This story is a sequel to my earlier tale Intentions. You really ought to read Intentions before starting on this, but I'll understand it if you'd rather not. All you really need to know is that in Intentions, the Subtle Knife, which was broken at the end of The Amber Spyglass, was reforged and passed from Will Parry to Giancarlo Bellini. The angel Remiel gave Giancarlo the task of using it to restore the Exiles, such as Lyra Belacqua's half-sister Lizzie Boreal, who had been stranded in alien worlds when the angels closed the windows that the Knife had made, to their home worlds. Now read on…
The John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford
Even though it is well past ten o'clock in the morning, Dr Will Parry is still asleep. This is not because he is lazy, but because he is extremely tired. He is tired because he has been on duty for over thirty-six hours and this is the first opportunity for rest that has presented itself to him since eleven o'clock the previous night, when the pubs started turning out.
Medical students the world around are noted for the intensity and scale of their parties. Some say that they need to get all their partying over and done with when they are young, for there will be few opportunities later in their careers when they will, as fully qualified doctors and surgeons, be expected to be available at any time. Others, and their view is more likely to be correct, say that it's a good idea for the young medics to become used to a regime of sleep deprivation for, as young doctors, a permanent state of tiredness is an expected part of their daily existence.
Quite why it is such a good idea for vulnerable patients to be exposed to inexperienced doctors who can hardly keep their eyes open is one of those mysteries of the medical profession to which lay persons are not privy. It is simply the way things are done; and if some elderly surgeon, who has graduated beyond the title of "doctor" to the far grander salutation of "mister", were to hear that the youngsters were to be allowed to work civilised hours, he would be very resentful, for did he not go through this very same ordeal by fatigue when he was at the start of his own career? And did it do him any harm? And if not, why should these young sprogs have it any easier than he did?
And so the cycle continues. There is a hierarchy in medicine, as in all the other ancient professions, and Dr Will Parry is at the bottom of it.
It is Saturday morning, and the Accident and Emergency department is quiet. There are a few minor cases in the waiting room – a child whose fingers were trapped in a cupboard door is comforted by his grandmother and a dazed motorcyclist with his arm in a sling is waiting for a taxi to take him home. The rush will start about lunchtime. The M40 motorway is nearby and road accident cases tend to be taken first to the A&E department at the John Radcliffe. There will also no doubt be a number of casualties involving lawn mowers, ladders and bottles of bleach as the people of Oxford take advantage of the fine weather to get down to their spring cleaning and gardening.
Staff Nurse Beckley, just come on duty, looks in at the door of the small room where Will Parry lies asleep. She would never be so foolish as to imagine that the relationship between her and Dr Parry could ever be anything other than purely professional in nature, but all the same she likes to look at him when he is off-guard, so to speak. His strong, determined face relaxes and becomes softer and more likeable. She has not often met such an intense man, even among the doctors, who tend to single-mindedness. Will is not known for his command of the social graces and Nurse Beckley has found it difficult to get more than a few words out of him, even when he is off-duty.
She suspects that there is more to Dr Parry's reclusive nature than simple dedication to the Hippocratic Oath. There are rumours that he has a mother who would, in the days before care in the community became the norm, have been regarded as a hopeless mental case and confined to an asylum. Someone once discovered that his father disappeared when he was a baby and also that there something odd had happened – a death and a disappearance – at his home in Winchester when he was a boy of twelve or thirteen. He has… an air about him. Of grief kept under restraint, of a terrible loss sustained.
He has no girlfriend, or indeed close friends of any kind, it seems. In medicine, which is a profession in which progress is secured by contacts and networking as much as by competence, the knack of making friends easily is a valuable asset and it is said that, despite his obvious ability, Dr Parry may never rise very far. He often seems, even in a crowded room, to disappear. 'I was talking to him,' someone might say, ' and suddenly he wasn't there any more.'
'You mean he'd drifted off; like he wasn't paying attention?'
'No, he'd actually walked away and I'd never seen him go. It was the strangest thing. It was as if my eyes couldn't see him.'
'The Invisible Doctor!'
'It wasn't funny. It was as creepy as hell. As a doctor, he'd make a great pickpocket.'
'Is he any good?'
'At picking pockets?'
'No! Is he a good doctor?'
'Best of his year. But he didn't get any prizes. Nobody noticed him.'
And so it goes. Nurse Beckley sighs, closes the door and goes about her duties, which are, at this quiet time, mainly clerical in nature.
The Oxford Ring Road
'For Christ's sake, step on it!'
'I'm sorry, sir. There's a speed limit through Cowley.'
'Don't be ridiculous, man. This is no time to be observing speed limits.'
'Sorry, sir. I don't want to lose my licence.'
'Stop the bloody car!'
The dark blue Lexus pulls off the Ring Road and into a residential street, lined with semi-detached houses. The front seat passenger moves across to the driver's seat, pushing the uniformed chauffeur out of the car and onto the pavement. With a squeal of tyres the Lexus performs a U-turn and shoots out of the side road back onto the Ring Road. The chauffeur shouts 'Hoi! Wait!' but he is wasting his breath. Disconsolately, he takes out his phone and calls for a taxi.
The man who is now behind the wheel of the Lexus is a fast and aggressive driver. He weaves at high speed through the Saturday morning traffic, uses his horn liberally and ignores the flashing headlights and angry gestures of the road users whom he inconveniences in his hurry.
On the bloodstained back seat of the car a young man is gazing out of the window with a shocked look on his face. The woman sitting next to him tightens the tourniquet on his right arm and keeps her other hand on the icebox which is wedged between her and the door. The violent motion of the vehicle is making her and the injured man feel very sick indeed.
Hazard lights flashing and horn furiously blaring, the Lexus races through Headington past the main gate of the John Radcliffe Hospital and screeches to a halt outside the A&E department. The woman helps the young man out of the car and the driver runs after them, with the icebox tucked underneath his arm.
A tide of human frailty flows though the wards and waiting rooms of every hospital and the doctors and nurses, despite their best intentions, often forget about the actual people involved in their work. They are a cardiac arrest, or a carcinoma, or a trauma, or a liver failure, rather than Peter Jones, or James May, or Rebecca Henson, or Marjorie Bennet. The children – often they remember the children that pass through their hands, but the detachment that doctors need to adopt to help them put their feelings aside and simply do their jobs as well as possible means that individual faces and names are easily forgotten.
However, the pale young man who is being rushed through the front doors of Accident and Emergency is not someone whom either Staff Nurse Beckley or Doctor Parry will forget in a hurry.