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How Do I Love Thee?
Stories to Stir the Heart
By Valerie Parv
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Valerie Parv
All rights reserved.
'I shall but love thee better after death'
A flash of light made me blink, and I heard one of the paramedics say something about my heart beating too slow.
'Great,' I mumbled, trying to grin.
It could have been worse. I should have been flatlining. Sprawled half naked on my kitchen floor, the first thing that came into focus, aside from the size of the schnoz on the cute medic, was the knife behind him, sticking out of the top of my muffin toaster.
If my chest hadn't hurt so much I would have joked that I'd been testing a gag for my next cartoon strip. But truth is, I didn't want to blurt anything to make them think that my neighbour had nearly killed me with his latest token of kindness.
I could still see the charred remains of his post-it-note stuck to the side of the toaster, signed with that adorable little smiley face he used lately so I knew the gift was from him — in this case, two English muffins prepared for me the night before so I'd have no excuse for skipping breakfast. If only my eyes hadn't been so blurry before I went for my shower, I might have noticed they'd been wrapped in clear plastic to keep them fresh overnight. And if I hadn't rushed back with suds in my eyes when I smelled burning, I might have noticed the switch didn't flick off properly at the wall before I tried to dig out the melted plastic.
Hilarious, I thought, considering all the other disasters I'd suffered within a nautical mile of poor Marty, and as I pictured myself sprawled on the wet floor in my bath towel and fuzzy slippers, I realised that all I really needed now was a notepad and a punchline and I might even make the deadline for the Sunday Times — provided the emergency ward had a fax machine.
That's where I was headed now, apparently. A creaky stretcher had already been wheeled in to squat beside me, which made me wonder how they'd gained access to my sixth-floor beachside apartment in the first place. The elevator was barely bigger than my toilet. Just as puzzling was how they had known that I'd toasted myself at five in the morning. Had a surf lifesaver been glancing the wrong way with binoculars at the precise moment to notice the flash in my window? Or had Marty heard the bang from his unit across the hall?
But if he had, where was he now?
The only other living things in my apartment aside from the two medics were my Siamese cat and a Happy Plant — both staring impassively at me right now from the hall.
Okay, strike the Happy Plant. It's been dying since Marty gave it to me in January for my birthday. Not that I'm complaining. I once gave him a set of ice-cube makers but the ice-shaped smiley faces usually break as they come out of their moulds, so I guess we're even.
'A good thing you're wearing ... pink slippers,' stammered the cute guy with the schnoz.
I wondered briefly why the colour of my slippers made any difference — until I felt his hand on my boob. Totally innocent. My towel had fallen open just as he and his partner shifted me from the floor to the stretcher. While he was fixing it, his cheeks turned pink and his voice cracked with embarrassment.
Too late for modesty now, I thought, since I could tell from the sticky itch of a heart-monitoring tab in my cleavage that they'd already seen more than any other man since my husband died — not counting those two horrible incidents in the Snowy Mountains, of course — but aside from those, Marty hadn't even tried to peek inside the hem of my neckline, and we'd been tripping over each other off and on for the best part of a year. He was always such a gentleman though. I'd never met anyone as sweet, calm and kind as him.
Maybe he was gay?
'I'm f-f-fine,' I tried to reassure the two medics as they checked my pulse and oxygen supply, but I guess a swollen tongue and chattering teeth are two of those things that undermined my credibility.
They wheeled me out to the balcony to lower the stretcher over the side with ropes slung as high as the floor above me, just as my alarm chirped in the bedroom, and it occurred to me that I was not only late for an early meeting with my editor, I hadn't fed the cat, turned off the shower or eaten the muffin which had started the whole disaster.
Next thing I knew I was groggy in a ward room. Again with the bright light! I cringed, wondering why everyone in a white shirt wanted to shine things in my eyes today — that's if it even was still today?
Dazzled, all I saw at first were blurry faces shifting around my bed — and none of them sounded like Marty. To my right, I heard bleeping; the irregular sound of a heart monitor.
'Turn that off!' ordered the gruff man standing over me. 'It's starting to annoy me.'
'If you're talking about my heart ...' I coughed, 'I'd rather you didn't.'
He chuckled just as his grey beard came into better focus. 'I meant the sound effects, Emily. Not the whole screen. Good to have you back though, and well enough to joke about it.'
Synapses fired deep in my head and I recognised him as Dr Darius D'Ath, my late husband's GP. I didn't know he worked at a hospital now, but I hadn't suffered so much as a flu in the last decade to warrant seeking him out, and wasn't sure if I would have anyway. Not since I'd overheard him at Roger's wake explaining that his surname, which is pronounced as Deeth, had originally been spelled D-e-a-t-h. But he'd found it so hard to attract patients and kept them long enough to explain it — until he dropped the e for an apostrophe, and voila! Instant practice! So sure, being suavely intelligent and drop-dead gorgeous probably boosted his career often enough too.
Personally, I couldn't help shrinking from him, knowing it was really Death looming over me.
He poked a flat stick on my swollen tongue and supported my numb jaw while he peered down at my tonsils. 'You've never struck me as the type to fry yourself deliberately in your own toaster.'
'Hardly,' I replied, coughing again. Aside from the slightly fat tongue, my throat was parched, my ears were ringing and my lobes and limbs still tingled. 'I want to die in my sleep like my husband, not screaming in terror like his passengers.'
Death chuckled morbidly and turned away from the bed. 'She's not herself,' he reported to someone aside from the female nurse who busied herself around my bed only a moment longer before she left. 'However, an altered state of mind is typical under the circumstances. So is amnesia and seizures. Therefore I'm advising, as the senior medical officer in this ward, that it's still too early to talk to her.'
I craned my neck a little, hoping to see Marty, but instead I saw a strange, weedy little man on the far side of the heart monitor, perched in an armchair, watching me. He reminded me of a bank clerk on a coffee break, but that was probably because I'd spent too many hours arguing with bank clerks lately.
'When will her next of kin arrive?' asked the stranger.
'No kin,' Death replied. 'No boyfriends or lovers either, as best I know.'
'Hey, thanks a lot!' I complained. 'Do you want to open the window so you can shout it with a loudspeaker?'
'Sorry,' Death replied, 'but let's face it; it's no secret. If a pretty celebrity like you had a life in this town it would be all over the tabloids.'
'She sounds well enough to me,' said the stranger, taking to his feet. He strode to my bed where he hooked his scrawny hip onto my sheets and introduced himself as Detective Sydney Symes, currently on exchange from Homicide to the General Investigation Unit.
Slimy Symes, I thought, as he rested his hand a little too close to mine. With his crooked smile and pinstriped jacket, a caricature of him sketched automatically in my head, recast from a bank clerk to an underworld hit man.
'Why do you want to waste time with me?' I asked, scratching my chin. 'When you should be out catching bad guys? Or have you already caught your quota this week, Detective?'
'Please don't take offence,' Death interrupted, as if I needed him to defend me. 'She's usually the sweetest, shiest, most demure creature that ever picked up a paint pen. But she's taken quite a shock and I dare say the little devil who whispers inspiration into her cartoons is currently running loose in her head.'
'That's quite all right, Doc.' Slimy Symes levelled his beady eyes at me, even though he'd never really taken them off me. 'No offence taken, Mrs Hossted. To answer your question, we don't have quotas anymore. We used to,' he added with a twitch of that crooked smile. 'But now we're allowed to catch as many bad guys as we like. And yes, that is why we're here.'
Still with his eyes fastened on my face and neckline — and only then did I notice that someone had swapped my luxurious white towel for an ugly blue hospital gown — he turned his nose briefly to introduce Detective Clyde Moser as he entered: big as a footballer, with a dazed look that made him look too stupid to know if Mickey Mouse was a dog, a mouse or a cat.
'We're here to investigate your stalker,' Symes said, slugging me with a bombshell.
On the heart monitor, the green line spiked like the silhouette of a petrified porcupine, and I was glad, after all, that the nurse had switched off that infuriating beep before she'd left.
'Now, now, Mrs Hossted.' Symes raised his hand with the natural flair of a cadet who'd spent too long directing traffic. 'There's no point denying it. We found his notes all around your apartment.'
Moser pulled a briefcase out of his butt, or wherever else he'd been keeping it, and snapped it open near my feet to withdraw a clear plastic bag full of smiley-faced post-it-notes.
My mouth fell open, eyes bugged out, and even if I knew what to say and trusted these jokers enough to say it, I don't think I could have uttered a word, since my pulse throbbed, face tingled, and that green line on the heart monitor broke into a dot and began to breakdance all over the place.
'Now, we can ensure it stays out of the papers to protect your privacy,' Symes promised as the bed began to shake with the growing intensity of an earthquake. 'But we need you to tell us everything you know about your neighbour, Dr Martin Cage.'
'Seizure!' Death shouted, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in a cemetery.
Thick fog obscured everything, like midnight, although the sound of a garbage truck somewhere nearby made me think it was early morning. Ahead of me, at a crossroads in the cobbled path, a globe of yellow light probed the wet mist from an overhead streetlight.
Thank God, I thought. At least it wasn't a white light calling me upward!
I walked towards the lamppost, hoping for a little warmth on my bare arms since the hospital gown was split down the back and offered even less comfort than my bath towel, but no matter how many steps I took, the light didn't get any closer. Then I heard a set of soft tapping, chipping and scratching sounds behind me, so I turned — and saw a crooked line of gravestones, each crowned with a smiley-faced post-it-note.
The trail led me onto the dewy grass and into the mist for a short way, then through a vast field of red roses where every thorn was a razor-wired cupid's arrow, until I reached a pure-white building with a sign on the red door, which labelled the back entrance of the hospital as a morgue.
Beside the door, in the middle of the path, was a fresh gravestone, with a man on his knees, bent away from me, chipping at the headstone with a hammer and chisel as if his life depended on it.
Drawing closer so I could read the engraving over his shoulder, and already terrified that I knew what I'd find, I saw that it was my name — or would be, just as soon as he finished squeezing the second s into Hossted.
He spun around and grinned up at me with those sparkling brown eyes and that five-o'clock-shadowed smile that always manages to make my skin ripple with anticipation. Then I noticed that I was blushing, not only embarrassed to appear nearly naked before him, but also from guilt, since I never felt this kind of thrill with my poor husband.
'Marty?' I asked, stepping closer. 'Why didn't you ever mention you were a doctor?'
'Not important.' He rose and pulled me into his arms. 'What do you think of that? Some idiot misspelled your name, so I fixed it. That's how much I love you, Emily, let me count the ways ...'
He broke into song, balladising my favourite poem from memory, having seen it only once recently as far as I knew, framed in my living room.
I glanced to the gravestone, engrossed by his resonant voice, and was relieved to notice the date of death was blank.
'I'm not dead yet,' I said, wondering why he — or my romanticised illusion of him — wasn't devastated to think that I might be. Surely he would have noticed that I hadn't passed him in the hall on my way to work that morning?
'You'll be dead soon enough,' he promised flatly.
His smile widened and I couldn't tell if he was being sinister or matter-of-fact.
'We're all going to die eventually, I hope you mean?' In response, he dropped with me, putting us both on our knees, all the better for me to read the whole epitaph while still clasped against his broad and usually reassuring chest:
Here lies the body
Of Emily Hossted,
Dated a killer
And now she is dead!
I screamed, but that damned light blinded me again, making me wince.
'I told you she wasn't up to it,' I heard Death complain to Detective Symes. 'Not as bad as the last seizure when they lowered her over the balcony, but she's still on very shaky territory. I've dosed her enough to steady her heart and dull the pain without knocking her out, but if you can't do this without triggering another event, I'm kicking you out of here. Are we clear?'
'Sorry,' Symes said, replying to me instead. He took off his hat and shook it twice. 'I'll be quick as that if you can answer me this ...'
But why hadn't I noticed that funky retro pinstriped hat before? Oh, hang on, I had. He was wearing it in that hit-man caricature I drew earlier in my subconscious. Funny that.
'I need to know how you first met.'
'Who, Marty?' My teeth chattered, only this time it had nothing to do with electric shock and everything to do with that bad feeling that was stirring in my gut again. 'Let me think, I ...'
I stared at the bed sheets, thinking back to a year ago, to that cloudy day when sunshine appeared briefly in my life before the hurricane.
I'd been out on the footpath outside my apartment building, on my back under my car — Roger's classic Monaro — with only my legs protruding while I tried to disentangle the long string of a kid's yoyo that somehow had managed to tangle up in my undercarriage — and no, I didn't have to untangle a kid first, although that's the sketch that appeared in the next episode of my Daily Grimes cartoon strip.
Marty, on the other hand, had spent the morning on the beach, riding his palomino that he owned and stabled at an equestrian centre a few blocks away. That's the way he explained it the first time anyway; that he'd been galloping past on his way back from the beach when I slid out from my car, causing his horse to shy at the sudden sight of me. Marty was thrown and he landed on the thick grass at my feet. It took him a whole month to confess that he'd really been riding up and down past me for an hour — and at every other opportunity for nearly three months — and it wasn't until he faked his accident that I finally noticed him.
'I don't really remember how I met him,' I told Symes, but I noticed my hands were sweaty, so I clutched a handful of dry sheet. 'In the hall, I guess. He's lived just across the hall from me for more than a year.'
'And you went to the Snowy Mountains together ...'
Huh? That caught me off guard. How did he know?
'With twenty-seven couples from your building. I saw the group photos in your lobby. So that's quite a close-knit community you must have for so many to go off on dirty weekends together?'
'That was not a dirty weekend!' I flushed hot, and only barely managed to stay calm, knowing I couldn't take a seizure now. I had to defend myself — and Marty! 'That was the annual general meeting, Detective; the first I've attended in more than a decade! You must understand,' I sighed, swallowing my frustration with my fat tongue, and grateful that Death had dosed me enough to make talking easier. 'Most of my neighbours are business professionals, barely enough time for their families, let alone holidays. So the building management committee, in their wisdom,' I added with emphasis, 'organises a bulk discount at a tourist resort each year so we can get significant discounts. Mixes pleasure with tax-deductible business, you might say. But who knew it would be the coldest autumn week in history until it was time to drive up to the ski lodge? If it hadn't been for Marty's offer to car-pool in his four-wheel drive, I'd have been in my late husband's sports car. And that's all there was to it.'
Excerpted from How Do I Love Thee? by Valerie Parv. Copyright © 2009 Valerie Parv. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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