‘I can’t feel my feet,’ Gabriel said.
His pale pink feet were mapped with blue veins, shrouded mercifully by his carpet slippers. His ankles, chafed and reddened, were now numb too, and his hands were losing sensation. Everywhere else, a tingling in the skin, unpleasant, like the onset of pins-and-needles. A cold sweat broke out and Gabriel shivered, suddenly, violently.
Sam sat across the coffee table from Gabriel and watched.
When the numbness stole across Gabriel completely, it was like anaesthetic, only he was still awake. He lay, contorted into an awkward position, old body half-in and half-out of the armchair, arm stretched across the coffee table, head level with his empty glass.
Light came through the drawn curtains across the room. Gabriel could see them, refracted through his empty coffee glass, as if the dark fabric had been poured in. He’d closed the curtains to keep out the bright sunlight, but somehow, it poured in anyway, filling and blurring his vision. Slowly, the glass, the sugar-bowl, and the teaspoon, still heaped with grains of Demerara sugar, faded. His eyes were succumbing last of all.
His body felt like a heap of hard sponge, tightly encased in latex. There was no surface feeling, no sense of cold or warmth, no contact with the armchair or coffee table, just the slight compression of his numbed weight and the darkness of being trapped in his own head.
Gabriel sat in his battered armchair, cigarette smoke coiling around him as he took a tremble-fingered drag. The room was comfortably dark, most of the bright daylight of the outside world blocked by the black curtains across the window that overlooked the little bungalow’s garden.
Gabriel glanced at the clock. Five minutes.
With some effort, he got back to his feet, shuffling across the room to the curtains, drawing them back enough to open the window a crack. He blinked in the bright light, turning his head aside as he tossed the stub of his cigarette out into the garden. The untidy grass beneath the window was littered with faded orange cigarette stubs. Gabriel closed the window, then the curtains, trying to block out as much brightness as possible.
There was a polite knocking at the door. Gabriel shuffled to open it, slippers making a soft rubbing sound on the threadbare carpet. The locks clicked back, one by one.
‘Sam!’ Gabriel wheezed, shaking Sam’s hand, inviting him in with a feeble pull. Sam was in his late twenties, good looking, stylish without any sense of pretence. His smile always made Gabriel feel grateful.
‘Come in, come in. How are you? Has it been very busy at the hospital? Always is, this time of year, I seem to remember…’
Sam entered the close gloom. He took off his shoes and hung his vintage jacket on the plastic coat-hook screwed into the wall by the door. His vivid socks looked out of place on the faded patterned carpet.
‘Shall I draw the curtains, let some light in?’ Sam asked.
‘No. Too bright.’ Like every other time you’ve asked. Gabriel returned to his seat, which faced a matching couch across the coffee table. He sank slowly into the brown embrace of the armchair, breath creaking along with the tired frame of the old furniture.
‘Shall I make us some coffee, Doctor Mann?’ Sam asked.
‘Godssakes boy, call me Gabriel. I’m not practicing any more. How are your studies?’
‘I receive my Fellowship at the end of the month,’ Sam said, moving into the small kitchen. Gabriel heard the kettle and the clatter of a tray on the slightly sticky countertop.
‘Oh yeah?’ Gabriel turned awkwardly in the armchair so he could see Sam through the door. ‘Well done lad, congratulations. You’ll make a fine pathologist. Very fine.’ He watched and waited, blinking owlishly as Sam brought in the tray, with the cafetière and two tall glasses, low handled.
‘You always make good coffee,’ Gabriel said, watching as Sam slowly pushed down on the plunge, pressing the filter to the bottom so that the coffee stood, dark and clear. ‘Fellowship, eh? God, that brings back memories. It’s no small thing. Royal College of Pathologists. Royal.’ He emphasised the word, leaning back in the armchair.
Sam smiled modestly. ‘I may be able to stay in Coventry, retain my residency. But I’ve been offered something in the clinical pathology department at Birmingham,’ Sam stopped halfway towards pouring coffee into Gabriel’s glass. ‘Bugger. Forgot the sugar.’ He went back into the kitchen.
‘Well, you’ll do well wherever you go, I’m sure,’ Gabriel called. ‘You always were a promising student, you know.’ Too clever by half. Everyone’s bloody favourite.
Gabriel could see Sam filling a floral china bowl with Demerara sugar. ‘You were a good teacher. A great doctor, Gabriel.’
Flattery. ‘I was.’ Gabriel coughed suddenly, curling up with the force of the spasms. After a moment or so the fit passed and he reached for a cigarette. ‘Three– God, was that only three years ago, Sam?’
Sam coughed as well, perhaps in sympathy. He returned with the sugar bowl. ‘Nearly four. Do you have to smoke, Gabriel?’
‘With coffee, yes, I do.’
‘I can’t believe there are still doctors who smoke,’ Sam mused, pouring the coffee and offering sugar. Gabriel accepted two, then left a spoonful beside his glass in case he wanted more. ‘Let alone pathologists who smoke,’ Sam continued.
‘Fuck it. I retired late. Not much life expectancy for a doctor after retirement, you know. You really were a good student,’ Gabriel went on. ‘Uncanny, a quick study.’ He raised the coffee glass to his lips and drank carefully, the folds of skin at his neck bobbing, hands trembling a little with the effort. ‘You put up with all my shit. I know I could be a bit much at times.’
‘You were a bit fierce,’ Sam acknowledged. Gabriel wondered if he was being kind out of pity.
‘You could take it though,’ Gabriel said. ‘You were bright, thick-skinned. You could take it.’
‘Not everyone could,’ Sam said mildly, looking around the room, taking in the dusty bookshelves and piles of discarded copies of The Lancet.
Not everyone? Gabriel’s suspicions flared. ‘Why do you come and visit?’ He asked, impulsively, stubbing out his cigarette.
Sam wrinkled his smooth brow. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re top of your class, handsome, young, popular. I’m an old dog with knackered lungs and no friends. Why do you come here every week?’
Sam’s expression was closed, hard to read.
‘You were my teacher.’
‘For barely a year.’
‘My first teacher.’
‘You had others.’
‘Nobody pushed me as hard as you.’
‘I pushed everyone hard!’ Gabriel’s voice crackled as he raised it, the sound of his weary lungs suffusing the shout. ‘Everybody else hated me for it. I had to retire…’
There was a long quiet. Sam said nothing, but his lips twitched slightly. Gabriel saw.
‘You come here every week and treat me kindly. But I can’t help think you’re here to torture me with politeness, smother me with false respect! Or maybe you’re just curious. Observe the old man as he dies, is that it? You despised me back then. So why are you here now?’
The rant dissolved into wheezing and a series of small, piteous coughs.
‘You did push everyone hard,’ Sam said at last, his cool blue eyes dispassionate, professionally detached, ignoring the spittle lacing Gabriel’s stubbly chin. ‘Some might say you bullied people. Piled the stress on.’
Gabriel shuddered. For weeks he’d been wondering. I should have known. It was too easy. Pitifully easy, to accept friendship when it was offered, like a glass of water in the desert.
‘It wasn’t my fault.’ He sounded petulant, even to himself. He saw the quiver of amusement around Sam’s thin mouth.
‘What wasn’t your fault?’ Sam was as calm as if he were asking about a patient.
‘You know. The girl.’ Don’t you play with me, puppy.
‘What about which girl wasn’t your fault?’ Sam was merciless. Measured. Gabriel clenched his fist and sucked down a few gulps of coffee to stave off another coughing fit.
‘Jessica. Hadley. Jessica Hadley. She killed herself. Herself,’ Gabriel said defiantly. ‘You can’t say I drove her to it – nobody put the needle in her hand and nobody made her do it, she did it herself.’ A long silence.
‘Was she too weak, Doctor Mann?’ Sam asked.
‘I don’t…I don’t want to talk about this.’ Gabriel hugged himself into the armchair, looking away. It wasn’t fair. He was old and sick.
‘Do you remember, in my first year with you, what I wanted to do?’ Sam asked, suddenly cheerful again. Gabriel was unnerved by the change.
‘What you wanted to do?’
‘You know, my specialism.’
‘Oh. You wanted to be a coroner, didn’t you? Why? What’s it got to do with…’
‘You didn’t want to talk about Jessica. I’ve changed the subject,’ Sam said lightly.
‘Oh. Thank you.’ Gabriel drank the last of his coffee, put the glass down next to the spoon, still heaped with sugar. He felt shaken, but maybe the assault was over. ‘You, uh, you wanted to focus on post-mortem pathology, but I advised against it.’
‘That’s right. I wasn’t best suited to it. You were right.’ Sam nodded, smiling at the memory. ‘I just do better with living bodies than dead ones, I suppose. How was your coffee?’
Gabriel felt a sudden chill run through him, like something turning over in his stomach. He looked down at his empty glass. A paranoia writhed to the surface.
‘Yes, Doctor Mann?’
‘What did you make your specialism, in the end?’
Gabriel swallowed. He tasted sweet coffee, lingering on his tongue.
‘Yes, Doctor Mann?’
‘What did you put in my coffee?’
Sam’s smile crept into place. He folded his hands in front of him, leaning forward. Gabriel found himself looking deep into those cool eyes. ‘What are you saying? Gabriel?’
‘I want to know.’ Gabriel stuck out his bottom lip to stop it from trembling. ‘If you’ve fucking killed me, I want to know. I want to know what. I want to know how.’
Certainty replaced paranoia. It was worse.
Sam smiled again, but it was more bitter than coffee, joyless and angry. ‘We were talking earlier about Jessica. Shall we make a deal, Doctor?’
‘What deal? Tell me…you fuck!’ Gabriel’s voice was broken by a heaving cough.
‘If you admit that you bullied Jessica Hadley until she committed suicide, I’ll tell you how you’re going to die.’
The chill of fear ballooned inside Gabriel, making him want to scream.
‘Not me…she… Not my fucking fault!’ He coughed again. Sam’s lip curled in response, a predatory tic, almost a snarl.
‘Then maybe you can guess. No doubt you’re trying to think about the various pathogens I might have slipped into your coffee. I’m happy to sit here and watch you flounder, grasping at straw after straw, disease after obscure disease.’
‘For the love of God, Sam, she’s dead, it can’t be helped…’ Fuck her! Fuck you!
‘You haven’t got long,’ Sam spat.
For a long time they sat in silence, Gabriel concentrating on his breathing. There were viruses capable of surviving high temperatures. Most of course, were not lethal…
‘It was my fault,’ Gabriel said, dully. ‘I didn’t know she would kill herself, but I was cruel. I was a bully. It was my fault.’
Sam nodded slowly, eyes glittering. ‘Generation after generation of students suffered your ego, your projected frustrations. Most dropped out. Young students, trying to make themselves into new, better forms of themselves, to make a difference. They believe in that, live for it. You may as well have killed Jessica outright.’
‘Killing me doesn’t make it right!’
‘No. Your guilt makes this easier, but it isn’t the reason why.’ Sam dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand.
‘Then why?’ Gabriel felt sick, and the feeling of cold had spread to his hands and feet.
‘Because you’re old.’
‘You’re old, you haven’t got much left, and it’s wasted. You’re already decaying and you’re not even dead.’ Sam’s hands gestured as if he was highlighting his old teacher’s body, every point of decay and dissolution.
‘It’s not a virus, if that’s what you were thinking,’ Sam said. ‘It’s not bacterial either. Nor fungal. I didn’t get anything from the hospital, no tissue samples, no swiped biopsies. I wouldn’t even call it a disease, what I’ve given you.’
‘What is it?’ Gabriel’s voice was the whisper of defeat. The young man opposite him was strong – muscle bound to healthy bones, clean tissue throughout his organs, a set of unspoiled lungs. A specimen that put Gabriel to shame.
‘You remember the speech you made, first lesson of yours I ever took?’
‘What pathogen, Sam?’
‘I remember it. We all had the potential to succeed, you said, as long as we received the wisdom on offer – yes, you used the word wisdom – offered by the doctors teaching us. That if we came through, received our fellowship at the end of our long years of study, it would be because we had taken on the knowledge of our elders. A new generation, made strong by the old one.’
‘What is it?’ Gabriel was pleading.
‘You made that awful joke, that it would be as if a part of yourself was inside us. You winked at the pretty girls, didn’t you? We all had to “contract the diseases of effort and knowledge”. Utter bullshit, but it amused me. Impressed me even.’
‘Please, Sam. What have you done to me?’
‘I have put a part of myself inside you.’ Sam’s eyes were glittering again. ‘One day, I’ll be the one dying, and then perhaps some lucky pathologist will get to examine me. See, I’m unique.’
Gabriel blinked in incomprehension. There was an odd prickling in his palms, in his feet.
Sam leant forward and coughed lightly, almost elegantly, into his hand. He held his hand above the coffee table and let something run between his fingers. Small, pale brown grains sprinkled across the surface of the table, joining a smattering of coffee grounds beside Gabriel’s glass. Very slowly, Sam nudged the teaspoon, still loaded with its little pile of golden brown sugar.
‘A handful of these mixed in with your sugar. Every week. For weeks. I’ve enjoyed the process of talking to you, teasing out details of your life, but I needed to wait. It wasn’t going to work yet, not until today.’
‘What is it?’ Gabriel stared at the spoonful of sugar. ‘What are they?’ Through the screaming wall of fear bearing down on him, there still flickered that old curiosity.
Sam licked his lips. ‘Eggs.’
He sat back in the sofa, pleased with himself.
Gabriel opened his mouth to protest the impossibility of that, but a realisation stopped him.
‘I can’t feel my feet,’ Gabriel said.
Sam watched Gabriel twist and buck as the process forced him into paralysis.
Whistling to himself, Sam got up and walked around the coffee table. He took hold of Gabriel’s shoulders and manhandled him back into the armchair. The thin muscles twitched and clenched under Sam’s hands. Gabriel’s eyes were open, but were misting, turning grey.
‘I know you’re still there, though I don’t know if you can hear me,’ Sam said, returning to the sofa. ‘But for what it is worth, I will stay with you throughout this. You won’t be alone. You won’t feel anything. And then, there won’t be anything to feel.’
He sat, glanced at his watch, settled down to wait.
Gabriel’s motionless body began to move. His chest heaved up and down, as if due to deep breathing, though the pattern was irregular, odd. His stomach, bulging obscenely, began to sink. His head rocked forward, chin over the collarbone, limp.
After an hour of watching and waiting, Sam was rewarded with the sight of Gabriel’s torso collapsing around the frame of his ribs. It was like accelerated footage of decomposition. The young were voracious, and once feeding, multiplied rapidly. There was no blood.
Sam felt weak. He had waited almost too long for this.
Gabriel’s legs and arms remained, bony and skinny as they had become in his decline, but otherwise untouched. The good stuff was in the abdomen and the chest. Even those diseased lungs had value. Now, Gabriel’s corpse was like a glove without a hand in it, emptied, used up.
The crawling, susurrating mass moved out of the body and over the armchair like a many-legged shade, glistening in the thin light that broke through the gap between the curtains. Then, as one swarm, the new generation left the old doctor and flowed across the room in a rustling stream, flowing under the coffee table towards Sam.
Sam sat back and spread his arms, letting the colony wash up his legs and across his t-shirt, some over the fabric, some tickling his skin beneath it. His breathing was quick, ragged with excitement and anticipation.
He opened his mouth as wide as he could, as if trying to please a dentist, his head thrown back in supplication.
The colony poured into Sam in a black tide, young life returning home from the spawning ground.
It felt incredible. Sam got to his feet, revelling in the rush of energy, the sense of power and movement within him. He went to the window, standing in the thin slice of daylight that came through the closed curtains. His shadow fell on Gabriel’s corpse.
Sam pulled the curtains apart. Light flooded the room. Now, Gabriel’s body was washed with daylight. Sam picked up Gabriel’s right hand, examining the yellowed skin of his fingers.
Sam took one of Gabriel’s cigarettes and lit it.
Then he arranged a gas leak and left.