broke down and cried.
And then he slept.
Ruth was not aware of just how close Michael was to not living any more, but she was worried. In the morning, when Michael had gone to the garden and set up his easel, then sat in front of it with a dry paintbrush, Ruth decided that she would do what she had once thought she would never do, that she would share what she had once thought she would never share with anyone. She went to her bedroom and got a key from her dressing table. She took the key and used it to open a large, wooden chest at the foot of her bed. Inside the chest, on top of some folded bedlinen, were several diaries. She took the first of them and went out to the garden to see Michael.
“There’s something I want you to see.”
“Mike, when you first came here, I told you, you wouldn’t get any questions from me. I know what it’s like. But now I want to show you something. You see, I lost someone very dear to me, too, not that long ago. Here.” She held out an unframed, 6-by-4-inch photograph.
Michael felt very uncomfortable, but he could not bring himself to be rude to Ruth so he took the snapshot. He recognised the young woman in the photo as the same one he had seen in the portrait in the library. “Who’s this?”
“That’s my granddaughter, Sally. I lost her two years ago. She was the most important person in the world, to me.”
“I know. Mike, Sally took her own life. I don’t blame her – she had a hard life. It was just too much for her. But she was so young.”
Michael wanted to get up and run out of the garden. He wanted to be anywhere but talking to Ruth, hearing all of this. He didn’t like talking about emotions, and he felt caught completely off-guard.
“She kept diaries,” Ruth continued. “I’ve never shown them to anyone before and I never thought I would. She left the diaries to me. She wanted me to know what happened. I suppose... I suppose she wanted someone else, someone other than herself, to know what she had gone through. I suppose she wanted to say sorry, too.”
Michael said nothing.
Ruth handed him Sally’s first diary. “I thought you might want to see this. Would you do me a favour, Mike, for me, and take a look at it? You see, I don’t want to be the only person who knows about her, and ... it would help, if I could talk to someone about it.” Ruth knew Michael would not willingly take any help from her but that he was too good a man to refuse to offer her help, if that was how she couched the question.
Michael took the diary. He opened it and looked at the neat writing in blue fountain-pen ink. It was written in a young hand, the handwriting of a conscientious student and of someone who had taken pride in the secret journal she had kept.
“Okay, Ruth. If you want me to.”
Ruth smiled an ironic smile. Then she walked away and left him sitting there in the garden. She had done all she could do.
Michael had never kept a diary. It intrigued him, to hold in his hands the secret thoughts of another person, so carefully written. He followed the flowing blue line of the ink as it swept up and looped down from one letter to the next, a broken thread that filled the pages of the diaries that recorded the final year of a young woman’s life. Michael wanted to find out about the woman. He wondered what could have brought her to the same precipice as he – the border between life and death, the border which he himself planned soon to cross. Perhaps, in reading her last words, he would be able to silence the confusion in his mind and find just a little of the peace he craved.
Michael flipped through the pages of the thick, leather-bound volume, looking for the end. But it was not complete. It was obviously only the first in a set. He found no mention of suicide. And so he contented himself with beginning at the first page and reading it through. He soon realised that Sally Johanssen had written in her diary as if she were writing to her closest friend – more than that, that her diary was the closest friend she had.
As he read, Michael could almost feel what it must have been like, to live the days that she had lived, to experience the things that she had experienced. The diary transported him to another world, another time, three years in the past, when Sally was still alive, and – he thought bitterly – when Marie was, too. For three weeks, he read it each night, before he slept, and immersed himself in Sally’s forgotten world. It was a world that started with hope and optimism and with the fulfilment of a dream. And although Michael felt that he understood that world, as he read, the real truth of what happened was far more intense than even the heartfelt and meticulous diary could convey. The diary began:
Monday, March 13, 1995
Today is my interview with the veterinary hospital. I think I can get the job. I hope I can. I’m so tired of looking for work, and if only I can get this job, I can stay in Perth ...
Sally hoped she wouldn’t have to pick up the coffee cup the veterinary nurse had just left on the desk for her. She was afraid her hand might shake. It was too late to be worried about that, however, since Dr Thomas Kellerman already thought the young woman sitting in the chair opposite him seemed a little too unsure of herself. Kellerman liked confidence in his employees. Still, he thought, as he turned the pages of Sally’s resume, her academic record was outstanding, and there were glowing letters of reference from two university professors and from a local veterinary surgeon. Kellerman was not especially keen to employ a woman, nevertheless. All of his four veterinary nurses were female, but it had long been a secret policy of his to employ only male veterinarians. Kellerman was in his early forties, set in his ways, and although he would never admit it publicly, he felt that men made better leaders. To Kellerman’s dismay, most of the new generation of the profession were women, so he had little choice but to consider female applicants for the position of Veterinary Associate which he had recently advertised.
Sally’s long, blonde hair was collected back into a simple ponytail and she wore a smart, tan shirt and light brown slacks. She was tallish, for a woman, with a slim figure and a pretty face, and there was a youthful earnestness in her pale blue eyes. Kellerman found her quite attractive, and although he doubted her, because she was a woman and because she seemed nervous, he had to admit to himself that it might be pleasant having her around the practice. His wife had long suspected that he sometimes hired veterinary nurses more for their looks than for their abilities, but this was not strictly true. Kellerman demanded competence from his staff and he was not about to employ someone just because she was a pretty girl, although being a pretty girl was certainly no disadvantage.
Kellerman was a stocky man with a neatly cropped beard and a balding head. His brown eyes lacked sympathy and his expression was perpetually serious. He spoke with the accent of a man born and raised in Sydney and sent by his parents to one of the better private schools.
Kellerman drove a BMW and managed to maintain the appearance, if not quite the lifestyle, of being someone with money, although it was his inheritance that had allowed him to pay for the veterinary practice. In fact, the practice was not very profitable, compared to other small businesses, and like most vets he had not done particularly well for himself until the later years of his life, and certainly had only earned a pittance in his early days as an employed veterinarian. But nowadays he was not at all short of cash. So much so that the senior veterinary nurse, Heather Lorayne, who managed the office and did the bookkeeping, was sure that her boss was doing a large proportion of his business in cash and that this money never graced her ledger and was never declared to the tax man. There were other stories that Heather might have told about her boss, including several affairs that his wife would have been enraged to discover, one of which had involved a former veterinary nurse, but Heather had long admired Kellerman and liked to think that he had a special affection for her, even if he had never acted upon it, so she kept her knowledge to herself and made the books look as clean as she could, every June.
Heather Lorayne had already made up her mind that Kellerman would certainly employ the pretty, young woman she had just made a cup of coffee for. So she closed the door of the office behind her and left Kellerman to finish the job interview in private.
“Merit honours, first class,” said Kellerman. “And I see you took special topics in internal medicine and pathology, specialising in dogs and cats. You never wanted to work with large animals, then?”
Sally cleared her throat. “Not really. I quite liked equine rotations, in fifth year, but I decided small animal practice was where I wanted to go.”
“Why was that? Did you find the farm work too physical?”
“No. Not at all. It’s just that I wanted to specialise in medicine, and I enjoyed working up difficult cases. Small animal practice seemed to have more opportunity for that. And ... ”
“I really like working with pets.”
This didn’t seem to impress Kellerman. “What about surgery? It looks like you’re keen on medicine, but out here in practice what matters is how fast you can get through the day’s surgery list. We consult from nine to twelve, then do surgery from twelve to four, and consult again from four to seven. You have to have the surgery done by four, or there’s chaos.”
“Well, Dr Kellerman, I can’t say I’m an experienced surgeon. We don’t get the time to do a lot of surgery in college. I can handle all the basic ops – spays, castrations, abscesses, stitch-ups – but I can’t pretend to be fast at things like caesars and enterectomies yet. I haven’t done any orthopaedics.”
“Hmmm. Well, you’re only a new graduate. I can’t really expect more than that ... but it is difficult for the practice, having to train a new grad from scratch. It takes up a lot of our time.” Kellerman failed to mention that his previous young associate had quickly left the practice, nor did he reveal that another two vets had done the same. In fact, three vets had come and gone in less than two years. Kellerman liked to think this was because young people were ungrateful for the opportunities he gave them. In fact, his practice had a bad reputation and experienced vets would not work for him. Sally was naive enough to think him sincere.
“I want to learn, Dr Kellerman. I’m willing to work hard, and I’ll do my best to be as efficient as I can. I know it won’t take me long to get up to speed. And I’m not one of these new graduates who flit about from job to job. I want a job with a long-term future.”
“Well, we work long hours, here, Sally. Nine to seven, according to the book, but I’d expect you to be here at eight-thirty, to check the animals before consulting, and we rarely get out of the place at night until seven-thirty. Sometimes we’re here till eight. And I don’t want any clock-watching. We finish when we finish and not before.”
“Right,” said Sally. “That’s no problem.”
“Your roster would be one weekend in two, and you’d share the after-hours duty with me. That means you’ll carry a mobile phone and be on call three nights one week and four the next. Every second weekend you’ll get a half-day on Friday and work nine to five on Saturday and nine to one on Sunday, as well as taking all the after-hours calls for the weekend. Your normal roster will be Monday to Friday. Four weeks holiday a year.”
“Right.” The hours sounded daunting to Sally. They were well over fifty hours per week, even up to sixty, and with seven nights a fortnight on call she wouldn’t get much sleep, either. Small animal practice was a difficult job, a matter of constantly dealing with the public at times when they were most emotional – when their pets were ill – and making diagnoses and prescribing treatment under constant time pressure, looking after animals in hospital, then doing anaesthetics and surgery in whatever time was left over. But challenge had always been a part of Sally’s life, and she believed she was up to the challenge. This was her dream, to be a vet, and she wasn’t about to let that dream slip out of her fingers now. “That sounds okay.”
Kellerman grunted. “We can’t afford to pay you that much, I’m afraid. For a new graduate, the salary I had in mind was twenty-two thousand. Now, you understand that’s a flat salary – we don’t pay overtime. We’ve had real trouble, in the past, with vets watching the clock, and we don’t want any of that trouble again.”
Sally was disappointed. She had been hoping for a little more. Kellerman’s offer was less than what new schoolteachers were being paid, and for a fifty- to sixty-hour week, with three or four nights handling after-hours emergencies on top of that, it hardly seemed to justify the five years of desperately hard study that Sally had put herself through. She knew her salary would rise with time, but it would take many years before she was earning anything like the income that most people imagined vets earned. But money was not everything. What mattered to Sally was that Kellerman was discussing salary, which meant he was thinking of giving her the job. “And what about after-hours calls?”
“We pay you twenty-five dollars for each case you see after nine at night or before eight in the morning. And – this is important – if there’s surgery to be done in the middle of the night, we expect you to do it then and there. You can call a nurse in, if you like, but we don’t want surgery being put off until the morning.”
“Right.” Sally hoped that the practice had few after-hours calls, since she had always been a person who needed her sleep. It was hard enough working ten-hour days, without getting no sleep the night before. The money was irrelevant. Sally would not have traded a good night’s sleep for twenty-five dollars if she had any choice. Unfortunately, there was no choice.
“Well, Sally. Your resume looks all right. And you seem to have the right attitude. If you’d like to come on board, we can offer you a temporary position for three months. If it works out, then we can offer you a year’s contract. Salary would be reviewed annually.”
Sally felt of knot of excitement in her stomach. Her heart quickened. She had made it! She was going to be a vet, a real vet, after all these years. “Thank you. I mean, I accept the job. Thanks.”
Kellerman nodded. “Now, do you want to use the flat? It’s not much, just two rooms, a bed-sitting room and a bathroom, but the nurse’s moved out and you can stay there for free, if you want. The only condition is that if I need help with after-hours calls on nights you’re not on duty, you’d have to help me. And, every night, we’ll need you to check the animals in hospital, give their medications, flush their IV lines, and the like. Are you interested?”
Sally had already decided that if she were offered the use of the little flat at the back of the clinic, she would take it. It wasn’t that she didn’t like living with Ruth, just that she was twenty-three now and she had never lived on her own. It was time for her to break out on her own, and she knew things would be tight on her salary – the flat would be a good way to save rent. “Yes, I am. I’d like the use the flat.”
“Good,” said Kellerman. “Well, you start next Monday. You can move in this weekend, if you like.”
Sally stood up and shook Kellerman’s hand. “Thank you, Dr Kellerman. You won’t regret this.”
“Call me Thomas, Sally. We’re glad you can join us.”
Saturday, March 18, 1995
Today I am moving into the clinic flat, and on Monday I will begin my first week in practice. I’m nervous and excited at the same time. Ruth is helping me move my things. I’m sad to leave her, but I must break out on my own. This is the first day of my new life ...
The veterinary clinic was a small, single-floored, red-brick building with a flat metal roof, surrounded by a large bitumen car park. There was a tiny garden out the back which harboured a single, towering eucalypt. When she had first seen the flat at the rear of the clinic, Sally looked with dismay at the single room with its threadbare, brown carpet. There was space for a bed at one end of the little room and there was a small electric stove and an old refrigerator at the other. A door led to a toilet and simple bathroom, which needed badly to be cleaned. And that was all there was to the place.
In fact, Sally had been too embarrassed to let Ruth see it. She had allowed Ruth to help her load her ancient car, a rusty, brown Kingswood station wagon, with clothes and books, and to supervise the removalists loading her bed and a recliner chair onto their truck, but she had discouraged Ruth from travelling with her to the clinic, saying that she could manage on her own.
The flat looked a little better, once Sally had vacuumed the carpet, once she had scrubbed the cracked bathroom tiles and cleaned the toilet, gotten her bed made, and packed all her pots and pans into the small cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. She put a television on a coffee table in the corner. It wasn’t much, she thought, but it was her first home.
It took Sally nearly the whole weekend to organise the flat. Then she had dinner at Ruth’s house on Sunday night. Ruth wished her well and tried not to show how upset she was, since she was truly proud of Sally boldly going out to start a new life.
That night was the first night Sally slept in the flat. It took her a long time to get to sleep. She lay in bed, wondering about the challenges that lay ahead of her.
The next day would be her first day in practice.
When Monday morning finally arrived, Sally took a deep breath, walked into the back door of the clinic, and greeted the nurses on duty. They were in the treatment room, where most of the general medical business of the day was carried out and where the dogs and cats spent their time in comfortable cages. It was a small clinic and it did not have a separate kennel room.
“Good morning,” said Heather Lorayne.
“Morning.” Sally’s throat felt dry. She was nervous.
“G’day,” said the other nurse. “How you going?”
“Good, thanks,” said Sally. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“I’m Michelle. You must be Sally.”
Michelle was just a girl, barely eighteen years old. “Do you want me to give the diabetes cat its insulin now?”
“Uh ... what diabetes cat?”
“The one in the corner, on a drip.”
“That’s Patches,” said Heather. “He’s crashed again.”
Michelle spoke again. “And what about the Bully? Do you want it to have Clavulox or Tribrissen?”
“The Bull Terrier?” asked Sally.
“Yeah. Rambo. He’s got a broken leg.”
“Well, I ... better have a look at him, first.”
“There are some X-rays here that Thomas wants you to look at,” said Heather. “They’re from an old Kelpie that’s been vomiting and didn’t respond to treatment. The owners have been really difficult about it. Thomas asked them to come in and see you at nine-thirty.”
Sally was bewildered. “But ... where is Thomas?”
“He got a call from one of his mates. They went fishing.”
A buzzer sounded. “Yeah. That’s the front desk. The morning rush’s started. It never stops, around here. You can find the X-rays in that cupboard in the hallway. I left them on the top shelf for you.” Heather walked out of the treatment room, on her way to the reception desk in the waiting room.
“What about Patches?” said Michelle.
Sally was in a state of shock. Her employer had said nothing about a fishing trip. Was she going to face her first day in practice alone, without supervision or help? Kellerman had not even telephoned her to let her know about the animals in hospital, and there was no note, either. “What about who?”
“Patches! The diabetic cat. Does it want insulin?”
“Ah, probably. Where’s its file?”
Michelle handed Sally a thick stack of 6-by-4-inch index cards, labelled ‘Patches Harris.’ The cards constituted the cat’s medical record. They were full of Kellerman’s spidery, illegible handwriting, and went back as far as 1986. Apparently the cat had suffered diabetes for a few years, but Kellerman’s mysterious shorthand was indecipherable. Before Sally could answer Michelle, Heather reappeared.
“There’s two consults, Sally,” said Heather. “Have you had a chance to look at those X-rays yet?”
“No,” said Sally.
“Well, you’d better get moving. The stampede has started, you know. There’ll be more people in, any minute.”
“Right,” said Sally.
“You want me to give the insulin?” said Michelle.
“Does he get it every day?”
“Oh, yeah. Four units every day. He’s been in for a week.”
“Okay. Give him four units. And I’ll have a closer look at him in a minute.” Sally knew she didn’t have time to waste.
“First consult’s already in the room,” said Heather.
Sally sighed. This was not the first day she had imagined. But there was no other vet on the premises, so she would just have to do her best. “Okay. I’ll be right there.”
When Sally opened the door of the consulting room, she saw a big man with a Pit Bull Terrier. The man wore thongs, an old pair of jeans, and a blue singlet. His arms were tattooed from his wrists to his shoulders. He was leaning lazily on the consulting room table while his dog trotted around the room, unleashed.
Sally picked up the dog’s card. The man was obviously a new client, since there was nothing on the card but his name and address. She noted that there was no telephone number. According to the card, the dog’s name was Satan. This didn’t surprise Sally and she didn’t find it funny, since large dogs were often given those kind of names. But later she would remember it as her first ever consultation in private practice, without the supervision of another vet.
“Right,” she said. “This is Satan, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said the man, not bothering to stand up straight.
Sally cast a quick glance at the dog. Its left shoulder was swollen up to the size of half a grapefruit and was covered in bite wounds. She could smell pus. Obviously the dog had been in a fight with another dog and come out on the losing side of the battle. Sally wondered whether it had been an accident or whether the man was one of those owners who fought their dogs deliberately. She supposed it was more likely the former, since the dog had no collar and the owner obviously didn’t keep it on a leash.
Sally often wondered why people would pay a couple of thousand dollars for dogs like these, and then not bother to take proper care of them. The answer was ignorance, more often than a lack of care. Unfortunately there was no licence needed to be a dog owner and some dogs simply were unlucky enough to end up with ignorant owners. Since Sally was an animal-lover, this annoyed her greatly, but she did not show her annoyance. It was her first day in a new job and she could not afford a disgruntled client to complain to the boss about the new vet being rude. So she was polite. “What’s happened to him, then?”
The man shrugged. “I took him down the park the other day. Bloody Rottweiler had a go at him. Fuckin’ pain in the arse. Can’t afford any bloody vet bills at the moment, you know.”
“Right,” said Sally. She was never sure what to say when a client insulted her. She thought it was probably best just to ignore it and get on with the job in hand. “When did it happen?”
“Oh, few days ago.”
“A few days ago? You mean, last week?”
“Yeah, it’s been a while, now.”
“So, it happened last week?”
“Nah. Happened the week before.”
“The week before?”
“Yeah, I reckon.”
Sally was appalled. “So, he was bitten two weeks ago?”
“Yeah. I’ve been putting Dettol on it. I thought it might come good. He’s been bit before.”
“Can you hold him still for me, please?”
The man looked annoyed. He stood up straight, called his dog, and then kneeled down next to the animal and held its head.
Sally took a look at the shoulder. She didn’t touch it too firmly, since she knew it would be very painful. “Is he eating?”
“When did he last eat?”
“He had a bit of roo meat, Thursday night.”
“So, he hasn’t eaten anything for three days?”
“Nah. I give him food, but he won’t touch it.”
Sally wondered if she should call the RSPCA, but dismissed the idea. What would the boss say, if she reported her very first client? No, she would just have to treat the animal and try to talk some sense into the owner. The man was not the kind of person she wanted to get mad, either, and she wasn’t sure how much she could safely say. He looked vaguely dangerous. “Well, there’s a bad abscess there, now. Let’s check his temperature.”
A minute later, Sally had removed the rectal thermometer and checked the reading. “40.1 degrees, Mr Layton. He’s burning up. With a temperature like that, he might even have blood poisoning. The bacteria from the dog bite might have gotten into his blood. He needs antibiotics, right away, and he’ll need surgery on that shoulder.”
“An operation? What’s that gonna cost me?”
Sally thought for a moment. She knew that the muscles under the infected skin of the shoulder would be dying from the severe infection. It was going to be a big job, to debride all the necrotic tissue, try to reconstruct the muscle layers, place several drainage tubes to allow the pus to escape, and then stitch the damaged skin back together. And, on top of all that, the dog would need a long course of expensive antibiotics. “Well, it’s a big job. If we’d been able to catch it early, it would have been much easier. But this infection’s been brewing up for two weeks. I’m afraid it’s going to be a very serious operation. You’re looking at about two hundred dollars.” In fact, Sally knew she should have quoted much higher, more like three or four hundred, but she was afraid the man would refuse to have surgery done and she didn’t want the poor dog to suffer.
The man’s breath stank of stale beer. “Two hundred? Come on, luv, you must be fuckin’ joking! Last time he was in a fight, I took him to the vet down the road. They only charged me fifty bucks.”
“They did an operation for fifty dollars?”
“Nah. He didn’t need it. They gave him a needle and some tablets. That’s all he needs. Two hundred dollars! You vets are all the bloody same. You’re only in it for money. Look, I don’t have a job. I can’t afford that kind of money. Don’t you do a discount?”
“You’re on unemployment benefits?”
“Yeah. I’ve been out of a job for a year or two.”
Sally looked at the dog. Despite its name, and its habit of attacking other dogs, it was a gentle animal with people. She felt sorry for the poor creature. “We can give you a fifteen percent discount. That would make it a hundred and seventy dollars.”
The man looked unimpressed. “A hundred and seventy?”
“That’s the best we can do,” Sally said. She wondered what the boss would say, if he knew she was going to do the surgery at nearly half-price. But she knew the dog would not get better without the operation. The infection was just too far gone.
“Well, if you reckon it has to be done. But this is a valuable dog. If anything happens to him under the anaesthetic ...”
Sally felt threatened by the tone of the man’s voice, but she had simply had enough. “Mr Layton, Satan’s been ill for two weeks, and he hasn’t eaten for three days. If you had brought him in for immediate treatment, antibiotics might have been enough, but not now. He needs an operation. And, in future, if you keep him on a leash then you could save yourself a lot of trouble. You might want to think about having him desexed, too. That helps with aggression.”
The man seemed offended by this. “No way. I’m gonna breed from him. Don’t touch his nuts.”
“Well, that’s up to you, of course, Mr Layton. But this abscess needs an operation. Do you want to go ahead with that?”
“Oh, yeah. Go ahead and get the bloody thing done.” He looked at his dog. “You’re costing me a bloody fortune, mate.”
“All right, then. Leave him with us.”
“When do I have to pay?”
“When you pick him up, tonight.”
“I can give you fifty bucks. The rest will have to wait until I get my dole check, next Thursday. I’m not made of money, you know.”
Sally couldn’t believe it. The man had no respect for her at all, wanted surgery done at half-price, and now he even wanted credit. She toyed with the idea of giving the dog an injection of penicillin and sending him away, but something inside her rebelled at the idea of leaving the poor dog to suffer with this idiot of an owner. No, she would do the surgery. “Right, Mr Layton. Leave him with us and give us a phone call at five. Okay?”
“Thanks, luv,” the man said, with a crooked smile. Then he turned and left the room after telling his dog to behave.
Sally put a leash on the dog and led it out to the treatment room. She was very angry. She put the dog in a cage and knelt down to pat it on the head. “There you go, fella. We’ll get you well again.”
Heather Lorayne appeared beside her. “Bit of a bloody dropkick, eh? And I suppose he wanted everything done but didn’t want to pay us for it.”
Sally stood up. “Oh, it really pisses me off, Heather. The poor dog’s had this infection for two weeks.”
“Yeah. Well, your next consult’s here. More of the same, I’m afraid. The lady looks as stoned as.”
“Oh, yeah. She’s totally off the planet.”
“Great,” said Sally, sarcastically. “What’s the problem?”
“She says her dog’s been vomiting. Probably a parvo.”
“The dog’s not vaccinated, then?”
“Are you kidding? Of course not.”
Sally sighed. “How old is it?”
“It’s a little Kelpie. Five months old. Here’s the card.”
“Thanks.” Sally took the card and went to the consulting room.
As soon as she opened the door, Sally could see what Heather meant. A extremely obese woman, dressed in a black T-shirt and a grubby pair of jeans, was standing in the centre of the consulting room, swaying slightly. Her eyes had a vacant expression. She wore no shoes. Her bare feet were dirty. The woman was obviously stoned. Smoking marijuana was a very common thing in Perth, and many people secretly grew their own plants at home. Sally really hated it, but sometimes people even gave the drug to their pets, and when she looked at the little Kelpie puppy staggering around the room, she realised this was one of those cases.
“This is Chookie, is it?” said Sally.
“Yeah, mate,” said the woman. “He’s not himself.”
“What seems to be the trouble?”
The woman looked directly at Sally but seemed to be having trouble focussing. Her pupils were dilated, and one eye seemed to be pointing in a slightly different direction to the other. “He chucked up this morning. And he’s gone all wobbly on his legs.”
“Uh huh. Has there been any diarrhoea?”
“No, mate. His shit’s as solid as a brick.”
“And was he okay yesterday?”
“Hmmm. Let’s have a look, then.” Sally lifted the puppy onto the examination table. It was trembling slightly, having trouble standing up, as if it were drunk, and its pupils were slightly dilated. The poor thing looked confused and agitated. It jerked its head about in alarm at every noise and movement in the room. Sally felt herself getting angry again, and had to suppress it. She had no sympathy at all for people who gave animals drugs. It disgusted her. Although there was a funny side to seeing a dog just as stoned as its owner, Sally was not inclined to laugh because she knew that dogs could die from overdoses of drugs like this. “Look, Mrs Harris. I’m sorry to have to ask, and your answer is confidential, just between you and me, but is there any chance that your dog might have got some kind of drug? Because the symptoms look pretty much like a drug poisoning.”
“No, mate. No way. We don’t have any drugs.”
Sally let out a breath and tried again. “Anything you say here is confidential, Mrs Harris. That’s part of the vet-client relationship. I’m just here to treat your dog. That’s all. And it looks to me like your dog has probably had some marijuana. Could that be right?”
The woman rubbed her face and coughed. She seemed to be having more trouble focussing her eyes on Sally than ever, and she was steadying herself against the wall. It was ridiculously obvious that she was stoned, but she still said, “Nah. We don’t have any mull. I’m not into that crap. No way.”
“No chance at all?”
“Uh ... well, we did have a party last night.”
“Yeah. I dunno what kind of shit me husband’s mates might have brought over. Maybe Chookie could have got something from them. I’ll tell you what, mate, if he did, I’ll kill those bastards.”
Sally wondered why these people always kept up the pretence. It would be so much easier if they would just tell her the truth, that the dog had no doubt gotten into their marijuana stash, or – worse still – that they had fed the dog the drug deliberately, for a joke. “So, if he got anything, it would have been last night, not this morning?”
“Yeah. Must have been.”
Sally knew the woman was lying. The dog looked to be in the acute stage of poisoning. It probably got into their stash that morning. “Right, Mrs Harris. Leave him with me. We’ll put him on a drip and wash the poison out of his system. Give us a call at lunchtime to see how he’s going.”
“No worries, mate,” said the woman.
Sally carried the puppy out to the treatment room.
“Parvo?” Heather inquired.
“Marijuana poisoning,” said Sally. “Can we set up for a drip, please? We’d better get him on some IV fluids right away. He must have gotten into their stash, but he’ll be okay.”
“Poor little bugger,” said Heather.
“I know. It makes me sick.” Sally patted the little dog.
Sally’s first days in practice seemed to pass so quickly, they were just a blur to her. There was always something happening, and usually several things happening at once. It was stressful and tiring, but she felt a sense of achievement at being a practising vet at last.
One morning, a week after she had started at the practice, she met one of the nicest clients she had ever come across, an elderly man named Gerald Freeman, and his wife, Margaret. They had not been to the practice before. Sally met them in the consulting room, where Mr Freeman had a small, white Maltese Terrier cradled in his arms. The happy little dog seemed to be smiling up at its owners, but it looked a little tired, not quite the bundle of endless energy that one expected in a small terrier.
“Good morning, doctor,” said Mr Freeman.
“Good morning,” said Sally. “What can I do for you, today?”
Mrs Freeman spoke up. “This is our little darling, Muffy. She’s a bit spoiled, but she’s a good little dog. We ... we wanted to come to you for a second opinion.”
“Yes, she’s not been eating well, the last month or so, and she’s not getting any younger – she’s eleven, now – and then she started to vomit. We were worried, so we took her to see the vet on our street and he said she had liver disease.”
Sally knew the clinic. “Did they do blood tests?”
“Yes,” said Mr Freeman, continuing for his wife. “But we weren’t really happy with they way they treated Muffy. They just didn’t seem to care. And she’s lost so much weight. We wanted to see if there was anything else that could be done for her. I hope you don’t mind us coming to see you.”
“No, not at all.” For reasons of professional courtesy, as well as to learn more about the case history, Sally would later telephone the original vet to discuss the case. “It’s often easier for you to stay with your own vet, since they know the case already, but you are welcome to get a second opinion from us, if you like.”
“Well, doctor, it’s just that we weren’t really happy with our other vet. Maybe it was just that we didn’t like his bedside manner, but we’d rather not go back there.”
“Oh. Well, we can look after Muffy for you. That’s no problem.”
“Thank you,” said Mr Freeman.
“We’d like that,” said his wife.
“Do you have the blood results with you?”
“Yes.” The old lady opened the manilla folder she was carrying, took out some printed lab results and passed them to Sally.
Sally cast an eye over the results. “Her liver certainly is in trouble. These two enzymes, here, ALT and alkaline phosphatase, are quite elevated. And there’s a lot of inflammation, judging by the high white cell count. So, she does have liver disease, or hepatitis. And there might also be a little trouble with her kidneys, too. See here?” Sally pointed at the chart. “Her levels of urea and creatinine are higher than normal. They’re toxins which healthy kidneys normally get rid of. So there is a bit of a problem with the kidneys, too, as well as the main problem with the liver. How is she eating?”
“She just picks at her food,” said Mr Freeman.
“Right. Let’s have a look at her, then.” Sally took the dog from his arms. It was a friendly little creature, with a shaggy, white coat which smelled pleasantly of having just been shampooed. The little dog rolled over on the examination table. Sally rubbed its belly. “There you go, Muffy. You want a tummy rub, eh? You’re a good girl.”
The two old-age pensioners looked on, anxiously.
Sally could see the dog’s belly was enlarged, near the front. When she pressed on it, it was a little tender. The dog looked relatively healthy otherwise, except for being a little thin. “Well, her liver does seem enlarged, I’m afraid, and it’s a bit uncomfortable, too – not actually painful, but tender. It does look like she’s got hepatitis. The good news is that there is no jaundice. See the whites of her eyes, here, and the colour of her gums? They aren’t yellow. That’s a good sign. It means the liver isn’t as bad as it could be. And she’s not dehydrated, either. She could be a lot worse than she is.”
“Oh, thank God,” said the old lady. “The way the over vet was talking, we thought she was going to die.”
Sally thought carefully before answering. She knew that liver disease in an eleven-year-old dog could well be fatal in the long run, but she didn’t want to scare the owners too much. “Well, she isn’t too bad at the moment, which is great, but liver disease is a serious problem, and eventually, as the months and years pass, it can be the end of them if it gets worse.”
“We understand that, doctor,” said Mr Freeman. “But what’s caused this? She’s had all her vaccinations. We thought they were supposed to protect against hepatitis.”
“Hmmm. Yes, we vaccinate against canine infectious hepatitis, which is caused by a virus. That’s the one that mostly affects younger dogs, but we don’t see much of it, these days, since most dogs are vaccinated. But hepatitis can be caused by other things, apart from a virus, and a lot of the time we don’t know what the cause is. Sometimes it’s just something that comes on with old age.”
“You mean, like cirrhosis?” said Mrs Freeman.
“Something like that. Sometimes an old liver just starts to shut down and becomes scarred and inflamed. In people, it’s often due to too much alcohol, but in dogs we’re not sure what the cause is, other than old age.”
“So, what can we do about it?” said Mr Freeman.
“Well, it’s been two weeks since these tests were taken. I think it might be an idea to repeat the blood tests and see if things are getting better, getting worse, or are just the same. And we sometimes get an improvement by putting them on an intravenous drip for twenty-four hours, to flush out toxins from the system, as well as placing them on antibiotics in case there is any bacterial component to the hepatitis. I think we should look at doing all of that.”
“You do whatever you think is best, doctor,” said Mrs Freeman. “We just want to see Muffy well again. She’s a dear little dog. She’s ... she’s all we’ve got, you see? We’ll do whatever it takes. We just want to get her well.”
Sally hated to be negative, but she felt she had to gently caution their optimism. “Of course. We’ll do everything we can, and I think we can get her to improve quite well. But ... liver disease can get worse, and, if you are really unlucky, it can sometimes even turn out to be due to a cancer. So, we have to be prepared that sometimes we can get bad news.”
The old couple looked horrified, but they tried to be brave. Strangely enough, it was the old man, rather than his wife, who most looked on the verge of tears. Perhaps she just hid them better than he, thought Sally. The old man spoke. “We understand, doctor.”
“All right, then. Leave Muffy with me and we’ll get started right away. She’ll probably feel much better after spending a day in hospital on fluids, and then we can get her home again tomorrow. And we should have the lab results by then. Could you come in tomorrow morning and pick her up?”
“We’ll be here,” said Mr Freeman.
“Great. I’ll see you then, and don’t worry, we’ll take good care of Muffy for you until tomorrow.”
“Thank you, doctor,” said Mrs Freeman.
“Thank you, Sally,” said the old man, as the couple left. He cast one final look at his beloved dog. “We’ll be back for you, Muffy.”
The little dog didn’t seem worried. It was too busy making friends with Sally. She carried it out to the treatment room. Here, with the help of Michelle, Sally took a blood sample, set the dog up on an intravenous drip, and gave it injections of an antibiotic and of a multivitamin, before settling it down in a comfortable hospital cage.
“Cute dog,” said Michelle.
“Yeah. Isn’t she lovely?” Sally replied.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Liver disease. And kidney trouble, too. We’ll need to get these bloods off to the path lab, right away. Can you do that for me?”
“Sure,” said Michelle.
“Thanks.” Sally rushed back to the consulting room. There was still a waiting room full of people to deal with, and a full surgery list. There was no time to stand around. She was already running behind.
By seven o’clock that evening, Sally was exhausted. She had been busy all day and had done several surgeries. As she finished her last consultation for the day, the evening nurse, Petra, called out from the treatment room. “Hey, Sally. We’ve got the lab results for the little Maltese. The lab just faxed them through.”
“Okay,” Sally called out, and walked through the treatment room to the small office at the back of the clinic. When she read the results, she was pleased. The liver enzymes weren’t any worse than before – in fact, they were slightly better. And the kidneys seemed a little better, too. The next day, when the Freemans came in to pick up their little dog, it would be with the good news that at least things were no worse, and that indeed Muffy had picked up overnight with the fluid therapy and had eaten a solid breakfast.
But, for now, Sally was just glad the long Tuesday was over. What she wanted and needed, more than anything, was sleep.
It was after ten o’clock when Sally finally fell asleep. She had checked Muffy and the other animals in the dark, deserted hospital, and then retired, at last, to bed. Sleep was wonderful, when it came, but an hour and a half after she fell asleep, the loud buzz of the clinic telephone woke her.
Feeling almost in pain, having been roused suddenly from a deep sleep, Sally groaned as she reached across her bedside table and grabbed the phone. “Emergency after-hours service. How can I help you?”
“Yeah. G’day. Is that the vet?”
“Yes, this is the vet. What’s the problem?”
“Yeah, right. Well, how are you this fine evening, and all that?”
“I’m fine,” Sally growled. “What’s the trouble?”
“I’ve got a dog.”
“Well, he’s been vomiting pretty bad.”
“Vomiting?” Sally was barely awake. She had to force her tired mind to keep up with the conversation. It wasn’t easy.
“Yeah. I feed him, and then he chucks up.”
“I see. And is he still pretty active?”
“Oh, yeah. I took him for a big run, today.”
“And has he lost any weight?”
“Nah. He’s a fat bugger.”
“So, does he hold down any of his meals?”
“Oh, yeah. He just chucks up sometimes. Not every day.”
“For the last two weeks?”
“Yeah, that’s right. For a coupla weeks.”
Sally looked at the fluorescent hands of the little alarm clock by her bed. It was midnight. Why, she thought, desperately tired, did this drongo have to ring her at midnight, when his dog was bouncing around happily with a mild stomach upset which was no kind of emergency at all. “Right. It’s probably a stomach upset. Can you bring him in, in the morning.”
“Oh, yeah. I can do that. What time do you open?”
“Righto. We’ll be there, then.”
“Goodnight,” said Sally, as she crashed the receiver back down. She couldn’t believe she had been woken up for that. It took her twenty minutes to get back to sleep, feeling vaguely sick all the while. But at last she found the peace of sleep once again.
When the telephone rang the second time, it was three-thirty in the morning. Sally came suddenly awake, feeling genuinely ill this time, and found it impossible to answer the phone with more than a few slurred words. “After-hours service.”
An excited voice, the voice of a young woman, said, “Hello? Oh, Thank God. My dog’s been hit by a car. He’s bleeding ... I don’t know what to do.”
Sally managed to clear her drowsy mind. “Right. Okay. Is he able to stand up, or is he just lying down and not moving?”
“He ... he’s standing up. But there’s blood ... I mean, he’s bleeding. And I think he’s broken his leg.” The woman began to cry.
Sally replied as calmly as she could. “All right. As long as he is standing up and moving around, that means he isn’t in shock, so you don’t have to be too worried, but I’d like you to use a cloth or a bandage to stop the bleeding. Where is he bleeding from?”
“It’s his hind leg. There’s a cut ... and I think it’s broken.”
“Okay. All right. Now, you don’t have to panic, because he’s going to be all right. We can fix broken bones. If you can just pop him in the car and bring him down to the clinic, we can give him something for the pain and settle him down, right away. Okay?”
The voice seemed less hysterical. “All right. I’m leaving now. I’ll be there in five minutes. I’m just up the road.”
“Okay,” said Sally. The line went dead.
Sally put down the phone and switched on the bedside lamp. The light blinded her. She hauled herself out of bed and pulled on some jeans and a jumper. The client would be here soon, she thought. She had better go through to the hospital and set up an intravenous drip and a cortisone injection to prevent shock, before the woman showed up.
When the client arrived, banging on the front door of the clinic in the darkness, Sally went out to the waiting room, opened the wooden front door of the clinic to see the young woman and her dog, a German Shepherd, and let them in. The woman thanked her profusely, when Sally explained that the dog had a broken femur but that the bleeding wasn’t serious and that he would be fine. Sally got the woman to help her, as she put the dog on an intravenous drip and gave him an injection of dexamethasone to prevent shock, and she explained that tomorrow she would take an X-ray in order to determine exactly what kind of fracture it was and how best to repair it. Sally locked the front door again, once the woman had left, and wandered out to the treatment room, where the dog occupied one of the large floor-level cages. The young German Shepherd still seemed agitated.
Sally decided that this was a dog that needed pethidine, to better control the pain from its broken leg. She went to the clinic safe and got the pethidine bottle and the drug book. She filled out a line in the book, to indicate that she had withdrawn two mls of the powerful drug from the bottle into her syringe, and signed her name. Pethidine was a wonderful drug for pain control. In animals it had less side effects than the more familiar opiate, morphine, which was such an effective painkiller in humans. Like morphine, pethidine depressed the respiratory system and at excessively high doses could even result in a sick patient getting drowsy, falling asleep, and stopping breathing. Also like morphine, pethidine was an addictive drug, one which produced pleasant feelings of relaxation in human beings, and so its use had to be carefully controlled by keeping a logbook and signing out every injection. Even so, the easy temptation for vets or their nurses to abuse drugs was always high, and Sally had heard of one or two who had become drug addicts. For this reason, most clinics no longer carried addictive drugs, and used non-addictive alternatives instead. After all, clinics were sometimes broken into by junkies in search of a hit. It wasn’t worth the hassle.
But Sally was glad that this clinic did stock pethidine, because the dog needed it. As she injected the painkiller into the dog’s quadriceps muscle, she knew that in fifteen minutes, and for the rest of the night, the dog would feel relaxed and comfortable. The pain would no longer bother the dog because it would be merely a dull, almost insignificant ache instead of a sharp, searing pain. That was the characteristic of all the opiates, like morphine and pethidine: the patient could still feel a little of the pain but would no longer be bothered by it. The patient would feel comfortable. And there was no risk of respiratory arrest at the low dose that Sally gave the dog. She would have to give quite a bit more of the drug for that to occur. At the dose she was using, the drug was perfectly safe. Sure enough, ten minutes later, the dog calmed down. Satisfied, Sally went back to bed.
It was five-thirty before she got back to sleep.
She worked the next day.
Michael read Sally’s diary slowly. He had no idea of what being a vet was like, until he read the diary, other than the glamorous television shows which sometimes portrayed the profession as being an easy one. Sally’s life was far from easy. It seemed that the young vet never quite had time to recover from one stressful event before she was hit by another. Being a pilot was also a challenging life but Michael felt humbled by the fact that this young woman had, in many ways, been under far more stress than he. As a pilot, there was certainly tension, but there were rules – a minimum amount of sleep had to be had between flights. As a vet, Sally was under constant pressure, and she did not even have the luxury of uninterrupted sleep.
Michael was also amazed that Sally put herself through all that for such a low wage. Although he was not a wealthy man, he had done very well for himself as a pilot. He almost thought that Sally must have been a little crazy to do it all, but then he knew from reading her diary that it was her dream to be a vet. He knew that Sally wanted to do what she loved. Michael loved flying, or at least, he did, before the accident. He had worked hard to become a pilot and he had revelled in flying the small charter aircraft that were his bread and butter. He never wanted to fly the big jets. To him, that wasn’t quite flying. Too many computers. Too much like driving a bus, although he knew pilots who loved huge, stable aircraft just as much as he loved the small, nimble ones, only for different reasons. But the point was that Michael had never been disappointed by his vocation. It was his dream to be a pilot, and when he became one, it was a dream come true. Michael wondered whether Sally’s dream only turned out to be a heartbreaking disappointment. And in that much, he felt for her.
Wednesday, 31 May, 1995
I have been in practice two months now. I am coping with the stresses and my surgery is going really well. But I never realised how heavy it would all be. Today, I had an awful day. I thought my head would burst, from the pressure ...
Sally rushed through the morning consultations as quickly as she could. She had no time to stop and talk to the people who came in, not even to notice what they really looked like. She would simply vaccinate their dogs, or ask them questions to find out what was wrong with their sick animals and then quickly administer the appropriate treatment. As usual, there were a lot of operations to do that day and she would not be getting a lunch break, although she would probably take five minutes to gobble down a sandwich once the bulk of the surgery was done, maybe by three or four o’clock, but until then she didn’t have a minute to spare. It was another hectic day.
At last, morning consultations were over. They had run half an hour late. Now it was twelve-thirty. There were only three-and-a-half hours before Sally had to be finished surgery and ready for evening consults. She considered the operations which had to be done. There was a cat to castrate, and two to spay: that should be simple enough. Then there were two dogs for X-rays: easy, but time-consuming. Then an old Golden Retriever had to have a massive tumour removed from its neck, right in the vicinity of the carotid artery and jugular vein: that was going to be a difficult one, and it would take time. And lastly, there were two large dogs to spay, one of which was on heat: that one would not be a good idea to rush, in case she had problems with intraoperative bleeding. It was a daunting list for a new graduate, and one which would keep an experienced vet busy. Sally went over the list in her mind. She would do the cat spays first, then the cat castration, then the two dogs for X-rays while Michelle was setting up the surgery kit for the first dog spay. Then Sally would do the second dog spay, the one on heat, and try to eat a sandwich before doing the big tumour removal in the Golden Retriever.
By the time she had done all the surgery except the Golden Retriever, Sally was feeling exhausted and stressed. She managed to eat while she scanned, rapidly, the pages of a surgery text to work out how she was going to approach the removal of the cancer from the dog’s neck without damaging the plethora of vital structures in the area: the jugular vein, the carotid artery, the salivary glands and their ducts, nerve branches. It wasn’t going to be easy, and she had never done a surgery like it before. Kellerman was nowhere to be seen. He was away on another fishing trip. Although she almost never worked on the same day as he, it would have been nice if she could at least telephone him for advice, but Kellerman had made it perfectly clear that he was not to be disturbed while he was away on one of his numerous day trips. Sally had learned that Kellerman had an unpredictable temper, and she never really felt that her job was safe, so she did her best never to annoy him. No, she would have to handle the surgery on her own. All these thoughts ran through her mind as she scrubbed up for surgery, carefully washing and scrubbing her hands with a povidine iodine antiseptic before putting on a pair of sterile latex surgical gloves.
By the time she was in the small operating room, making her first incision over the large, knobbly cancer which bulged under the skin of the Golden Retriever’s neck, Sally was fully focussed on the surgical task at hand. But her concentration was interrupted by constant phone calls from clients, which Michelle would answer and relay to Sally.
“Sally, there’s a lady on the phone whose dog is seven weeks pregnant. It’s got diarrhoea. She wants to know if it could it be worms.”
Sally answered all these questions at the same time as she was performing major surgery, since there was no time to stop. The clock in the operating theatre showed it was three-forty. Only twenty minutes remained before evening consultations were due to start. Sally doubted she could finish the surgery in that time, and she knew Kellerman hated it if clients were kept waiting. No doubt she would have to listen to one of his angry lectures when he returned from his latest fishing trip. She tried to concentrate.
Right in the middle of the tumour she was dissecting was the massive jugular vein. Somewhere deeper was the carotid artery. If either of these vessels were ruptured during the surgery, the dog could bleed to death. Sally could probably control the bleeding, if something did go wrong, but it was a situation she didn’t want to get into. Unlike a human surgeon, Sally didn’t have an assistant, an anaesthetist, and a team of surgical nurses to help her. There was just Sally Johanssen. Whatever happened, Sally had to deal with on her own. It was going to take longer than twenty minutes.
As Sally was carefully cutting out the cancer from around the jugular vein, Michelle walked into the operating theatre. “There’s a cat just arrived that’s been bitten by a snake. The people are panicking about it, they want to see you right away. And there’s two dogs coming down in five minutes that have taken snail bait. The lady says they’re twitching pretty badly.”
Sally might as well have been slapped in the face, for how this news made her feel. She would have to leave the old Golden Retriever anaesthetised on the operating table while she rushed out the front and treated the snakebite cat. When the snail-bait dogs came in, she would have to treat them as well, which meant setting them up on drips, administering drugs, and making them vomit, before she could scrub up for surgery again and go back to the still-anaesthetised Golden Retriever and finish the surgery. It was a nightmare. Apart from the stress of it all, she would be very late starting evening consults. Sally felt vaguely like crying. She ripped off her gloves and spoke to Michelle. “Watch this dog very carefully, Michelle, and come and get me right away if there is any change in the anaesthetic. Don’t leave the operating room. Okay?”
“Okay,” said the eighteen-year-old nurse, who really didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation. After all, she just did what she was told. It was Sally who had all the responsibility. If anything went wrong with either the Golden Retriever, the snakebite cat, or the snail-bait dogs soon to arrive, it would be Sally that the owners would blame, not Michelle.
It was a long nightmare of an afternoon which Sally would not soon forget, and that night she spent more than an hour recording it in her diary. It was only one of many similar days that she was unlucky enough to experience in her first few months in practice.
In the end, Sally was nearly an hour late starting evening consultations. The surgery on the Golden Retriever had ended well, with most of the tumour removed and without any major complications. The little black cat which had been bitten by a snake survived, after being given antivenene, which was a lucky break for Sally since she knew that they often could die despite all the best treatment in the world. The two Blue Heelers which had eaten snail bait had come in drooling and with very severe tremors, but they had responded to Sally’s emergency treatment and were now stable. This was also fortunate since the more severe snail-bait cases could also sometimes die. Instead, for today at least, Sally was a hero in the eyes of the owners of those lucky animals, and it did make her feel good to know she had done some really good work that day.
But the angry client who had stormed out of the practice in disgust, after being kept waiting for an hour, claimed that Dr Kellerman had never kept him waiting and that the new vet was obviously no bloody good. Sally knew that Kellerman would not see her as a hero but as someone who should do her job and do it on time. He would criticise her for losing a client.
And all of that paled in comparison to how Sally felt, physically. Fortunately, she had slept soundly the night before, except for an after-hours call at eleven, but, even so, she felt physically sick with stress and exhaustion. She was pleased to have saved the animals, but she was utterly wrecked herself. And there were still two hours of consulting to do, until the clinic closed at seven. She doubted she would finish until seven-thirty, looking at the full waiting room.
The third consultation was Mr and Mrs Freeman, with Muffy, the little Maltese Terrier with liver trouble that Sally had seen a couple of months previously, when she had first started working.
Sally called the elderly couple into the consulting room. “Freeman? Come through, please. Sorry I’m running late.”
“That’s all right, dear,” said the old lady. She seemed able to tell that Sally was stressed. “We don’t mind waiting.”
Sally smiled, and slowed down for a moment. “Thank you.”
Mr Freeman spoke. “It’s Muffy, doctor. She hasn’t been eating well again and we’re a bit worried about her.”
Sally looked at the little dog, which Mr Freeman had put on the examination table. It looked fairly well, for a dog with liver trouble, and when Sally checked it over she couldn’t find any major signs of illness other than the still-enlarged liver. “Well, her temperature is all right and she doesn’t look too bad. Has she been vomiting again?”
“No. She just isn’t eating well,” said Mr Freeman.
“She doesn’t seem herself,” his wife added.
Sally thought she knew what the trouble would be. “Have you been sticking to the diet with her? She hasn’t been getting any tidbits, has she?”
Mrs Freeman looked embarrassed. “Well, she does love her chocolate, and that diet you gave her, she seems to hate it.”
“She eats it,” said Mr Freeman, “but then she just looks up at us, as if she wants more. She never seems satisfied. So ... um ... we let her have some chocolate, or a biscuit or two, and ... lately we’ve felt so sorry for her, we just put her back on her old diet.”
Sally was relieved. This was easily fixed. “Ah hah,” she said slowly. “Look, I know it seems cruel, but her liver can’t handle too much protein, and a lot of fat isn’t good for her, either. That’s why we made up the special diet. It gives her all the nutrition she needs but it’s gentle on the liver.”
“We know, doctor,” said Mrs Freeman. “It’s just that she used to love all her treats. The skin off a chicken, that was her favourite. And liver, she just loves liver. When I cook up some lamb’s fry for her, she jumps up and down with excitement. Can’t she have that any more?”
“No. It’s just too much fat for her. If we’re not careful, she might start having trouble with her pancreas, too. I know it’s being a bit cruel to be kind, but you really do need to stick to the diet we wrote out for her.”
“No more tidbits at all?” said Mr Freeman, pathetically.
“I’m afraid not. It’s just not worth it. She might get sick.”
“All right then, Sally,” said Mrs Freeman. “If you say so.”
Sally looked at the dog. “Well, Muffy. You’re going back on a healthy diet, from now on, old girl. You’ll feel much better.”
The little dog looked up at her happily.
“Let me know if she’s not much better in a few days,” said Sally, as she led the old couple out to the waiting room. “But I think you’ll find that changing the diet will do the trick for now. She might need more treatment, later, but mostly I think she’s just been on food that’s too rich for her.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs Freeman.
“Thanks, Sally,” said her husband.
“Bye,” said Sally. And then she turned and called in the next client. There was still a full waiting room to get through. She snapped back to full speed. There was still no time to waste.
Sally was indeed half an hour late finishing consulting, as she thought she would be. By the time she had checked all the animals in hospital and medicated them, it was after eight. Sally’s eleven-hour day was over at last.
She was far too tired to cook. She got into her old Kingswood and drove to McDonalds, where she bought a couple of burgers at the drive-through window, then she brought the food home and collapsed on the bed in her tiny flat at the back of the clinic. She was feeling wound-up and stressed, but utter exhaustion soon brought her unconsciousness. She slept.
The sleep was dreamless, a void.
It was about half past one in the morning when the telephone went. Sally almost didn’t wake up for the call. When she asked the man what the problem was, she knew she was sunk. She couldn’t believe it.
“My German Shepherd’s stomach seems to be all swollen up, and he’s really whimpering a lot. Is that something serious?”
Sally knew it was probably very serious, and she said so. When the man and his dog arrived at the clinic, twenty minutes later, her worst fears were confirmed. It was a bloat, a life-threatening condition in which a dog’s stomach twists after getting overfilled with a big meal, then starts pushing on the diaphragm, interfering with the normal function of the heart and lungs. It was an emergency and the dog could die.
Sally cursed Kellerman for being away. This was a major surgical case, unlike anything she had done before, and she would have called him if he had been in town. Instead, she called Heather Lorayne, and together they prepared the dog for emergency surgery after sending the owner home. It was a huge operation, a big laparotomy followed by untwisting the stomach, pumping out its contents as best as Sally could with the rudimentary equipment she had available, and then suturing the outer wall of the stomach to a rib to prevent it twisting again. Sally had to desperately scan through a surgery book to determine how to do this last procedure, known as a gastropexy. Sally knew perfectly well that these dogs could die just from the anaesthetic alone, far less the stress of a long surgery, so she was enormously relieved to see how well the surgery went. When she finally got Heather to help her carry the dog back to a cage, placing it gently on a folded blanket, it was after 4:00 am. Looking back, Sally had no idea where she found the energy to do the operation. She had barely been able to cope with the long day in itself, but this huge surgery in the middle of the night, on top of it all, was soul-destroying.
The fact the she knew she had to be at work again in four hours almost made her want to cry. She just couldn’t take it.
But she did get up, and she did take it, somehow.
Sally was not a quitter.
Michael thought about death often. It seemed almost to call him. After all, he knew that it was the ultimate destination, that it was always the final act in every play – in every life, death was always there at the end. And there seemed so little for him to live for, now.
It was more than just his guilt. It was more than the emptiness which was his life. It was death itself that he thought of. Death, which so many people were so afraid of. Death, which was supposed to be the ultimate terror. Yet, it was also death which so many religions held to be little more than a natural change, a right of passage, and not something to be thought of as the end. Did Michael think it was the end? He didn’t know. How could anyone know? But he knew one thing, and that was that death came to us all, it came to each of us, and it was, in that sense, just a part of life. To Michael, it did not seem a bad part. Not now. Not after what had happened.
Why should he be afraid of death? He didn’t believe in stories of heaven and hell but he still thought that where Marie had gone, in death, would also be where he would go. At least in that much, it was the only way they would ever be together again. Michael almost laughed at allowing himself the thought – he was not so naive as to suppose that he and Marie would hold hands again, floating on some heavenly cloud, if he were to die. But he did suppose that perhaps death was a kind of perfect peace, a kind of state where everything was cancelled out, where there was nothing but a dreamless sleep. In that eternal sleep, in that peace, his bond to Marie might live on. These were the dangerous thoughts of a depressed man. But Michael didn’t care about the danger. He thought as he wished.
Michael had read widely in his youth. He had read Shakespeare, and he had read poetry. He had almost forgotten about all those books. But now that he was alone in his life, memories of the books suddenly came flooding back to him. When you are happy, Michael thought, life is so sweet, but when tragedy strikes and you are left with nothing, it all seems to make no sense. If ever you had read a book that moved you, that is when you remember it. If ever an elderly relative had something wise to say to you, that is when you bring it back to mind. You try to understand.
Michael remembered Hamlet. The famous soliloquy, when Hamlet speaks to the audience of life and death, had been heard so many times that it had become a cliche, almost a joke. But there was nothing funny about it, Michael knew, when you found your own life broken, when you were wondering whether to put the pieces together and try to start again, or to let it all pass you by, and die. There was nothing funny about it, to the thousands of people every year who found themselves at the same crossroads that Sally had found herself at, and that Michael found himself at now.
Michael remembered what Walt Whitman had to say about death. When he was forced to come to terms with his grief at the murder of Abraham Lincoln, when he had to find some deeper meaning in the loss, to find a reason not to be afraid of death, the cantankerous American poet had written: ‘Come lovely and soothing death ...’ That was how Michael felt about death. It called him, like an old friend. And he had no fear of it. These were the dangerous thoughts of a depressed man, a man without fear.
Michael wanted to find that kind of peace, that kind of conclusion to his life. He wanted to make the decision to die. He felt the same feelings that so many people who had taken their lives felt, the same crushing emotions and the same empty despair. The fact that Michael had read a lot of books as a boy only meant he could put that despair into words in his mind, as Sally had put them into words in her diary. People scoffed at suicide, people who had never been in that situation, but many young people had died without ever being able to put their terrible emotions into words.
Michael thought his dangerous thoughts every day. He twisted things around in his grieving mind. He didn’t make the distinction, in his own mind, between death in general, and suicide. He didn’t understand that Whitman was writing about death coming to us in the natural scheme of things, not about taking one’s own life. Michael especially pushed out of his memory the words which might most have helped him. Even an alcoholic could write them and could know their truth: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
Michael pushed the words of Dylan Thomas out of his mind. All those stupid poems written by people long since dead, what did they mean? They were just a bunch of lofty books for people with fancy educations like himself, Michael thought. The kids in the dying country towns and on the troubled farms who ended their lives with a rifle, or the kids in the cities, from the troubled families, who ended their lives with drugs, had never read any of those stupid poems. What did a drunk like Dylan Thomas know about life, to tell us to rage against death, to tell us to fight against it? What did he know? And what about the psychiatrists, what did they really know about pain, about what it feels like to have nothing ahead of you in life, to face total emptiness? Nothing, Michael thought angrily. Those who know are those who have died, or those who might have died.
And that was why Michael read Sally’s words.
Tuesday, 20 June, 1995
Today I was so upset, I actually cried in the consulting room. I’m used to putting animals to sleep by now, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Today I had four euthanasias at the clinic, and I had to go to the pound in the morning and put down ten dogs ...
The long June day was breaking Sally’s heart. Sally hated putting animals down. She was a soft-hearted animal-lover. Nothing depressed her more than to have to do several euthanasias in a single day. Nearly every day there was at least one animal to be put to sleep. When disease became too much for an animal and it was suffering pointlessly, it was the duty of the veterinarian, Sally knew, to put that animal peacefully to sleep using an overdose of anaesthetic. Not only was it the vet’s responsibility to discuss euthanasia with the owners of the animal, and to help the owners make their own decision about when the time had come, the vet was also faced with the onerous task of helping the owners cope with their grief, especially in the minutes leading up to the euthanasia and just afterwards. It was easier when the owners did not want to be present during the euthanasia, but often people wanted to be present right to the end – these were the most difficult and heartbreaking cases for the vet. Sally, like all vets, had learned to distance herself from the powerful grief that the owners experienced, while at the same time being sympathetic and supportive towards them, for otherwise she simply would not be able to do her job. Someone had to remain cool and calm in order to properly inject the intravenous anaesthetic in a way that the animal would peacefully fall asleep without any stress. Sally had learned the art of doing this, but she still hated it.
It was one thing when an animal in pain had to be put to sleep, but it was quite another when an animal had to be put to sleep because the owner could not afford to treat an expensive or complicated illness. There were always the harsh economic realities of practice to be taken into account. Sometimes owners would put an animal to sleep because they could not afford orthopaedic surgery to fix a broken leg. That was especially depressing, but occasionally it simply could not be avoided. There were also those terribly sad cases where a disabled or elderly owner would not be able to cope with a pet which had chronic diabetes or spinal injuries, and so they would sadly put their animals to sleep. Lastly, and worst of all, were the animals that were just not wanted. Sally preferred not to think about what happened to some pets that were no longer wanted – many of them were simply abandoned, or worse, but most dogs ended up at the pound. And someone had to put all the unwanted dogs at the pound to sleep, because despite the best efforts of local councils, many of them could not be rehomed. That person was the vet. It was a terrible job to have to do.
Sally had been to the pound that morning. It was a rainy winter’s day. She had greeted the two rangers as cheerfully as she could, and the three of them had tried to maintain a veneer of good humour. They knew that if they allowed themselves to get sad about it, they would not be able to do the job, and it was a job that had to be done. Sally had seen many mistreated and neglected dogs in her time, and there was no doubt at all that it was far more humane to put an unwanted dog to sleep than to have it stay with an unsuitable owner who might well dispose of the dog by inhumane means. Veterinary practice was not a field in which one could remain sheltered from the harsh realities of life.
Sally knew all this, but when she had ten dogs to put to sleep in a single morning, like she did today, it depressed her. Sally simply couldn’t help it. Nevertheless, she made jokes about the weather and tried to keep the rangers, a man and a woman, smiling and talking as much as possible. They would talk to each dog brightly, pat the dogs cheerfully and try to behave normally around them, so that the animals would feel comfortable and relaxed and would not feel stressed at all. As far as the dogs were concerned, they were just feeling sleepy all of a sudden, and, with a yawn, or a little exhalation of breath, peacefully lying down to have a sleep, as Sally painlessly injected the anaesthetic. It was not stressful for the dogs – it was the people who were stressed, for it was the people who understood that although this was like a normal anaesthetic in every other way, these dogs would not be waking up again. The pound was a depressing place for people to work, although it housed the dogs quite comfortably, and Sally could not wait to jump in her car and rush away from it as soon as she was finished.
So she wished the rangers a good day and bade them farewell until next week. In her car, Sally checked she had put everything back into her medical bag: used syringes, a stethoscope, needles, and the big, 500 ml bottle of pentobarbitone sodium. This was the anaesthetic which, when injected into a vein in the foreleg, humanely sent the dogs to sleep. The so-called green dream was very effective, and it gave Sally some comfort to know that the dogs never suffered once they had been given the lethal anaesthetic. The end was always peaceful and humane.
When Sally got back to the clinic, it was a relief to do some surgery and to get back to the happier business of treating sick animals and making them well again.
Her heart sank when Heather Lorayne came to the operating room and told her that they had four clients coming in to have their pets put to sleep that same afternoon.
“Oh, God,” said Sally, as she sutured up the abdominal incision of the Jack Russell Terrier she had just spayed. “Four? I’ve just done ten!”
“Sorry,” said Heather. “You can look at the appointment book if you like, but there are four. A Mr Mitchell is bringing his Blue Heeler in to be put to sleep. It’s savaged a child.”
“Oh,” said Sally. “That’s awful. Fair enough.”
“Then there’s Miss Liu, with her rabbit.”
Sally spoke as she placed another stitch. “Flopsy didn’t get better, then? No improvement at all?”
“No. He’s much worse.”
“That’s sad.” Sally had been treating the rabbit for a serious pneumonia, caused by a Pasturella bacterium, but even when she first saw Flopsy, she thought he would probably not make it.
“She says he’s just lying in his hutch now, and he won’t eat or move about. Miss Liu says she knows he has come to the end, and she doesn’t want him to suffer any more.”
“Okay. What about the other two?”
“Mrs Gianelli rang up to say her old Dachshund hasn’t improved. That’s the one that Thomas saw, with the spinal paralysis. It’s fifteen years old. The lady’s going to come in with the dog, and the kids, to have it put it to sleep this afternoon.”
Sally groaned. “With the kids? Oh, no. I remember the case, though. You should have seen the X-rays. Poor dog’s spinal cord has had it. I’m not surprised we didn’t get a response. Is she really going to bring the kids in, to see it put to sleep? Are you sure?”
“Apparently,” said Heather.
Sally stopped stitching. “Oh, that’ll be awful.”
“Do you want to hear the bad news?”
“The bad news?”
“Your last appointment for the day is Mrs Polanski and her daughter. You remember the phone call we had the other day, from the daughter?”
“You mean the one who’s trying to get her old mother to put her cat to sleep? The cat with kidney disease?”
“That’s the one.”
Sally shook her head, and started stitching again. She had closed the muscle layer and the subcutaneous fat, and was now putting non-absorbable sutures in the skin. “So, Mrs Polanski still doesn’t want to do it?”
“Apparently not. The old cat’s a walking skeleton, but she can’t bring herself to put him down. The daughter’s furious. She’s bringing her mum, and the cat, down to see you tonight.”
“That’ll be a nightmare! Thanks a lot.”
“They wanted to see you,” said Heather. “They don’t like Thomas. The old lady reckons he doesn’t seem to care.”
“And I’m supposed to look caring by telling them to put their cat to sleep? She’s really going to love me for that.”
“You know it has to be done, Sally. The cat’s on its last legs.”
Sally sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’ve just had enough of death for one day, you know. It gets me down.”
“Hmmm,” said Heather. “Well, are you finished, there?”
Sally had just tied the knot on her last stitch. “Yep. You can turn the anaesthetic machine off and wake her up.”
“Sure,” said Heather.
Sally took off her gloves and walked out of the operating theatre. She went to the office and made some tea. It was a miserable day. Rain dribbled down the pane of the little office window and the sky was dark with clouds. Sally really didn’t want to have to face up to all those people with their dying animals.
When evening consultations began, there was a waiting room full of people, their barking dogs and frightened cats. By the time Sally had called the Gianelli family in, with their little paralysed Dachshund, the waiting room was half-empty. Mrs Gianelli, a pretty, young Italian woman, carried the old dog carefully in her arms. She was followed by her husband, a man of few words. He was wearing dusty khaki trousers and a heavy, blue shirt. Sally knew he was a building contractor. A little girl was holding his hand. She must have been only six years old. Her brother, who looked about ten, came into the consulting room last of all.
Mrs Gianelli put the dog on the examination table, after laying out a little blanket for it to sit on. The dog’s hindlegs were useless, totally paralysed, and the back end of its body flopped to one side. On its stubby little front legs, the dog held itself up as best it could.
“We have to carry him everywhere, doctor,” said Mrs Gianelli, in her Italian accent. She and her husband were first-generation immigrants. Their children, raised in Perth, spoke with Australian accents, but the dog was five years older than their son. The little animal had come with them all the way from Italy. It had seen them build a new life in Australia, and the children had grown up with the dog as a constant companion. Giotto was, to the Gianellis, a member of their family. The thought that this was the end for him was unbearable to them all. The little boy already had tears welling up in his eyes. He stood at the rear of the consulting room, afraid. “He’s not going to the toilet, doctor, and he ... he just lies in his own wee. I don’t know, but he looks in pain. He won’t even look at his food.”
Sally examined the dog carefully. She pinched the toes of its hindlegs. There was no reflex reaction at all. The dog was hopelessly paralysed, a paraplegic, and it had not responded to treatment. In fact, it had lost weight and obviously hadn’t been eating, despite the anti-inflammatories and painkillers which Kellerman had prescribed. Its eyes were cloudy from advanced cataract. Its teeth were yellow and the mouth smelled foul. The old dog’s cheeks were hollowed. It looked uncomfortable and tired. “Poor little Giotto,” Sally said softly. “You’re not feeling the best, are you?”
Mr Gianelli spoke. “He’s dying, doctor, isn’t he?”
Sally sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid so. Fifteen years is very old for a Dachshund. If he were a human, he’d be something like a hundred years old. At his age, the spinal injury is just too much for him. The nerves to his bladder and rectum have shut down, so he’s getting constipated and his bladder just overflows.”
“We’ve been squeezing it, like you told us,” said Mrs Gianelli.
“Yes, that’s good, but he hasn’t eaten a thing, has he?”
“I hate to say it, Mrs Gianelli, but I think that’s because he’s in pain from his back. You remember when I showed you the X-rays, how the discs had prolapsed and were pressing up on his spinal cord? Well, that can be very painful. It’s okay to see if we can get a response to treatment, but now it’s past the point where he’s got any real chance of getting better. In a younger dog, you could try surgery, but in a dog as old as Giotto, that would be an awful lot to put him through. He’s just too close to the end of his life. And, anyway, it’s so severe – I really don’t think he’s going to come good.”
“Yes, we know,” said Mr Gianelli. “We told the other doctor, we don’t want Giotto to go through any surgery. It’s too much for him.”
“I think the time has come, don’t you?” said Sally.
Sally wished the children were not in the room. She hated discussing putting a family pet to sleep when there were children present. But some people, she had found, preferred their kids to have an early introduction to the realities of life. Sally tried to couch her words as obscurely as possible, so that the children wouldn’t fully follow what was being said. Often children wanted their pets to be kept alive at any cost, even when they were suffering badly, because they couldn’t bear to part with them. It was awful to have to watch a parent telling their child that, no, the pet would have to be put to sleep, and seeing the grief and disbelief of a crying child who thought their own mother or father was betraying them. “What do you think?”
“Yes, yes. We know it is time,” Mrs Gianelli was doing her best not to cry, but she was beginning to lose the battle. “I ... I told the kids today, before we came here, that we had to say goodbye ... say goodbye to little Giotto, because his time had come. He’s just suffering now, and we don’t want that.” She looked at her children. “Right, Giovanni? We have to say goodbye to Giotto, don’t we?”
The little boy was crying. He nodded, as bravely as he could.
“We don’t want Giotto to feel bad, do we, Susi?”
The little girl shook her head. “No, Mama.”
Mrs Gianelli looked at Sally. “We have made our decision, doctor. We would like you to put Giotto to sleep, now.”
“That’s okay. And, I agree. It’s definitely time.”
“Thank you, doctor,” said Mr Gianelli.
In a couple of minutes, Sally had fetched Heather, drawn up some pentobarbitone sodium into a syringe, and returned to the consulting room, where the entire Gianelli family was going to be present for the euthanasia. Sally knew that the little dog would have died over the next couple of weeks, anyway, and it would have been in pain over that time, so she did not feel bad about putting the dog to sleep. But it was terribly difficult, with two crying children and their distraught parents watching her every move.
“What we do is inject an anaesthetic into his arm-vein, and he’ll just fall asleep. It’s just the same as a normal anaesthetic. They just relax, and get drowsy, and then they fall asleep. Once they’re fully asleep, we give them a little bit more anaesthetic and they just pass away very peacefully. They don’t think anything bad is happening. They just fall asleep.”
“Okay,” said Mrs Gianelli.
“So, what you’ll see is that he’ll just relax and lay his head down. It only takes a few seconds. And, sometimes, once they are fully anaesthetised, they can make a gasp, like a big breath, but it’s just a reflex – they’re not feeling anything, so don’t be alarmed if that happens.” Sally hoped, fervently, that it would not happen. It was rare, but sometimes the lungs would take a reflex, gasping breath, or two, due to high carbon dioxide levels. The heart could even have already stopped, but sometimes the carbon dioxide reflex caused the respiratory muscles to contract and take a reflex breath. Sally knew that this was nothing to be worried about, but it could be very upsetting and alarming to people if they were not expecting it.
“We understand,” said Mr Gianelli.
“Do you want to say goodbye to Giotto?” said Mrs Gianelli, to her children. There were tears on her cheeks, but she was trying to be strong for the kids’ sake. “Say goodbye to him, Giovanni. Give him a little pat, that’s right. Say goodbye to him, Susi.”
Mr Gianelli had to hold his daughter up, so she could get high enough to say her farewells. The tearful boy and the confused little girl patted their dog and said, “Goodbye, Giotto,” in soft voices.
Mr Gianelli stroked the dog’s neck. “Goodbye, mate.”
Mrs Gianelli was embarrassed. She was crying outright, now. “You’re a good boy, Giotto,” she said, and then she turned to Sally. “Sorry, you must think I’m so silly, getting upset like this.”
Sally put a hand on her shoulder. “No, of course not. Everyone cries, everyone does. It’s not easy, I know.” And then Sally cursed herself. Damn it, she thought, now I’m starting to cry! Sally felt tears welling up in her own eyes. She was losing her composure. It was the long day that had done it: putting ten dogs to sleep at the pound, and then putting to sleep the savage Blue Heeler and the dying rabbit earlier that evening, and now this lovely family, standing here, and their uncontrollable grief, it was just a bit too much for Sally to take in one day. A tear rolled down her face. She wiped it away and tried to concentrate.
“Okay, then. Heather’s going to hold up the vein for us,” said Sally.
Heather Lorayne stood beside the dog, which was on the examination table, and gently held its right foreleg in her hand, squeezing her thumb down to occlude the cephalic vein.
Mrs Gianelli continued to pat the dog, gently, as Sally prepared to inject the anaesthetic. The rest of the family stood back and watched.
“I’m injecting the anaesthetic now. He’s going to get sleepy and he’ll just relax onto his blanket in a few seconds.” Then Sally whispered to the dog as she injected the anaesthetic. “There’s a good boy, Giotto. Good boy. You’re a good dog. That’s the way. Off to sleep, now. Good boy.”
As if on cue, the little dog totally relaxed. It put its head down and, at once, was fast asleep. There was no sign of any stress or anxiety at all. Giotto just peacefully went to sleep and that was all.
Heather Lorayne walked out, quietly, and left Sally with the family, since she did not want to intrude any further on their privacy.
Sally gave silent thanks that it had gone well. It was difficult to stay focussed, under so much emotional pressure, and sometimes she could miss the vein and have to try again, but she had done everything perfectly. And there was no gasping. It was a textbook euthanasia. The little dog had passed away humanely and its suffering was over.
Everyone was crying now, the children, their mother, and even their father. Suddenly, Sally felt tears in her own eyes again, and this time they wouldn’t stop. She cried with them. It was unprofessional, and she was annoyed at herself, but, for once, she couldn’t help it.
Suddenly, Mrs Gianelli reached out and squeezed Sally by the wrist. “Thank you, doctor,” she said, crying. “Thank you for all that you have done. You are a good person.”
Sally felt like she would burst from sadness and emotion.
Then Mrs Gianelli quickly turned and led her family out of the consulting room, leaving the little dog’s limp body on its blanket on the examination table. The body looked completely peaceful.
Sally stood there for a few minutes and allowed herself to cry.
When the last appointment finally came, it was 7:15 pm. Sally was running a little late. But it was not a consultation she was looking forward to. She was still upset from putting little Giotto to sleep, an hour earlier, and now she had to face yet another euthanasia. It would be the fourteenth animal she had put to sleep that day.
Still, it had to be done.
Sally strode out to the waiting room and called in the Polanskis. Mrs Polanski was a short, plump old lady in her early eighties, dressed rather severely in a tatty, black sweater and an ancient pair of dark blue tracksuit pants. She was a humourless old lady. Her middle-aged daughter and she did not get on. Sally dreaded the inevitable confrontation to come, as she showed the two of them into the consulting room. The old woman held a diminutive Siamese cat in her arms, defiantly, as if she were not going to let it go. Even from a distance, Sally could see the cat was little more than skin and bones. Its coat was dry and matted and the animal looked depressed and very weak. It was an ancient, dying cat, long past its time.
“Put him down, Mum!” Judith Polanski snapped angrily. “Put him down so the vet can take a look at him!”
Mrs Polanski held onto the cat and said nothing.
“What can I do for you, today?” Sally asked. It was a stupid question. She knew perfectly well that they were here to have the old cat put to sleep, but she could hardly say that outright.
“Chang’s no good any more, doctor,” said Judith Polanski. “He hasn’t eaten a thing in over a week. He just sits over his water bowl all day, drinking, and then he vomits the water back up again. He doesn’t even have the energy to go outside. He just messes on the carpet.” There was a look of pleading in her eyes.
“I see,” said Sally. Then she addressed the old lady. “He’s vomiting a lot, is he? And he just lies around all day?”
“Yes, he vomit, but he’s okay. He’s an old cat. He don’t want to run around no more. He’s happy to stay inside with me.”
“Well, let’s have a look at him, then.” Sally didn’t try to remove the cat from the old lady’s arms, but she felt its abdomen – it had tiny, knobbly kidneys, about half the normal size, and it was badly dehydrated. “He’s very dehydrated, Mrs Polanski. Look at how his skin stands up, when I pinch it. That’s not normal. It should go straight back down, only it can’t because it’s too dry. His kidneys are leaking too much water out of his body. He just can’t drink enough to keep up with it. And his kidneys are so small now, there’s just nothing left of them. I’m very sorry, Mrs Polanski, but he really is dying, now. Look at how tired he is. He’ll probably die in the next 48 hours, if we don’t do something to prevent that.” It was a euphemism. Sally knew there was nothing she could do for this cat, other than put it to sleep.
“He’s not dying. He’s just an old cat! You give him some medicine. You’re the vet. You give him some medicine.”
Judith Polanski interrupted her. “Mum, I told you, Dr Kellerman told you, and now this doctor is telling you, he’s dying. You saw the blood tests that Dr Kellerman did! Chang is dying. We have to let him go, now, Mum, before he gets any worse.”
“Bah! He’s not dying. He just needs to stay with me.” Mrs Polanski clutched her cat tighter and tickled its ears. The old cat barely noticed. It was far too sick to be aware. It was dying.
“I’m afraid he is dying, Mrs Polanski,” said Sally. “If there were some medicine I could give him, believe me, I would give it to him. But there’s nothing. He’s had intravenous fluid therapy, he’s had anabolics, he’s had cortisone, but now he’s even worse. The kidneys have just shrivelled up and died. They’re not working any more.” Sally didn’t mention kidney transplants, nor dialysis, since neither were routinely available. In any case, this cat was going to die in a day or two, no matter what Sally did.
“Mrs Polanski, Chang is sixteen years old. That’s very, very old, and no matter what we do, he will die in the next day or two. No matter what, you are going to find him dead somewhere, if you don’t do something about it first. And he won’t just go in his sleep. He’ll keep vomiting. He might even go into convulsions, from the poisons that are building up in his body. I’m sorry, but he really is dying and there isn’t any medicine I can give him.” Sally guessed that the old lady knew it too, that she just didn’t want to admit it. Sally felt bad about discussing old age and death with a very elderly woman, but there was no other way to make her understand.
Mrs Polanski said nothing. Tears welled up in her eyes. She suppressed the tears with a sudden burst of anger. “You vets don’t care! You don’t care about animals! You just want to put my cat down, that’s all. He’s not dying. He just wants to stay inside with me. You don’t care about anything but the money we pay you! That’s all you care.”
This hurt Sally deeply. Sally loved animals, she had dedicated her professional life to studying their diseases and how they could be cured, she had learned surgery and anaesthetics and medicine and pathology and pharmacology, all to care for animals, and here was one of the very people she was trying to help, telling her that all she wanted to do was kill animals, that all she was interested in was money. But Sally understood that some people simply could not cope with the grief of losing a pet. She guessed the old woman knew her cat was dying, but that she needed to blame her daughter, and the vet, for putting it to sleep, so that she herself would not feel responsible. But it still broke her heart, to be accused like that. “Look, Mrs Polanski. I think you know he needs to be put to sleep. He’s really suffering, now. You know he’s dying, and you don’t want to find him going into a convulsion and dying under a bush in the backyard, do you?”
Judith Polanski was quiet.
Her elderly mother spoke at last.
She spoke in an angry torrent of words. “That’s right. You and my daughter, together, you just want to kill my poor Chang! You don’t care about anything but money. And I’ll report you, I’ll report you to that Vet Board I see in the paper, that you make an old lady put down her cat!”
Sally felt a stab of pain in her stomach. She felt stressed. A veterinary surgeon had a legal right to put to sleep any animal that was suffering badly, if that was, in her professional opinion, the only appropriate course of action. But it was a right that Sally never wanted to have to invoke, because, legal right or not, the thought of being dragged up before the Veterinary Board by an irate client, and of the newspaper publicity from reporters who would not know the first thing about whether or not the cat truly needed to be put to sleep, was Sally’s worst nightmare. It could certainly cost her, her job, since Kellerman would act quickly to distance himself from any adverse publicity concerning his new associate, and, of course, in some cases, the Veterinary Board might even decide to strike a vet off the register, and that would be the end of her career, the end of everything she had worked for. The stress of that kind of an end to her career was always hanging over Sally’s head, since it was always possible for an upset and vindictive client to lie to the Board in such a way that might make it look like Sally had not acted properly, even if she had acted entirely properly. Sally knew she didn’t live in a perfect world, and these things sometimes did happen. It worried her.
“Mrs Polanski, I am not going to put your cat to sleep without your permission. It’s your decision. But I must tell you that, in my opinion, it is the only humane thing to do. Honestly.”
“Come on, Mum. You know the vet is right.” Judith Polanski was determined not to let her mother’s cat suffer any longer.
After a moment of silence, the old woman spoke in anger. “Take him, then! Yes, I give my permission. You take him and put him to sleep. You put him to sleep for me. If that’s what you want!”
Sally couldn’t cope with all this, at the end of a long and awful day, but somehow she stood there and listened.
The old lady handed the tiny cat to Sally, then stomped out of the room. Sally looked down at the cat and decided that she had been too optimistic – it would not have lasted two days, it would have died that very night. It was just a skeleton, and it should never have been allowed to suffer for so long as it did. She would have to be very thorough on the clinical record card, reporting the poor cat’s condition at length, in case the angry old woman decided to take legal action against her. Sally was glad that the dying cat would not have to suffer any longer, but she felt terribly stressed and alone. It had not been an easy day. She wondered if it was all worth it.
Judith Polanski patted the cat one last time. “Good boy, Chang. Thank you, doctor. I’m sorry about my mother.”
When Judith Polanski had gone, Sally took the little cat to the treatment room, where Heather Lorayne helped her to put it to sleep.
“There you go, little fella,” said Sally, as she injected the pentobarbitone sodium. “There’s a good boy, Chang. Good boy.”
“That’s just disgusting,” said Heather, after it was over. “This poor cat should have been put to sleep a week ago. Look at it, it’s just a bag of bones. Poor thing could barely hold its head up. It must have been in agony. How can people put them through that? How can they do that to their pets? It makes me sick.”
“I know,” said Sally. “It’s awful. He really would have been suffering. The daughter said he vomited all day, just hanging over his water bowl – he was dying by inches. But the old lady couldn’t let go. She even threatened to take me to the Vet Board, you know.”
“No! She didn’t, did she?”
Sally nodded. “Yeah. She did. She said I didn’t care.”
This made Heather angry. “You don’t care? It’s her that doesn’t care. That’s the sort of person the RSPCA should talk to. Letting her cat suffer like that.”
Sally didn’t want to talk about it. “I know, Heather. I know.” It had been a very long day, it was seven-thirty, and all Sally wanted to do was go to her tiny flat, collapse on her bed, and sleep.
And that is exactly what she did.
Michael recognised the name of a familiar pet in Sally’s diary.
Wednesday, 19 July, 1995
Mr and Mrs Freeman came in again today. It was sad to see Muffy still not going well. When we did more tests, the results were much worse than I hoped ...
Sally had been pleased, that morning, to welcome Mr and Mrs Freeman into the consulting room. They were nice people and it was only the third time she had seen them. Their little Maltese Terrier, Muffy, was eleven years old. Its liver disease would always be a problem, but Sally thought its condition would have stabilised by now, four months after she had first seen the dog. On the contrary, Muffy had recently taken a turn for the worse. Her appetite was adequate but not good, and she had been a little lethargic. Nevertheless, Sally had been jovial when she spoke to the elderly couple. She told them she would repeat the blood tests, to see how the liver was doing. But then, when she had farewelled the Freemans, taken the dog to the treatment room and carefully palpated its liver and spleen, she was shocked to feel some small lumps. These should not have been present in a dog with simple hepatitis, and they hadn’t been there previously.
Now, Sally was standing in the X-ray room, next to the drowsy dog. She had given Muffy a light sedative, since she wanted to X-ray the abdomen to see what was happening with the liver and the spleen, and also the chest, just in case her worst fears might be true.
Michelle called out. “The X-rays are ready.”
“Okay.” Sally walked out and took the developed X-rays from Michelle. “Watch Muffy, will you? She’s on the X-ray table.”
Sally put the X-rays on the viewer in the consulting room and switched on the viewer’s light. She looked at the abdominal X-ray first. The liver was enlarged, which she already knew, but she couldn’t make out any lumps on either it or the spleen, so this brought her no closer to a diagnosis.
Then she looked at the chest X-ray.
“Oh, no,” Sally whispered to herself, sadly.
In the caudal lung lobes, where there should have been nothing but a dark space on the X-ray, were several small, white, fluffy smudges. They looked like tiny tufts of cotton wool, innocent enough in appearance, but deadly by nature. They were clumps of cancer in the lungs, metastatic neoplasia – cancers that had spread through the bloodstream, presumably from a cancer that must have originally been growing in the liver before it spread to the lungs. It must have been in the spleen, too, which would explain the little lumps she felt, even though they were too small to show up on the abdominal X-ray.
Sally dreaded having to tell the Freemans the bad news.
She told the nurse, first. “Bad news, Michelle.”
“What is it?”
“Cancer. She’s almost certainly got liver cancer.”
“But wouldn’t that have shown up on the blood tests?”
“No. The blood tests just tell us that the liver’s inflamed, that it’s being damaged. That’s what liver inflammation is called: hepatitis. The tests don’t tell us what’s causing the damage. In Muffy’s case, it’s being caused by a cancer. Now it’s spread to her lungs, too – we can see that on the X-ray – and I can feel it in her spleen, as well. It’s getting worse.”
“Can you operate?”
“No way. You can’t remove that much cancer. It’s everywhere.”
Michelle patted the drowsy dog. It was standing up, but only just, since it was drunk from the sedative. “But she looks so comfortable. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain. How could she have all that cancer?”
“Sometimes they don’t feel that much,” said Sally. “She’s one of the lucky ones. Pain doesn’t seem to be a problem. But she still has cancer.”
“Poor girl. How long do you think she’s got?”
Sally stroked the dog’s fluffy, white coat. “I don’t know, Michelle. It’s hard to say. She could go for weeks, maybe even months, before she feels any pain. And there’s no reason why we can’t keep her going until then. But when she stops eating, that will have to be the end. Until then, we just try to maintain her quality of life. Anyway, let’s get her on a drip for a few hours. That might give her a bit of a boost before we send her home.”
Sally frowned. “It’s going to be horrible tonight, telling them.”
When the Freemans returned that evening, to pick up Muffy, Sally gave them the bad news. They took it well. Mrs Freeman told Sally she had suspected something like this must have been going on, and that she was glad they now knew the full story, that it was cancer. Mr Freeman thanked Sally for telling them the truth straight up, because it was better that they knew. He said he understood Sally couldn’t tell him exactly how long Muffy had left, but that he would do the right thing and bring her back when she finally took a turn for the worse, because they would not let the little dog suffer. Sally could tell that, behind the brave facade, the old couple were devastated, even if they did thank her warmly as they said goodbye and took the cheerful little dog back home that night. It broke her heart.
Her next consultation was a vaccination. It was a bouncy Doberman puppy, just sixteen weeks old. The little black-and-tan dog ran happily around the consulting room, even after Sally had injected the five-in-one vaccine. Somehow it made Sally feel so much better, to see a young, healthy dog at the beginning of its life, after the heartbreak of having to tell the Freemans that the life of their beloved old dog was coming to an end.
The owner of the Doberman puppy was a young woman with a baby. Sally liked her. She seemed like a nice person, and for once Sally wasn’t busy, so she talked to her. “It must be hard, having a puppy and a baby to take care of all. I bet Scooby must be a bundle of mischief.”
“He’s always chewing things,” said the woman. “And knocking stuff over. He never sits still. But he’s just perfect with the baby. I only let him near her when I’m watching, but he’s so gentle.”
Sally smiled. “He’s really still just a baby himself. He’ll settle down as he grows up. I think he’ll be a great dog. Dobermans are very intelligent dogs, and if they’re properly trained, they’re great with kids.”
The baby squirmed uncomfortably in the woman’s arms. “I’d better get this one back home. Thank you, doctor.”
“You’re welcome,” said Sally. “Do you want me to give you a hand to get Scooby back to the car?”
“My husband’s waiting outside. He can help me.”
“Okay. We’ll see you next time, then.”
“Thanks.” The woman left, carrying her cute baby daughter in her arms. Her new puppy trotted excitedly out behind her.
As a vet, Sally thought, she saw the start of life and the end of life, almost every day. That night, as she lay in her bed, Sally wondered how much longer Muffy would live. She hoped it would be a long time.
Michael flipped through the diary, looking for anything which might give him a better insight into what Sally had been through. Many pages ahead, he came across a tragic entry which caught his eye.
Friday, 27 October, 1995
Today was the worst day of my life. I had an anaesthetic death. The owner went mad. I don’t know who to turn to. I only feel like running away, but there’s nowhere to run ...
It was a routine operation, a dog spay, so Sally didn’t mind talking to Heather Lorayne to pass the time. She had removed the first ovary and was working on removing the second one, soon to be followed by removing the uterus itself. Although it was a busy day, this was the second-last surgery, so Sally felt she could afford to slow down a little. Outside, it was a lovely spring day.
“Wish I was out there, instead of in here,” said Heather.
“Me too,” said Sally, as she placed a ligature around the ovary. The dog, a rangy German Shepherd, was lying on its back connected to the anaesthetic machine, breathing a mixture of oxygen and halothane, the anaesthetic vapour, which was supplied at a controlled concentration by the machine. Sally had made a three-inch incision in the middle of the abdomen, and it was this hole that she worked through in order to perform the operation. The dog was fairly skinny, which meant that there wasn’t much fat around the ovaries, so it made the operation easier. Sally was fairly relaxed as she worked. “Still, it’s my weekend off this weekend.”
“Are you going to do anything?”
“No, I’m too tired. I just want to have a rest.”
“Lucky you,” said Heather. “I’m working the weekend with Thomas. And it looks like we’ll be busy, too.”
A high-pitched, electronic beeping noise interrupted their conversation. It was the breathing monitor, which had recorded that the dog had not taken a breath for thirty seconds. It was very common for animals to do this under anaesthesia. It happened most days of week and was usually no problem at all, but Sally was always vigilant when doing anaesthetics, so she stopped operating and asked Heather to check the dog.
“How does she look?”
“It’s a bit funny,” said Heather. “She looks really deep.”
“Deep? How could she be deep? She was light, a minute ago, and she’s only on two percent halothane. Are you sure?”
“Well, her eye isn’t rotated, and there’s no blink.”
“How’s the jaw tone?”
“Right, turn her off, then. Just pure oxygen.”
Sally kept operating. She had to pass instructions to Heather, getting her to check the dog and work the anaesthetic machine, since Sally had to keep her gloves sterile. “How’s the heartbeat?”
Heather put a hand on the chest. “It’s fine.”
“Okay. Pump the bag, then.”
The nurse squeezed the oxygen bag, a dark balloon that hung from the anaesthetic machine and which allowed animals to be artificially ventilated. As Heather squeezed the bag, the dog’s chest inflated with pure oxygen.
Thirty seconds later, the alarm sounded again. The dog had still not taken a breath on its own. At the exact same time, Sally suddenly became concerned, since the tissue she was working on, the uterus, was normally a bright pink colour, but all of a sudden it was a deeper, ruby red, as if the blood was not as well oxygenated as it should have been. Sally couldn’t understand it. There was no way that should happen, unless there was a problem with the dog’s cardiovascular system. Sally suddenly felt sick to her stomach with fear and shock – a heart attack could do that to a dog. It was incredibly unlikely, very rare, but it could happen. Although halothane was a very safe anaesthetic for animals, it could very rarely be associated with arrhythmias – abnormal heartbeats – and the worst cases of arrhythmia could result in a sudden heart attack. The heart could simply stop beating. This flashed through Sally’s mind in an instant. This can’t be happening to me, she thought, feeling sick. But she didn’t want to jump to the worst conclusion. She had to remain as calm as she possibly could. “How’s the heart?”
Heather felt the chest again. “Um ... I’m not sure ...”
That was enough for Sally. She ripped off her surgical gloves, pushed Heather aside and felt the chest. She couldn’t feel a heartbeat.
That can’t be right, she thought. It just can’t be.
Sally grabbed a stethoscope and put it on the chest. At the same time, she lifted back the dog’s lip and checked the colour of the gums: they were slightly blue, instead of the healthy pink they should be. But worse was what she heard through the stethoscope: nothing, nothing at all. The heart had stopped completely, suddenly, without warning. The dog must have had a massive heart attack. Sally felt dizzy, almost as if she were going to faint. Desperately, she tried to pull herself together and to approach the emergency from a purely logical point of view. She had to push her emotions to one side, as much as possible.
“It’s a cardiac arrest! Get the emergency kit. Now!”
Heather ran through to the treatment room, to retrieve the small box which contained adrenalin, doxapram, and the other stimulants which could be used in this situation.
Sally turned the dog off its back, onto its side, ignoring the still-open abdominal incision, and pressed firmly down on the chest five times, performing external cardiac massage. Then she squeezed the oxygen bag, pumping fresh oxygen into the dog’s lungs via the endotracheal tube which was already placed in its windpipe. This was the anaesthetic equivalent of CPR. And it was just about all Sally could do. “Give me an adrenalin syringe, and get ready with some doxapram!”
Heather passed Sally a syringe. It had a long, one-and-a-half-inch needle on it. The needle wasn’t meant to be used in a vein. It was for emergency use only: direct injection into the heart. Sally measured carefully where she was going to inject, between the ribs, then plunged the needle gently down, vertically into the heart, and injected the adrenalin. “Heather, take over the CPR. Five pumps on the heart, then squeeze the bag.”
“Right,” said Heather. She was efficient, an experienced nurse, and she did not have to contend with feeling sick to her stomach, as Sally did, because ultimately it was Sally, and Sally alone, that the responsibility rested upon for anaesthetics.
Sally took a syringe full of doxapram and went quickly to the dog’s mouth. She pulled the tongue out and turned it over so she could see the delicate sublingual veins. She carefully inserted the fine needle of the doxapram syringe into one of the veins and injected a hefty dose of the respiratory stimulant. It was a futile gesture, since the heart was not beating and there was no circulation to distribute the drug, but she wasn’t about to do nothing. She would try everything she could.
After that, things seemed to happen in slow motion. They continued the CPR, injected drugs into the heart, and worked tirelessly for twenty minutes to try to resuscitate the dog. But once twenty-five minutes had passed, the heart was still as lifeless as a stone, the gums were grey, and the pupils of the eyes were fixed and dilated. The dog was brain-dead, the victim of a rare and sudden heart attack, and there was nothing that Sally, Heather, or anyone else could do to bring the dog back, given the circumstances. It was hopeless, and although it made Sally nearly want to collapse, just to admit it, she knew the dog was dead.
“Okay,” Sally said, very quietly. “That’s enough.”
Heather stepped back from the dog.
Sally looked silently at the body for a moment. Then she walked out of the operating room, out of the clinic entirely, and sat down on the grass under the eucalyptus tree in the tiny garden behind the building.
The sun was still bright. It was warm.
Sally felt utterly ill.
Five minutes later, she walked back into the clinic. Heather had put the dog into a black, heavy-duty plastic body bag.
“We’d better call the owner,” Sally said.
“We can’t,” said Heather. “She said she’d be out shopping all day, and won’t be contactable until she comes in to pick up the dog at five. There’s no way we can reach her.”
“I’m going to try, anyway,” said Sally. She picked up the nearest phone and dialled the owner’s number. There was no answer. “She’s not there. Damn. When she comes in, bring her straight into the consulting room and I’ll talk to her. Okay? This is going to be awful.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Sally. It’s happened to Thomas, too, many times. It happens to every vet. It’s not your fault.” Heather was trying to be nice. She knew that Kellerman would lie and certainly not admit to Sally the times it had happened to him. He would keep quiet and blame Sally, and if there were any legal trouble, it would then be Sally’s problem alone.
Sally knew this, too. “I don’t feel too well, Heather. But thanks.”
Sally had heard of a human anaesthetist, the year before, who had lost a healthy patient from a freak heart attack and had not been able to cope. The anaesthetist was only a young man, and he had his whole life ahead of him, but he had killed himself. She had to admit, right at that moment, that she could understand why a person might do that, now that she found herself in the middle of a similar nightmare.
Sally didn’t know whether to blame herself or not. She knew it was not actually her fault, but somehow she wanted to think that she could have saved that dog, that if only she were a better vet she could have miraculously brought it back from the dead after its unexpected heart attack. But there was a limit to what even the best anaesthetist in the world could do, working in a small practice with limited equipment, facing up to whatever sudden emergency might occur. Nevertheless, Sally soon came to blame herself, even though she knew she had done nothing wrong. She could not bear the thought of facing the owner.
The woman who owned the dog was due back at the practice at five, and Sally would have to be the one to break the awful news. The woman might get aggressive. She might scream. She might yell at Sally. To Sally, the thought of that only reminded her of her childhood, of the many nights when Karl Johanssen had come to her room and yelled at her, told her she was no good, and beaten her. She remembered how her mother had not protected her, how it happened again and again, how her father’s breath stank of beer. She remembered the fear, the sheer, undiluted terror, as each blow would come down upon her, as Karl Johanssen would beat her for no good reason other than because he could. And he would tell her that she was no good, that she was a bad girl. Sally could never understand why she was bad. She had just accepted that she was, for her father had told her so. The bastard had never raped her, had never touched her in that way, but he had beaten her, and he had forever destroyed her faith in herself. Sally, somehow, no matter how hard she tried, was not good enough. It only took a trigger-event to remind her of all of this, to make her tremble. And the thought that the owner, when she arrived, might yell at her, made Sally shake.
Sally tried to calm down. When four o’clock came, she saw the first few clients and tried to get back into some kind of normal routine, but by ten to five she felt she could hardly go on. The anticipation was too much. The waiting room was full, however, and there would still be a lot of people to see even after the owner of the dead dog had arrived.
At five past five, the owner walked in. She was dressed in an impeccably cut, blue, pin-striped business suit, and she carried a briefcase. Ms Amanda Richardson was a marketing manager for a rental-car company, she was thirty-eight years old, and she did not like to be kept waiting. “I’m here to pick up my dog, Cleo.”
Heather took her immediately to the consulting room. There were a few confused glances from the five people already sitting in the waiting room. They didn’t understand why this pushy businesswoman should jump the queue. “The vet will be with you in a moment,” said Heather, very glad that it was not her responsibility to tell the woman the bad news.
Sally took a deep breath. She was deeply saddened by the death of the German Shepherd. That much alone broke her heart. But she had no time to dwell on that. She now had to break the news to the owner, and help the owner to deal with it as best as she could. Sally knew that this could well be the end of her job, and, perhaps, if she were unlucky, even the end of her career, despite the fact that she had done nothing wrong and that anaesthetic deaths could happen – and indeed did happen – to every vet, sooner or later. Sally pushed open the consulting room door and walked in.
Amanda Richardson was in a hurry to pick up her dog and get going. She was not accustomed to being kept waiting. In fact, she was going out for dinner that night and wanted to get Cleo back home and settled with the dog-sitter she had arranged, before she left for the dinner party.
“Hi,” said Sally, rather stupidly, not knowing what else to say. “Ms Richardson, you’re here to pick up Cleo?”
“Yes. I’m in a hurry, if you don’t mind, so if you could just bring her through right away, I’d appreciate it.”
Sally was shaking. Her voice was unsteady. “We’ve ... we’ve been trying to contact you all afternoon. I’m afraid there’s been a problem with her anaesthetic. I mean, something went wrong.”
Amanda Richardson spoke quickly, but not in anger. It was just confusion that made her say, “What? Sorry, what are you saying?”
“Ms Richardson, I’m very sorry, but Cleo had a heart attack while she was under the anaesthetic. It’s very rare, but sometimes a dog can have a reaction to the anaesthetic and ... die. Cleo’s heart stopped suddenly, during the surgery, and we couldn’t get it to start again. I’m very sorry.” Sally didn’t know what else to say. The words were coming out all wrong. She wanted to take them back and say them again, only better. But it was too late.
Amanda Richardson looked in horror and disbelief at the young vet who was telling her, her dog was dead. Was that what this girl was saying? she thought incredulously. It couldn’t be. This time, her voice was angry. “What? Are you saying that Cleo is dead? Are you saying my dog is dead?”
“I’m very sorry, Ms Richardson, but, yes, she passed away under the anaesthetic, and we couldn’t revive her. We worked on her for twenty-five minutes, but we just couldn’t bring her back. It was a massive heart attack. I’m so sorry.” Sally was beginning to shiver uncontrollably.
This time, Amanda Richardson did not merely speak. She yelled at the top of her voice. “You bitch! You killed my dog? You must be joking. You can’t be serious. You killed her?”
Sally wanted to run and hide, she wanted to die. She felt that she would faint. She thought of Karl Johanssen, beating her, she thought of how he used to scream at her while he hit her. But she stood there and took it.
Amanda Richardson started to cry. “Cleo’s dead? She’s dead?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry. She had a reaction to the anaesthetic. It’s ... very rare but it happens. It happens to people, too. We just couldn’t save her.” Sally somehow was still managing to speak.
Amanda Richardson regained her fury. “Goddamn you! How could you let my dog die? What’s your name? What is your name?”
“Doctor Sally Johanssen.”
“Well, Doctor Johanssen, you picked the wrong person’s dog to kill. My father is a very prominent lawyer, and I’ll make damn sure you never practise again. You people think you can get away with anything. Bastards!” Amanda Richardson spat the words out, in pure anger.
Sally began to hyperventilate. She felt total panic, as if the walls were collapsing around her. She tried to fight it off, tried to remain professional, but all she could think of were the blows that Karl Johanssen used to rain down upon her. He used to spit when he yelled, too. “I’m ... so sorry.”
“Jesus fucking Christ, you can bet you’ll be sorry. You’ll pay for this, you bitch!” Amanda Richardson threw open the consulting room door and stormed out into the waiting room.
Sally slumped against the consulting room wall.
Amanda Richardson yelled at the other people in the waiting room, as she made her way to the front door. The other clients had already heard everything she had said, through the thin consulting room door, but her parting comment made things even worse. “Don’t go in to see that fucking vet. She just killed my dog. She just fucking killed my Cleo ...”
With that, the grief-stricken owner was gone, out of the front door of the practice, leaving a waiting room full of astonished people who didn’t know what might have happened, only that someone’s dog was dead and that apparently it must have been the vet’s fault.
Sally knew she would have to see every one of those people, one by one, and face them and their animals, before the day was over. She ran out of the consulting room, made it only halfway to the toilet, and vomited on the hallway floor.
The rest of the day was just a blur, just a nightmare, but Sally would never forget that incident. It would always stay with her.
Michael dipped his fine brush in the burgundy paint-well on his cheap watercolour palette and touched up the roses on the portrait he was working on. It was a picture of Ruth, in a straw hat and a big white shirt and khaki slacks, tending to her beloved rose bushes. The roses were red and green slashes, Ruth’s face was a pinkish blur, and the sky overhead was a clear blue panorama.
Michael painted Ruth from memory, since she had gone out for the afternoon without saying where she was going. It was meltingly hot. Michael was glad of the shade of the big jacaranda tree he sheltered under, even if the bees did buzz dangerously around his feet, feasting on the nectar from the many fallen flowers, little mauve trumpets that littered the lawn around the tree. This was late January in Perth. The city was immersed in the desperately dry heat. A brilliant sun burned a hole in the endless sky.
Michael was troubled by the diary he had been reading every night for the past three weeks. There were questions to which he wanted answers. Sally had written of being beaten, as a child, by a man she called Karl, only Karl, nothing more. Who was he? She had written of the stress she had been under in veterinary practice. She had written of how she thought sometimes that she could barely take it any more. And, the last thing in the diary Ruth had given him, Sally had written of an anaesthetic death which had shattered her heart. Had Sally told Ruth about any of this? Michael wondered. She had been such an innocent, young woman, barely more than a girl just left home for the first time, and she had her whole life ahead of her, yet Michael knew, although the diary did not take him that far, that she had taken her own life. Why had she done that? He wanted to understand.
Michael knew why his own life must soon end. He was guilty. He was responsible. He had failed. And there was nothing left for him, now. But Sally was innocent. She had failed nothing. And there was everything ahead of her, a whole, long life of unexplored possibilities. Why did she end it?
When evening came, Michael wanted to talk. Normally, he would eat alone, but for the first time he asked if Ruth would mind if he joined her for dinner. Ruth was a little surprised by the request, but she agreed. They ate cold chicken and fresh salad, and Michael talked.
“Your granddaughter, are you sure she would have wanted me to read her diary? It’s pretty private stuff.”
“Sally loved animals, and she cared about people. She was a good girl, she was always a good girl, a good woman. She would have wanted you to read it. She would have wanted you to know.”
“But, I’m just a stranger.”
Ruth looked calmly at Michael. “Maybe you’re someone who can understand what she was feeling, more than most people could. Maybe there’s something you and Sally have in common, which makes you more than just a stranger. Don’t you think so?”
Michael was evasive. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Are you feeling any better, Michael?”
“I’m all right,” Michael lied.
Ruth said nothing, and ate her dinner.
“Did she talk to you about it? What she was going through, did she talk to you about it? Did you know what was happening to her?”
“Sally was afraid to tell me, Mike. She never said a thing. It was her dream to be a vet, it was her one way out of her unhappy childhood. She didn’t want to tell me that her dream was falling apart, that it wasn’t what she had hoped. I suppose she even thought it was her own fault.”
“What do you mean, her way out?”
“My granddaughter had the worst luck in the world, but she was too young to realise that it was just bad luck and not her fault. She had a father who beat her, a father that she couldn’t even bear to call a father. She called him by his first name.”
“Karl. Miserable bastard. They should have locked him up. He ruined my granddaughter. He ruined her for life.”
Michael didn’t know what to say.
“He was a drunk. He bashed my Sally. He used to go to her room, lock the door behind him, and beat her. He used to tell her that she was no good, that she hadn’t been good. She was just a little child.” Ruth lost herself for a moment, in angry thoughts, in sad thoughts. “When she came to live with me, after that son of a bitch died, and after her mother moved to Canada, it was the first time in her life she had a safe home. And when she enrolled in the veterinary college, it was the first time she had a chance to reach for a dream. It was her way out.”
“But Sally had the worst luck in the world, the worst luck. And that luck lead to her death, Michael. That bad luck killed her. She thought that was just the way life was, that there was no other way, that there was no better life. She didn’t know it was just bad luck.”
“The anaesthetic death, you mean?”
“All of it, Michael. Not just that. All of it.”
Michael felt uneasy. He said nothing.
“Have you finished reading it?”
“Yes. I finished it last night.”
Ruth rose from the table, without a word. She returned a couple of minutes later. Michael was just sitting there, thinking.
“You’ll want the next one, then,” Ruth said unceremoniously, as she slid another diary across the table to him. “I think you’ll want to read this, Michael. I think you’ll see what I mean, about luck.”
Michael put his hand on the diary, considering this for a moment. Then he looked at Ruth. “I’ll read it.”
Thursday, 21 December, 1995
I can hardly write. Tonight, I might have been raped. I don’t know what to do. I only know I don’t want to give up ...
It was after midnight on a warm December night, and Sally was deathly tired from another horrifically busy day at the clinic. When the after-hours phone had rung, fifteen minutes ago, she had felt a sense of dread. This intuition was to be confirmed in more ways than she would ever have imagined. At first, she was simply disappointed that it was not another inconsequential call but a genuine emergency – this meant that she would have to get out of bed. The man’s voice on the telephone was deep, and he had said, without emotion, that he had a dog that had been hit by a car. Now, Sally had let herself out of the front door of the clinic and was standing waiting for the client to arrive in the dark of the car park. She had pulled on a pair of jeans over her short pyjama bottoms, and wore a light jacket, partially unzipped, and a yellow, satin pyjama singlet. It was a hot night, and she didn’t see the point in getting fully dressed, since she hoped she could treat the dog and get back to sleep in twenty minutes. Her long, blonde hair was pulled untidily back into a pigtail and her face was scrubbed clean of make-up. She looked tired. Where was the damn client? she thought. How could people ring up, say they had an emergency, then take so long to arrive? She hated that.
A old, dark blue Holden panel van cornered noisily into the parking lot, the tires on its enlarged mag wheels squealing as it pulled off the street.
Here they are, at last! Sally thought impatiently.
A man jumped out of the car and walked over to Sally. There was another man, the driver, waiting in the car, and the loud engine was running. The headlights still burned, something Sally would later remember in her nightmares about that terrible night.
“Hello,” said Sally. “Your dog’s been hit by a car?”
“Yeah,” said the man. He was wore a denim jacket and jeans, pointed snakeskin boots with polished silver toes, and his face was covered in thick stubble. He was a big man, about six feet tall.
“Where’s the dog?” said Sally.
“He’s in the car, doc. Can I call you doc?”
Sally had no time for nonsense. Whatever the man was up to, she wasn’t interested. She just wanted to treat the injured dog and get back to sleep. She ignored the question. “Is he badly hurt?”
The man smiled a crooked smile. “Oh, yeah. Bad, bad.”
Sally’s heart sank. She came across a lot of weird people in practice, and she was well and truly used to people saying strange things and wasting her time. She wasn’t afraid of the man, just annoyed. “Well, let’s bring him into the clinic, then, and take a look at him.”
The man turned to the car and shouted to the driver. “She wants me to bring the dog in.” Then he laughed.
The driver leaned out of the car window, gunned the motor for a moment, and laughed back.
They’re drunk, Sally thought. She was really beginning to get annoyed now. It was the middle of the night. Even the streetlights had gone out, on the quiet little suburban street. Anyone with any sense was at home, asleep. And she was out here, with two drunks, wasting her time. “Where’s the dog?”
The man looked at Sally, feigning puzzlement. “You want to know where the dog is, doc? You want to know where he is?”
Sally felt afraid, for the first time. The man looked mean.
“Hey, Mickey – she wants to know where the dog is!”
The driver yelled back. “She looks like a dog, to me. She looks like a fine bitch to me, don’t you reckon?”
Before Sally could react, the man put a hand up to her cheek, and briefly touched her face. He looked at her partially open jacket, seeing the satin singlet underneath, and then smiled a repulsive smile. “Now, we don’t need no dog, doc, do we?”
Sally was frozen for a moment in sheer terror, in the sudden realisation that there was no sick dog, that there never had been, and that these men were here to rape her, to break into the clinic, maybe to find drugs. In a split second, her options for escape ran through her mind. The man’s speech had been a little blurred, like he was drunk, or stoned – his reflexes might be slow.
The man stood there, looking at Sally for a couple of seconds.
His driver called urgently from the car. “Come on, mate. What are you doing? Stop wasting time.”
The man turned, slowly, to look at the driver. “Keep your fuckin’ pants on, Mickey. I’m talking to a lady ...”
Sally stepped quickly backwards.
By the time the man had turned back towards her and lunged out with his hand, all he caught was the edge of her jacket.
As Sally spun around and ran away as fast as she could, the jacket was ripped off her back. She disappeared down the dark alley at the side of the clinic, frantically trying to get to the door of her little flat at the rear, which she could lock behind her. It did not connect directly to the rest of the clinic, the front door of which was still open.
The man didn’t chase her, not at first. He just laughed loudly as he saw Sally running frantically away, as he appreciated her yellow pyjama singlet reflecting the harsh moonlight. “Oh, look what you did! You frightened the bitch away, Mickey. Now we’ll just have to go find her.”
The driver was getting impatient. “For fuck’s sake, get the bloody drugs and let’s get going. She’ll have the cops here in a minute. Stop fucking around.”
Sally had already let herself into her flat, slammed the door behind her, and was fumbling desperately at the telephone. She punched 000 into its keypad and waited for emergency services to answer. “Hello. Yes. Thank God. This is the Parkdale Waters Veterinary Centre. We’re being robbed. I mean, there are two men here. For God’s sake, help me, I think they’re going to rape me ...”
Sally screamed as she heard the doorknob turn and then someone pushing heavily on the door, trying to get in.
Not knowing what else to do, she yelled through the door. “I’ve called the police, you bastards, and they’ll be here in a minute. Do you hear me?!”
The operator spoke calmly. “It’s okay, we’ve got a car on the way to you now. Just hang on for a couple of minutes.”
The horn of the panel van sounded loudly, twice.
“Ah, fuck you, bitch. I’d like to,” said the man’s voice. He kicked on the door as hard as he could, but it was deadlocked and it didn’t come open. At last, the man heeded his driver’s call and left.
Four minutes later, a time that seemed like an hour to Sally, as she sat hyperventilating on the floor by her bed, there was another knock on the door. It was a different voice, another man.
“It’s the police. Are you all right in there?”
Sally was too terrified to open the door.
Then there was a second man’s voice. “It’s the police, Sally. It’s Sally, isn’t it? That’s your name? You’re okay now. You’re safe.”
Sally stood up and went to the door. She leaned against it in exhaustion for a moment, then with a prayer she opened it. She saw two police constables, in their heavy leather jackets, with truncheons and revolvers hanging from their belts.
“Are you okay?” said the first constable.
“I am now,” said Sally. Then she cried.
The next day, when Sally told Kellerman what had happened, he didn’t give her the day off work. Sally didn’t ask for that, and Kellerman certainly wasn’t going to offer it. But he did say that he would take the after-hours phone for a week, so that Sally didn’t have to do any night-calls. Shortly, Kellerman took legal advice on the situation, and when his solicitor advised him that he might be liable, if one of his employees were put in an unsafe situation in the course of doing their job, he called a tradesman and had a metal security screen installed on the front door of the clinic, so that Sally could view any after-hours clients and their animals from behind the screen, before she unlocked it and let them in.
Heather Lorayne showed far more concern than Kellerman for what Sally had been through, but, even so, her offhand remark that the men were probably just junkies looking for some ‘Special K’ – the street name for ketamine, an injectable sedative – was hardly reassuring. Sally was terrified that the men might come back. When she telephoned Ruth, a couple of days after the incident, to discuss her fears, Ruth was horrified and even suggested that Sally should quit her job and look for something safer, because, she said, Sally should put herself first and take care of herself, and she was welcome to come and stay with Ruth for as long as she needed to find a new job. But Sally was never comfortable with giving up on anything she began, so she lied and said she wasn’t feeling too bad and that it would be okay. The truth was, the secret terror that she might be attacked again never left her, but she thought that if she left her job it would make her a quitter, and Sally didn’t want to be a quitter. Somehow she would keep going. It was important to her not be defeated, not even by Kellerman’s indifference.
Years later, Ruth would say that Sally might have saved her life by getting out of a situation that she could not handle, rather than getting deeper and deeper entangled in it. Years later, Ruth would say that quitting her job would have been the best possible thing Sally could have done. Sally had lost her sense of perspective, had lost sight of the fact that life was full of choices, and that it would not be quitting, to take the pressure off herself and seek a better life. She could have taken a holiday to recover. She could have looked for a new practice to work at, one with a more caring boss. She could have worked part-time, instead of full-time. Or she could have changed careers altogether – there was no shame in admitting that she could not cope with the pressures of being a vet, and no shame in admitting that she simply felt overworked, miserably underpaid, desperately stressed, tired and alone, no shame in admitting that she felt at the end of her rope and didn’t know where to turn. But to Sally, to take time off work was quitting. To Sally, to leave and seek a better practice was quitting. To Sally, most of all, the unthinkable thought of changing her career, and giving up on everything she had dreamed of for all those years, was the worst kind of quitting. Sally somehow never felt, deep inside, that she was okay, that she was good enough, that she was a worthy person – she was always, in her own mind, not quite good enough, either as a vet or as a person. She always had to prove to herself that she was okay, that she had what it took, but ever since Karl Johanssen had first beaten her, she had never been able to completely respect herself. Sally was lost.
Four days after the incident, it was Christmas. Sally was not working in the afternoon, although Kellerman made her work the nine-to-one shift for which the practice was open on public holidays, since he and his wife had driven down to Margaret River for a long weekend. After work, Sally spent the evening having Christmas dinner with Ruth. Ruth was delighted to see her, since Sally did not visit as often as she used to, but immediately she could tell that Sally was looking deeply stressed. Sally didn’t want to talk about it because she knew it would only upset both of them. She just wanted to be with Ruth for a few hours and remember the good old times, when being a vet was just a distant dream not yet realised, and when it seemed like such a bright future. Now she didn’t know what to think, so she tried her best not to think at all. She gave Ruth a beautiful crystal vase for Christmas. Ruth gave Sally a hand-knitted jumper, and an elegant silver wristwatch, inscribed, ‘To Sally, with love, Ruth.’ Ruth hoped it might become an heirloom that Sally would keep for decades.
She did not know that it was not to be.
It was only a week after the incident that Sally found herself on the receiving end of a string of emergency cases. On a busy Friday morning, just before the new year, Sally had to deal with a cat bleeding profusely from its throat, a collapsed dog that had been baited with strychnine by an angry neighbour, an epileptic Poodle that nearly died from a prolonged fit, and a beautiful Great Dane that had been hit by a car, which sadly Sally had to put to sleep as its back was completely broken. Then, just before lunch, Sally saw old Mr and Mrs Freeman sitting in the waiting room with their little Maltese Terrier, Muffy. Was its liver coming to the end? Sally thought anxiously. She called the elderly couple into the consulting room.
“Good morning, doctor,” said Mr Freeman, feebly.
“Hello. How’s Muffy doing?”
“Muffy ... Muffy’s not doing very well,” said Mrs Freeman, on the verge of tears. “She hasn’t eaten anything in two days. I’ve tried tempting her with everything, but she won’t touch a thing.”
The little dog coughed several times. It looked as if it must have had a bone stuck in its throat, as if it were desperately trying to spit it out, but Sally knew better. It was the typical cough of a dog with severe bronchitis, only in this case there was a more sinister cause of the bronchitis than a simple infection: the cancer in the lungs had obviously grown larger. Muffy was obviously starting to die.
“And she’s really been coughing a lot,” Mrs Freeman continued.
“I see,” said Sally. She took a stethoscope and listened to the dog’s lungs. They were full of gargling, crackling fluid. The cough was fearsome, heard through the stethoscope. Sally felt the liver and the spleen. Both were larger than before, with more obvious lumps of cancer tissue than ever. The little dog looked up at Sally. There was a look of discomfort in its eyes. The happy, panting smile that was so characteristic of the dog was now long gone. Muffy was in pain.
“It’s not good, is it, doctor?” said Mr Freeman.
Sally shook her head. “No. No, it’s not.”
Mrs Freeman started to cry. “Is it ... is it time?”
Sally hated to see the frail old woman crying, and she hated more the fact that there was nothing she could do to help, other than to put the little dog to sleep. “The cancer in her lungs has grown bigger. The ones in her liver and spleen have grown, too. It didn’t seem to be bothering her before, but now it’s causing her real pain, and she can’t breathe properly. It’s time.”
Mr Freeman felt terribly guilty. “Have we kept her going too long? We didn’t know when to bring her in. She was so much better after her last treatment. We wanted to spend one last Christmas with her. But she looks so bad now, doctor, I feel like we’ve done the wrong thing. I feel like we’ve made her suffer.”
“It’s okay,” said Sally. She put a hand briefly on the old man’s arm. “The main thing is that you’ve brought her in now, now that she really has gotten worse. You did the right thing.”
“We don’t want her to suffer any more, doctor,” said Mrs Freeman, tearfully. “We want ... we want you to put her to sleep.”
Sally felt a wave of emotion rise up inside her, a wave of sadness, a wave of grief. After dealing with all the emergencies that morning, she was tired, especially after seeing the Great Dane with a broken back – having to put that big dog to sleep had really touched a nerve of sadness inside Sally. To see that young dog broken and spent was awful. To put it to sleep had been the only merciful thing to do, since its back was too badly smashed in too many places, but it had still been an awfully sad thing to have to do. Now, here were her favourite clients, this dear elderly couple, and their lovely little dog, whom she had known for a year, and now she had to face up to the terrible responsibility of being the one to put their suffering little dog to sleep. She knew it would not be easy. Sally did her best to stay professional, to suppress the emotions that swam inside her.
“All right,” said Sally. “We can do that for you. That’s no problem at all. Did you want to stay with her?”
“We want to be with her right to the end,” said Mr Freeman.
Sally was afraid of that. It was going to make it worse, but she respected their wishes. “Fine. That’s fine. Now, you know, all we do is give an anaesthetic. She’ll get sleepy in a few seconds, and ...”
Mrs Freeman interrupted, choking out her words between sobs. “We know. We’ve had a dog put down before. We know.”
“Okay,” said Sally. “Okay. I’ll leave you with her for a moment, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Mrs Freeman tried in vain to stop crying. “Thank you, Sally.”
Sally closed the consulting room door, went to the cabinet in the treatment room, and prepared a syringe of pentobarbitone sodium. She was dreading having to go back and do her sad job.
Heather Lorayne noticed what she was doing. “Does that poor old dog need the green dream?”
Sally nodded. “Can you give me a hand?”
Heather followed Sally back into the consulting room. The Freemans were both crying, talking to their suffering dog, telling it, it was a good girl. The little dog didn’t seem to respond to them much. It was just too sick, and in too much pain. It sat on the table, looking weak. It was all skin and bones now, and there was no light in its sunken brown eyes. Sally knew it would be dead in a matter of days, if she did not put it to sleep immediately, and that in those last days it would certainly not even eat, but would whimper in ever worsening pain, until death came. There was no question of being able to prevent death, no possibility of a cure. All there was, was the mercy of being able to let the little dog fall peacefully asleep.
Even so, Sally barely wanted to think about that day again, when it was over. The two old people cried uncontrollably as they watched Sally inject the green dream into the old dog’s arm-vein, as they watched their little dog quickly become sleepy. There was a distinct impression that Sally had of the taught muscles in the dog’s face relaxing, as if it were greatly relieved that the pain was over, as it fell asleep. The little dog almost seemed to sigh in gratitude as sleep overcame it. It went peacefully to sleep. Sally injected a little more anaesthetic, and the heart stopped. Muffy had passed away.
“She’s gone now,” said Sally.
The two old people bent low over the table, crying and whispering to the now dead dog. “You’re a good girl, Muffy.”
“We love you, Muffy.”
They were the same things they had whispered while Sally had injected the anaesthetic, and they simply kept saying them after the dog had fallen asleep, and then after it had died.
After a few more seconds, they stood up and turned to leave. Mrs Freeman was too upset to speak. Her husband spoke for her. “Will you take care of the body for us?”
“Of course I will.”
“Thank you for everything.” With that, Mr and Mrs Freeman shuffled out of the room, and went home alone.
Heather Lorayne took the body out to the treatment room, where she would place it in a black body bag before putting it in the big chest freezer where it would remain until being sent for cremation.
Sally was glad that Heather had left the room so quickly. She closed the door, leaned against the wall, and cried.
In a couple of minutes, Sally had dried her tears. She still had a busy day of surgery ahead of her. Soon, Heather was helping her to anaesthetise a Basset Hound which was suffering from bladder stones. Sally would have to do an operation to remove the stones from the dog’s bladder so that it could urinate properly again.
Sally slipped a needle into the Basset Hound’s cephalic vein, the same vein in the foreleg that was used for putting dogs down. This time, instead of the deadly, concentrated pentobarbitone sodium, she injected thiopentone, another barbiturate anaesthetic but one formulated for ordinary operations, not euthanasia. The Basset Hound fell peacefully asleep as Sally injected the anaesthetic, exactly as little Muffy had fallen asleep, but although it was completely unconscious, its heart kept beating strongly and it took regular breaths, since Sally injected only a low, safe dose of the thiopentone.
“Okay, let’s tube him,” said Sally.
Heather Lorayne held up the dog’s limp head, while Sally inserted a plastic endotracheal breathing tube down into the dog’s throat, through its larynx and into the airway. When Sally had finished intubating the dog, Heather connected the tube to the anaesthetic machine which would supply halothane anaesthetic vapour in the oxygen that the dog breathed, keeping the dog steadily anaesthetised so that it would be unconscious and not feel a thing during the cystotomy operation to remove the bladder stones.
“He’s fairly deep. Just put him on one and a half.” Although it had been two months since Sally had her first and only anaesthetic death, the memory of the German Shepherd’s heart attack while connected to the anaesthetic machine still haunted Sally. Her own heart rate still went up, every time she anaesthetised an animal for surgery. Although she had done nothing wrong, and the German Shepherd had simply died from a freak heart attack, Sally was still secretly afraid every time she did an anaesthetic. She did not know if she could handle another animal dying. She did not know what she would do if ever it happened. The fact that the owner of the German Shepherd had not followed through with her threat to take legal action against Sally made no difference. She was still afraid.
Heather turned the dial on the anaesthetic machine, setting it to supply a one-and-a-half percent concentration of halothane vapour. The Basset Hound slept steadily under the anaesthetic, taking regular breaths. The anaesthetic was going perfectly.
“Okay,” said Sally. “Let’s clip him up for surgery.”
Half an hour later, Sally removed the last of several large, chalky stones from the Basset Hound’s bladder.
“That’s a big one,” said Heather.
“Hmmm. How’s he doing on the anaesthetic?”
Heather checked the dog carefully. “He’s fine.”
“Okay. Let’s have some three-oh Vicryl, please.”
Heather went to the surgical instruments cabinet and withdrew a sealed, single-use packet of absorbable suture material. She brought the small foil packet across to Sally, ripped open its plastic cover, and dropped the sterile packet on Sally’s surgical tray.
As Sally sutured up the bladder with the fine, purple thread, she kept a careful eye on the dog’s breathing. She couldn’t help being a little nervous. It was a fear that never quite left her, although she had done many successful operations since the anaesthetic death and had never had any other anaesthetic problems. But anaesthetic deaths were something that struck every vet without exception, sooner or later, and she knew that one day it could happen to her again.
After the Basset Hound surgery was finished, there was an ear operation on a Rottweiler, to open up its narrow ear canal which had been badly thickened and scarred by chronic ear infections. This was a tricky operation, but it went well. Then Sally castrated a rabbit, something that made her particularly nervous since rabbits were very fragile animals which had a much higher incidence of anaesthetic deaths than dogs and cats. But everything went perfectly well. None of these successes made Sally feel better about the one dog she had lost under anaesthetic, two months before. She still could not shake the feeling that she was not a good enough vet, no matter how much good work she did. She always felt vaguely inadequate.
The truth was, Sally was an outstanding new graduate, not only academically (she had been one of the best students in her class) but practically. Most new graduates would not do half of the surgeries that Sally had boldly launched into, and most would not have so rapidly come up to speed with the constant time pressure of getting consultations, hospital treatments, and surgery done by the daily deadlines. Sally was an excellent new graduate, and Kellerman, as he went over the daily profit figures, had been delighted with her rapid progress, although he did not tell Sally that, as he didn’t believe in mollycoddling his staff. Staff should stand on their two feet, he believed, without any praise. In fact, Kellerman thought the best way to get more out of one’s staff was to criticise them, constantly challenging them to do better. Kellerman was always ready to criticise but loathe to compliment. Sally simply did not know she was good. She did not know she was an outstanding young vet, by comparison to the average new graduate. All she knew was that she felt desperately stressed – she felt inadequate.
When Sally had finished the last surgery of the day, she was relieved to be able to get fifteen minutes of rest before evening consultations began.
Sally was trying to relax, in the office, when Heather walked in and broke the silence. “There’s a Mrs Smitherington out the front. She’s pretty narky. She’s going on about her English Setter dying of heartworm.”
“What?” said Sally, puzzled.
“Oh, this stupid woman says it’s your fault her dog died of heartworm. She says that you should have prevented it.”
Sally took the clinical record card from Heather. There was only one visit on the record, an annual booster vaccination three months previously. In Sally’s neat handwriting, it said: ‘C4 vaccination. Recommended heartworm test as dog not on tablets. Owner declined to have test done.’
“Are you saying her dog is dead? When did it die? We haven’t seen it since September, and it was perfectly healthy then.”
“Apparently it died a week ago, at another vet’s. She says they did a heartworm test, and it was positive, so they treated the dog for heartworm, but it died during the treatment.”
Sally groaned. Heartworm was a deadly worm infestation, transmitted by mosquitos, where the adult worms grew in a dog’s heart and obstructed the blood flow. This could be fatal, and dogs would often die even with the appropriate treatment. The whole problem could be prevented in the first place simply by using heartworm prevention tablets, which would keep the dog safe even if it were bitten by an infected mosquito. Like malaria in people, heartworm in dogs was prevented by regularly taking a tablet, and, also like malaria, an ounce of prevention was worth a ton of cure. The woman was obviously mad that her dog had not been put on the preventative tablets. Sally groaned because she knew perfectly well that she had told the woman to have her dog tested for heartworm, but that the woman had declined to do so. That much was written on the card. And now the woman wanted to blame Sally, when in fact the woman had simply disregarded Sally’s advice. This was too much. “Bloody hell. We can’t do any more than tell people to have their dogs tested and, if they are negative, to put their dogs on preventative tablets. If they don’t listen, it’s not our fault!”
Heather replied sarcastically. “No. It is our fault. It’s always our fault. That’s what we’re here for, to take the blame for the mistakes that people make themselves. Who else is she going to blame?”
“Right,” said Sally, with a heavy sigh. “I’ll speak to her.”
Mrs Smitherington, a dour, grey-haired Englishwoman, went straight on the attack as soon as she saw Sally. She spoke in the reserved, clipped tones of an upper-class woman who was not amused with the folly of a common veterinarian. “You! You’re the girl who saw my Josephine, aren’t you? Well, now she’s dead.”
“I’m the veterinarian you saw, Mrs Smitherington, yes.”
“Well, for God’s sake, why didn’t you tell me to put my dog on those heartworm prevention tablets? She’s dead because of you. They told me, at the other veterinary clinic, that if only she was on tablets, it all could have been prevented. They did everything they could for her, you know. They were wonderful. But they couldn’t save her. It was too late.” She said the last two words with particular venom.
Sally was not going to stand for this. “Mrs Smitherington, I’m very sorry that your dog had heartworm. It’s a terrible disease. But, if you’ll think back, I did recommended that your dog have a heartworm test, since she was not on the tablets, but you declined to have the test done.” Sally knew that if the woman had agreed to the test, they might have been able to catch the disease early. It was possible they might have saved the dog.
“What? What rubbish! I most certainly never did decline anything of the sort. You never even mentioned heartworm, and you certainly never mentioned any test. How dare you accuse me of not having a test done! I loved my dog. There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done for her, and I would have spared no expense. You never mentioned anything of the kind. My husband’s terribly upset at Josephine’s passing. He has cancer, you know, and this was an awful blow. How dare you accuse me of not taking care of my own dog!”
Sally was amazed. The woman was lying. Not only was it written on the card, that she had declined the test, but now that Sally saw the woman face to face she remembered her original visit to the practice. She clearly remembered the woman declining to have the test done, and that the woman had said she didn’t want to waste money on things like that. The woman was lying. She was lying, obviously because she could not cope with the guilt of knowing that if only she had listened to the vet, her dog might not be dead. Therefore the woman had to lie, had to blame the vet, so that she would not have to admit to herself her own guilt, and probably, Sally thought, so she would not have to admit it to her husband. She could see a man waiting in a Mercedes, through the windows at the front of the clinic. Sally assumed that must have been the husband.
“Mrs Smitherington, I’m sorry, but I think you must be confused about what happened. I definitely recommended that Josephine have a heartworm test, and I recorded that recommendation on Josephine’s card at the time. And, I’m sorry, but you told me that you didn’t want to have the test done.”
“Do you know what my husband would do if he heard you accuse me of lying like that? Look here, my girl, I don’t like your attitude. My dog is dead because of you, and I intend to report you to the Veterinary Board. Believe me, you haven’t heard the last of this. You know, I really think you people don’t care about animals at all.”
With that, the woman marched out of the clinic.
Sally was stunned. She couldn’t believe how the woman had lied – so very blatantly – just to soothe her own conscience, and that the woman would then tell the same lie to the Veterinary Board. Could she really do that? At least everything would probably be okay, since Sally had gone to the trouble to write down on the card, three months ago, when she had first seen Mrs Smitherington, that she had been offered the test and declined it. It was absurd to blame Sally for the dog’s death. Would the Veterinary Board listen to such an outrageous claim? Surely not, thought Sally, but the stories she had heard about what had happened to some of her older colleagues still frightened her.
What really got Sally down was not so much the threat of being brought before the Board, but the accusation, yet again, that she did not care about animals. That really hurt Sally. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried to provide the best possible standard of service for clients and their animals, there were always plenty of people ready to tell her that she didn’t really give a damn. Some of those people were ready to try to hurt her career, or even destroy it, for no good reason at all. Sally felt very alone.
Sally hid her hurt behind anger when she returned to the office and spoke to Heather about it. “Bloody woman! She’s lying, Heather. She is actually lying. Stupid woman. I just can’t believe it.”
“Don’t worry about it, Sally. She’s just a nutter.”
“Yeah, I know.” But, secretly, Sally did worry. She couldn’t help worrying, and she couldn’t take any more of this kind of pressure. Just one more bad thing, she felt, would snap her in two.
Michael had never imagined people could be so vindictive to someone like Sally, someone who was obviously a good person and, for that matter, a capable veterinary surgeon. He came across another diary entry concerning the same case, the same Mrs Smitherington.
Monday, 8 January, 1996
Today I got a formal letter from the Veterinary Board, telling me that I am under investigation. I feel betrayed by my own profession. It feels like no one cares, like everyone is against me. I feel so alone ...
The young nurse, Michelle, had said it cheerfully. “Hey, Sally. There’s a letter here for you. You want me to open it?”
Sally was scrubbing up for surgery. “Who is it from?”
“Ah, it says: The Veterinary Board.”
“Sure. Open it up. It’s probably just the newsletter.”
Michelle ripped open the envelope.
Sally could see it was a typed letter. “Well, what does it say?”
“It says: Dear Dr Johanssen, This is to inform you that the Board has received written complaint from Mrs Gale Smitherington concerning your alleged failure, in September of last year, to recommend heartworm testing for her English Setter, Josephine, which dog has recently died of heartworm disease.”
Sally felt a wave of nausea. She stopped scrubbing her hands and stood motionless by the steel trough, letting the water run. “What?”
“It says: Given that the Board has also received two further verbal complaints against you in the last seven months, the first from Mrs Anna Polanski, alleging that you forced her to have her sixteen-year-old Siamese cat, Chang, put down against her expressed wishes, and the second from a solicitor acting on behalf of Ms Amanda Richardson, alleging that her German Shepherd, Cleo, died while under anaesthetic for a desexing operation, the Board views the current matter most seriously. Although in the latter two cases, the owners elected not to lodge written complaints, the written complaint of Mrs Smitherington must now be investigated in full, and particularly her allegation that you accused her of lying when she recently came to discuss the matter with you personally. The Board views these charges as highly serious ...”
Sally broke in. “Oh, for God’s sake. I don’t believe it.”
“That’s what it says,” Michelle replied apologetically.
“I just don’t believe it! Mrs Smitherington’s lying. She’s lying to the Board! Doesn’t she realise what that can do to a person’s career?”
Michelle didn’t know what to say. She shrugged her shoulders.
“And Mrs Polanski did give me permission to put her cat to sleep. I explained very carefully that I wasn’t going to put her cat down against her wishes, that it was up to her to decide. She’s lying, too.” Sally was angry, but she was gravely worried. The thought of being brought before the Board terrified her. She was a vet, a young vet, not a lawyer. She had little or no money for legal fees, and she didn’t have the vaguest idea how to defend herself, other than telling the truth and hoping the Board might believe her. But with two people lying, both since they could not cope with their own grief and needed to blame the vet, it was their word against hers.
Michelle spoke up. “I heard about the German Shepherd dying. Heather told me all about it. It was a heart attack. It wasn’t your fault.”
Sally started scrubbing her hands again. She still had to get on with the day’s surgery. “I know, Michelle. I know. But I feel sick.”
“You want me to make you a cup of tea?”
“Thanks, Michelle. But I’d better do this dog spay, first.”
Sally walked through to the operating room and dried her hands on a sterile towel. As she put on her surgical gloves, picked up a scalpel blade, and made a careful, two-inch incision on the belly of the anaesthetised Cocker Spaniel, she told herself that it would be all right, that it would all work out for the best.
But somehow, she couldn’t believe that it would.
Sally dreaded having to discuss the matter with Kellerman, for she knew he would be far from supportive. As far as Kellerman was concerned, the client was always right, and if it came down to it, he would simply get rid of one expendable, employed vet and replace her with another. Sally would have to sink or swim on her own, without any help from Kellerman or from anyone else. She felt very, very alone.
It was getting harder and harder to convince herself that this really was her dream come true, that the five long years of appallingly hard study had been worth it, that this was the happy life she had always imagined being a vet would be. She didn’t feel happy at all. She felt like she was just desperately trying to get through the days, through the stress, through the feeling of having to cope with everything completely alone and without support. She had even nearly been raped. She had lost count of the number of times clients had told her she really didn’t give a damn about animals but was just in it for the money. She thought of her rusty car and wondered if any of those people realised that half of them made more money than she did.
But being a vet was the one thing which was going to save Sally’s broken life and put it together again, or so she had always thought. Being a vet was her childhood dream, the brave future that was going to pull her out of the dark misery of her early days, out of the loveless home she grew up in, the one thing that was going to repair the bruises and fractures in the her soul from Karl Johanssen’s ruthless beatings and take her to a better life. Yet Sally still felt like she was being beaten. The anaesthetic death, the clients that told her she didn’t care, Kellerman’s indifference to her welfare, the clients that were lying to try to sink her career, and, finally, the sickening, frightening letter from the Vet Board, each of these things was just another blow, another indictment saying that Sally was just not good enough, that she deserved to suffer. To Sally, it was as if Karl Johanssen was reaching out of his grave and cursing her, as if she would never escape his cruelty as long as she lived. It was getting harder and harder for Sally to believe she was living a dream come true, to believe that it was all worth it.
Sally Johanssen was losing her faith in life. She was beginning to wonder if anything was worth all this. There seemed no end to her loneliness, and no support to which she could turn. Yes, she could talk to Ruth, but she was ashamed, deeply ashamed, at the thought that she might have to admit to Ruth that she was a quitter, after all, that she didn’t have what it took to be a successful vet, that she was just a failure. She couldn’t bear the thought of admitting all that to Ruth. The more she thought about it, the sadder Sally became. Her dreams were all broken.
But Sally would not give up. She would not leave. She would not fail to face up to what she saw as her responsibilities to do the best that she could. She would fight to save her dream. She would fight to make it come true. These were the thoughts that went through her mind, as she operated on the Cocker Spaniel. Somehow, she would make it all work.
When Kellerman dropped into the practice later that afternoon, he called Sally into the office and closed the door. It looked like he wanted to discuss something serious.
Sally decided she had better speak first. “Thomas, I had a letter from the Vet Board today. You’d better have a look at it.”
Kellerman took the letter and read it through, without a word. Finally, he looked up. “Well, we all get these letters,” he said cheerlessly. “Just be sure to let me know how it turns out.”
This was hardly a vote of support, Sally thought. Kellerman clearly wanted to distance himself from the matter. “Right. Sure.”
“Sally, I need to talk to you about a few things. First of all, your client-average. I’ve been going over the books and things could be better. You must make sure that you get the average bill up to a decent amount. The accountant has been giving me hell.”
“Well, I’ve been doing a lot of surgery, and that puts our average up, but there’s not much I can do with a simple consultation. It’s just a consultation fee, plus drugs. That might be forty or fifty dollars in a simple case, maybe less. If it’s something complicated it can be a lot more, but it depends on the case. I’m certainly not going to overcharge people.”
Kellerman looked offended. “I’m not suggesting that you overcharge, Sally. But you must make sure you look for extras. Are you making sure that everyone buys worm tablets? What about shampoos? Flea control products? You have to sell, Sally. Sell! Book them in to have a teeth clean done under anaesthetic. It’s not that hard, really. You must be sure that you’re not underservicing. People want the full treatment, you know. I want you to get the average bill up to at least one hundred dollars. No excuses.”
Sally hated Kellerman’s slick doubletalk. He was almost asking her to overservice the clients, and yet he did it by accusing her of not taking proper care of them. Kellerman wasn’t really talking about service at all. He was just talking about dollars. “Well, Thomas, most of our profit comes from surgery, not from selling worm tablets. And I’ve been very busy with surgery. The figures are good.”
Kellerman was condescending. “Just remember, Sally, academic vets are a dime a dozen. What matters in business is the bottom line. And, one more thing.”
“No more charity work. Heather tells me that you treated a couple of stray dogs, one that had been in a dog fight, and one that had been hit by a car. Is that true?”
“Well, yes. I did. And then we rehomed the dogs. And the new owners are clients of ours, now. Those dogs would have been put to sleep otherwise.”
“Hmmm.” Kellerman was unimpressed. “This isn’t a charity. It’s a business. And I want no more charity work done at this practice. If an injured dog doesn’t have an owner, you may give it a painkiller and keep it in hospital for a couple of days. If no owner turns up, then send the dog to the pound. If it’s badly in pain, euthanase it. But I’ll have no charity surgery being done on clinic time. Is that clear?”
“But we weren’t doing anything else. Those stray dogs came in on quiet days. It didn’t cost us anything much, and the staff weren’t busy, anyway. The new owners even paid a small fee for the dogs.”
Kellerman held up his hand. “That’s enough of that, Sally. No charity work. This isn’t the RSPCA. I know you mean well, but we simply can’t afford that kind of thing. You’re new to practice, and you don’t understand the economic realities yet. Trust me. It’s a mistake.”
Sally knew it was pointless arguing, but she was annoyed. “All right, Thomas. No more charity work. Is there anything else?”
“Yes.” Kellerman was angered by Sally’s impertinent tone. “You haven’t been doing too badly so far, but let me tell you that I’ll be watching your client-average very closely. Remember, one hundred dollars and not a penny less. And not one charity case, you understand. Not one. You know, I pride myself on treating my employees well, Sally, but with this letter of complaint against you from the Veterinary Board, I can’t say that your job is secure. On the other hand, if you can get that average up, then there might be a raise in it for you, next month. I was thinking it was about time we put your salary up. You’ve been here nearly a year, after all. There’s a big raise in it for you, to twenty-five thousand, if you can meet that goal, Sally. So, let’s see what you can do, all right?”
“All right, Thomas.” Sally was equally unimpressed.
“Good,” said Kellerman. “Well, I’ve got to take the wife to lunch. I’ll let you get back to work. I see you still have quite a bit of surgery to do. Just think about what I said, okay?”
After Kellerman had left, Sally thought about it and concluded that she didn’t agree with one word of what Kellerman had to say. But jobs were hard to come by, and some of her classmates were still unemployed, so she would simply have to put up with him.
It was one more nail in the coffin of her childhood dream. Sally wondered what had happened to that dream, the dream that used to keep her going when her parents fought, when she would be lying, crying and bruised, in her bedroom after Karl Johanssen had finished beating her. It was the dream of a better life that she held onto when everything seemed hopeless. Sally finished work at seven-thirty that night and went into her little flat, bitterly disappointed with her life.
She was asleep by ten.
It was eleven when the after-hours phone rang. A cat had been run over by a car, said a man’s voice. Sally switched on her bedside lamp, wrote down the details, then called the man back to confirm his identity and telephone number. Fifteen minutes later, Sally waited inside the locked security screen of the front door of the clinic, as a car pulled up in the parking lot. A large, fat man got out, cradling a cat in his arms, and walked over. Sally peered through the security screen. The man looked genuine. Still, she couldn’t help feeling a jolt of terror as she unlocked the security door and let the man come in. The fear of being attacked would never leave her, after the horrible incident before Christmas. This man, however, was friendly and he was apologetic for getting her out of bed.
Sally treated the cat, sent the man home, and settled the cat down in a hospital cage overnight. The animal would be okay. She was relieved that the after-hours call had gone smoothly and without incident, but she still shivered with fear when she once again lay in bed, trying to get back to sleep. She thought to herself that she just couldn’t do after-hours calls any more, just couldn’t face them any longer, and yet she simply had to do them. There was no alternative. They were a compulsory part of the job. Sally couldn’t sleep at all. She tossed and turned in bed. At three in the morning, she switched on the lamp and wrote in her journal:
I did an after-hours call tonight and now I can’t sleep. I was so afraid of being attacked. I just couldn’t bear to have to unlock the security screen. It’s getting worse – I don’t know what to do.
Kellerman doesn’t give a damn. He’s threatening to fire me over the Veterinary Board complaint. But what else am I going to do? I can’t face Ruth, if I lose this job, I just couldn’t face telling her. I should be stronger than this. I should be able to open the door without trembling, I should be able to face the clients that hate me, I should be able to stand up to Kellerman, but all I want is just to do my job. I just want it all to go away. But every time I almost get through, something else horrible happens.
I feel so alone, so terribly alone. All my dreams are broken. This is nothing like what I dreamed being a vet would be. I feel more like I’m a soldier, and I don’t know when the next battle will come, or even what the war is all about, anyway. I feel shellshocked. There is nothing but stress, but still I can’t bear the thought of giving up, of being defeated. I sometimes even wonder if it might be better to be dead, if really someone like me was never meant to do more than struggle. I don’t know. I don’t know any more.
Please let me get through it, somehow.
I wish I could sleep, but I’m too afraid the phone will ring.
Michael put the diary down. He switched off his own bedside lamp. Just as Sally had written in her journal entry, two years before, it was three in the morning on a hot summer night. Michael very dearly wished he could sleep. He wished he could get through his own pain, somehow. But he could not.
Michael had been staying at Ruth’s house for nearly three months. Things there were much the same as they had always been. Michael and Ruth mostly kept to themselves and gave each other space, neither one wanting to interrupt the other from the quiet thoughts that occupied their days. Memories were everything, to both of them. Memories of happier times, memories of things which could never be retrieved.
As Ruth worked in the garden, or walked by the river, as she cooked, as she read, she would remember the early days with Fred, the days when they had no money and had only their happiness together. How much she would have traded her big home for a little shack, if it meant they could be together again. She thought of when Sally was living with her, those happy times, just the two women, one young and one old, sharing a simple life together. Ruth had seen Sally grow up from a high-school girl to an accomplished young woman, and she had loved seeing Sally’s growth, seeing her reaching for a better life. Ruth thought of all of this and more, treasuring each memory.
Michael thought of his life with Marie, of the endless magic of it, of all the things they took for granted yet so many people never found, of all the long, full and happy years. They had seemed immune to tragedy, such a charmed life had they lived. It had become so familiar, so much a part of his life, that he never really thought twice that the magic might one day end. Michael remembered all this, as he painted, or sat by the river, as he watched television, and especially as he read Sally’s diaries. When everything else was gone, there were still good things to remember.
One hot afternoon, that February, Michael packed up his easel and came in from the back garden. He was having trouble concentrating on painting, and had done little or nothing that day. He was glad the sun was beginning to set – soon the day would cool, at least by a few degrees. Michael had been getting very little sleep lately, and with this heat wave it was even harder to find any peace. He would run the fan by his bedside at full speed, but even at midnight he would still sweat.
As Michael trudged up the hallway from the back door, Ruth appeared at the front door, opened it, and came inside. She had taken the car and gone out that afternoon without saying where she was going, something which had happened many times, lately. She seemed lost in thought, and looked surprised to see Michael.
Michael thought she looked grey. Her face seemed pale and drawn. She must be tired, he thought. “Hi, Ruth.”
“You’ve been out then?”
“I had some shopping to do.”
“Well, I’d better get dinner going, if we’re going to eat.”
“Can I give you a hand?”
“No, thanks. No, no.”
“Okay.” Michael let Ruth walk away. He had never seen her so quiet and withdrawn. He wondered what was the matter.
That night, they ate dinner together. Ruth had laid out the food on the kitchen table, without a word. Then polite small talk occupied them, as they ate the steak and salad which Ruth had prepared, and finally Ruth brought out some red wine. She poured a glass for each of them.
“Wine?” Michael asked, puzzled. He knew Ruth rarely drank.
“I’ve had this bottle for thirty years. My husband bought it. Fred was saving it for a special occasion. When he died, I just ... kept it. Somehow, there never seemed a right time to drink it.”
“But what’s the occasion?”
“Do you know,” said Ruth, looking around her, “Fred and I always thought we would retire here, by the river? We bought this house to raise the children, and we thought we’d never leave. We thought we’d grow old here. Fred loved this house.”
“We thought we’d grow old here, Michael, and one of us did. Have I ever told you how old I am?”
“I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five years. That’s a long time. I’ve seen people live and die, people close to me. I lost a son, a long time ago. And Fred, of course, dear Fred. He never should have died so young. That just wasn’t fair. He was such a good man.”
Michael didn’t know what to say.
“I saw my granddaughter grow up, into a fine young woman. She was twenty-four, when she died.”
“It’s all right. It’s two years ago, now. Twenty-four years old. I’m three times that age, Michael. Dear Fred thought we would grow old together, here, and one of us did. I’m seventy-five.”
Michael had never heard Ruth talk like this, and it frightened him. He didn’t know what Ruth was getting at.
Ruth seemed to sense his unease. “I saw the oncologist today, Michael. He was very kind. That’s where I’ve been going, lately, to the hospital. Today, he told me I’m coming out of remission.”
“Remission? What are you talking about? Why didn’t you tell me you were going to hospital? I would have driven you.”
“I have cancer, Michael.”
Michael was too shocked to speak.
“It’s been in remission for over a year, but I knew that sooner or later it would come back. Well, it’s come back again. That’s what the oncologist had to tell me, today.”
“Ruth, I’m so sorry,” Michael put his hand on hers.
Ruth squeezed his hand for a moment, then took her hand away. “It’s okay, Michael. It’s not a surprise to me. I knew this would be coming, soon. The doctors only gave me six months, when I first saw them. It’s been more than a year, now.”
“But, what are you going to do?”
“I’m dying, Michael. There’s nothing to do.”
Michael felt ill. “What do mean, there’s nothing to do? Cancer can be treated. You can fight this, Ruth. You can fight it.”
“Michael, it’s too late for that. They can’t operate, the cancer is everywhere. It’s in my blood. It’s in my liver, my intestine ...”
“But what about chemotherapy? They can give you drugs. You have to give it a chance, Ruth. You can’t just say you’re dying, like that. You have to give it a chance.”
“Oh, Michael. I’ve been through chemotherapy. And the cancer didn’t respond. I’m still taking drugs, now. They’re not working. That’s what the oncologist had to tell me, today. I’m dying.”
“But, I don’t understand. You seem so well.”
“Dr Cheng tells me that’s going to change. He says that, at the rate the cancer is growing, I have three months, at best.”
“But didn’t they say that before? And you proved them wrong. Why is it any different now? How can you just sit here, drinking wine, and tell me you’re dying? For God’s sake, Ruth ...”
“Michael, I’m an old lady. I have cancer. I have outlived nearly everyone in the world that I love, and now I am dying. I just wanted you to know. I’m not going to be well for too much longer. Things are going to change. Oh, Michael, I’m sorry to have to tell you this.”
“I know how much it means to you, not to be alone, Michael.”
Michael looked at her. She had cut right to the centre of his heart and soul with one sentence, with one laser beam of truth. He realised that in the three months he had lived in Ruth’s house they had barely talked to each other. They barely knew each other at all. Yet Ruth seemed to know him instinctively. He felt a sudden pang of guilt, not to have taken the time to get to know her better, not to have talked to her more.
Michael found himself incapable of saying anything. A tear suddenly rolled down his cheek. He felt stunned, confused, shocked, overwhelmed. At last, he spoke. “Ruth, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. You should have told me. You should have told me, Ruth.”
“It’s okay, Michael.” Ruth reached across the table and squeezed his hand again. “I knew you had other things on your mind. You have enough to cope with, without worrying about me.”
“But ... but, you’re dying.”
“We all die, Michael. It’s my time, to die. Not yours.”
Michael sat back in his chair, suddenly. “What?”
“We’re a fine pair, aren’t we?” said Ruth. “An old lady, dying of cancer, and a young man, dying of a broken heart.”
“What ... what are you saying?”
All at once, Ruth’s face became determined. She fixed Michael with a penetrating stare. “Michael, I saw my granddaughter take her own life, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit back and watch you take yours. Listen to what a dying old lady has to tell you. What happened is not your fault. And you’re not alone.”
“Even if you are alone, it’s not worth dying for. Do you hear me, Michael? It’s not worth dying for. You have to hold on.”
“But ... we’re talking about you. Ruth, it’s you that’s dying.”
Ruth ignored him. “How old are you, Michael?”
“I’m ... thirty-nine.”
“Have you ever lost anyone that you loved, before Marie and your friends? Before the accident?”
“Just my parents.”
“You’ve never had your whole world fall apart, before that?”
“I’ve got thirty-six years on you. My world has fallen apart four times. My son, James, died when he was only ten years old. Can you imagine what it’s like to see your child’s life end before it even really begins? My husband died when he was forty-five. I know, Michael, what a good marriage is, and I know that most people never experience it, but I do know what you and Marie had together, because Fred and I had that. And I know what it is to lose that. I know that you don’t even want to live any more.”
Michael sat silently in his chair, looking at Ruth across her kitchen table. It was hot, but he felt cold. He had to listen. He had to hear it all.
“My Fred was taken from me by a heart attack. You lost Marie in an accident, and you think it’s your fault. It’s not your fault.”
“I’m a pilot, Ruth.”
“No, Michael. It’s not your fault. It was an accident. And even if it was your fault, it’s still not worth dying for.”
Another tear rolled down Michael’s cheek. “You don’t understand, Ruth. I’m a pilot. It’s my responsibility ...”
Ruth got angry, but there was a kindness behind her anger. “Goddamn it, Michael! Don’t you understand? You’re a human being. You’re only human. And you make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Do you really think it was your fault? Do you really think your wife is dead, your friends are dead, because of you? Is that what you think?”
Michael was crying openly now. His voice came with difficulty, between the tears. “Yes, it was my fault. They died because of me. I should have checked the weather reports better, I should have known. I should have been able to land that plane. I should have put it down. God knows, I should never have taken off in the first place.” He looked at Ruth, in tears, pleading. “I should have known.”
“Oh, Michael,” said Ruth, with great sympathy. “It wasn’t your fault. But even if you think it was, even if it really was, your fault, don’t you understand that’s just part of being human? Don’t you understand that we all make mistakes? Don’t you understand that we all have to forgive ourselves? Can’t you see that, Michael?”
Michael let his head drop to the table and he sobbed uncontrollably.
Ruth put her hand on the back of his head, as he cried. She said nothing but soft words. “It’s okay, Michael. It’s okay. It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right.”
He cried for many minutes.
At last, he sat up again and looked at Ruth. She held his hand, tightly. Michael was beyond feeling embarrassed, beyond trying to hide his feelings. He had nothing to hide any more – Ruth had opened him up.
Now, she kept talking to him. “My world fell apart for the third time, when my daughter, Claire, grew apart from me, after her brother died, and when she married that miserable bastard, Karl Johanssen. Do you know what destroyed my world? It was when I realised that my poor, defenceless little granddaughter, Sally, was being beaten by that son of a bitch, and that Claire was doing nothing to stop it. I did everything I could to stop him, but they were in Melbourne, on the other side of the country. I couldn’t stop it. I should have found a way to stop it. I tried the police. I tried social workers. I tried everything, but Claire would always lie to them, send them away.”
“I’m sorry,” said Michael.
“Do you want to talk about guilt, Michael? About making mistakes that cost lives? I know about that, too. I should have found a way to stop that bastard beating my granddaughter.” Ruth almost found herself crying, but she forced back the tears. “Sally never recovered from those beatings. The bruises healed, but her broken heart never did. I should have found a way. I’ll always know that.”
“And then she came to live with me. It was wonderful. Things do get better, Michael. Do you hear me? They do get better. You have to believe in that. You have to know that, even though it takes years, long years for them to get better, it is worth holding on. The good times come again.”
“I can’t believe in good times any more.”
“I know you can’t. I know. I’ve been there. But it will change.”
“There’s nothing for me now.”
“I know,” said Ruth.
“Do you think I’m a coward?”
Ruth answered quickly. “No, you’re not a coward. My granddaughter was the bravest person I ever knew. She took her own life, but she was never a coward. She was the bravest person I ever met. Suicide isn’t cowardice, Michael. It’s just a choice. But ... don’t make that choice. Sally deserved so much better than suicide. So do you.”
“How can you understand all this, Ruth? How can you know?”
“Because I’ve been there. You have to believe me. Even if you’re alone, even if no one cares, even if you have nothing left to live for, even if everything seems hopeless, even if you know that years will pass before your life might one day be good again, and even if it is your own fault, it’s still not worth dying for. It’s not worth dying for.”
“Ruth, everything’s so empty to me. I don’t want to live any more.”
“I know. I know. But it’s not true. There is a point. It is worth it. You have to believe me, Michael. I was where you are now, when my son died, when my husband died, when Sally was being beaten by that bastard, Karl, and then when she took her own life. I won’t lie to you. It isn’t easy. It will take you years to recover. But it is worth it. It really is. Believe me.”
“But you’re alone, Ruth. After everything that’s happened to you, you’re just ... alone. Is that worth it?”
“Yes,” said Ruth, simply. “It is. You have to understand that. You have to understand it is worth being alive. You have to see it for the miracle that it is.”
“It doesn’t feel like a miracle. And what’s the point, if you’re alone? What’s the point, Ruth? It’s a cold world. Why bother?”
“Michael, let me ask you, if you survive all this, if you go on and build a life for yourself, don’t you think that would be a miracle?”
There was silence for a moment.
“My granddaughter died because of her love for animals, and because she felt so alone. Some animals died, in her veterinary work, and she blamed herself. Others blamed her, too. Poor Sally always thought she was to blame, ever since she was bashed as a child. She lost her sense of perspective. She killed herself, when what she should have done was quit her job and just walk away. She was a good vet. The things which went wrong weren’t her fault, but even if they were her fault, they still weren’t worth dying for. To hell with what her bastard of a boss thought of her, and to hell with what some angry clients thought of her, because they didn’t give a damn about her. None of that is worth dying for.”
“But she thought she had failed.”
“Just like you, Michael.”
“But who cares if she failed? Don’t you see? Who cares if you failed, either? You’re only human. For God’s sake, Michael, you’ve got to start thinking straight, or it’s going to kill you! You’ve got to realise that you don’t deserve to die. You don’t. Can you see that?”
Now Michael was angry. He stood up and paced around the kitchen. “Three people are dead because of me. I’m sorry about your granddaughter, Ruth, but we are talking about more than a couple of dogs that died under anaesthetic. We’re talking about people! For Chrissake, Ruth, my wife, my closest friends, are dead, because of me, because of my mistake.”
Ruth remained seated. “You’re right, Michael. My granddaughter lost her ability to see straight. It was only the death of a couple of dogs, and, as much as I love dogs, that isn’t worth dying for, no matter what anyone says, and no matter how upset anyone is about it. But Sally loved animals so much, and she thought so little of herself, that it was enough to push her over the edge, to push her to suicide. You’re right. A couple of dogs is nothing compared to the deaths of three people.”
“Well, damn it, Ruth, that’s what I have to live with! I loved those people, all of them. And they’re dead, because of me.”
“Michael, it was not your fault. It was an accident. You did everything you could do to save them. You were nearly killed yourself. But even if I can’t convince you of that, even if you still think the accident was your own fault, you still have to realise that you’re not God, Michael.”
“What do you mean?” Michael said angrily.
“I mean, you’re a pilot. You do the best you can. But sometimes your best isn’t enough. There comes a time when there is still going to be an accident, no matter how hard you try to prevent it, because, Michael, you are not God.”
“I never should have taken off, that night.”
“Why? Did the weather report predict those thunderstorms?”
“No. But I should have known it would happen.”
“How? How were you supposed to know what even the experts couldn’t predict? Tell me that.”
“A pilot has a sixth sense for the air. I should have smelled trouble. I should have stayed on the ground.”
“That’s bullshit! You took off because the weather report said it was safe to take off. The hospital told me all about it.”
“They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“And once you were in the air, you were in the air. You did the best you could when things turned bad. You tried to save four lives. You did the best anyone could have done. And you managed to save one life.”
“I saved the one who didn’t deserve it.”
Ruth stood up. She raised her voice. “Now, listen to me, Michael Andrews, and you listen good. That is bullshit. Do you hear me? Bullshit! You may be able to fool that damn shrink of yours, but you can’t fool me, and I’m not going to let you fool yourself. This is your life. Sit down!”
Ruth remained standing. “You bloody well do deserve to be saved, Michael Andrews. You bloody well do. You were a good husband to Marie for fifteen years, and a loving friend to the other two people who died. You gave Marie all that happiness, for all those years. You were there for your friends, through thick and thin. You earned their trust and respect, and when the end came, you did your best to prevent disaster. But you’re not God, Michael, you can’t control everything in life, and, mistake or no mistake, you don’t deserve to die for what happened. I know it’s hard to live, but for God’s sake don’t give up the fight or else there’ll be one less good person in this world, and God knows we need all the good people we can get.”
Michael was silent. Ruth was getting through to him.
“Don’t give up, Michael. Hold on. Hold on, any way you can, for as long as it takes. Listen to an old lady, when she tells you you’ve got your whole life in front of you. You’re a good man, Michael Andrews. Your wife would want you to live.”
“I know,” said Michael, at last.
Ruth sat down, heavily. She sighed. “Will you at least read Sally’s last diary? Will you do that much for me? I’ve kept it from you, until now. Now I think you are ready for it.”
“Why are you doing all this for me?”
“Because you’re worth it, Michael. Do you understand that? Because you’re worth it, and because it’s something I want to do, while I still have the time to do it. Can you understand that?”
“I think I can.” Michael felt deeply humbled by the strength and dignity of this old lady, this Ruth MacDonald, whom he barely knew despite sharing a house with her for three months, and who was dying from cancer. “But, can I do something to help you, too?”
“You already have,” said Ruth.
Michael felt a sudden wave of love for Ruth, the first time he had felt that kind of deep affection for anyone since the accident. He suddenly realised that he loved this old woman, and that he was the luckiest man in the world to have come across her just when he most needed help. “I’m so sorry, Ruth, about everything. About everything.”
“Thank you, Michael. But I’m okay.”
Ruth got up and left the kitchen.
She went to the chest by the foot of her bed and retrieved Sally’s final diary, then brought the book back to Michael.
“Read this,” she instructed. “It’s the last one.”
Michael took the diary.
“Read it and learn, Michael. Please. Don’t make the same mistake. Sally would have wanted you to live, if she had known you.”
Ruth left Michael sitting there. Later, as she tried to fall asleep in the summer heat of her bedroom, she worried that Michael might not learn in time to save himself. She knew he was still far from safety.
That night, Michael began to read about Sally’s final days. There was a kind of macabre fascination which compelled him to read, as well as his overwhelming sympathy for what Sally had gone through. If no one else in the world, other than perhaps Ruth, understood what drove Sally to suicide, at least Michael would understand. As he read the last few pages of the diary, Michael came to understand her death, as if it were his own.
Tuesday, 13 February, 1996
Today I had a second anaesthetic death. I didn’t do anything wrong, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the clients. I don’t think I can cope ...
On that fateful morning, Sally had been very careful to explain the dog’s condition. She looked at the decrepit Silky Terrier and then at the owner. “You understand, Mr Jenkins, that there is a very real risk with doing an anaesthetic. She’s very old, and her heart disease is bad, despite all the medication she’s been taking. She could die under the gas. We have to be aware of that.”
“I know, I know,” Mr Jenkins said irritably. He was a busy man, and he wanted to get back to his computer shop as soon as possible. “I know all about the risk, but it’s got to be done.”
“Lulu has advanced heart failure, Mr Jenkins, so we’ll use the most gentle anaesthetic we can, but if we don’t operate on these dog-fight wounds, the gangrene will probably be the end of her, anyway. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place, I’m afraid. All this skin, here, is dying. It’s necrotic. And there’s massive infection. Antibiotics just aren’t going to be enough. But doing the anaesthetic, despite our best efforts, might kill her, too. Whichever way we go, there’s a big risk that she could die, but the risk is probably less by trying surgery. That’s probably her best chance.”
“Look, doctor. Why do you keep repeating yourself? You’ve explained it to me. I want the surgery done. Just do it, will you.”
“All right, Mr Jenkins. We’ll go ahead, then.”
“Right. I’ll be back to pick her up tonight.”
Sally took the old dog through to the treatment room.
Heather Lorayne looked at the dog. “You’re not going to anaesthetise that old thing, are you? It looks half-dead.”
Sally sighed. “Yes. It’s getting gangrene in this infected leg. If we don’t operate, it will die. Even if we do operate, it might still die, it’s so weak. But the owner wants us to go ahead.”
“Poor thing,” said Heather. “It needs the green dream.”
“I know. But the owner doesn’t want to let go. He’s one of those macho guys who doesn’t show any feeling, but really he loves this little dog and can’t stand to let it go. So, we’re doing surgery.”
“Well,” said Heather. “It might have helped if he hadn’t let it get into a dog fight in the first place! Poor old thing.”
“Let’s get all the emergency drugs drawn up and ready, just in case. And we’ll put an IV catheter in, before we start, so that if anything happens we’ll be ready for it. Can you get me a bag of Hartmann’s, please, and a 22-gauge catheter? We’ll get started.”
“You want to give it something for its dicky ticker?”
“I already did,” said Sally. “I’ve had it on medication for two days, trying to stabilise it before we operate. Actually, I was hoping the leg would have improved on the antibiotics, but it just got worse. And I’ve given it some more Frusemide and some Millophyline, this morning.”
“Bloody hell. Sounds like it’s on the way out.”
“Well, we’ll do our best to save her,” said Sally.
Two hours later, Heather held the little dog still while Sally placed a gas mask over its face. The dog breathed a mixture of oxygen, nitrous oxide, and halothane anaesthetic vapour. Sally knew that the ECG, from the specialist, had not shown any significant arrhythmias, so she was slightly more confident than she might otherwise have been, but she knew that a dog with endocardiosis – bad heart valves – and chronic congestive heart failure was still a very big risk. She was enormously relieved to see that the anaesthetic induction went smoothly.
Half an hour into the operation, things were still going well. Sally had removed most of the necrotic skin on the dog’s right foreleg, which had been bitten almost to a pulp by a Bull Terrier eight days ago. “No wonder this wouldn’t respond to antibiotics. Just look at all this scar tissue. And look at the blood supply – it’s non-existent. This leg might still drop off, no matter what we do, but at least she’ll have a decent chance of survival with the gangrenous tissue excised. Poor little dog.”
Heather dribbled some more sterile saline on the wound, from a sterile bag she was holding up over the operating table.
At last, the operation was over. Sally took off her gloves and turned off the anaesthetic machine. She and Heather took the groggy dog back to its cage. Sally listened to the heart and lungs with her stethoscope. They sounded much as she had expected: bad, but stable. Every beat of the heart was heralded by a loud sloshing noise, a heart murmur caused by the aging heart valves, and there was the crackly sound of fluid accumulation on the lungs, but neither was worse than they had been before the operation.
Sally breathed a sigh of relief. “Keep a close eye on her while she’s recovering. And call me if there’s any trouble.”
“Okay,” said Heather.
Sally was in the office, ten minutes later, writing up the dog’s card, when she heard the call.
It was Heather’s voice, loud and urgent. “Sally! Sally, come quick. She’s collapsing! She’s just ... collapsed.”
Sally leapt up from the desk and ran through to the treatment room, where the little Silky Terrier was lying, motionless, in its cage.
“She just ... dropped down all of a sudden. She was sitting up. She was looking around. And she just dropped down, just now!”
Sally grabbed the limp body and rushed it over to the table. She looked at the gums. They were grey. The pupils of the eyes were fixed and dilated. When Sally pressed gently on the eyeball, it was soft. The intraocular pressure had already dropped. Sally pressed a stethoscope to the dog’s chest. There was no heartbeat. The dog had died – but Sally refused to accept it. “Give me a hand, here! Let’s get a tube down!”
Heather held up the little dog’s head while Sally put an endotracheal tube down the airway and connected the dog to the anaesthetic machine, which was set to provide only pure oxygen. “Right, now pump the bag! Every five seconds. And start CPR. There’s no heartbeat. She was recovering fine. We were so close to having her through! Damn it!”
Heather pressed on the dog’s chest five times, then squeezed the oxygen bag. But the little dog was dead, and neither she nor Sally entertained any serious hope of being able to bring it back to life. Its heart had simply given out. The anaesthetic had been too much for it.
Nevertheless, they went urgently through the motions. Sally injected stimulants and tried to restart the heart. After ten minutes, they stopped trying to revive the dog and accepted that it had died.
“Stop now, Heather. There’s no point.”
“I’ll ... I’ll call the owner,” said Sally.
Mr Jenkins reacted to the news in a way that Sally would never have guessed. “She’s dead, then?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, Mr Jenkins, but she has passed away.”
The voice on the phone line was soft. “That’s it, then?”
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
Then there was silence for a moment.
“Mr Jenkins? Are you still there?”
The voice was suddenly loud and angry. “Nothing more you can do? Is that all you can say? Nothing more you can do? My bloody dog is dead. I’ve had that dog for fifteen years. Did you know that?”
“I know, Mr Jenkins.”
“It was just a simple operation. And now she’s dead!”
“Mr Jenkins, I’m very sorry that Lulu didn’t make it, but, as you know, it wasn’t a simple operation. It was a very serious situation right from the start, and she was going to die if she didn’t have the operation. We did everything we possibly could, but she was just too weak to make it through.”
The voice was almost yelling, now. “You said there were risks, a few risks, but you didn’t say she was going to die. You never said she was going to die! What have you done to her?”
Sally suddenly felt sick. She couldn’t believe this was happening to her again. “We haven’t done anything to her ...”
“No. You bastards have just killed her, that’s all. It shouldn’t be allowed. You think you can get away with anything. Well, let me tell you something, you won’t get away with it, this time. I’ll make sure you don’t.”
The line went dead. He had hung up.
Sally put down the phone and slumped over the office desk. Then she got up and went through to the treatment room. Heather was out at reception, talking to a client. Sally was alone. She sat down on the bench, next to the body of the dog, surrounded by empty syringes, needles, drug bottles and stethoscopes from their efforts to save the dog. She looked at the empty, flat eyes of the corpse, all the life gone from it now.
Sally cried. Her own life seemed just the same.
Michael’s bedroom was dark, except for a pool of light cast by the reading lamp on the little desk. Something was changing inside him, but he didn’t know what. He felt sad, reading what Sally had been through, especially because he knew there were only a few more pages before she would be dead, but he had to read on. The next entry was dated Friday, 16 February, 1996.
I’m too sad to face anyone. My life is a failure. My career is a failure. So many people hate me. Tonight, I went walking. It all seems so pointless. I’ve worked hard all my life but for what? So that people can tell me I don’t care? I can’t face any more of this pain. I won’t let life do that to me any more ...
Sally had taken a long walk along the quiet suburban streets near the clinic after work, that Friday. She had walked by the small, local lake in the darkness, where people came to feed the ducks during the day. She had listened to the chirping crickets and looked up at the stars.
Sally had always been too terrified to go out at night, since she had nearly been raped eight weeks earlier, and especially since the police had found no trace of either the man who had threatened her or the driver. But on that hot, dry Friday night in February, two days before her death, Sally’s sadness far outweighed her terror. She no longer cared about the risk.
Sally just had to get out of the clinic, had to escape, had to walk, had to think, had to try to make sense of it all.
She found no answers, only loneliness, out by the lake at midnight. The only thing she knew was that she couldn’t go on letting life torture her so endlessly. She felt as if Karl Johanssen had won, had destroyed her after all. She could still hear his drunken voice, across all the years, the voice she used to hear screaming at her when she was a little girl.
“I told you not to, but you did it anyway!”
Sally remembered the way he used to spit with rage.
“You’ve been a bad girl, Sally. I do the right thing by you, I try to give you a chance, but this is how you let me down, uh?”
Sally remembered the way she used to reply.
“I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m sorry.” Her tiny voice used to sound so pathetic, the way she used to cry as she said she was sorry, back when she was six years old, when she was eight, when she was ten.
“You know, I don’t want to hurt you, Sally, but you give me no choice. You need to be taught a lesson. Always you need a lesson.”
Sally remembered the way he used to take off his belt, the way he used to let it swing ominously from one hand, the way he used to show the belt to her before the beating came.
“You know what happens to bad girls, Sally. You know the punishment. But you still do these things, don’t you? Why, Sally? Why do you do it? Why don’t you listen to your father, uh?”
She remembered the way he used to slur his words. She remembered the alcohol on his breath. She remembered his Dutch accent. But most of all, she remembered shaking her head, shaking her head and crying. She would cower in the corner of her bedroom, behind the bed. She would cry out for her mother, but her mother would never come. There was always only Karl Johanssen, pulling her out from her hiding place and standing her in the middle of the room. He was a big man. Sally remembered his big hands, how his big left hand used to clamp onto her left shoulder and hold her, standing there, where he could beat her best.
“Maybe one day you’ll learn!”
She remembered the blows.
“But I don’t think so, Sally. I don’t think you’ll ever learn.”
She remembered the pain, the inescapable pain, as the belt whipped down onto her back. Sometimes he would use the buckle – that was the worst. When it slammed into her back, or into her legs, she would almost faint from the pain, but Karl Johanssen’s big hand would stay clamped on her shoulder and hold her up. There was never anywhere to run to, and never anyone to help her.
“No. Girls like you don’t learn, do they, Sally?”
She remembered how the pain used to go past the point where she was still even fully conscious. She used to have nightmares about that pain, and about how she would never know when Karl Johanssen would take it upon himself to tell his daughter that she hadn’t been good, no matter how good she had been. She was always never quite good enough, no matter how perfect a child she tried to be. There was no way to please Karl Johanssen. And then the pain would come again, and that hand, crushing her shoulder.
“Lucky for you, Sally, I am a patient man.”
Then he would let her drop to the carpet, where she would lie, desperately trying to recover, trying to breathe, shaking her head and crying, wishing the pain to go away.
She remembered that he would just turn and go.
He would just leave her there, like that, without a word.
She remembered how, a day later, or a week later, when she thought it was safe, she would go to her mother, and tell her what had happened, in tears.
“There, there, dear. Dry your tears.”
She remembered what her mother used to say.
“You must try to be good, dear, then this wouldn’t happen.”
She remembered the lies her mother told the social worker, when Sally was ten and Karl Johanssen had gotten carried away with the belt buckle and left marks on Sally’s legs. The marks on Sally’s back, a shirt could hide, but her legs could not be hidden by the skirt of her school uniform. She remembered the social worker asking her, “Who did this to you, Sally?”
And Sally remembered sitting there, in the social worker’s office, with its strange smells and shelves full of books, and saying what her mother had told her she must say.
“I fell down the steps. I ... fell down, on the concrete. I grazed my leg. My mum says I’m clumsy.”
“Are you sure that’s how it happened, Sally? Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Sally remembered feeling guilty about lying, but her mother had told her that she had to say that.
She remembered her mother’s words. “Sally, the social worker is going to ask you questions. She’ll try to trick you. She just wants to take me away from you. She wants to leave you all alone. You can’t tell her what Daddy did, Sally. You promise me, now. You promise.”
Sally remembered saying, “I promise.”
“That’s a good girl, Sally. I love you.”
It was only two weeks after the day Sally saw the social worker, when Karl Johanssen started beating her again.
And it never stopped until he died, six years later.
Saturday morning at the clinic was quiet. Sally only had a few consultations to do, and no surgery. To Heather Lorayne, Sally merely seemed a little distant. By five that afternoon, when work was finished, Sally switched off her mobile phone. She would answer no more after-hours calls.
Sally barely ate anything. She went to her flat and cried so hard, she was physically ill. When she had finished vomiting, and slept for a few hours, she got up and went out to walk around the same dark streets she had walked the night before. She didn’t care if she got hurt. She just wanted to be alone, just wanted to think, just wanted to make sense of it all.
Sally was sliding down into suicide. Her thoughts were not straight any more. She was trapped in a circle of pain and desolation.
On Sunday morning, Heather Lorayne thought Sally looked pale, but other than that, and the fact that she seemed quiet, Heather Lorayne would have little else to tell the police, when they came to interview her about Sally’s suicide, two days later. She had no idea that Sally was thinking about killing herself.
Finally, on Sunday night, Sally made her terrible decision. She sat by the dark lake for hours, and cried. All of the years, from the childhood abuse rained on her by her drunken father, to the flight of her mother to Canada, deserting Sally for a new husband, to the abusive boyfriend Ruth had made her break up with two years before that fateful Sunday, to the five years of incredible stress at vet school, and finally to her first, soul-destroying year in the harsh realities of veterinary practice, all the years seemed a waste of time, they all seemed to roll to one inevitable conclusion: suicide.
Karl Johanssen was right, Sally thought. She wasn’t good enough. She was never going to learn how to get life right. There was no way for someone like her to win. These were her thoughts.
Sally was tired, mentally and physically burned out by the passage of the years. She had no strength left to walk away from being a vet, to walk away from her cherished childhood dream and to retrain in some new career. Why do that, only perhaps to face the same disappointment? Only to face the same broken dreams. And, apart from her dear old grandmother, there was no one in the world who really cared about Sally. Apart from Ruth, everyone Sally had ever loved and trusted had betrayed her. Why go on any more, alone and without love? It wasn’t that Sally was afraid to go on. It wasn’t fear. It was simply that when she brought everything in her life to mind, weighed it all up and looked at what lay ahead, there was nothing for her any more. Sally knew, as she looked out over the little lake at midnight, listening to the occasional car drive down the quiet suburban streets a few blocks from the clinic, that the people driving those cars had lives to look forward to. They had people they trusted, they had things they enjoyed, they had somewhere to go. If Sally were to get in her rusty old Kingswood, which was parked back at the clinic, she would have nowhere to go at all. There was nowhere for her. She didn’t belong anywhere. There was nowhere ahead and nowhere behind, only Ruth, and Sally was too ashamed to let Ruth see her like this. Sally thought that Ruth deserved a better granddaughter than she, one who was not such a hopeless failure. She cried.
Sally thought it was braver to choose death than to keep on, like a coward, letting life torture her the way it had done for so many years, the way it had broken each of her dreams in turn until she had nothing left to hold onto. She didn’t want to go on living in a pointless world. The most cowardly thing of all, she thought, would be for her to fail even at her final decision, the decision to end it. She had to have the courage to do this last thing right. These were her confused thoughts, every one laced with pain, each thought lashing at her just as much as Karl Johanssen’s belt had struck her defenceless body as a child. She got up and walked.
Suicide was no easy way out. It was just her deeply held decision of what was best, that hot night in February. As she wandered aimlessly around the dark streets, past the houses with their lights all off and with their people all asleep, she wondered which houses were happy. Which houses were sad. Which fathers beat their daughters. Which fathers loved them. The unhappy homes, she knew only too well. The happy ones, she would never know. None of it mattered any more. Sally was gripped with sadness, deep and grey and dark sadness, as she walked beneath the uncaring stars. Death seemed right to her. It seemed time to die. She was no longer afraid of it.
It was well past midnight when she finally came back to the flat at the clinic. She wanted to speak to Ruth, but she could not bear to face her. Ruth was always so strong, always such a pillar of strength, how would she ever understand? So, she would write to her, instead. Sally took a pen, lay down on her bed, and wrote a letter to Ruth. It was her suicide note, and it was the last thing she would ever write to anyone other than her own diary.
Tears dropped on the page and smeared the ink.
Michael kept turning the pages of the diary in his dark room that night, kept following the flowing ink. But he realised there would soon be no more pages to turn, no more story, no more secret thoughts to read. This last volume of the diary was not even filled. There were many blank pages at the end, pages that should have been written. The words in the diary rolled and crashed like a wild river onto the rocks of death. Michael wished Sally never had to die, because after all this reading, she seemed like an old friend to him. And it broke his heart. Ruth must have known it would do that.
Monday Morning, 19 February, 1996
I’ll go to Kings Park before the sun comes up. That’s where I want to die. I’ve been to the dispensary. I have everything I need – a drip set, pentobarbitone, pethidine, syringes. Maybe this is the most useful thing about my training. At least I know how to die painlessly. I’m not afraid of death, but I don’t want to suffer ...
That last lonely night, Sally had walked through the clinic and collected the things she needed. It was two in the morning. The treatment room was dark and silent. Sally went to the corner where the intravenous fluids were stored. She took a drip bag and a giving set and hooked them up on a drip stand, ready to flow. Then she turned on the drip, by pushing the little plastic wheel along its blue keeper until it no longer pinched off the transparent tube of the giving set. Immediately, the clear, life-giving electrolyte solution flowed quickly down the long tube from the bag and emptied onto the treatment room floor. Sally watched it empty.
She carried the drip bag over to the bench below the cupboard where the euthanasia solution was kept. Then she took a 500 ml bottle of pentobarbitone sodium and patiently emptied it, one syringe at a time, into the drip bag, until the bag was full of the deadly fluid. Sally held it up and examined its colour. It was a very dark green.
She had filled the bag with the deadly anaesthetic, not because that much would be needed to kill a human being, but because she knew once the flow of anaesthetic started into her vein she would lose consciousness, and she wanted to be sure that the dose which would flow into her body would be great enough to kill her without any doubt. It would have to flow only under its own weight, for where she was going to die there would be no power source to drive an infusion pump. The drip would have to flow the old-fashioned way, driven only by the force of gravity, and so the bag would have to be full, to make sure the flow would be rapid and that she would therefore die quickly.
She took some intravenous catheters and stuffed them into her pocket. She took more than one, since it would be difficult to place a catheter in her own arm. It would have to be done one-handed, and she might miss on the first attempt. She took some surgical tape, to tape the catheter in, and a roll of elastic adhesive bandage to wrap around her arm, just to be sure that nothing would come out of place once she was unconscious. Then she went to the safe in the office, opened it, and took out the bottle of pethidine. Sally had never used drugs in her life, but now that it was time to die, she knew that pethidine would make it easier. She went back to the treatment room and collected a few syringes and some 22-gauge needles, which she would need for the pethidine. And then she stuffed everything into an old backpack which she still had from her university days. It used to carry her books. Now, it carried the means of her death. Sally was prepared.
When she had finished, and everything was packed, she spent the rest of the night awake. She cried. She went and sat outside under the stars. She came back in and rested on her bed. And, at last, she went back into the clinic, to the cages in the treatment room, and said her goodbyes to the animals there. How ironic, she thought, as she looked at the rabbit, and the three cats, the cockatoo, and the sleeping ferret, and then the two dogs, that caring for these beautiful animals had been part of what had pushed her to her death. How ironic, that she loved the animals and their company so much more than the company of people, people who so often seemed to be against her, no matter how much she tried. She said goodbye to a German Shepherd, in hospital for its severe diabetes. It reminded her of Ruth’s dog, Emmy, before she had died. She remembered all the times they had taken Emmy walking by the river. And then she cried again. The dog looked up at her, confused. Sally opened the cage and hugged it. And her tears flowed.
Her thoughts became sadder and more confused. She closed the cage and left the dog there, then got up and went back to her room. Kneeling at her bed, she cried until it seemed she had no more tears left inside her. She felt weak, and she was ready for the end. She had barely eaten anything in two days. And now she just wanted it to be over.
It was a warm February night, but even so, Sally did not want to be cold at the park, so she pulled on a red pullover, a gift from Ruth two years before. She was wearing an old pair of jeans and sneakers. She took the backpack, walked out of her little flat, and didn’t bother to close the door behind her. Her old Kingswood, a rusty, brown station wagon, was parked behind the clinic. She got into it and started the engine for the last time.
She drove through the darkness to Kings Park. It took her fifteen minutes to get there. She drove along the deserted streets in silence. When she reached the little car park near the spiral tower in the interior of the park, she switched off the engine and sat in her car for a few minutes. The park was dark and empty. She was alone.
She noticed a little light starting to begin. It would be sunrise in half an hour. It was time to begin. She had to get ready. She wanted to die when the sun was up, not in the darkness, not alone.
She got out of the car and went to the spiral tower. She dropped the backpack at the base of the tower and walked slowly up the long helix of the staircase until she reached the top. There was just enough light now to make out the rolling panorama of the trees and houses of the suburbs of Perth. Sally looked out over the city, she looked at the skyscrapers, bristling with lights, and the sleepy river. She felt the tower move slightly under her. She loved this place.
It was a Monday morning, but still too early for the groan of traffic that normally came from the freeway interchange half a mile to the east. Everything was idyllic and peaceful. The air was fresh.
It was beautiful.
Sally felt a deep, heavy weight upon her soul. She knew it was time. The landscape was beautiful, but there was nothing in it for her. It was as if she could see it, but not touch it. Happiness was something for others to experience, and it would never be for her. She came down the tower, one heavy step at a time, as if she were walking away from a dream that could never come true and back to the bitter reality of the ground. It was over.
Sally picked up the backpack and walked down the long grass fairway to the west. After a short distance, she turned into the bushland on the southern edge of the fairway, and looked for a suitable small tree. She found one. It had a trunk big enough for her to rest against, so she could sit up when it was time to inject the anaesthetic, and a little twisted branch, sturdy enough to hang the drip bag from. She cleared away debris from around the trunk and made a space for herself to sit down. She was far enough into the trees not to be discovered too soon, for she did not want to be rescued, but close enough to the grass of the fairway that her view of the sky was not much impeded.
She hung the drip bag on the tree, then sat down and pushed up the left sleeve of her sweater, exposing the vein at her elbow. She worked calmly, as she had been trained to do, and focussed only on the important task at hand – she had to get a catheter in that vein. She had done this in the past, in dogs and cats, many times. She had done it when under pressure, when several emergencies had to be treated at once and there was no time to waste, even when hysterical clients had watched her every move, demanding that she save their animals hit by cars, or poisoned, or dying with infections. Sally had always been able to catheterise the veins, like a true professional. And that is how she slipped the catheter into her own vein, working only with her right hand. She pulled out the little steel stiletto from inside the catheter, once it was in her vein, and watched her own blood, bright red, drip out of the hub of the catheter onto the pale skin of the inside of her arm and then onto the dirt. She let the blood drip, so that it wouldn’t clot, and deftly taped the catheter in with surgical tape. Then she took the end of the long tube of the giving set, which was still filled with a few mls of harmless saline solution, and plugged it into the hub of the catheter. She could run it for a few seconds, before the green dream in the drip bag would make its way down the tube of the giving set, and all that would enter her vein for those first few seconds would be harmless sterile saline. She switched on the tap and did this, to wash the blood out of the catheter, then immediately switched the tap off again. It was not yet time for the green dream.
Sally put another layer of narrow surgical tape around the catheter, now securely mated to the tube of the giving set, and taped it tightly to her arm. Satisfied, she took the big roll of elastic adhesive bandage, three inches wide, and wrapped it around her arm again and again, so there could be no chance of the catheter falling out of her vein when she was unconscious. And then, everything was ready.
Sally had prepared for her own death professionally.
She had done it perfectly.
Then, finally, she allowed her emotions to come back.
She felt grey and tired, hopeless and empty.
The sun was beginning to come up, now. It was dawn. A lovely, golden light was washing across the park from the east. The grass of the fairway and the trees on its other side were an impossibly beautiful, emerald hue. The sky was blue and orange. And it was time.
Sally took a large syringe full of pethidine from her backpack and injected it into the medications port of the giving set. The narcotic analgesic flowed swiftly into her vein and a few seconds later it had reached her brain. Within a minute or so, she felt a wonderful sense of relaxation come over her. She was still was aware of her pain and heartbreak, but the pain was dull and distant. She saw more beauty in the view of the dawn around her, and thought less of the failure which her life had been. Pethidine was meant for the pain of a broken leg, but it was equally good for the pain of a broken heart. Sally felt no anxiety, only a calm sadness and a growing sense of peace. But the pethidine also robbed her of her thoughts. She could not think clearly with the drug in her system. Her thoughts ebbed and flowed like waves, as if she were dreaming. There was no chance of stopping, now.
Sally cried, all of a sudden. The tears flowed down her face rapidly. She wiped her eyes so she could see more clearly. She wanted to see the sky, and the grass, and the trees. The scene blurred with her tears. She didn’t sob. She was past that now. The salty tears just spilled over from her eyes in silence, and ran down to her mouth, where she tasted them, and dripped off her face, onto the red sweater Ruth had knitted for her, two years before. Sally was ready for the end.
She reached up with her right arm, to the tap on the giving set. She pushed the little blue wheel forward in its plastic keeper, all the way open, and watched to see that the pentobarbitone sodium was flowing quickly, dripping rapidly through the dripping chamber beneath the bag and flowing – deadly, swift, and green – through the long, transparent tube of the giving set and into the vein in her left arm. It was flowing as it should. She knew what would happen, now.
The anaesthetic would flow down that long tube, into the vein of her arm. It would race along the vein and rapidly flow into the superior vena cava, the great vein inside her chest that returned blood from the upper half of her body to the right atrium of her heart. From there, the anaesthetic would flow down into the right ventricle which would pump it through her lungs before it returned to the left atrium, then through the mitral valve, and into the left ventricle, the most powerful part of her heart. Sally thought how empty those terms were, and how meaningless. How little medical school had taught her about life. That was not her heart, that thing which beat inside her chest. And soon she would be at peace, for with every mighty beat of the left ventricle, the heart would pump the deadly, green fluid up into the aorta, from where it would rush into the carotid arteries in her neck, and then straight into her brain. Every beat of her heart would supply more of the anaesthetic to her brain. All this, she knew, would happen in just a few seconds. First, she would fall asleep, as the green dream engulfed her brain. Then, she would become deeply anaesthetised. Finally, her heart would stop. And then she would be gone.
Sally felt the cold fluid begin to flow into her arm. She smiled, through her tears, stricken with grief and sadness and confusion at her own death and sorry that the only person in the world she truly loved, Ruth, would have to go through losing her. She looked away from the flow of the drip set and looked out at the clear blue sky, and the grass, and the trees, and all the colours of dawn.
Death is not so bad, she thought.
The Indian Ocean would have been just beyond the low rise of the landscape in the distance, to the west, but it was invisible to her.
She watched a bird fly across the park.
And then she fell asleep.
Her head slumped forward. She was completely asleep. There was no thought. There was only sleep. She was anaesthetised, dangerously deeper than any patient on an operating table ever would be. And then, in a minute or so, her heart stopped. The flow of the deadly barbiturate to her brain also stopped, as her heart gave out, but so too did the flow of fresh blood, rich in oxygen and glucose sugar which her brain needed to survive. Without these things, in a few minutes, deep under the unconsciousness of anaesthesia, there is brain death. Sally Johanssen was dead.
And there was nothing more to tell.
These will be the last words I ever write. I have sent my love to dear Ruth, posted the letter to her. She is the only one I wanted to say goodbye to. And now I will go to the park. And that is my life.
Thank you, Diary, for listening. For listening to me.
Reading this, Michael cried, stronger than he had ever cried since the accident. He cried for Sally. He cried for Ian and Diane, and he cried for his dear beloved Marie. Everything washed over him, waves of sadness and grief, most of all, grief, which poured out of him like a flood and would not stop. He couldn’t move. He could only cry.
Michael closed the diary and thought for a long time.
Michael waited until the evening meal the next day to raise the subject of the diary. He spent the day keeping to himself. In the late afternoon, while Ruth was making shepherd’s pie, he went across to the river and sat on a park bench, watching the whirling seagulls and the quiet herons. He chose a peaceful stretch of the river, not far from the house, but it was a Sunday and there were families about, enjoying the last hour or so of their riverside picnics before they would have to pack up and go home. Most of the people were further to the south, near the jetty at Deep Water Point and the boat ramp there, but there was a mother and her two young children a few yards away, at the next park bench. Michael watched the happy children play.
When, at last, he was seated at the kitchen table eating dinner with Ruth, and after he had complimented her on the meal being good and thanked her for it, he said simply, “I read about your granddaughter’s death. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right, Mike.”
Michael ate some of the pie, then spoke again. “I ... I know how she felt about life, Ruth. I feel a bit like that myself.”
“But she was so young. She was too young to die like that.”
Ruth nodded, slowly. She decided it was time. “Michael, I’ve got something else to show you.” She stood up, went to the shelves by the kitchen window, and retrieved an envelope from the highest shelf. She returned to the table and gave it to Michael.
Michael examined it. It was addressed to Ruth MacDonald. The postmark was from Perth, February, 1996. He recognised the handwriting – it was Sally’s. “What’s this?”
Ruth ignored the question. “Open it, Michael. I want you to read it. Now, it’s late. I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Thanks for dinner.”
Michael took a moment to think, before he looked inside the envelope and pulled out the letter that was folded inside. He read it in silence. There was no noise but the wind gently caressing the big eucalyptus tree closest to the kitchen window. Warm summer air came from the garden. It smelt of grass and flowers. The words of the letter rolled to an end.
Sunday, 18 February, 1996
I’m so sorry to have to write this to you. You have always been the best grandmother to me. You are the only one who has truly cared for me, and I will always love you. You have always been so strong. I wish that I could have had your strength, Ruth. But I don’t. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.
I can’t do this any more, Ruth. I can’t go on in this place. I’ve tried my best, truly I have, but nothing is enough. I’ve failed at my profession, and there is nothing else for me. It was my one dream, the one thing I wanted to come true. I thought that being a vet would make my life better, but instead, animals are dead because of me. If you could have seen the tears of their owners, if you could have felt their anger, I’m no good, Ruth. I’m no good at what I do.
I have nightmares. I see Karl. At night, he still comes to beat me. Even now that he has been dead so many years, he still comes, in my mind, in my nightmares. You know how much I hate him, I hate my own father, but maybe he was right about me. I haven’t come to anything, after all these years. All my dreams have come to nothing.
I wish I were stronger, Ruth, but I’m not. I wish I were a better person, and that there was a future for me. But I’m not, and there isn’t any future. I know you won’t understand that, but there’s nothing left for me now. And by the time you get this letter, I will be gone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Dearest Ruth, I love you so much. Please forgive me for doing this, and please know that I will always love you. You are the best person I have ever known. I will miss only you.
Please stay well, and please have the strength that I didn’t have, for I could never bear to see any harm come to a good person like you, the kind of person I always wanted to be.
Forgive me, Ruth. Forgive me.
All my love,
Michael let the letter drop from his hand.
He sat quietly at the table for many minutes, then he went out the back door and into the dark garden. He didn’t sleep at all, that night. He sat on the wrought iron chair at the bottom of the garden, the same chair in which he sat to paint during the day, and he watched the stars slowly circle across the sky as the hours passed.
Ruth heard a noise from the garden, before she fell asleep, and she looked out from her bedroom window and saw the vague figure of Michael slowly pacing around in the darkness. She was not surprised to see him there. She went back to her bed and slept.
Michael thought about Ruth, about all that she had been through in her life. He thought about Sally, and the love that those two women, grandmother and granddaughter, must have had for each other. That kind of love was rare. It was an honest love, a love with integrity and without pretence, a healthy, genuine love. Michael had known that kind of love too, with his wife, before she died. It was the rarest thing in the world. And he had known it. He felt lower than an insect, to not have been able to save Marie, to not have been able to land that Cessna safely in the godforsaken storm which claimed her life and the lives of his friends. But something else, he realised too: that this old woman he was staying with, that he had hardly spoken to in the three months he had boarded at her home, that this dear old woman loved him like a son, although she hardly knew him. Why him? Why should Ruth choose to shower her kindness and compassion on the likes of Michael Andrews? Why did he deserve that kind of love? For Michael knew that it was Ruth, and only Ruth, that had saved him from taking his own life. She was the only one who could make him understand, and she had done it. He understood. It was an accident. It wasn’t his fault. It was an accident.
Michael sat on that old wrought iron chair, in the dark garden, and cried for Marie. And for Sally. And for Ruth.
And even for himself.
When the night was nearly over, Michael went to the kitchen and got the keys to Ruth’s car. He slipped quietly out the back door again and down the side path to the driveway, opened the door to the little Mazda and got in. He put the keys in the ignition, and turned them.
Ruth was woken by the sudden sound of the engine starting. She got up and hurried to the front door, but by the time she had opened it and looked out, Michael had already driven away.
It was Monday morning, but this early before the dawn there was no traffic about. Michael drove across Canning Bridge and turned onto the deserted freeway, heading north to the city centre. He drove downtown and then turned west, onto Kings Park Road. When he reached the big roundabout at the north-eastern corner of the park itself, he turned south and drove along the long avenue, beneath the towering, magnificent eucalypts, which looked out onto the city lights and the Swan River far below. The park was deserted and dark. The view was breathtaking.
Michael continued along the road as it turned west, away from the view, and towards the interior of the park. A few moments later, he came upon the little car park by the spiral lookout tower. He switched off the engine and got out of the car, not bothering to close the door. He went straight over to the tower and climbed it.
At the top, he looked around in the darkness and felt the warm wind on his face. He listened to the slight creaks and groans of the tower as it swayed a little. And he waited.
Twenty minutes later, the black sky had turned deep blue, and then a lighter blue, and then, in the east, a swathe of orange burned silently across the sky. There was no one but Michael. He was completely alone, watching the grand spectacle of the sleeping city and the waking dawn, soon to intersect just the way they had done two years before, on the warm February morning that Sally had taken her life.
And then he remembered, it was not quite the same. This was not where Sally Johanssen had been. She had been in the trees, hidden in the bushland to the south of the great fairway which stretched away from the tower to the west. So Michael came down from the tower and onto the grass. He walked down the incline a short distance, then turned into the trees and stood there, waiting for the dawn. The only clear view was to the north-west, away from the sun, across the fairway and to the trees and sky opposite. He imagined this must have been the direction Sally had looked, before she died. This was the last view she would have seen.
And then the world lit up. The great ball of the sun edged above the lip of the earth and cast its long shadows to the west. The fairway seemed impossibly green, twinkling with highlights of orange from the sudden sunburst. The sky was cloudless, except for a few wisps of flat, harmless cirrus cloud, high above. The sky was a beautiful, clear blue, above Michael, away from the smog of the horizon, and he looked at it with the eyes of a pilot. There would be safe flying today, for those who took to the air. A magpie crowed noisily somewhere nearby. There was a tear in Michael’s eye, a single tear. It flowed down his right cheek. And he wiped it away.
Michael came out of the trees and stood in the centre of the huge fairway, the grass crisp under his shoes. He looked up the incline to the spiral tower, and saw the sun, brilliant and beautiful, wash clean the city and the park in its early-morning warmth.
For the first time in six months, Michael did not feel guilty to be alive. He was glad he was still here. He was glad, to have survived. He knew, at last, it was what Marie would have wanted.
And for that knowledge, he thanked Sally, and he thanked Ruth, in a silent prayer. When he least expected it, when he thought there would never be any hope, Michael Andrews had found peace at last. The turmoil was gone from his mind. The storm, the terrible, terrible storm, was over.
It was a calm and beautiful morning.
Ruth was in the front garden, pruning the long hedge that ran along one side of the yard, when Michael returned from Kings Park. She looked up from her work as she heard the car pull into her driveway. It was ten o’clock and the day was already very hot. Rather than confront Michael, she turned back to the hedge as he got out of the car.
Michael walked over, a little sheepishly, and stood behind her. He looked down at her back, but he could not see her face. It was hidden under her large sunhat.
Ruth trimmed back some errant branches at the base of the hedge. She did not stand up. She seemed to be ignoring Michael.
Michael was not sure what to say. The keys to Ruth’s car were still in his hand. Finally, he decided he would say nothing, but would simply return the keys to the kitchen where they belonged. Just as he took a step away from Ruth’s back, she spoke, without looking at him, without stopping her work.
“You missed your breakfast. I cooked this morning.”
“Oh. I ... um ... didn’t know you were cooking.”
“Hmmm.” Ruth moved along the hedge a little further towards the front fence. She was still kneeling, scrutinising the hedge closely to see which parts needed to be trimmed back.
Michael stood silently, watching her.
“I heard the car start, this morning. Before dawn.”
“Woke me up, you know. I thought someone was stealing it.”
“Maybe someone was.”
Ruth stopped pruning and cranked her head around to look up at Michael from underneath the brim of her hat. “Maybe.”
Michael looked away from her. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right.” Ruth continued her work.
“I ... I went to the park. Kings Park. To the spiral tower.”
Ruth closed her branch-cutters with some effort. There was a loud crack, as a piece of hedge came away. “I thought you might.”
Ruth still did not look at him. “I’ve been there. You know, I couldn’t bring myself to go there for nearly a year, but when I knew that I was dying, I went. It gave me ... a sense of perspective.”
Michael said nothing.
“Do you know what I mean, Michael?”
“Yeah. I do.”
Ruth paused for a moment. “That’s good, Mike.”
“I’ll put the keys back, then.”
“Thanks. I mean, for everything. Thanks.”
Ruth stood up and brushed the dirt off her slacks. The secateurs dangled from her left hand. Then she looked directly at Michael, and nodded. “That’s okay, Mike.”
Michael looked at his feet for a moment. Then he suddenly reached forward and put a hand on Ruth’s shoulder. He wanted to hug her, but he was too embarrassed. “No, I mean it. Thank you, Ruth. I ... think you’re the greatest. You know that?”
“Well, if you’re going to compliment me like that, I might even cook lunch, even if you did let breakfast go cold.”
Michael looked at her without a word.
Ruth stared calmly back at him, and smiled. “But if you steal my car again, I’m going to have to kill you.”
Ruth knew, at last, that he understood.
Every day after that, for the next two weeks, Michael would disappear in the morning and not return until it was dark. Every night, he ate dinner with Ruth, and he seemed to her a different man. He would laugh, he would tell jokes, he would make small talk. They would watch television together, after dinner. But he stubbornly refused to answer any of her questions about what he was up to during the day.
The first day, Ruth knew, he had gone to retrieve his car from the security garage which had locked it up for him since the accident. He had left the house in a taxi and returned in his silver Commodore sedan, with its Aero Club bumper stickers and university parking permit decals stuck to the windscreen. But more than that, Ruth did not know.
Michael did not tell her how difficult it was for him, driving that car again for the first time since the accident. There were still some of Marie’s things in the glove compartment: her address book, lip balm, a hair brush. As for Michael’s home, it had been locked up since the accident. He still couldn’t quite bear to go back there, with all its memories. It was enough just dealing with driving his own car again.
When Michael went to see the psychiatrist, the day after he retrieved the car, he was no longer hostile to her.
“You seem different, Michael,” she said.
“I’m driving the car again. The car that Marie and I used to drive. You know, I found her hairbrush in the glove box. It still had her some of hair in it. It looked just the same. The same long, brown strands.”
“That must have been difficult for you.”
“Yeah. It was hard.” Michael’s voice broke a little.
“Have you been to the house?”
“No,” Michael whispered. “Not yet.”
The young psychiatrist nodded her agreement. “Hmmm.”
“Look, Kathy, I know I haven’t been the best patient for you. I, uh, just wanted to say sorry for that. There have been a lot of people trying to help me, since the accident, people at the hospital, nurses, doctors, counsellors, even you bloody shrinks.”
The psychiatrist smiled.
“And Ruth, of course. And I just ... wasn’t ready to let anyone help. That’s why I kept you all away. I must have been a bloody pain in the arse to you, these last three months. You must have looked in that appointment book and said, ‘Bloody hell, not that miserable bastard, Andrews, again.’ I’m sorry about that, Kathy.”
“That’s what we’re here for, Mike. You don’t have to apologise. You’re the patient. I’m the doctor. That’s what I’m here for. But thanks, anyway, for the apology. It’s okay.”
Michael allowed a little of his old, boyish charm to shine through. He smiled. “Thanks, doc. You’re a sport. I don’t know how you people do it, put up with the likes of me. But thanks, anyway.”
The psychiatrist smiled back. “What’s made you so sympathetic to the plight of we doctors, all of a sudden?”
“Oh, just something I read,” said Michael, cryptically.
The psychiatrist reminded herself, silently, that one should never become involved with a patient. He was a handsome devil, though, she had to admit. She replied to him with a laugh. “I see. Maybe I should get all of my patients to read that, then.”
“Maybe you should.”
“What are you going to do now, Michael?”
“I’m going to stay at Ruth’s a bit longer, and then I’ll open up the old house again. And, um, if it’s okay with you, Kathy, I’d like to start flying again. Nothing major – I’d just like to get back up in the air, go back to the Aero Club, make a start.”
“Hmmm. That’s good, Michael.”
“Will you give me a certificate?” There was worry in Michael’s eyes. It was the same old worry that every pilot had, that some stupid doctor would ground them with a bad medical examination. And Michael wanted to fly again. He wanted it badly.
The psychiatrist noticed his expression.
“Well?” said Michael, impatiently but politely.
“I think we can do that for you.”
“Ah, good on you Kathy! Good on you.” Michael seemed as excited as a young child whose mother had just agreed to an ice cream.
“I’ll pronounce you of sound mental health, ready to fly, providing you don’t fly any commercial missions for at least two months, and providing you return to see me once a week for the next few weeks with regular progress reports on your flying. Okay?”
“Okay! No worries.”
“Well then, Mr Andrews, I suggest you get out of here and don’t return until you’ve got some flying to report.”
“Right you are, doc.”
When Michael showed up at the local airport, the following day, it caused quite a stir at the Aero Club. No one quite knew what to say to him. A few of his fellow Club pilots happened to be there, that hot Thursday morning, and they duly said hello and how surprised they were to see him, but none of them dared ask how he was feeling. They treated him with courtesy but distance, not wanting to say anything which might hurt his feelings. Rumour had it that he had gone a little crazy since the accident, and it had been the subject of a lot of gossip since his disappearance. No one even knew where he had been those last three months, since he had gotten out of hospital. The air-charter company he had been working for at the time of the accident had steadfastly refused to give any information concerning Michael’s whereabouts, other than to say they were confident he would be returning to his work later in the year, following an extended vacation.
So when Michael strode boldly, with his slight limp, through a hanger which housed a Cessna 172 on which two mechanics were doing an engine check, the mechanics couldn’t help a little harmless gossip.
The older of the two, a tall, bald man in grubby overalls, looked up from the engine. “Hey, mate. Look at that, will ya?”
“Look at what?”
The bald mechanic frowned at his young offsider, who was little more – in his eyes – than a baby-faced apprentice. “Christ, don’t you know anything, mate? That’s Andrews. Michael Andrews, the charter pilot.”
“That’s the guy that crashed the Club 172. Total write-off. Killed his wife and two other passengers. Remember?”
“Oh yeah, last August, right?”
“Yup. Got caught in a thunderstorm, the poor bastard.”
“Wasn’t his fault, then?”
“Nah, mate. Poor bugger was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wasn’t his fault. He had a radio failure, couldn’t get vectored out of the storm.”
“He had to try to put it down, out at Johnsons Farm. You know the little strip?”
Michael stood at the far end of the hanger, inspecting a Piper Cherokee and reliving old memories. He was lost in his thoughts.
“Well, he didn’t make it. Freak windshear hit him at the last moment. Smashed that plane into little pieces. He’s lucky to be alive. His wife and the others didn’t make it. There was a big fireball. It was pretty bloody horrible, old Reg Johnson says.”
“Shit, eh?” said the kid.
“You can say that again. He went crazy, after that. Disappeared. Nobody knows where he’s been.”
“Think about it, mate. You lose your wife, and your two best mates, in a crash. And you’re in the pilot’s seat. Wouldn’t you go crazy? He wouldn’t even let any of his friends see him, in the hospital. He sent ’em all away. God knows what he’s been up to since then.”
“Shhhh! He’s coming over. He’s coming this way.”
A moment later, Michael was standing next to them by the open engine cowling of the Cessna 172. The aircraft was painted red and white, and it was in a very pretty state, just serviced.
“G’day,” said the bald mechanic.
“G’day,” his apprentice repeated.
“G’day, guys,” said Michael, cheerfully. “Fine day for flying. Have you seen that sky? Not a cloud up there. Just a few thermals, I’ll bet. Almost wish I was going gliding, instead. But she’ll do.”
“Sorry?” said the kid.
“I’ve spoken to Mary, in the office. I’ve just hired this 172 for the morning. That is, if you’ve finished work on her.” Michael had decided, while driving to the airport that morning, that he was going to be as cheerful as possible. He didn’t want nosy people inquiring if he was really ready to fly.
“We’ve finished, all right,” said the bald mechanic, as he closed the engine cowling and wiped it with a grimy rag.
“Great,” said Michael. “I’m just going to lodge a flight plan and I’ll be back in an hour to take her up. That okay?”
“Okay with me,” said the bald mechanic.
“No worries,” said the kid.
“So, uh, where you planning to fly to?” said the bald mechanic, overcome with curiosity.
“Oh, I’m gonna take the scenic route, the tourist flight. Haven’t been up there for a while. Thought I’d take a look at the city.”
“Right,” said the bald mechanic.
“Mmmm,” the kid hummed.
“I’ll catch you guys later,” said Michael, as he walked away.
“You think he’s ready to fly?” said the kid, once Michael was gone. “He still looks a bit crazy to me.”
“I hope so, mate. I hope so.”
“At least he’s not taking anyone else up.”
“Yeah. Well, come on, mate. No rest for the wicked. Let’s go.”
The two mechanics picked up their toolboxes and went to over to check the Piper Cherokee. They were still working on it when Michael returned, an hour later, to take out the Cessna.
When Michael was on the runway, in the familiar cockpit of the Cessna 172, which was like so many others he had flown before, and once he had obtained permission from the tower to take off, he paused for a few seconds. His hand trembled over the throttle. He tried to suppress it, but his hand still shook. If he could do this, could fly this same type of aircraft he had flown on the night of the accident, he could go on with his life.
He closed his eyes for a moment, told himself to put everything else out of his mind, and pushed the throttle wide open. The engine roared, Michael opened his eyes, and the plane began to roll down the long, hot runway. The sky was breathtakingly clear. It was endless and blue. He could see heat waves over the runway, blurring the view in the distance like a desert mirage. It was thirty-six degrees Celsius, a sizzling, dry February day, and Michael was sweating in the cockpit. He told himself that his sweat was due only to the heat. It was not true.
And then, at once, the Cessna left the ground. Everything receded and became small as the little plane slowly climbed to altitude. Michael kept his thoughts riveted on what he was doing. He did not allow himself to think of how Marie used to sit beside him on so many flights. He did not allow himself to think of how many times Ian and Diane had occupied the back seats. He just flew the aircraft. He just flew.
Michael did a long circuit around the airport, for there was no other traffic in the air at that moment. He looked down at the roofs of suburban houses, at their colourful tiles, red and beige and blue, in the relentless sun. He looked at the trees nestled between the houses, and at the criss-cross pattern of the streets with their tiny toy cars driving from place to place. From three thousand feet, it looked almost unreal, like a child’s model, toy cars and toy houses. It was a pretty city on a glorious day.
Michael turned west, and flew out to the coast. When he reached the southern beaches, he turned north and slowly flew along, high above the narrow, white strip of beach, with the calm, warm Indian Ocean to the west, and the city suburbs immediately to the east. The beaches were crowded with people trying to escape the heat. Michael thought about the thousands of lives being lived out, right there beneath him. He thought about the good times, and the heartbreaking times, that all those people would be going through, all the dreams realised and all the hopes dashed, all the new lives just beginning and all the old ones coming to their endings. He turned back inland and flew towards Kings Park, flying east above the long grass fairway that led to the spiral tower, and then onward to the east, leaving Kings Park behind and flying over the Narrows Bridge and the deep blue palette of the Swan River. The skyscrapers roasted in the sun, to the north, and the catamaran sailing boats played off the riverbank, to the south. Then he turned south and flew back to the airport, flying over Canning Bridge. He looked down carefully and saw the red tiles of the roof of Ruth’s home, the place where he had lived those last three months, the place which had saved his life. It felt good to be flying again. It felt so good to him.
When Michael had entered the landing pattern at the airport and had guided the Cessna expertly down the final leg to the runway and made a flawless landing, he allowed himself a smile. The aircraft decelerated rapidly, rolling down the runway. He knew Marie would have wanted him to fly again. And he had done it. He had flown.
When he had finished taxying back to the hanger, and switched off the engine, he closed his eyes and sighed. He patted the instrument panel, as if he were thanking the faithful old aircraft. He had made it.
After that, Michael flew every day. And each day, he flew a little farther and a little longer. He started out on country tours. He regained his confidence. And, after two weeks, he knew that he was okay, that he was still a good pilot, that he still had the edge.
Ruth was suspicious by now, despite his cover stories about visiting friends, that Michael had been flying. Her suspicions were confirmed on the first Tuesday night in March, as they ate dinner together.
“I’ve been flying,” said Michael, nonchalantly.
“Hmmm. I thought you must have been. How’s it going?”
“Oh, I’ve just been taking a Cessna out. Nothing fancy. But I’m thinking of ringing the charter company, you know. Maybe it’s time to get my old job back.”
“Really? That’s great!”
“Yeah. As soon as two months are up. The shrink said I couldn’t fly commercial for two months. But after that, I’m back in business. It’s just as well, Ruth. I’m not much of a painter.” Michael smiled.
“Hmmm. I don’t know about that. I like your paintings.”
“Maybe. But I don’t think anyone would buy ’em.”
“You have a point there.”
“It’s time I started working again.”
“That’s wonderful, Mike. I think so, too.”
“But, anyway, remember you telling me about your husband flying in a Tiger Moth? Well, I’ve spoken to a friend of mine. He’s going to let me borrow his Tiggie for a day.”
“Oh?” Ruth seemed nervous.
“Yeah. Look, Ruth, you’ve been so good to me. I owe everything to you. And I want to do something for you. I want to take you flying. I know you’ve never flown in a light aircraft before. I want to be the one to show you what it’s like. It’s wonderful, Ruth. I know you’ll love it. Will you come?”
“Me? In one of those little planes? Oh, no, Michael. No!”
“Ruth, come on. You have to try it, once.”
“No, Mike. I’m terrified of them. Really.”
“Are you saying you’re chicken?”
“Yes! It’s very sweet of you, Mike, but really ...”
Michael seemed offended. “But I tried dancing! You said I was chicken but I tried dancing, anyway. Remember Christmas?”
Ruth said nothing to this. She felt a little cornered.
“Are you going to tell me you’re too chicken to fly? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come up with me, Michael Andrews, in a Tiger Moth, Ruth, a Tiger Moth. You’ll get to see what Fred was going on about, all those years ago. Come on, you know you want to.”
“I don’t know.”
“Ruth, can’t you see? You helped me to get well again. Without you, I would never have done it. I’m well again, Ruth. Let me take you flying, as my little gift to you, in the Tiger Moth.”
“Go on! Come on, Ruth!”
“Well, all right then.”
“Good on you Ruth. You’ll love it.”
“What do I need?”
“Just some warm clothes, and one of these.” Michael reached under his jacket and pulled out a blue silk flying scarf. He handed it over the kitchen table to Ruth.
“Where on earth did you get one of these old things?”
“I have my ways,” said Michael, proudly.
Ruth tried it on. “Well, I guess I have to fly, now that I look the part.”
“Tomorrow afternoon, Ruth. I’ve got the Tiger booked.”
“Oh, my. All right then, Michael. If you say so.”
Michael looked at her, with genuine love in his eyes. “I do.”
The next day, Michael drove Ruth to the airport. It was a sweltering afternoon. Even the coming of March had not yet dulled the ferocity of the summer. When Michael led Ruth through the hanger at the Aero Club to the Tiger Moth parked out the front, and when he took a few minutes to show her the lightweight, leather flying jacket she would wear, the goggles, and the leather cap with earphones and intercom microphone attached, the two mechanics, who were seated at the far end of the hanger having a late lunch, began to gossip once more.
“Who’s the old broad?” said the blonde-haired kid.
The bald mechanic chewed on his sandwich before replying. “Dunno. She looks old enough to be his mother.”
“Maybe she is.”
“Nah. I heard he’s got no family, except a brother in Sydney.”
“So it can’t be his mum.”
“That’s weird, I reckon.”
The bald mechanic took a swig of his iced coffee. “What?”
“Hanging around with an old biddy like her.”
The bald mechanic shrugged his shoulders.
“Anyway, is he gonna take her flying?”
“Looks like it.”
“Shit. He’s only been flying a coupla weeks. Now he wants to take up passengers. You reckon it’s safe?”
The bald mechanic considered this for a moment, as he contemplated his sandwich. “The shrink says he’s not crazy any more. Mary told me she saw his medical report. He’s clear to fly. Just can’t do any commercial stuff for a while.”
“That’s what I heard.”
The kid seemed impressed. “Huh.”
“Look at her trying on that jacket, will ya?”
Across the hanger, Ruth was laughing, partly from nervousness and partly at the outfit Michael had made her put on.
“You know, Ruth, I reckon you look just like Amelia Earhart.”
“Do I really have to wear these goggles? I feel ridiculous.”
“Of course you do! We’re taking a trip back through time. Back to when Fred went up. This Tiger Moth is half a century old. Try to get into the spirit of the thing, Ruth.”
Ruth laughed again. “All right, Mike. I’ll wear the goggles.”
“Anyway, you’ll need ’em. If you look out of the cockpit your eyes will water from the wind, otherwise.”
“What about this?” Ruth pointed at the leather skullcap she had wriggled, uncomfortably, into. It wasn’t made for someone with long hair like hers. “I’d rather do without it.”
“That’s your intercom. You can hear me through the headphones and speak into the microphone. It’s going to be pretty noisy up there, Ruth, with the open cockpit. The modern intercom will help. Just be thankful I’m not making you use the Gosport tube.”
Ruth rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay. I’ll wear it.” It seemed better to her than trying to yell into the old-fashioned communication tube which stuck out from above each cockpit’s instrument panel. It looked like something from an old ship’s engine room.
“Great. Well, let’s get going. But there’s one last thing.”
“Don’t forget your scarf.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Ruth picked the blue silk scarf up from the yellow lower wing of the Tiger Moth, where she had rested it, and put it on.
“Okay, then. Climb up into the front cockpit. Watch where you step. The wings of this old bird are covered in fabric.”
“Right,” said Ruth, nervously, as she climbed up.
“That’s it. Now, strap yourself in.”
“Yep. That’s good. Okay, we’re ready to go. I’ll just get some help to start the engine, and we’ll get going.”
“Okay,” said Ruth, in a squeaky voice, but Michael had already left to ask the bald mechanic to come and turn the prop.
Ruth wondered how she had let him talk her into this. She looked at the ancient plane she was sitting in. It was painted bright yellow, and made of wood, wire and fabric. She could see the propeller several feet in front of her, over the polished metal cowling. The wings of the old biplane were braced by wires which criss-crossed from the lower wing to the upper wing, and near the wingtips there were double struts to hold the wings apart. It all looked awfully flimsy to Ruth. Fred had never managed to get her to try flying, fifty years before, and she wondered what on earth had possessed her to let Michael talk her into it now. She wished she were sitting in the seat of a jumbo jet instead. But it was too late to back out now.
The bald mechanic came over with Michael to the Tiger Moth, stuffed the last of his sandwich into his mouth, and waited.
“Thanks, mate,” said Michael, as he turned to climb up into the rear cockpit of the biplane.
“No worries, mate.” The mechanic walked around to the front of the plane and stood by the prop.
Michael strapped himself in. Anyone looking would have seen only Ruth’s head poking out of the front cockpit and Michael’s poking out of the rear one. Michael leaned his head sideways, over the edge of the cockpit, and yelled at the mechanic. “Righto, mate. Let her rip.”
The mechanic put a meaty hand on the big prop and swung it with the kind of nonchalance that comes only from years of practice. The engine coughed into life as the mechanic stood back. He waved at Michael.
“Okay, Ruth. We’re going to start taxing out, now.”
Ruth spoke loudly into her headset, above the noise of the engine. “Okay.” She could not see Michael, for he was seated directly behind her. Nor could she touch him, for the two cockpits were completely separate. All she could hear was the reassuring sound of his voice. She tried to keep calm.
Michael released the brakes and allowed the Tiger Moth to start rolling forward along the taxiway. He pumped the rudder pedals, swinging the nose left and right to get a clear view over the big nose of the aircraft, as they slowly rolled forward towards the runway. It was a quiet afternoon at the small local airport and when Michael radioed the tower for clearance to take off, he was given permission to do so without delay.
A couple of minutes later, they were lined up at the base of the runway, ready to take off.
“Okay, Ruth. Here we go. I promise you, you are going to love this. There’s nothing to worry about. Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’m ever going to be.”
“Okay, then. Here we go.”
Michael opened the throttle wide. The propeller raced, Ruth felt the wind of it rushing past her open cockpit, and the Tiger Moth started to roll down the runway. As they gained speed, Ruth gripped her seat and hoped for the best. She wondered more than ever why she had agreed to this. She had always been afraid of small planes.
And then, all at once, the Tiger Moth was no longer on the ground. The big rubber tyres which stuck out beneath the biplane no longer carried the weight of the aircraft. They were airborne, smoothly and slowly climbing up and away from the airport. The noise, both from the engine and from the wind, was much louder than Ruth had expected. But somehow it was exhilarating, too.
“Whaddaya reckon, Ruth?”
“I ... don’t know what to say, Mike.”
Ruth yelled more loudly into her microphone. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ I didn’t know it would be like this.”
“I don’t know. Like this.”
“You don’t like it? You want me to put her down? We can land right away, if you’re scared. It’s up to you, Ruth.”
“No, no. I mean, I didn’t know it would be so much fun.”
“Fun?” said Michael, surprised.
“Yes. Mike, it’s wonderful! Can we fly over the city?”
“You betcha we can. Where do you want to go?”
“I’d like to see our house, if we can.”
“Okay. We’ll be there in a few minutes. Enjoy the view.”
Ruth looked out over the side of the cockpit, the wind blazing across her face, her scarf fluttering now and then as it got picked up in the slipstream. She looked down at the airport. It slowly receded into the distance. It was a beautiful, clear day.
“I told you, you’d love it, didn’t I?”
“You did, Mike. You were right.”
Ruth heard Michael laughing over the intercom.
Shortly, they were circling high above Ruth’s Mount Pleasant home. Ruth could see dinghies sailing on the Canning River. She could see the red roof of her house. She could see the riverside route she took on her long walks. And, most of all, she saw the city suburbs stretching out almost endlessly. She remembered coming to the city, fifty years before. There was hardly any of that, back then. How everything had grown! she thought. It made her realise how many years had passed, how long it had been.
Michael turned the Tiger Moth out to the ocean, and when they reached the beaches, he turned north and flew high above the crowded white strip of North Beach, Cottesloe and Swanbourne, staying a little out to sea so as not to annoy the people below. Houses and small apartment buildings hugged the shore, but there were almost no high-rise developments, so unlike most cities in the world which were blessed with beautiful beaches, and this pleased Ruth. She remembered the hot summer nights when she and Fred had taken the kids to the beach, all those years ago. Ruth loved this city, and she was glad that she had made it her home.
After flying for nearly an hour, Michael told Ruth it was time to return to the airport and land. To her surprise, Ruth loved the landing, floating smoothly down in the graceful, old aircraft, gently bouncing on the big tyres and rolling gradually back to a slow taxi. By the time Michael had taxied back to the hanger, switched off the engine, and was helping Ruth dismount from the front cockpit, she was bubbling with enthusiasm.
“That was fantastic! I never imagined it would be like that. Fred was right. It is magical. I should have flown years ago.”
Michael helped her step down off the lower wing and onto the ground. She had already removed her cap and goggles.
“Thank you, Mike. I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time, when you tried to talk me into it.”
“That’s okay, Ruth. But now it’s getting late. It’s time for dinner, I think. Don’t you?” He didn’t wait for her to reply. “So you might want to brush your hair, coz I’m taking you out for tea.”
“Oh, Mike. You don’t have to do that.”
“I am, Ruth. So no arguments. Have you ever been to the revolving restaurant, the one at the top of the skyscraper?”
“Mike, now don’t be silly. You don’t need to take me there.”
“You haven’t? Good. Well, that’s where we’re going.”
“But I’ve nothing to wear.”
“Sure you do. I’ll take you home first.”
Ruth found she had nothing to say to this. Two hours later, she was seated opposite Michael, watching the magnificent views of the city sweep by as the restaurant slowly rotated, thirty floors above the ground. Ruth wore a smart, brown pair of slacks, and a long-sleeved, white blouse. She still had her grey hair tied back in its customary sensible bun, although she had allowed herself to put on a little make-up, something which normally she would never bother to do. She had thought she better make the effort, since Michael had even brushed off an old suit for the occasion.
“Order anything you like, Ruth. It’s on me.”
“I fancy a bit of the lobster, actually, Mike.”
“Anything but the lobster,” Michael said seriously. Then he burst out laughing, looking at the disappointed expression on Ruth’s face. “Of course you can have the lobster. Whatever you want.”
“Don’t play with me, Mr Andrews,” Ruth replied mockingly. “If you taunt me, I shall order caviar.”
The evening seemed to race by and all at once it was over. Soon Michael was driving Ruth home and Ruth was thinking about the view from the restaurant, remembering the twinkling stars of the houses along the South Perth foreshore, across the river, the war monument rising up from the top of Kings Park, and the lights of cars racing along the freeway interchange and over the Narrows Bridge. She was thinking how pretty it all was, and how she had seen it, that day, for the first time from a little biplane and then from the revolving restaurant. It had been a great day.
“Goodnight, then, Ruth,” said Michael, when they had gotten back home and he was retiring to his room. “I hope you had a good day. I just wanted to say thanks for everything. And I hope you liked it.”
Ruth put a bony hand on Michael’s shoulder. “I loved it, Michael. Really. It was a wonderful day. Thank you. After all, you must have better things to do than take an old lady flying.”
“What old lady? I don’t see any old ladies, here.”
Ruth laughed. “You’re a terrible liar, but thanks anyway.”
That night, Ruth dreamed of Fred, and of flying.
It was a happy dream.
Michael had noticed the coughing. He had noticed Ruth working less and less in the garden, in the three days since she had gone flying. All of a sudden, Ruth sounded like a two-pack-a-day smoker, and she had never touched a cigarette in her life. The nights were the hardest part. Michael could hear her coughing, even with the door to his bedroom closed.
In his heart, Michael knew what this meant. He knew that things must have been getting dramatically worse for Ruth, that her body must have suddenly tipped out of balance, finally defeated by the cancer inside her. He knew it must be the beginning of the end. In his heart, he knew these things. In his mind, he denied it.
Michael had quizzed Ruth about the coughing. She had been to see her doctor on Friday. He had given her new medication. But the cough continued to worsen. All of a sudden, Ruth was looking very old. It was a transformation that Michael tried to ignore. Still, he had argued with Ruth and had tried to get her to see another doctor.
He remembered what she had said.
“My doctor is a perfectly good doctor, Michael. He’s doing the best he can. The pills just don’t work any more.”
“Come on, Ruth!” he had replied, “We can find another doctor, try something new. Surely they can fix a cough.”
Ruth had looked at him as if he were the one to be pitied, as if it were he, not she, who was in trouble. “It’s not a cough, Michael. It’s more than a cough. I have cancer.”
But now, on Sunday morning, his mind could no longer ignore what his heart knew to be true, because Ruth didn’t get out of bed. They had taken to eating every meal together, whenever Michael was home, but when he went to the kitchen for breakfast that morning, Ruth was not there. He thought she was probably sleeping in, so he went to her room and knocked.
“Ruth! Are you in there?”
The voice that replied was soft. “Michael?”
“Are you coming out for breakfast?”
“Michael, could you come in here, please?”
Puzzled, Michael slowly opened the door.
Ruth was in bed, sitting up against the headboard. She looked disorientated. Michael was horrified. “Ruth – are you okay?”
“No, Mike. I can’t get up. I ... can’t get up.”
Ruth seemed embarrassed, but when Michael thought about it months later, he decided it was not so much embarrassment as annoyance that was in her voice. Ruth was an independent woman. Her illness had finally taken that independence from her.
“Can you help me up, Mike?”
Michael rushed over to her. “Take my hand. It’s okay. We’ll get you up.” With an effort, he swung Ruth’s tired body around until she was sitting with her legs dangling weakly off the edge of the bed. Her feet hung down beneath the hem of her nightgown. “Okay. There we go. How do you feel?”
Ruth took a deep breath. It was a mistake. Before she could answer, she was caught in a paroxysm of coughing. At last, she spoke. “Something’s wrong, Michael. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t seem to move them. We’ll have to go to the hospital. Damn it.”
Michael nodded. “Okay, okay. I’ll get you there.”
Ruth hung her head down in despair. “I was hoping it wasn’t going to be like this, Mike. I didn’t want this. Not like this.”
Michael didn’t know what to say. “I’ll phone for an ambulance, Ruth. We’ll have you there in a jiffy.”
Fifteen minutes later, the peaceful riverside suburb was disturbed by the insistent siren of an ambulance racing along the river road towards the city. Michael sat in the back of the ambulance with Ruth, a trip which forever burned the noise of that siren into his memory. For years afterwards, he could never hear that kind of siren without thinking of that terrible, final trip together, even though Ruth’s condition did stabilise when they treated her in the hospital, and she did regain some movement in her legs.
Michael visited Ruth every day, twice a day. The doctors wouldn’t let him stay any longer than that. The sight of Ruth broke Michael’s heart. He didn’t understand the doctors’ explanations, that metastatic cancer had spread into Ruth’s spinal cord, cutting off part of the nerve supply to her legs. He didn’t really know what they meant by ‘pulmonary oedema’ causing her coughing. He really only heard one thing the oncologist had said.
“We’re sorry, Mr Andrews, but the cancer has spread to nearly every part of the lungs. You can see it on the X-ray, here, here, and here. It’s a miracle that she has made it this far.”
“What are you saying? That it’s hopeless?”
The oncologist was an old man himself. His hair was dark grey and neatly cropped. He stooped a little, in his white laboratory coat. His skin was olive brown and his eyes were dark. His face was Chinese. Michael would always remember this face, remember the eyes looking at him kindly, remember the quiet expression of sympathy as he spoke the words. “Yes, I’m sorry. She has a few days, at most. There’s nothing more we can do.”
Michael couldn’t accept this. “Nothing? But ...”
Dr Cheng had looked calmly at Michael. “We will keep her as comfortable as we can. But I can’t stop the cancer any more.”
The old doctor had arranged for Ruth to be moved to a private hospital, once the scans and tests had all been completed. Ruth was happy to be out of the oncology ward, which had been filled with so many other desperately ill people. She slept most of the time, but she was pleased to see Michael every morning and night in the new privacy of her own hospital room. There was a television, which she rarely watched, and a stack of books, which Michael would constantly refresh. Michael tried to stay cheerful, when he visited her, but the sight of Ruth getting dramatically thinner, her wrinkled skin sunken over the hollows of her cheeks, and her complexion turning an orangish grey, broke his heart.
“I brought you some music,” he said one day, holding a tiny tape deck. “As long as you promise not to play it too loud. You might wake up the nurses.”
Ruth laughed, and coughed. “As long as you didn’t bring me any of that modern rubbish. I’m too old for rap music.”
“I got Glen Miller. Big band.”
Ruth took the tape, and smiled. “You remembered?”
“Yeah. You made me dance to it. I remember.”
“Fred and I used to go dancing, you know. After the war. That’s how we met. I met him at a dance in the school hall. The other teachers were jealous. He was a dashing young man.”
Michael felt a tear well up in his eye. “Really?”
“Oh yes, Michael. When I saw Fred, I knew he was something special. I knew.”
Michael tried to smile.
“Are you okay, Michael? Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes. Yeah, I ... It’s just a little hard, you know.”
Ruth reached a hand across her bed and patted his hand.
Michael felt a stab of guilt. Here he was, visiting a dying woman, and she was the one consoling him. She was the greatest woman he had ever met, apart from Marie.
“I heard from Claire today,” said Ruth.
“Yes, my good-for-nothing daughter. She’s living in Canada with that wealthy engineer of hers. She didn’t learn a thing from Sally’s death, you know, Michael. She didn’t learn a thing. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong at all. When that bastard husband of hers had finished beating my granddaughter and he died, she cried for him. She used to tell me how much she missed him. You know, Mike, she never cried for Sally’s beatings. She never cried for all the terror, all the pain her daughter went through. She just lied and covered it all up. I’ll never forgive her for that.”
“Is she coming to Perth?”
“She’ll be here in time to read the will. You can bet on that.”
“I never had any children,” Michael said, to change the subject. “Marie and I were thinking of trying, before the accident.”
“Yeah. Marie was saying that it was time.”
“Did you want kids, Mike?”
“Yeah. I wanted them.”
“Hmmm. I thought you would.”
“Well, there’s still time, isn’t there?”
Ruth was surprised by his sudden optimism. “Yes, there is.”
As the days passed, Ruth had more and more trouble talking. She coughed incessantly. Michael would simply talk to her, or read books for her. It was obvious, even to him, that the end was very near. He wondered how much longer there was left.
“There’s no time left.” That’s what Ruth had told him, when he asked her how she was feeling, two weeks after she had gone into hospital. “There’s no time left, Michael.”
“What do you mean?”
“I haven’t been talking much, have I? I’ve just been listening.” Ruth’s voice was a whisper, between coughs. She hadn’t walked since the day Michael had taken her to hospital.
“No, you don’t understand. It’s because of the pain.”
“The pain. It feels like there’s a fire in my chest, like someone is twisting me inside. That’s why I haven’t said much. It hurts to speak.”
“Oh, God, Ruth. Why didn’t you tell me? ”
Ruth cried, now. Michael had never seen her cry. It disturbed him, deeply, to see the iron-strong old lady crying. He just leaned across and hugged her, the first time he had ever hugged her. He held her for a long time. “Oh, Ruth. It’s going to be okay. It’ll be okay.”
Eventually, Ruth made him go back to his chair. “We need to talk, Mike. We need to talk, now. There’s no time left.”
“Okay, Ruth. What? What can I do?”
“Michael, you have to understand. I’m dying, now. I’ll never make it though another week. You know that. This is my last week.”
“Oh, Ruth.” Michael was crying, softly. “I know. I know it.”
“Mike, I can’t ... I can’t take the pain any more. It’s getting worse. It’s getting much worse.”
“Oh, for God’s sake Ruth, why didn’t you tell me? I’ll get you some morphine, something, I’ll talk to Dr Cheng. Ruth ...”
Ruth looked at him in silence. Her eyes were dull. Her face was that of a skeleton. She was a dying woman, a couple of days away from her own death. Her words chilled Michael to the bone, when she finally said, “I’m already on morphine, Mike.”
They were just five words, but Michael knew. “You’re ... already taking it? Doesn’t it stop the pain?”
Ruth shook her head. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Michael couldn’t say anything. He knew what she would say.
“The pain never stops, Michael. I can’t ... I can’t take it any longer. This isn’t the way I want to die. Not like this. So, I want you to promise me something.”
“When I get worse, and I will get worse, I want you to tell them to increase my morphine. They’ll say it isn’t safe. They’ll say it could stop me breathing. But you have to make them do it. Do you understand, Mike? I don’t want die slowly, like this. I don’t want any more pain.”
Michael hugged her again, sobbing. Ruth coughed as she cried, embraced by the only person in the world who truly loved her. Finally, Michael said, “I understand, Ruth. You have my word.”
“Thank you. Thank you, Mike.”
“You know, I love you. You know that, Ruth, don’t you?”
“I know, Mike.” Ruth looked terribly tired.
Michael stayed with her, until she fell asleep.
The next day, Ruth didn’t wake up. Not fully. Michael was there in the morning for her, but she was only half-conscious. She rolled in her bed, tossing from side to side. Her breathing was terrible. Michael could hear the crackling sound of fluid in her lungs with every breath. All the drugs in her intravenous fluid line, which flowed into the catheter in her arm, were no longer helping her. And Michael knew that even the morphine was not enough. He could hear Ruth groaning deliriously, at times when she became more conscious. The oxygen she needed to supply her failing lungs was supplied through a small plastic tube that ran under her nostrils. The nurses and young doctors came into the room frequently, to check the oxygen and the drip, but there was nothing more they could do.
They let Michael stay all day, on that sad Tuesday.
At three o’clock, Ruth came out of her sleep and spoke to Michael for the last time. She seemed confused.
The young doctors had told Michael that Ruth would not live more than three days. Michael knew how long those three days would be for her, like this, how long, and how inexpressibly painful.
Ruth suddenly saw Michael’s face come into focus. “Michael.”
Michael tried to smile, but his smile was wet with tears.
“Michael, I’m glad you’re here,” Ruth whispered.
“Me too,” Michael said, stupidly.
“Michael, I’ve left something for you. You’ll find it in my room, in the top drawer. I told Dr Cheng to tell you about it, but now I can tell you myself. I didn’t ... I didn’t know if I’d be able ...”
“It’s okay, Ruth. I hear you. What is it?”
“In the top drawer Michael. In the top drawer.”
“Okay. I’ll find it. Don’t worry, I’ll find it.”
“Michael, don’t let them keep me going like this.”
“Michael, you know I have always held onto life.”
“I’ve never given up. I’ve ... never given up. I never would ...”
“But there’s too much pain. Everything is pain. Do you understand? Everything is pain. There’s no escape from it. I can’t fight it, even when I’m asleep. It’s there when I sleep.”
“Dear God, Ruth.”
“You promised me, Michael. You remember?”
“I remember.” The pleading in Ruth’s eyes broke his heart.
“Tell Dr Cheng. Tell him, Michael. You have to tell him ...” Her words crumbled into disarray as the pain took her over again. She never said another thing that Michael could understand, she just fell back into her fitful sleep, her nightmare world of confusion.
An hour later, Michael had summoned Dr Cheng. He made the old doctor follow him to a quiet corner of the hospital, at the end of an empty seminar room where no one would hear them. He told the doctor of Ruth’s wish not to go on any longer. He told him about the pain, which the young doctors had not been able to stop. He told him that Ruth wanted the morphine dose increased, so that she would not wake up again. He told him she could not bear the pain.
“I understand,” said the old doctor. “She has only two days, maybe three. She will pass away soon. I’m so sorry.”
“No, no. You don’t understand, doctor. She doesn’t want to die like that. She doesn’t want to die so slowly, in so much pain. She told me that the pain never leaves her. Even when she’s asleep, the pain comes to her like a nightmare. She’s in agony.”
“What do you want from me, Mr Andrews?”
“I want you to grant Ruth’s last wish, what she told me to ask you. You have to increase her morphine, so she doesn’t gain consciousness again. You have to stop the pain, doctor.”
“Mr Andrews, her morphine is already as high as we can go. If we increase the dose any further, it could be fatal.”
Michael shook his head in exasperation. He turned away from the old doctor, then he spun around to face him again. “Fatal? For God’s sake, she’s dying! She’s dying, and she’s in pain.”
“Yes, she is dying. We’re doing all we can.”
“All you can? All you can? Can you save her? Can you save her life? Is there any chance that she will live?”
“No. I can’t save her. No one can.”
Michael raised his voice as loudly as he dared. “Then, for God’s sake, show some mercy. Don’t put her through this. Don’t make her suffer right to the last moment. Give her the morphine.”
“You’re asking me to put my patient’s life at risk. I can’t do that, Mr Andrews. It’s against the law. It’s not my decision.”
“Against the law? This old woman is the greatest, kindest person I’ve ever known in my life. She saved my life! I’m alive because of her. Now all she wants is to die with a shred of dignity. She just wants the pain to stop. Tell me you know that’s right, doctor. Don’t tell me about the law. Tell me what you know is right, in your heart.”
“My heart, Mr Andrews, and the law, are two different things. I can’t break the law. If I do, and they find out, they won’t let me practise. I won’t be able to help any more patients. I can’t do it.”
“There’s a patient, right here in this hospital, dying in agony, and she needs your help. She needs your help.” Michael could see the old doctor was unmoved. “This is my friend, dying. She’s asking for help. For God’s sake, a dog would die better than this! A dog would get more mercy. Please, doctor, please ... just help her.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Andrews, but this conversation is over.”
That night, Ruth’s moaning nearly drove Michael mad. He couldn’t even imagine what kind of pain she must have been going through, what kind of nightmares. The nurses that came to tend to her gave Michael sideways looks of sympathy. They knew it was wrong. They knew what Ruth wanted. She had told them, too. Michael knew that Ruth must have known that Dr Cheng might not listen, otherwise she would have simply have told the doctor himself. So when one of the young doctors came, late that night, Michael decided to ask her. The doctor must have been about twenty-nine, only a few years older than Sally was when she had died. She was short, had dark, curly, brown hair and a slight build.
The young doctor examined Ruth, frowning. She let out a heavy sigh and turned to Michael. “How long has she been like this?”
“All day, doctor. All day.”
“She’s sweating. Her heart rate is up. She’s not even fully unconscious. She looks like she’s in a lot of pain.”
“She told me she was, a couple of days ago. And she was nowhere near as bad as this, then.”
“The nurses tell me she requested more morphine. Is that correct, Mr Andrews?”
“Yes. She didn’t want to die like this, not in this kind of pain. She told me she wanted her morphine increased, so that she wouldn’t wake up. Can’t you help her, doctor? She’s dying. Please, I’m begging you. Don’t make her die slowly, in agony, like this. Please.”
The young doctor looked at Michael, without a word. She looked at Ruth’s pain-racked body on the bed. Then she looked closely at Ruth’s chart. “This morphine dose looks low, to me.”
“What? Sorry, what did you say?”
“The dose she’s been getting. It looks a little low. It’s obviously not controlling her pain.”
“But Dr Cheng said it was a high dose.”
The young doctor ignored him. “I think we’ll need to give her a higher dose, right away. She’s in terrible pain.”
“Now, you understand, Mr Andrews, that Ruth is dying. These are her last hours. She needs more morphine to control the pain, but there is ... some risk that the drug could be too much for her. It’s possible that it might bring on respiratory arrest faster than might occur without the drug. But it will stop the pain.”
“You mean, she could stop breathing.”
“She will stop breathing, Mr Andrews. It’s only a matter of time. There’s no question of that. Ruth is dying. The only difference the morphine will make, at a higher dose, is to stop the pain. As it stands, she has hours to live. With more morphine, it could be a little less.”
Michael realised she was trying to help Ruth. “Just don’t let her die like this, doctor. She didn’t want to go in agony, like this.”
The young doctor looked at Ruth. There was pain and anguish in Ruth’s barely conscious face, and there was no escape from the pain. “As I said, Mr Andrews, this morphine dose is a little low. We’d better give her some more.” She put her hand on Michael’s arm. “Don’t you think?”
Michael sighed in relief. “Yes. Yes, that was her wish.”
Mercy came, for Ruth, when the young doctor summoned one of the nurses to bring more morphine. The young doctor injected it slowly into the port of the drip set. The drug flowed down into Ruth’s arm-vein and from there to her heart and to her brain. A great relaxation came over Ruth’s restless body, she lay still, and her breathing settled down into a regular rhythm. The tensed muscles of her face, the look of pain and anguish, disappeared. Ruth’s face looked relaxed. She was very deeply sedated.
“Thank you, doctor. Thank you,” said Michael.
“Nothing to thank me for, Mr Andrews. I just think this is a more appropriate dose of morphine for the severity of her pain.”
“I understand.” Michael did not say what he understood. He did not say that he knew the young doctor was speaking in riddles, letting him know that she had granted Ruth’s wish to die peacefully.
“All right then, Mr Andrews.” And the young doctor was gone.
Michael stayed with Ruth that night. It was four hours later, at 3:15 am, when Ruth’s regular, crackly breathing slowed down. Her heartbeat became slow and erratic, also, which triggered the alarm on the bedside monitor. Within a minute, two nurses had arrived in the room. A minute later, the young doctor had returned.
She examined Ruth carefully, before she spoke.
“She’s going into respiratory arrest.”
One nurse held an oxygen mask over Ruth’s face, while the young doctor injected a respiratory stimulant into her IV line.
Michael managed to hold Ruth’s limp hand, despite the activity of the nurses and doctor around him. As she stopped breathing completely, he bowed his head and cried.
The other nurse grabbed an endotracheal tube, ready for the doctor to insert it into Ruth’s windpipe, so they could ventilate her lungs artificially, but the young doctor waved her away.
“No,” said the young doctor. “She left written instructions that she was not to be revived. She didn’t want artificial ventilation.”
The nurse nodded and put the tube down.
“Goodbye, Ruth,” Michael whispered, close to her face, but he knew that she could not hear him. “Goodbye.”
The young doctor looked at the heart monitor one last time, then turned off its noisy alarm. The display showed a flat line, no heartbeat at all. Ruth had passed away. Her pain had ceased four hours earlier, with the higher dose of morphine. The last four hours of her life had been peaceful sleep. She had been granted her final wish.
Michael cried, in devastation, leaning over her body.
Time seemed to stand still.
He didn’t even notice the others leave.
And then he was alone, with Ruth, and with his tears.
Michael drove away from the hospital for the last time. The city streets were deserted and dark. When he reached Ruth’s house, he let himself in at the front door. He had to fumble with the keys in the darkness before he found the right one. He wandered through to the kitchen and looked around, trying to let it sink in that Ruth was gone, remembering the meals they had shared here together, remembering the conversations. He walked through the hallways of the house for a few minutes, then went into the library and looked at Ruth’s pictures on the mantelpiece. And then he went to his bedroom, lay down on the bed, in a state of shock and exhaustion and disbelief, and fell asleep. His sleep was deep. He did not dream.
It was after midday when he finally woke again.
It was hot, and it was the heat of the day which roused him.
Michael got up, feeling like hell, and went to the small bathroom, the same one that he had always used, and showered. He ran the water cool over his body. He stood there for a long time, letting the cold water wash away the sweat from the long, hot sleep. His face was covered in rough stubble, but he didn’t bother to shave. Eating a cold breakfast at the big kitchen table, Michael remembered what Ruth had told him. He had to go to her room. There was something for him there.
When he had finished eating, Michael went to Ruth’s room. Her bed was neatly made, the way he had made it the day after he had taken her to hospital. It seemed such a crime to Michael, that she was not here. This was her room. This was her house. It was where she lived, where she belonged. But she would never be here again. It just seemed wrong. It seemed empty.
Michael went to the chest of drawers next to the bed. He slid open the top drawer, slowly, and looked inside. There was an envelope with his first name on it. He sat down on Ruth’s bed and turned the envelope over in his hands. He realised that Ruth must have written it before she went into hospital, days before the terrible morning when she could not get out of bed. She must have written it to be ready, to make sure she could say what she wanted to tell him. She must have known it would all happen as it did. Finally, he ripped the envelope open and read the letter.
Thursday, 5 March, 1998
Michael, my dear friend,
I know this must be hard for you. But before you read on, I hope you will stop to think of the times we lived together, the things we taught each other, and how far we have come. I hope you will stop to think about the life we shared for a while, rather than the death which has ended it. I’m an old lady, Michael, and I have lived a long and full life. Your life is just beginning. Please make that new beginning a good one. That is my dearest wish for you.
Although I’ve only known you for a few months, you have become like a son to me, dear Michael, and I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to me, to see you get well. I’ve known bad men, and the cruel things they have done, terrible things, and I’ve known good men like you, men who have done wonderful things, things which inspire me, men who have everything good in their heart and sometimes don’t even really know it. You are a good man, Michael Andrews.
I hope, one day, you find someone you love again, Michael, and I hope that you will have children, if that is your wish – I think it probably is – because you would make a wonderful father. I only wish that my granddaughter could have been lucky enough to have had a father like you. I am sure that if she did, she would still be here today. And I am sure that she would have been glad that you have read her diaries and that you have learned something from them, most of all that you are still here, Michael, still alive. I want you to keep those diaries. I leave them, and Sally’s memory, to you.
Dear Michael, thank you so much for taking me flying yesterday. I haven’t felt so excited, so young, in years! You took me back half a century, Mike. You took me back to my early days with Fred. You reminded me how good it is to have someone in my life again, to have a friend like you. I only wish that I might have had a little more time to enjoy flying with you, but I thank you for taking the trouble to talk an old lady into trying something she should never have been afraid of. It was wonderful. Please promise me that you will continue to fly, because I know how much you love it, and that you will continue to show others how to fly, because you are a great teacher. And I learned something from you.
I love you very dearly, Michael Andrews. I think you are a wonderful man. Please be happy, not sad, because happiness is what a man like you deserves. Remember that.
Thank you for your friendship.
You will always have mine.
With much love,
Michael stayed in Ruth’s house three more weeks. In the hospital, Ruth had encouraged him to stay on as long as he liked. And he did. It gave him time to put all the pieces of his life back together, gave him time to think about Ruth and to come to accept her death. In his heart, she would always be alive as part of his life, just as Marie always would, just as Ian and Diane always would. Ruth was the friend who saved his life in his hour of need and taught him how to live again. And slowly he found that she was right – he could think more of the time they shared together and of the goodness in that, than of the death that separated them and of the tragedy in that. The time they shared had been not quite one third of a year long.
And when the day came to lock up Ruth’s house and hand over the keys to the young woman solicitor who was the executor of her will, who would hold the house until Claire arrived from Canada to have it sold, Michael even found he could smile, as he locked the front door for the last time. He found, the last time that he left that house, that his face was creased with the lines of a wistful smile, not the lines of grief.
Michael handed the keys to the solicitor.
“Don’t worry, Mr Andrews. We have a security firm to look after the property. It’ll be quite safe until Mrs MacDonald’s daughter arrives. Did you get everything she wanted you to have?”
Michael held Sally’s diaries, and a framed photograph of Ruth and Sally. “Yes, thanks. I did. What about her car? Has that been taken care of?”
“Yes. It’s going into a security lot this afternoon.”
“Okay. That’s everything, then. Did you ... know Ruth?”
The solicitor shook her head. “Not really. She came into the office about a year ago, to update her will. I don’t think her daughter will be too happy about it, though.”
“Well, originally she left the house and all her possessions to her daughter, Claire. But when she came in last year, she changed her will completely. The new document leaves one-third of the sale value of the property to Claire, and two-thirds to a registered charity.” The solicitor looked down at her notebook. “It’s called, um, the Young Hope Centre. Apparently it’s a halfway house for kids from violent homes. It provides counselling and emergency accommodation.”
“Ah,” said Michael. “That makes sense. She had a granddaughter who was bashed by her father.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“You lived here for a while, then?”
“Just a few months. It’s a pity you didn’t know Ruth. She was a top lady.”
“I’m sure she was.”
Michael took one last look around him. He looked out over the front garden to the river. “Well, I’d better get going. I’ve got a house of my own to get back to. Nice meeting you.”
“You too, Mr Andrews.”
Michael smiled one of his charming smiles and got into his car.
The solicitor watched him drive away.
Ruth had left instructions that she didn’t want a formal funeral. Her body had been cremated and the ashes were commemorated by a plaque at Karrakatta Cemetery, in the shade of a line of eucalyptus trees, next to the plaque which commemorated Sally. Two months after Ruth’s death, Michael went to visit that place. He left a bunch of flowers for Ruth and another for Sally, and he walked through the grounds and thought of Ruth, with a smile. He was a fortunate man to have met her, and a happier man for it. But when he really wanted to remember Ruth, he would walk along the Canning River, the same walk that Ruth used to take for so many years, or he would fly above her old house and think of her joy at her first time flying in a Tiger Moth. And he would think of her wish for him, that he be happy. And he was happy, or at least, learning to be happy again.
He was living in his own home again, the home that he and Marie had shared. And when he thought of Marie, when he looked at her pictures, at her clothes in the wardrobe, her things in the bathroom, her books in her study, he remembered the good times, and, as his friends used to say, what a lucky bastard he really was. He had lived a wonderful life with Marie for fifteen years. And he had known much laughter and many good times with his friends, Ian and Diane. For fifteen years, he had lived a charmed life. And while it was true that the spell had been broken, it was still true that he had known the very best of life, and that both Ruth and Marie would have wanted him to know the very best of life again. It would be many more months before Michael would be ready to love someone new, but one day he knew he would be ready, and he looked forward to that day.
By June, he had begun work as a flight instructor at the local airport, the same one from which he had flown Ruth in the Tiger Moth. His old job at the charter company would be coming up again in July, when the replacement pilot returned to Sydney, and in the meantime Michael wanted to keep busy, so he had asked an old friend, who owned the flight school, if he could volunteer to teach a few students for three or four weeks.
And so it was, one chilly day in June, that Michael found himself sitting in the familiar cockpit of a Cessna 172, with an eighteen-year-old girl who was excited about having made her first landing.
There was a glint of light in her pale blue eyes and an excited smile on her freckled face. “That was wicked! Unreal!”
“Okay,” said Michael, calmly. “Don’t forget where you are. Look around for other aircraft. Let’s taxi back to the hanger.”
Michael smiled. “That’s okay. It was a good landing, Kylie.”
“It was, wasn’t it?”
“Yup. It was. Well done.”
Michael looked at the young girl, her red hair pulled back into a tidy ponytail, her face a picture of joy. He heard her words.
“Ha! I knew I could do it! I knew it.”