To begin with, I’d had an unsettling dream. Lola, our lurcher, was stuck in mud down in a ditch, and I’d struggled with a short hose to wash her out of there. She’d accepted my help with a boneless kind of resignation, lapping at the water more to please me than anything else. I’d woken up exhausted. Found myself downstairs having coffee and toast, driving into work, parking, tapping out the code for the security door, swiping my card and passing through into the frenetic office – the whole thing so toneless and heavy-eyed I wouldn’t have been surprised to find I was still in my pyjamas.
I sat down and started to plan the day, struggling against the feeling that I was out of place, faking it. To be fair, it was a feeling I’d had before, that I was an imposter, acting out a role, and it was surely only a matter of time before I was found out. I could see it all, the sudden fall of silence, the turning of faces in my direction, the manager standing over me with her arms folded, tough detectives just visible in her office, smiling, shaking their heads, cracking their knuckles.
A disconnected, dizzying kind of feeling. I forced myself out of it by focusing on the task at hand, probably in the same way you might dampen down vertigo on a cliff face by describing in detail the tiny wildflower growing close to your face.
All this is to say I had a muzzy headache when I sorted out my list of patients for the day and went outside.
It was the perfect day for a headache. Even the pigeons were off, either comatose on the ledges or pitching forwards, gliding a little, slamming into the ground. The sky was a hard, preternatural blue, with that artificial depth you only get in cheap, 3D pictures.
My first visit didn’t go well. I’d already established – or thought I had – that I’d be visiting early today to take blood before Mr Williams had taken his digoxin. When I rang to give him the heads up I was on my way, there was no reply. I tried the mobile. Same thing. I texted the mobile to say I was coming, and headed over. They had a keysafe, so access wasn’t an issue. At least, it shouldn’t have been. Outside the block there were only two keysafes. One was so crapped up it looked like it had been salvaged from the Titanic and stuck on the wall as a talking point. The other was obviously the one I needed – pristine, the label still bright. Which was fine, except the number didn’t work. I went round the back of the block, to the courtyard parking area. The early sun was angling in, falling on a pot of large, white lilies, which seemed like a sign, although of what, I couldn’t say. There was no access, so I returned to the front and used the tradesmen button, which seemed appropriate, anyway. It worked. Two floors up, I knocked on Mr Williams’ door. I knew he couldn’t get up to answer it, but he lived with his son Nathan, so that was okay. After a while I knocked again. I heard some shouting, and I guessed Mr Williams hadn’t told his son about the visit. Still – it was nine o’clock by now, so I didn’t feel too bad. I left it a good while before I knocked again, just in case Nathan was in the shower and needed time to dry off. All in all it was probably twenty minutes. At last, the sound of movement in the hallway, latches thrown, and the door was suddenly wrenched open.
‘What?’ said Nathan, round eyed, furious, peering round the edge of the door with one hand either side of his face like a malevolent Kilroy.
‘I’ve come to take some blood,’ I said. ‘I rang and sent a text.’
He stared at me for a long second, like he was running through the consequences of tearing me to pieces – (on the run; helicopters, hounds, handcuffs; the cells; the dock; the nick; stepping out into the broad bright world with a brown paper parcel under his arm twenty-five years later with a long beard and a crooked back…).
‘On you go, mate,’ he snarled, and released the door.
I was thinking about all this when I was sitting in a slow line of traffic on my way to the next patient. It added to the fugged stew of the day. What was I doing with my life? Was it a struggle simply because I was forcing myself to do something that wasn’t a good fit? What was a good fit? How was it possible that I had got to this age, having done so much, still struggling to orientate myself in the world?
The traffic loosened a little and we all nudged forwards. I sighed, pulled on the handbrake again, glanced in the rearview mirror at the car behind me. It was a battered old Micra, the red pinking out, a line of plastic animals along the dash. The driver was a middle-aged woman, her hair in a Little My bun so high on the top of her head it flattened against the roof. She was wearing white plastic sunglasses which made her look like an owl on acid. As soon as she noticed me she spread the fingers of either hand widely with the thumbs still hooked in the wheel, like she was flaring her wings. I smiled awkwardly and looked forward again – only to find the traffic had moved on. I fumbled the gears, stalled, started again, caught up.
But then – a strange thing. I thought: what if she wasn’t annoyed with me? What if she was actually a witch, dedicated to casual acts of magic wherever she went. What if the Micra was her familiar? That flare of her fingers – maybe that was the spell being released, sparkling through the air from her to me like that beam of sunlight on the pot of lilies?
I decided that’s what it was. And strangely enough, as soon as I did, the day got better. The next patient and his family were as warm and welcoming to me as if I were the son they never had. I sat between them, sunk deep on the ludicrously comfortable sofa, taking notes, making them laugh. And the patient after that, who I’d found hanging half-in and half-out of his bed, who I’d treated as best I could till the ambulance came – well, I could see he appreciated it, too. And when the ambulance did turn up I knew them, and it was like a reunion. And it was all warm and easy and right. And I finished late but I didn’t care.
And it was all down to that witch.