When the first bomb went off we thought it was masonry falling from a building site. The second blast smashed windows in our lab and a few of my colleagues were cut by flying glass. I checked they were okay, and when I was satisfied the wounds were superficial, I took my medicine bag and went outside to investigate. It was carnage. An elderly man was lying by the side of the road with half his face missing.
The right side I think.
I checked for a pulse on his neck, and started pumping his chest.
I was embarrassed when the papers – The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail – called me a heroine. ‘A brave and beautiful Aussie medic was first on the scene’ added some jerk on The Sun. Yeah, right. Next they’ll want me to pose in a white bikini with a stethoscope dangling between my breasts.
At the time I was interviewed on a live broadcast for Sky News. I tried not to cry, and told the reporter exactly what I saw. I mentioned the dark-skinned man running away from the bombed bus.
An old school friend from Sydney saw me on satellite TV and emailed:
‘Just like you, Katie – you’re always where it’s at – really proud of you, girl. I’ve mailed all our schoolmates to look out for you. Take care and write us all about it, it’s been too long. Suzie xxx.’
I remember going to watch INXS. I got Michael Huchence’s autograph and Suzie was really jealous.
‘Did he say anything to you, Katie?’ she asked like a melon.
‘Yeah, he took my phone number and everything.’
‘Bet he don’t ring you, though.’
‘Suzie, I don’t care if he does or don’t; it’s not the point.’
She looked puzzled for a moment, and then said, ‘yeah, right.’
The Mail on Sunday came looking for me a week later to do an in depth interview. Too many questions and I didn’t like them digging into my past. I stopped the interview half way through, even though they offered me lots of money. They had wanted a picture of me looking haunted standing by a London bus.
‘Could you wear your white coat?’
‘I’m not a doctor.’
‘But you treated all those people and saved that man’s life.’
‘I used to be a doctor; I’m a medical lab researcher now.’
‘What are you researching?’
Later, they tried to ask me about my family.
‘Any other medics in your family?’
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
The journalist changed tack. I noticed the steel sharpen in his eyes; like a snake eyeing its prey.
‘How close were you to the Arab bomber?’ he asked.
I didn’t reply.
‘This close?’ he said, gesturing to the photographer who was standing about fifty yards away. ‘Or this close?’ he said pointing to himself, a spit away from my face.
‘I need to get back to work now.’
‘Yes, but couldn’t you stay and answer a few more questions?’
‘I have to get back’, I replied.
‘Important work, I understand,’ he said.
I’d recognised him from the beginning, now he was just confirming it for all to see: ‘Talk with the devil,’ my father used to say, ‘and you’ll grow a spiky tail and start speaking in tongues.’
When I was small, no matter how hard I tried – and I did try – my school reports were never enough to satisfy my father. When I was kept back for detention after failing my biology test paper for the second time, dad was waiting at the front door. He led me into his study and told me to place my hands palms up on his desk.
With each smack of the ruler, he told me that I wasn’t to disappoint him anymore; I was to be his ‘clever Katherine’.
So, that’s what I became. It wasn’t too hard to change the marks in my reports; the trick was to keep him and mum away from meeting my teachers on open day. The first time was pure luck. My appendix ruptured and I was rushed to hospital, which brought them close so I could keep an eye on them. The second time, I fell off my bicycle and into the path of our neighbour’s car. I wasn’t really badly hurt; just enough to keep them indoors. Then they had Anthony, their ‘miracle’ son – ‘we weren’t planning for one, he just arrived; how happy we are though’ – their immaculate misconception. But Anthony’s arrival proved useful, serving to drain their energy and interest away from me.
Miraculously my marks suddenly improved without me having to change them. I was top in English – ‘Katie is a consummate storyteller. She’s a great literary mimic, too,’ wrote Mrs Christophers, our English teacher. But I was also excelling in the sciences – biology in particular – inspired by days lying in a hospital bed like a sickly child in Neighbours. Cue rhapsodic Soap music and a close up of my pale face filling the screen: hair in bunches, a gasp of breath, and a whispered ‘I love you world’ before I shut my eyes for good.
I tried to recreate this scene with Clarissa and Pig, but they kept telling me I was overdoing it.
‘Drama queen, or what,’ they shrieked.
‘Duh, that’s the point, fellow thesps,’ I replied.
When Princess Diana came to open the new wing in the hospital where I worked, I was part of the meeting committee. She slipped her hand over mine to greet me. She looked slim and sleek like a swan; I thought of the dying one in Swan Lake, feet pirouetting together on point, up and down like a needle on a knitting machine. I foresaw everything then: the doomed romance, the car speeding in the tunnel, the calling out for a doctor amongst the flames.
‘Dear, oh dear, where’s a doctor when you need one?’ is what my boyfriend, Steve, said at the time of the crash. We were lying in bed watching the events unfold on the television. ‘Mind you, seeing as you two were so close, maybe you’ll be invited to the funeral. You could represent the medical profession,’ he added sarcastically, reaching over to the bedside table to put out his cigarette.
‘I knew it, I knew it would happen,’ I said.
‘Of course you did, Nostradamus,’ he replied.
‘What is wrong with you?’ I pleaded.
He just got out of bed, put on his clothes, packed his case, and walked out of the room. I was watching her body silently arrive in the white ambulance at the hospital entrance when he closed the front door.
‘Hope you get lung cancer, Steve,’ I thought.
I did write and tell Suzie and the gang about meeting Diana I think, but I didn’t write for a long time after she died. I was mourning I guess. Not for a friend, I wouldn’t presume to have been that, but for a beautiful icon. It was soon after her death that I took up my research post near where the bombs would go off. The authorities were impressed by my medical qualifications and references; and so they should have been, I paid enough for them. Sick joke, I know, but what’s a girl to do? And I was a very clever girl – father would have been proud – I mean I was better, more efficient, maintained better clinical practice than most of the qualified slobs around me. I was respected, given consistent praise, and soon gained promotion. But I had to be careful: one night I went to a pub with my lab colleagues, and there, a year since he walked out, was Steve in the corner with his porter mates from the hospital. Steve didn’t see me, and I made my excuse – ‘I have a sudden, powerful migraine’ – and left.
‘You get lot of headaches,’ my line manager told me later. ‘You need to de-stress, take things easier.’
‘Thank you, I’m fine,’ I said.
‘Is there anything worrying you; anything you’d like to talk about?’ she asked.
‘Not with you, you cow,’ I thought.
‘Things okay at home?’ she persisted.
‘Really fine,’ I said.
‘How’s your boyfriend? We’ve never met him: a surgeon in Wales isn’t he?’
I tried to picture useless Steve in green theatre garb. Tried to imagine his London pub drawl becoming intelligent, mouth contorting, and slightly welsh – if there is such a thing – but it was no good.
‘He died last year,’ I said.
‘Oh my God, Katie, you poor thing. How . . .’
‘How did he die? He fell out of a tree on an assault course. He was a Colonel in the Territorial Army.’
‘Yes, he was very brave. He was due to spend time in Iraq.’
‘I didn’t now the Territorials served out there’.
Time to rein it in, but time also for one more explanation: ‘In Emergencies, the highest ranks, those with specialist expertise.’
‘Well, he was a Colonel and a surgeon, so he must have been invaluable. What a loss. I mean what a loss for you . . . and for them.’
I hoped she wasn’t going to add ‘what a loss for the country’. She didn’t, but my head was bursting with all the effort of keeping her at bay. I wanted to bayonet her, to shut her up, but she let me off with a sad, slightly quizzical smile, and a ‘you will come and see me if you need anything, won’t you?’
I retrieved the bayonet from her head and exited the room.
Soon after that I had three weeks off with a suspected brain tumour. Didn’t want any visitors in hospital, but received some lovely cards at home. Margaret, the cow, arranged a bouquet of flowers from everyone in the lab. When I returned to work I wore a scarf on my head and sunglasses over my eyes.
My colleague, Bernard, who has shingles, said I looked like Greta Garbo. Soon everyone, including me, forgot all about the tumour.
Immediately after the bomb went off, the injured were taken either to hospital or a local hotel for assessment. I helped in the hotel where I could. Sometimes it was enough to sit and hold someone’s hand or make them a cup of tea. Occasionally I found a quiet moment to prescribe a painkiller or a tranquilliser. I’ll admit I broke one or two pills into their tea before they asked but only to stop the shaking and crying. I didn’t tell anyone; the ordinary public don’t understand the notion that, though principles are important, protocol is open to interpretation in extraordinary times – and a bomb going off certainly qualifies as one of those times.
The day after I cut short my interview with the Mail on Sunday, the same reptile reporter followed me to my flat.
‘Let’s get a few things straight. According to your previous statements, you were working in the laboratory when the bomb went off. You then nursed some of your injured colleagues.’
‘I assessed them for the severity of their injuries, yes.’
‘I’m sorry, you assessed them for the severity of their injuries, and yet still had time to run the five hundred yards from your workplace, in time to make it into the square to see the bomber running away from the smouldering bus?’
‘I never said smouldering; I never said that.’
‘Also, a few people attending the injured at the hotel have reported you acting in an inappropriate way.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Are you qualified to prescribe medicines, Miss Holt?’
‘Are you qualified to speak to me like that?’
‘Because I’ve been looking into things, and there is no record of a Miss Holt gaining doctor’s, let alone medical research qualifications.’
‘You’re giving me a headache’
‘Come on Katie, we’ve tracked down your mother in Romney and she’s told us all about you.’
‘My parents are dead; my father was a retired Salvation Army surgeon and my mother was his nurse.’
‘Steven Forbes, your ex-partner, has been very forthcoming, too.’
‘His cancer wasn’t terminal then?’
When the journalist interrogated me, I was mesmerised and stung by the energy of his gaze. I had the same feeling at school assembly when our headmistress, or the Witch as we christened her, stared into our masses to seek out a guilty talker who’d broken the one minute silent prayer; I came over all dizzy and felt the heat of guilt send blood flushing into my cheeks and neck, even though I hadn’t uttered a syllable.
‘Tell-tale flaming roses of the anti-Christ,’ my father, who was actually a retired parson, called them.
Sometimes I held up my arm as the other girls sniggered, to confess that it was me who had spoken.
‘Katie, put your frigging hand down,’ urged Suzie.
‘Not you again, Miss Holt,’ bellowed the Witch.
Always confessing but not to a tacky journalist; he doesn’t know everything – I was brought up in Australia, for instance. Shame about Anthony though: he was stolen by a dingo near Ayers Rock. You probably read about it in the papers. It’s what tipped mum over the edge; that and being married to dad and having me as a child.
One of my favourite things since the papers started printing lies and calling me ‘the tragic Miss Mitty’ has been to read the cheap glossy mags – they’re not so concerned with creating news or destroying peoples’ lives, and their lies are more harmless. I mean they spread lies and rumours that might accidentally turn out to be true; and we all know it’s a game, but who cares? Is Robbie Williams gay? Talented? Don’t care either way. I like filling in the Celebrity Q&A’s for myself. They have them in the quality Sunday magazines, too.
Car? A Renault Clio for Woman’s Realm, a bright red 4×4 Jeep for Heat, and a Mercedes with a ‘kiss and tell’ chauffeur for the Sunday Times.
Favourite food? Spaghetti with clams and chilli tomato sauce (my grandparents are from Naples where the recipe originates).
Favourite Area in London? The River Thames. All of it, darling.
Favourite restaurant? Has to be the Ivy; the table by the rear window.
There is no rear window at the Ivy. That snake-journalist again, creeping doubts into my head and making it swell.
Sex in public? Only when I leave the curtains open.
There will be bars, not curtains, where you’re going.
Shut up, please, or play the game and ask a proper question.
Why do you tell all these lies?
Okay, wrong question – ask me another like that and I’ll silence you for good – I’ll tell you what you want if you leave me alone.
I’m so tired. I draw my curtains to lie low from the siege. A pill (or two) for the pain, his voice is quietened, and my head is in orbit.
Sleep is heaven but times and places there are confused. The first person I meet is my father. He’s only part-time holy army and is still in his bloody surgeon’s clothes.
‘Don’t, you’ll spoil my dress.’
‘You never did like affection.’
‘And you never gave it when I wanted you to.’
‘Katherine, we weren’t living in a soap opera. You were just too difficult. When I sat you on my lap in the car and pointed out things, you’d never repeat back what I told you like other children did. If I pointed out a bridge, you’d call it a river.’
‘But there was a river, and it went under the bridge.’
‘Too much water has passed under the bridge, you’re right.’
‘That’s not what I meant, Dad.’
But he’s gone; typical. He was wrong about not being in a soap opera though: he’s as stupid and banal up here as he was in life.
I want to wake up and have someone soothing to ask me a question: someone like Martin Bashir (before he became a snake) when he interviewed Diana.
‘What is your favourite colour, Katie?’
‘Easy one: blue.’
‘What did you want to be when you were a child?’
‘To be a doctor and save lives.’
‘Did you achieve your ambition?’
‘Can I change my previous answer before I reply?’
‘You can do anything you like’
‘Thank you for that. My teacher thought I was a good storyteller; and before you ask the question again, I think did okay.’
In the morning, the reporter and his photographer are still waiting outside my flat. I use the fire escape at the back of the flats and take a route through Regent’s Park.
I take the park exit near Camden and buy a ticket for the over ground train. When I find the hospital and the ward, a nurse tells me he’s in the garden. I see an elderly man with a huge white bandage across one half of his face – the right side – sitting on a bench under a large tree, smoking a cigarette. He looks up, one eye blinking at me.
‘My wonderful Katie,’ he says.
I stare at his face.
‘It’s you, of course it is: you saved my life,’ he says patting the space on the bench next to him.
‘I was never a doctor,’ I reply, accepting his invitation to sit down.
‘You saved my life, that’s what matters’ he says, squeezing my hand in his. ‘Can I do anything for you? I’d like to be able to repay you in some way.’
‘Can I tell you something?’ I ask.
‘Let me buy you a coffee in the canteen, and you can tell me anything you like,’ he replies.
*Storyteller was shortlisted in the final four stories of the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Short Story Competition