A Petrol Scented Spring

 


 

On his way back from the hospital he meets a wardress come to tell him that Prisoner Gordon is dying.
            His thoughts are still with Prisoner Scott. It takes him a moment to understand. That thump in his lower abdomen, the rush of blood to his face. Get a grip on yourself, man. Every cell on this corridor is occupied. Twenty-three bored women. They can see nothing, but they know his tread, and they have a feral instinct for trouble. They call out to one another:‘Doctor’s here’, ‘He’ll no be pleased’, ‘It’s the minister she needs’. He pushes open the cell door and sees the guttering candle, a wardress dabbing at the prisoner’s brow with a wetted cloth. The other wardress wringing her hands, not even enjoying the drama. That’s how bad it is.
            He sends Lindsay to fetch the Governor. A wardress goes with him to retrieve the prisoner’s clothes. She must be liberated tonight. As soon as possible. The Governor protests there are procedures. He needs authorisation from the Commission secretary, who will have to contact the Chairman, who will have to contact the Secretary for Scotland. The doctor has to spell it out: the woman will die here, in his gaol, unless he gets her out right now. Is that what he wants? As it is, she may not survive the journey. There is no creditable outcome, it is a question of the least damaging course. Another half-hour might make all the difference. If they wait until morning he will not be answerable for the consequences. The Governor is not such an old fool. He knows he’s being threatened with the blame for a mess that is not of his making. He reminds Doctor Watson that his authority has been flouted at every turn . . . The words die on his lips as the flaring lantern catches the doctor’s expression.
            So Prisoner Gordon is given a hasty bed bath and dressed in her own clothes. Only ten days since she wore them last, but the blouse hangs off her. The skirt has to be pinned, lest it drop from her shrunken hips. She looks like a rag doll propped in a chair. The wardress tries to make her tidy but has to stop when the comb comes away with clumps of hair. The Governor scuttles off to send his telegram. To have done everything that could be expected of him. Lindsay is on the street, trying to find a cab. The wardresses take the excuse of carrying away the reeking bedlinen, the pail of dirty water.
            The doctor is alone with her.
            The noise from the other cells has subsided. It’s so quiet, he can hear her shallow breathing. He waits for the rattle that will surely come. If not with this breath, then the next.
            ‘You are being released.’
            Does she hear him?
            ‘Prisoner Gordon. Frances. You are a free woman. You are going home.’
            Those mouse’s eyes open. She is listening.
            ‘You will leave here tonight. In a few minutes.’
            What is she thinking? Or is she beyond thought?
            ‘You will wake tomorrow among friends. You will take a cup of tea, a little milk, for breakfast. Some toast, if you can. Not too much at first. Until you grow stronger.’
            The eyes know he is lying.
‘Sit by an open window, but be sure to keep warm.’
She is dying. Even the Governor could see it.
            ‘It’s a couple of hours by train to Edinburgh. Doctor Lindsay will go with you.’
            What’s that? A groan, a bubble of trapped air? Surely she cannot be laughing?
            She stops breathing.
            He is on her in an instant, one arm under her shoulders, the other under her thighs. Lifting her – so light – to lay her on the mattress. His ear to her chest, his mouth on her mouth, the air in his lungs poured into hers. Turning his head, waiting to feel her breath on his cheek, watching for the rise and fall.Nothing. Use the heel of the hand to compress the lower third of the breastbone by one third of the depth of the chest, taking care to avoid snapping the ribs. One hundred compressions a minute. Thirty for every two breaths. Compressions, breaths, watch, wait, compressions, breaths . . .
Her chest moves. Weakly, but it moves. Her heart beats. That’s my girl. That’s it. In and out. Come on. Come on. He lifts one rag-doll arm and chafes her cold hand. Her hold on life remains tenuous, but she is breathing.
            Lindsay comes back. The hansom is in the yard. There’s a train to Glasgow leaving at ten o’clock. The Governor has sent a telegram. Her friends will be waiting.

Prisoner Scott is still awake. She shows no surprise at seeing him. The wardresses are despatched to quell the excitement in the women’s wing. 
            When they’re gone she says nothing. It is exactly what he needs from her. A minute’s peace. His breathing slows, his heart settles. Such a relief to close his eyes. It may be that he dozes for a few seconds. He dreams he is lying down while she sits upright in the chair. Her face is grave, but her eyes are warm. He feels the touch of her lips on his brow. He opens his eyes. She has not moved from the bed.
            He asks her, ‘Do you pray?’ 
            ‘Of course. Don’t you?’
            ‘Not since I was a boy.’
            She receives this without comment.
            He says, ‘What words do you use?’               


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