Sweet Mercy Leads Me On
    Tom Saunders
I look around the ward. Muted light shines in through the windows, but it's difficult to believe in the world outside. None of us belong there any more. Sick, is what and who we are. Our bodies have turned against us. We have become our own worst enemies.

I've a bet with Chalmers in bed three about who'll be the next to go. The odds have shortened recently on Bleacher in bed six and Poole in nine. The machines have got them, the tubes and the pumps, the external technology. Once the machines get you, it's only a matter of time before you're on god's gurney and on your way to Intensive Care. Very few patients make it back from Intensive Care.

I'm in bed two. Chalmers is on my left. His skin is a yellowy grey, the colour of an old bruise. It's stretched tight over his cheekbones and around his eyes and this gives him a startled look. You wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night. He reminds me of a zombie in a horror movie-but then we all do. He arrived here a week after me and already I owe him several million pounds. Betting huge amounts is the kind of thing that amuses us. Chalmers is going to buy himself a football team with his winnings. Just a small one, though. He doesn't want to be greedy.

"Will you interfere in the running of the club?" I ask him.

"Don't all chairmen?" he replies.

"Yes, but they always start off saying they won't."

"True," he says, nodding. "But I've earned the right to be honest."

Chalmers has a large family-a wife, three daughters, a mother and several brothers. They take it in turns to come in from the waiting room as the doctors don't like too many people around a bed at one time. His wife and daughters are beautiful with emotion, softened by it, their sad eyes profound. I want to be brave in their presence. They bring the smell of health and flowers with them. The click-clicking of their heels on the floor lifts the day. When you're as weak as I am, you're tempted to hear it as the hoof beats of the cavalry coming over the hill. It isn't, of course.

Mirabelle, one of the daughters comes to sit by my bed this evening. I suspect Chalmers has said something to her about me, an old man who has outlived his context. She's a personnel officer for a small computer soft-ware company and she has a professional smile. We chat about the weather and I tell her the gossip on the ward. Whenever I get the opportunity, I stare at her legs. They go all the way up to places, shadowy places, I should be too exhausted to think about. I don't want to look, but I can't stop myself-it's like a duty, like not giving in. And there's an amazing absence of guilt. She should be more careful in these skirts she wears. You're safe, is what I take her to be saying, neither a threat nor a promise.

In my illness, I've become invisible as a man. Is this how a priest or a doctor feels? Probably not. They, at least, have the gratification of being seen as a challenge.

Chalmer's family goes and he wins another million on Poole in bed nine. He tells me that the happiest day of his life was when his boss at work was given the sack. He begins to cough again, so the nurses raise the bed and prop him up against his pillows. I'm flat on my back, tucked in firmly, and I can only see him by turning my head, which I don't choose to do. He talks to me anyway. I feel as though he'd talk to me if I wasn't even here.

"I know," he says, "I should say the day I got married and the births of my kids. But those felt rightful, you know, planned for, like part of the journey-like sweet places you've stopped off at and can always see again."

He pauses for a second and then continues with a shrug. "While Patto getting the boot was happiness out of the blue, something extra, a gift, a bit of the true justice you dream of your whole life but never think you'll see."

Now I'm lying awake trying to think of when I was at my happiest. Because of the drugs I've been given it's difficult to focus on anything but the present. My thoughts zigzag back and forth like a dog let loose in a park, picking up a scent only to discard it when a better one comes along. I'm going to have to try harder . . .

One day is suddenly with me. One evening. Clear as anything. Almost like I was back there. It was when Natalie was alive and we were travelling around the Lake District. We were sitting outside a pub in Coniston. The mountain, The Old Man, wide and hump-shouldered above us. We'd eaten and we were lingering over a drink before leaving. The sun was going down and the lights in the garden were attracting moths, shadows flickering with the beat of their wings. The air was cool and still, breathable again, the day having been hot and smothering. When I smiled at Natalie she smiled back, a feeling passing between us. We watched and listened and enjoyed our silence. We sipped our drinks. Our hips were warm where they touched. Nothing seemed out of place. The two young couples on the next table were laughing, sharing a joke amongst themselves without revealing it. They reminded me of happy children.

Earlier, Natalie and I had visited the small museum in the town to look at the drawings and letters of Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, who had lived in the house Brantwood on the other side of the lake. The sketches, some executed quickly in pen, others worked up with pale washes of water-colour, were very skilful, revealing a loving eye for architecture and scenery. Each carved stone and column, each tree and leaf and eddy of water, had been recorded with obsessive concentration. We had the place to ourselves and we spent a long time looking. After a while, a strange numbness came over me. It was as if I'd disappeared, as if Ruskin's thoughts were my thoughts.

In one of the glass cases-I can see it clearly, the woodwork is painted green, the surface chipped and worn-there were some of the letters Ruskin had written to the little girl he had fallen in love with in later life. A paper love, safely sealed inside envelopes, never tarnished, never tainted by proximity. They were innocent and touching and, of course, pathetic, which was to be expected, but they also complicated the man, made him less solid, more mysterious.

Later in the pub, looking up to see the sky opening to darkness and distance, I realised I was glad to be who I was, glad to be anonymous. Natalie was well, I was well, our stomachs were full and our heads were blurry with alcohol, above our table there were trees, mountains, stars. Everything was ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Perfection, even if it was fugitive, was a simple thing. So simple. The mind could be at rest.

I'm dreaming of health and flowers, of Chalmers and his visitors. I wake to darkness, to the sick smell of the ward. I hear heels clicking rhythmically on the floor. When I glance in the direction of the nurse's station, I see Stan, one of our male nurses, dancing by himself in the pool of light from the lamp on the desk. At first, I think he's wearing a stethoscope, but then I see the shape of the Walkman he's holding to his chest. Wires run up to the ear-pieces in his ears. His eyes are closed and he seems to be counting under his breath, repeating the same move over and over: one, two, three, four steps forward, one, two, three, four steps back, followed by a slow spin. With each step he wiggles his hips as if he's drying himself with an invisible towel. He is on his own, but complete.

When I look over at Chalmers, I can see the wet glint of his eyes in the dark. I wait for him to gain control before asking him if he's all right.

"Never worse," he replies.

Now that he has my attention, he nods over at bed six. "Bleacher woke up earlier," he says. "Caused quite a commotion."

"Was he able to speak?" I say.

Chalmers shakes his head. "No, but he's looking pretty good to me."

"By that you mean bad?"

"No, good. Good for you, bad for me. Bed eight might be next. You could be on for your first win."

"You think so?"


After coughing and clearing his throat, then spitting into a tissue, he adds: "Well, you had to get lucky some time."

Tom Saunders lives in Oxfordshire, English with his wife Jean. He began writing in his mid-thirties while taking an English degree as a mature student (he left school at sixteen) at Kingston Polytechnic. Later, he went on to do an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. His tutors there were novelists Malcolm Bradbury and the late great Angela Carter.

His stories have been published in UK print magazines Panurge, Acclaim, Inkshed and Voyage. In 1995 he was an award winner in the Ian St James international short story competition and his story The Philosopher Nabel at the Kaffeehaus Eleganz was published in the anthology Pleasure Vessels (still available).

On the net he's had stories published in the excellent MindKites and in Zoetrope All-Story Extra,January 2000.


In Posse: Potentially, might be ...