What becomes of the broken hearted?
Hidden in the darkness he kicked violently into the side of the building. He kicked and kicked until his leg was sore and then he kicked again. He didn’t cry, he was a grown man for goodness sake; if his eyes glistened a little more than usual it was just due to the bad lighting, or perhaps some smoke from the house fire had got to them. Yes, that was it. It had nothing to do with Comfort.
Fin turned away from the pummelled wall and braced his back against it, staring out into the black night, but not looking at anything in particular. He’d seen about all he wanted to for one day and closed his eyes as he let his body slide down the wall.
The ground was cold and damp. It seeped though his uniform but he was beyond noticing such trivialities as wet clothes. In a matter of hours his barely bearable life had u-turned into utter misery. He picked up a discarded, bright red, soft drinks can and hurled it with all his might down the alley he was sat in. The moment it left his grasp he was sorry he’d thrown it. Now he had nothing more to throw and he certainly needed something to take his anger out on.
Drawing his knees into his chest, he rested his head back against the uncomfortable brickwork and replayed the day’s events. It had started quite promisingly, or at least without any signs of what it would turn into. Going into work these days was something that hovered undecided between a delight and pure torture. On the one hand he got to see Comfort, and the more he got to know her, the more captivated by her he became. But on the other hand, she was married and he could never tell her how he felt. Still, he was a big boy and capable of keeping his emotions in check.
She had called him a hothead, and his actions that evening had done little to disprove the idea. His mind was surging with feelings that varied only between the uncomfortable and the downright painful and, he realised with some shock, all he wanted to do was hurt things. The wall had been the first victim, the Coke can an easy second, but more than that he wanted to grab Roy, the psycho who came so close to sending Comfort up in a ball of flames, around the neck and squeeze until his head exploded. And then there was Rob.
He knew logically he had no reason to want to damage Rob’s chances of becoming a father, or at least only a very selfish one, but that gave him little pause in his internal ranting. When Rob had appeared around the corner to pull Comfort into what, in Fin’s opinion, was a not-at-all tender looking embrace his first instinct was to lash out at the man for stealing his moment.
He could feel his hands balling into fists at his sides, quite independently to any conscious thought. Just recalling Rob’s arrogant, smug little face was enough to raise Fin’s blood pressure to dangerous levels.
There was a time, many years ago when his only occupation in life had been nicking cars and tearing around the town at high speed, when he might just have done all he imagined doing to Rob. When the lust to do something used to overtake the sensibility of it. But if he did, if he hit Rob, right now and in front of Comfort, he knew that it wouldn’t endear him to her. He knew that it would prove to that he really was a hothead, and he was far too stubborn, if nothing else, to do that. He couldn’t risk losing her.
Suddenly his stomach did a flip. It took him by such surprise that the scowl dropped from his face. What he had realised, without even wanting to, was that he had already done enough to jeopardise his relationship with her. He had been so close to kissing her, and the look that she’d shot him as she’d pulled away from him floated across his vision, disorientating him. His body swam with acute dizziness and he had to rest his head against his knees in order to regain any composure at all.
It had been hard enough coming into work everyday and seeing her, but not being able to do any more than the most basic of flirting with her. At least then he had hope though. However small that hope was, there was always a chance that she felt the same as he did. That one day she would come to him and admit her secret feelings. On occasions that hope was torture all of its own, but now, the absence of it was a hundred times worse.
The perfect moment had come and gone without her declaring her love for him, and now she was with her husband; where she should be, not that that made Fin feel any better.
The anger returned pulsing through his veins until he knew he had to stand up or else he would explode under the sheer pressure of his feelings. The urges to attack both Roy and Rob hadn’t gone away but he’d added another name to his mental list of people to beat up.
Whatever else had happened, whatever his opinion of Rob, he had managed to ruin his relationship with Comfort all on his own.
Tentatively he stepped out of the shadows and peered across the forecourt to see the distinctive figure of Comfort retreating from him, her waist hugged by her husband’s strong arm. The green of her uniform reflected in Fin’s eyes, even from such a distance.
He hoped that one day she would be able to forgive him, but knew that he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself. He hadn’t thought for one second about what she wanted, only what he wanted for himself. He felt disgusted by his actions; no doubt she did too.
When he’d seen her struggling against Roy in the back of her ambulance, he’d been so filled with panic that he might lose her. It hadn’t occurred to him for even a split second that she wasn’t his to lose. He realised it now though. He hadn’t thought he could feel worse than he did driving impotently along being her.
Now he knew different.
Nikki stood in the doorway of Katia’s living room. She had been there only that morning, yet now it looked totally different. The room itself had gone into mourning for its master. The colours of the wallpaper and carpet were now muted, and the light bulb seemed to struggle to chase away the shadows.
Back in his old armchair sat Maciek; still and pale, but somehow stately. It was, Nikki thought, almost as though he was a monarch being allowed one last chance to sit on his throne. There was something so dignified about the old man, and about his bereaved wife who sobbed almost silently as their GP pronounced Maciek’s death.
Yesterday Nikki had never even met this couple; today though, she empathised with Katia’s pain in a way she had never felt before. Her eyes were already sore with all the crying she had done. She was glad that she’d asked Josh to drive them, she knew she was in no fit state to do so herself.
She glanced across at her partner as he loitered in the hallway. She couldn’t understand how he wasn’t in tears too. His practically blank expression infuriated her. When he realised that she was staring at him, he met her eye line.
“I think we should be going now. The shift’s over and we have to give Comfort and Fin a lift back to base”.
She glanced between Josh in the hallway and Katia in the living room a couple of times, silently deciding that the old woman was more important.
“Not yet, OK?” Not waiting for his answer, she entered the room and came up next to Katia. “Is there anything more we can do for you?”
Katia shook her head almost imperceptibly, then reached across and took Nikki’s young hand in her own frail one.
“No, there is no more. Thank you” Her voice was thick with grief, but a smallest of smiles graced her lips as she turned to look at the paramedic. “You have been a great help”.
Nikki felt her hand being gently squeezed and warmly returned the action. “If you need anything you can call the ambulance station and leave a message for me. Just ask for Nikki Marshall, alright?” She sniffed, and wondered whether she should write it down somewhere.
She turned to see Josh just inside the doorway managing to look both apologetic towards Katia and still authoritative towards Nikki.
“Hang on” she hissed back.
“I mustn’t keep you from your work Nikki. You should go. I will manage on my own” her voice cracked as the truth of her statement hit her, and a tear slipped unchecked down her cheek.
“I can stay. Josh can go back without me - can’t you?- I could stay for a bit, if you want…”
“Nikki” Josh said in a warning tone, but she ignored him.
“You are young, my dear, you should go home to your family. You have already helped me more than I could have asked for”.
The moment that Nikki had queried her she felt bad about it. Guilty even, that she was seeking reassurance from a woman who had just lost her husband of sixty years. She feverishly brushed more tears from her face with the sleeve of her uniform, sniffing and biting her bottom lip to stop it from quivering.
“Of course. Go home” Katia was saying kindly, and also resolutely. Nikki took a moment to marvel at her strength, and not for the first time that day. Then in a heartfelt movement, she leant forward and hugged Katia, before joining Josh at the door and solemnly leaving the house.
“I know case’s like this are hard Nikki, but you can’t show your grief in front of the patients or their family” She turned to stare at him as he walked to the drivers side of the ambulance, her tears forgotten as she tried to take in his words.
“Well, I’m sorry for having feelings!” she exclaimed as she jumped into her seat.
“Look, that’s not what I…”
“No, I know what you mean. We’re supposed to be professional and detached. Well, maybe that’s easier if you haven’t spent the day watching someone slowly die! Katia and Maciek had been together for three times as long as I’ve been alive, they’ve survived a war together. You didn’t hear the way the spoke, you have no idea, so don’t tell me about how I should react!”
She sat back in her seat, crossing her arms defiantly over her chest. As the moments ticked by without a rebuttal from Josh she dared to glance across the cab at him. He turned the key in the engine and the ambulance roared into life, but he didn’t turn back to her. Instead he said slowly and deliberately: “Visit Jack”, then put the vehicle into gear and drove off.
Those two little words reverberated in her head. She would be lying if she said that Jack hadn’t crossed her mind several times during the day. Katia and Maciek had been through so much together yet she and Jack had split up at the first sign of trouble.
When they had first started dating she had allowed herself a vision, if only a fleeting one, of her and Jack growing old together. It was something that she had never even contemplated before, and had at first put the day-dreaming down to him being her first proper boyfriend, but if his illness had done any good, it had proven to her that her feelings were real. She wanted to be with him, and it hurt that she was being shut out of his life.
She remembered how adamant Maciek was not to go to hospital, how difficult it had been to persuade him he needed urgent treatment, but regardless of the out come Katia had refused to let him give up. She had fought to save her husband.
Nikki felt a few fresh tears trickle down her face. More tears of guilt. Jack hadn’t wanted to go to hospital, but it was Tony, and not her, who had persuaded him otherwise. And when he pushed her away, she had gone.
Without a fight.
She felt ashamed of herself for saying in one breath how much she loved Jack, but then giving up on him in the next. She sniffed and cleared her throat with a short cough.
“I’ll go tonight” she said quietly, as she dried her eyes once more on her sleeve.
It had felt impossible to find a private spot in the hospital forecourt, so Comfort had allowed Rob to guide her to his car. They sat next to each other staring out of the windshield, her arm hooked around his, and both their hands on her thigh. She considered it a good position to be in. She needed to be close to someone who cared, but after what happened with Fin she didn’t feel quite comfortable with Rob. In some odd way she felt a balance had been struck and it was allowing her heart rate to calm down.
“Was he really going to set fire to you?” Rob asked, still clearly bewildered by the news.
“No, I expect he pours petrol over everyone he meets!” she retorted, disentangling her arm from his and pushing his hand away. “What kind of stupid thing to ask is that?!”
“Sorry love, I just, I mean, you’re a paramedic, I don’t expect things like this to happen to you.” He sounded genuinely apologetic; she picked his hand up again.
“I didn’t exactly expect it either”.
“Are you alright now?”
“I’ll be better when I’m at home and in a nice hot bubble bath”.
“Let’s go then” she watched his hand reach for the ignition key.
“I can’t! I have to go back to HQ and debrief”. She wished she could just disappear off with him though. Go home and wash the whole day out of her mind. Maybe back in to the sanctuary of her own house she would begin to forget Fin. Fin, what had that been about? She could hear Rob talking to her and tried to banish Fin’s expectant face from her mind.
“What did you say? Sorry, I was miles away”
“I said, all this HQ and debriefing stuff sounds like you’re in the army!”
“Sometimes I start to wonder myself”.
“You could give it up you know. No one would blame you Comfort”.
She gawped at him, and dropped his hand again. She loved her job, even during the bad days she never seriously thought about quitting it. She did good work. The Lord’s work even, helping those in an unfortunate position. How could he even suggest such a thing?
“I’m not giving it up Rob. Na-ah. No”.
“I’m just suggesting…”
“Rob, I love this job, you know that!”
“I know that my wife comes home exhausted, emotionally and physically, everyday. And today she comes home covered in petrol because some maniac decided he wanted to burn down his house full of squatters”.
“Well, I’ll wash before I come home then, OK?”
“Comfort. I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m worried about you. I care about you. I love you. I don’t like getting calls saying that you’ve nearly been barbequed”.
“You don’t like it!” she scoffed. How did he think she felt? It wasn’t as if she got into these situations deliberately. She didn’t think she’d ever been as terrified before as she was when she realised what Roy was doing. She thought that was it. The end of Comfort. And yet she had to listen to how much it upset Rob?
“No I don’t. And I really think that we need to talk about this. For the sake of our marriage”.
She opened the car door. “Don’t make me choose between my job and you Rob. That’s not fair.”
“Comfort where are you going?”
“I’m on duty still, I can’t sit here all night”. She stepped out and slammed the door before he had further chance to protest.
She strode off toward the main entrance to the casualty department, more because she had no where better to go, than due to any particular desire to be in the hospital. She slumped into a chair at the small café area near the entrance, and the noise and bustle of the room began to take her mind off the day.
The smell of the petrol assaulted her nostrils and extracted odd looks from the other patrons of the café, giving her an instant and inescapable reminder of how close she’d come to death. But in an odd way she was already starting to come to terms with that event. It had an air of finality that was reassuring. Roy was no longer a threat to her, and as long as she stayed away from naked flames she would be alright. It had shaken her up, but she was strong.
With that problem chased away, she began to start thinking about Fin instead, and that was troubling in a different way altogether. One thought chased around in her head: she nearly didn’t pull away.
Perhaps she’d just needed someone - anyone - to hold her. Perhaps the same would have happened if it had been Josh. She laughed aloud, and was treated to a few more curious looks from those around her. Who was she trying to kid. Fin had wanted to kiss her, and, however fleetingly, she had wanted to kiss him.
It bothered her.
She was a strong believer in her Catholic values, and when she made her vows to Rob, she intended to keep them. She berated herself for thinking about it in the past tense. She still loved Rob; even if he didn’t understand what her job meant to her. Even if he never would.
She knew it was just a matter of minutes until she would have to see Fin again. What would she do? He must’ve known that she couldn’t reciprocate his feelings toward her. It must have been a mistake. She shouted it at herself. It must have been. With that decided, and her own feelings dismissed once again as down to stress, she knew what she had to do.
Pretend it never happened. That would be best for all concerned.
Josh pulled up behind the other ambulance in front of the hospital. If the police followed the irritating procedure they usually did it would be off the road for a number of hours until they’d got their forensic types down to tell everyone what they already knew; some idiot had poured petrol all over it.
He put on the brake and heard Nikki open her door.
“I’ll go find the others if you want” It wasn’t a question, he noted, she was already out of the door and he hadn’t even answered.
“I’ll stay here then” he replied perfunctorily.
He stretched across the seat a bit to hear her better above the noise of the forecourt. “Yep?”
“I’m sorry for snapping at you”.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve heard worse” He smiled reassuringly at her, and she smiled back, clearly pleased to be forgiven. Then she shut the door and bounded across the tarmac and toward the hospital.
With Nikki out of sight, Josh felt the smile vanish from his lips. He rested his head against the side window of the cab, enjoying the cool and almost refreshing feeling.
It had been a hell of a day.
He sighed heavily and closed his eyes, daring himself to fall asleep there and then, and not to wake up until the world was a nicer place to live in. Of course he didn’t. He was a professional. And he was professional enough to know that what he’d said to Nikki earlier was true as well; letting personal emotions be known at work only ever made things more complicated, and complication was generally not a good thing for a paramedic.
It was hard though. He always had trouble coping with the memories that resurfaced whenever he was called out to a fire; tonight, he knew all too well, his sleep would be broken by the nightmares that still sporadically haunted him. Maciek’s mercy run had also stirred up a few memories too.
There was no point in burdening Nikki with his feelings, which was why he didn’t respond to her outburst. He didn’t need her feeling sorry for him, when she obviously had enough on her plate already. Besides, he reasoned, life was on the whole much better now than it had been in a long time. He and Colette were happy and he couldn’t really ask for more than that. Perhaps, in time, some children would complete the picture, but that was a thought for another day.
For now he had enough to do just trying to keep that level of professional composure in place. He’d only managed it around Katia by staying at a distance, and as Nikki had said, he didn’t know the couple well. He was glad of that in a way. He wasn’t sure he could have stopped himself becoming as emotionally invested as his young colleague if he had have spent more time with them.
Looking at Katia’s face, her brave, yet terrified eyes, Josh could see a mirror of his own feelings from when Helen died. It was an expression that stored the knowledge that a whole era of your life is over, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. A bewildered resignation almost. However helpful friends are, there is little they can do to change that.
Nikki didn’t understand that, not that she had any reason to. He knew her offer of help was genuine, but it wasn’t something that Katia needed at that time. Nikki had helped enough by trying to get Maciek home, and by letting them be together during his last moments. Josh knew how important that was. He hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to his family and wouldn’t wish that feeling on his worst enemy. He thought he saw an understanding of that on Katia’s face, in the way she spoke to Nikki, and was honoured to be a part of it. Even a very small part.
He opened his eyes again, feeling considerably more relaxed for having turned his ride with Katia and Maciek into a positive experience, rather than the negative one it seemed at first to be. Maybe the dreams he dreaded coming in the night would be tempered a little by it.
Peering out into the darkness he saw a familiar car draw up on the opposite side of the grass. He opened the door and jumped down onto the tarmac, slamming the door behind him as he strode purposefully across the turf towards Colette.
“Hello! Isn’t your shift over?” Colette enquired as he came closer.
He looked at his watch. “Yes, but it’s been one of those days. I’m just waiting for the others then I’ll be off”.
“And I won’t see you for another, um, how many hours?” She frowned. It was a sentiment that certainly wasn’t lost on Josh either.
“I miss you when we work opposite shifts like this”.
“Me too. Have you got any dirt on Charlie? Maybe we could blackmail him into giving me some time off?”
Josh laughed. “Plenty! But I’m keeping it for emergencies”.
She grinned, and suddenly found herself in Josh’s embrace. He wrapped his arms around her tightly as he was overcome with the need to hold her, and prove to himself that she was real, and they were really together.
It took her a second to get over the shock but when she did he could feel her relax against his chest. He let himself enjoy the simple pleasure of being close to her a few beats more before releasing her and kissing her lingeringly on the lips.
“What’s got into you tonight?”
“Like I said, it’s just been one of those days. I love you, you know.”
“I know. I love you too. But Nikki is wolf whistling us, so I think that’s your cue to get back over there.”
Reluctantly he agreed, but didn’t turn to leave until he’d given her another kiss and been told by her that he was a soppy fool.
As he returned to the ambulance, he noticed that Nikki’s eyes were now completely dry; she seemed generally a lot happier than when they’d left Katia’s house, and he even began to think that the day wasn’t as grim as he first thought. One look at Fin though changed his mind. He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Comfort didn’t look much better.
He turned to them, Fin in the passenger seat, Comfort in the back with Nikki.
“Are you two alright?”
“Fine” Comfort replied, sounding to Josh’s mind, anything but fine.
“Uh-huh, fine” repeated Fin, glancing as swiftly as was humanly possible at Comfort. “Lets just get back to base, yeah…”