Alexandra Tennant: It is all in the mind

Revels and Tall Tales – In the spirit it is given – Save us from ourselves – Replacement parts – Welcoming the stranger – In the arms of Morpheus

Vocational guidance

Linda Davenport reporting

It’s that time of year again where the Faculty feels moved to ask us what we want to do with the rest of our lives, whether we want to profit Society by becoming Alchemists, Herbologists, Physicians, Engineers, Literature scholars, Historians, Politicians, or alternatively, run away with a circus. Given the talent shown by our faculty to make even the most exciting subjects seem boring, your correspondent is seriously considering the last option. When asked what one has done today, who would pass up the opportunity to say; “Today I nearly died on the flying trapeze, and then I carried away the manure of lions and elephants?”

But be that as it may, every department will be putting forward its best case for enticing students to join their curriculum. I suggest that any student enjoy the opportunity to mark the faculty for a change.


 

“I’m gonna wheel you there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Brenda… please.”

Brenda turned the wheelchair round to look me in the eye, while pushing me backwards.

“Look, Tennant. They’re your friends. Sisters in arms even. If you’re gonna wait till your face looks pretty again, you’ll never see them again. And you’ll miss the booze-up. They’re your platoon. You’re the captain. Go see them.”

I looked down to my knees. Brenda spun me round again. She had a flair for annoying people. Most annoyingly, she was right. I could not stay away. I had to tell the Algernon Rifle Club how proud I was of them.

“Booze is not allowed in the girls’ dorm,” I said. “We’ll have to revel with cups of tea.”

Tea? What kind of backward country is this? Are you gonna get drunk on biscuits?”

“Needs must,” I said.

There was a clinking noise, and the next moment, a bottle of Irish Whiskey was floating in front of me.

“Never fear, my uncivilised sister. I’ve got your six.”

“Brenda. You are not going to get my girls drunk on Irish rotgut.”

Brenda laughed. “Just you watch me.”

The door to the girls’ dorm was ajar. I raised my right leg and kicked it open. The pain in my knee flashed through my whole body, but I kept my face straight, just to see if I could.

I could.

All eyes inside the room turned towards me, and then there were cheers. Brenda wheeled me into the middle of the room. I looked at all the faces. Anna. Christa. Jocelyn, Florence, Linda, Rina. I tried shaking hands with all of them at the same time, speechless, with a lump in my throat. How stupid it seemed to me now to try and stay away from them. I looked round. Someone was missing.

“Where’s Carrie?”

“Don’t know,” said Anna. “Probably suing the school for not holding an umbrella over her head. Her hair got wet!”

Carrie had Andrew arrested? What madness is this?”

“There was a bit of a fracas in the hallway.,” said Rina. “Andrew Parsons ran into her and she fell.”

“Fracas,” I said. Rina was turning into quite the reporter.

“Yeah. This strange man came running out of the Cavern, with Mr. Parsons behind. God, he was angry! Who knows, maybe the guy put a spanner back in the wrong place or something. We all scatter, but Carrie’s reading something, and she doesn’t notice. So Mr. Parsons runs straight through her, Carrie goes flying, she lands awkwardly, and breaks her wrist. He visits her in the infirmary, apologises, everything seems fine, and then she sues the school! Stupid girl.”

“She did?” I said. “Isn’t that the job of her parents?”

“They came visiting, she told her tale of woe, and now they’re trying to put Mr. Parsons in jail and to get a large sum of money.”

“Oh come on! Carrie wouldn’t, surely?”

“It’s happened before,” said Linda. “I did a little digging and she left her previous school under similar circumstances. And maybe the one before that, but I couldn’t confirm that.”

“Nothing like a big fat settlement to bring out the best in people,” said Brenda.

“Oh I’m so sorry, I’m forgetting my manners. We haven’t been formally introduced.” Linda held out her hand. “Linda Davenport. How do you do.”

“We haven’t been formally introduced? How can you even see me?” Brenda shook Linda’s hand, then waved. “Hi everyone. I’m Brenda. Former US Marine, now personal slave to Miss Alexandra Tennant.”

“Ah. You’re an American,” said Christa, as though that explained everything.

“Mostly, but let’s not get into that.”

“What’s the other part?” said Anna.

“You got a problem with my accent, Sister? I said let’s not discuss that.”

“Why would you be ashamed of your ancestry?”

I could see the look in Brenda’s eyes, and opened my mouth to change the subject, but at that point there was a knock on the door. The pause before it opened indicated that the visitor was male. If you are going to intrude on a female domain, at least give those inside the chance to cover up and stop any secret feminine rituals. The door opened, and slowly, hesitantly, Carrie StJohn came in, followed by Dr. Pike.

“Well Carrie, I’ll leave you here. Thank you once more for clearing up those misunderstandings. I’m sure Andrew will appreciate it.”

I couldn’t help noticing a certain theatrical quality to his voice, as if he was speaking to more people than just Carrie.

“Ah. Miss Tennant.” Pike gave me a little meaningful look. “Celebrating the Rifle Club’s recent victory, I see? Well, I’ll leave you to it. Good night.”

He walked out of the door, leaving Carrie standing in a pool of darkness. I pointed at Carrie’s arm.

“I heard what happened. How are you?”

Carrie stared at my face, the wheelchair. She hesitated.

“I fell,” I said. “Show me your arm. Is that Andrew’s signature?”

“It… it is,” said Carrie.

“Would you like mine as well?”

Carrie looked into my eyes. A while ago, before Lady I left for Sudan, she had confessed to having certain feelings towards me, but told me not to worry, she wouldn’t act upon them. She gave me a hesitant little smile, growing more solid as I smiled back at her.

“Yes please.”

I looked round. “Does anyone have a pen?”

There were a few looks round the group, until finally, Rina indicated that she might have such a thing. She came over and handed it to me, not looking at Carrie. I found an empty spot somewhere among the names of all the girls present here, and signed my name. I looked at it for a few moments. That signature might last longer than I would. I forced my mind back to more pleasant places. I looked up at Carrie.

“There,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Carrie.

A long awkward silence fell. Carrie looked at the faces of her friends, trying to see if they were still her friends. Some looked away. Some sneered. Some showed nothing in their eyes.

Jocelyn got up, walked over to Carrie.

“So you’re not going to sue Mr. Parsons then?”

“I never wanted to,” said Carrie, with a sigh. “Please believe me. My mother gets…”

“Crazy?”

“Protective.”

“You could have bought a sweet rifle with the money.”

“Yeah.”

There was a long silent moment. Carrie and Jocelyn looked at each other.

“I need you at the Club,” said Jocelyn. “For some competition. None of these peasants can shoot straight.”

“You hit nothing but bullseyes the entire tournament? Really?

Jocelyn put a hand on Carrie’s shoulder and took her to a chair, sat down next to her.

“Just don’t ask me to do it again. It was so weird. Pike had me pretend to be a vampire to put the wind up the other team, and part of being…” Jocelyn tossed her hair back. “Lady Jocelyn d’Vale, was that she never misses. So I didn’t. Almost like I was someone else.”

Florence laughed. “Maybe next time, you can pretend to be rich. Buy us all some nice clothes.”

Brenda nudged me. “Is it time to break out the booze yet?”

“It’s always time to break out the booze,” said Christa. “As long as there’s no bloody Profs here.”

“Good,” said Brenda, reached under my wheelchair and produced one of the bottles of irish Whiskey she’d shown me earlier. She twisted off the cork, and threw it out of the open window. “Who of you girls is gonna help me?”

“Is that… whiskey?” said Florence.

“Sure is. Original Glen Yechh. From the Emerald Isle.”

“No thank you,” said Florence. “It’s not very ladylike.”

Brenda raised her eyebrows. “It’s not supposed to be ladylike, it’s supposed to get you drunk!”

“We could put it in coffee or tea,” said Linda, looking at the bottle. “It’s not like it’s special reserve single malt older than we are.”

Brenda turned to me. “You Brits are mad. You are going to revel with tea if it’s the last thing you do.”

“Told you,” I said.

Jocelyn and Carrie set about making big pots of tea and coffee. Soon, we were having tea like good little schoolgirls should. My tea contained a half-dose of morphia, just enough to make the pain in my knees bearable without sending me off into the clouds. Brenda’s tea contained no tea.

Linda, smelling a story even through the tea vapours, took out her little black notebook and sat down next to Brenda.

“You were in the Army? You were a soldier?”

“No, I wasn’t! I was in the Marines. Marines can beat the crap out of Army soldiers, the way soldiers can beat the crap out of civilians.”

“Um. Sorry,” said Linda. She wrote down the word ‘Marine’ and underlined it. “But there aren’t many women Marines, are there?”

Brenda waggled her hand. “Getting better, but ain’t no denying I’m pretty rare.”

“So how’s that work? You weren’t in an all-women platoon were you?”

“Nope. When you become a Marine, something happens to you. You stop being a woman. You stop being black. You stop being white. You stop being some piece of trash that’s only there to keep himself from going to jail. You all become Green. Some of ’em a bit darker green than others, and some have green bumps on their chests, but when push comes to shove, all that counts is if you can keep your brothers alive.”

I watched Linda scribble in her notebook. Green. “So you never got any grief for being a woman?”

“Oh god, all the time! I’ve had Dogs tell me exactly what they wanted to do with my tits. Everybody is always ragging on each other. Anything that sticks out, you use it. If you can’t take that, stay the hell out of the Corps. But I’ll tell you one thing. If any bastard would really have tried something with me, my brothers would have kicked every colour of shit out of ’em.”

“Hmm.” Linda made a few more notes. “Would you recommend it to any woman?”

Hell no! If you need recommending, you’re not good enough. If there’s one thing that you shouldn’t need to be told, it’s that you pull your weight. I’m never gonna be as strong as the strongest, that’s a plain fact, but I sure as hell ain’t gonna be the weakest. That’s why I’m training these!”

Brenda pulled up her sleeve and flexed her bicep. There was an awed hush. Finally Carrie spoke up.

“They let you have tattoos like that in the Arm- sorry, Marines?”

“Not with the new regs, but I ain’t going back anyway.”

Carrie moved a bit closer. “What is that stuff?”

“That? Planets and moons. Other arm is fossils.”

“Oo!” said Carrie. “Can I see?”

“That’s what they’re there for.”

For the next ten minutes or so, I was treated to the sight of Ex United States Marine Brenda Lee sitting on a chair, bare arms out, while a small flock of girls were pointing at the pictures and making appreciative comments.

Linda, ever the reporter, continued her interview. “Are women held to the same standards in the Marines as the men?”

“Pretty much,” said Brenda. “We get a little bit of leeway, but not much. Can’t expect the Enemy to put in a low section of wall for the girls. But at least we can shoot as straight as the boys.”

“Speaking of which,” said Rina. “Shouldn’t we have invited Nigel to the party? He did as much as the rest of you.”

“No men in the dormitories,” said Anna. “That’s the rules.”

“We could have gone to the canteen,” said Florence.

“Not with this,” said Jocelyn. She poured a bit of whiskey into her coffee, considered, added a little more. She had a rather charming blush on her cheeks. “And anyway, we already had a party.”

“So that’s where you went!” said Florence. “I thought you were gone too long for a bath. So you met Nige for a little snogging? Hang on. Make that a lot of snogging. You were gone for hours!”

Jocelyn looked at Florence, took another swig of coffee. Her eyes gleamed. “We did more than snog.”

“More?”

Rina slapped her hand on the table. “You let him look at your baps!”

“Well, that couldn’t have taken more than ten seconds,” said Christa. “What did you do the rest of the time?”

Jocelyn grabbed a seat pillow and threw it at Christa. “They’ll grow bigger yet, just you wait! And we did more than look.”

“You let him feel your baps!” said Florence. “You hussy!”

Jocelyn put her elbows on the table, put her chin on her hands, grinning at Florence. “Keep. Going.”

“You didn’t!” Florence’s voice lowered to a whisper. “You weren’t having a bath, you were…”

Jocelyn raised a finger. “We did have a bath. Good clean fun.”

“You and Nigel? In the bath? Together?”

“Yep. He did my back.”

“Without your clothes on?!”

“No, we kept our clothes on, like we always do in the bath.” Jocelyn tossed back her coffee. “Of course with no clothes on.”

“Jocelyn.” Linda looked at her over her glasses. “You didn’t let him, well, into you, did you?”

Jocelyn snorted. “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid! Fingers only. But oh my, those fingers. He just kept going on and on, for hours, so I had to go on and on too. I nearly fainted in the end, and still.”

Florence gave Jocelyn a good long hard look, then pointed a finger in her face.

“You’re making that up.”

Jocelyn gave Florence an enigmatic smile. “Maybe. Then again, maybe not.”

“That’s rape,” said Anna.

Brenda snapped round to her. “No it isn’t.”

Jocelyn’s eyes grew large. “No it isn’t!”

Anna looked down on Jocelyn. “Yes it was. You didn’t want to go on, did you? You just said so. And still, he had his fingers inside of you. That’s penetration without consent. You were raped.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” said Brenda. A worrying change had come over her voice, it sounded low, almost a whisper, but still managed to be very very clear. “He was holding her with literally one finger. All she had to do to stop him was say: Hey buddy? Stop doing that. Or get out of the damn bath, and it would all be over, thanks for the memories.”

“He should have asked her before continuing to grope her genitals.”

“I made it up,” said Jocelyn, in a small voice that nobody seemed to hear.

She also had her hands on his tackle,” said Brenda. “Did she ask him with every stroke whether it was permitted to go on? Was she raping him?”

This would have been a very good time for Anna to shut her mouth, but she didn’t. “Pff. All rapists are men. You can’t rape a man.”

Brenda slammed her fist onto the table making all the cups jump up. “That boy was just doing his stinking best to make his friend happy!”

“Brenda,” I said.

She didn’t listen. “There’s women out there, who were punched in the face, kicked, beaten, until they stopped resisting, then thrown on the ground and used by god knows how many bastards.”

Brenda!

“And I’ve seen the poor devils, bleeding from their buttholes, because someone said they stole some bits of useless goddamn rock, but really because some sick bastard wanted to have some fun with them.” She pointed a finger right between Anna’s eyes. “And you think that’s the same as someone who doesn’t stop fingering his girlfriend quick enough? You just went and pissed in all of their faces!

I gave an angry shout at the top of my voice. “Lee!

She turned round to me, eyes glowing with anger. I looked back at her.

“Please…”

Brenda growled, stomped off. The door slammed.

“Well, I never!” said Anna.

I took a breath to give her my opinion, but Jocelyn stepped up, put her hand on my arm. Her dark eyes were filled with tears.

“I was having you on,” she said. Her voice sounded unsteady. She looked at her feet. “We just found a quiet place, and… kissed. For hours. He had his hand under my shirt, but that’s all. I loved it. Every minute. Nigel wouldn’t hurt me.” She looked up at me. “You believe me, don’t you?”

I put my hands on her face. “Yes. Yes, I believe you.”

“I want to go to sleep,” said Jocelyn. “And in the morning, none of this has happened.” She glared at Anna. “Nothing, you understand? Nothing!”

Jocelyn turned round, walked to her bed, dropped her clothes on the floor, and pulled the blankets over her. I sighed.

“I think I’d better go to sleep as well. My legs are hurting.”


 

I wheeled myself out of the door, and rolled in the direction of the front door. I found Brenda sitting on the floor against the wall, staring at nothing. She looked up at me.

“If you think I’m gonna apologise to that little arrogant shit, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“She’ll live,” I said.

I put the brakes on, and got out of the wheelchair. With a little effort, I sat down next to her. I touched her shoulder and she pushed my hand away. I took a deep breath.

“Damn it, Soldier. If you’re bleeding where we can’t see, tell us.”

Brenda gave me a look, then went back to staring ahead of her.

“I keep telling you damn Limeys. I’m not a goddamn soldier, I’m a goddamn Marine.”

“If you need something, anything, you only have to ask. You saved my life, back in Sudan.”

“No I didn’t,” said Brenda.

“You led Carl to me, and you both freed me and brought me back to Lady I. If you hadn’t, I would have bled to death.”

“No you wouldn’t have,” said Brenda. “Hester Klemm wasn’t done with you yet. She was waiting for you to pass out. Soon as you did, she would have stopped the bleeding. You’d have woken up in a hospital bed. And I would’ve been there. Food. Water. Medicine. Cleaned you up.” Her voice sounded dull, flat. “And then, just when you’d think I was your only friend in that stinking hell-hole, you’d be strapped down, and cut to pieces. Inch by inch. She told me exactly how to do it. Keep you alive for as long as possible.”

I tried to speak, but my mouth had dried up. I coughed.

“Do you mean that she was going to… make you do it?”

Brenda turned round to me, looked me in the eye.

“Yes.”

She didn’t have to say what would have happened to her if she’d refused. Slate would have made an example of her, to show others the price of disobedience. Or maybe he would have shown her mutilated body to his followers, to show them what ‘we’ had done to her. Even if she had refused, it would not have saved me.

“They thought I was getting too friendly with you. They didn’t like me telling you about the Airship Aquila. Klemm wanted to test my loyalty.”

There was only one question. I didn’t want to ask her, but I could not leave it unasked.

“Would you have done it?”

Brenda closed her eyes. For three long slow breaths, she didn’t move at all. Then, she turned her eyes to me.

“I don’t have to answer that question,” she said. “I don’t have to answer it because of that brother of yours. I’ll bear his goddamn babies for that.”

We sat next to each other for a few minutes, not saying anything. It hadn’t happened. The cup had passed her by. Finally, we looked at each other. I reached out, touched her shoulder.

“We all have to do what we need to to stay alive.”

Brenda only nodded. She put her hand on mine.

“Let’s get you home,” she said.

She pushed herself to her feet, and picked me up as though I were a child. She put me in the wheelchair and we set off. We didn’t speak a word all the way to the gangplank, and inside Lady I, where Brenda parked the wheelchair next to the door, then carried me to my bed. I took off my clothes, took a dose of medicine, with Brenda watching over me. Just before I floated away into the arms of Morpheus, I could hear her jump into the top bunk.

“Good night, Brenda,” I said, and then I fell asleep.


 

The next morning, just after breakfast, we had two visitors, Andrew Parsons and Miss Felicia. Andrew was carrying a box, maybe a bit larger than a shoe box. Miss Felicia pointed him at the bench of our mess hall table, and they sat down. Andrew pushed the box over to me and opened it. Inside were two bright shining objects.

“These are the Replacement Knees, Mark One,” said Andrew. “Made from Chromium steel. The joints can bend from an angle of minus fifteen to one hundred thirty five degrees. The lateral rotation is twelve degrees, which I took from the rotational range of my own knee.”

I stared at the things while Andrew rattled off the specifications. Up until this moment, the thought that I might get new knees had seemed almost like a fairytale to me. Now, they were before me. I looked at Andrew.

“May I?”

Andrew frowned.

“Yes you may,” said Miss Felicia, before Andrew could ask what I meant.

I took out one of the knees. There were two hollow ends, designed to go over my bones. There were counter-sunk holes for screws with which to fasten the ends. It all looked so mechanical. Rather than bandages, poultices, drops of medicine, someone would take a screwdriver to my body. The actual screws were in a small linen bag, also provided. I bent, straightened, turned the joint. The movement was smooth, flawless. They were perfect. Still the idea that Dr. Singh would saw out my own knee, then put this thing in to replace it, filled me with a sudden dread. My father’s leg was also a work of engineering, but he could take it off. This thing would be part of me, forever. Improving on God’s work. I put the knee back in the box.

“Thank you Andrew,” I said. “These are beautiful.”

“They conform to specifications. I cannot fit the knees to your legs,” said Andrew. “I am not allowed to work on people. Dr. Singh and Dr. Bernhardt will do that.”

“Good.” I smiled at Andrew, and he looked away. “You are fast becoming our main source of movement. Lady I‘s engines, Father’s leg, and now this. If you ever need to fly anywhere, Andrew, Lady I is at your disposal.”

“I am not allowed to leave University grounds, except when accompanied by Miss Felicia.”

“She is welcome to join you on board,” I said.

Miss Felicia laughed. “I could do with a little trip to Paris. I’ve been meaning to go to Montmartre and have my portrait painted. Well, if you have finished admiring your knees, we’ll be going.”

“The Replacement Knees, Mark One, need to be put in the sterilisation autoclave prior to fitting,” said Andrew. “They will be heated with high pressure steam to a temperature of two hundred degrees Celsius to remove unwanted impurities and organisms. The metal can withstand a temperature in excess of fifteen hundred degrees Celsius.”

“I will make sure never to exceed that temperature once the knees are fitted,” I said.

Andrew frowned. “Human tissue and bones cannot withstand even…”

“Miss Tennant is joking, Andrew,” said Miss Felicia.

Andrew gave a little nod. He closed the box, got up, held out his hand. My hand disappeared in his. With the leaving rituals complete, he turned round and walked out without another word. Miss Felicia watched him go, smiled at me.

“I wish you the best of luck, Miss Tennant. Andrew likes you.”

“Thank you, Miss Sunderland. If everything goes right, I’ll take him for a long walk.”

“What, in the woods or some other non-metallic place?” Miss Felicia got up, shook my hand. “Take him for a ride in your airship instead.”

“I will.”


 

It was time to go to the infirmary, and from there, the only way back led through the operating theatre. This being a University, there would be spectators. I would not die alone, at least. I was sitting in my wheelchair by the starboard door. Carl and Fatin stood on my left, Father on my right. Brenda stood behind me, hands on the chair. I looked ahead, trying to keep a straight face. I had made my will, a simple matter as I had few Earthly possessions. I had walked onto the bridge once more, put my hand on our Lady’s steering wheel, said goodbye to my mother Iris, and to Itzel the Aztec priestess. All my instincts were screaming at me to turn round. My poor knees would heal themselves with time. I could take the pain. I closed my eyes a moment, then opened them, looking straight ahead. I would come back either healed, or not at all.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Brenda gave me a push, held on to me as I rolled down the gangplank. It took us only a minute or two to reach the door of the medical faculty. Brenda stopped, looked over my shoulder.

“Get out of the way, you little sod!”

I looked, and in the middle of the ramp up to the doors lay a small black, ginger, and white cat. It opened an eye, looked at us and then continued its snooze.

“Shoo!”

Brenda pushed the chair forward a little. The cat was completely unimpressed. It swished its tail, but otherwise didn’t move an inch.

“I’ll turn you into a bloody splat, see if I don’t.”

The cat didn’t even dignify that with an answer. Brenda gave a kind of grunt, walked round and picked it up in her arms, surprisingly gently.

“Hello Stranger,” she said. “Mind if we pass through?”

She scratched the cat between the ears until it started to purr. Then, she put it down behind the wheelchair and started to push me up the ramp. The cat rubbed itself up against her leg, still purring.

“Get out of here, you little furball, I’ll step on you!”

Brenda pushed me into the building. When I looked over my shoulder, I could see the cat back in its original place in the sun.

Dr. Bernhardt was waiting for us in one of the small private wards. All male and non-medical persons were sent out of the room, leaving the doctor, me, Fatin, and Brenda. I changed into the traditional ugly hospital gown and was put in the bed. The operation would take place tomorrow morning, and I was to have nothing to eat at all, and only little to drink. It was important that I should relax, so I was given a combination of valerian root and pain medication stronger even than my drops of Morphia. I was floating in a warm sea of clean linen, looking at the world from inside a cloud. Fatin sat on my side, singing to me in her low gentle voice. Brenda paced up and down the room, not quite knowing what to do with herself.

“Brenda?”

“What?”

“I’ve been stupid and forgotten my diary. I need to write a few more things.”

“And now I have to go and get it?”

“Please?”

“The Prussians have a saying. Was man im Haupt nicht hat, muß man im Beine haben. Only you got no legs, and no head.”

“Would you?”

“Sure,” said Brenda, walking out. “That’s what I’m here for, ain’t I? Carrying your things after you. Back in a minute.”

Fatin waited till the door closed behind her, then laughed. “She is like Odawaa when Kinsi asks him to fetch her things for her. I like her. I am glad she is with us.”

“She has been hurt,” I said.

“Yes. When you are better, then I will try to sing away her pain as well.”

I looked at her, her brown eyes, dark brown face, large mass of jet-black curls. We could not be more different if we tried, and still here we were.

“Maybe you can teach me that song, and I can sing it when someone needs it.”

Fatin took my hand, gently ran her fingers over my arm.

“First, you get better. Then, you will know your own song.” She put her head on my shoulder. “You have had much pain. Your song will be much stronger than mine.”

The door opened, and Margaret poked her head round.

“Yoo hoo! Miss Tennant? Are you decent? Can I come in?”

“No more decent than I can help, and you can always come in, Margaret.”

“Oh good,” said Margaret.

The door opened wide and she and all the founding members of the Algernon Rifle Club came pouring in. They gathered round my bed. There were even flowers, which was impressive.

“They never told us how bad your legs were,” said Nigel. “Are you really going to have legs of steel?”

“Just my knees,” I said.

“You’re going to run faster than anyone,” said Bertram the Other Boy. “Steam engines for legs!”

“I’ll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” I said, and giggled in a way I hope was caused mostly by the medicine. “Kick a football all the way to London!”

“You will be put under the Aether,” said Florence, awe in her voice.

“Yes,” I said. “Don’t think too much of it. It is only a very deep sleep. I wouldn’t want to be awake when they saw through my bones.”

“Urgh,” said Florence.

“They’re going to do it in the operating theatre,” said Linda. “People will be able to watch them do it.”

“Is the Press going to be there?”

Rina shook her head. “Not me! I get queasy when I prick my finger! It would be a very short article.”

“I’ll take this one,” said Linda. “And I’m going to do one on your Marine friend. This week’s Clarion is going to be a fat one.” Linda moved a bit closer. “You can read it when this is done.”

“I will,” I said, leaning back into the pillows. The world round me seemed to grow smaller.

Margaret gave me a look, then patted my shoulder.

“You get some sleep, dear. We’ll be thinking about you. Come on, people. Let’s go.”

Fatin got up from her chair.

“I will come back in the morning,” she said. “Before they make you better.”

I smiled, but couldn’t speak. Everybody walked out of the room, and I closed my eyes. There was a little cough. I opened my eyes.

“Carrie?”

She bent over me, looked at me.

“Could you close your eyes for a second, please?”

I did. The next moment, I felt her lips on mine, soft, gentle. When I opened my eyes, she was standing there, looking at her feet.

“For luck,” she said.

I touched her hand. “Thank you.”

She smiled, then quickly turned round and left. I watched the door close behind her. At the very least, I would not die now without ever having kissed another woman. On that thought, I closed my eyes, and fell asleep.


 

This may be the last thing I will ever write. I have just been given a sleeping draught to relax my muscles. I have been washed clean by a friendly nurse. I have said goodbye to Father, Carl, Fatin, Margaret, Dr. Wadcroft, Brenda. They have wished me good luck and a speedy recovery. I will give these notes to Fatin to keep, and then there is nothing more to be done, nothing more to be said, until I am healed. If I should die, remember my good deeds. Forgive me my bad deeds.

I am ready.

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