Twenty-seven people were killed or injured when the bomb exploded. I happened to be travelling past on the bus, but I was only shaken up a little.
I went to help of course; I am a doctor after all. I attended to three of the victims. Mair died on the spot and Alice lost a leg, but it was Keith who got my sympathy. I suppose it was because I identified with him more than I did with the others. He was a man, we were about the same age and more significantly, it had been twenty-seven years for me too.
Keith whispered: “Twenty-seven years married, I thought I’d seen it all,” he laughed.
I laughed with him, there’s not much else you can do in a situation like that. He wasn’t seriously hurt in a physical way, but I could see the damage just as clearly as if he was. I knew the signs.
“I thought it couldn’t get any worse, after I lost my job,” he said quietly. “But of course it could, and of course it did.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t be long now.”
“I’m OK,” he said. “There’s no need to bother with me. Better go and see to the others, they need you more.”
I looked around. Through the dust, everything was surprisingly still and quiet.
“Is Mair dead?” he asked.
He already knew. Her blood and pieces of her face were dripping off his arm.
“We had a good life, you know,” he was smiling, looking inward. “She always wanted to see a big London show, so we spent the last of my redundancy on tickets for tonight. This seemed like a nice little bar, so . . .”
A scream of pain pierced the stillness.
Keith raised his eyebrows “There’s always someone worse off.”
There was no need for me to go and help anyone else; there were so many police, paramedics and doctors on the scene by then that I was quite redundant, but I wanted to stay with Keith. It’s the trauma and the shock you see, it can sneak up on you unexpectedly. You feel as if someone’s hit you on the head with a sledgehammer. You can be so wrapped up in your own set of illusions about the world that you don’t see it coming. Afterwards you feel very foolish, as if you’ve failed badly. The only way to cope is to blame yourself.
“I’ve really blown it now,” he said. “She’s gone and that’s that.”
Gradually the mess of bodies in the pub started to make sense. The shambles untangled and sanity returned as we adjusted to that terrible reality. Keith smiled and shook his head in wonderment at the cool professionalism of the emergency services.
“Nearly there,” I said.
He nodded and looked around the mayhem, pausing only for a fraction of a second on the neat mantle of material that covered his wife’s mangled body.
“Are you married?” he asked.
The more seriously injured had been ferried away and the dead were covered up; Keith was next on the list. The investigators moved in as the paramedics lifted Keith into the ambulance. I went with him. He seemed pleased.
“I enjoyed our chat,” he said, “it’s not every day you have a real doctor all to yourself for so long.”
I really had enjoyed being there with Keith in the worst circumstances imaginable. Two kindred spirits relaxing together, knowing that nothing worse could possibly happen, for a while at least.
“Mind you,” he said, “I’ve done most of the talking, I don’t know much about you. What sort of doctor are you anyway?”
“I’m a paediatrician,” I replied.
“That’s right,” I said.
“I’d never be able to do that job,” he shook his head. “Whatever made you want to become a doctor?”
“It’s about putting something back, making a difference,” I said.
“That’s very admirable,” he said.
“Not really, it’s just something I had to do.”
“What are those for?” he asked, indicating the battered bunch of flowers I was still grasping in my hand.
“Anniversary,” I replied. “Twenty-seven years.”
“Well, isn’t that strange, same as me, though mine isn’t until tomorrow. Well it would have been tomorrow,” he sighed.
“You mentioned a son earlier,” I said. “Do you want me to get in touch with him?”
“Aye, if you like, the number’s in my diary, or on the mobile, but that was in Mair’s bag. Have you got a phone?”
“Yes, where’s the diary?”
“Here,” he tried to reach into the pocket of the sports jacket he was wearing, but he didn’t have the strength. “You get it,” he said. “It’s on the inside of the back cover, that’s where I keep important numbers. It’s under Gwynfor – that’s his name, after his grandfather – Mair’s father.”
As I spoke into the phone, Keith stared at the inside wall of the ambulance.
“Was he there?” he asked, without looking away from the wall.
“That’s a change, it’s usually an answerphone. He’s so busy. I wonder if he’ll be able to get up to London.”
“He said he would.”
“Loved his mother, he did. Me and him though, we never got on. Looking back, I realise I was too overbearing, too protective. It’s easy with hindsight though, isn’t it? Have you got any kids?”
The ambulance stopped suddenly outside the hospital. I followed the trolley into the chaos.
While we waited for attention, Keith rambled: “Not long after the bomb went off I saw a man stumbling past, arms outstretched. He didn’t have any fingers. Don’t suppose he’ll hold a pint for a while. Strange thing though, it seemed natural at the time.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said, “you can get used to anything.”
“Yes, I suppose so, especially in your profession.”
“You imagine all sorts of things,” he said, “you know, when you see the news and all that, but it’s not like you think it’s going to be, at all. It’s not so bad you know. It could be worse; at least I’ve had some sort of life with Mair.”
A nurse came and took some details off Keith and a doctor gave him a good examination. When they left Keith drifted into a trance. He stared silently at the pastel colours of the hospital walls. I waited.
“How many died?” he asked eventually.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Seven or eight, I think.”
“Oh!” he sighed. “It could have been worse, the place was packed.”
“Yes,” I said, “maximum effect, minimum risk, it’s quite clever, it looks good on the news. It’s a wonder it doesn’t happen more often.”
“Most people are decent,” he said, “people like you and me, ordinary people, going about their daily lives.”
“It only takes one or two,” I said.
Keith nodded. He stayed silent for a long time after that. I didn’t mind sitting with him. Gaynor would understand, and Matthew. At least they were together, I’d join them soon enough, there was no rush.
The pandemonium in the hospital settled down. Keith drifted off. I wanted to let him sleep; he looked so peaceful, as if he’d finally solved the puzzle of life, but a nurse came and woke him up; she was worried about concussion.
He saw me first. “Oh, it’s you,” he said drowsily, “don’t you have to be somewhere, your anniversary?”
“No, it can wait,” I said. “I haven’t missed one in twenty-seven years, there’s plenty of time. They’re not going anywhere.”
“Your wife and children?”
“Child,” I said, “just the one, a little boy.”
“Just like me,” he said. “Though Gwynfor’s not so little now, big lump of a thing. Any sign of him yet, by the way? What time is it?”
“It’s nearly midnight.”
“You’ll have to buy some fresh flowers,” he said, shaking his head, “those are well and truly dead now.”
I looked blankly at the flowers that I was still clutching and realised I’d probably killed them myself by holding them too tightly.
A nurse came over and explained that they had a bed waiting for Keith.
“I’d better go,” I said. “Do you mind if I come and see you tomorrow?”
A tall young man rushed in and waited nervously for me to leave.
Keith managed to lift his hand. He squeezed my arm. “That would be great,” he said.
I noticed tears forming in his eyes.
“You’ll be all right,” I said.
I dropped the dead lilies into a bin outside the hospital. It was already too late for the anniversary. In the taxi, I felt tears welling up in my own eyes for the first time in twenty-seven years. I was sure Gaynor and Matthew wouldn’t mind if I skipped the anniversary. After all, it was more than a quarter of a century since I’d insisted on popping into the pub on the way home from the maternity ward. All I wanted was to show my new son off to my mates, I wasn’t going to drink or anything. Then the bomb exploded, killing them both.
The taxi passed the cemetery on the way to my flat.
I blew a kiss. “See you soon,” I whispered.