The doctors called me at 8:21 and asked me to come into the hospital. Julie was still in her private room with the guard on the door, and her baby was now in a private room in the maternity ward, also with a guard on the door, but for different reasons. No-one was allowed in to see the baby unless they went in pairs, as apparently it was having odd effects on people. I couldn't say I was all that surprised.
The receptionist at the desk caught my eye as I came in and told me that I was to go to the fourth floor and the John Philcock room. I nodded, though I was expecting just to go to the maternity ward which I thought they'd named after some suffragette. I considered using the lifts, but when I stopped outside them and pushed the buttons I noticed that the lifts had been named as well – clearly some NHS mandarin had over-ordered on signage – and these were the Icarus lifts. I decided that boded ill for anyone using them, and opted for the stairs instead.
The stairwell had plenty of glass, and I could see the hospital car-park as I spiralled round and up, with occasionally glimpses of the smoking garden for the nurses and recidivist doctors. At first, I'd not expected to see anyone in the smoking garden except maybe the odd porter or student, but at times it looked like there were more staff outside smoking than there were inside working. A junior doctor had looked at me with eyes as old as some of the things I'd found in the desert when I'd asked him about it and told me to think about the stress they were under and the likelihood of finding a bar anywhere in the hospital. I did think about it, and decided that the smoking garden would be my preference too.
The John Philcock room turned out to be a meeting room of some kind. The floor tiles were cold and icy-blue, the light was a fluorescent strip that flickered just on the edge of vision, the table was formica-topped and too low and the chairs were old wooden school chairs and both too low and too wide. I could only imagine that they'd originally been constructed for a class of midget Billy Bunters. No-one was sitting down when I knocked and entered, and the only thing on the table was a manilla folder with some A4 pages inside.
The doctors were patient and careful, but the upshot of the conversation was that they wanted me to take Julie home with me. I explained that I'd sooner volunteer as a major-organ donor, and asked why they wanted to separate her from her baby. That's when they all looked at each other and tried not to answer.
They also, it seemed, wanted me to agree to a nil-by-mouth order, followed by a nil-by-any-route at all order, all of which would be carried out under extreme secrecy.
I sat on the table at that point, struck by a memory from the desert.
I found out quickly in the desert that it's very important to keep an eye on the weather. When the wind blows it might be a gentle breeze that sometimes even cooled you, but it could evaporate sweat much faster and use up your water dangerously fast. And if it was stronger than a breeze then you would be wise to consider finding shelter, for it doesn't take long for the wind to pick up loose sand, and then at best you get a skin-peel that would cost an arm and a leg in a Harley Street clinic, and at worse you would lose an arm and a leg to the highly abrasive qualities of lots of tiny grit being hurled at you at thirty miles an hour. I had my tent of course, but when I could I would pitch the tent in the lee of a dune, or sandstone, or on one occasion in the hollow trunk of an enormous tree that I think must have died before the desert even came into being around it. And crouching there inside my little protective skin while hostile nature howled around me, it occurred to me that this was life in the midst of death. No sooner had I thought that than there came a tapping on the taut nylon fabric of the tent. I nearly had a heart attack.
I lowered the zip cautiously and found that there was a man outside, his face cut and bleeding, his clothes tattered, and a nylon rucksack on his back. He wasn't carrying a weapon, and he had four days stubble, so I took a chance and let him inside. He gasped a little, sat down heavily opposite me, and took his rucksack off.
He either said his name was Dane or told me that he was a Dane, but I wasn't paying a lot of attention as the zip was getting stuck at the top and not quite closing. I struggled with it a little while he talked about a motorcycle repair shop in Stockholm for some reason, and finally I gave up and accepted that there might be a small trickle of sand coming into the tent. I looked back over at my guest.
He gave me a sepulchral smile and asked me how I intended to die.
And so, for the next hour and a half, until the sandstorm died down and I could leave the tent, we talked about the merits and demerits of the forms of death that we knew, arguing for and against pain depending on the circumstance, and bringing the circle to closure: we were life in the midst of death, talking about death in the midst of life, and accepting, at least for the duration of the conversation that there was no separation of the two.
When the wind finally dropped from a howl to a moan, then to a whimper, I left the tent to stretch and eyeball the horizon, to see if this was the eye of a storm or a storm in a teacup. And I stared at the motorcycle that my guest couldn't possibly have ridden across the desert or that could have survived the abrasive embrace of the storm.
I told the doctors the truth; Julie had left me and attempted to abort the baby all of her own accord, and that I didn't believe it was mine. They shifted their feet and fiddled with their lighters and agreed that the baby wasn't mine. I offered to sign the papers, but they pointed out that I couldn't do that while Julie was in the hospital, and so I left the room at an impasse. It felt familiar.