The Story of My Life
is very plain to read.
It starts the day you came;
and ends the day you leave.
Gravel crunched quietly under the tyres as the Volvo rolled to a stop in front of the small cottage. Angie gave it a curious look as she turned off the engine. It looked ordinary enough, the usual pseudo-thatched roof and whitewash covering the outside walls. True, the front garden was a trifle overgrown, but the grass was neatly trimmed.
Just what did you expect, anyway? she asked herself sarcastically. Dracula's Castle? But everyone acted so odd yesterday...
With a sudden, decisive move, she pulled the file out of her kit, determined not to dwell on her co-workers' strange manner. Just read the file, and then go and do your job, she admonished herself. But Angie acknowledged the delaying tactic with a slight grin; there was no need to refresh her memory on this client. She practically knew the file by heart already.
Yesterday evening, her curiosity had been powerfully aroused by the strange look in Dr. Hendrickson's eye when he had given her the files for the next day's visits. The instinctive feeling of something slightly off-kilter was strengthened by the fleeting look of pity she'd seen on her fellow nurse's face as Laura had hurried past them down the corridor. Determined to get to the bottom of the apparent mystery, Angie had stayed long after the surgery had closed. Pouring herself a mug of day-old tea, she had made herself comfortable on the sagging settee in the lounge and quickly scanned the medical chart.
It was not the thickest she'd ever seen, and a few minutes later, she flipped it closed and frowned, perplexed. The man appeared quite normal: three years post massive cardiac infarction, being maintained on one of the new cardiac glycosides. The medication seemed to be working fairly well; however, because of possible silent side effects, it was necessary to measure heart rate and blood pressure monthly, and to draw several blood samples to check kidney and liver functions. All routine and something she'd done almost every day for the last fifteen years.
So what was the mystery?
Angie had opened the file again and re-read the identification page more carefully this time. The man still didn't seem unique -- a Mr. Raymond J. Doyle, eighty-three years of age and a widower. He lived by himself in a tiny cottage approximately five miles outside the village of Beech Hill. The heart attack three years prior had severely damaged his heart, already slightly damaged from an old injury. The file didn't state what had caused the initial injury. Forehead furrowed in thought, Angie had painstakingly read through the entire file once again; she had only become aware of the passing of time when the clock out in the reception area struck ten.
The sound of a distant car horn roused Angie from her reverie. Disgusted, she resolutely returned the case file to her kit, snapped the bag shut and climbed out of the motor. She didn't have the time for all this foolish mooning about; it had already gone one in the afternoon and there were still four more visits to make after this one. Not giving in to the butterflies in her stomach, she deftly knocked on the door, unknowingly holding her breath.
When the stout oak door opened a few moments later, the nurse was conscious of a vague sense of disappointment. He didn't look all the extraordinary. Tall, his body still in good shape despite his years, the man gazed at her through hazel eyes under a thatch of silver hair.
"Sorry, luv." A huge grin split the still-handsome face. "Wrong man; the name's Murphy. Looking for Ray, are you?"
Feeling unaccountably better, Angie explained, "Yes. I'm Angela Browne, Mr. Doyle's new district nurse."
Stepping to one side, Murphy gestured her in. "Maire did get married, then."
Occupied in looking around the tiny entryway, she answered absently, "A fortnight ago."
"Come along. I'll introduce you to your reluctant client." Murphy led the way into the sitting room, calling out, "Oi, Doyle! You've got a visitor!"
"Bloody hell -- two in a row? Who'd believe it?" called back a sarcastic, yet cheerful, voice. A curly head poked itself around the kitchen door. "Who is... Oh, `ullo, luv." A gamin grin appeared.
Distantly aware that she was gaping, Angie closed her mouth with an almost audible click.
"H-Hello," she stammered, desperately hoping she wasn't blushing as fiercely as she feared she was. Get a grip on your hormones, girl! He's old enough to be your bleeding grandfather!
Somehow, that knowledge didn't have the effect it should have. Behind her, she heard Murphy give an exasperated sigh.
"Eighty years old, and he still does it to every ruddy bird he meets! It isn't fair."
Ignoring the oft-heard complaint, Doyle only grinned wider as he apologised, "'Scuse me a minute, luv. Got a cake in the oven; be with you in a tick."
"Naturally," replied Angie, frowning slightly.
Murphy caught the look. "Something wrong?"
"No, not really. Our file seems to be incorrect; it lists Mr. Doyle's age as eighty-three. I'll have to correct it when I get back to the surgery."
"He's eighty." There was an oddly tense undertone in the older man's voice. "The file is correct, but remember, Ray is eighty."
Grasping that this was somehow extremely important, although completely at sea as to why it should be so, Angie just nodded bemusedly.
Relaxing at her instant acceptance, Murphy invited, "Have a seat, will you, Miss Browne? I'll give Ray a hand with the tea."
Thus abandoned, Angie used the quiet moment to collect herself and take a comprehensive look around. Bizarre remarks aside, she found her client and his friend to be very nice. That was a relief; some clients could be so... Her gaze fell upon a small table by the fireplace, its dark wood gleaming with a warm lustre. The only ornamentation on it was a large picture frame. Curious, she walked over and picked it up to study closer.
I was right.
What was still a very exotically attractive man had been even more so when he was younger. The plain gold frame held a candid photo of two laughing men. The same bright jade eyes and chipped-toothed grin beamed out at her, crowned by a mass of tumbled mahogany curls. The whippet-thin body was clad in faded jeans, yellow tee shirt, boots and a battered jacket. Her gaze moved on to the man standing behind and to one side of Doyle.
Breath catching in her throat, Angie let out an inadvertent "Wow!"
In all her thirty-seven years, and with all the people she had met due to her career, Angie had never seen eyes so intensely alive. They fairly leapt from the photograph. A rich cobalt blue, the man's eyes were incandescent -- radiating a melange of mischief, innocence, love and sheer contentment. Standing as he was mostly behind Doyle, she couldn't really see too much of his body, but his shoulders were breath-takingly broad, his black leather clad arms curved possessively around Doyle's slender waist. Doyle's own long fingers rested on the capable hands, holding them tightly against his abdomen.
The small hairs on the back of her neck prickled suddenly, and Angie looked up to discover herself under benign green observation. "I'm sorry," she muttered, hurriedly replacing the photo frame back onto the table.
Doyle shrugged off her apology. "No need, luv. `S nice picture, isn't it. Murph took that one in...'88, was it?"
"About then," agreed the taller man as he placed the tray containing the tea service on the coffee table.
"The man with you," Angie began hesitantly as she seated herself on the settee, "wa...is he your spouse?" She silently wondered at her inexplicable change of verb tense. Belatedly, she remembered to introduce herself to her client.
Doyle gave a nod and another grin as he sank into the chair opposite her. "Yeah, that's my Bodie. Pour out, will you, Murph? I'll cut the cake." He picked up a small knife and proceeded to do so as he went on matter-of-factly, "Love to introduce you two, but Bodie's not around just now. He'll be back later."
Tea cup clattering rather noisily onto its saucer, Angie stuttered, "B-But I thought..." Catching Murphy's warning glare and decisive head shake, she recovered and said brightly, "That's too bad. Perhaps my next visit?"
It must have been the correct thing to say, inane although it had sounded, for Doyle gave her a conspiratorial wink as he handed her a slice of raisin cake. "Might do. `Course, he'll be just a bit narked at missing you. Always one for the birds, is Bodie."
The nurse risked another darted look at Murphy, and was given another sharp shake of the head. Quashing the impulse to look for the Dormouse, Angie carried on determinedly. "That doesn't bother you?" She picked up her cup of tea, pleased to note that her hands were shaking only a little.
"What? Bodie liking birds? Nah." Doyle shook his head, the still plentiful, though silver, curls dancing madly. "So do I, for that matter. Nothing wrong with looking, is there? 'S all it is. We've been together for fifty-three years now, and that says it all."
"Fifty-three years?!" Angie knew she was gaping again. "You've been married that long? I thought same-sex marriages weren't legal until 2023?"
"They weren't," conceded Doyle with a half-grin. "That never stopped us."
Murphy nodded in agreement. "You've got that one right, mate. You two never did go by the book in anything." Taking pity on the confused nurse, he enlightened her. "Bodie and Doyle were professional partners for six years before they got together," he explained. "They were together from then on, but only got legally married when the law passed."
A reminiscent smile lit Doyle's face. "Yeah, Bodie always swore he'd marry me whenever he could, no matter how old we might be." Malachite eyes misted slightly. "Never will forget the look on his face the day he proposed." Eyes distant, his attention turned inward, memory taking him back to an obviously joyful moment.
Several quiet seconds passed, then Doyle shook himself and sniffed unashamedly. "Stupid berk. Told him it was about time he made an honest man of me."
Chocolate brown eyes soft, Angie managed to say normally, "Bet that went down a treat." She chuckled.
There was a husky echo. "Yeah!"
Tea passed in a blur of inconsequential chatter. Flicking a glance at her watch, Angie was chagrined to note that over an hour had passed. Faintly ashamed of herself, she reluctantly brought the conversation back to her reason for being there.
Grimacing, Doyle put aside his tea and, grumbling under his breath, slowly rolled up his shirt sleeve to expose his elbow.
Not hearing any complaints she hadn't heard a thousand times before, Angie carried on with drawing the required blood samples. Putting the four small tubes inside the special carrier in her kit, she pulled out her stethoscope and blood pressure machine.
"I'm sure you'll survive," she assured her client blandly. Finishing the reading, she put away the cuff. Laying the bell of the stethoscope against the lightly furred chest, she listened intently. Counting beats, she frowned internally at the irregular thumping. Doyle's medication should have been controlling much of that. She could also hear a slight rasping sound as Doyle breathed in and out, indicating that some fluid was building up in his lungs.
Nothing of what she was thinking showed on her face, however, as she took the stethoscope out of her ears and smiled. "Other than being periodically bled to death, are you feeling all right?"
"Sure," answered Doyle instantly.
"Ray, it's not nice to lie to the nice lady," Murphy warned.
Directing a quelling glare his way, Doyle shook his head stubbornly as he reached for his tea. Taking a noisy slurp, he settled back defiantly.
"Oh?" Eyebrows raised, Angie turned to Murphy when it became obvious that Doyle was not going to elaborate.
"Prat. Worse client in the world, you are." But there was no condemnation in the indulgent tone. A small grin was on Murphy's face as he gazed at the sulking topic of their conversation, but his eyes held distinct worry as they turned to meet Angie's. "He's been getting more short of breath these last few weeks. Can't hardly rest for it, and walking any distance makes him puff like an old steam engine. Plus, he's so tired just lately."
"At my age, what d'you expect?" shot back Doyle, tired of being talked about as though he weren't present.
"Still," mused Angie, "maybe we need to adjust your heart medication." The trouble with that idea, she admitted mentally, is that he's already on the maximum safe dosage.
"Huh!" snorted Doyle. "Bloody useless pills."
Persevering, Angie asked, "How many pillows do you use on your bed? Perhaps, if he were to prop himself up at night, he could breathe better while he slept. She was startled to hear Doyle's acerbic comment.
"Don't sleep in the bed just now, do I."
Confused this time beyond all hope of covering it, Angie stared at him, flabbergasted. Regaining her mental breath, she enquired weakly, "But...where do you sleep, then?"
"Oh, if I get tired, I'll just kip out on the settee there." Doyle waved a nonchalant hand at the furniture in question. "Won't need the bed until Bodie gets back, y'know."
Reduced to gaping yet again, Angie was only recalled to herself when a firm hand grasped her elbow and practically yanked her to her feet.
"Miss Browne has to leave now, Ray," Murphy stated abruptly. "Shall I walk her to the door?"
"Yeah, thanks, mate," Doyle said gratefully. "Feeling a bit knackered, if you must know." Indeed, the green eyes were not so bright now, and his skin had gone an odd shade of grey.
"Why don't you get your head down?" suggested the taller man. "I'll be here when you wake up."
Throughout the conversation, Angie held her tongue. Doyle did look exhausted, so she kept her outrage in place at being so unceremoniously shown the door. Once outside, however, she favoured Murphy with a speaking look.
"I could tell he was getting tired. There was no need to throw me out!"
"Sorry." But the apology was perfunctory only. "I just didn't want you to upset him. He doesn't get any visitors besides you nurses and myself. Most people find it...difficult...to deal with him."
"I wonder why?" she returned dryly.
Angie was just opening the door of her ten year old motor when she heard her name called softly. Turning around, she saw that Murphy was still standing at the open cottage door. "Yes?"
"Miss Browne, is he..." The tall man stopped, biting his lip. Taking a deep breath, Murphy tried again. "Is Ray all right?"
Seeing the sincere worry in the darkened eyes looking at her so pleadingly, Angie gave an honest answer. "I don't know. I'll tell Dr. Hendrickson of my findings, and we'll have to wait for the results of the blood tests." She eyed him thoughtfully. "Will you be visiting on Friday?" It would take the next two days for all the test results to come through.
"I usually come up Tuesdays and Saturdays, but I'll make sure I'm here on Friday," promised Murphy.
"Good." Angie nodded in satisfaction as she got into the Volvo. "I'll see you both then."
Giving herself no time to think about the odd visit, she punched the starter and drove off.
Arriving back at the surgery in a weary haze, Angie glanced at her watch and swore softly under her breath. Six-bloody-twenty! At least she'd gotten back before the office closed at seven. And she still had at least another two hours of charting today's visits, and then she had to go over the files for the next day's... Oh, well, she hadn't become a nurse because of the regular hours. Not that she had anything special on for that night; just the usual -- home, cup of tea, dinner eaten in front of the box and a long, hot bath. Just another night of wild, carefree abandon.
Stopping by the in-house laboratory, she gave the technician the labeled vials of blood from her visits that day. As she was exiting the lab, Angie caught sight of her colleague coming out of the staff lounge with her handbag, jacket tossed over her arm.
"Laura?" called Angie uncertainly. "Could I ask you something? Do you have to rush right off?"
The brunette grinned at her knowingly. "Been to see our Mr. Doyle, haven't you."
Laura waved the younger woman into the lounge, then seated herself on one of the chairs at the battered table. "So, what's your opinion? Is he a poor, lonely old man or just your everyday, senile loony?"
"I don't think he's senile, but boy, oh, boy!" Angie got herself a much-needed mug of tea, sank onto another chair and ran a hand through her short, ash-blonde hair. "What is the story, there? He certainly seems lucid enough most of the time; well-read and highly intelligent, and then, bingo! He opens his mouth and reality goes right out the ruddy window."
"Yeah, poor dear." Laura grimaced in sympathy. "Maire used to worry about him something dreadful -- all by himself in that house and no visitors except Mr. Murphy twice a week and us once a month."
"Mr. Murphy seemed very concerned about him. Every time I wanted to ask someone to explain the odd remarks, Mr. Murphy would just give me this glare! Knew better than to say anything after that; just went along with it."
"Best that way," agreed Laura, nodding. "He's extremely protective of Doyle. I saw him once when he came into the chemist's to get another batch of the heart pills. I said something to him like it was nice that he would bother, as not many would if they weren't related. He just gave me this solemn look -- his eyes were so sad -- and said `It's no bother; Ray and I go back a long way. Besides, years ago, I promised Bodie I would watch out for his sunshine if something ever happened.' He said that's what Mr. Bodie always called Mr. Doyle...his sunshine."
Angie remembered the bright green eyes and cheeky grin. "Appropriate." Swallowing a sip of tea, she questioned, "Is Mr. Bodie dead? We do know this for certain?"
Nodding an affirmative, the older woman reached over and snagged a somewhat crumbled biscuit. Munching thoughtfully, she said, "Been about three years now -- can't remember the exact month -- but the local rescue squad got this frantic phone call early one morning. Guy on the other end sounded practically hysterical, so said Brad Morley. When the squad got there, they found Mr. Doyle in the bed, wrapped around Mr. Bodie and just rocking him. As they burst in to the room, Doyle gives them this queer grin and says `Sorry for the bother. Nothing's wrong; Bodie just isn't ready to wake up yet.'
"Brad told me you could see at a glance that Bodie had been gone for a bit. He tried to tell Doyle that his spouse was gone, but Doyle kept ignoring him, insisting that Bodie was only sleeping. When Brad got a little insistent himself, Doyle suddenly goes berserk, comes flying off the bed and slugs Brad, screaming the whole time. By the time Brad picked himself up from across the room -- I guess Doyle packs a killer right -- Mr. Doyle had collapsed, showing all the signs of a major heart attack.
"The cardiac damage was so bad, it was pretty touch and go there for almost three weeks. By the time Mr. Doyle was alert enough to be aware of what was happening around him, his spouse was long since buried. We'd called Mr. Murphy -- he was listed as the emergency contact for them both -- and he was at the hospital the whole time with Mr. Doyle. Only took enough time to see Mr. Bodie decently buried. Mr. Murphy requested that he be the one to tell Mr. Doyle, since no one expected he would remember it, being as he was so ill and all."
Taking the time for a bolstering sip of her cooling tea, Laura then went on, "One afternoon, Murphy goes in to see Doyle and closes the door tightly after him. Abby Richter said it was deathly quiet in that room for about fifteen minutes, then the door opened and Murphy walked out. She said he looked so funny and white, she thought he was about to have a heart attack. All anyone could get out of him, however, was `Just let Ray be...please don't upset him. He's not hurting anyone, is he?' The nurses all thought that mighty peculiar until later that same evening, innocent as you please, Mr. Doyle asks when Mr. Bodie could visit!
"Every time someone tried to talk sense to the man, his cardiac rhythm would go haywire and they'd almost lose him, he'd get so distraught. Dr. Hendrickson finally left orders not to push him on the subject, that he would accept the tragedy in his own time. So, for the rest of his hospital stay, everyone just smiled and nodded whenever he mentioned his spouse. When he got too insistent about seeing Bodie, Doctor had left orders to give him a sedative. He'd soon go to sleep and would be much calmer when he awoke. The rest you essentially know."
"He still hasn't accepted it, has he?" murmured Angie. "He still believes Mr. Bodie has only gone out somewhere and will be coming back. Oh, the poor man," she mourned.
There was a minute or two of silence, then Laura stirred. "Well, have to be off. You ready?"
"No, you go ahead." Angie shook his head in dismissal. "I've still got all these notes to do."
Long after the door had swung shut behind the other nurse, Angie continued to stare at the opposite wall, eyes unfocused.
Heart beating more rapidly than normal, Laura knocked briskly upon Dr. Hendrickson's office door. Upon hearing the muffled "Come in!" she entered to find the doctor catching up on his paperwork.
"Yes, Laura?" he queried, looking up. At the strained look on her face, he pushed away from his computer keyboard. "What's wrong?"
"Here are Tuesdays labs, Doctor," she informed him quietly. "Mr. Doyle's... Will you please look over Mr. Doyle's as soon as possible?"
Taking the disc from her, Hendrickson immediately stuck it into his computer tower. He quickly scrolled through the multitude of names and figures, frowning. Catching sight of Doyle's name, he scanned the data. "Oh, damn," he muttered under his breath, and returned to the beginning of the information. More slowly this time, he studied it all again. Sighing, he ejected the disc and sat for some time, staring at nothing. "Oh, damn," he repeated, real regret in his voice. He looked up at his nurse and enquired, "Has Angie seen these yet?"
"No, sir," replied Laura. "She was just pulling in from this morning's visits when the tech handed these to me. I glanced at them, then brought the disc straight here." The nurse gave a deep sigh of her own. "She's not going to take this well, Dr. Hendrickson."
Despite himself, the doctor smiled. "So Mr. Doyle has made himself yet another conquest, eh?"
The older nurse grinned back briefly. "Of course." Laura sobered, then offered, "Shall I send her in?"
"Why not? Let's just get this over with," he muttered gloomily. "I'm not looking forward to the next few minutes."
"I don't envy you," confessed Laura, exiting quickly.
Mumbling unintelligibly to himself, Hendrickson gave another sigh when a soft knock came on the door. "Come in, Angie," he called.
"You wanted to see me, Doctor?"
"Yes. Sit down, please."
Sitting, Angie was smoothing out the tunic of her uniform when a sudden thought hit. It was Thursday afternoon... Conscious of an absurd sinking feeling in her stomach, she took a deep breath and said levelly, "Mr. Doyle's labs have deteriorated."
Hendrickson silently gave her high marks for intuition. "Renal functions are less than half of what they were last month, and the liver enzymes are through the roof. You reported that he was becoming seriously short of breath, that you heard fluid in his lungs...I would wager an opinion that Mr. Doyle's heart has started to fail. Badly."
"But the tests were within normal parameters just last month!" she protested fiercely. "There's got to be some mistake!"
Giving her a reproving look, the doctor shook his head. "You know all lab results which come back abnormal are automatically re-tested. There's been no error."
Jumping to her feet, Angie found herself standing in front of the large window. She looked blindly out at the busy high street, her thoughts careening madly. The tick of the office clock was very loud.
Some minutes later, as she turned back, Angie apologised lowly, "Yes, of course, Doctor. I'm sorry for my outburst." Re-seating herself, she asked, "What can be done for him?"
"The only procedure that might -- that is, might -- benefit Mr. Doyle is a heart transplant." Sighing, Hendrickson got up and poured out two mugs of tea. Handing her one, he propped himself against the front of the desk and went on, "I suggested that three years ago and was refused quite bluntly. You've met Mr. Doyle: What do you think his answer is likely be now?"
Knowing quite well what Doyle would say, but refusing to accept it, she responded bitterly, "So now we're allowing suicide as a treatment option?"
"Oh, Angie." Shaking his head, Hendrickson took a sip of tea. Sitting back down behind his desk, he forced Angie to meet his eyes. "How could we perform a complicated, life or death procedure on someone who won't even leave his home? Why do you suppose I had Maire go out to see him every month when there was no medical reason he couldn't have come into the surgery as most everyone else does? To Mr. Doyle, he can't leave; if he does, he might miss Mr. Bodie coming back. We tried, once, with Mr. Murphy's assistance and approval, to get him outside -- he used to love mucking about in his garden, according to Murphy. It was a disaster; Doyle became progressively more frenzied until we had to sedate him.
"Don't you see?" stated Hendrickson earnestly, leaning forward. "He can't leave that house. If he's not there when his spouse gets home, Bodie won't be able to find him. They'll be forever lost to each other."
Angie forced herself to consider Hendrickson's words. She remembered the serene confidence in the jade eyes; eyes that never doubted his long-time lover and spouse was soon returning to him. Unwillingly conceding the loss of a battle she'd had no right to even try to fight, Angie asked, "What do you want me to tell him when I see him this afternoon?"
Hendrickson gave an approving nod. "I doubt he will even enquire about the test results, he doesn't care -- he only agreed to the lab tests because Mr. Murphy begged. However, if Mr. Murphy asks, tell him the truth. He deserves it."
"Yes, sir." Spirits heavy, Angie got to her feet.
She was halfway out the door when the doctor called her back. "Will you be all right?" he wanted to know.
The nurse gave a lopsided smile. "Certainly. I'm used to delivering news such as this, aren't I."
Parked outside the small cottage, Angie sat in the car. She knew she was only delaying the inevitable but, somehow, the thought of getting out of the car and going up to the door made her feel sick to her stomach. For god's sake, she scolded herself sternly, you've been a district nurse for over fifteen years. You've had to do this very same thing dozens of times. Get a grip, girl!
Before she could lose her nerve, she flung open the car door and practically marched up the walk. Reaching the broad door, she gave a hesitant knock with a slightly trembling hand. Fighting her own internal battle, Angie didn't immediately notice the door had opened. An indrawn breath, almost a gasp, caught her attention and she glanced up into Murphy's hazel eyes. They met hers steadily, only a hint of impending grief lurking in the back.
So much for my professional face. One look and he knows.
Firmly closing the door behind her, Murphy took a deep breath and calmly asked, "How long has he got?"
"I don't know." Angie shook her head. "No one, not even the doctor can be completely certain. It could be fairly rapid, as there has been such a dramatic change for the worse since our visit last month. His heart has started to deteriorate badly, and he's already showing symptoms of multi-organ failure. I'll have to monitor him more closely from now on."
Murphy's eyes closed and, for just a moment, Angie saw an old man before her. There was a glimmer of moisture in his eyes when he re-opened them, but his voice was steady enough. "What do we do now?"
"I was going to ask you the very same question," admitted Angie. "Should I say anything of this to him? Where is Mr. Doyle, by the way?" They were still standing in the tiny entryway.
"He's asleep in his chair." The answer was almost brusque. "He'd tried the settee, but he couldn't breathe well enough, so I helped him into the chair."
Moving to the door into the sitting room, Angie studied her client with a critical eye. To the casual observer, there was nothing unusual in the sight of an elderly man snatching a quick afternoon nap. The nurse was not a casual observer: she saw the swelling around both ankles, the faint tinge of blue in the fingertips and nails of the lean hand resting on the chair arm, the shallow, slightly rapid breathing.
"Do you want me to say anything?" she repeated, looking up at Murphy.
Glaring at her, Murphy bit his lip, then jerked his head for her to follow. They bypassed the sitting room and went into the kitchen. Motioning for Angie to have a seat at the table, Murphy poured them large mugs of tea and set hers before her. Sinking into the chair opposite, he enquired with a slight bite, "Just what would you tell him, luv? `I've got good news, Mr. Doyle'? Or some such nonsense?"
"It is, you know," answered the nurse, sipping her tea.
The bald statement rattled the older man. Slapping his mug down, Murphy ignored the tea sloshing over the rim, his face darkening as he stared at the nurse. "How the bloody hell can you say that?!" he hissed venomously.
"Because it's so." Having forced herself to come to terms with the inevitable, Angie could well understand Murphy's anger. She fixed him with a gimlet eye. "Just think about it from his point of view, Mr. Murphy. For the past three years, Mr. Doyle has been patiently waiting for his spouse to return to him. What is the only way that is going to happen?"
Deflated, Murphy sank back into his chair. Giving her a rueful grin, he muttered, "I must be getting old."
"No," she corrected softly. "You just can't see the death of an old friend as a happy occasion. I would be seriously concerned about you if you could."
Shaking his head, Murphy took a quick gulp of his tea to swallow the sudden lump in his throat. Gazing down at his hands, which were gripping his mug tightly, he had to clear his throat several times before he could question, "So...what are you going to tell him?"
"Tell who what?" came a sleepy voice from the door. "Hi, luv." Greeting the district nurse with a small grin, Doyle wandered over and poured himself a mug of tea. He sat down at the table and reached for the milk. "Strewth! I've seen happier faces at one of the Cow's dressing-downs! What's happening?"
Murphy opened his mouth, but found himself unable to speak. Slamming his fist on the table, he stood so abruptly that his chair fell over. His initial impetus took him as far as the door, where he stopped just as suddenly, hand gripping the wooden jamb for support.
Doyle watched this performance with rounded eyes. "Murph?" Receiving no answer, he turned to Angie. "What's got into him?" His bewilderment was plain.
For all her determination to view this from Doyle's perspective, Angie found she could not meet those wondering eyes. Giving a tremendous sniff, she hurriedly dived into her handbag for a tissue. "Excuse me...allergies," she explained somewhat thickly. Wiping her eyes gave her time to gather her poise, and by the time she was returning the sodden tissue to her bag, she was able to go on.
"He's..." she began, having to clear a mysterious catch before she could continue. "...he's just a little overcome. I've just told him some unexpected news."
"What news is that?"
Taking a deep breath, Angie said smoothly, "There is every reason to believe that you will soon be with Mr. Bodie."
An electric moment, then Angie found herself awash in the glow emanating from the thin figure next to her. It seemed to flow from every pore, centring in the brilliant eyes, now turned a fiery emerald with unadulterated joy. The years seem to fall away, and Angie saw the man Doyle had once been, before illness and overwhelming, irreplaceable loss had sapped his vitality. She saw the transformation, and in that moment, finally and truthfully accepted what was to come.
The glow faded a little. "Are...are you sure? You're not joking, are you?" Doyle asked hesitantly, desperately needing to believe her yet, paradoxically, just as desperately afraid to do so. "How do you know this? Have you seen him?"
"Of course I'm sure!" Deliberately ignoring Doyle's final question, she gave a slight pout. "You're not calling me a liar, are you?"
"Hell, no!" The older man was back on even keel, only the continuing shine of his eyes testifying to what had just occurred. "Wouldn't be polite, that."
"Oh, and you are always so very polite?" Angie gave him a patently disbelieving look.
Against his will, Murphy choked on laughter at the wounded look Doyle gave. "She's got your number, mate."
"Don't know what the younger generation's coming to," grumbled the curly-haired man. "No respect for their elders and betters..."
"Seems to me I remember a time or two..."
"Save it, Murph," interrupted Doyle hastily, seeing the interested look in Angie's dark eyes. "Anyone want another cuppa?"
Murphy bit back another chuckle at the nurse's disappointed grimace.
Giving a sigh, Angie hauled herself to her feet. "Sorry," she said regretfully. "I really do have to be going. I've got a million things to do and only four hours to do them in."
"Know that feeling well," agreed Doyle, shaking his head.
Angie hesitated at the kitchen door. "Mr. Doyle, could I come back to see you...sooner than I normally would, that is?"
"Sure thing, luv." Favouring her with a genuine Doyle-beam, he went on, apparently not noticing the sudden rush of red in her cheeks. "The name's Ray, by the by. After giving me news like this, you're welcome whenever you want to drop in."
"Thank you." Gathering her shattered composure, Angie gave a brief smile. "I'll see myself out, Mr. Murphy."
Laughing out loud as the front door banged shut behind the fleeing nurse, Murphy gently cuffed Doyle alongside the head as he gathered the tea mugs. "You're incorrigible, mate."
Doyle turned wide, innocent eyes on him. "Who...me?"
"Hey, Angie!" Laura stuck her head into the tiny nursing office. "Want to stop off for a quick pint? You can fill me in on the cute nephew visiting Mrs. Reardon."
"Sorry." Angie looked up from stacking files. "I promised Ray I'd stop by tonight."
"Oh, Angie." Shaking her head, the senior nurse propped herself against the door. "This is the third time this week you've been out there."
"You know I have to monitor his blood pressure and pulse," the other nurse said defensively.
"Yeah. I also know Dr. Hendrickson said once a week would be sufficient. You've been out there practically every night for the last five weeks."
Pursing her lips stubbornly, Angie brushed by her colleague and turned toward the file room with her burden.
Laura smiled fondly at the oblivious blonde head. "You really like him, don't you?"
Debating on whether she should answer, Angie slid the files back into their proper slots. Finally, she faced the other woman and confessed, "Yeah; a lot, actually. And, before you say anything," holding up a hand to forestall Laura, "I know it's stupid to let myself get emotionally involved with a client."
"It is. Besides anything else, it's just going to hurt all that more once he's gone." Laura gave her a troubled look. "Are you sure you're not getting in over your head?"
"I'm not getting in over my head...I'm already there." Angie smiled wistfully. "It's just that he seems so alone. He's dying, Laura. Except for Mr. Murphy and myself, there's no one else who seems to care. Mr. Murphy told me Ray lost touch with his family years ago."
"So what do you do then -- at his house? I know we're not checking blood values any longer."
"Oh, we talk. Did you know that after Ray and Mr. Bodie retired, they traveled? He's been practically everywhere, Laura. It's fascinating to listen to him."
Shaking her head once again, the older woman gave up. She pulled her keys out of her handbag. "Are you positive you know what you're doing?"
"Not really." Angie gave a faint smile. "At this point in time, I don't really care. I just know I have to be there for him, Laura. Don't ask me how I know this; I just do."
Rapping briskly, Angie opened the cottage's front door and called out, "I'm here!"
"Of course you are," floated back from the kitchen.
Following the mouth-watering smells, Angie found her host stirring a bubbling pot. "I did as I was told, oh, Master." She pulled a bottle from behind her back with a flourish. "Ta da!"
"Prat." Doyle flicked a grin at her but never stopped his stirring. "Open it, will you? It needs to breathe a bit."
"Yes, sir." Doing as she was told, Angie then came to peer over a bony shoulder. This close to Doyle, she was easily able to hear the faint wheezes and pants as the older man struggled to breathe. "How close is that to being finished?" she asked casually. "Do we have time for a little sit-down first? I don't know about you, but my feet are killing me."
"Eh? Oh, sure." Doyle turned down the cooker setting.
With Angie's discreet hand under his elbow, he made for his favourite chair, sinking into it gratefully. Throwing his head back, he took several shallow, panting breaths. Silently, Angie brought over the ottoman and propped his feet up. Noting the absent-minded hand fretfully rubbing the skinny chest, she went over to her handbag, carefully getting out a tiny bottle. Extracting a small, white pill, she went back over to Doyle and pointedly held it out. It was several seconds before he noticed, then his cheeks flushed even further.
"Bloody damn pills!" he burst out. "Never did like taking them..."
The tirade came to an abrupt halt as Angie, tired of waiting, simply slipped the pill into his mouth and under his tongue. Ignoring his infuriated glare, she knelt beside him, fanning with a magazine with one hand while the other circled the thin wrist.
Seeing the unyielding set to her lips, Doyle gave in with poor grace. Truth be told, the cool air blowing in his face helped relieve the unremitting fight breathing had lately become, and the pill slightly eased the constant, immovable vise around his chest. He closed his eyes and waited.
Several quiet minutes later, Angie queried, "Better now?" as she stopped the fanning.
Doyle opened his eyes and gave her a wry look.
Smiling, Angie rose to her feet, patted him on the arm, then went into the kitchen to check on their dinner. When she returned, she was surprised to find the green eyes were closed once more, a heavy frown pulling at the brows.
"Ray? Is something wrong?" she asked, concerned.
"It's just..." Doyle trailed off. Some moments later, eyes still closed, he said, "I'm just a bit worried, that's all."
"About feeling so poorly; now, when Bodie's on his way home." The sea-green eyes opened, fear lurking in their depths. "I don't want to be ill when he get home, Angie. If he finds out I've been sick while he's been gone, the stupid pillock will never forgive himself."
Squatting down in front of him, Angie took both of his hands in hers. Meeting the troubled eyes squarely, she reassured, "I know it seems impossible for me to promise this, Ray; but I am certain of one thing: When Bodie gets home, you'll never feel ill again."
Doyle just nodded, then, eyes darkening again, his gaze slid away. "Sometimes...sometimes it just seems so long."
Not letting go of his hands, Angie sank down onto the carpet, settling in for the session. "What seems so long?"
"Since Bodie's been gone," he muttered. "I mean, I know it's only been a couple of days at the most, but..." He looked down at her and gave a confused frown. "Sometimes...sometimes I can't seem to remember where he went and why. God, that's all Bodie needs -- me going senile on him after all these years."
Fighting the prickling in her eyes, Angie soothed, "You're not going senile, Ray. Even if you were, do you really believe he'd mind?"
A faint grin lit the sombre face. "Nah, not that beautiful twit. Knowing him, he'll just say he can't tell the difference between that and my normal behaviour. Always did used to claim I had the most twisted brain in CI5, next to the Cow."
"CI5!" Startled, Angie stared at the elderly man before her, suddenly seeing him in a new light. Everyone had heard of CI5. How, in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, a dedicated group of men and women, under the leadership of the legendary Sir George Cowley, had declared war against the terrorists, drug and other assorted villains so prevalent then. Even after Sir Cowley's death in 1991, the organisation had gone on with their fight. It was CI5 who had broken the back of the IRA in 2003, forcing the extremists into finally accepting the bargaining table. There had been peace in United Eire for almost thirty years now -- a somewhat strained peace at times -- but peace, nonetheless. "Wow! Were you and Mr. Bodie really in CI5?"
Noting the eyes wide with wonder and the awe-struck voice, Doyle couldn't hold back a chuckle. If Bodie were here, he'd bust a gut laughing. Clearly remembering the less-than-worshipful attitude CI5 had commonly been held in, Doyle was hard put to contain his laughter.
"What's so funny?" Angie asked, wounded.
"Oh, luv -- if you could only hear yourself!" Doyle didn't want to laugh so hard -- it made his chest hurt -- but he couldn't stop himself at the offended look on the nurse's round face. Bringing himself under control as quickly as possible, he explained, "Angie, me darling...for the majority of CI5's existence, nine-tenths of the British public regarded us as something very similar to Hitler's Gestapo. We might've been a necessary evil, but they didn't have to like it."
"You're joking!" She was horrified. "Aren't you?"
"No, I'm not," Doyle informed her ruefully. "Remember, most law-abiding people don't like guns and violence and we used both. Frequently, Joe Public couldn't see as we were all that different from the supposed villains. It wasn't until after we gutted the IRA that the tide of public opinion turned."
"Were you and Bodie still with CI5 then?"
"Course we were!" Now it was Doyle's turn to be offended. "We aren't that old, young lady! I was only fifty-five, and Bodie fifty-three, when we took out Seamus Cochran and his filth."
"Don't take this wrong," Angie began hesitantly, "but I'd heard..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know." The ex-agent sighed. "No, we weren't still street agents, but that never mattered in CI5. We all shared in the victories...and the defeats."
Angie was fascinated. "What were you two doing, then?"
"I was Senior Weapons Instructor, and Bodie was Senior Survival Instructor. Between the two of us, we ran the Training Centre for almost twelve years. We only decided to retire in 2005; by that time, we'd both had thirty years with CI5 and we wanted out while we were still young enough to enjoy ourselves. Besides, I wanted to travel some -- see the sights. Bodie'd been all over before he'd joined up, but I'd never made it past Paris, and that was only for a couple of days on company time." He stopped suddenly and sniffed. "Do I smell something burning?"
"Dinner!" gasped Angie, and made a dash for the kitchen. A few muttered imprecations were followed by "Ouch!" and the rattle of crockery. Several moments passed, then she reappeared, carrying two plates of the savory rice and chicken casserole and eating utensils. "Let me get the wine," she said, as she handed Doyle his plate. "Won't be a minute."
When she came back, she placed the wine-filled glasses on the coffee table where both of them could easily reach them, and then sank back down onto the floor next to Doyle's chair. Hungrily attacking her food, Angie noted peripherally that Doyle was only picking at his portion. "Not hungry tonight?" she asked, off-handed.
"Not really." Doyle gave a shrug as he picked up his wine.
"All the more for me, then." She was rewarded with a slight smile.
Finishing her meal, Angie picked up her own wine glass and regarded her host thoughtfully. The jade eyes were distracted, and it was clear his thoughts were less than pleasant.
"Ray, could I ask you a personal question?"
"Eh?" With a slight start, Doyle re-focused on his guest.
Angie patiently repeated her question.
"Don't see why not," he responded casually. "What d'you want to know?"
"How did you get that scar on your chest?"
Angie held her breath. It was clear to her, as a nurse, that the scar was from some sort of open-heart surgery in the distant past. She had no idea on how Doyle would react; for all she knew, this subject was also on the taboo list. She gave a little sigh of relief when she saw him shrug nonchalantly as he took another sip of wine.
"Oh, that," he said matter-of-factly. "Was way back in 1981. Got a bit careless with me security locks and came home from the shops to find I had an unexpected visitor in my flat. She put one in my chest -- nicked the heart -- and another in my upper back when I was down. Bloody near bought it then, I tell you. Would've, too, if it hadn't been for Bodie."
Hearing the unspoken question, Doyle continued, "He arrived minutes after it happened. Managed to slow the bleeding down long enough for the ambulance to get me to hospital. Don't remember too much of the next few days...hurt too much, and I was so tired. Just wanted to let go, y'see. But I couldn't; couldn't do that to Bodie."
He glanced down at the attentive face staring up at him. "Couldn't leave him all alone, now could I? We'd been partners for nearly six years by then; I was his best mate and Bodie doesn't have any family. Couple of months before this, we'd started up together. Oh, it was only when we were too tired to go trolling for birds. `S what I kept telling myself, anyway. Wasn't serious...not on my part, at least."
"But it was for Bodie?" guessed the nurse shrewdly.
"Oh, yeah." Doyle sighed. "I knew it when we began, had known for quite a bit, how he felt; but I wouldn't let myself think about it, accept it. Don't know why. Then, wham! A few minutes of absent-mindedness, and I'm in hospital for the next four weeks with nothing but time to think. Thought about the look in his eyes when he found me lying on the floor, thought about how he seemed to age thirty years in a single day and how I'd feel if he'd been the one with the bullet nicking his heart. Then, I started remembering...how I'd felt that time he'd gotten himself stabbed; how after that, I'd made him promise me that either I could go first or that we'd go together.
"The next time he visited, I apologised."
"Yeah. For being the most selfish bastard on the planet, for taking advantage of his feelings for me, for hurting him so. Told him I wouldn't blame him if he wanted to end everything: us, the partnership."
"What did Bodie say?" Angie demanded, utterly caught up in the spell-binding story.
"He just stood there, staring at me. Then, his eyes got real bright and he asked, very quietly, `Ray, do you love me?'" Even now, Doyle's tone was wondering. "I said, `Yes.' Couldn't say anything else -- was too choked up and it was still kind of hard to breathe."
"What happened then?" Angie blinked back tears. She'd had no idea real life could be this dramatic.
"Bodie sat down on the side of the bed, leaned over and kissed me, soft and gentle. Then, he ruffled my hair like he always does, grinned like an idiot and told me not to waste me strength worrying about it as it didn't matter. I was to get better pronto so he could prove it to me." Doyle gave a muffled snort and shook his head. "Stupid sod always lets me get away with murder," he admitted.
"Cowley wasn't best pleased when we told him we were on together and that it was permanent -- still not done in the security forces back then -- but he didn't make too much fuss. Let us get our own flat; told Allocations that we were rooming together to save expenses as CI5's budget had been cut again."
"How romantic!" sighed the younger woman. She automatically glanced at her watch and was shocked to see that it was nearly ten-thirty. "Why don't you kip out on the settee?" she suggested. "Take a quick nap. You must be tired after all that talking."
"Could do with a short one," confessed Doyle wryly. Reluctantly accepting the assist in standing and help over to the settee, he grudgingly let Angie adjust several scatter pillows under his head.
"That's better," she announced. "I'll go do up the dishes, shall I. Would you like some company after your nap?"
"Ta, but no. Murphy'll be here soon; must be his turn to baby-sit."
Angie just grinned and took herself off to the kitchen to clean up. By the time she was finished, Doyle was snoring softly. Giving in to a fleeting impulse, she bent over and kissed his cheek. "Good night, Ray," she breathed.
She let herself out, firmly locking the door behind her.
Fingers tapping in time to the music coming from the Volvo's radio, Angie tooled sedately along the country lane. She was actually on schedule today -- a minor miracle in itself -- and consequently, was in no hurry to get back to the surgery. The last week had been one of unremitting rain, wind and chilly temperatures, but this morning had dawned bright and warm with the merest hint of a breeze. She was determined to enjoy it to the utmost.
An annoying chirping drew her attention. Without taking her eyes off the road, Angie reached over and picked up the mobile phone. Expertly flipping it open one-handed, she said, "Angela Browne."
The pert voice of the surgery's receptionist answered her. "Got a message for you. A gentleman wants you to stop around this evening if you will. I told him you normally don't work evenings, but he was most insistent I tell you."
Frowning in dismay, Angie stared at the phone for a long moment. Now what? Her first free evening in what seemed like eons... "I'll give him insistent," she promised darkly. "Which one of our clients is it, this time?"
"He's not a client," returned Tricia. "At least, I don't recognise the name. We don't have a client by the name of Murphy, do we?"
"Murphy!" Unconsciously, Angie tightened her grip on the mobile. "Did he say what the problem was?" she asked urgently. "Do I need to get over there immediately?"
"So you do know him!" Tricia sounded relieved. "Is he one of the older clients?"
"Tricia." Executing a neat U-turn, Angie sped back the way she had just come. "Tell Dr. Hendrickson I'm on my way Raymond Doyle's. I may need an ambulance..."
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with Mr. Doyle," assured the receptionist. "I don't believe so, at least. Mr. Murphy said it wasn't an emergency. He just said I was to ask you to please stop over this evening."
Pulling the car off onto the verge, Angie sat for a few moments, taking deep breaths and regaining her composure.
Disturbed by the sudden silence, Tricia's voice grew louder with worry. "Angie? Angie, are you there? Is something wrong?"
The nurse had to moisten her lips before she could respond. "Yes, I'm fine, Tricia. You just startled me. Thought I had a major emergency on my hands." She tried to make light of her reaction, damning her shaking hands and glad that nobody was there to see it.
"Oh." The other woman still sounded a little doubtful. "Do I need to ring Mr. Murphy back? He didn't leave a number."
"No, that's all right. I'll take care of it. See you in a little bit; I'm on my way in now."
"All right. See you then." Tricia rang off.
Taking a few more minutes to ensure that she had her tear ducts under control, Angie again turned around and headed back toward the surgery. It might not be an emergency, but if Murphy wanted her there, it must be extremely important.
Angie had barely turned off the motor and gotten out before the door to Doyle's cottage opened and Murphy appeared. Seeing his cheerful wave and uncomplicated smile, she relaxed even further. Whatever it was, it couldn't be all that bad.
Needing a release, however, from the tension which had gripped her since receiving the message, she snapped, "What are you trying to do -- age me before my time?!"
Drawing level with him, Angie sighed and went on in a more moderate tone. "Your message this afternoon likely took twenty years off me. You insisting that I pop over to see Ray is not exactly conducive to my peace of mind, Mr. Murphy."
"Hell!" Murphy grimaced in apology. "Sorry, luv; didn't stop to think how it would sound. I did tell the girl it wasn't an emergency."
"So she said, but I'd already had the stroke." Relenting, Angie shook her head over him and grinned. "Oh, it's all right. You can drop the sackcloth and ashes bit." A little distrustful of the beam directed her way, she asked warily, "Why am I needed, anyway? Oh, no! You two aren't playing poker again, are you?" Angie was still smarting over how easily she'd been duped.
"Haven't forgiven us yet, eh?" Murphy didn't seem unduly bothered. "Nah, rest easy, luv. I didn't ask you here just so you could lose your whole pay packet again. I was whipping up some tortellini sauce, Ray mentioned how much you like the stuff and I suggested we invite you around for a free feed. End of mystery."
"In that case, I accept," she replied with a slight grin.
Walking slowly up the path to the door, a small oddity struck her. "You were fixing the sauce? How come Ray isn't cooking? Is he feeling that poorly?"
"I think the exact quote is `I was whipping', the operative word being was. Ray took one whiff of the stuff, and dumped the whole lot down the drain," admitted Murphy, shame-faced. "He said the last time he'd smelt anything that vile was when Anson fell in a rusted septic tank while he was chasing an arms dealer. A new, edible batch is now simmering gently on the cooker. We were only waiting for you."
Reaching the door, Murphy made no attempt to enter. "As to how he's feeling..." The older man's face was a study in conflicting emotions. "I can scarcely believe he's the same man I saw two days ago."
"How do you mean?"
"Angie, is there any way he could be getting better?" Murphy rushed on to explain. "There's actually colour in his cheeks, his feet and legs aren't nearly as swollen and I haven't heard him cough or wheeze all day. He's got more energy, too; only took one, short nap. Could Ray's heart be mending itself?" Despite his best efforts, Murphy couldn't quite keep the note of hope out of his voice.
Hating herself for having to destroy that stubborn piece of optimism, Angie shook her head and quietly told him, "People do often seem to get better before the end. No one knows why."
"Oh." Eyes blinking rapidly, Murphy stared over her shoulder for a few minutes. Coming back to earth, he gave her a sardonic grin and said, "Let's not let Ray's sauce burn. He'll never forgive either of us."
As she passed him, the nurse patted the jacket-covered arm. Going through the sitting room to the kitchen doorway, she asked, "Need any help?"
"The curly head shook. "If I'd wanted a burnt offering, I'd have Murph helping." He turned back to the cooker, her outraged denial bouncing off his back.
Smiling, Murphy beckoned her back into the sitting room and handed her a glass of wine. "Don't take it to heart," he counseled her pityingly. "According to Doyle, he's the only one in the world who can cook decently."
"And don't you forget it!" came a bellow.
Chuckling, Angie sipped her wine. Walking over to the music system, she stood idly enjoying the song coming from the powerful speakers. Glancing up, she caught Murphy gazing fixedly at the kitchen, a silent tear coursing down a cheek. She doubted the man was even aware of it.
Coming up quietly beside him, she laid a comforting hand on his arm. "It's so hard, isn't it? I've only known him two months; I can't begin to comprehend how you must feel."
"No, you can't," he answered tonelessly. Unselfconsciously wiping at his eyes, Murphy turned to face her. "But that's not your fault. If I never say it again, I want you to know how grateful I am to you. Thanks for making this as painless as possible -- for both Ray and myself. Don't know what I would've done if you hadn't been here for him."
Feeling the blush glowing in her cheeks, Angie half-shrugged and took a hurried sip of wine, trying to ignore Murphy's delighted chortle.
"I don't believe!" he crowed. "I thought blushing was a lost art!"
"Murph," came a curt order from the kitchen, "stop bugging the lady and come help lift dinner."
Saluting neatly, Murphy spun on his heel. "To hear is to obey."
Taking a fortifying breath, Angie wandered aimlessly about the sitting room, sipping at her wine. Tuning out the noisy industry in the other room, her mind went into a pleasant neutral, only coming back online when a musical cord pierced the fog. Head cocked to one side, she listened intently to the beautiful, yet strangely wistful, song.
"Oi! Gone to sleep on me?" Doyle's amused voice shattered the spell. "I said -- dinner's ready."
"Sorry." Somewhat flustered, Angie gave an apologetic grin. "Mind was a million miles away."
Dinner was a chatty affair. As both Angie and Murphy were determined to avoid facing reality before they had to, they purposefully kept the conversation light and non-threatening. Consequently, Doyle spent much of the meal almost doubled over with laughter, caught between Murphy's horrible puns and Angie's hospital humour.
Clearing up was accomplished the same way. Banishing Doyle to the sitting room, Angie and Murphy washed and dried the dishes, all the while continuing their game of one-upmanship. Wiping out the sink, Angie had just started a particularly scurrilous story, when her attention was claimed by a familiar song. Going to the door, she looked into the sitting room, finding Doyle in his favourite chair, head back and eyes closed. As the singer's deep, rich voice wove his magic, she watched a gentle smile come to the full lips. Even when the song had ended, Doyle didn't open his eyes, obviously lost in a happy world of his own.
"The Story of My Life." A voice came from behind her.
Starting, she spun. "Eh?"
"That's the name of the song," Murphy told her, brushing past as he went into the other room. Passing Doyle, he reached out and shook a bony knee. "Ray's and Bodie's fave, right, mate?"
"Yeah." A reminiscent smile on his face, Doyle gave his longtime friend a wink. "Our song."
"I don't believe I've ever heard it before," ventured Angie, sinking down onto the carpet beside Doyle's chair. "But it's certainly beautiful. Happy, and yet so sad in a way. Who does it?"
"Michael Crawford," Doyle replied, accepting the glass of scotch Murphy handed him. "Lots of people have done it, but this is Bodie's favourite version."
Angie nodded absently. "I can see why. I know I haven't met Bodie yet, but it seems a very appropriate song for him. For both of you," she added hastily.
Chuckling, Doyle lightly cuffed her head. "Cheeky!" Sobering suddenly, Doyle admitted, "But you're right. It was Bodie's song before it became `ours'. Just wish I didn't have to keep learning things the hard way."
Frowning bemusedly, Angie was about to ask him what he meant by that bizarre statement when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Murphy shake his head emphatically. She obediently closed her mouth.
"'S all right, Murph," Doyle said unexpectedly, a rueful gleam in the green eyes. "Don't mind her knowing." Looking down into dark, enquiring eyes, Doyle went on, "No big secret, anyway. Me making a right prat of meself, I mean. Unfortunately, it happens fairly often."
"Now, Ray, don't..." began Murphy.
"Can it," interrupted Doyle crisply. "You know it's true; don't try to deny it. To this day, I don't know why Bodie didn't give me the thumping I deserved. Just know I'm the luckiest man in the world `cause he hung on the way he did.
"Was just after I hit forty." Doyle glanced at Angie's attentive face. "Swear to god, I didn't think I was any moodier than normal." A faint grin appeared at Murphy's muffled snort. "Okay, okay -- I was being a right bastard! At the time -- well, at the time, all I could see was Bodie pussy-footing around me for no apparent reason. Started having all sort of crazy ideas on why he seemed to be avoiding me...and we were living together by then! Had been for almost seven years. Between that and the job...I reckon the safest thing you could say was that I got reckless."
A pause for a sip of spirits. "We'd been chasing this pair of arms smugglers down a dirty alley in Wapping when they split up at a corner. Bodie went after one; I took off after the other. Lost sight of the damn sod, couldn't find him for nothing. I was peering into every damp and filthy corner I could find, and getting madder and madder, when suddenly, out he pops, swinging a broken two by four. Hit me square across the upper chest. Next time I was aware of anything, Bodie's got this guy pinned up against a wall and is beating the shit out of him. Only lets go after I yelled at him.
"To make a long story short, after much swearing and fighting on my part, I got checked out at hospital. Doctor said I was bruised internally pretty bad, and I know it hurt like bloody hell. Wasn't about to let Bodie know that, however. Know it was stupid -- but I was feeling all kinds of a fool for letting a two-bit punk sneak up on me, and then needing Bodie's help to catch him. Know Bodie didn't feel the same way, but at the time, me pride was hurting the most."
"Says you," muttered Murphy into his drink.
"Yeah, says me," argued Doyle spiritedly. "The damage didn't show up for over a week. You know that, Murph."
Angie interjected softly, "Fluid built up around your heart?"
Wryly, Doyle patted her on the head. "Always knew you were a smart one!" Shrugging, he finished his drink before he went on, "Yeah. About a week after I was hit, I could tell something was really wrong: every time I moved fast, my chest hurt and I had a hard time catching my breath. Got to the point I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without almost passing out. Poor Bodie, he's practically out of his mind by now -- begging me to see a doctor. I wouldn't hear of it, just kept snarling at him to leave me alone. Just because I was forty, I wasn't some frail, senile old man. Didn't need anyone -- especially him -- looking out for me."
He looked down in time to see Angie wince.
"Yeah, that's me -- tongue sharper than any knife ever made." Malachite eyes glazing, his sight turned inward, not liking what he was seeing. "Y'know the funny thing? Part of me could see what I was doing to Bodie, see how I was ripping him apart, but I just couldn't seem to stop. Kept going on and on about not needing any nursemaid; he didn't like it, he could just walk. About that time, we got a call, so we had to shelve the argument and hit the streets. I remember every second of that drive: him sitting there, his hands white-knuckled where they clenched the wheel, that hard, cold look on his face. And me, sick to death with the shame of what I'd said, and not knowing how to say I was sorry -- my chest was hurting so bad, I could hardly breathe.
"The details aren't all that important anymore, but we walked into an ambush. Had just gotten out of the car when we were caught in a cross-fire. I dived behind some rubbish skips sitting on the path, and Bodie hunkered down behind the car. By now, I couldn't seem to catch my breath at all, my chest was on fire, the sound of the gunfire was strangely muffled and there were funny bright lights at the edges of my vision. It was like I was looking down a blurry, red tunnel. Suddenly, Bodie jumps up, right in the middle of the street and fires a couple of shots over me head. One of `em must've crept up behind me `cause I heard the thud of a body falling."
Doyle seemed oblivious to the tears running freely down his cheeks. Loathe to disturb him, Angie reached up and put her hand on his.
"I saw movement to his right...tried to warn him...oh, god... But, the words wouldn't come...I don't know...they wouldn't come out, and I had to sit there and watch some Irish bastard put three rounds into my Bodie!" Choking out the last, Doyle buried his face in his hands.
Shocked, Angie rose to her knees, reaching out to him. "Oh, no!"
Swiftly, Murphy switched to perch on the chair arm, hand on Doyle's shaking shoulder. Hazel eyes bright, he carried on, "By the grace of God, back-up was only a few minutes behind them. When we reached the scene, the gunmen were long gone. There were four dead, Doyle unconscious on the path and Bodie bleeding badly out in the street. Later, we found out Bodie had taken a hit clean through his left shoulder, another into his left lung just above his heart and the last into his spleen. He was hemorrhaging -- they almost lost him twice inbound to hospital.
"What was spooking everyone, though, was Doyle. From what we could tell, he hadn't been hit, yet he was breathing as badly as Bodie and his lips were just as blue. The medics slapped some oxygen on him and that seemed to help, but only a little. His heart started fluttering on `em. One of the medics was screaming at the driver to make it fast or we were going to lose both. The ambulance takes off, and I'm driving like a madman just to keep up, the Cow swearing at the top of his lungs beside me. Christ!"
Murphy shuddered in remembered horror. "The look on his face... No matter how hard they tried to deny it -- Cowley, Bodie or Doyle -- the whole Squad knew that 3.7 and 4.5 were Cowley's favourites, his Bisto Kids.
"Well, when the shouting was finally over, Cowley was told Bodie was critical, but barring complications, expected to live; and that Doyle would make it, but was critical with something called cor pulmonale. I know you've already guessed that, but remember, it was all new to us. The docs also said that, although they'd removed the excess blood and fluid from around his heart, the damage was already done. It had gone on too long, y'see, and part of the heart muscle had died. Doyle would never again be fit enough for the A Squad."
Glancing down at the still-bowed head of silver curls, Murphy gently ruffled Doyle's hair, then took him in a firm hug. "We were all still reeling from that, when this pillock throws us for another loop. He refused to see Bodie."
"What?!" It was several long minutes before Angie could pick her jaw up off the floor. "Didn't he know that Bodie was alive?"
"Oh, yeah; he knew. I was sitting with him -- Cowley was sitting with Bodie -- and the minute he opened those green peepers, I told him. Made damn sure he understood me, too."
"But, I don't..."
"Simple, really. You just have to know your Doyle," returned the older man cynically. "He felt responsible for Bodie getting shot. It was all his fault. Everyone from Cowley on down tried to reason with him, but Doyle's as stubborn as they come. He was grateful Bodie was going to live -- cried when I told him that -- but he and Bodie were finished, over. When he, Doyle, got out of hospital, he was going to leave and no one was going to stop him. Berk."
"But it was my fault." The statement was muffled behind Doyle's hands. Lowering them slowly, he looked at Angie through red-rimmed eyes. "If I hadn't been too proud to see a doctor, I would never have passed out on him like that. Would have been able to watch his back. Because of my fucking pride, my Bodie damn near bleeds to death in front of me! How the bloody hell was I supposed to feel?!"
"Oh, Ray!" Angie made no attempt to dry her eyes. "You didn't do it on purpose; there was no maliciousness behind the pride. Somehow, I can't believe Bodie ever faulted you, either."
"No, he didn't," Doyle confessed reluctantly. "But that's just Bodie's way...let me walk all over him with hobnailed boots, if that's what I want."
"So what happened next?"
"Eh?" Doyle blinked at her for a moment, then abruptly, coloured furiously. "Oh, well..."
Breaking in, Murphy picked up the story, giving Doyle a sly wink. "Of course, what Doyle hadn't reckoned with was Bodie's stubbornness. Well matched in that respect, they are. Four days after the shooting, when he was still as weak as a new-born kitten, Bodie asks me to go to their flat and pick up a certain cassette tape for him and a portable player. I thought he just wanted to listen to some music to take his mind off Doyle. He wasn't even allowed out of bed yet; was hooked up to all sorts of IV's and monitors. So, I fetched his parcel and asked him if he'd like me to set it up for him. He said `No thanks, mate.' Mentioned he was going to take a quick kip, so I left. Should've known better!"
"Yes, you should've!" agreed Doyle, face lightening somewhat. "You know what sort of patient he is. I was also trying to nap, feeling suitably sorry for meself, when I heard this noise at the door. In stumbled Bodie, trailing IV tubes and wires behind him. Dozy sod can barely stand -- he's leaning against the wall or he would've fallen -- but he shut me up with his best glare and ripped into me. Really let me have it. Gist of it was, no way in hell was I leaving him, and if he had to camp out on the floor in my hospital room to make sure of it, then by god, he was sending for his sleeping bag right then!"
Running a hand through his hair, Doyle laughed quietly. "By this time, half the nurses on the ward are flying through the door trying to find out what all the commotion was about. They were followed by half the nurses from Bodie's ward, looking for him. In double-quick time, the whole circus got itself sorted out, and Bodie was being forcibly wheeled out the door, arguing the whole way. Threatened to go AWOL again the moment their backs were turned. I was begging him not to be so foolish -- daft fool's practically grey by this time and you could see he was about thirty seconds from passing out -- so I said I would do anything if he'd just do what the nurses ordered. That shut him up right quick.
"He agreed...as long as I would listen to his tape, which the silly berk still had clenched tight in his shaking hand. A nurse took the portable player and tape, put them where I could easily reach them on the bed table and Bodie's nurses finally get him out the door.
"By now, I really was knackered, but my mind wouldn't let me rest. Finally, to stop the arguments in my head, I listened to the tape. Wondered why it was cued up halfway through one side, but I was too distracted to care overmuch. So I heard that song. Had to listen to it three times before I really grasped what Bodie was trying to tell me. First time, I was in shock; second time, I was crying too hard to understand anything; but the third time was a charm."
"Then?" prompted Angie gently.
"Went AWOL meself." A cheeky grin lit Doyle's face. "Least, I didn't have any wires or tubes hanging loose at the time! Took myself off to his room and plopped in the chair beside his bed. Sat there and watched him sleep for a bit, then he woke up. When he saw me sitting there, he just smiled sleepily at me, shuffled over as best he could and held up the blanket. I ask you: What else was I supposed to do?"
"Cowley found them like that, curled up together like two bush babies," Murphy reported, laughing. "Doyle hadn't even been missed yet. Cowley gave the nurses a rocket for that, let me tell you. The rest, as they say, is history."
"No kidding," muttered Angie, easing herself off the floor with a slight wince. Throwing a look at her watch, she exclaimed, "Will you look at the time! I've got a six-thirty call tomorrow morning!" Her face and voice were horrified.
"I'm sure you'll survive," Doyle quoted, deadpan.
Sticking her tongue out at him, Angie gathered up her handbag and keys. She said her good-byes to Murphy then, greatly daring, walked over and kissed Doyle on the cheek. "Thanks for the dinner. I'll drop by after work, if that's all right?"
"Sure thing," her client replied automatically, somewhat bemused by the unexpected turn of events. Deciding he approved, he leveled a dignified glare at Murphy, who was laughing himself sick on the settee.
Humming along with the radio, Angie carefully turned off the slip way onto the secondary road. Thank goodness that chore was over! She hated the monthly case meetings with the district social worker. To Angie's way of thinking, the woman was more concerned with the proper filling out of computer forms than she was in the welfare of the people entrusted to her care. Of course, documentation was important, but Mrs. Hodges had a way of reducing flesh and blood to so many lines on a computer monitor...
"...and every word is true. Each chapter sings your name; each page begins with you..."
The Volvo screeched to a sudden halt, rocking back and forth on its axles. Numbly, the nurse stared at the radio, an abrupt cold sweat breaking out all over. Oh, God, no...
Seconds later, the vehicle took off again, tyres shrieking their protest. Grim-faced, she pulled out the mobile, shouting into it to be heard above the whining engine. "I don't care what the doctor's doing! Just get him over to Ray Doyle's! Stat! Then call Mr. Murphy; he should be at his London number."
Throwing the phone aside, Angie was in time to hear the radio announcer say cheerfully, "Wow! A definite oldie, but a goodie! That was Michael Crawford performing `The Story of My Life'. Just had a sudden urge to play it."
Snapping the radio off with such force that she broke the knob, Angie focused her concentration on her driving, deliberately blanking her mind.
Ten minutes later, the motor screamed to a halt outside Doyle's cottage. Gravel still flying about her, Angie threw open the car and almost fell out in her unthinking panic. Not questioning the blind instinct which drove her, she tore up the walk and, cursing fluently and steadily, finally managed to get the oak door unlocked. Only after she had thrown the door open, knocking it back against the opposite wall in her frenzy, did Angie stop. Standing in the tiny entryway, she was suddenly horribly, and inexplicably, afraid.
"R-Ray?" she called out in a strangled voice.
"Ray?" Slightly louder this time, praying with all her soul that Doyle would stick his head around the kitchen door and laugh at her silliness.
Beyond the open front door, a lark sank clearly and sweetly.
A queer detachment stealing over her, Angie went down the short hallway to the bedroom, her gait uneven and jerky. Pushing against the never-opened door, she came to a halt just over the portal.
Doyle lay curled on his right side, his left arm stretching over to the empty place beside him. There was a curiously peaceful expression on the white face; the cupid's bow lips were turned up in a contented smile.
Bodie had returned to his spouse at last.
Angie would later have no real memories of the next fortnight. The days would forever stay blurred, a montage of faces and events. A few stood out sharp and crisp: the wild look on Murphy's face as he hurtled up the walk, only to come to an abrupt halt at seeing her, his face crumbling; the quiet sighing of the trees on the bright, sunlit morning they laid Doyle to rest beside his beloved Bodie.
She calmly and efficiently went about her work, refusing Dr. Hendrickson's compassionate offer of a week's leave.
"After all," she informed the doctor, her smile brittle, "it's not as though he were family."
No one at the office ever mentioned Doyle again, although both the doctor and Laura kept a discreet eye on the oblivious nurse. Both hoped for a catharsis, yet knew the younger woman would have to overcome her grief in her own way in her own time.
Sitting in her flat one evening two weeks after Doyle's funeral, Angie was startled by a knock on her door. Switching on the hall light as she went into the foyer, she opened the door to find Murphy on her doorstep.
"Hello, Angie." The older man's smile was small, but genuine. He was carrying a wrapped parcel. "May I come in?"
"Of course!" Forcing her brain into gear, Angie stepped aside for him to enter. Following him into the sitting room, she asked, "Would you like a cuppa?"
"Sure; if it's not too much trouble."
Feeling halfway alive for the first time in too long, Angie grinned. "Make yourself comfortable, then. I'll be right with you."
Coming back with the tea tray several minutes later, she poured out a mug for Murphy and one for herself. She noted the package was now lying on the settee next to Murphy.
"What brings you down here?" she questioned, blowing on her tea.
"I wanted to see you one last time. Wanted to thank you once more for all you did for Ray. You didn't have to do all that, and I know it." Murphy had himself under complete control, although his eyes misted slightly.
Finding her own eyes flooded with abrupt, unwelcome tears, Angie bit her lip, struggling to keep her voice from breaking. "There's no need to thank me; if I had to, I'd do it all over again. I...l-loved..." her voice wobbled precariously before steadying. "...him too much to just abandon him."
"I know you did." Murphy smiled gently. "Ray loved you, too, y'know. He told me that you were like the daughter he and Bodie could never have. That's why he wanted you to join us for dinner that night; was worried that you might work too late and miss a meal."
Angie found herself chuckling. "As if missing a meal wouldn't be good for me!"
"By the looks of you, I'd wager you'd been missing more than one meal just lately." Murphy subjected her to a penetrating visual assessment.
She shrugged. "Haven't been all that hungry just lately."
Murphy stared at her for a few seconds longer, then he reached over and picked up the parcel. He handed it to her. "Ray would've wanted you to have this."
Suddenly reluctant, Angie gazed down at the package. She forced herself to drink half her mug of tea before she started to open it. Murphy just watched her calmly, sipping on his own tea.
Hands shaky, she peeled back the tape and pulled out a picture frame. It was the photo of Bodie and Doyle that had stood so proudly on the end table near the fireplace. Trembling fingers traced first Doyle's, then Bodie's, face.
Swallowing hard to get past the boulder in her throat, she managed to choke out, "Th-thank you."
Getting up, Murphy gave her a quick hug. "You're quite welcome." He prosaically handed her her tea, then sat back down on the settee.
The companionable silence was broken several minutes later by Angie's diffident, "May I ask you something?"
"Sure," he replied easily. "What?"
"It's just that I've always wondered and I couldn't ask Ray..."
"Ask Ray what?"
Gathering her courage, Angie asked, "What caused Bodie's death?"
Murphy shot to his feet, face paling. Taking several jerky turns about the small room, he presently turned back to her. "How about another cuppa? This is going to be thirsty work."
She obediently poured him another mugful and passed it to him.
Standing with his back to her, he said bluntly, "The doctor in Casualty said it was a dissecting aortic aneurysm. Said there'd probably been no warning, that it likely ruptured too fast for anyone to save him. Bodie never knew what hit him."
Nodding thoughtfully, Angie finished her tea. She stated quietly, "He's quite correct. Most people bleed to death within minutes. Bodie more than likely never even had time to wake up before it was all over."
"Yeah, that's what the doctor said."
Gazing at him, Angie enquired, "So what's the big mystery, then?"
"When I asked you just now how Bodie died, you went absolutely white. Ray's gone now, too, so it can't be that you're afraid he'll overhear. What's wrong?"
"Doyle always did say you were an observant little cuss." There was no disparagement in the dry remark. Stalling, Murphy paced some more before he faced her again. "I know you've heard how Ray collapsed when he found Bodie dead that morning." Seeing Angie's nod, he continued, "When I got to the hospital, Ray was still in the Casualty Ward, too critical to be moved. Hell, his heart stopped a dozen times in as many minutes. I couldn't get anywhere near him due to the crush of medical personnel, but I could see his eyes were open.
"The truly macabre thing about all this was, because it was such a small hospital, they had put Bodie in the cubicle next to Doyle. A doctor called me over and explained about Bodie. I was in total shock -- Bodie had been his usual cheeky self when I'd spoken to him a couple of days before -- and all I could think to ask was how it had happened. It never penetrated my feeble excuse for a brain that Ray was lying right where he could hear the doctor say that Bodie had died from an aneurysm likely caused by the warping effect of scar tissue from his previous shooting. Shit! How could I have been so bloody stupid?!"
Finding her own voice with commendable alacrity, Angie hastened to reassure him. "You can't blame yourself for that. In your place, I would've thought the same. Most people having a coronary the severity of Ray's would've been unconscious, even though their eyes might've been open."
"Yeah, I guess." Murphy laughed bitterly. "It just didn't dawn on me that Ray could've heard that. Hell, he was so sick, nobody thought he would even remember that Bodie was dead. That's why I wanted to be the one to break the news; I was afraid he'd go over the edge. Instead, he lies there in that damn hospital bed, smiling at me and accusing me of looking like Death on a holiday! Then he starts chirping on about Bodie and how difficult it must be keeping him from visiting.
"I just stood there, honestly thinking Ray's pulling a fast one on me, when it finally hits. He'd heard the bloody doctor. I'd been worried that Ray would lose it, and he had. The shock of waking up to find Bodie dead beside him, the trauma of his own severe heart attack and then somehow hearing Bodie had died due to scar tissue from the shooting that Ray still blamed himself for..."
"His mind couldn't handle the fact that a long-ago mistake on his part had just caused his spouse's death. Therefore, Bodie wasn't dead -- he'd just stepped out for a day or two. Oh, poor Ray." Angie shook her head sorrowfully.
There was a solemn silence for a long time, then Murphy finally bestirred himself. "It's getting late. I need to get back to London."
Showing him to the door, Angie was disconcerted, but pleased, when she was enveloped in a bear hug and her cheek kissed.
"Take care of yourself, luv."
"I will," she promised. "You be careful on the drive back."
Waving, Angie watched Murphy drive away before she closed the door. Going back into the sitting room, she gathered up the tea mugs and bore them out to the kitchen for rinsing. That done, she headed for her bedroom. Passing her easy chair, she reached down and picked up the photograph of Bodie and Doyle. She stared at it intently then, with a slightly abashed grin, brought it into her bedroom and placed it on the night stand. Collapsing onto the bed, she could no longer restrain herself. Bursting into harsh sobs, Angie reached out and hugged the picture to herself. Running out of tears and strength an unknown length of time later, she staggered into the bathroom to wash her face before wearily getting ready for bed.
That night, she had her first restful sleep in two weeks.
Share with me;
care with me;
Stay, and be near.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Chalk and Cheese 14, Whatever You Do, Don't Press! (Agent With Style), 1996