The gurney and attendants disappeared to the left at the end of the aisle, no doubt heading for a special emergency room. His sobering accelerated at the view of those parents clutching each other, hands squeezed firmly together, elbows out, heads pressed against each other, walking out of step with each other, their bodies expressing cacophonies of anguished wails. Through the backs of their heads, Mike could clearly see the tears in their eyes. For the first time in, well, a lifetime, Mike felt for someone else.
For sure, he knew his own mother and father would never be there to follow him up an A&E aisle.
Leslie Turnbull, age 58, widow, third meeting success, lovely curvy body.
Vanessa Seagrove, 31, daughter, second meeting, so much pain from her loss, great!
Tanya Kowolski, 40, granddaughter, after funeral, wow she was easy but not great.
Laura Thomas, 31, great granddaughter, before funeral!!, easy peasy but an amateur - not much grief.
Tamsin Price, 16, niece, met at funeral and success next day, surprisingly good, must have had something going with her uncle to have so much pent up feeling in her.
You get the gist. Mike’s pace was hotting up. By spring he was racing towards his twenty mark. Surprisingly, he got the feeling that his targets were more receptive during the winter months. He was really looking forward to back up his theory over the next cold dark season. The proof of the pudding, so they say.
What he could tell, should he was to sit down with a boss for a performance review, was that he was getting better at it. The initial homework and preparation was a great help but the main asset in his task was himself. He was a natural talent. Unfortunately it was not something he could really add to his CV, below his three A grades. But if he analysed the transferable skills he was displaying then his CV would make him a good match for many lofty managerial roles.
Time management was a key skill. Listening was essential. Empathy (fake but convincing). Strategy (when to make a move). Staying trim (he went to the gym and moisturised). Body language reading. Body language given off. Fibs. Pragmatic lying. Whoppers. Memory (knowing when and why he lies). Logistics (being in the right place at the right time). Kissing (first kiss and follow ups, knowing what category of kisses needed by target). Decision making. Fucking. Forgetting.
All these skills were honed with practice. Except the ability to forget. Mike was a natural forgetter. Usually anyone with a heart would reminisce, smile at the happy memory of the smell of hair, an expression, an endearing mannerism or just the orgasm. Not Mike. Find em, @X*&! em….. forget em was his mantra, although he was loathe to admit a bit of misty-eyedness about Molly and Jean, as his first successes. The rest were as dead to him as the people they had loved and lost.
Of course one of the major tasks he had was to keep his activities secret from Marie. He invented a couple of friends with which to meet and he said he was going to the gym more often than he really did. Mike even invented a couple of aunts and uncles to visit. To do all this he had to know Marie's routine and her shift patterns and mention his phantom friends and family only as much as needed.
One more skill to add to the list. Luck. Things always seemed to turn out the way he wanted. His life with his small gang of mates in Bicton was what he wanted. Leaving school when he did was what he wanted, despite evidence of a brain that could take him out of Shropshire. Getting beaten up in the fashion store was what he wanted; he wanted to feel what it was like. Getting an older girlfriend was what he wanted. All these widows and daughters were what he wanted. He felt he was lucky enough to get everything he deserved. And he truly deserves everything he got, in his eyes, after the upbringing his mother gave him.
Alicia Khan, 45, daughter, five meetings, Bicton’s best (he never noticed her before when he roamed the streets there with his mates).
Anabella Richmond, 27, granddaughter, six meetings, a real challenge and a real beauty and worth the wait.
He did all these women and nobody knew. These were his successes. His failures were acceptably low and proof that his marketing strategy was good.
He knew he had luck on his side, or somewhere thereabouts. That’s the thing with luck, you don’t always know that it's there for you.
On at least six occasions, a white plumber’s Ford Escort van had waited outside the hospital main gate, ready to follow Mike to wherever he went. On all those occasions, he happened to dutifully go home to his partner, sometimes via the gym and sometimes direct, occasionally via the chippy or Tesco thus proving what a thoughtful and caring man he was to poor Marie. Mike was indeed a lucky devil. But sooner or later, as sure as eggs is eggs, Carl would definitely catch Mike sniffing around a sad looking woman.
So to summarise: life was a breeze, his hobby was fun, his luck was in.
Unfortunately for Mike, a funeral on Wednesday May 13th was about to buck the trend.
She had intrigued him. On the first pass through, she had left the room looking bereft, not, he felt, from the fact her granddad was dying but because of what somebody had said to her. She left the room holding a tissue to her nose, nearly colliding with a cleaner wiping down the plastic dado rail next to the door. After apologising to the cleaner she leant back against the corridor wall. She pulled the hair band from her brown hair, shook her thick locks, gathered them and pulled them back tight before re-positioning the elastic band to create a bunch high up on her head. Mike slowed as he approached with a Mr Andrews in the chair. Mike noted her thick thighs, portion of fat hanging over her jeans and a white trail of flesh leading around her body from between a navy blue t-shirt and buttoned trouser waist.
An hour later she was still there, stood by herself whilst her family sat around the dying man. Something was not right. Mike passed her and nodded, with no response. Turning the corner some thirty feet further on, he waited for a minute before returning. He nodded again. As he passed, he sensed her eyes look up to watch him.
After this he knew he just had to come back later. This time he had no patient and no notes. She had better be there, he thought as he exited the lift to enter Ward 30.
Turning the corner, his spirits raised as he saw her pacing down the corridor, head bowed. Had granddad passed away or was she unable to face the long bedside vigil? Mike wanted to find out. Never before has his increasing fascination with impending death thrown up an opportunity like this. As he well knew, he was a strike while the iron’s hot type of guy, Marie courtship excepted. He stopped by the girl and enquired how she was. Still head bowed, she muttered that she was alright.
Then he asked her name.
“How’s it going in there?”
“What?” she replied quietly.
“How’s it going, you know, progressing.” Mike knew this was like a bus driving over a field of eggs, or anything as clumsy and incongruous as that. But he wanted to know.
“Well, I feel for you.” He actually did. He felt for all of them in that room but especially for Molly. She seemed to offer a connection of some sort to something he wanted from life.
“Oh, my granddad will die today. How do you think it's going?”
“I know what it’s like, Molly. It's a horrible time, I’ve been through it myself, not long ago.” This empathy thing felt good, even if his side of the story was bunkum.
“Ah, I’m sorry. This is not what I thought it would be like.”
This was an interesting response for Mike. He wanted to know what it was like, to lose a loved one.
“Listen, I'm heading down for a coffee.” He stepped closer. Blue eyes to blue eyes, he spoke gently. “I think you need a break for a few minutes, come on, I’ll buy you a drink and you can, if you want, talk to me about how you feel.”
Mike sounded so genuinely sympathetic. But he would have no qualms about putting the pressure on to get results: he really needed to know how she felt.
“Oh ermm.” She looked at the closed door. “Yes, that would be nice. It should be ok. Thank you.”
Together they headed for the lift and the League of Friends cafe on the ground floor.
The small tables were great for them. Just leaning forward put you in close proximity to the person opposite. If Mike could get her to lean forward at the same time, he’d be in, inside her mind, breathing in the essence of grief.
Molly fidgeted on her seat, looking around the busy cafe to avoid looking at Mike. She wanted to be there but felt she shouldn’t. After a further moment of reflection, she reckoned her two older sisters and mother should be able to hold the fort for a while.
“Are you ok, Molly?”
“Oh, you know, stressed by it all, not sure I should be down here.” At that moment, she looked at Mike.
“It was my father, here just a few weeks ago….”
“I am so sorry…”
Mike leaned in. “It’s a strange time, the waiting, isn’t it?”
Molly nodded, her eyes beginning to water.
“I loved my dad. I am always going to miss him. It was always me and my dad. He was the best ever…” Mike’s eyes began to water. Which was quite something because he had never had a dad. Well, someone was around until he was about five years old. He called him dad, he remembers. But then he disappeared. Mike’s mother said, in a matter of fact manner, that he had died. Later in life, Mike reckoned he had just scarpered or was kicked out. He wasn’t that sure he was his real dad anyway, given what his mother was like.
Mike was happy to feed Molly as many lies as it took.
“It was like that with granddad… it was just him and me for so long, probably something to do with me being the baby of the family.”
“Yeah, I am by myself, no brothers or sisters to share the grief with.”
Molly leant forward and extended her hand towards his side of the table.
Bingo! He was in.
“I haven’t got anyone either.”
“No, they hate me…”
“No they don’t, I’m sure it's just because it’s a difficult time for you all.”
“They blame me, well…. my sisters do.”
“Ah, I’m sure they don’t really.” For a moment, Mike actually cared.
“It feels like they do.”
“Why’s that then?”
“When he became ill, a couple of weeks ago, he was with me. My sisters don’t even live in Shrewsbury, they never ever visited him. But because I waited till after the weekend to get him to the doctor they reckon that by then the pneumonia had already set in.”
“Ah, that’s not fair. I’m sure they don’t mean it, they are just upset.”
Molly shrugged her shoulders.
“I think they were a bit jealous, I was with him most of the time, he was like my dad.”
“Yet they never visited him. Where is your dad, anyway?”
“Oh, he’s fine. They divorced years ago. He’s around, he’ll probably be up later. He’s been around to support mum and us.”
“He sounds ok.”
“So, tell me more about granddad.”
Molly carried on. It cheered her up to talk about the nice things that happened in her life, like weekends away camping and fishing in Wales, just the two of them. Mike fed the conversation about his wonderful, loving father. All the special times they shared. The more he lied the more she told the truth. All the time, his hand lay warmly on hers. It turned out that Mike could carry off this comfort thing. And he genuinely did feel that he cared for her.
The truth was that she had what he didn't have. Family love.
For almost an hour they sat in each other’s world. Molly thought his dad was fantastic. Mike thought Molly’s granddad was just like his imaginary dad. This made them feel kind of close to each other, maybe more than friends. Perhaps she was, for that hour, a sister he never had and he was a brother she never had. But no, it was different. More than that. And each time she warmly laid her hand on his, which in turn was on her other hand, a current flowed into him. He never had this feeling with Marie.
“At the end of the day, everything you do in life from now on must honour the life of your granddad. That’s how your life will be good. Because of him, you will never do anything bad. You will be able to be proud of your actions, you will become everything your granddad wanted you to be…that’s my purpose in life now, I know it sounds soppy, but I want to feel happy that my dad would be so proud of me...” Mike liked this one, so much so that he must use it again some time. That's the kind of thing a clever guy like Mike (after all he did get straight As at GCSE!).
“Thank you Mike, you make everything feel more positive, thank you..” She smiled and pressed her hand down on Mike’s and squeezed.
“Just look at the two of us… thank you as well Molly. You are helping me too ... let's both stay strong.”
At that moment, a stern looking tall woman in a raincoat strode into the League of Friends cafe. Mike broke away from looking into Molly’s eyes. He sat back as the lady approached Molly from behind.
Her hand clasped Molly on the shoulder. Molly looked up at Roberta, her eldest sister. Roberta shook Molly's shoulder and stooped to whisper into her ear. Mike could see her grip intensify and her long straight hair swing as she whispered assertively into Molly’s right ear.
Molly glanced to Mike as she heard the news that her grandfather was dead. Roberta straightened up, eyes trained on the head and curved shoulders of her baby sister.
“You go,” she ordered Roberta.
Roberta stared accusingly at Mike. Mike stared blankly at her. Her loss was of no interest to him. Just Molly’s loss.
Roberta strode off again, hair and coat swinging as she headed for the lift back upstairs.
“Would you call me, if that’s ok? Please….. He’s gone. He’s dead,” Molly confirmed croakily.
She handed him her phone so that he could enter his number.
Job done. Mike immediately missed her as she followed her sister to the lift to rejoin her family.
He studied her shapely bottom half and the pale flesh of her neck between her t-shirt and the hairline of her up-pulled hair.