Soft Tissue: a short story by John Miskelly

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“Wake up,” said Greg.

He pulled the surgical mask away from his mouth and tucked it under his chin. “Wake up Martin.”

But Martin was somewhere else; Ma­rtin was still there, several hours prior, lying strewn and broken by the post box on the corner where the cul-de-sac met the main road. He’d been posting a letter, a change of address notification for the bank, and had lingered by the post box for a brief moment fretting about the legibility of the handwritten address and the angle of the stamp. It was then that the car had hit, skidding onto the curb and sweeping him into the unforgiving cast iron solidity of the metal post box. He could feel the numbing chill of the rain-soaked asphalt against his cheek, the taste the blood in his mouth. From his view in the gutter the post box towered over him, the cylindrical mass expanding upwards and outwards, its mouth widening into a swirling, leering black chaos of infinite oblivion. The weathered red paint shifted form, boiled, bubbled, and seeped off the metal, flowing towards Martin and pooling around his head like a swarming hoard of ravenous ants, engulfing it, devouring it—

“Martin!” Greg snapped.

A new consciousness twisted into place.

“I got run over,” he croaked.

“That’s right, you got run over, and now you’re here, with me— ”

“I was posting a letter to the bank.”

“But now you’re here, in the hospital with your old mate—”

“My debit card…the expiry date.”

“Can you just open your damn eyes and look at me?” spat Greg.

Martin opened his eyes. Then shut them again.

“Do you recognize me Martin?”

“The light’s all prickly,” said Martin. “And my hip hurts, and my shoulder.”

“Well then take your time and open them slowly,” said Greg, with labored patience.

So Martin opened them slowly. A hundred shades of white swam and danced into focus, finally settling into the unmistakable dour sterility of a National Health Service hospital ward, partitioned off by a drawn plastic curtain. In the foreground a man in a surgical gown stood in expectant triumph, hands on hips, wide of stance; waiting for something: recognition or applause.

“Ironic isn’t it Martin, that of all the surgeons in the land it should be me in charge of saving your life?”

Martin heard the words, could see a version of a face he thought he might recall, and yet the two wouldn’t reconcile themselves in his mind to form any sort of meaning. He grimaced at Greg, half in pain and half in confusion, who frowned back, and then rolled his eyes.

Greg pursed his lips and shook his head. “It’s Greg. Gregory Fisher. You bullied me without mercy for four years and you don’t even have the courtesy to remember my fucking face?”

“Um…Okay,” said Martin, wincing. The tiny fires that had ignited across his body a moment before were flaring up and gaining stature, fogging his already addled mind.

“‘Okay?’” snapped Greg, taking a step forward. “‘Okay’? Is that all you’ve got? I’m not asking to borrow a ballpoint pen, I’m telling you what’s happening here.”

“I’m in a fair bit of pain to be honest. Also I don’t know what—” The fires raged through his nervous system. “Can I have some morphine or something? I’ve had a nasty accident. I got run over—”

“I know you got run over. I just bloody well fixed you, didn’t I!” Greg checked his rising voice and cocked his ear, listening for any movement beyond the curtain that encircled Martin’s bed. “You should have seen your hip,” he hissed, advancing further towards the prostrate Martin, “shattered like a china fucking teapot; a hundred pieces, barely anything left, four broken ribs, a punctured lung, fractured femur. They called me in especially, the only surgeon north of Peterborough that could piece back together the leaking bag of guts they scraped off the pavement.”

“Thanks,” managed Martin, “but I’d really like—”

“Mumbling something about ants, the paramedics said; paint or some shit.”

Greg stared at Martin for a moment as one might a rotten lump of corned beef, then sighed, put his hands behind his back, and idly observed the banks of monitors that surrounded the bed.

“Do you remember when you deep-fried my PE shorts Martin?” he said.

A heavy pause hung in the air as something inexact crept through the clutter of time to the front of Martin’s mind.

“Yeah, that was Steven Whiteford. He bribed the dinner ladies.”

“But you were there. You watched.” Greg’s voice began to rise again, “You laughed, laughed with all the others. I distinctly remember—”

“Well I’d never seen a pair of deep-fried shorts. He’d battered them, too. I think it was the whole Fisher thing. You know; Fisher. Fish. Fish and chips. Batter.”

Martin couldn’t help smiling at the memory.

“Yes, very…artistic,” muttered Greg, lost in the middle distance. “The shorts were ruined. They made me do PE in my pants.”

“Hey, we’ve all been there mate.”

“For three weeks in a row, as punishment for ‘misuse of school property,’ as if I’d deep-fry my own stuff. Mother thrashed me terribly.”

“Yeah, that’s… that’s not really on is it? Sorry about that.”

A heavy pause hung in the air a moment.

“So, anyway, some painkillers,” began Martin.

“Of course that pales in comparison to your other little jokes. Like the time you phoned the school pretending to be my mother, and told them my dad had died in the Falklands.”

A sickly guilt settled in Martin’s gut as he recalled the occasion.

“I admit that’s not really on; might not have been in the best taste,” he said, attempting as conversational and mellow a tone as possible to counter Greg’s own menacing deadpan. “But, again, not really my idea. That was Glen Botham. He could throw his voice really well, did impressions of everyone; did a really great one of David Bowie.”

“I was told you helped with the research?” interrupted Greg.

“I suppose so, a bit anyway. We needed the details on all the military stuff and I had this Warhammer book—”

“Save it.” interrupted Greg, “you’re due back in theatre anyway.”

“But I thought you fixed me?”

Greg leaned his face so close to his Martin could make out each individual eyelash follicle and stubble dot, could feel his breath lightly brush his own lips.

“And then I broke you again,” Greg whispered, “put a little snip in your supraspinatus tendon when the anaesthetist wasn’t paying attention. So I’ll fix that, and then break something else. Then fix you again, then break you, and carry on until you’re so full of scars you’ll look like a London tube map, ‘til you’re more suture than skin, ‘til you forget what it feels like to be well and all you know is this ward, this bed, my face, and endless, never-ending constant pain.”

Greg’s cold, hard gaze never wavered as it stared into Martin’s twitching and convulsing eyes. In Martin’s mind a thousand different questions clamored to be heard, each drowning out the other, until one, escaping the hoard, floated upwards and broke the surface of his conscience like a fart in a bath.

“Wh-what’s suture?” Martin managed.

“For fuck’s…” Greg rolled his eyes and finally withdrew his face from Martin’s.

“But…but they’ll know. You’ll be struck off, professional misconduct,” stammered Martin, “the best surgeon north of Peterborough. They’ll know you’re doing it on purpose.”

Greg poked his head through the curtain and murmured an instruction to someone on the other side, then studied a chart on the clipboard.

“Maybe, eventually,” said Greg, “but I reckon revenge is a dish best served piecemeal, bit by bit—”

“Like a meze,” murmured Martin.

“Yeah,” nodded Greg, “like a meze. Also, like you said, ‘best surgeon north of Peterborough.’ They’ll just think I’m overworked, stressed out with all these cuts to the NHS and whatnot. They’ll most likely insist I take some time off and I’ll get some paid leave out of it.”

“But I was just a bystander,” said Martin.

“But you did nothing to stop it. And you’re the closest thing to Glenn Botham I’m going to get. Nurse!” he shouted over his shoulder.

A middle-aged woman with the squat, stout profile of a koala pulled the curtain aside and stepped into the vicinity of Martin’s bed.

“Prep the patient please, Nurse Timmons. He’s slightly delirious from the last op so ignore any idiot ramblings.”

And with that Greg strode out through the partition curtain and back into the ward.

Martin stared after him for a moment, then twisted sideways and grabbed the nurse’s arm, wincing with pain as he did so.

“He’s trying to torture me, turn me into a tube map meze platter ‘cos I deep fried his shorts. It wasn’t even me!

But nurse Timmons wasn’t listening, and with cold, dutiful obedience wordlessly pressed the oxygen mask against his face, sending him slowly back to that former world; of blood, gristle, envelopes and asphalt, and the gentle scrape of scalpel brushing bone.

***

From the inside out Greg violated Martin, withering him down one dexterous stroke of a scalpel at a time. “All left over from that horrendous incident I’m afraid. I fix one thing just to find something else, like cleaning up after a house party,” he told colleagues and anyone else who happened to ask.

Greg visited Martin after each operation, just to watch his chest rise and fall and the condensation of his breath fog the inside of the oxygen mask. He took to spending his lunch breaks, and then any spare time he could, behind that curtain, just gazing at Martin. He would think about his school days and the violations he suffered, feel pride and satisfaction in the justice he was carrying out. But he could never fully place Martin within these memories, sometimes consciously and artificially superimposing that withdrawn, hangdog face into the snippets of mental imagery he’d carried since adolescence. It was irksome but trifling, an undemanding itch, and it did not discourage him.

It wasn’t until Martin’s sixth operation in as many weeks that Greg next saw his patient conscious, albeit in such a state of somnolent drug-induced doziness Martin barely qualified as cognitive. His head lolled under its own weight and his eyelids drooped low over bloodshot, glazed eyeballs. His skin, jaundiced in hue, had a clammy greasiness to it, like mayonnaise left out in the sun. More disturbing was the drunken smile he wore when he finally perceived Greg’s presence, his head lolling from side to side and his mouth hanging open like an idle puppet.

Greg cleared his throat; “How are you Martin? I see you’re still on quite a bit of medication.”

Martin let his eyelids close but maintained his contented grin, as if savoring some distant, imaginary birdsong.

“What did you do Greg?” he finally asked.

“Worked the shoulder area a bit. I won’t go into too much medical detail, but I tore a couple of tendons, grazed a couple of arteries, messed about with your ribs.”

“I—I…I can see you Greg,” slurred Martin.

“Well I haven’t done anything to your eyes so your vision should be fine, I couldn’t even if I wanted to as I’m not—”

“No, I mean I see you, I feel you in there; poking about, tearing me up.”

“Merely a dream. You’re under severely heavy sedation. You don’t feel or see anything Martin.”

Martin stared dumbly through Greg’s navel for a moment.

“I do, Greg. I imagine…I like it. I watch it and I like it. Which is your favorite, Greg?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your favorite scar.”

Martin clumsily pulled his hospital gown off his right shoulder.

“I like this one,” he said, “it looks like half a heart. Could you finish it next time Greg? Make it a whole heart.”

“It looks nothing like a heart,” snapped back Greg, looking away and feeling slightly sick.

“Maybe you could do my arms a bit, my wrists or something? I want to see you do my wrists.”

“You can’t see anything, you idiot! And I’ll do whatever I want! And when the drugs wear off, you’ll be begging me to stop and it’ll teach you not to bully people!”

“I never did, Greg. You know I didn’t. I was just…there,” whispered Martin. But Greg had already left, leaving the curtain billowing in his wake.

***

Greg left it two days before visiting him again, a different Martin this time; sober and maudlin, as sickly looking as before but with a solemn weariness.

“Hello Martin, feeling a bit of pain today?” he asked, with what he thought to be a withering smirk, “Any visitors?”

Martin said nothing, but pulled the starchy hospital duvet up to his chin.

“Well I’ve booked us in for another session this evening,” he said.

Martin rolled onto his side, again without a word. Greg was turning to leave, one hand already on the curtain, when he noticed the slightest of movements from under the bed sheets. A hand crept slowly into view, clenched closed and bent backwards, the wrist pushed forward, skin taut, presenting itself for inspection.

Greg stared at it for a second, a sickly unease rising in his stomach and a fleeting urge to grasp that wrist and do to it something he couldn’t quite envision. This small gesture was undoubtedly an echo of a former request. He left with a feeling not unlike that of two days earlier, of his control and ascendancy having been undermined, of being broken down.

And that evening, as he sliced the pisometacarpal in Martin’s left hand, he looked at Martin’s face and saw—or thought he saw; imagined, surely—the merest glimmer of a smile, the flicker of a minor triumph.

If there was one single moment when he could have pinpointed the change in himself, the change in motive from vengeful sadism to…whatever it would become, it was here.

He looked up, catching sight of his own face reflected in the glass of the operating theatre’s observation window. He saw a familiar smile. A smile not dissimilar to the ones the new fathers wore as they watched their partners hold their babies for the first time. He gazed at his own reflection a moment and then noticed the junior surgeon looking at him queerly over his surgical mask.

He coughed and arranged his face into a professional frown. “You patch this one up, Raj,” he said, “I’m going to check on those shoulder stitches from last week.”

The two crossed awkwardly at Martin’s stomach, Raj heading for the hands, Greg to a particular question mark-shaped stitch on the right shoulder.

“Yeah, there’s a bit of seepage. Might as well put a couple more in.”

Raj gave the merest murmur of approval, immersed as he was in stitching Martin’s newly “repaired” hand and debating in his head whether to query the lack of bruising around the initial diagnosed fracture, and how Doctor Fisher completed the procedure in a quarter of the time the medical journals said it should take. But he was just a medical intern and Doctor Fisher had a reputation—the best surgeon north of Peterborough, some said—and so he kept quiet.

***

“How are you feeling today, Martin?”

“Okay. My wrist aches a bit.”

Martin, seemingly enthralled since Greg’s arrival a moment earlier by the loose stitching on the seam of his hospital gown, glanced upwards at Greg, like a child testing the temperament of a scolding teacher.

“It’s actually your hand I worked on.”

“And the heart-shaped stitching…”

“There was seepage. Standard medical procedure.”

Greg’s tone was cordially professional, still maintaining a weary distance, but warmer now, and softer.

Martin adjusted his position on the bed and cleared his throat, an excited agitation in his voice. He sensed a new complicity in Greg, an understanding. “I—I don’t know where it comes from…I didn’t know I was into this, whatever this is. It’s just the knowing that you’ve been in there. It’s sick, I know. I’m sick, but…I like it.”

Greg, instinctively, took a step closer to Martin’s bedside.

“Did you see anything? Did you see me?” he asked hurriedly.

“I always do. It’s so vivid. I know it’s not real but it’s so real, in my head.”

“I think I saw you seeing it. I think I—”

“It’s stupid, Greg. Like you said, it’s just a dream.”

Greg put his hand on Martin’s.

“The brain’s a complicated organ, it’s…you looked so peaceful and contented.”

For the first time since the accident, they held each other’s gaze, spoke without fear, or hate or anger, but with a mutual excitement.

“It’s a kind of warmth, the pain. The thought, it comforts me,” Martin said, inching further towards the edge of the bed towards Greg, who pinched the bridge of his nose then stroked the stubble on his chin.

“I’m not…at least I don’t think I’m…I have a girlfriend,” began Greg, “I haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks but she—”

“I do too,” interjected Martin, “I think.”

“But she hasn’t visited,” said Greg, removing his hand from Martin’s and slowly pulling back the collar of his gown, tracing his finger along the lattice of stitching he’d placed there, feeling the ridges of the greying, raised flesh and the sticky residues of clotted blood—all his own work.

“What do you want me to do next?” he asked, leaning in closer to drink in the detail of the wounds.

“Something up here, on my lungs, so I can feel you when I breath.”

“I can’t. They’d know. Your chest though, your breast plate.”

“You’re the expert. Best surgeon North of Peterborough.”

From so close Greg could smell the sterilized, chemically-fragranced tang of the hospital on Martin’s skin, the bubble-gum strawberry whiff of the dry shampoo the nurses used on his hair. His skin was as anaemic and pallid as ever and a sickly green tinge ringed each eye like charcoal smudges. They were as close as on their first day together now, but without threat or menace; without fear and confusion.

“How long can someone…I…we do this for?” Martin whispered. He could feel the longer hairs of Greg’s moustache tickling his lips as he edged closer.

Suddenly there was a bark from behind the curtain.

“Doctor Fisher!”

Greg straightened into a standing position just as nurse Timmons waddled into the vicinity.

“Shall I prep the patient, Doctor Fisher?”

Greg cleared his constricted throat, took a second to compose himself. “Yes, please do nurse.”

As Martin drifted back into that sweet, tantalising world of sliced flesh, gaping wounds, and dripping blades—nurse Timmons considered him.

“Poor bloke. He looks like a patchwork quilt, Mr Fisher. He must be suffering terribly.”

“We do what we can for him, nurse Timmons,” said Greg flatly.

***

 

A blissful two months of piecemeal mutilation followed, as Greg continued his tour of Martin’s ravaged body: cutting, severing, tying, stitching, and mending the ropes and pulleys and mechanisms of his lover’s anatomy, exploring its caverns and gullies.

Martin, meanwhile, observed a version of events from the vantage point of his own imaginary plain. Afterwards, still woozy and childlike from the drugs, he revelled in the minutiae of Greg’s verbal reports. Greg sometimes still played the part of the aloof and professional doctor, communicating in curtly delivered medical details. Other times he was more intimate, more poetic, sometimes even joining Martin on the bed and tracing out future probes on Martin’s tattered skin, like an explorer with a treasure map.

From the peripheries of the blossoming affair Raj also watched, confused and conflicted. Too fanciful was the reality for a rational deduction, but professional misconduct. Negligence. Some kind of stress-induced mental breakdown; these were the terms he danced around in his mind as he watched Greg’s erratic excursions into Martin, procedures that failed to align with the black and white logic of his medical practitioner reference books.

***

“We don’t have much time left.”

Greg knelt on the floor of the ward, his folded arms resting on the side of Martin’s bed.

“I think Raj knows.”

“Who’s Raj?” Martin asked, so debilitated now his voice was little more than a whimper.

“Of course. You’ve never met him. He’s my intern. I think he knows, about us.”

“About this, about our…thing?”

“We don’t have much time,” repeated Greg.

“You mean I don’t have much time?”

Greg looked down at his knees. “I’ve destroyed you,” he said.

“You’ve revived me.”

“I’ve killed you.”

“You’ve completed me, Greg,” Martin croaked as emphatically as he could, attempting to hoist himself onto his elbows to emphasize the point. “I think I’ve got one more op in me,” he said. “I want you to do my heart. I want to see you in my heart.”

“That’ll be it. That’ll be the end for you, for us.”

“I wouldn’t trade these past couple of months for a hundred more years of life.”

***

Anything arising from the accident to do with Martin’s heart would have been detected and addressed long before those final stages, yet Greg could barely muster the clarity of thought to construct a plausible pretext for Martin’s final operation. There was, though, a strong sense among the staff that Martin was Greg’s project, that he had taken ownership of and developed a professional familiarity with the mangled crash victim in bed 451. Along with his reputation and the packed schedules of his care-worn colleagues, this proved enough to get the necessary forms ticked, signed, stamped, and validated.

Greg spent much of his time leading up to the operation at Martin’s bedside, although little was said between them. There seemed to be a mutual, unvoiced desire that their lasting memories be more felt than spoken, more sensed than heard.

“Thank god for that crash,” said Greg.

“Thank god for my terrible handwriting,” were Martin’s last words before he slipped into unconsciousness, almost certainly for the last time.

Greg went in with no plan other than to draw out the experience for as lengthy a time as possible. At first he merely cupped the organ, feeling its weight and shape in his palm, and then slowly he began to caress it, massage it, feeling its slick, bloody moistness on the tips of his fingers. Then he ventured inside, entering through the vena cava and brushing the entrance to Martin’s pulmonary valve with the tip of his forefinger.

It was only when Raj stormed out of the operating theatre that Greg awoke from the deep reverie he had fallen into, aware suddenly of his own audible sobbing and the bizarre position he’d adopted—leaning forward, splayed across Martin, his forehead rested on the forceps that held open the wound.

Raj had almost certainly gone to fetch the chief of medicine. But Greg had prepared for this and reached into the pocket of his scrubs to retrieve two hypodermics needles loaded with morphine. He sliced Martin’s aorta beyond repair, rolled up his sleeves and, still weeping uncontrollably, gave himself the first dose. Then he climbed onto the operating table and lay with his head nestled just under Martin’s chin. He could feel Martin’s faint pulse throb against his own temple, growing weaker and weaker until, finally, it stopped, and he injected himself with the second dose of morphine.

Several seconds later, a parade of hospital staff tumbled through the doors of the operating theatre; first Raj, closely followed by the chief of medicine, then nurse Timmons, then a gaggle of doctors, nurses, and interns.

“The best surgeon North of Peterborough,” muttered a fair haired intern.

“I heard it was Petersfield,” said a doctor, reaching into her pocket for her smart phone.

“I heard Newcastle.”

“There isn’t anything north of Newcastle.”

“Yeah? What about Gretna?”

“Gretna’s made up. Everyone knows that, you fucking—”

“There’s Berwick-on-Tweed.”

“I don’t know what’s happened here,” interrupted the chief of medicine, adjusting his spectacles and fingering his security lanyard, “but whatever it is, I don’t think it’s going to play well with the press.”

John Miskelly continues to “just put a brave face on it and take each day as it comes” in Bristol, United Kingdom. More words typed and arranged by him can be found on this website, as well as at www.protagonistcomplex.blogspot.com