Tina looked out at the wide expanse of empty ocean and sighed.
‘I never want to see the sea again.’
‘If I had a pound for every time you have uttered those words,’ said Ben ‘I could pay our ransom.’
‘We don’t even know if they have asked for one, I mean they don’t seem very good at being pirates.’
Ben didn’t answer, his thoughts hung in the hot still air unspoken. Did the fact that the motley crew seemed to be first time pirates act in his and Tina’s favour or not? They didn’t appear to understand English and he and Tina had no idea what language they were speaking. Perhaps the old couple with all their missionary experience might have guessed, if he hadn’t dropped dead with a heart attack on the beach. The new widow had been reluctantly rescued by a tiny fishing boat and Ben and Tina had happily waved them off assuming they would alert another boat or the authorities.
Night had not brought darkness as the fire raged behind them. They took cover from the swirling hot ashes in the shallows. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. The wretched lines had gone round and round in Ben’s head as he licked his parched lips.
Strangely, just before dawn came, it finally became dark; the flames died down with nothing left on the island to consume. The morning sun revealed the stark ruins of the hotel against the blackened hills.
Ben walked round the deck of the small boat again as if the view might have changed. At least they weren’t tied up in the hold, there was no need, no chance of escape. When they were rescued, wading then swimming out to the boat and being hauled aboard, they had been pitifully grateful; the proffered tin mugs of tepid liquid tasted as sweet as bottled spring water.
That had been four weeks ago, though they couldn’t be sure, it was timeless out on the seas. But they could no longer hope they were being rescued. It was not kidnap for robbery as they had nothing to take. The diet of fish and rice was monotonous, but they had not died in the fire or drowned, they were still alive.
‘Never heard of the place or its people, can’t we just ignore the messages?’
‘No Madam, they have two British Nationals who were reported missing eighteen days ago. The photos taken by the pirates appear to match the couple’s work ID photos and pictures put in the media by the family. We can’t put off informing their families any longer.’
‘Certainly not, their demands are outrageous. The British Government never pays ransoms, it would set a dangerous precedent and if the media get hold of this story… Negotiation is still the key. Have we found out any more about their wretched island?’
‘Their nascent tourist industry, in fact the whole island, was destroyed by the wild fire, that’s why they want us to give them a new island.’
‘Oh it’s just that I, we were wondering… we haven’t been able to contact him.’
‘Why do you need to contact him?’
‘We don’t, we just wondered why none of us had heard from him and they missed the quiz evening again.’
‘I didn’t know my brother was so popular.’
‘Perhaps I could ring your mother?’
‘I hardly think so as she’s been dead for eight months.’
‘Oh er I am so sorry, she looked fine at the wedding.’
‘She was fine at the wedding, anyway, I must cut you off, conference call coming up…’
‘Louise, Tina’s sister, chief bridesmaid, top table?’
‘Louise, of course, sorry I didn’t get back in tou… answer your messages.’
‘That’s not why I’m calling. Have you seen Ben?’
‘No. I’ve been ringing round everyone, no one’s seen or heard from him, phone’s dead.’
‘Oh Ali, I’m really worried now, same with Tina, she hasn’t been on Facebook for weeks.’
‘You were right to call me, but don’t panic; what about your parents?’
‘They’re worried, I mean we’re not one of those families who call all the time, but she’s not answering in our WhatsApp group or anything.’
‘Has anyone been round their flat?’
‘No, Mum and Dad are isolating and I’m on a Scottish island.’
‘Oh so you did get that croft? What about her work?’
‘Now don’t worry, I’ll get in contact with Ben’s company, even if he’s still working from home they would know if he’s on leave. ’
‘Tina would have said if they were going on holiday, she was always talking about going on a proper holiday again.’
‘TG Services, how can I help?’
‘Can I speak to Ben Chambers please?’
‘Chambers, chambers… ben? Chaos here, everyone working from home, except me… I don’t know the name, what department?’
‘Actually I’m afraid I have no idea, can’t you look him up on the computer records?’
‘No, confidential records cannot be shared with members of the public…’
‘Tom, it’s Ali, have you had any luck? No, nor have I, not a trace of either of them. Have you been round their flat? No of course not, you would have popped round last week if you weren’t in Belfast. I’m a hundred miles away so who’s nearest… Gemma’s in hospital, what happened to her? Call the police? I don’t think it’s that serious yet, I mean they could have gone on holiday, stuck isolating goodness knows where and we’re panicking for nothing. Okay, okay, I’ll drive down tomorrow morning make a day out of it. Have you got their new address? No, nor have I, have to message Louise, no I didn’t see her again and now she’s on some bloody Scottish island.’
‘Louise? It’s Ali again. I’m in their road, the neighbours are already regarding me with suspicion. I couldn’t even get in the building let alone find their flat, yes used to be the old asylum, very smart. I have been lurking to catch anyone going in or out, no luck so far, nobody seems to know them, so not likely to find a friendly neighbour with a spare key, not that you can just go waltzing into someone else’s home uninvited… and what did the police website say? Surely the only option is to have them break in and … no I’m sure they are fine, but there could be a clue where they have gone on holiday, somewhere warm knowing them. Not that warm, no, I’m sure they didn’t end up on a Mediterranean island with a wildfire raging. You call the police then, more likely to take notice of a relative, and you will have to give permission for a search… ’
If you are squeamish or do not like dark humour read no further.
One of the leaflets I received, produced by Breast Cancer Care is called Understanding Your Pathology Results, but most of us can only glean the meaning of some of the main terms. After all, the surgeon, oncologist and anonymous people in the laboratories have spent years studying human cells and what can happen to them.
When we went back to the Ladybird Suite ( pink zone ) to see the surgeon three weeks after my operation, the first item on the agenda was an examination. She pronounced the work of her colleague to be excellent; she was hardly likely to say ‘Oh my God, what on earth has he done!’ The whole area felt like a water bed, but this is normal, all those lymph fluids that were going into the wound drain bottle had nowhere to go, but eventually are absorbed – unless you are unlucky and have to have a bit of plumbing work done!
Then through the magic door into the consulting room where my daughter-in-law joined me as another pair of ears and moral support. The consultant said ‘We made the right decision to take everything away’ – she did not word it exactly like that. In layman’s terms there were lots of bits including quite a few lymph nodes. ‘So all the cancer is gone BUT you Must / Need / We Recommend chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy and then hormone treatment.’ WHAT!
Just because your aunt had a mastectomy years ago followed merely by tamoxifen for five years and your friend is just having radiotherapy, does not mean you will get away with it. Everyone is different and there are all sorts of tumours and grades. Basically our useful lymph nodes are also good at spreading cancer anywhere so the chemotherapy is a preventative attack. Next on the agenda was a CT scan of everything except my arms and legs to check if any cancer cells had turned up elsewhere.
No problems finding the CT place; I had already been to the blue zone for my MRI, not far from Costa Coffee and the main entrance. But somehow I couldn’t find CT. I asked at the MRI reception and she said We’re minus 1 you need to be on zero. Follow the green wall and turn left at the end, then go up in the lift.LIFT! I don’t do lifts, but luckily there was a set of stairs. There is not much drama for the CT, except you have to drink lots of water and have a canula put in your arm so dye can be injected. The scan doesn’t take long fortunately after all that water.
By the time the oncologist appointment came round it was the school holidays and Team H came to stay for the first part of their summer holiday, so my daughter could come with me. We went to town early so we could go to Marks and Spencer, actually try clothes on in the new ‘post Covid’ freedoms, though still wearing masks. Lunch out, still a novelty for me, then a stroll up the road to the hospital and back to pink zone. Oncology outpatients is down on Minus Two Floor, but strangely we were on ground level with a pleasant courtyard outside.
Our temperatures were taken ( Covid reasons ) and I was weighed and my height measured.
Warning cancer jokes…
When my aunt was receiving treatment for secondary cancer ( yes it came back years later ) she joked to the nurse ‘Well I have discovered one thing, if you don’t eat you lose weight’ then realised the nurse was a very big girl.
The waiting room was quite nice with the usual relaxing seascapes; I thought it would liven things up if they had darker paintings like Edvard Munch’s The Scream or a few Hieronymus Bosch paintings of hell.
We didn’t have to wait long to see the oncologist and my breast care nurse was also there for support. No one can force you to have treatment of any sort; it’s at this stage celebrities go off to live on a diet of raw vegetables and try alternate therapies. The rest of us do our best to make an informed choice and writer me likes asking questions.
The CT scan was clear, excellent news. But chemotherapy was still recommended. I asked about the base line of doing nothing; fifty fifty chance of cancer returning in the next ten years, the odds only going up by 8% with chemo. That didn’t sound much, but radiotherapy added another 7% and the five years of hormone treatment another something or other. Cancer could spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, which is exactly what happened to my aunt, though she had made it well into the new century and her eighties by then… My daughter was trying to read the indecipherable charts on the screen … Statistics don’t mean a lot, they could say forty % of patients who had no chemo died within five years, though some were in their nineties, others had heart attacks, a few got run over by a bus and one fell in a volcano doing his bucket list.
I had hardly any of the risk factors for breast cancer, so we can never make assumptions and you can never know for sure the alternative outcome. Nor can they tell you how the chemotherapy will affect you as everyone is different, except, annoyingly a guarantee your hair will fall out! What would you decide?
Yes, might as well give it a go. After I signed the consent form we went into another little room with seascapes to chat with the nurse about all the downsides and I had to decide if I wanted to book the cold cap, which may or may not stop your hair falling out.
Next on the agenda is the ‘group chat’ in the church hall opposite the hospital; learning about chemotherapy. Also a home visit by the community oncology support nurse and then start treatment on 23rd August. Everything is very efficient.
In the meantime I have been swimming in the sea and gardening and walking.
‘I don’t care where, as long as there is a beach and sunshine…. Make that a decent hotel with a pool and a private beach… any country that will let us in and let us out again… no I don’t care if we have to isolate when we get back, working from home is no big deal.’
Ben scrolled down the computer screen, Tina was right, they were both desperate for a holiday; two weeks away and they would worry later about getting back.
It was bliss; by the pool, on the beach, al fresco dining and the staff were fabulous, glad to have guests and so few guests Ben and Tina were given plenty of attention. They were more relaxed than they had felt in years, their worries left at home. Ben had suggested leaving their phones at home as well, but Tina thought that was going a bit far. They would need the internet to sort out the return journey, but a good compromise was to leave phones and iPads in the hotel safe, along with their passports, as they didn’t trust the staff, plus a few bits of Tina’s jewellery in case a local business person invited them for dinner.
So far the only locals they had met were the staff, but they were enjoying the novelty of spending time together, sauntering through the grove of trees to the beach with its quaint collection of fishing boats and locals mending nets. Or they could look up at the rolling hills that were the backdrop to the gleaming new white hotel. This was a real get away break, no television, no news, no discussions of climate change or Covid. Perhaps tomorrow, their fifth day, they would hike up the hills or venture into the local village, if there was one. They would have to ask that friendly waiter, who had a good smattering of English, what lay outside the high hotel walls and how you actually got out.
The sunset that night was a delight, Ben was almost tempted to request the night manager to open the safe so he could get his phone out and take an Instagram shot, but Tina insisted no digital image could capture the rich reds and dark streaks in the sky.
They woke late the next morning, surprised the sun was not streaming through the window. Out on the balcony the sky looked dull and the sea had lost its sparkle.
‘Perhaps it’s going to rain,’ said Tina ‘does it rain here?’
‘No idea, the air doesn’t feel damp, in fact there is a strange scent in the air, I can’t smell the sea like I usually do.’
‘It’s very quiet this morning Ben.’
Ben felt an unease; it was always quiet here, but now it was silent, unnaturally so. He felt that tingle in his spine that told him he was outside his comfort zone, he had an urge to be reunited with his mobile phone. He chivvied Tina to hurry so they wouldn’t miss breakfast.
Their footsteps echoed on the marble staircase and as they swept round the curve they saw the snooty elderly couple who had not exchanged a single word with them. Now they were poised expectantly at the foot of the stairs.
‘Hey ho, nobody on the desk’ said the husband.
‘And the dining room is empty’ added his wife.
‘It’s late, we slept in’ said Tina, ‘we must have missed breakfast.’
‘No, completely empty, no sign of life, no food, no indication anyone had breakfast.’
‘Ben, there must be something wrong, what shall we do?’
‘Forage in the kitchen’ said the old chap.
‘I don’t think things are that drastic yet,’ said Ben ‘the staff are very attentive, I’ll ask the manager what’s going on.’
Ben strode over to the reception desk as if someone would pop up instantly at his approach, but there was nobody there. He skirted round the desk and rapped loudly on the door of the office, no response. A hefty push sent the door flying open to reveal the empty office and a computer with a dark screen. Ben fiddled with the keyboard and the mouse to no avail, the old chap laughed as he tried the light switch on the wall.
‘Power’s off by the looks of it.’
Ben was staring at the very solid door of the safe. The manager was the only person allowed to open it, but where was the manager? If there was a crisis Ben wanted to get Tina back to the airport and home. Without their passports and phones they were stuck.
‘Right, there must be some explanation. Tina and I will search the grounds you two check the rest of the hotel.’
Leaving the air conditioned building they knew instantly what was wrong, the air had a dry crackle, an acrid scent. The sky over the sea had a thick haze and as they turned to look up at the hills real fear gripped them as they stared at the glowing crest.
‘There must be an evacuation plan’ said Tina.
‘I think love the evacuation plan has already been carried out, but it’s okay, that private beach is a godsend.’
Ben was saved from heroically rescuing the old couple from the hotel building, they were already stumbling out on to the terrace.
‘Are you certain nobody is in the hotel?’
‘Certain, bloody staff have deserted us.’
‘Forgotten,’ said Tina ‘or perhaps about to come and fetch us, they’ll be down on the beach organising the evacuation in all those boats.’
She patted the arm of the elderly lady, proud she was keeping calm in an emergency.
As they trekked through the grove, ash was already floating down. The beach seemed much further away, they could have done without the slow old couple Ben thought to himself.
‘Reminds me of that time we were stuck in…’ the old man tried to wheeze out the words while his wife shook her head to silence him.
On the beach, clear of the grove at last, they instinctively turned to look up at the hills. The flames were marching down with a speed that seemed impossible. Relief that they were well clear of the hotel was short lived as they turned back to look at the beach and the sea. There was not a single boat in sight, with the ever darkening sky it was hard to tell if smudges on the horizon were boats, but the churned up sand and foot prints leading from the trail through the grove to where the water lapped the beach, indicated a hurried departure by a good few people.
‘They’ll come back for us,’ said Tina ‘we’ll be safe by the water, have you two got your phones, ours are in the safe.’
‘No, it’s on charge in our room, not much help if the power’s off… no reception here anyway, we’re on our own… he started to splutter his words as the air thickened.
A loud crack made Tina jump and grab Ben’s arm. No one spoke as they watched the flames take hold of the grove, behind it the hotel gleamed white for a second before being engulfed in flames and smoke.
It’s time for another Ten Things list here on The Write Stuff, this time featuring author Janet Gogerty. I know you’ll enjoy learning more about some of the fun and interesting things Janet has done, so I’ll turn it over to her! Take it away, Janet!
Ten Things You May Not Know About Me
by Janet Gogerty
I once worked on a chicken farm; it was up the road in our new Australian suburb and the cockerels used to wake us up. It was my school holiday job when I was fifteen, they paid me $13 out of the petty cash and on the first day the supervisor asked me to clean the toilet! I didn’t actually get to see any chickens, we sorted out the eggs.
I had over forty white mice by the time I was elven.
Family legend has it that HG Wells was a cousin of…
The back door flew open to reveal my husband dressed in his bright holiday shorts and business shirt and tie.
‘Where did you think I was, I told you we were going to fill up the paddling pool.’
‘Nice to be some…’ said Tom.
‘Come and join us later, surely you’re allowed a break?’
‘Depends how long the conference call goes on for, I just came to tell you we’re out of coffee.’
Covid had a lot to answer for, especially the idea of working from home.
‘Can’t you get it, I can’t leave the little ones with the water. Why don’t you have a cup of tea or a smoothie for now?’
Tom spluttered in disgust.
‘A green broccoli smoothie is not going to get me through that conference call… anyway you know what we always get.’
‘Okay, you stay out here and keep an eye on the hose and the children… and put your phone away.’ I dropped my voice and mouthed ‘it only takes a minute for a child to D.. R.. O..W.. N.’ then raised it ‘Oscaar… hose in the paddling pool not on Daddy.’
‘Don’t be long’ pleaded Tom.
‘Do you want the variety box, latte, expresso, americano…?
‘Yes, yes the biggest box they do.’
I went upstairs, pausing on the landing to look out the window and make sure Tom had not forgotten he was in charge. The hose was now snaking out of control across the lawn. In my so called office I logged in to Coffee Zone, repeat order, multi pack, check delivery times… Yes, coffee would be here in time for his bloody conference call. What did they actually do on conference calls? Probably played X Box like my forty year young brother. I had no idea what Tom actually did at work when he went to the office every day and now he worked from home I was still none the wiser. Whatever he did he had been head hunted a couple of times and with the amount he got paid I didn’t mind spoiling him. My on line upcycling craft business hardly brought in enough to feed the dog and the cat.
I looked at my watch, twenty minutes to get ready for the coffee. I dashed back into the garden.
‘Tom, where’s the dog?’
‘You only told me to look after the children.’
I waved a packet of dog treats and Zeus bounded out of the herbaceous border, he was soon locked in the laundry. The children would be harder to get under control.
‘Ten minutes then indoors.’
‘But we haven’t done paddling yet.’
‘Why don’t you come in and watch Octonauts and have some parsnip crisps while the sun is warming the water. Then you can come back out after the coffee has arrived.’
With the children safely indoors I still had to find the cat, but there was no time to look. Hearing Zeus’ frantic barking I rushed back in and locked the door, the dog always heard it before me. Keeping watch through the patio door I saw a glint over the trees. 10.45am, exactly on time. The Coffee Zone Drone circled, I hoped it’s aim would be better this time. My stomach lurched as, too late, I saw a familiar black and white shape slink across the lawn then freeze as the warning siren started. The drone was higher than usual when its undercarriage opened, the large bright orange box dropped down onto the lawn, narrowly missing the paddling pool. I dashed out, but as I got close my mouth went dry. Sticking out from under the hefty box was a black tail. I knew from previous deliveries the box was too heavy to lift on my own and I was thankful to hear Tom’s voice. I turned to see him holding the cat and laughing.
‘He’s a quivering wreck, he doesn’t like drones does he?’
My relief was short lived, had we killed the neighbour’s cat?
‘Quick, lift the box.’
I closed my eyes. When I opened them Tom was holding up the squashed body of the shabby toy cat the children had insisted on buying from the charity shop.
FOR MORE SHORT STORIES OF ALL SORTS READ ONE OF MY COLLECTIONS
Read no further if you are squeamish, read on if you are going to have an operation or look after an operatee.
Torrential rain immediately after my operation meant helpers did not have to water the garden and I wasn’t missing much in the outside world. I wasn’t as incapacitated as I expected, but for nearly two weeks I was attached to a long tube which led to the wound drainage bottle – a contraption the district nurse said she hadn’t seen before, patients often have bags that are changed daily. A green concertina device showed if the vacuum was still intact, the same principle as syphoning petrol.
In the days when people spent a good few days in hospital after an operation they would be attached to all sorts of tubes putting fluids in and taking other fluids out; people who managed to avoid hospitals would know little about such mysteries. One of the the district nurse’s daily tasks was to measure output and replace a bottle if the suction went. Carrying this bottle, even with the handy bag sewn by a kind patient who had invented them, was like never being able to put your shopping bag down. I was also constantly forgetting it was attached. If I had known that the amount of tube inside me was about a foot long I would not have worried so much about pulling it out. Family and visitors wondered what was going into the bottle to make the ‘strawberry smoothie’ – some blood plus a lot of lymph fluid that wasn’t sure where to go after all the lymph nodes were removed. We all know about blood circulating and kidneys etc, but the lymphatic system is unfairly ignored by most of us!
This long attachment precluded any serious attempt to get dressed or try on the surgical bra and foam falsie, but haven’t half of us lived in our dressing gowns since Covid started? So what to do except sit and receive visitors, cards and flowers? I soon got bored with resting; thank goodness for the back garden, I could sneak out and do some dead heading when the rain stopped. I tried to avoid the kitchen; family were great with meals and coffee and tea for visitors, but there was a relaxed attitude to washing up and tidying the kitchen!
The wound was sewn up with dissolvable stitches, sealed with ‘superglue’ and a hundred steri strips and to my relief the dressing stayed put for the required two weeks. The super glue allowed showering, though soaking in the bath was not recommended. The whole area stayed numb for ages and I felt like a first stage Cyborg, half my rib cage replaced by a steel plate. There are exercises to do from day one, then more after the drain is taken out and continued for ever… Lifting is forbidden to start with and reaching up for things catches you out.
I was glad to get out for walks once the bottle had gone, now there was another week to wait before going back to the hospital for pathology results.