Lifeswap – Chapters 10 – 12

Chapter 10

Doris Maxwell kept a well ordered house. I managed to find everything I needed without asking, and within five minutes, I came back into the room carrying a cheerfully rattling tray, complete with teapot, milk jug and four cups and saucers.

Jerry was still unconscious, so I poured for three. Doris mentioned a packet of biscuits she’d bought the other day, so I disappeared back into the kitchen, reappearing with a plate filled with the aforementioned.

Doris and Millie were happy to chat over their tea and biscuits, congratulating one another on a job well done, but I was itching to see some confirmation of what we’d accomplished. They didn’t seem overly concerned with Jerry’s state, so I decided not to worry either – at least not yet.

I excused myself and took my mobile phone outside. Jerry had put the number for the hospital in the address book, which made things easy. I asked to be put through to Danny Morton, and gave them the name of the ward he was on.

“’Ello?”

There was no doubt Danny was home. His familiar manner of speech combining with the deep bass rumble of that immense body.

“Hi Danny, it’s Jerry – well Laura I mean. Actually no, scratch that. Jerry’s good. How are things?”

“Jerry, hi. Things are great here, fanks fer asking. They’re lettin’ me ou’ of ‘ere in a bi’. Me mum’s ‘ere and we’ll be goin’ ‘ome as soon as they can sor’ ou’ a few papers. ‘Ows Laura?”

“Oh she’s fine. At least I think so. She hasn’t come round yet, but Doris and Millie don’t seem to be worried, so I’m assuming everything’s okay. I’m glad to hear you’re doing well. Do you know anything about your job yet?”

“Nah, I ain’t asked about’ tha’ ye’. Shouldn’t be a worry though. There’s ovver clubs could use someone like me, so I reckon I’ll be back to it wivin a couple o’ days.”

“I’m glad. Look, don’t be a stranger alright? If you’re ever near the shop or the house, pop in for a coffee or something. We’d be glad to see you.”

“Same goes for you guys. Soon as I’m back on me feet, I’ll be in touch. ‘Ang on, looks like someone’s coming. I gotta go. Talk to you soon Jerry.”

The phone went dead. I didn’t expect him to get in touch again; we were from such different walks of life. It was a shame in some ways. As I’d got to know him over the previous few days, I’d grown to like him.

I called through to the shop with the good news and received the appropriate positive response from our three employees.

“We’ll be in tomorrow,” I said. “We really appreciate you lot holding the fort these past few days.”

“Not a problem. Look if you need more time to get settled, nothing’s happening here that we can’t handle.”

“That’s really kind guys. I’ll let you know, but if I know Laura, she’ll want to be back in the saddle.”

“Laura?”

“The bowls are gone, Randy. For better or worse, this is the way we’re going to be from here on, so we might as well get used to our adopted names again don’t you think?”

“Makes sense. Alright, give Laura our love when she wakes up, and welcome back to normality.”

“I love your way of looking at things Randy. See you tomorrow, unless one of us give you a call.”

“Right you are boss.”

Again the line went dead. There was no-one else to call, so I put the phone back in my pocket and went back into the cottage.

Jerry was still unconscious. Despite what I’d been saying to the others, he’d be Jerry to me until he woke and accepted ownership of that body again, and the life that went with it. I went over and sat by him, stroking his smooth face, and brushing his long hair behind his ear.

I couldn’t help being disturbed by his stillness. His skin was neither too hot nor too cold, and he was breathing with a slow steady rhythm, but the lack of reaction to my touch was unnerving.

“Doris, Millie. Would you mind coming here please?”

Neither of them was particularly happy to be disturbed from their conversation. They both groaned with the effort of climbing out of their respective chairs and all but hobbled over to where I was sitting. One more indication of how much the morning’s magic had taken out of them.

Millie’s expression shifted rapidly from annoyance to concern as she took in Jerry’s condition. Gnarled fingers gently raised his eyelids and she leaned in close to examine his pupils. Over her shoulder I could see them contracting in the light, but it didn’t seem that’s what she was looking for.

“No. Oh dear no,” she muttered under her breath. She lifted an arm and let it go. It stayed raised in the air for a few seconds then very slowly sank back down.

I turned to Doris whose face was a mask of distress.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh My. I’m so sorry dear. It doesn’t seem that Jerry made it.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no-one here,” Doris answered, sharing the thankless task of imparting bad news with her friend.

“What? But…”

“The body is alive and healthy, but there is no mind occupying it. I’m sorry dear, but something went wrong with the transfer. Jerry didn’t make it to this body.”

“No! That’s not possible! I won’t accept this. I can’t.”

“Laura, I’m afraid you have to. I said I wasn’t sure if there might have been a small piece missing from Tony’s bowl, and that there was some risk.”

“No! This isn’t fair! We’ve done so much to make this work. What more do we need to do.”

“There isn’t anything to do, dear. The bowls are gone and so is their magic. Even if we could find out what happened to Jerry, there isn’t anything we can do about it.”

“No! No, no, no, no, no! This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.” I’d never faced a situation I couldn’t accept before, but this was so overwhelmingly impossible in my mind.

I was dimly aware of Doris taking Millie by the arm and withdrawing quietly from the room, leaving me with Jerry’s comatose body. It hadn’t struck home until now how much he meant to me. A few days ago I’d been concerned about the thought of living with him stuck in Tony’s body, but now as I faced a future with no Jerry at all, I knew that having him like that was infinitely preferable to this.

-oOo-

I had no means of measuring time. The darkness could have lasted a minute, an hour, a decade, I had no way of knowing, except that when consciousness returned to me, there was Tony sitting in the showers, his trousers still down round his ankles and a stain of blood spreading out from where he sat.

I felt curiously detached. The bowl’s unusual propensity for muddling senses, along with my partial removal from Tony’s brain seemed to have protected me somewhat from my most recent experience, but what must it have felt like for Tony, returning to his former self at the exact moment of that ultimate violation? It seemed strange associating such emotions with the person who had wilfully brought so much misery to Laura’s and my lives, but I discovered that I pitied him.

There was a lot of blood; enough to cause worry. I tried to make my way back into the body, to try and get it to move, but it was occupied – no room for me. I was still attached. Part of me felt shredded, like the tattered remains of a flag after a hurricane, but one of those torn slivers of myself was snagged on something inside his brain. I couldn’t get free from him, but neither was I truly a part of him anymore, except through that miniscule point of contact.

He was rocking gently where he sat, his eyes wide, staring at some unspeakable horror only he could see. Either he was reliving the experience I’d so narrowly escaped or…

My attempts to climb back into his head hadn’t gone unnoticed it seemed. He started rocking with a more pronounced motion until his head came in contact with the wall.

It wasn’t much of a crack, but it was enough to interrupt his motion. Then he restarted, deliberately banging his head against the wall, aiming to strike the part where it seemed I was attached. Banging and banging. I could feel the pain of the contact, at least as a vague shadow of what it must have been for him. He wasn’t holding back, in fact he was increasing his efforts. I tried screaming into that point of contact for him to stop, but he just erupted into a deep animal cry and smashed his head all harder against the wall.

It hurt, and if I could feel this much pain, I had no idea what it must have been like for him. I felt Tony’s consciousness slipping away, but not before I heard the sound of running feet, the dim sight of blue uniformed legs coming into view, expletives muttered, the sound of someone being violently sick, a desperate, urgent calling for the doctor. By then everything was fading. Not for me but for Tony. His eyes closed, and as oblivion took him, the sensations I’d been feeling through his body lessened.

I vaguely felt hands rolling his body onto its side, heard low mumbled voices, too indistinct to make out, but soothing in their manner of speech, strong hands lifting and softness and warmth underneath. Something fabric, a bed or a stretcher, I couldn’t make it out, but it was welcome after the cold hardness of the tiles.

There was a sensation of movement, a momentary stabbing pain in his right arm and then silence and stillness for a long time.

-oOo-

It must have been late afternoon when the ambulance crew arrived. I knew I’d been sitting with Jerry for some hours. I knew Doris had attempted to speak to me more than once. They must have waited as long as they dared before contacting the authorities, to give me time.

I asked to ride with her in the back, but they were adamant that this wasn’t going to happen. More fucking bureaucratic nonsense from this fucking nanny state. Couldn’t they see how much it would mean to me to be able to stay with him? No. More than their fucking jobs were worth to disregard health and safety policy like that. No seat belts in the back of an ambulance. Think of the lawsuit if there were an accident and an unauthorised passenger should bang his head. If it hadn’t been for Doris’s calming hand, I would probably have attacked them. Just as well I suppose; it wasn’t really their fault.

They gave me the name and address of the hospital they were taking her, not that I needed it. It was the only medical facility in the region that could handle problems like this. It was the place they’d taken Doris, and Danny as well, or Tony, or whoever.

Doris persuaded me to come back inside for a cup of tea as the ambulance made its slow way back onto the country roads. No need for sirens – Jerry’s condition wasn’t likely to change in the couple of hours it’d take them to find their way back to the city.

The tea had a calming effect, and I found myself wondering if one of the old girls had slipped something into it. Whatever the truth, I felt settled enough to be able to drive by the time I was done. I thanked both Doris and Millie for their efforts and climbed into the Maserati. Clear skies and winding roads couldn’t do much for my mood though. The anger was past as much as the denial. All that was left was a hollow emptiness.

There wasn’t any point heading to the hospital at this time. All the administration necessary to find Jerry a bed and settle him into it would mean I wouldn’t get to see him till the following morning even under the best of circumstances. I followed the road and some internal autopilot back to the house, and walked into its vast emptiness. It was heading towards late as I closed the door behind me, but it wasn’t too late. I picked up the phone and called Randy. I don’t remember the details of the call, just that I could barely handle his sympathy. Short version, I wouldn’t be in tomorrow; they’d be holding the fort as they’d offered.

I poured myself a stiff malt, and could easily have crawled inside the bottle then and there, except that some rebellious instinct kicked in. Maybe I wasn’t done denying this, but I refused to give up on Jerry just yet.

With the whiskey taking the edge off the feelings weighing down my soul, I climbed the stairs and crawled into bed.

-oOo-

It turned out I needed sleep whether I belonged in this body or not. I’d stayed awake and dimly aware of the goings on around me through Tony’s unconscious senses, but there wasn’t a great deal of stimulation to be had, and after a while, I’d drifted away.

When I came too, Tony was already awake and had evidently made enough mischief to earn himself a set of restraints again. Through my limited connection to him I was aware primarily of the ongoing and unsurprising pain in his backside and head, as well as an increased discomfort in both his arms. I didn’t have control over his movements, so had to wait until he chose to look about him before discovering a drip now attached to his left forearm and a bandage about his right. I could only assume that they’d inserted the drip into his right arm to start with, and he had thrashed about and torn the cannula from its place at some stage, causing the damage and prompting the doctor to secure padded leather straps around his wrists and ankles.

“It’s wiggling. It’s wiggling!” He yelled out bringing orderlies running. From the looks of things we were still in the prison. The exposed pipework, the dull paint, the burly male staff manning the medical centre.

“Shut the fuck up!” the first orderly on the scene yelled at us, but with no discernible effect. Tony was writhing about as much as he could within the restraints, continuing to yell out as he did. A second orderly arrived in the room and grabbed Tony’s legs even as the first took hold of his shoulders. It stopped Tony from moving so much, but it did nothing to quieten his mood.

The doctor walked in, syringe in hand, squeezing out the last few bubbles as he came.

“Doctor!” Tony yelled. “There’s a worm in my head and it’s wiggling. You’ve got to help me. You’ve got to get it out.”

The injection went home and Tony calmed almost immediately. It wasn’t so much that he became drowsy as completely listless, as though he had been pushed deep within himself. I looked on it as an opportunity and tried to exert some control over his body again. I had to try and get a message out somehow, anyhow.

Tony tensed as soon as I made my move and started screaming. It was a visceral sound, born of terror and madness. The doctor ran out of the room, reappearing moments later with a second syringe in hand. The contents of this one robbed both Tony and me of our senses.

-oOo-

There’s nothing quite so lonely as waking up next to an empty space. Ridiculous sentiment I know, since I’d spent the last few days sleeping alone, but at least I’d known Jerry was somewhere. There had been hope. There had been a plan. Now there was nothing.

I washed and dressed with the oppressive silence of the empty house weighing on me. Heading downstairs, I found myself looking around in all the places Laura would normally be in the morning. The conservatory was empty of all but memories. There was no pan soaking in the sink, none of the familiar signs that she was around somewhere.

You get used to the rhythms of other people’s lives around you. Like a background noise you’re not aware of until it stops, the evidence of them being in your life begins to shout out at you through its absence. It hurt, almost physically.

Breakfast was just buttered toast and coffee. I couldn’t find the enthusiasm for anything more elaborate. It was earlier than I’d normally wake up, even with the help of an alarm on a work day. I’ve heard of people experiencing radical changes in their habits following trauma, and now it seemed I was going to get to experience it first-hand.

With the toast eaten and the unwashed plate in the sink, I refreshed my coffee and took it into the conservatory, settling into Jerry’s usual seat when he was Laura. It was stupid, but somehow she seemed closer, and I found my tears for the first time since this had all started.

It was crazy. As Laura I’d have been crying all afternoon yesterday. I’d have been unable to drive for the tears and the emotions coursing through me. I’d have cried myself to sleep and I’d have made my toast soggy with saltwater even as I ate it. As Laura, emotions had always been closer to the surface, and I’d had to fight to keep them back. As Jerry it seemed the struggle was to find a way to release them.

When they did come though, they came in full force – like a dam bursting sending a wall of raw emotion that tore up everything in its path. Was that the purpose behind it all? Store up your feelings so that when you’re ready to let go, they add to your strength? They didn’t seem to help much in this situation. I barely had time to put my coffee cup down before I was out of the chair and on my knees, bent over and letting out great primal sobs of misery, each one hurting as it came.

It didn’t last long, so perhaps there was something to it. As Laura the misery would have lasted days, diminishing by small degrees until it was bearable. Here I felt empty. Devoid of emotion, but capable of action. Here was the hunter instinct. The pain would build up again over the hours and days to come, until eventually there would be another release, and another, until once again it would be bearable. In the meantime I wouldn’t be as distracted as I might otherwise be.

I took a breath and stood up. My coffee was lukewarm but drinkable. I swigged down half and realised I didn’t really want it. The rest went down the sink. I turned the filter machine off. What was in the jug would microwave later.

I glanced at my watch. Half eight. By the time I reached the hospital there should be people on duty. I grabbed my jacket and keys and headed for the door.

-oOo-

“I’m telling you there isn’t much I can do for him here.”

The doctor’s voice made it to me through the fading dullness of our shared experience as Tony slowly returned to consciousness. Whatever the doctor had given him to knock us out had affected me for a far shorter time than it had him, but, unable to see through his closed eyes, and with only a very vague impression of the sensations that were coming through his other senses, I had been all but deprived of sensation for I don’t know how long. It was a relief to have any kind of input.

I’d encountered the doctor a couple of times already since coming to the prison. He’d given me a once over after each of my fights, pressing my bruises with a little more force than seemed necessary, and looking for some kind of overt reaction that might indicate the injury was more than superficial. He seemed competent enough, although completely lacking in anything that might be called bedside manner. I couldn’t be sure if it was this callous streak that had led him down the path to becoming a prison doctor, or if he’d simply lost his sympathy for his fellow human being as a result of his daily dealings with the inmates here. In either case, he wasn’t easy to like.

His voice was coming from nearby. I didn’t have that clear a memory of the layout of the infirmary, but I vaguely recalled he had an office next to what, for want of a better term, you might call the ward. Tony’s eyes remained closed for now, so I only had vague impressions of when he was last conscious to picture where we were. The doctor had appeared swiftly each time, so the door had to be nearby.

“Look, he has to see a specialist. I need to have him transferred to the hospital… Yes today. This morning if possible… Look, I don’t care what day it is. The man’s been raped, and from what I can tell he’s suffered some sort of psychotic break. He needs to see a specialist; I’m not trained for this sort of thing… Yes I am sure, I wouldn’t be calling you if I weren’t. Look get it arranged will you?”

He slammed the phone down on its cradle. “Fucking jobs-worth,” he muttered, the sound of his footsteps and increased volume of his voice indicating his approach. Rough fingers raised Tony’s eyelids and I caught two brief, out of focus images of the doctor’s face peering in at me.

He called for a couple of orderlies, instructing them to remove the restraints and to turn his patient over, being careful of the drip. Tony was back in one of those hospital gowns with the gap at the back. Convenient for the doctor in this instance as he had free access to the site he wanted to examine. He peeled off what felt like a sanitary pad and had a good poke about in the tenderest area of Tony’s anatomy.

“Well that’s good at least.” The doctor seemed to be talking to himself, despite the two guys standing nearby, holding Tony still. “Thought I was going to have to put a couple more stiches in there for a while, but the bleeding seems to have stopped.” Another dressing covered the wound and he ordered his staff to turn us the right way up and strap us back in.

Tony’s eyelids flickered open as the last of the straps was fastened. He made a half-hearted attempt to move, but the restraints were in place and he seemed to have little fight left in him.

“Well good morning Mr Ward,” the doctor said, stripping off a pair of gloves and consigning them to a nearby bin. “And how are we this fine morning?”

“I have a worm in my head,” Tony whimpered.

“I imagine you do. You know you really are one unlucky bastard; either that or you must have right royally pissed someone off. Three visits to me so far and you’re only halfway through your first week here. Usually Bambi is a little gentler with newcomers to his harem.”

Tony whimpered again, though how much in response to the doctor’s words I don’t know. It wouldn’t have come as welcome news to know that I was on the radar of someone like this Bambi. Cute nickname, but then again, Bambi did grow up to be the dominant stag in his herd, didn’t he? Also when it comes down to measuring certain parts of the anatomy, ‘hung like a horse’ could as easily be replaced with ‘hung like a stag’.

“I have a worm in my head,” Tony said again. “You have to take it out.”

“Yes, yes, I know. The thing is I don’t know a lot about head worms Mr Ward. I’ve asked to have you taken to the hospital to see a specialist. How does that sound?”

“You have to take it out. It’s inside me head.” He tried to move again. Not struggling this time; the effort wasn’t there. He wanted to point, I’m sure, but the leather straps held him tight. Whatever this worm thing was, the discomfort must have been significant. Tony’s head throbbed with a level of pain that would have made me wince – even through my partial contact with him – had I something to wince with.

“Later Mr Ward. I’ll give you something to help you rest for now, and we’ll go and see the worm specialist in a while.”

He disappeared back into his office and appeared a few seconds later, tapping a syringe. It made sense in a place like this that the drugs would be kept locked away under his direct supervision. The needle went into the drip and moments later Tony closed his eyes once more.

-oOo-

“Laura Townsend please. She was admitted last night after she collapsed.”

“Are you family?”

Not this again.

“She’s my partner. We’ve been together for over a year now.”

“Thank you. I’ll just check.”

Surprisingly painless. She rattled away on her keyboard for half a minute before giving me both a remarkably genuine smile and directions to Jerry’s ward.

Ten minutes of twists and turns later I stood in front of the nurse’s station, passing across more or less the same information.

The nurse glanced briefly – involuntarily – at a nearby open door with a darkened room beyond.

“If you wouldn’t mind waiting, I’ll go fetch the doctor.” She rushed off.

I couldn’t help it; the doorway had a magnetic draw to it. In the short time it took for the doctor to come running, I’d drifted across to the door and was looking in on the still form of my beloved, connected via a tangle of tubes and wires to as many machines as seemed could be squeezed into the room.

“Mr er?”

“Goodman,” I said absently. “Jerry Goodman. Laura and I have been together for over a year now.” The words came out on autopilot. I’d forgotten how still her body had been. Breathing, heart beating – the wiggles on the monitors attested to that – but so very still.

“Mr Goodman, I think we should talk.”

The doctor led me, unresisting, to a quiet office. It struck me as a little odd that a doctor should have an office of his own on a ward, which tripped off other half-noticed things – the tranquillity of the place, the reduced number of staff. This wasn’t a usual ward.

He indicated one of two comfortable chairs and sat in the other.

“I understand you were with Miss Townsend when this happened,” he started.

“Doctor, what is this place?”

“The politically correct term is an extended care unit. Less PC, but more accurately, it’s a coma ward. You are aware that your, er, partner is in a coma, aren’t you?”

“I think so.”

“Can you shed any light on how she came to be that way?”

“I’m sorry?”

“There are a number of common causes of coma, but they’re all as a result of some sort of brain damage, whether it be from head trauma, oxygen deprivation, stroke, seizure, infection or drug overdose. In all cases there is usually evidence that indicates what brought it on. My colleague ordered an MRI for Miss Townsend last night when she was brought in, and it shows no signs of the usual lesions that would be associated with any of usual suspects, in fact she seems to be totally healthy in every physical way we can determine. Her vital signs are strong, and she seems to be in perfect health, except perhaps her cholesterol level is a little high.”

“I’m not sure what I can say. She’s been eating a lot of fried foods lately.” Funny how you hide behind little details in order to avoid the larger truth you don’t want to face.

“Well, as I said, I understand you were present when she collapsed. If you could tell me what you were doing, and in as much detail as possible, it might help me understand what happened to her.”

“Could it be psychosomatic?”

“I did see in her notes that she became quite hysterical a few days ago, in this hospital as well, but no. If it were a psychosomatic condition I would expect to see some brain activity.” He opened a brown manila folder and pulled out a long thin strip of paper with several lines drawn down its length. Most were very flat, and those that weren’t showed a regular and simple repeating pattern. “This is Laura’s EEG from last night, Mr Goodman. As you can see there isn’t any activity there. I’m sorry to be blunt about this, but frankly this is the sort of electroencephalogram reading I’d expect from someone who was completely brain-dead.”

“Hold on, what are you saying?”

“I’m sorry, Mr Goodman, that came out far more bluntly than I intended. Still what’s said can’t be unsaid. In my opinion, Laura isn’t there anymore. We can keep her alive, possibly indefinitely, but of all the coma patients I’ve cared for over the years, I have never seen a single patient in this sort of state whose show any signs of improvement under my care.

“Having said that, I’ve never seen a patient in this state without at least some indication of what put her there. It would be wrong of me to give you any false hope, Mr Goodman, so I will state as unequivocally as I can that I have no reason to expect her to recover. However, since I have no experience of a case anything like this, I can’t be one hundred percent certain. Which is why it would help me immeasurably if you could tell me everything you remember about the circumstances surrounding Miss Townsend’s collapse.”

No it wouldn’t. The reason the EEG showed nothing was that Jerry hadn’t made it across in the transfer. It was as Millie had suspected, there had been a piece missing from Tony’s bowl and it had buggered things up. Where Jerry was now was open to speculation, but even if we knew, there was nothing to be done. All that remained of the last three bowls was so much inert dust, all magic drained.

Last night’s emptiness and loneliness had been like a dress rehearsal for the way I felt at that moment. It didn’t take much to convince the doctor I was too distraught to go on. The only subterfuge being to give him the impression his words had brought on my state rather than my own realisation of the truth from the evidence he’d shown me.

“I’m sorry doctor, it’ll have to be another time. If you don’t mind, I’d like to sit with Laura for a while.”

“Yes of course.”

He led me back to Jerry’s room and left me to my misery. I made space for myself amidst all the paraphernalia that was keeping her monitored and alive, and settled onto the bed beside her.

It was just my body, just the shell I’d been born into. There was nothing of Jerry there now, but somehow, just because he’d lived there for a while and made it his home, it was beautiful, precious. I felt the dam straining under the weight of unshed tears, and willed it to burst, but it wouldn’t. Not yet.

I didn’t stay long. I couldn’t bear to.

-oOo-

It was afternoon before we left for the hospital. Tony spent most of that time unconscious, which meant that, yet again, I had only very limited awareness of what was going on around me. He roused around the middle of the day, but refused to eat any of the food offered to him. It didn’t take much to figure that his worm episodes were associated with the times I was most active, and it pained me to see him in such misery. No-one should have to face this level of torment, not even a man like Tony Ward, so when he was conscious, I did my best to keep as still as I could.

It helped, though how much I couldn’t say. He was still fitful and whimpering whenever he was conscious, and I even caught the hard-bitten doctor giving him the occasional sympathetic look whenever he passed through the infirmary.

It took three more calls from the doctor, pushing for Tony to be transferred to the hospital, and even then, the infirmary clock showed the hour hand creeping toward the four before the two orderlies helped us into a wheelchair and escorted us outside.

The ride was uneventful, and the arrival at the hospital a total non-event. Weekend staff didn’t seem to include an on-call psychiatrist – either that or Tony’s condition wasn’t considered serious enough to drag him from his Sunday afternoon siesta. Tony was given more drugs, but from their effect, they consisted primarily of sedatives; nothing to help his mental condition. I spent the rest of the day and night locked in a state of near sensory deprivation while Tony snored gently, so deep in his unconsciousness he couldn’t even dream. At least the soft rumble of his snoring gave me something by which to measure the passing of time.

-oOo-

I’m not sure which was worse; being with Jerry or being alone without her. The big house was just a vast empty space that seemed to amplify my misery. The tears still wouldn’t come and the pressure of unexpressed emotion was almost too painful to bear.

At a loss for what else to do, I resorted to a feminine answer and reached for the phone.

“Danny? Hi, it’s Jerry.”

“Hey Jerry. Randy called to say what happened. I’m really sorry.”

“Yeah, thanks.” God, was that the best I could do? “Listen, I don’t think I can face this on my own. Any chance we can…”

“Come round to me mum’s ‘ouse. We’ll go ou’ an’ do somefing to take yer mind off it.”

“You probably already have plans.”

“Nah, not so much. I was goin’ to stay in wiv me mum, bu’ she won’t mind. Actually, I reckon she’ll insist when I tell ‘er wha’ it’s about.”

“Okay, I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”

“You go’ sports gear? You know, for workin’ ou’ at the gym?”

“Er, yeah. Sure,”

“Bring it, an’ a towel an’ somefing to change into.”

So I did, and Danny took me to the place where he usually worked out, where he introduced me to one of the latest gadgets in the place. It was a sort of free standing punching bag that made quite realistic noises of pain whenever you hit it.

It was amazingly cathartic. As Laura, I had never been that comfortable telling all my troubles to a friend and crying my eyes out while she put her arms around me and made sympathetic noises. This worked though. Pouring all my anguish into aggression actually helped in an unusual way. My arms were aching and the poor, sad piece of gym equipment was pleading for mercy by the time I felt unable to go on.

Danny proved to have an odd kind of wisdom then, because he saw I wasn’t done yet; just physically exhausted – at least in my arms. He’d been going through his own routine while I poured out all my pent up distress on the punching bag. When I was spent, he took me through to the treadmills and set us up on a couple side by side. A bloke of his size isn’t made for running, so it was something of a sacrifice that he jogged alongside me. My own body was quite small and lithe though, and running was something I could put all my strength into. I don’t know how long I ran, but I went past the pain threshold and beyond into endorphin oblivion, where I stayed until Danny putting a hand on my arm brought me back to reality once more.

“We should go. They like to close early on Sundays. There’s a pub down the road. I reckon we’ve earned ourselves a few pints.”

So, a long shower later, I sat with Danny in the noisy surroundings of the local hostelry, and downed two pints for every one he drank. I could still walk when we left, but I was using a lot more pavement than usual.

“Where yer parked?” Danny asked as we re-entered his neighbourhood.

I pointed out the Maserati and fumbled in my pocket for my keys.

“No yer fuckin’ don’t. No’ in your state. Hey Mickey!” This last he directed towards a group of youngsters hanging around the nearby street corner, smoking and chilling I suppose.

“Yeah, wha’”

“See this car?” Danny pointed at the Maserati. “It belongs to me mate ‘ere. Anyfing ‘appens to it tonight an’ I’m comin’ lookin’ fer you, righ’?”

Different neighbourhoods, different crime prevention methods I suppose.

Danny took me home and put me in his bed. I’m not sure where he slept, but the house was small enough that there couldn’t have been many options. It was late enough that Mrs Morton was already in bed, though I suspect my drunken bumbling might well have disturbed her.

The next morning I woke with a churning stomach and a pneumatic drill boring into my brain. Danny came in with a mug of tea, which I took with due gratitude.

“Me mum’s puttin’ togever some breakfast downstairs when yer ready. Bafroom’s down the hall.”

The tea revived me enough to make it to the bathroom, where I made use of Jerry’s trick and drank down as much water as I could. It settled my stomach a bit, and the guy with the drill decided to take a well-earned rest. I made use of the facilities and groped across to the mirror.

Fuck, I looked a mess.

Not much to do about it just now. I made use of the shower and the guest towel, then redressed in yesterday’s clothes.

Downstairs, I passed my empty mug across to Mrs Morton for a refill.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you last night,” I said with an appropriately shamed expression.

“Nonsense love. Danny told me about yer girlfriend. I’m so sorry about that, but you do wha’ you ‘ave to te get through it all.”

A plateful of bacon, eggs, sausage and fried bread appeared under my nose and my respect for Danny’s constitution rose along with some of the contents of my churching stomach. Not wishing to seem impolite, I took a few mouthfuls, and was astonished to find it actually helped settle things. I don’t think it was the grease so much as having something solid down there to work on.

After breakfast, I thanked both Danny and his mum for their hospitality and made it out to my car. One of last night’s youths was lounging against a wall nearby. The Maserati was as pristine as I’d kept it since I bought it. I fished a twenty out of my wallet and offered it to the youngster.

“Share that with your mates,” I said, ignoring his astonished goldfish impressions.

I headed home to change and freshen up before driving down to the hospital, so it was mid-morning before I arrived. I’d been thinking about what to say to the doctor this morning, and had decided, as usual, to keep as close to the truth as possible. As expected, I was ushered into his office before being permitted to see Jerry. Same office, different doctor, same question.

I hung my head in unfeigned misery. “A few of my friends have been going through a rough time lately, Laura included. We met an old lady a few weeks ago who seemed to have an alternative solution to such things. She said she could do magic – I know, not very likely, but you know, we thought why not give it a go.

“We were out at her cottage, somewhere out in the sticks, and she and a friend performed some sort of spell that was intended to put everyone back in their right minds. Anyway, Laura kind of lost consciousness in the middle of it all, and this is how she ended up.”

“What kind of spell? I mean what did it entail? Did you eat or drink anything? Was there any incense burning? Anything like that?”

“No, not that I recall. We had some tea and biscuits before we started, but that was just plain tea as far as I could tell. We all drank out of the same pot too, so it wasn’t as if Laura had anything different.

“The spell itself involved some old bowls and a lot of chanting. About an hour of it I think. When Laura went still in my arms, I just thought she’d fallen asleep or something. She hasn’t been sleeping that well.”

“And that’s all you can tell me?” The doctor looked less than satisfied.

I shrugged. That’s all I was going to tell him.

He let me go to Jerry’s room, but asked if he could have a word before I left.

Again, sitting with Jerry was almost too much. I stuck it out for an hour before my stomach persuaded me that lunchtime was approaching. I needed something to soak up the morning’s grease intake. I stood up and went to find the doctor.

“I’m not sure what my colleague told you yesterday, but there really isn’t anything much we can do for your partner. We were hoping you might be able to shed some light on what put her in this state, but what you’ve told me hasn’t helped at all.

“Now I know this may seem premature, but you have to understand, there is very little we can do, and it’s ninety nine point nine, nine, nine percent certain that she won’t recover from her condition. Although we can keep her body alive, you have to accept her mind is no longer there. Even though she’s still breathing, she is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

“I’m sorry to be blunt Mr Goodman, but I’ve seen a lot of people live through an unnecessarily prolonged grief because they couldn’t let go. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is accept she’s gone and move on.”

“What happens to her?”

He looked across in the direction of Laura’s room then hung his head. I think he felt a little shame at what he was about to say; something like Jerry’s and my guilt at admitting to checking the obits for the deaths of anyone with antiques we might be interested in.

“I could pronounce her brain dead any time, which would mean we could potentially use her organs to give a new lease of life to perhaps dozens of people. No, I’m not asking you to make a decision now. Just think about it. Take a few days, then come and tell me your decision.”

It shocked me that he should suggest something like that so soon, but not so much that it seemed inappropriate. More that it showed how little hope he had of Jerry’s recovery. It kind of matched with my own assessment, given the messed up magic involved. I left the ward and wandered down the maze of corridors so deep in thought that I managed to get myself lost.

-oOo-

Tony was eating – or rather being fed, and with some reluctance – when I caught sight of Laura. It was just a glimpse out of the corner of Tony’s eye, since at the time he was turning his head away to avoid another spoonful of something which lacked merit in both taste and texture, but it wasn’t a face I was likely to mistake.

I twitched involuntarily, which unfortunately set Tony off whimpering. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the pillow, and it was only with the greatest self-control that I managed to calm myself and be still. It made no difference; by the time Tony had recovered enough to open his eyes again, the doorway and what I could see of the corridor beyond was empty.

The moments of darkness behind Tony’s closed eyes did serve a purpose though. Deprived of my primary sense, I was able to feel the gentlest of pulls towards the door, or just beyond it, where I imagined her to be. Like a paperclip in the presence of a weak magnet, I felt myself quiver slightly and strain feebly against my anchor in Tony’s brain.

Chapter 11

I eventually found my way out of the hospital, not that it mattered much; I didn’t have anywhere I wanted to be. Sitting beside Jerry in his room was just a painful reminder of having lost him. The house was empty and echoed with memories of him. I suspected the shop would be the same, although with Pete, Mike and Randy, at least there would be conversation. I went looking for the car and headed in to work.

It didn’t end up being as I’d hoped. Everyone was on eggshells around me, but that seems to be the problem with people in this country and grief; we don’t have any idea on how to deal with it. They thought they were being sensitive, but in reality, what I wanted was for life to be going on as normal around me. Even if I couldn’t take part myself, I needed some indication that somewhere life was going on as normal. Instead, it felt like my friends were alienating me – however unintentionally – at a time when I was already having to deal a massive loss in my life. I lasted about an hour. Long enough to count up the cash in the safe and take it down the road to the bank.

“I’ll be heading off then,” I told our partners – my partners, I reminded myself. Jerry was no longer around to be a part of this.

“Okay,” Randy said. “If there’s anything we can do, you know, just ask.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Like you haven’t done enough. It was uncharitable as thoughts went. They’d done loads; keeping the shop running, giving me space, helping when we’d asked. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know how to deal with me now Jerry was gone.

Back in the car, I sat and stared through the windscreen. Nothing much to see, just the back of a row of shops. All plain bricks and debris strew grounds. Slightly depressing, which matched my mood somewhat. I couldn’t think where to go or what to do.

Eventually I just started the car and drove. I had no destination in mind, just to get out there and feel the wind in my hair. It felt good having it short again, although I’d enjoyed the sensation of long locks streaming out behind me, even if they did have a tendency to tangle.

I pushed the car to its limit, taking corners with the tyres on the edge of breaking contact. Once or twice I encountered slow moving traffic and only just managed to swerve in time to avoid contact. It took a couple of those before it struck home how reckless I was being, and I slowed down enough to be safe.

Several hours of aimless wandering found me entering familiar surroundings. It took a moment or two before it registered that I was near to the village where Doris lived. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about a surprise visitor, but I figured there’d be no harm in knocking on her door.

A couple of minutes later I found myself parked outside her cottage, staring at her front door and wondering if this was such a good idea. I was second guessing an idea that had managed to raise my spirits so very recently. I don’t know how long I’d been sitting, staring into space when the door opened.

“Are you going to come in?” Doris asked testily. “I put the kettle on half an hour ago.”

Offering her a ruefully apologetic smile, I stepped out of the car and into her home.

It took two cups of tea and several generous slices of Dundee cake for me to go over the previous two days’ events. It wasn’t that there was much to tell, but Doris insisted that I eat, and the cake was rich and filling. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t understand her fascination with Dundee cake in particular. I mean it’s nice enough, but there are other things, surely?

It was good though. I’d been neglecting myself rather badly since Jerry’s collapse. I’d eaten, but far too little, and one thing Dundee cake is really good at is replacing missing calories.

Doris listened without saying a word as I spoke around mouthfuls of the rich fruitcake, then sat in silence while she finished her second cup of tea. After considerable deliberation, she stood and went out into the hallway where she picked up her telephone and made a short call.

“You know they have cordless ones now?” I couldn’t help smiling at her old fashioned approach to telephony.

“Oh, I know dear, but I’d always be losing it. This way, at least I know where it is.”

I didn’t believe it. Doris was one of the tidiest and most organised people I knew. “You can have as many as four plugged into one line too.”

“And what would I do with four telephones? I live on my own, young man, and the cottage isn’t so large that I can’t get to the hall from anywhere in just a few seconds.”

I shook my head, but maybe she was right. Maybe it was the beginning of decadence having more than you needed of one thing, just because you could.

“I called Millie. She knows more about these things than I do. She lives some distance away though, and time is getting on, so she won’t be able to get here till tomorrow morning. I have a spare room that you’re welcome to use, and I could lend you some of my husband’s old pyjamas if you like. He wasn’t much bigger than you.

It kept me away from the memories. I accepted with a grateful smile.

Dinner was simple enough; an old person’s diet – one that had never quite recovered from the rationing following the Second World War. It tasted good, but was a lot plainer than I’d become used to, living with Jerry.

Recalling his name was enough to set me off. Doris noticed my change of expression.

“I remember that feeling,” she said, piling another spoonful of potatoes on my plate. I honestly think she was trying to give me two days’ worth of meals in one sitting. “It catches you by surprise for all sorts of silly reasons. Jacob, my husband, used to love oranges, but the illness that took him gave him an awful acid stomach. The last few months, he couldn’t eat anything like that. I think it was about a month after he passed away, I picked an orange out of the fruit bowl and started peeling it, then broke down in tears. It was silly really, but I felt so guilty about being able to enjoy an orange when he couldn’t. It took a long time before a whole lot of silly little things stopped bringing him to mind and I could get on with living my own life again.”

“How long has he been gone?”

“Oh, about three years now.” Her smile was filled with sadness. “I haven’t topped missing him. Every day I wake up knowing he’s not here, but there are many things still to be enjoyed about life, you know?”

“How did you meet him?” Anything to distract me from thoughts of Jerry.

Her eyes took on a dreamy cast. She stood to put the kettle on, while I collected the plates and made for the sink.

“We both lived around here,” she said. “My parents came from a village a couple of miles down the road, and Jacob lived on a farm just half a mile from here. We met at a village dance just before the war. I was fifteen and Jacob sixteen. He always was a shy one. He would keep looking at me across the room, but could never quite find the courage to come across and talk to me. I tried to encourage him by smiling at him, but that only seemed to make things worse. In the end I had to ask him if he wanted to dance. He was so nervous, I think he stepped on my toes more than he did the dance floor, but we were together from then on.

“He’d cycle across to see me every weekend, and quite often in the evenings when it was light enough, and when he couldn’t, he’d write to me – long letters to make you melt inside. I still have them, you know. I read through them when I’m feeling lonely, and it brings him closer.

“Then war broke out. He was seventeen at the time, and terrified of being drafted. Like I said, he was a gentle soul. Not a coward, mind, but gentle like you wouldn’t believe. It would have destroyed him to have been forced to take a rifle and shoot someone, Nazi or not. We talked about it often that year, and I remember the panic in his eyes when he came round with his call-up papers.

“My mother was a wise one, you know. She’d seen this day coming, and just a few weeks before, had passed on my inheritance – the bowl, you understand – along with all the talk of what it could do and how I should use it wisely and sparingly, if at all. I saw it as my chance to help Jacob. He kept waving this piece of paper at me, insisting I read it. I was shelling peas at the time and was up to my elbows in the sink. I told him to put it in the bowl till I was finished.

“When he did, I wiped my hands dry and put something of my own in the bowl – a handkerchief I thing – on top of it, then took the letter. You know how the magic fills you with a need to take that last object? He didn’t understand what was happening, but he picked it out, and that was my first change.

“I told him I was sorry and hoped he would forgive me and kissed him. I had his call-up papers and his body and his bike, and I ran off before he could recover. The next I saw of him was in nineteen forty five.”

“I’m guessing he forgave you; I mean you two did get married.”

“Oh yes dear, Jacob was never a problem. Spending some time in another person’s skin, especially if it means crossing genders, is a great way to expand your perception; to learn to see things from other peoples’ points of view. But you should already know that.

“No, the problem was my mother.”

“But didn’t she give you the bowl? Didn’t she have it in mind that you’d do just what you did?”

“I imagine so, but then, from her point of view, it wasn’t so much what I did as how I did it. I ran off and left her with a hysterical Jacob who couldn’t understand how he was suddenly a girl, didn’t know what had happened, was beside himself that I would do such a thing, felt horribly guilty that I should go into danger in his stead, didn’t know how to be a girl, most specifically hadn’t been asked whether he’d be prepared to be a girl while I took his body off to war.”

“But if you’d asked him, he’d just have said no. It’s a man thing, making the noble sacrifice. No matter how hard it would have been for him to join the army, it would have been harder still for him to agree to the swap.”

“Exactly! But mother never used the bowl to find out what it was like being a man, and I suppose it was unfair to dump all that on Jacob without any warning, or without any possibility of his changing back for some years.

“Well that would have been the case anyway. Jacob’s papers required him to submit himself for basic training within five days, and the bowl…”

“…wouldn’t have allowed you to change back within a week.”

“Yes, only I didn’t know that then, so I just apologised while Jacob was still trying to come to terms with the change, and ran for it. I was wearing my farm clothes; you know dungarees and a cotton blouse that was more nearly a shirt than anything else I owned. I mean it would have been truly cruel to dump him in a dress that first time, don’t you think?”

“I never much cared for dresses.”

“In your case I imagine that’s true.

“Mother wrote me while I was still in basic training, berating me for what I had done. She asked me what if I was killed or horribly injured, what would happen to Jacob. Would I expect him to live out the rest of his life as a girl, or would I expect him to transfer back into a broken body while I took my life back?

“When you’re young you don’t think of such things. You believe yourself to be invincible, and I was so certain I’d be back within a year or two, safe and sound. Mother made me feel so guilty.”

“So how did you get through the war? I mean, you said how hard it would have been for your husband to have someone else’s death on his conscience; I can’t imagine it would be any easier for you.”

“Oh, I didn’t kill anyone dear.” The twinkle in her eye rekindled as her mind took her to different memories.

“How did you swing that? Did you become a medic or something?”

“Oh no dear. As a draftee you don’t get the choice. Basic training, here’s your rifle, go join the rest of the cannon fodder sort of thing.”

“So…”

“It turns out I was quite a remarkably good shot. I didn’t let on, I mean I didn’t want to end up as a sniper where I’d have to kill people, but I did hit everything I aimed at, be it the bull’s eye, the corner of the target or the dirt spatter in one of the outer rings.

“I did well enough to join the rest of the rank and file, then wherever I was, I’d aim to hit the enemy in the shoulder or the thigh, or somewhere else non-fatal.

“The way I saw it, an injured soldier can’t fight any more than a dead one, and he takes a lot more looking after by the enemy. So if you just hurt him enough that he’s going to lay there screaming, he’ll put his comrades off their aim, and at least one of them will detach from the rest of his squad to look after him and get him to safety. Which, in turn, means the Germans then would have to spend more of their resources on caring for their wounded, so not buying tanks and suchlike.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was the worst five years of my life, including the last three since Jacob died. It was all mud and blood and sheer, abject terror, with the occasional few hours or days or weeks of utter boredom.”

She paused, lost in her reflections. I didn’t have anything to say, so I sat quietly and waited.

“Jacob wrote me every day,” she sighed. “He adapted well enough to skirts, and told me of all the things he was doing to help the war effort. Helping around the farms when work was needed with the planting or the harvest, travelling into the city to work in the munitions factory at other times. The hardest thing was fending off the boys, especially when those damned Americans came over. Sorry, that sounds ungrateful, but he said some of them wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he was as determined to look after my body as I was to keep his safe.

“After the war we switched back, but over the years that followed, we spent quite a lot of time as each other, mainly because we found there were a great many things we both missed about being one another. Six years, even with the constant strain that the war put on us, was enough for us to grow in familiarity and appreciation of the better things associated with living each other’s lives.”

Doris stifled a yawn. It was getting late. She showed me to a small room where she’d laid out a pair of non-descript, stripy pyjamas and a towel.

“There’s a new toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet dear. Please make yourself at home.”

It was easy to do; Doris was such a welcoming hostess. Before long I was tucked up in a bed that was way too soft and warm, and Morpheus’ welcome embrace followed swiftly after.

-oOo-

I woke to the sound of birdsong. Doris was bustling in the kitchen – so odd to hear that on the same level after living all your life in a house where the bedrooms were always upstairs. I climbed out of bed, stretched heroically and padded through to find her already dressed and busily putting breakfast together.

“Morning dear. Did you sleep well?” As if that needed an answer. “Millie should be here in half an hour or so. Can I suggest you have a quick shower and get dressed? I’ll have breakfast on the table by the time you’re done. I hope toast and jam suits you; I don’t have much else available.”

I gave her the monosyllabic version of, ‘Good morning. Yes, very well thank you. Toast would be lovely,’ and headed off to take care of business. By the time Millie turned up on the doorstep, I was as fresh as I could be in day old clothes, comfortably fed and nursing my second cup of tea of the day. Doris and Millie sat in their two favourite armchairs, leaving me alone on the sofa.

Again, I described the events of the previous few days. Again, I recalled how the doctor had explained Jerry’s stillness. I could hear the emptiness in my words, feel the gaunt desolation spreading across my soul, and I could see from their haunted looks how much of this Doris and Millie could sense in me. I didn’t want to give up on Jerry. I wanted something to hope for, and I was very afraid that there would be nothing.

“I’m sorry, Laura,” Millie said when I’d talked myself out. “What you’ve said as much as confirms what I told you on Saturday. It seems there was a piece missing from Mr Ward’s bowl and, tiny as it may have been, it affected Jerry’s ability to leave that body and travel to yours.”

“Where is he then?” I asked. “Tony left Danny’s body; that much I do know from having spent some time with Danny the other night. Which means he almost certainly transferred into his own…”

“Not necessarily. The damage to the bowl which affected Jerry’s leaving Tony’s body may as readily have affected Tony’s ability to take possession of it. I don’t suppose you’ve been in touch with the prison?”

“I tried to call them this morning. He doesn’t have any visiting privileges for a week because of the trouble he caused. They didn’t answer questions about his condition, and, looking back, it did seem they were trying to hide something.”

“In that case, there are two possible answers to your question. The less likely is that Jerry broke free from Tony’s body and is now wandering aimlessly in a world without corporeal form. The one I think happened is that the damage to Tony’s bowl prevented him from leaving completely, that Tony has most likely taken back at least partial possession, and that the two of them are fighting for supremacy.

“The sense you have of the prison attempting to cover something up is also highly probably. What I’ve heard of cases like this, when two souls fight for control of the same body, each of them seeks a way to fit into the mind, but there’s only room for one, so they constantly push back and forth against each other. It’s horribly uncomfortable, as I understand it, and in almost every case I’ve heard of, resulted in insanity for both individuals involved.

“I recall being told one instance where the two souls who ended up being stuck together were very much in love. In that case they managed to surrender to one another so completely that they melded into one hybrid person, who then went on to become one of the wisest people mentioned in these stories. More often there is a large enough difference between the two that they can’t stop fighting and eventually drive one another into the abyss. If Jerry and Tony aren’t already lost, I fear they soon will be.”

“What if they weren’t though? What if somehow Jerry was hanging on? Would there be some way of releasing him and helping him into his rightful place?”

Millie climbed out of her seat and moved across to settle beside me, placing her gnarled hand on my forearm.

“The only time I’ve heard of a body releasing its hold on a soul is at the point of death. Perhaps that would be a kindness for both of them, to let them go. Certainly it was the practice most often employed in the times when the oaken bowls were made and used, and one was damaged. It was thought that releasing the souls to the next world was preferable to putting them through the horrors of fighting a battle neither could win. Perhaps with magic something might be done, but I’ve already told you how very diminished our magic is today, and with the last of the bowls destroyed…

“I really am so very sorry Laura, your old body is little more than an empty shell now. It pains me to say this more than I can express, but there really is nothing that we, or anyone we know – or even know of – can do to change that. Not now, and not at any time in the future. I realise this is hard for you, but I believe you no option now, but to accept that Jerry is gone.”

“But it’s not fair!”

“I know dear, but life rarely is.” She pulled me gently into an embrace. She wasn’t a large woman, but her words, her tone of voice, everything about her reached towards my inner child, and I allowed myself to be drawn into her soft and sweet smelling warmth. “You’ll probably want to fight this a while longer, but there’s no way you’re going to win, dear, and the sooner you realise that, the sooner you’ll start to heal. Take it from someone who’s been through it often enough.

“This doctor at the hospital suggested that the organs in your old body could be used to help other people.” I stiffened and pulled back. I wasn’t ready to hear this. Millie wasn’t insensitive to my reaction. “You’re not ready to make that step just yet, I understand, but when you are, it’s a positive action, a letting go. It’ll be easier for you to move on once you’ve done it.”

She released me and I stood up, turning my back on the two elderly women.

“Laura, I’m sorry we can’t tell you what you want to hear.” Doris’s words were conciliatory. She’d know what Millie was going to tell me; probably hadn’t felt strong enough to say it herself, which is why she’d called in her friend. Always the way with women, seeking support in numbers, working together.

I couldn’t look at either of them. I felt betrayed; as though these two had conspired to take away the only thing in my life that still had any value.

Hope has value, even when it’s misplaced.

-oOo-

I tore out the village in a less than sensible manner. Fortunately it was that time in the morning between when the early bird nut-jobs went out to get their daily fix of dawn freshness and dewy leaves, and when more sensible emerged for a mid-morning wander. The streets were disserted, otherwise I don’t think I would have been able to guarantee missing everything.

I needed the speed though. I needed somewhere to pour all the aggression and rage. I didn’t care which way I was going, I floored the accelerator, and threw my amazing sports car into turn after turn. The adrenaline rush was supreme. Time after time I felt I had committed to a corner with too much speed, and each time that marvellous, Italian mechanical art form came out the other side begging for more. And I gave it to her, pushing the envelope again and again until I was sure I’d end up in a ditch.

I might have done too, had it not been for the police bike in the layby.

I came out of a tight bend with tyres squealing, and drifting almost sideways. I must have been doing near to a ton, which was a daft speed even to think of doing on the straight bits, let alone curves like that one. Having my rear wheels sliding well into the opposite side of the road was probably what persuaded the cop to wind up his siren and come chasing after me.

I toyed with taking him on a chase, but I’d seen enough police camera action programs to realise that never ended well. I found I did care about living after all and slowed down to a sensible speed, pulling into the next available space that would take both of us.

Traffic cops have this special slow, sauntering walk. I guess they figure that people speeding are in a hurry to get somewhere, so by slowing down the whole ticket issuing process, they get to add in a bit of additional retribution by making sure they’re going to be late.

“License please sir.”

I dug it out of my wallet and passed it across to him.

“Do you know how fast you were going back there, sir?”

I didn’t have time for his crap, besides, he was enjoying himself altogether too much. Quite the catch for him, nabbing some rich arsehole in his fancy sports car. I’d been hovering on the edge of breaking point since I stormed out of Doris’s house, and this guy was quite the last straw.

“For fucks sake,” I growled, hitting the steering wheel with frustration – fortunately not hard enough to set off the airbag. “Will you get on with it? Fucking arrest me or give me a ticket, but stop buggering about, will you?”

It stopped him in his tracks. It probably wasn’t going to end up being the greatest idea I’d had, but at least it had wiped that cocky grin off his face, if only to replace it with something more deliberate, more determined.

“Step out of the car please sir?”

At least that’s what I think he said. It seems my words had been something like the first cracks appearing in the dam. I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles as the world around me receded before the immense wall of grief, rising like a tidal wave in the shallows of my consciousness and crashing over me, ripping away the foundation of all my self-control, washing it away like tissue paper in a thunderstorm.

There was a noise, something between a moan and a roar. It took forever to realise it was coming from my own mouth, and realisation only dawned when it gave way to heart rending sobs that tore at my chest like they were trying to claw out my heart.

I was dimly aware of the police officer looking on uncertainly for a moment, but it was only for a moment. I doubt I was the strangest thing he’d encountered in his career, and my fading impression, as I descended into the blackness of despair, was of him reaching past me to turn off the ignition to the Maserati.

-oOo-

I was sitting by the side of the road with the police officer beside me. I had no recollection of stepping out of the car, or in fact anything since he’d pulled me over. His helmet sat on the ground next to him – hardly regulation, I was sure – and he was looking at me with some considerable concern, which faded as he saw the focus return to my eyes.

“I thought I was going to have to call an ambulance there for a minute,” he said, his voice soft with unexpected concern. “How are you feeling?”

“Raw,” I managed through a sore throat, “and drained. I think I owe you and apology.”

“I’ll settle for an explanation.”

That made me smile. I gave him the short version – the one without any mention of magical bowls and mind swapping. Actually it may simply have been along the lines of girlfriend in a coma, doctors not hopeful.

He stayed with me for another ten minutes until I’d regained some of my strength, then stood and helped me to my feet before retrieving his helmet.

“Sounds like you have enough shit going on without me adding to it. My job requires me to at least caution you for the way you were driving back there, but I think you already know you were being a bit of a tit. I’m going to ask you to take it easy from here, and to go straight home? If you feel the need to drive like that again, can I suggest you get yourself an X-Box?”

And that brought a laugh, albeit a small one. “Thank you officer.”

“Take care of yourself, sir. I don’t want to come round the corner one of these days and see your beautiful car wrapped around a tree somewhere. Especially if it puts someone else’s wife or girlfriend in the same condition as yours.”

That hit home. You never think about the way your stupidity can affect other people, do you? But then, I guess these guys are trained to think like that.

I took his advice. Straight home, and driving so much more sensibly. This was the calm after the storm though. One thing about breaking down like that, once the emotion starts to drain away, it all goes. I felt oddly at peace, and lucid enough to understand what I needed to do next. I hated it, but it felt right even so.

Back home I glanced across at the drinks cabinet, but I didn’t feel like hiding in a bottle. That was escape, for when you were running, and there were no monsters chasing me right now. I made myself a sandwich and a coffee instead, and went out into the conservatory.

A high overcast was heading in, heralding the end of the lengthy spell of warm weather we’d been enjoying. It was still bright for the moment, but brought with it the promise of grey days ahead – not that I’d be avoiding those, whatever the weather.

A serenity of sorts settled on me as I looked out on my well-manicured garden. I felt empty, but that may have simply been the absence of the desperation and distress that had filled me since Jerry hadn’t made it through the transfer. Every now and again I’d let out a deep sigh that threatened to stir up the sediment of my grief, but for the most part I found myself at peace.

It was late when I went to bed, and much later still when I finally managed to fall asleep. In the stillness of my mind there was no change, not even towards tiredness. There was a great weariness over my soul, but not of the sort that permitted slumber. I stared sightlessly at the ceiling and felt my awareness drift. I searched the void for any signs of Jerry, but he wasn’t there.

I’d been alone before. In truth, since my mother had died some years ago, I’d been alone most of the time until Tony’s actions had introduced me to Jerry. It seemed impossible that we’d only been together a year. He seemed like he’d always been there, but then maybe that had something to do with the way the bowl had permitted us the sort of intimacy people so rarely find. The world seemed empty now without him.

I tried to console myself with the thought that I’d never be completely without him. I’d always have his body. It was a stupid idea, a stupid thought, and I felt the stirrings of anger in the depths and put it to one side. No! This was shit, that’s all it was. There was no consolation in this, just a moving forward, and eventually a new sort of normal. Less than it had been, always and forever less now.

By the time sleep took me, my peace had acquired a faint tint of depression. This was going to take a long time.

-oOo-

It was late when I woke. The promised overcast had settled in and the day’s gloom reflected my emotions with uncanny accuracy. Somewhere in the middle of it I found something of my resolve and determined to find out what had happened to Tony before deciding anything else.

What followed was whole day of brick walls.

Jerry’s wealth and former status in the banking profession meant we rubbed shoulders with people who had a fair amount of clout in different circles, but even calling in every favour I could think of, I couldn’t get make any headway.

The story always came back the same. Jerry’s – or Tony’s rather, from their point of view – access to the outside world had been restricted. Poor behaviour was cited, as was wanton violence and fighting. I could call back in a week, but chances were the same restrictions would apply.

Most of the time this was reported back to me by the friends I asked to enquire on my behalf, but the few times I did speak to someone at the prison, it felt like I wasn’t getting the whole truth. It was frustrating, but it seemed my capacity to weather bullshit had improved over the last day or so. I tried every avenue I could think of, but nothing seemed to budge. The archetypal immovable object had nothing on a good British jobsworth, it seemed.

My last call of the day was to Paul, to ask him to arrange a meeting with ‘Tony’s’ sentencing judge. He said he’d try, but wasn’t hopeful of a swift outcome, then he surprised me by calling me back ten minutes later with the news that the judge had agreed to see me the following afternoon.

Again a sleepless night. I think I read somewhere, that trauma can make sudden and unexpected changes to your habits. I, it seemed, was reacquiring the insomnia I’d struggled with as Laura. The early hours saw me padding about the kitchen, warming a pan of milk. Remembering Jerry, and later Danny, doing the same thing in my original body brought friendly memories which warmed and calmed me as much as the drink, and sleep followed not long after.

-oOo-

The judge did what he could, and achieved more than I’d managed the previous day. He was able to tell me that Tony was in hospital, although he had been unable to find out any further details. What he’d been admitted for and where, he could not pry out of the people he spoke to, regardless of how much he yelled and threatened. Our allotted time came too swiftly to an end and he ushered me out of his office with the promise to let me know once he’d looked into it further.

Whether he forgot, or ended up being too busy, or continued to hit insurmountable obstacles, I don’t know, but the phone didn’t ring all afternoon. When, in the evening, it finally did, it wasn’t him.

“Mr Goodman? This is Dr Marston, remember we met yesterday? I know this isn’t a great time, Mr Goodman, but I was wondering if you’ve been able to consider what we discussed last time we met.”

“I haven’t been able to reach a decision yet doctor.”

“Do you have time to come into the hospital tomorrow? I’d like to show you a few things that might help you make up your mind.”

It would have been a lie to say I was busy. We arranged a meeting for eleven o’clock. Unusually, he suggested we meet at the main reception rather than on the extended care ward. I decided I’d wait till I saw him to ask why.

The phone remained obstinately silent for the rest of the day. I tried an early night with a mug of warm cocoa and a book. The cocoa because milk on its own didn’t quite agree with me; the book – a deliberately uninteresting tome – in the hope that I might be able to bore myself to sleep as a last resort. One or the other worked, and I enjoyed my first full night’s sleep in several days.

-oOo-

The days that followed were marked with an excruciating dullness. I continued to remain as still as I could, so as not to upset Tony any more than necessary, and he lay listless in his bed, except for the times when a nurse would come in to feed him more of the bland paste that passed as food here, or to give him a blanket bath, which he was too distracted to enjoy.

From time to time, doctors would appear, mainly in ones and twos, but on at least one occasion en mass, to talk to Tony about his problems. He would tell them about the worm in his head, and they would discuss all sorts of things that might help. They experimented with different drugs, some of which sent him wildly out of control, and others which, from their perspective, did seem to help calm him.

The one they settled on didn’t do much to alleviate Tony’s suffering, treating, as it did, the symptoms rather than the cause of his discomfort. I was aware, as with all of what Tony sensed, of the distress my presence caused him, albeit that I felt it on a much reduced level. I knew that when I struggled it became far worse. There had been times when I was too frustrated to do nothing, and others when he lost control and I figured I couldn’t make matters worse. Then I’d tried fighting against the point of contact that kept me anchored to him, but I couldn’t seem to make any progress in breaking free, so in the end, the kindest thing seemed to be to rest as quietly as I could. I knew he could still feel me, like a dull ache that never goes away, and all the drug did that they gave him was to put him into what I could only describe as a pink fog. The discomfort remained, but his ability to express it in any way didn’t.

My future, it seemed, was to sit quietly in the background and watch this man’s tedious and tormented life unfold. If we were unlucky, that could last decades.

-oOo-

The early night and restful sleep didn’t make much difference to my state of mind come morning. With no alarm set and no-one else in the house to encourage me out of bed, I might have slept the morning away had the phone not woken me.

“What time is it?” I managed to ask whoever was on the other end. It had taken me a few moments to figure out which button to press to stop the damn thing ringing, and a few moments more to decide which end to talk into, so I the impatient snort that greeted me didn’t come as any surprise.

“It’s nine thirty, Mr Goodman. I hope I’m not disturbing you too much.” Whoever it was, he had mastered sarcasm. I recognised the voice, but my brain refused to present me with a name. Just as well the voice on the other end was more forthcoming. “This is Judge Morrissey Mr Goodman. I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten you. I have tried all channels available to me, and it vexes me to say that I have been unable to discover anything further.

“I’m sorry Mr Goodman, but prison governors are given a considerable amount of freedom in matters like this. If the man believes that it is in the best interests of his prison and inmates to keep information in house, then he’s entitled to do so. I’ve brought as much pressure to bear as I can, and the man has refused to budge. I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do for you, I’m sorry.”

Brain cells sparked, formed a cascade, brought about the realisation that a response was owed.

“Thank you Judge Morrissey. I appreciate your efforts.”

Not likely to win any stars for originality, but as far as appropriateness was concerned, it seemed to fit the bill.

“Yes… well… I, er, I just wanted you to know. You’ll have to excuse me, Mr Goodman, I’m expected in court.”

The phone went dead and I sat listening to the dial tone for a few seconds before two more brain cells created another bloom of thought. Nine-thirty! That meant I had an hour and half to get ready and get to the hospital.

I extended my shower long enough to wake me up properly, then had to forgo breakfast in order to get to the hospital on time. There was still coffee in the jug from the previous day, so through the modern miracles of microwave ovens and travel mugs, I was able to take a coffee with me. Day old and slightly stale as it was, I managed to swallow enough of it while waiting at various traffic lights, that I had managed to reconnect with my humanity by the time I arrived at the hospital.

Dr Marston was waiting for me as I ran up to main reception. A quick check of my watch showed I was five minutes late, prompting an apology from me and a grunt from him. I suspect he was more miffed than he was letting on, but it was him who wanted something out of me and not the other way round, so he couldn’t afford to be in too much of a snit.

He led me down an unfamiliar corridor.

“Has Laura been moved?” I asked.

“We’re not going to see Laura.” Yes definitely a snit going on there.

“Then…”

We turned a corner onto a paediatric ward. The doctor paused in a double doorway and pointed at a bed halfway into the room on the right.

“That’s Lindsey Marshal. She’s eleven years old and has needed regular dialysis since she was seven. Congenital defect in her kidneys. You see the way the veins on her left forearm bulge out like that? Gives some idea of how many times she’s been in. Chances are, if she doesn’t get a kidney by her twelfth birthday, she won’t live to see her thirteenth.”

He paused long enough for me to take in the young girl’s haunted and slightly jaundiced look before turning away. The next door down he stopped again and pointed at the second bed on the right.

“Josh Markham. He was born with a hole in the heart. Normally defects like his clear up in the first few years. More rarely, as in Josh’s case, they get worse. He needs constant monitoring and cannot risk exerting himself. Despite this, he probably won’t survive many more years.”

He pointed again at the third bed on the left.

“Eric Morley. Accident at school. Wasn’t wearing eye protection and managed to splash some sodium hydroxide onto his face and in his eyes. The skin will recover on its own, but his corneas are damaged. Without new ones he won’t see again.

“I could take you to another ward and show you some more very needy patients whose lives could be saved, or at least the quality of their lives could be vastly improved, by the receipt of one organ or another. In the days that Laura has been on my ward, I haven’t seen the least indication of brain activity. You can’t tell me how she came to be like this, and frankly, I’m not sure it matters. She’s been monitored constantly since she came here, and in my opinion she is little more than an empty shell.

“Mr Goodman, I know you don’t want to hear this; I can’t imagine what it must be like to be you right now. I wish I could give you some good news, but there isn’t any to give. I can’t help your partner, and I can’t give you any hope at all that she will ever wake up. These people though, these three children and several adults I haven’t shown you, these I can help, or at least I could if you would give me the means.”

I couldn’t blame him for what he was trying to do. What I couldn’t understand was the rush, so I asked.

“Laura was a healthy individual. She was physically active and, for the most part, seemed to eat sensibly. Her organs are in excellent condition right now, which massively improves the probability of successful transplant. The longer we wait, the longer she remains inert in the ward upstairs, the more they atrophy, and the less use they are likely to be to their potential recipients.

“I hate to be callous, Mr Goodman, but the sooner you can let her go, the more she can help these people. What would she want, Mr Goodman?”

I hated him for it, but he was right. Jerry would want this. Even so, I wasn’t ready.

“Can I see her now, please?”

His shoulders slumped just a little. I could tell from his body language that he hated this part of his job. In order to do the greatest good for the most people, he had to be horribly unkind to a few, and if they weren’t ready to hear his plea – as I wasn’t, it seemed – he didn’t see any good come from pain he inflicted.

“Of course. The ward’s this way.”

We walked there in silence and he left me in the doorway to Jerry’s room.

I stood there for a long while, just watching his breasts rise and fall under the thin hospital gown. They were good breasts. A little small, but who really needs cantaloupes? Jerry had worn my body well. I’d known how to use its good looks to best effect, but it had always been an act. With him, it had been natural. Every day of last year he’d shone with the sheer joy of being who he wanted to be. Why hadn’t I been able to see this earlier? Why hadn’t I just been able to accept things for the way they obviously had been? Randy, Pete and Mike hadn’t needed to change back to know that they were happy as they were, so what had I thought was so different about Jerry and me that we needed to mess with things?

My meddling had lost us everything that mattered. I looked on the still form in the bed and felt a desolation wash over me. Whatever I’d hoped to find in coming here, it didn’t exist. This room with its tubes and wires and machinery, and above all, the empty husk at its centre, retained nothing of the person I had so swiftly and so easily grown to love. The unnatural stillness of Jerry’s body, except for the machine-like regularity of his breathing, spoke that plane fact more eloquently than any words the doctor could have found, or Doris and Millie for that matter.

It didn’t really make any difference what the prison governor might say. His reluctance to speak on the matter suggested that Tony was in a bad way from the exchange as well. Exactly why made no odds. Without a significant amount of magic, there would be no fixing it, no reprieve for Tony, and no happy ending for Jerry or myself.

It was time to move on. Stiffening my resolve, I turned my back on a past I could never regain and went looking for the doctor.

Chapter 12

It was several days later the next time I saw Laura. The effects of the drug made it difficult to keep track of time, so I wasn’t too clear on exactly how long. Tony was lying still in his bed, staring listlessly at the ceiling, when I caught a glimpse of her walk past.

My host showed no signs of recognition. In his drug addled state, I’m not sure he even knew he was awake. To be honest, even if he had spotted Laura, I’m not sure how much he would have reacted. It didn’t matter though. I knew I’d seen her, and I was damn sure I wasn’t going to let her escape a second time.

I started thrashing about wildly inside Tony’s head, fighting my way through the pink fog. Despite the drugs, he began screaming and writhing, pulling against his restraints.

Every nurse within earshot came running, reaching out reassuring hands, holding him gently, smoothing his brow, doing whatever they could to calm him. More to the point, and the whole aim of my efforts, a pair of troubled eyes appeared at the door, the expression on Laura’s – formerly my – familiar face shifting from distraction to curiosity to shock.

-oOo-

I’d managed to get lost again.

I’d found Doctor Marston and signed my old body into his care so he could slice it up and parcel it out. He’d run off with the ink still drying on the release forms to organise surgeons and operating theatres and the like, leaving me with no-where to go and nothing to do.

There was no reason to stay, so I made for the exit, only in my distracted state, I missed a turn or two. Running on my defective autopilot and following my feet, I found myself in vaguely familiar surroundings. I didn’t have time to figure out why I recognised the place though; a wild screaming started up in one of the rooms as I passed it. Incredibly, even through the unintelligible noise, I was sure I recognised that voice.

I stuck my head into the room, and sure as taxes, there was Tony – large as life and twice as ugly. He was surrounded by nurses, most of whom were trying, with little effect, to calm him down. One enterprising lass was on the phone, speaking to a doctor.

“Who are you?” she asked, hanging up and turning her attention on me.

Tony seemed to be calming in the bed behind her.

“Mr Ward and I know each other,” I said, offering the most innocuous answer I could think of.

“Well you can’t be here. Mr Ward is very ill and needs to be kept in isolation.”

She made to push me out of the room, but Tony started yelling and screaming all over again. I looked past her at her wild patient, thrashing about and straining against the leather straps that held him in place.

“Are you sure I can’t help? It looks like my presence was calming him.”

“It was when you turned up that he started screaming.”

With that, she pushed me out of the room and closed the door. Inside, the noise of Tony’s objections grew in volume until they made their way through into the corridor louder than they had been with the door open. I remained outside, staring stupidly at the slab of wood – or whatever near facsimile – until a doctor ran into view a few seconds later.

“Who are you?” he repeated the nurse’s question.

I gave him the same answer I’d given her, stepping back as he pulled the door open.

At sight of me, Tony seemed to calm almost immediately. The doctor gave me a puzzled look.

“Well if you have that effect on him… Perhaps you’d like to come in for a while?”

The nurse who had accosted me earlier pulled the doctor to one side and engaged him in whispered conversation. The other nurses backed off. I saw an opportunity that might not come again.

“Jerry?” I asked quietly.

“Hhhuurhn.” Tony whimpered, vaguely distressed for a brief moment, then suddenly lucid. “There’s a worm in my head, Laura.”

The others were looking on warily, waiting, now that the doctor had arrived, for him to take charge. This was a conversation I didn’t particularly want to have in front of witnesses who might question my sanity and have enough professional clout to do something about it. I asked the doctor if I could have a few moments alone, and he shrugged.

“He seems calm enough for the moment, I don’t see there’s any harm.”

“Doctor!” It was that one nurse again. She evidently didn’t trust me, but the doctor had made up his mind he wasn’t going to listen to her. He took her by the arm and pushed her out of the room, indicating that the others should follow.

“Please doctor,” I said when he evidently didn’t plan to join them, “just him and me.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I’m giving you a fair bit of leeway as it is, but you’re the first person he’s responded to directly since he’s been here, though perhaps you’d care to explain why he’s calling you Laura.”

It was the best I was going to get, which still wasn’t great. Judging from his manner so far, the doctor seemed to be someone who put his faith in whatever evidence presented itself; logical and scientific in his approach, which meant I wouldn’t have much chance of convincing him there was magic involved here. I chose to avoid doing so by the simple expedient of ignoring his query, and sat on the side of the bed next to Tony, placing a gentle hand on his forearm.

He looked me in the eye and I could all but see the madness lurking beneath the surface.

“Why am I me, Laura?”

“We found a way to put things right, Tony,” I started slowly, seeking to pick my words carefully. “Mary kept the chip that broke off your bowl, which meant that we had three in total. Your original, the one you stole from me and the one you stole recently from that old lady, Doris Maxwell. Even though they were damaged, Doris and one of her friends thought they could still be used to put things right.

“It nearly worked as well, but there seems still to have been a tiny piece missing from your old bowl. Danny got home alright, but he collapsed in the middle of their ritual, and Jerry wouldn’t wake up afterwards. Doris and her friend suggested that, with one of the bowls damaged, perhaps he’d either got lost in the transfer, or he’s remained attached to your body.”

The doctor’s curious expression deepened, but then what I’d said probably raised more questions than it answered for him. At least I’d managed to explain well enough for Jerry and Tony without mentioning anything so unusual as magic.

“There’s a worm in my head,” Tony said, before the doctor could ask any more awkward questions.

“Yes, I’m guessing it has to be Jerry. I’ve spent the last few days trying to find out what happened to you, and it’s only by chance,” maybe influenced by some more of Doris’s subtle magic, I thought to myself, “that I’ve found you… I wish there was some way Jerry could talk; give us some indication that it’s him inside your head.”

Tony started to thrash about and scream. It was frightening, and the doctor looked like he was about to intervened, when the violent reaction stopped as abruptly as it had started.

“Jerry?”

Tony whimpered again. “You have to get him out. It feels… I can’t live like this.”

“Jerry, if you’re in there, show us one more time.”

Again Tony started convulsing. This time the doctor did step forward, but again the spasm lasted less than a second before an increasingly distraught Tony regained control.

“Get him out!” he shouted. “Get him out, get him out, get him out!”

“Look, this is enough. You’re going to have to explain what the hell is going on here?” Everyone’s patience has its limit. It seemed I’d just found the doctor’s.

“I doubt you’d believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“Okay, it’s off the record though. You claim I said any of this afterwards, and I’ll deny it.”

I gave him a brief summary of the bowls, what we’d been told about how they worked, what we’d done with them, and how things had gone so horribly wrong in recent days. Tony calmed as I gave my account.

“You don’t seriously expect me to believe any of that rubbish, do you?”

“Actually no, I think I already said that. It doesn’t stop it from being the truth though. You want proof, talk to Tony here. Ask him about the worm in his head. Then when you’re convinced it’s something real and outside of his control, try getting a response from Jerry. I don’t think he can do much more than give Tony the screaming habdabs, but it’s the closest you’re going to get to evidence that there’s any truth to what I’ve been saying.”

I let the doctor have his time with Tony, which included him addressing Jerry, who obliged by giving Tony another brief seizure.

“Make it stop,” Tony sobbed. “You’ve got to make it stop. Get him out of my head.”

“This is not possible,” the doctor shook his head.

“Does it really matter, Doctor?” I interrupted his musing. “Regardless of whether you or I believe it, can’t you see your patient does?

“You’re used to treating the symptoms of a condition when you don’t fully understand the cause, aren’t you? Why can’t you take the same approach here?”

“Are you saying there’s something that can be done?”

“It’s radical and not without risk, but yes, I believe so.”

“What risk?”

“The two old ladies I’ve been talking about, who performed this last piece of magic – no bear with me. I’m not going to insist you believe what I’ve been saying about magic, just accept that Tony and I do. These ladies suggested that the last consciousness to inhabit this body may still be stuck here. I think Tony senses it as this worm he keeps mentioning. Doris and Millie told me, if this is the case, the only way to separate Tony and Jerry is through death.”

“What!”

“There are stories associated with the bowls that talk of transfers a little like this going wrong in the past. In every case, the individual who was stuck with two consciousnesses in his head went mad and only found release in death. They didn’t have the facilities we have here though. I’m guessing there’s a way you can cause Tony’s body to shut down, effectively to die briefly, then bring him back.”

“What you’re asking is incredibly reckless. If I were to attempt such a thing, I could be struck off, and rightly so.”

“It only seems reckless because you still think there are other options…”

“Like the drugs we’ve been giving him…”

“Which didn’t seem to work at all well when I was passing his room a minute ago.”

“You have to do it doctor.” Tony pleaded. “I can’t live like this. It’s… I can’t go on with it. If I die, I die. It won’t be worse than living like this, doctor.”

“I can’t…”

“If you don’t, I’ll find a way.”

The doctor stared incredulously at Tony’s suddenly resolute expression.

“This is impossible!”

“A few years ago I’d have said the same thing, doctor. Are you so sure of what you believe that you can’t conceive anything beyond your science?”

“I can, but not this. This is nonsense. Magical bowls and two consciousnesses inside one head. Things like this don’t happen. At the very least there’d be evidence.”

“There is, doctor. We’re it.”

“One person who’s evidently mentally unstable, and another who seems to be.”

“I only seem to be because I choose to believe evidence you haven’t had access to, and Tony only started showing symptoms from the point the magic ritual I described was enacted.”

“He started showing symptoms from the point he was raped in prison.”

That news brought me up short. I stared at Tony, momentarily stunned by the thought of what he must have been through; what Jerry had been through too, but with no way to fight back.

“You were…”

“There’s a worm in me head, Laura. My arse hurts, but the worm is in my >head!”

It took a moment, but I got it. I looked over at the doctor enquiringly. His eyes showed a faltering in his certainty.

“Is this normal behaviour for a rape victim, doctor?”

“I took an oath…” He didn’t even sound so sure.

“To do no harm, I know. But doctor, this is one of those situations when your doing nothing, will cause the most harm.”

“That’s the same sort of argument that justifies euthanasia.”

“It does, but can’t you think of some situations where euthanasia is justified? Modern medicine gives us the ability to keep people alive beyond where their bodies would naturally give out, or where their deranged minds would cause them to kill themselves. Is it any better to keep someone alive against their will than it is to let them die when you could save them?”

“It’s the thin end of the wedge…”

“I understand that. There’s safety in absolutes. They give you a way of making difficult choices without having to use your judgement. The right or wrong of it settles on the legality rather than on your conscience.

“Only there isn’t a precedent to be set here. The circumstances that put your patient in his current condition have no way of being repeated. The bowls that caused this have been destroyed, and they are the last of their kind. You’ll never have to make a decision quite like this one again.

“Doctor, please. Whatever happens in this room will remain between the three of us. I believe it’s the only way. Tony does too, and he wants it. Look into your patient’s eyes doctor. Tell me you don’t see he’s been brought to the edge of madness by what’s going on.”

“What about this Jerry fellow you say is caught up in this? Doesn’t he have a say?”

“Jerry, if you agree this is worth doing, let us know. Sorry Tony, but we have to know.”

Tony’s whimper was cut short as his body arched in some indescribable convulsion, and he let out a wild scream, which in turn cut off almost as soon as it started.

The doctor shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m letting you persuade me to do this.”

Neither could I. It was like the arguments I’d been making were occurring to me as and when I needed them. Was it possible that Doris and Millie’s magic wasn’t quite so subtle? Had their influence guided me here, guided me in what to say, guided the doctor to the point where his own arguments had started to crumble?

He searched through the materials available around him, and in an adjoining room he found an anaesthetic cart which yielded what he needed.

“Are you sure about this,” he asked Tony, and evidently found an emphatic yes in his eyes, because he couldn’t hold his patient’s gaze. Instead, he held up a syringe. “This is a mixture of tranquiliser and paralytic we use in anaesthesia. You’ll lose consciousness and, without artificial life support, you’ll stop breathing and your heart will stop beating shortly afterwards.

“The longer I leave you after your life signs stop, the less likely I’ll be able to bring you back. If I leave you longer than four minutes, you’ll most likely suffer permanent brain damage.” He closed his eyes and let out a sigh. “I’m prepared to let you go without life signs for one minute, then I’ll inject this adrenaline,” he held up another syringe, “directly into your heart, and use whatever other means at my disposal to bring you back. I’m not prepared to go beyond a minute, because, in my mind, the risk to you would become unacceptable.

“The way things are, I’d say you still have between a one in ten and one in eight chance of not pulling through, and there is no guarantee that this is going to work.”

“I don’t care.” Tony’s resolution was in his voice as well as his eyes. “Do it.”

With a great show of reluctance, the doctor connected up what monitors he felt were necessary and, with one last pause, injected the contents of the first syringe into Tony’s drip.

-oOo-

It was the strangest of sensations. All this time had been like a sort of ongoing out of body experience – almost – and now it was like seeing an end to it all, but still from the outside. I felt Tony’s consciousness slipping, I felt his breathing slowing, his heart falter.

As the last of Tony’s life functions stuttered to a halt, I felt a weakening in the link holding me in place. It didn’t disappear completely, but it felt like something had loosened. This was make or break time, and Tony wasn’t around to sense my thrashing. I put everything I had into it. I felt like an ant trying to dislodge a loose brick. Every ounce of strength I threw at what bound me seemed pathetically inadequate and, for the longest time, seemed to have no effect. I could only trust that whatever was holding me in place would weaken, the longer Tony remained dead.

I had no way of gauging how much of the minute had passed, so I pushed and pushed with every ounce of feeble strength I had. I sensed a tearing – whether in my own mind or Tony’s I don’t know – and I found a new degree of freedom.

An instant later, I felt the shadow a sharp pain, as a needle plunged into Tony’s chest. With time almost gone, I hauled with everything I had, and the tear lengthened. I can only describe it as being like having my clothing caught on a nail, and the fabric finally giving way. I felt Tony’s consciousness return with an abrupt shock, and with it his hold over me tightened again. I refused to give in though, and making one last gargantuan effort, I pulled loose of his mind’s grasp.

I was free and adrift. I had no idea what would happen now, but at least I was free of Tony at last. This had to be better didn’t it? I half expected there to be a light or something else to guide me on to whatever came next – assuming there was a whatever came next – but it didn’t go that way.

I felt myself drifting towards a familiar place. I’d lived there for more than thirty years of my life, and now, as before, it drew me like a magnet, only this time there was nothing holding me back. It happened slowly at first, but with gradually increasing rapidity. I could feel Laura’s consciousness inhabiting the brain, but there were spaces she hadn’t yet fully occupied, and I could sense every last one of them. My mind insinuated itself into the nooks and crannies Laura had yet to discover and I settled into comfortable, well recognised surroundings.

-oOo-

“Well?” The doctor was looking at Tony’s shocked and pallid face.

It took him a while to respond. I think he was trying to make as sure as he could.

“It’s gone.” Relief broke across his face like the dawn. He looked over at me with a gratitude I’d never seen in his eyes before. “I’m back. Okay, back in this body; I guess I’m going to have to accept that, but at least I don’t have that infernal thing thrashing about inside my brain. You have no idea how that felt.”

“You’ll forgive me if I leave you in restraints for a while, just to be sure,” the doctor interjected.

“Do what you like doc. I’m just glad to have my mind back. Fuck, my arse hurts, but thank you. I know you took a massive risk just now. It was the right thing to do though, and it would still have been the right thing to do, even if you hadn’t been able to bring me back. Thank you as well Laura. I know we’ve no love lost between us, but I won’t forget what you did for me here, sticking your neck out like that.”

“I doubt you’ll be so grateful when they cart you back to prison, Tony.”

I could have said more. Part of me wanted to, to see the fear return to his eyes as he realised what was waiting for him back there.

From the way he flinched, I’d evidently succeeded. The memories of his recent experience where there then, and as strong as his physical discomfort.

“I suppose I deserve all that, don’t I?”

The genuine contrition in his voice surprised me. Was this what it took to turn a man like Tony Ward around? I found my need for retribution evaporating. Punishment shouldn’t be so much about revenge as rehabilitation. If the man genuinely didn’t need anything more to turn away from the arsehole selfishness he’d shown through all the years I known him, then neither did he need anything more to make him feel bad.

“You’d better believe you fucking deserve it.” I couldn’t put any conviction into my words. Tony’s eyes were sane and at peace. It would have been wrong to rob him of this calm after the storm. “I’m glad it worked out for you,” I finished lamely, “though I did it more for Jerry’s sake than yours.”

“So what has happened to this Jerry?” the doctor wanted to know.

I glanced over at Tony, with the doctor following my gaze. The big man gave us as much of a sheepish shrug as his restraints would allow. “I really couldn’t say. I know he was there; I’ve felt him kind of inside my head pretty much since I woke up back in this body. He kept still a lot of the time, which made things just about bearable, but it was like this constant pressure all the time he was in my brain. When he started moving about, it was… well it’s impossible to describe, but it was horrible. He’s gone now though. There’s still something there, kind of like tattered shreds of a cobweb after you’ve brushed most of it away, sort of thing. Not really him, nothing alive, but just a sort of residue.”

The deadness inside me returned. Finding Tony, and with some evidence that Jerry was still there hanging on, had brought back some level of hope. But it hadn’t grown much. I’d seen Tony’s distress and figured that Jerry was probably going through something similar inside there, so all I’d been working towards was giving Jerry some release from the torment. It seemed that part of me had been holding out for a happy ending after all though, and now that hope had evaporated like every other.

“Then he’s gone,” I said with a flat voice. “This worked. We managed to get Jerry out of Tony’s head, but since there’s no magic left, and no-where for him to go. I can only imagine – only hope, at least – that for him it’s like what happens when you die.”

Not so much.

It was like the thought just popped into my brain completely out of the blue. I might have dismissed it as one of the weirder side effects of the whole grieving process, except that it didn’t stop there.

Hi Laura. Rather unusual this, don’t you think?

“Jerry?”

“Sorry, are you talking to me?”

“No, Doctor. Give me a minute please – Jerry, is that you?”

Going to say yes. Feels like me, a bit, but different too, though.

“Jerry, what the… How?”

Not sure. My body for a long time. Guess it feels like home.

Coming home. We’d said that before. If Jerry had latched on to me because this felt like home, then…

I grabbed the phone and held it under the doctor’s nose. “I need to talk to the… what did he call it? The extended care unit.”

“What?”

“How do I get through to the extended care unit? The coma ward! It’s where my old body has been since Saturday.”

The doctor took the phone from me, still a little bemused, but compliant even so, and pressed the zero.

“This is Dr Jelfs. Put me through to the extended care ward please.” He stared at me through speculative eyes until, whatever his thought process, it was interrupted by a voice at the other end. “Hello? Yes, one moment please.” He offered me the handset.

“Hello? Hi, yes this is Jerry Goodman; Laura Townsend is my partner. I was wondering if… I see. Which theatre please? Operating room seventeen.” I glanced at Dr Jelfs. He shrugged and nodded. “Thank you. Could you call them and tell them they need to stop the operation? Why not? No, never mind. I don’t have time.”

I slammed the phone down and dug deep in my bag of expletives.

“What is it now?” If the tone of his voice was any indication, Dr Jelfs was mentally measuring me for my straightjacket once more.

“I’m sorry doc. It’s like I told the nurse, there’s no time. I need to get to this operating room seventeen, right now.”

“Why? And why are you now calling yourself Jerry? I mean wasn’t Jerry the guy in my patient’s head? And you still haven’t told me why he’s been calling you Laura all this time.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake! Look, Jerry and I switched places. We’re happier this way. I’m Laura and this is Jerry’s body, which means it’s easier for people to think of me as Jerry, unless they knew me as Laura. The Jerry we were talking about is still around, only he’s latched on to me now, and if we don’t fucking get down to O.R. seventeen right fucking now, there won’t be anywhere else for him to go.

“Doctor, you’ve stuck your neck out this far, don’t fall at the last hurdle; not over a little thing like this.”

“What will you do if I take you there?”

“Stop them of course! They’re about to kill someone down there.”

“They wouldn’t do that…”

“They would if they thought she was already pretty much dead, and her brain has shown no activity since Saturday.”

“Then she is brain dead then.”

“Fuck, how did someone as dense as you get to be a doctor? She’s brain dead because her mind – Jerry’s mind – has been stuck here.” I stabbed a finger in the direction of Tony’s head. “You believed me enough to stop his heart for a minute, why the fuckity fuck is this so impossible to take on board?”

“Doctor,” Tony said quietly from his bed. “Please.”

“Shit. Come on.” He yanked the door open and dragged me out into a corridor full of nurses, still milling around, unsure what to do. “Get in there and make him comfortable,” Dr Jelfs yelled as we pushed through them. “I’ll be back shortly.”

-oOo-

This was different from being in Tony’s mind. Before, I’d been attached and unable to get away, here I had to grab hold in order to stay. My first effort left Laura wincing in pain – enough for me to feel through our tenuous connection – so I slackened off my grip as much as I dared and clung on.

Corridors and doors flashed past in a blur. Laura was breathing heavily, and I could feel the beginnings of that familiar discomfort whenever I’d had to run anywhere, but she wouldn’t slow down.

We dashed down two flights of stairs, the surroundings turned more utilitarian. I caught sight of trollies stacked with green, cotton cloth, then a sign saying operating theatres. Don’t let us be too late. The thought was Laura’s, but it found its twin in my own mind. I felt desperate hope rising in my chest – felt it almost as strongly as Laura.

Operating room seventeen. I caught the sign out of the corner of my eye, pushed it towards Laura’s mind, felt her react, dig in her heels and turn towards the double doors. She snatched her hand out of Dr Jelf’s as she picked up speed again.

Green clad bodies appeared in her path, hands held up in an effort to stop her, but she had a head of steam now. She yelled for them to get out of the way, and the sensible ones complied. There were a few she left bouncing off the walls, but hopefully not seriously enough to cause permanent damage.

She burst into the operating room, trailing most of the theatre staff in her wake.

Brilliant white light shone down from an adjustable fitting in the ceiling, illuminating a vaguely human form hidden, for the most part, under sterilised, green sheets. A half dozen gowned and masked figures crowded the table, stepped back and looking up in surprise as Laura burst into the room.

One of them held a scalpel aloft, out of harm’s way. Shit! Was that blood on the blade?

-oOo-

“You can’t be here.” It was Dr Marston’s voice.

“Doctor, stop what you’re doing.” I strode forward to where I could see bare skin and the irregular lumps of a spine. A red stripe to one side gently oozed blood.

“Mr Goodman, this is a sterile area. You’re risking causing infection here.”

“Then you’d better close up doctor, because if you don’t, I’m going to start putting my grubby, germ laden fingers over everything in here.” I made my threat more real by reaching out and touching one of the nearby nurses on her shoulder. Sh recoiled and withdrew from the room giving me space to move closer. “How far have you got?” I nodded at the neat cut, hardly daring to hope that we were in time.

“This is my first incision. Mr Goodman, I have a patient waiting next door who needs this kidney. You remember that little girl, Lindsey Marshal from this morning? It’s her best chance of a normal life, or any life for that matter.”

“What if Laura wakes up though? Would you kill one person to save others?”

“Mr Goodman, we’ve been through this. Your partner is brain dead. She won’t wake up.”

“Things have changed, Doctor. I think she will.”

“Mr Goodman, you signed the release forms. This is the reason we get you to do that, so you don’t have the option to change your mind.”

“And if I bring a law suit against you? Claim that you pressured me into this decision, which you did.”

“Mr Goodman, every moment you spend in here increases the risk of infection, which could make all of Miss Townsend’s organs useless, to her as much as to any potential recipients. You’re also putting a little girl’s life at risk. She’s under general anaesthetic right now, and may not be fit enough to go under again unless we complete this surgery.”

Let her have it. I only need one.

“Fuck, are you sure?”

“What?”

Yeah, one kidney. I can give up one.

“Sod it! Okay doctor, one fucking kidney, but nothing more. I’m calling my lawyer. If you don’t stop after this, I’ll destroy you.”

I allowed myself to be led from the operating room, but not from the theatre. I called Paul and set him to doing what needed to be done to stop this, then I settled in to watch the painful process of seeing a perfectly healthy organ removed from a perfectly healthy body.

The nurse I had touched returned to the room ten minutes later, rescrubbed and ready to assist, just as the organ was removed from the O.R. on its way to its new home. The doctor stared at the other side of my body with avaricious eyes, but relented at a few words from the newly returned nurse. I had never been happier to have access to money and the right connections.

I watched as the doctor closed up his patient and marched out of the operating theatre, stripping off gloves and mask as he came.

“This had better be really good, Mr Goodman. I had two other operating theatres with surgical teams prepping for the rest of the transplants. We could have improved a lot of lives here today.”

“At the expense of one, Doctor.”

“I told you, your partner isn’t alive. Her body is functioning, but she has long gone.”

“Wait until she recovers from the anaesthetic.”

“And what? She’ll be as much a vegetable as she was this morning.”

“You’ll see, Doctor.” I hoped he would. I hoped we all would.

-oOo-

This was the weirdest thing yet – sort of an out of out of body experience. I already felt removed and remote from what was going on in Laura’s mind, and now here I was, in that remote place, observing my adopted body from the outside.

It didn’t seem to be working though. There didn’t seem to be any draw into Laura’s body in the same way there had been into mine. If I was stuck here sharing with Laura, would we get by? Or would we go mad the same way Tony had been going mad?

I tried to sense what Laura was feeling, but there was no indication that she was crowded and discomforted by my presence. That could, of course, have been because she was so desperate for me to find my way home though. Properly home; the way we’d described being in each other’s bodies that first time we’d shared a bed.

Laura’s body was taking its time recovering from the anaesthetic. As we sat by watching, a couple of burly male nurses on standby in case Laura tried anything stupid again. The respirator continued to push air into the unconscious figure. Apparently it couldn’t even maintain its own autonomous functions.

“Anything?” Laura asked out loud.

Not yet.

Then there was something. I could feel the first inklings of recovery. A breath taken, not involuntarily, but independently of the machinery to which she was connected. Computer reboot seemed like a decent analogy, and with the returned brain activity, I could feel the place I ought to be.

Here goes nothing.

I let go my gentle hold on Laura and felt myself drift towards the still form. Here was a brain that fit my mind perfectly. Here was home. Here was where I belonged. I didn’t need to hold on as my consciousness seemed to wrap itself around whatever it was that made the brain specially suited to me. Even the shredded tatters where I had torn loose of Tony’s mind found their place, and I settled into the dark unconsciousness that filled my body and brain.

-oOo-

Jerry’s thoughts were only the vaguest hints; so much weaker than when he’d come into my mind from Tony. It almost felt as though I were imagining things, or that he was fading, and yet I knew the exact moment he left me, when there was a distinct sense of his absence.

I called the anaesthetist over and asked if Laura was breathing by herself yet. He checked a few dials and gave me an odd look, before disconnecting his machinery.

Dr Marston joined me, staring over my shoulder at Jerry’s still form, disapproval etched into every line of his face. Doctor Jelfs seemed to be waiting nearby as well, but he wasn’t as ready to get involved.

“I hope you’re satisfied. We probably won’t have another chance to give Josh a new heart now.”

“Why don’t you attach your EEG, Doctor?”

“I don’t have time to pander to your fantasies, Mr Goodman.”

“Well neither of us will really know until you do something to check, will we, Doctor Marston? Of course, we could wait for her to wake up, but that could take a while.”

“She’s not going to wake up Mr Goodman. She’s brain dead. I thought we established that.”

Jerry’s sharp features twitched at the raised voices. I glanced up. The doctor had seen.

He stopped a passing nurse. “Get me an EEG cart.” She hurried off. “How is this possible?”

“How’s Lesley doing, Doctor?” I said it as much to make him feel guilty about what he’d done as to distract him. It might have worked better had I remembered the little girl’s name.

“Lindsey? Lindsey Marshal? She’s fine. Awake and chatting to her parents. Already looking less jaundiced than I’ve ever seen her. How is this possible?”

I reached out and stroked Jerry’s cheek. It crossed my mind that I was going to have to start thinking of him as Laura now, and as a her. She moved at my touch and opened her eyes, smiling up at me with that brilliant smile of hers.

“Do you believe in magic, Doctor?

Epilogue

It took a while before the hospital let me go. Apparently there are potential complications associated with having a kidney removed, that I would have been told about ahead of time, had I been conscious to be consulted before the operation.

Dr Marston was understandably distraught about having removed a kidney from what turned out not to be a brain-dead coma patient, and it took Jerry and me signing waivers to satisfy both the good doctor and the hospital administrators that we weren’t going to pursue any legal course of action. We did insist, as part of the agreement with the hospital, that, since we weren’t planning to hold Dr Marston accountable, then neither should they. My recovery had been totally without precedent, so in essence, the doctor hadn’t acted inappropriately; though I suspected he’d be a little more cautious about looking to use the long term comatose as a source of spare parts in the future, and that could only be a good thing.

The hospital gave me excellent care following the operation – ensuring due diligence after what they’d inadvertently done to me without my permission, I suppose – and with proper rehabilitation and drugs, life returned pretty much to normal within a month. I didn’t miss the kidney; I didn’t even begrudge giving it up after Lindsey came to visit a few days into my rehab. She was quite the most delightful young girl I’d ever met. Honestly, if ever I were fortunate enough to have a daughter, I’d want her to be just like Lindsey.

I did experience a few unusual side effects from the ordeal, but none of them related to the operation. Jerry and I discussed it with Doris and Millie over the phone, and we decided that what must have happened was the shredded part of my psyche reattached to my brain in random places. It was only wild speculation on their part, as they found it hard to believe I had managed to reinhabit Laura’s body at all. To their knowledge, no similar occurrence existed in all the myth and mystery surrounding bowls. Again wildly speculating, they suggested that Laura and I had truly always been better suited to one another’s bodies – the purpose for constructing the bowls in the first place apparently being to correct such things – and perhaps Laura’s idea, that I had been drawn most strongly to the place I felt most at home, was right.

In any case, the mismatching in my brain left me with a whole bunch of odd sensations to deal with. Coffee now tasted like the smell of hot iron, and if I spent too long in high heels, the pain in my toes took on a distinctly brilliant lavender hue. The list of peculiarities goes on and on; in fact, I’m still adding to it. The muddle appears to be fairly random, although confusion in taste and smell seems to be a major part of it. One of the worst things has to be that the flavour of any alcohol now has something of the smell of old sewage about it – even the finest of wines. As fair compensation, though, chocolate and orgasms have become inextricably linked, which has given sex an interesting added dimension and has made my daily mocha, and nightly hot chocolate something of a special experience. I’m having to ration myself though, as I don’t want to lose my figure.

I also seem to have developed a talent for smelling moods. I have no idea what this relates to in terms of human senses, but I’m picking up certain odours around different people, and finding they relate to types and intensities of emotions on their part. Fear smells metallic, affection has a variety of floral perfumes to it, hunger smells of coffee and blood. Again I’m only beginning to discover the full extent of this new ability, so can’t give you any further details, but I’m excited to see how things develop.

There was no baby after Laura’s – I mean Jerry’s – and my last bedroom exertions, as I discovered when my monthly visitor brought with it the sensation of silky soft petals caressing my entire body, and the incongruous smell of roses and lemonade.

We were somewhat relieved that our first child wasn’t going to be mixed up in all that magic, but at the same time, a little disappointed that there wasn’t going to be a first child just yet. We decided it was about time we did something to change that, which meant doing things right. Jerry and I forewent the chocolaty goodness (from my perspective at least) of sex for a few weeks while we organised a small wedding – neither of us had much in the way of surviving family, so it was mainly friends and staff (who also counted as friends) in a small chapel. I did insist on a proper dress though, and Jerry presented me with the most exquisite engagement and wedding rings. I bought him a wedding band as well. Considerably plainer than mine, but I think he likes it, even though he doesn’t let on. I’ve certainly caught him playing with it from time to time, with this odd little smile on his face. At such times, he smells gently of cinnamon.

We honeymooned in Mauritius, where the sea was so blue it sang, and the wind whispered tingling, electric swirls through the coconut palms. With the doctor’s approval – I have to check about such things these days since, as I may have mentioned, I’m down one kidney – I came off the pill. I can’t wait to find out what my screwed up brain is going to do with the sensations of pregnancy and child-birth, not to mention the smell of a new born baby.

Yup, I am officially addicted to the weirdness of my rewired brain.

Actually, I may not have to wait. For the last couple of days, I’ve woken up with the taste of anchovies and pizza in my mouth, and the gentle sound of frying bacon off in the distance somewhere. Before you ask, Jerry has not taken up cooking, nor does he wake up any earlier than usual. I still get to go downstairs and enjoy my garden in the middle of the night, though these days I’m allowing myself another hot chocolate instead of the warm milk. Chocolate doesn’t have many more calories than plain milk, and it takes away the saltiness of the anchovies. Besides… well, you know… chocolate… Mmmn.

Tony’s doing better these days. The hospital kept him in for observation following his ‘breakdown’, and I managed to write a letter to the governor of his prison before he went back. I threatened to go to the press over the treatment Tony had received since his incarceration, unless something was done to ensure his welfare. Knowing details of the attacks, like the dates, the times and the names of the people involved, helped make the threat more real, so when he arrived back at the prison, he had a special guard detail waiting for him and a cell to himself. It didn’t do much for his standing with the other prisoners, but it’s kept him safe from the likes of Bambi. It took time and a lot of extra effort, but we’ve managed to arrange for him to be transferred to a low security prison in a couple of weeks, which should make things easier on everyone involved.

It’s great to see how much Tony’s changed. He’s pathetically grateful for the efforts Jerry and I have made on his behalf. From my point of view, I experienced pretty much first-hand what it was like to be him in prison, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy – which is fairly evident since that’s more or less who Tony is to me. It surprises me that Jerry’s on-board with it too, though I’m glad he is, and I’m not going to ask too many questions, as I don’t want to risk him changing his mind.

Tony’s going to be stuck inside for a very long time, even with good behaviour, and that’s largely down to me not contesting his crimes when it came to the trial. I doubt he’ll have much life left to enjoy by the time the system lets him back out into the big wide world, so it seems fair that we should do what we can to make his time inside less unpleasant. He’s off to a good start anyway. I understand he’s already sent letters of apology to Doris and Mary, Mike, Pete and Randy for the ways he treated them. Jerry and I’ll probably get one each eventually, but since we’ve been visiting him reasonably regularly since coming back from honeymoon, he probably hasn’t felt the need to write to us, given that he gets to grovel and express his regret in person every time we turn up.

Doris and Millie were at the wedding – well duh – and they’re also on our Christmas card list. We have an open invitation to drop in for tea with either of them any time we’re in their vicinity. It hasn’t happened yet, but the hunt for antiques does take us out their way every so often, so I doubt it’ll be too long before we’re back to enjoying slices of Dundee cake and cups of Tetley, surrounded by Doris’s trinkets. Jerry told me about Doris’s adventures in the Second World War, and I’m fascinated to hear some of them first hand – sort of a woman’s perspective of war. Jerry snorted at me when I mentioned that, but refused to comment further. I don’t care. Doris is about the only other woman I know who’s spent much time as a man. Jerry doesn’t count as he’s the other way round.

Mary eventually made good on her promised invitation to dinner, so we did get to meet Martin, and to agree with her how much nicer he was than Tony. Although did we know, Tony had actually written to her, apologising for being such a brute?

It was a great evening, and gave us an opportunity to repay Mary for giving us the means of returning to our normal lives. It meant parting with a number of really nice pieces from the shop, but neither of us begrudged them, especially when Martin and Mary both showed such delight in our gifts.

It turned out to be good business too, even though we never planned it as such. Most of Mary and Martin’s other guests that evening were also antiques collectors, and just as fascinated and delighted with the gifts we presented to our host and hostess as they were themselves. Over the week that followed, we enjoyed a constant stream of visits from these friends and their friends, along with one or two invitations to come out and look over existing collections, with the suggestion that we could then help them add to them, either from our stock or from things we might come across in the future.

So anyway, largely because of this growing network of wealthy, potential buyers, we officially became a successful business in our own right. Even if the bank were to founder – not likely with Paul Banks, Daniel Whortley and Andrew Stevens proving to be great allies in maintaining its traditions of reliability and respectability – we wouldn’t miss the income from the shares and dividends. In fact, at the rate we’re expanding, we’re probably going to have to open a second shop. We suggested the idea to Mike, Randy and Pete a couple of weeks ago, as something they might like to take on, and they seemed very excited with the prospect.

We’re also looking at setting up a financial advice and basic book-keeping drop in centre, to run every Monday and Thursday at the local community centre. Jerry – with his head for numbers – can teach people how to do the necessary maths to keep on top of their income, and I – with my understanding of the financial world – can give free advice on how best to handle the money they do have. We’re still waiting to hear from the council as to whether or not they want us to run the course, but all being well, we hope to get it started in the next week or two.

Danny has kept in closer touch with Mike, Pete and Randy than he has with us. I’m not sure if Jerry embarrassed him when they went out on that bender just after I was arrested, or if it’s just that we really don’t have that much in common with him. In any case, he and his mum were there at the wedding, and they’re also both on the Christmas card list, as well as having an invite to the Christmas do this year. We were thinking about having it at the Pink Elephant, but if Danny were to come, that might end up being a bit too much of a busman’s holiday for him, so we’re looking at other venues. We want something everyone will enjoy, which is proving to be an interesting challenge.

It’s the end of another normal day. Winter is closing in a little now, which means that it gets dark early, so business off the street is slower. Jerry closed the shop about an hour ago, and I’ve been plodding my way through the ledger since then.

You know, I’m actually learning to enjoy mundane, ordinary, everyday life without magical bowls and body swapping, thugs and policemen, hospital visits, court cases and associated awkward questions. For now it feels great not to have anything more exciting or challenging to face in a day than the shop accounts. No, really it does.

Besides, if it does turn out that I am pregnant, I’m actually going to be glad for some peace and stability. Who’d choose to bring a child into the mad chaos our lives have been recently?

I suppose it’s fair. That I should be stuck up here with the computer, I mean. I still have all my banking training, even though Jerry now has the better brain for figures. It’s one of those odd things you learn when you spend time in someone else’s skin. You take with you your personality and your knowledge, but the physical aspects of the body you move into stay of its brain for memory, or calculation or spatial awareness – they’re as much an aspect of the body you’re inhabiting as is its height, its strength and its dexterity. The upshot is that, whilst you remain essentially you, you have to come to terms with both the augmentations and the limitations of the body you inhabit.

Jerry deals with the inventory. It’s heavy, dusty work which is much better suited to his taller frame and stronger muscles. It keeps me out of the filth, which I appreciate, plus it’s built up his strength and fitness enough to notice; that body never looked so good while I was wearing it. So with him taking the grunt work, it’s only right I should get stuck doing all the books and stuff.

It’s hard though; certainly harder than I remember from being Jerry. I used to be able to do the maths in my head and check it with a calculator. These days I find that my mental faculty for numbers is far more limited, and anything I try to do manually, ends up being wrong more often than it’s right, so instead, and I’m ashamed to admit it, I rely entirely on calculators and computers, cross-checking the output of one machine with that of another, since I can no longer rely on my ditzy brain to come through for me.

Still, that’s me all done for the day. I save my work, both on the computer and the backup drive – which goes in my purse – and head downstairs where Jerry is ticking off the last of the inventory changes. He pauses long enough to give me a slow kiss – long enough that I can taste chocolate – and I favour him with a dreamy smile which gives him jelly legs. I love the effect I can have on him, about as much as I love the effect he has on me, and I’m pretty sure he feels the same way. Portia is nothing more than a dimly remembered nightmare now. With Jerry, love is soooo easy.

There’s a rap at the door and we exchanged glances before Jerry lifts the shutters enough for us to see who’s on the other side.

“Hi Frank.” Jerry unlocks the door and lets our unscheduled visitor in. It’s was one of the contacts Laura made before we swapped lives and set up our joint venture, which naturally means he wants to talk to me.

“Hi Jerry.” He steps into the shop and heads in my direction. “Laura. Sorry to come so late and unannounced, but I thought you might want to see this. You remember you were asking about those bowls a few months back?”

“Yeah, sorry Frank. Didn’t you get the memo we sent out? We found one, along with enough evidence to suggest it was the last of its kind. There aren’t any more.”

“Yeah, but that’s the thing. You see I was down on the South Coast earlier today, meeting with this guy about an estate sale. They’re not quite what you were asking about, but I wondered if you might be interested in these.”

He drops an eight by ten glossy on the counter and leans back, beaming with considerable satisfaction and waiting for our reactions.

Jerry and I lean in for a closer look at the photo. It shows six of them. Blue rather than green, but otherwise perfectly round, exactly the same size and shape as one another, and seemingly made from that familiar, tight grained petrified oak.

Jerry looks over at me, eagerness glistening brightly in his eyes, and an intense smell of cinnamon about him. Mind you, I can’t say I’m doing a much better job of hiding my own excitement.

-Fin?-