MAXIMILIAN PIERCE WAS SITTING in his hospital bed, about to bite into a Big Mac, when his friend, Steven Moon, walked into the room.
“What are you doing here?” he said, lowering the hamburger to the dinner tray. His fingers went to a linen napkin, but his bespectacled eyes stayed where they were.
“Fine way to greet a visitor,” said Steven, hanging up his cap on a brass hook on the door.
“I mean it. How did you get in?”
“What makes you think I’m not allowed in?”
“Ah, nothing, I’m... just surprised, that’s all,” said Maximilian. “I never imagined... Good Lord, I mean, I knew there would be Visitors, but you of all people!”
“Well,” Steven tried not to sound put out by the ill-mannered welcome. “I am one. I thought you’d be pleased. Can I use your bathroom?”
“Yes, of course,” mumbled Maximilian, suddenly compliant. He propped himself up against the pillows and put away the dinner tray. A Visitor was an honour. But Steven?
Steven sat on the closed lid of the WC in the private room’s cubicle and tried to control his queasiness. Hospitals. They always affected him like this. He had only just walked into St Eloysius from the streets of central London, passing the close scrutiny of a hirsute porter on the door, and was taking the oversized lift up when the place had suddenly felt wrong. A bad place to be. He hadn’t been inside a hospital in years and thought his aversion would have worn off, but now his head felt twice its normal size and the blood in it thumped audibly. Max’s peculiar reaction had done nothing to improve his disposition. Why on earth wouldn’t he come and see him? As university contemporaries and flatmates they’d been friends, if only on and off, and in a low-key kind of way, for years, and when Max had fallen ill on his return from Central America, he’d been staying as a guest in the house that his cousin, Yvonne, and Steven shared.
Steven took a few shallow breaths as he sought to focus his thoughts.
Perhaps Max’s manner had to do with this rare tropical disease he’d picked up. He seemed well enough, not feverish or drawn, or even pale. Just grouchy. But what if this thing he’d been incubating was subtle but nasty? He must be anxious about it. That would explain why he was so prickly. Was it something that ate you up inside and you looked normal, until one day you collapsed as a bag of skin and bones? Steven shook the image away as he heard the ward door open.
“Time for your medication, Maximilian. Roll up your sleeve.”
I’ll give this one a miss, thought Steven, who had a horror of injections. He closed his eyes to wait it out and felt his head rock slowly side to side, as if expressing a reiterated admonition not to be there. An image intruded of his friend’s flabby, uneaten hamburger. Did McDonald’s now supply hospital wards? Was that possible?
“It turns out that one of the Visitors is a personal acquaintance of mine,” he heard Max tell the nurse.
“Keeping a friendly eye on you, I’m sure,” said a mellifluous voice. There was a flick of fingernail against syringe and a rustle of bedclothes. “Very few people know who the Visitors are going to be. It often comes as a surprise.”
Steven didn’t emerge from the cubicle until he heard the nurse leave. Max was lying on his side, with a wry look on his face that seemed to originate in his moustache. His lightweight spectacles were askew. On the bedside table there was an empty pill cup and a glass phial that hadn’t been there before. Steven picked it up and read the label: Antimony. Max’s cousin, Yvonne, had said that the infection was something he could have picked up from the bite of a sandfly on his travels. Unusual but treatable. With antimony? It rang a distant bell from chemistry lessons at school. Wasn’t it poisonous? ...