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An excerpt from

The Half Life of Joshua Jones

Danny Scheinmann

CHAPTER 4

As I entered the hospital the smell of bleach bruised my nostrils. All municipal buildings smell in varying degrees of the same cheap disinfectant. The degree of odour depends on the frequency of application. Top of the list are hospitals closely followed by schools. Armies of cleaners patrol the corridors at night with buckets and mops removing germs and replacing them with low grade poison that is slowly ingested by the workforce, patients and pupils giving them eczemas, asthmas and cancers.

Angela was now in a ward on the third floor, attached to a drip and a heart monitor. Still unconscious. She looked like a broken toy, this girl who had entered my life in such dramatic fashion. A bandage covered her left eye. Her right leg was in plaster and had been carefully propped up on pillows. A red graze stained her cheek like a squashed strawberry. The room contained eight other beds with curtains between them, some open, some closed. A frail African woman who looked as old as the moon was snoring opposite and a pallid looking teenager with a slash from ear to mouth was chatting to her mother to my right.

A fly sat listlessly on the window behind the bed. The distant hum of traffic blended with the gentle throb of monitors and the indistinct hubbub of hospital life. I felt indescribably lost. My attention fell upon my silent audience of one. I examined her delicate features, her fine brown eyelashes, the soft downy skin on her ear lobe, the quizzical half smile on her pale lips.

“What am I doing here, Angela? Since you kissed me everything’s gone haywire… no one’s ever kissed me like that before… I didn’t understand what you were doing… I thought we’d found a connection, I didn’t know you were about to… Maybe you were saying goodbye to life… maybe it was an act of charity or the last bounce on the diving board before the big leap. Whatever it was I don’t suppose you even stopped to think what that kiss would do to me. There’s so much I want to talk to you about Angela. Please wake up.”

I took her hand in mine and rubbed it. I felt the weal of a scar on her wrist. I rolled her arm over and saw a ladder of knife cuts, long since healed, rising up to her bicep.

“Oh Angela,” I whispered, “so many cuts, what have you done to yourself? I don’t even know who you are? Where are your parents? Where are your friends? Why is there no one here but me? Maybe they don’t know you’re here?”

I became aware of a presence behind me. I swivelled round to see a man staring at me from across the ward. He was an elegant, slender man in his forties with a brush of brown hair. In his hand was a notebook and a pen. He seemed to be weighing my turbulent soul in his eyes. He smiled sympathetically as if he had heard my lament, although I don’t think he could have done from where he was standing, then he began to scribble something in his pad. He wore no identification badge and did not appear to be a doctor, nor did he seem attached to any particular patient. He could have been making an entry in the book of life: a tiny observation on the fragility of hope, but I took him to be no more than a hospital administrator checking up on the availability of beds or some such duty.

I felt the middle finger of Angela’s left hand twitch as if she wanted my attention. I turned back to her.

“You can move that finger. Maybe you can hear me. If you can hear me move it again.”

I waited. After a moment it twitched again.

“Ooh, you can hear me...or was that just random? Can you move anything else? Go on try?”

I watched her intently.

“Come on, you can do it.”

Her chest rose and fell and I thought I noticed a subtle acceleration in the rhythm of her breath.

“You’re trying aren’t you? You want to tell me something? Ok let’s go again. Move your finger for me.”

Nothing came, I focused all my attention on the middle finger of her left hand and then after a minute or so it twitched again.

“I’m going to take that as a sign. So now we can talk, Angela. That’s good. I’m going to ask you a question and you answer with your finger, OK?”

It took me a moment to think of something to ask.

“Er..can you…”

There was a twitch before I had even asked the question. “Oh, am I being silly? You’re just twitching around aren’t you? It’s got nothing to do with me has it?”

She twitched again.

“Angela, you’re driving me crazy here. Can you hear me, yes or no?”

She did a double twitch.

“What does that mean? Oh I know, how about you do one twitch for yes, two for no, OK? Or is that too difficult?”

I waited patiently for a sign but nothing came. It did not occur to me that I might have been asking too many questions at once.

“Maybe we’ll try again later… So what shall we do now huh?… I know, I can tell you a story, that way you won’t need to answer any questions. When I was a kid one of my primary school teachers was a part-time liberal rabbi called Rabbi Feldenberg. He was the only Jew in the school. He was my favourite teacher, because he turned everything in to a story, even multiplication tables had a narrative like four blind men wearing eight mittens bought twelve eggs for their sixteen grandchildren who would play twenty questions twenty four hours a day during the twenty eight days of February and so on. He would do mysterious things like disappear early on a Friday in winter because he wasn’t allowed to do any work after the first star appeared in the sky and he wore a round skull-cap which he said was like a man-hole cover so that God could always find a way into his brain.

Now there was a little boy in my class called Clive who nobody liked. I think he came from a troubled home. He always came in sleepy, never listened and if you got in his way he would scream at you. One Monday morning he came to school with a black eye and the next day he didn’t show up at all. Rabbi Feldenberg sat us on the carpet and told us that when Clive came back we had to make a special effort to be nice to him. He said Clive needed us more than we could ever know and then he told us a story. We all knew it was about Clive. I have never forgotten it. It’s about two rabbits and a tree and….you know, maybe it’s about me and you… anyway there were two rabbits. One was called Mr Rabbit and the other was called Mrs. Rabbit and guess what? They were married. To each other. And of course they loved each other in the way that only rabbits can. You could hardly keep them apart. One day they were on their way home after a gruelling days work. The sun was particularly strong that day and they were exhausted, ready to drop, when all of sudden, in the distance, they saw a giant plane tree. They had never seen this tree before, it was magnificent with its immense trunk and collosal branches. They couldn’t help but be drawn towards it; almost as if the tree was beckoning them over. When they got to the foot of the tree the full force of their fatigue hit them and Mr Rabbit bowed his head and said, “Great Plane tree, you are so beautiful. We are humbled in your presence. We are hot and tired and in need of rest, please may we sit in your shade a while?”

And the tree replied in a deep sonorous voice, “You ask so politely, with all my heart I offer you shade.”

So Rabbit and his wife gratefully slumped in the shade of the tree and rested their weary bones. After a while they realised how thirsty they were. So Mrs Rabbit said to the tree, “Magnificent tree, our throats are dry like straw, please may we drink a tiny mouthful of your sap and then we shall be on our way?”

And the tree replied in a voice that sent vibrations deep in to the earth, “You ask so politely Mrs Rabbit. With all my heart, you may drink of my sap. Drink until you can drink no more.”

So they drank until their thirst was quenched and they were filled with a light-headed joy. “Beautiful tree, we are so touched by your kindness,” said Mr. Rabbit, “may we see this heart of which you speak?”

Without even a moments hesitation the tree opened up its heart and invited the rabbits to enter. The heart of the great plane tree was magical beyond belief. There were bubbling springs of creamy sap, drops of warm dew fell like rain from above and all around, hanging from branches and spilling over from troughs and thickets, was treasure; glittering diamonds, nuggets of gold and silver, all kinds of riches. And at the very heart of the tree was a hollow filled with the most beautiful white luminescent pearls they had ever seen. So bright that it made their little red eyes hurt to look at them. Mr Rabbit imagined how pretty his wife would look with one of those pearls around her neck, but he was far too polite to ask if he might have one.

Within an instant the rabbits found themselves once more outside the tree and around Mrs Rabbit’s neck was a necklace containing a single white pearl; a gift from the heart of the Great Plane tree. The rabbits were overcome with gratitude and they fell to their knees. “Thank you, and a thousand times thank you,” they said. “How can we ever repay you?”

“Your happiness is payment enough,” said the great tree. Rabbit and his wife could not believe their luck and full of excitement they continued their journey home. Mrs Rabbit was so delighted with her necklace that she showed it to all her friends and in her pride she even showed it to her enemies. And when Mrs Wolf saw the pearl her eyes narrowed with jealousy. “Where did you get it?” she demanded and after Mrs Rabbit had told her the whole story Mrs Wolf ran to her husband “I want a pearl from the heart of the Great Plane tree”

Mr Wolf jumped to his feet and barked that he would get her one. So the two wolves ran to the tree. “Give us some shade,” they growled.

The tree welcomed them under his branches.

“Now give us some sap.” Mr Wolf snarled

“Please drink, until you can drink no more,” said the tree.

The wolves gorged on sap and when they were full Mrs Wolf bayed, “Open your heart,”

So the tree opened its heart and the greedy wolves stepped inside. It was just as Mrs Rabbit had described it. There were bubbling springs of creamy sap, drops of warm dew fell like rain from above and all around was treasure; diamonds, gold, silver all manner of delights and there, at the very heart of the tree was the hollow filled with the beautiful white luminescent pearls that Mrs Wolf so coveted. The wolves could not believe their eyes. For a moment they simply ogled at the splendours around them and then Mr. Wolf suddenly came to his senses. “Quickly,” he shouted, “fill your pockets.”

The wolves began to grab at the treasure. The tree cried out in pain but the wolves paid no heed, snatching up everything as fast as they could, stuffing their pockets with gold and silver, filling their arms with diamonds and pearls until they were up to their necks in it and the tree could bear it no longer. With an almighty crash it slammed closed its heart suffocating the wolves inside.

Since that day the Great Plane tree hasn’t opened its heart to anyone. Rabbi Feldenberg told us that, once, we humans were like the Great Plane tree; all you needed to do was gently ask and we would open our hearts to anyone, but we have changed, bad things happen to us and… well you know how it is. He said when people get hurt they close their hearts. He told us that if we ever met anyone like the Great Plane tree we should be gentle with them and try to understand them and maybe they would open up their hearts once more.

Clive’s mum and dad were taken away and a fortnight later Clive came back to school. We only ever saw him with his grandma after that. I tried really hard to be nice to him, but some of the other kids started to call him Wolf Heart. Poor kid. I’ve no idea what became of him. So that’s my story.

I don’t know much about you Angela but I figure something got to you, huh! Made you close down. Because why would you do it? Why did you do it?”

Her fingers began to twitch rapidly.

A baggy-eyed nurse whom I hadn’t seen before was waddling down the ward.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “is she going to be alright?”

“The operation went as well as could be expected. She had severe internal bleeding and she broke her leg. The scan picked up a tiny amount of subdural blood on the left side of her skull but it’s hard to tell at this stage how serious that is. We will have to assess it when she comes round.”

“And when will that be?” I asked.

“She’s heavily sedated now, we’re not expecting her to wake up until the morning. If I were you I would go home now, visiting hours are over in a quarter of an hour anyway.”

“Has she had any visitors?”

“No.”

“Do you know if her parents have been informed?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know. That’s not my job. Ask the police.”

She bustled past and disappeared behind a curtain in the far corner.

I found myself delving in to Angela’s bag again, this time I found a man’s black leather wallet in a side pocket. I rifled through it, there was £320 in cash, a couple of credit cards and a driving licence. So there it was, her name, Angela Morton and an address for a place called Glenthorpe Hall in Norfolk.