I fought against the pain for long enough to open my eyes. The world appeared blurrier than usual, as if I was seeing it through a fine mesh. It was difficult to focus, but with a concerted effort, I could just about make out the cubicle doors of the gent's loos. I tried to call for help but no sound came out. Then the world faded in front of me and I passed out again.
"Charlie… Charlie!" I could hear Duffy's voice as she persistently pleaded with me to wake up, and I could feel the cold, hard and slightly damp slabs of the pavement underneath me as I lay on the ground. I struggled to sit upright, feeling weak and dizzy. She knelt on the ground beside me, and put her arm across my shoulders to steady me. I needed it.
"What happened?" I asked as my resolve to sit up weakened and I slouched against her.
"I don't know. I got to my flat and looked out the window and saw you lying on the ground. I rushed back down here. You can't have been out more than two minutes." I saw the worry written all over her face and felt guilty for causing it.
"My head… I had a headache, really bad… I must have passed out."
"Must have been some headache to knock you out cold, like. I think I should get you to the hospital, get you checked over." She said earnestly. I tried a little harder to sit up on my own. There's no way I was going to spend the free time of my second life waiting for hours in A&E for the sake of a migraine.
"I'm fine now," She stared at me, her brow furrowing slightly with unconcealed concern, "Seriously. I'm fine."
"Uh-huh. Just help me up, will you Duffy?" She placed my arm around her neck and pulled me bodily off the ground. After a second of holding tightly on to her I felt much steadier and began to enjoy the feel of her body next to mine.
"Come on, I'll get you inside and make you a nice cuppa."
"I told you you're a good nurse. You've already learnt the number one cure!"
I made it up the stairs to her first floor flat with Duffy hovering behind me, ready to catch me if I fell, but with every step, I actually started to feel stronger. Her front door was already lying open, obviously from when she rushed down to help me. We pushed through it and entered her flat.
She pointed me in the direction of her sofa and I sat down, taking in my surroundings. It was an old flat, with a number of conspicuous damp patches oozing through the dated wallpaper, but it was clear she'd done here best to make the place feel homely. The best way to describe it is that there's something unmistakably Duffyish about it. And under the main table at the side of the room two cats chased a floral stuffed mouse, completely oblivious of the stranger in their midst.
"They're the reason I stay in this dump. You'd be amazed how few landlords let you keep pets."
"Oh… it's not that bad." I said trying to sound enthusiastic.
"Yeah, well I choose to believe that! Shall I go put the kettle on then?"
"Sure." The kitchen was, in reality, just the end of the living room so it was easy to carry on our conversation.
"One day, when I'm rich, I'm going to own a house. A proper house with separate kitchen and living room, and an upstairs, and more than one bedroom, and central heating and everything." She said decisively as she rested against the work-top and crossed her arms over her chest.
"You won't get rich being a nurse. Trust me."
"Then I'll just have to marry someone rich, I suppose."
"Rules me out then" My mouth said, before my brain engaged.
"Oh, I don't know. I s'pose I could forgo the big house if I met the right guy." She looked down at the carpet as she spoke, only glancing up to meet my eyes as she finished. There was no way I could think of to answer her without sounding either presumptuous or downright big-headed so I just smiled.
She finished making the tea, placed the two mugs on the coffee table in front of me, and sat down. She sat next to me, but not too close and somewhat hunched over, as if she was nervous.
"You sure you're feeling all right now, Charlie?"
"I am a nurse. I think I should know."
"Yeah, you should know, but it's a well observed fact that medical folk are the worst for getting help for themselves. You're not indestructible you know."
"I know." Boy did I know! The image of the future flitted in front of my eyes as a reminder. It was strange that, almost as if my 'real life' was trying to call me back somehow. Well it didn't work. I refuse to have my second chance taken away, just when I'm starting to enjoy it.
"I don't like to think of you in pain." she said quietly, taking a sip of her drink and trying her hardest not to look upset. It probably would have worked if she had been talking to anyone but me, but I know her too well for things like that to go unnoticed. The instinct to comfort her took over me and I reached out to touch her arm.
She stopped drinking and looked up at me, "I'm perfectly all right, don't you worry about me!" She gave a little half nod and I could feel myself being drawn toward her again. Powerless to resist I leant across the sofa and kissed her. This time instead of saying goodbye and going our separate ways, she stood up, took my hand, and led me to her bedroom.
Afterwards, I lay awake listening to her breathing softly beside me. It was daytime and the light that filtered through her thin curtains bathed the room in a warm pink glow. I hadn't dared to imagine that I would end up in bed with her. It just wouldn't happen with the Duffy of the future, quite apart from us both being married; we relied on each other too much as friends to chance ruining our relationship. However, in this time we had a clean slate, so to speak. I had the chance to reinvent our relationship; I was only surprised at how easily it had happened. I had no idea that she had such feelings for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bedroom door nudge open, and the round black face of one of Duffy's cats appeared in the gap. It slunk into the room and hopped up onto the bedspread, rearranging it with it's claws. I could feel them pricking uncomfortably into my chest.
"Shoo!" I whispered rather ineffectually. The cat stopped for a brief moment and then resumed it's activity. "Stupid animal!" I tried to lift it off me without waking Duffy, or being clawed to death. When I had a decent hold of it, I tried to sit up and was overwhelmed by, first dizziness, and then incredible pain.
"Not again!" I managed to call out before Duffy's bedroom faded and was replaced by the indistinct, yet recognisable, view of the toilets. Then with one last stabbing pain that shot through my body I was unconscious once more.
I could hear sounds of movement around me long before I was able to open my eyes. I drowsily lifted each lid in turn and found myself staring up at a white tiled ceiling. It was no good trying to sit up; I had neither the energy nor the inclination to move. My head felt like it was full to the brim with cotton wool balls. Just what the hell's happening to me?
A grunt was my best effort to communicate with the rest of the world and sure enough, I heard the distinct sound of rubber soled shoes slapping against the lino of the floor. A shadow was cast over me and I saw Clive King standing there, wearing one of those nurse's shirts that always appear to be choking their owner and I know, from uncomfortable experience, usually are.
"So you're awake then Charlie. How are you feeling?" He boomed.
"Like somebody has used my head for a football. What happened?" He propped up the trolley so I could look around me a bit better. I was in a cubicle in the old A&E surrounded on three sides by pale green curtains.
"Now there's a question! You're a bit of a mystery, Charlie. You were brought in by ambulance this morning, but there have been some…anomalies with your test results." He said, shifting from one foot to the other as he spoke and glancing anywhere but at me. I know that look. I often have that look. It's the look of someone who's been caught off guard and doesn't quite know how to answer a question. More importantly, when you're the one in a hospital bed receiving that look, you can be forgiven for starting to panic.
"Anomalies? What kind of anomalies?"
"I'll just go and get Ewart for you." I watched him pull back the curtain slightly and saunter off into the department. Not even thirty seconds later he was back, with Ewart and another doctor with an ill-fitting white coat in tow.
"Charlie, thank goodness you're awake. We were starting to get concerned. You recognise Dr Bransfield, don’t you?" I did vaguely, so nodded gently.
"What anomalies?" Well, there's no point in beating around the bush. They doctors shot King a look and he winced sheepishly before disappearing to tend to another patient.
"I don't know how much you remember Charlie," Ewart continued, "but young Duffy brought you in by ambulance at about eleven 'o' clock this morning. Though she seemed particularly vague about what you were doing in her flat…" He raised an eyebrow at me and I could feel myself inexplicably turn red.
"We…er…" I floundered.
Ewart raised his hand to stop me from talking. "It doesn't really make much difference Charlie. Anyway, you were unconscious and Duffy said that she saw you clutch at your chest in pain, as well as complaining about a headache earlier on. So, we decided to rule out the obvious and ran a twelve lead, amongst other things."
"You think it's my heart? But it was my head that hurt." Since it was my heart that started this whole bizarre turn of events, I began to wonder though.
"That's just the thing. The results did suggest an MI but it just didn't quite fit with your symptoms. We performed a second just to double check and that one was clear. If I hadn't done them both myself I would have sworn that there had been a mistake. Then I sent you for a CT scan, and we found the most interesting part of the puzzle…" He gestured to Dr Bransfield to take over. The doctor lifted up a negative as he started to speak.
"This is an image of the electrical activity in your brain. As you can see here…" he pointed at a huge red blob, "there is a large amount of activity."
"Meaning?" He glanced sideways at Ewart.
"We aren't sure. You see the brain is a very complex organ and there's a lot we don't yet know about its function. The area in your brain that's exhibiting all this activity doesn't usually show anything on this scale and we don't know what it means…"
"But don't worry Charlie", Ewart interrupted, "We're going to refer you to a top neurologist based in London. We'll get to the bottom of this, and put it right." He tried his best to give me a reassuring smile, but I'm afraid it did little to help.
I tried to let the information sink in. There's something wrong in my head and no one knows what it is or how to fix it. It can't be a coincidence that it's shown up at the same time as my incredible time shifting experience, and the trace of the MI has got to be my own time breaking through. I just wished there were some way to explain that to Ewart without sounding crazy.
"So what now?" I asked, doubtful that either man would have a suitable answer.
"For the moment we're going to suggest you stay in for observation, we're still trying to fine you a bed. Then we'll have you transferred to London as soon as possible and let them take it from there." Dr Bransfield replied.
"I am feeling much better now though." Ewart looked at me incredulously, sensing the fact that I didn't really want to be confined to a hospital bed for the indefinite future, but the truth was that I honestly felt better. The head still felt awful but my energy was returning and I felt pretty much normal.
"Better to be safe rather than sorry."
"What about the department?"
"We'll cope without you." Ewart responded in his no nonsense voice.
"If the pain gets worse…" Dr Bransfield started.
"I'll call, don't worry."
"In that case I'll leave you and get on with my rounds." He nodded goodbye to myself and to Ewart, then disappeared through the curtain. I closed my eyes and sunk back against the pillow. It didn't seem fair to be given a second chance at life and to have to spend it in hospital. I wondered how Duffy was. It can't have been very pleasant for her to find me lying there.
"Ewart, is Duffy here?"
"She's on duty. You have been out of it for a while", he smiled and looked at me knowingly, "I'll send her in."
Go to Part Four