Shores of Coronation Gulf, Arctic Ocean, March 2006
He didn’t take the snowmobile as the elders advised. Like most boys, he enjoyed the roar of a noisy engine, but lately he had started to appreciate the sound of his own thoughts. He liked the rumbling and cracking of the sea ice, the rare gust of wind, the crunch that his mukluks made in the snow as he walked—and making progress by his own exertion made him feel more able, more in control.
He packed a knapsack with a few supplies, just enough for the day, and clipped a rope to the collar of his dog. The husky had belonged to an elderly neighbor, but over time, and with some stealth, the boy had made her his own. She was a large furry devil, fierce when provoked, loyal but unaffectionate.
He hung his rifle over his shoulder and slipped a flare gun into his outside pocket. He would be unlikely to need them for self-defense; the dog would see off any unwanted company. He double-checked his gear as he’d been told so many times to do, and then they set off from the village toward the sea.
First he had to cross the shoreline. He stopped there for a moment to consider the way forward. Massive ice sheets were crushed against the coast by the sea. Giant slabs had slid on top of one another or been pleated like paper, incandescent peaks reaching toward the sky, pinnacles, some felled and shattered, as he imagined a forest of ancient trees would look. He was a strong boy, tall and broad for his age, but when clambering
across the jagged ice and shouting words of encouragement to the dog—sometimes muttering impatiently in the language of his people—his voice betrayed his youth. He was anxious to be out there, wanting to be a man.
Panting from the exertion, they emerged onto the open ice. With snow goggles shielding his eyes from the glare, the boy scanned the horizon. The vast expanse hid little, but it still held surprises and a man had to be observant. With a few words to the dog, he started out. After an hour he turned westward, following the distant shoreline. Striding at a good pace to keep out the cold, he scrutinized the world around him, looking for tracks. He knew there was only a vague chance of finding any fox. One rarely saw them wandering in an aimless fashion. The sly little critters scuttled furtively behind polar bears to feast on the leftovers from seal hunts, quickly making themselves scarce if danger threatened. There were intermittent tracks of both bear and fox across the ice, one set large and heavy, depressing the thin snow, the other tiny and nimble. Most tracks were days, even weeks old. He didn’t really mind. The graceful little fox was more appealing alive than dead, and the darkness of blood on its snow-white fur had always made him light-headed. He told himself that this expedition was more about the challenges of solitude and independence. Yet he knew he needed practice, to harden himself. Men must hunt to survive. Men must kill.
Walking in silent contemplation made time slip away. He stopped twice, sat on his haunches to drink the hot sweet tea from his flask and share a couple of strips of dried meat with the dog, but being motionless made him uneasy. It was very cold and best to keep walking. As the sun was making its low arc across the sky, he had turned northward, then eastward, and was returning from where he had come. The dog was patient, bored even, sometimes walking with her eyes closed. Despite
his goggles, the boy’s eyes were also beginning to feel the strain. There were no shadows but their own.
Yet now he did see something. His heartbeat quickened at the fresh tracks diagonally across his path: a bear, possibly only an hour away, maybe less. The prints in the snow were large, and the boy anxiously scanned the horizon. The tracks disappeared into the graying distance. A slight tremor rushed up his spine. The people had an inborn respect for polar bears. As the old men said: Fox lead the hunter to Nanuk, whether or not the engagement is a happy one. The boy smiled at this foolish saying, but he felt vulnerable, wishing he had listened to sound advice and not come out on the sea on foot. He looked toward the shore and tried to measure the distance. The village was just visible. Smoke from the chimneys rose straight up into the still air in sharply defined columns. Half an hour at a trot, perhaps more, he wasn’t sure.
The dog had woken from her torpor and was walking briskly in the direction of the tracks, pulling the boy by the rope he had tied to his belt. The boy tugged sharply at the rope and shouted at her, but she did not much respond to commands; she never had. Annoyed, he booted her in the flank and she slowed reluctantly. A fearsome growl boiled in her throat, and the fur on her back had risen. Perhaps the source of her interest was just a seal hole, but the boy doubted it. He knew that the dog had caught the scent of the bear, and true to her wolf ancestry would welcome the chance to tackle it.
Though there was still plenty of light, he decided at once to return to the village, and after a brief tug-of-war with the dog they started back. But the wind was downward from the bear, and the dog, her snout twisting and snuffling, was reluctant to abandon the prospect of a good scrap. She kept turning and growling, stopping to take in the scent upwind, while the boy kept urging her with some force to go shoreward. Their battle of wills continued when suddenly the dog flung herself around and tore in the opposite direction, almost yanking the boy off his feet.
There, in the distance, was the bear. It must have heard or sensed their presence and turned from its route. Now it was following them. The triangle of black dots, the nose and eyes of the bear, soon came into focus in the gray light. They were fixed on the boy and the dog, no doubt a welcome sight of food. The boy stood immobile, all at once his strength draining away, making his knees tremble. He fought a sudden urge to urinate. The bear was becoming larger and clearer with each moment. It was approaching them with a peculiar lumbering gait. Its movements were deliberate but not obviously aggressive. Neither were they cautious nor mindful. Just purposeful. The bear was unusually large, but its winter thinness showed clearly through the pale yellow pelt. What finally jolted the boy into action was a sound traveling across the silence between them, the distant rasping, slavering breath of the starving animal. His thickly gloved fingers fumbled in his pocket for the flare gun. His hands were shaking as he loaded the flares, while shouting frantically at the dog to stop pulling and leaping. He could let her go, but he was still hoping that her snarling and yelping would see the bear off. The boy shot a flare with some skill. With a burst of light it hissed through the air and landed at the bear’s feet. The bear stopped for a moment, sniffed at it suspiciously, then raised its nose, its head moving slowly back and forth. Finding the flare not a worthy deterrent, it started up again, this time moving faster, more aggressively.
The boy fired off another half dozen flares in quick succession, but the bear dodged them and kept coming. The boy got the rifle ready. Shooting the animal was his last recourse. A wounded bear would become crazed with rage and its movements would be even more unpredictable.
Handling the heavy rifle, the boy’s hands were quivering and clumsy. He could not afford to remove his inner gloves with the danger of his fingers freezing, in which case they would be useless. Already, with his fear and his trembling, the cold was setting
in. He could not stand there, motionless, much longer. The bear was now a mere thirty paces away and it was best to set the dog loose. With panic rising in his chest, he untied her and she charged toward the bear. The bear stopped, disconcerted. Its mouth was open as it watched the bundle of fury hurtle forward, then circle it and in one leap clamp her jaws around its hind leg. The bear twisted and turned to get at the dog, but she hung on as if all her strength were centered in those angry jaws.
The boy shook violently as he watched them battle. He had been told never to show fear of a bear, but the reality was different from the blustering stories of the elders, often told and much embellished. This colossal and furious animal was a terrifying thing; no man could deny it. Awestruck, he saw that his canine partner had no such fear. Small as she was in contrast to her opponent, she threw herself into the fight with a purpose born of ancestral rage.
Not knowing what else to do, the boy aimed the rifle at the bear. The dog would not let go, but some moments into their crazed dance the bear tore loose from her teeth and fled across the ice with its attacker in pursuit.
The boy shouted for his dog, but seeing her disappear into the distance he turned and started running toward the shore, rifle in hand, leaving his knapsack on the ice behind him. The village was farther away than it looked, but he ran heedlessly, his frozen fingers and toes coming back to life with the blood pumping vigorously through his body. He could see the houses clearly now, and he slowed a little, the sound of his heart pounding in his ears, breath deep and rasping, his lungs at bursting point with the icy air. The noises in his body prevented him from hearing the soft crunch of snow behind him. The bear was approaching him swiftly but silently from behind. The first he knew was the dog barking a warning signal. The boy turned and saw the bear bounding straight toward him. Then he saw the dog, injured and trailing blood, still in pursuit. As if time had no purpose, the boy just stood there, wondering how the bear had gotten around the dog and what sort of damage it had inflicted on her.
The bear charged, but at the last moment it stopped abruptly in front of the boy and raised itself to its full height on its hind legs. It was but five paces away and its shadow darkened the snow. The boy’s reactions were quick, and he aimed the rifle at the shaggy chest, but at the instant of firing the bear had come down on all fours and the bullet vanished into the air.
A swipe of the gigantic paw sent the boy skidding across the ice. A crushing pain in his chest left him breathless. He knew that bar a miracle he was going to die. In one leap the bear was on him and, although the boy felt nothing of the pain, he heard his leg rip like rotten moose hide.
The dog, too, was mortally injured, but her loyalty to her master and hatred of bears gave her the strength to renew her attacks. Dazed by shock, the boy watched her frantic efforts to distract the bear and wondered why he had sometimes treated the faithful bitch with such casual disregard, taking her so much for granted.
The bear was anticipating a good meal and, compared with the agile and pesky dog, the boy was immobile and waiting for it. The bear swatted at its tormentor in irritation. Still the dog sprang away from its claws and kept nipping at its hind legs, making the bear spin around and around in frustration and fury. In a moment of clarity, the boy saw his rifle nearby and he tried to crawl, but in vain. He could not move; he could barely breathe.
As he struggled to draw air into his lungs, something began to change within him. A quiet composure settled in his chest. He knew that the end was near, yet found that he had no regrets. As he allowed himself no further thoughts and feelings, his fear also ebbed away. His body relaxed and with the courage of impending death he turned his head to face the inevitable.
With mild surprise he saw a man, stooped and ancient, emerge from behind the frenzied churn of white and gray fur.
The boy recognized him from sometime long, long ago. Wearily, the old man shuffled across the snow toward the boy.
“Come, son,” he said. “Take my hand.”
He held out his gnarled hand to the boy, but much as they strained to reach each other their fingers would not touch.
Dr. Dafydd Woodruff looked down at his wife’s face, a trifle detached. It was too early, in his mind, to be making love. Isabel was an insomniac and in the hours of dawn she made a habit of nudging him awake, poking him with her knees, grazing his back with her nipples, tossing and sighing.
Yet when she’d finally aroused his interest and gotten her way with him, as she had this morning, she often seemed far off somewhere, half pretending to be asleep. He knew better. Her eyes were shut too tight and her forehead had that telltale furrow of concentration. To Isabel, this was work. As their rhythm gathered momentum, she stretched her arms above her head and grabbed two posts of the headboard. The bed rocked, slapping rudely at the wall. Screws had come loose on the bed frame—they did so periodically—and Dafydd kept forgetting to tighten them. He tried to moderate his movements, but Isabel groaned in complaint.
When a rosy flush appeared on her chest and her thighs tightened around his hips, that unfortunate sense of duty engulfed him. As always, he tried to join her, closing his eyes and hoping the tide of her climax would pull him along. But, be damned, no.
“Keep going.” She opened her eyes, alert and gazing at
him with feigned menace. “Don’t think I’m through with you.”
“Are you kidding?” he reassured her and continued, but no amount of gritting of teeth could save the occasion. That deep ambivalence he felt about the whole business had a direct link to his vital parts. He slowed to a stop.
“That’s it?” she said with a strained lightheartedness. “My last fertile day.”
“Oh, c’mon, sweetheart,” Dafydd said and rolled away from her. “It’s not as cut-and-dried as all that.”
Though Isabel’s face was pink with the heat of the exertion, she yanked the sheet up to her chin and stared at the ceiling. Dafydd heaved a sigh and turned to face her.
“Look, Isabel, I’m sorry. Your body might work by the calendar, but mine doesn’t.”
“All right,” she said. “But do please explain what exactly I’m doing wrong?”
“Oh, God, Isabel, let’s not. It’s five o’clock in the morning.” He plopped onto his back and looked through the skylight at the looming dawn. Wearily he reached for her hand.
“Let’s sleep. Your last fertile day hasn’t even started yet.”
“If you say so.” She turned her back to him but soon her breath changed, becoming deep and calm. Dafydd tried to switch his mind off, sweep away that exasperating sense of failure, but the cacophony of the birds in the garden seemed unusually shrill and startling. He shivered and hugged the covers around his cooling body.
He had finally dozed off when he heard the postman push the mail through the letterbox. The flap clicked open and the mail poured with a whoosh onto the hall tiles. He resisted being pulled back from a dusty sun-drenched place with a sharp blue sky, but the effort popped him to the surface of wakefulness like a cork through water.
He glanced across Isabel’s sleeping form at the alarm clock. It was just after seven. Isabel was on her back, snoring softly, and had the sheet pulled over her head against the light. He ducked under the covers to join her. She was almost his own height, and her long legs disappeared down the murky extremity of the bed. In the darkness he looked down at their naked bodies, of the same species, yet so different, and according to medical science quite incompatible. That union, sperm to egg, did not want to take place though they had tried in a variety of ways, exhausting almost everything that was on offer. Rhys Jones, an ob/gyn specialist with an impressive track record, had reluctantly admitted defeat. He’d patted them on the back and reassured them that a pregnancy could still happen naturally, given time and patience, consulting thermometers and calendars, but Dafydd knew he was alluding to a bloody miracle. They were in their forties.
Besides, he’d just about had enough. It was destroying what little passion was left between them. The thread of desire on his part had become so fragile it frightened him. He’d tried to tell her—that something vital had been lost, that he now felt too old to be a father—but Isabel was unwavering in her determination to press on.
He got out of bed, put on his dressing gown and went downstairs. In the kitchen he put the kettle on and opened the blinds. It was bleak. A typical drizzly Cardiff morning. Dead leaves stuck to the wet windowpane, and there was green mold on the sill. He couldn’t remember when he had last seen the sun, though it was supposedly still summer. Shoving a scoop of coffee beans into the grinder, he listened to the frenzied whir, tuning his ear to his wife, trusting the noise to wake the dead. Not a sound from above. He breathed in the pungent aroma, an incongruous mix of Mediterranean seaside bar and morning responsibilities.
While the coffee was brewing he went to pick up the mail. Spread out over the floor in the hall was the usual heart-sink pile. He scooped up the letters and sorted them into three stacks
on the hall table: his, hers, and junk. Hers was by far the biggest, reflecting the surge of work that was coming her way. Yet the bills seemed to be all in his name. He took his handful of envelopes back to the kitchen. There was the agenda for the talk he’d promised to give in Bristol, a tedious affair that would need a lot of research. Flicking through the rest, he found the only vaguely interesting item was a baby blue envelope of flimsy airmail paper, addressed to him in curious childlike handwriting. He peered at the unfamiliar stamp. Canadian. The postmark quite clearly said Moose Creek, Northwest Territories.
“Moose Creek?” he blurted out loud, staring at the postmark.
Dafydd turned it over. There was a shiny sticker in the shape of a blue elephant sealing the flap. Perhaps someone had unearthed something he’d left behind, or someone getting in touch for old times’ sake. After all this time? The thought brought a slight tightening in his abdomen, and he slit the edge of the delicate blue envelope with his forefinger.
Dear Dr. Woodruff
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you. I think I’m your daughter. My name is Miranda and I have a twin brother, Mark. I’ve wanted to find you for so long, I’ve nagged my mom to death about it. Then a nice English doctor who came to look at our hospital helped my mom to find you in a medical directory.
In case you have forgotten my mom (Sheila Hailey), she is the beautiful lady you were in love with when you lived in Moose Creek (it’s a dump so I don’t blame you for leaving, honest). Now that I’m old enough (almost thirteen), she’s told me all about it. How you had to go back to England and how the two of you couldn’t get married or anything. It’s such a sad story. I wrote it all out for an essay for school. I called it “A Love Story” and I got an A for
it. Miss Basiak loved it.
Please write or phone as soon as you get this letter.
Under this was a box number in Moose Creek, and a telephone number. For a time he stood motionless in front of the sink. Two, three times he read the letter, uncomprehending, until he became aware of his feet. The cold of the floor tiles had numbed them as if he were standing on bare ice. He looked down and saw frozen toes, swollen and blistered with frostbite, feet blackened by dying tissue. A girl, half naked and rigid in the snow . . . the beautiful endless snow. Flickering at the edge of this blinding whiteness were the sharp features of the little fox, a shadow creature of his conscience. He’d been told by an old man, an Inuit shaman, always to heed its presence. Dafydd’s heart started racing. This belonged to a strange episode of his past, and he felt suddenly and unaccountably afraid.
“Hey!” Isabel’s voice from above jolted him. “Coffee smells good.”
“Coming,” he shouted back. Shoving the letter into his dressing gown pocket, he resumed his morning routine.
Isabel smiled appeasingly as he handed her a mug of coffee, but he didn’t notice her contrite expression. His thoughts were on the letter, racing, sifting through a myriad of half-remembered details. Sheila Hailey . . . that’s crazy . . . impossible.
“Listen, sweetheart, I know I was being . . .” Isabel began, then stopped. “What?”
His resolve to keep the bizarre letter to himself was dashed. His past life was one thing, but he was hopeless at concealing things from her in the present. “I’ve had a letter. It seems someone has got me mixed up with someone else.”
“Really?” She cocked her head, smiling at him. “How much and at what rate?”
Jesus. This wasn’t particularly funny. He sank onto the bed beside her. “Brace yourself. It’s quite weird.” Reluctantly he took the envelope out of his pocket and gave it to her. “See
what you make of it.”
Isabel looked at him as she placed her mug on the bedside table. She pulled the flimsy paper out of the envelope and unfolded it. He watched her face as she quickly read the letter, her lips silently forming each word. For a moment she was quiet, just staring at the paper. Then she read it again, out loud. She read it easily, her voice girlish with a distinct American lilt. She’d always been an excellent mimic. Her performance unnerved him, and for a second he wondered if she had written the letter herself. Some sort of joke. Or a test. But she was pale, her lips white.
Abruptly she flicked the letter onto his lap. “What is this?”
“What did I tell you?”
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Who is this person?”
Dafydd shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“You left a pregnant lover behind in Canada?”
Red blotches were appearing on his neck. He could feel them, little explosions of heat. Isabel saw them and her eyes bore into him. She always read guilt, whereas he knew they were merely the marks of stress, always had been. At once he felt irritated.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Of course I didn’t.”
“Well, what, then?”
He didn’t know what to say and was asking himself why the hell he’d shown her the letter. It was only natural that she would be bewildered and want to question him. He could have ripped it up, binned it, thrown the coffee grounds over the remnants and it would probably have been the end of the matter.
“I know the name. Sheila Hailey was the head nurse at the hospital where I worked. But I can assure you I was never involved with her.” The burning sensation spread upward, toward his face. “I swear to you that I simply can’t have any offspring in Moose Creek. It’s totally impossible.”
The whole thing was absurd. “And let’s not forget,” he added sharply, “that my sperm count, as you so often remind me, is like three peas in a pail.”
“Yeah, I know,” Isabel agreed. “But that’s now.” She sank back against the headboard, taking small edgy sips from her mug. His fierce denial had apparently not reassured her.
Neither of them spoke.
Dafydd closed his eyes, swiftly running through his year in Canada. Could he have made someone pregnant without ever having found out about it? He’d never been promiscuous as such; it wasn’t his style. Yet it wasn’t impossible—it hadn’t exactly been a celibate time of his life, but with his mania for protection an accidental pregnancy was unlikely. Anyway, this was about a specific woman, Sheila Hailey, a woman he’d never gone anywhere near.
“Could you have got drunk, shagged this woman and then forgotten about it?” Isabel asked.
He could understand her consternation, but he didn’t like the hard edge in her voice. “Isabel, you know me better than that. And if you pardon, I’ve never done shagging.”
Isabel smiled. “Of course you have, darling. Why’re you being so defensive? It’s a perfectly reasonable possibility.”
He burst out laughing. “I’m not being defensive. Hell, you know everything about me there is to know. I’m telling you, it’s a mistake. Or someone over there has gone stark-raving mad. Cabin fever or something. What do I know?”
He didn’t want to hide things from her—she deserved better—but in fact she didn’t know everything about him there was to know, not absolutely everything. Over the years of laying bare their past and their conscience to each other, admitting to all peccadillos, the most outrageous and the most indecent, he’d managed to leave out most of his Arctic experience, a window in his life too brittle and in some ways too precious to open up to her sharp scrutiny.
The radio suddenly sprang to life, set for eight. Isabel reached over to turn it off, but Dafydd put his hand out to stop her. “Let’s hear the news.”
“Now? Are you serious?” She glared at him for a moment and then turned the sound up loud. They pretended to listen to
the discharge of the day’s horrors and disasters, car bombs in Iraq, floods in China, and the continuing humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan. After a few minutes she bluntly turned it off. “Dafydd. Shouldn’t we be talking?”
It took him a couple of seconds to come back to the present, his eyes to focus. He looked at his wife. The light from the window fell on her thick blond hair, shifting and iridescent like sun on water. The disturbance of their morning had made sharper her aquiline features. Her nose seemed more pointed and her keen brown eyes were piercing. She was a striking woman, particularly in adversity. She’d always complained of the disadvantages of being tall and strong-looking. Men never credited you with being vulnerable. You had to fend for yourself, open your own doors. She was right—Dafydd couldn’t help himself smiling—she looked forbidding in the way only she knew how. She noted his smile and with a show of exasperation started to rummage in the drawer of her bedside table. A noisy search located a package of tobacco and some rolling paper. Dafydd watched her long, slender fingers grapple with the fragile paper as she rolled a lumpy, uneven cigarette, her wet tongue sliding back and forth along the gummed edge.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked, although there was something faintly alluring about the foul habit. “You’ve quit, remember. It’s been three weeks.”
“Who’s counting?” she retorted and lit the fag, puffing at it with concentrated pleasure. “Dafydd, could this be some kind of prank? Maybe it’s a nasty stunt by some friend of yours with a sick sense of humor.”
Absently he stroked her thigh. “Who do we know who’d think of such a thing? I don’t think so. I’ve neither friends nor enemies with that great an imagination.”
Isabel coughed and stubbed out the fetid roach on the birthday card he’d given her the week before. “What about someone from back there, that redneck backwater? Did you piss someone off? What about this nurse? Has she got anything on you? Could this be some kind of blackmail?”
Dafydd shook his head. “Nah . . . Can’t imagine what or why. We’re talking fourteen years ago.”
“Seriously. Why would any woman try to pin paternity on a man so far away, a doctor, of all people?” Isabel hugged her knees with conviction. “A simple blood test would prove her wrong; anyone with reasonable intelligence would know it. I mean, she is a nurse? And the poor kids—twins—what sort of mother would let a child write in vain . . . to a father who wasn’t?”
“I suspect it’s just some young girl with some elaborate fantasy.” He looked at the clock. He couldn’t afford to lie about any longer. Patting her reassuringly on the arm, he made to get up. “Whoever she is, I am sorry for her.”
“Wake up, Dafydd.” Isabel banged her fist on the bed, upsetting her birthday card and scattering ashes on the bedclothes. “Not some girl with a fantasy. The mother has obviously gone to some lengths to find you. You think you can just close your eyes and—ping—the whole thing will just go away? That’s so you.”
Annoyed by her outburst, he got up and went to shower. He let a single jet of hot water beat down on his head, creating the blurry cupola under which he allowed himself no unpleasant thoughts, but this morning the exercise didn’t work. Sheila Hailey. He could see her clearly, too clearly. He turned his face up to the spiky assault of the shower to cleanse himself of her image.
* * *
Dafydd sat on a stool between operations waiting for Jim Wiseman, the anesthetist, to get the next patient ready. He fidgeted, glanced at the clock on the wall and felt his impatience mount. He knew he couldn’t afford to be distracted from the job at hand. He took a few deep breaths and flexed his rubber-gloved fingers to loosen the tightness in his hands. The day never felt right if he and Isabel parted on less than loving terms, and in recent weeks that unspoken tension between them affected their mornings more than any other time.
Her biological pulse throbbed the loudest in the stark light of daybreak, and she was often edgy. And now that damned letter. But he was utterly certain; the suggestion of paternity was preposterous. So why was he disturbed by it? Why even react to a sad misguided letter, a foolish suggestion aimed wildly at the wrong person from a distance of thousands of miles?
“All set,” Jim called to him, having finally gotten the patient anesthetized. The jolly new scrub nurse, a young Jamaican woman, swayed her enormous hips in tune with some music in her head. His other assistants stood waiting for him, inscrutable behind their masks.
“What’s that music you’re dancing to?” he said to the nurse as he made the incision in the abdomen in front of him.
“I can’t hear nothing,” she said, her colossal bust quivering with laughter. “Perhaps you don’t like that sort of music, Mr. Woodrot.”
“It’s Woodruff . . . and yes, you moving about all the time is a bit distracting. Do you mind?”
She misunderstood him. “Why should I mind, man? Everyone to his own opinion. I don’t take no offense.” She chuckled and continued swaying her hips.
Her impertinent response cheered him momentarily. Hell, they could do with some un-English sensuality around the place; everybody was so damned glum. They worked on in silence, the dancing nurse doing her job with exceptional skill.
Bloody Sheila, Dafydd mouthed quietly as he lopped off the offending appendix and tossed it into the specimen pot.
The nurse looked up at him. “Sorry, did you say something?”
She handed him some instrument and he looked at it for a moment, not sure what it was for. He realized suddenly that his niggling apprehension wasn’t so much about the girl’s letter and her bizarre claim; it was Sheila Hailey herself. If that woman had put her daughter up to this (if indeed she had a daughter), trouble was sure to follow; Isabel was right about that. But why now, fourteen years on, and with him on the other side of
the globe? Perhaps bitterness and hatred had no limits in time and space. A momentary shudder passed through his neck and shoulders.
“You okay?” the nurse asked, looking at him. Jim’s face poked around the drapes. The masks made it impossible to know what they were thinking. Both Jim and the nurse—he didn’t even know her name—seemed concerned. Dafydd bent over the job with a renewed effort of concentration. He had a thorough delve around the bowels for a possible Meckel’s diverticulum before starting to close up the peritoneum. In the end it was a very neat job, likely to leave only the faintest scar. The patient was a girl in her early twenties with a delightfully smooth tummy. She’d be happy.
Dafydd took off his gloves and gown and headed for the coffee room. He was on his laptop, putting down his comments for the patient’s records, when Jim came slouching through the door with his customary stoop.
“All right?” Jim asked casually, pouring himself a cup of tarry fluid from the coffee machine.
Dafydd looked up. “Yes . . . why?”
“Is everything okay?”
Had his lack of focus been that apparent? Jim was one of the few people at work who knew him well; he was aware of the difficulties he and Isabel had been having, of the fruitless fertility treatments and all the attendant distress.
“Yeah, fine,” Dafydd lied, and turned back to the screen.
“Oh, well, nothing doing yet. She can’t lay it to rest. At least she’s got a lot of commissions on. She’s taking off in all directions. I should be pleased, really. Who knows”—he laughed impatiently—“early retirement, perhaps.”
“Don’t be daft. You’re in your prime. Look at you,” Jim said, looking down at his own expanding girth.
Dafydd closed his laptop and started to gather his things. Momentarily he felt tempted to tell Jim about the letter, but instead he poked him in the belly and said, “Get on yer bike, mate. Don’t
just talk about it.”
He didn’t really want to go home. The allegation wasn’t something that could just be shelved. Isabel would want to talk about it all evening. They would scrutinize the letter for clues. There would be more questions and there was nothing more he could add.
He wandered down the corridor, diverged into the men’s lavatory and shut himself in a cubicle. Putting his briefcase on the floor, he sat down on the toilet lid. Someone came in, had a pee, coughed noisily and spat, then ran a tap. He watched a pair of slippers shuffle past and out the door. This was stupid. What the hell was he doing? He could be sitting in the canteen or on a park bench, or better still in a pub with a pint of beer.
He leaned his head into his hands. Moose Creek, of all places . . . Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to picture the town, but all that came to him was a vast expanse of ice. He had always tried to suppress the memory of why he’d gone there in the first place, the incident that had spurred him to leave his blossoming surgical career all those years ago and go to that godforsaken outpost to which no sane human being, least of all a doctor, would ever dream of going voluntarily. But the impact of the catastrophe had never really left him. It was always there, skulking around in the recesses of his mind. This was one of many reasons he never spoke of his year in the Canadian wilderness.
Naively he had hoped that Moose Creek would be a haven from his shame. He had been so desperate to get away, he had no clue what he was going to. His only aim was to get as far away as he could, to the most remote place on earth as was possible to find.