I was going to post another SHORT STORY a few weeks ago, but events overtook me. Little things like Christmas, New Year, and – biggest of all – a trip to Australia.
The kind people at iScot Magazine selected another of my stories to publish in Issue 89.
The Last Straw is a crime story with a medical theme, featuring an overworked GP near the end of his tether.
Not at all autobiographical, honest!
You can read The Last Straw below, or take out a digital subscription to iScot Magazine
iScot covers more than just current affairs. There is an eclectic mix of articles, business stories and lifestyle features that reflect what's really going on in Scotland today.
And watch out for another short story right here, very soon. Hint: my next short story appears in the next iScot, Issue 90.
THE LAST STRAW
Keeping quiet about Janette McCall’s death was hard. Colin’s silent guilt screamed at him whenever he saw Carly or one of the Billy’s. Empathy is expected of a GP, but emotional involvement isn’t, and grieving for your patient is just not on.
When he heard the news that Janette had finally done it Colin realised just how much his job was damaging him. His initial reaction was to make light of her suicide. That was sick, but that's how he coped. He couldn't show what he was really feeling; he had to get on with the work. The hundreds of patients with their multitude of trivial or serious problems, every one of them equally deserving of his undivided attention. The hamster wheel would rotate faster all day, powered by the harrowing or the hilarious. When at last it was time to jump off he’d spend the evening recovering from emotional giddiness, while Kate and the kids thought he was paying attention.
After the funeral, of course everyone rallied round to make sure Billy had everything he needed. “It's an awfy shame! Poor Billy. And no one knows why she killed herself. Selfish of her, leaving Billy with those kids, and him so nae well!”
Billy McCall wasn't a well man and he made sure everyone knew it. Colin had heard it all too many times. He knew all about Billy’s crippling arthritis, and his terrible nerve pain, and that no painkillers were ever strong enough. Colin knew how much the tablets were said to change hands for in the 5 Star Inn on a Saturday night. It was almost impossible to stop people like Billy from playing the system and selling on precious NHS resources.
Billy’s son was the apple of his father’s yellowing eye. Young Billy was a chip off the old block, taking over the family business. He described almost convincing symptoms suggesting disc prolapse. “It’s ma disc again, Dr Prius, it’s slipped oot, all the way this time. Pain’s right doon ma leg. If yer busy, Doc, just leave another script at the front desk. Carly’ll come doon an’ get it.”
Somehow, every neurosurgery or scan appointment coincided with one of young Billy's flare-ups.
“Ah’m sorry I couldnae go again, Doc, ah couldnae get off the couch. Carly even had tae pick up ma line. Dr Morton gave me another six months this time, Doc, I was real upset. You know me, Doc, ah dinnae want tae be like this. Ah just want tae get back tae work…”
Colin worried about Carly, and that she would go the same way as Janette. Carly was on Prozac, like it seemed most young mothers were, but Colin had read a hospital letter after she’d taken an impulsive overdose. When he’d asked why she’d failed to attend follow-up Psychiatry appointments to explore the reasons for her self-harm, her excuse was she was too busy. "I should’ve known better, and anyway, Billy wouldn't like it."
When Colin thought back, he could only ever remember Janette smiling when she talked about her four children. Even young Billy, the oldest. Whenever she made an appointment in one of her kids’ names but then come alone with no child in tow, Colin knew she must have had another battering. She never admitted it, of course, or let him write anything in her notes. Most of the appointment time would be taken up with silence. A thick paste of foundation layered below Janette’s eye, or a high scarf in summer would make him wonder what she'd tripped over or walked into this time.
He’d try another line of questioning to coax some kind of response. If he was lucky, she might then lift her head and make eye contact, even if she couldn’t smile. He could remember the time she introduced Carly.
“Who’s looking out for your kids, Janette?”
“Carly’s young Billy’s girlfriend. She’s lovely. Fourteen, but see her when she’s got her Wonderbra on and her false lashes, she’s just braw. She’d pass for twenty-one.”
“How old is Billy now?”
“All grown up, sixteen! They make a lovely couple.” Colin hoped Carly had a contraceptive implant.
He winced when Janette went on. “And Big Billy loves having her around the house, always telling young Billy to let her stay the night. He's good that way, understanding, y’ken?”
Colin knew from a well-informed source that Big Billy liked wee girls. But neither the source nor Hippocrates would let him share that.
But at least that time Janette had talked. Over the years, an unspoken pact formed between them. He knew what was going on, she knew he knew it, but it was never mentioned. He knew she’d never go to the police. Or leave Billy. Even after the broken bones. But she knew Colin cared, even though the only help she’d accept was unspoken sympathy.
After any one of those coded consultations, Colin knew he should have taken action. Gone to the police. Social services. But he never did. Never dared break confidence and risk the wrath of the General Medical Council. Now, six years after Janette’s death, at least he didn’t have nightmares about her so often. Not every night, at least.
The road towards home twisted as it danced with the meandering River Devon, connecting two of the villages nestled at the foot of the Ochil Hills. In his rearview mirror, flames licked high from his blood-sodden jacket. The litter bin he’d used as a furnace was in a lay-by at Groat’s Grave, the ancestral burial ground of the former lairds of Harviestoun. As he drove, he threw the empty accelerant bottle and the Bic lighter onto the verge. The bastard won't be needing any more whisky or cigarettes, he thought, whooping and laughing maniacally.
Adrenaline and relief still pumped through his arteries minutes later when he drew into his driveway. Another Friday night out hobsnobbing with an awful couple and their braying brood was the last thing he wanted but at least it meant he would be out when the police came calling. His kids wouldn't see him taken away.
The police followed the trail he'd left. He’d known his daughter Sophie, ever obedient and respectful of authority, would direct the officers to the supper party. Colin hated the word “supper”. He amused himself over dinner by composing a mental critique of the awful evening. He was voicing his dutiful thanks to his hosts when the doorbell dinged. The prissy peace of Alice Tricket’s carefully crafted dining room ambience was disturbed by his arrest. Alice was in wonderland.
The interview room in Alloa was bare. Spare. Impersonal. Machine tea — “sorry, we don’t have milk” — left a taste like shoe polish in his mouth.
It was obvious the detectives wanted a motive to tick a box.
“But I still don’t get why you did it? And you didn't try very hard to cover your tracks, did you? The neighbours saw you leaving, your car’s got blood all over the seats and you even lit a bloody beacon in that bin on the way home! But why? What had Billy done?”
Hours earlier Colin had looked at the little clock in the corner of the screen. 5.43pm.
“Bye, Mrs Franchitti, you’ll be fine, I’m sure.”
He turned his attention to 73 lab results he had to check through before home time, but the phone rang again.
“Sorry, Dr Prius, a late home visit I think. He says it can't wait.”
“Poor old Billy McCall. Sounds really bad.”
Aye, right! I bet he does.
“Put him through,” he sighed.
It was, of course, the worst it’s ever been, Doc, I don’t know if I’ll make it through the night, Doc. You’ll have to come out. Maybe an injection this time? Colin knew the script. But he also knew he was doomed to fail if he tried to dodge Billy’s carefully-timed request. Too early to pass it on to the out-of-hours service, and too late for ‘wait and see, call me back if it’s not settling in an hour or so.’
There were, at least, no more interruptions. One of the blood results he couldn’t leave. A confused, stone-deaf lady’s haemoglobin level was dangerously low. But her haughty daughter wasn't in and the old lady would be one more worry Colin would have to carry over the weekend. Fuck!
On the way to visit Billy McColl, Colin had an idea. He could quite legitimately pass his worry about the blood test to the Out-of-Hours service. They could track down haughty daughter and make the futile attempt to persuade the old lady into hospital. He knew she'd refuse.
Sitting in his car outside Billy's elderly/disabled-adapted council bungalow — Billy was not yet elderly and compared to many, not at all disabled but he had friends in council places — Colin pulled out his mobile.
“Oh, hi, Pauline, it’s Colin Prius from Alva here, can I leave a message for the GPs who are on call this evening?”
“Aye, of course, Colin, but can't it wait until you come in later? What’s the message?”
It had slipped his mind that he'd swapped his overnight shift with one of the Tillicoultry GPs. As the prospect of working all night dawned on him, a sickening emptiness filled Colin’s stomach. He fought back tears.
The last straw wasn't the forgotten overnight shift or the pointless worry about the low haemoglobin. It wasn't even the lies Billy told to get drugs, or that young Billy was following his father’s example. The camel’s back was broken by the weight of an insignificant trifle, one that made Colin smile at the irony.
He'd let himself into Billy's home expecting him to be writhing, grimacing and immobilised by “pain”. Instead, with whisky, fags and painkillers in easy reach, Billy was sleeping like a baby. His face was a picture of contented serenity.
Rising rage wiped away the smile. His head boiled over with swirling images of bruised Janette and pregnant, bullied Carly. He had to escape his pointless, worthless toil. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to follow Janette’s example. But now there was another way out.
He reached for the butter-smeared bread knife on the table beside Billy’s fat neck.
They were waiting for an answer. Colin stared at the fat one.
“Why? Because I’m not as brave as Janette.”
The detective looked puzzled for a moment.
“Sorry? Who’s Janette?”
Copyright N J Edmunds 2023