Author's notes: A tribute to a friend, tutor and mentor. Thanks to Jennie for the beta.
The nurse showed me to the waiting room.
Apart from one man who had taken a seat in the corner, it was empty and had that typical gloomy atmosphere that seemed mandatory in such a setting.
Magazines that were too old or too superficial to be interesting were piled up on a low coffee table. A small TV-set was screwed to the wall and showed local broadcasting, which interested me even less.
The few paintings that were once hung up to decorate the interior had lost their colour and now only added extra dimness to this place.
I sat down with a deep sigh and took out my knitting from a plastic bag that I had brought along. I had driven Mr. Wilfred, my neighbour, to the hospital. He had a history of heart problems and as I had a soft spot for that friendly, 82 year old man, I had acted as his taxi driver. As Mr. Wilfred was going to be busy for an undetermined amount of time, it seemed wise to bring something with me to do here. He could be ready in 15 minutes - but it could also take five hours.
I installed myself as comfortably as I could. The blue thread ran steadily through my hands, as stitch after stitch, the sleeve became larger and the cotton ball smaller. The repetition of the movements took over and soon my mind began to wander and while knitting I looked at the man who sat a few seats away from me.
He was impatient. He couldn't stay still. He kept on moving with his hands, running them through soft silky black hair or wrenching them till the knuckles turned white. He fumbled with the buttons of his jacket, until he finally ripped one off and angrily threw it in the ashtray on the table.
No, I was wrong. He wasn't impatient - he was nervous. Worried. He seemed on edge, jumped to his feet when a nurse walked in and his expectant look changed into disappointment when he saw she checked and closed a window that was still open and left without saying anything
Maybe his wife was in labour? I did not see a wedding ring - but then again, that wasn't as common these days as it used to be. So, maybe his girlfriend was in labour? No, for some reason that didn't seem to match the man.
We sat there for a long time - my needles clicking and ticking was the only sound. I got thirsty. The nurse had pointed out a coffee machine in the hallway, so I put my knitting down, fished a few coins from my purse and got myself a cup of coffee. When I stood in front of the machine, I decided to get the man in the waiting room one as well. I suddenly couldn't resist the urge to make him feel a bit less uncomfortable.
When I handed the steaming hot drink to him, he looked up in surprise. He hadn't expected anything like that - I wondered if he had even been aware of my presence.
"Don't worry. There are excellent doctors in this hospital."
I couldn't tell if he heard me or not. His elbows rested on his upper legs - he rubbed his face with his one of his hands to get the weariness off. I saw ugly marks, bruises of some kind around both wrists. Then he said, so softly that I wasn't sure he was actually talking to me:
"I should never have let this happen."
After a moments hesitation, I sat down next to him. When he looked up to face me, I noticed the giant bruise before I met the remarkably coloured, silverish green eyes. They were full of pain, not physical but mental pain - worry, sorrow and maybe regret or guilt radiated from them.
I blew away the steam from the hot coffee and took a little sip - it was of surprisingly good quality. I turned to the man beside me. I had, without realising, taken the only correct place to listen to him - the chair next to his. It is difficult to talk while facing someone, but talking and having a willing ear next to you is much easier. I waited for him to start.
He took a sip and twitched as he almost burnt his lips. His eyes drifted off into the drink - looking for answers in filtrate of coffee beans and condensed milk.
"I should have saved him." It took a lot of effort to start, that much was obvious. Maybe, for some reason, he was not allowed to talk about this.
I carefully stepped through the door that he had opened up for me - it was only ajar, but at least that was a start.
"Who is him?"
"Chris, my colleague - my partner."
"What do you mean by I should have saved him?"
A deep sigh. I saw a dark crust of recently dried blood a little above his temple. The wound itself had been attended to and little butterflies covered the nasty cut.
"I'm in the...er... security business. I was undercover. Things went out of control. When they found out about my real identity, they decided to demand a ransom for me. Their only goal was money - and my death would follow soon after the ransom was delivered."
He stopped again. I noticed his hands trembling and I also became aware of the hollowness beneath his eyes. He needed rest and food, just as much as he needed encouragement to get the hurt of his chest.
"Go on." I gently pushed him.
"My team does not negotiate with terrorists - standard procedure. So Chris came out on his own, even before the team had time to deliberate. He just came out to get me."
He smiled wryly. I smiled back, careful not to disturb the unsteady chord on which we were balancing.
"You wouldn't believe me if I could tell you about a few of the things he's been through. He has got the most peculiar talent for getting himself into trouble. D'you know the saying: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong? I swear - Murphy's law is imprinted on his forehead. If I could only tell you about every time that he hardly made it - that he barely came out alive...."
I understood the hint - indeed, he could not go into details. Come to think of it, he'd probably crossed one line too many already just by opening up to me.
"But he survived so far?"
"Yes. Time and time again, he survived. He's as flexible as reed in the wind. It bends but it never breaks, no matter how tough the storm is. He comes back, every time."
I waited for him to continue. He stared off into the distance, seeing something that wasn't there, but after a few minutes of reflecting he was back in the present again.
"Chris entered the building. The enemy was too strong - so he tried to slip in and get me out before anyone noticed. I heard the men approaching as he was trying to get the ropes off of my wrists. I urged him to get out - to take cover and not show himself. But he refused."
"He would not leave you." The conclusion was easily drawn.
"You're right, ma'am. He's such a stubborn fool sometimes. He should have got the hell out of there and come back with proper backup. He got the ropes off but the next thing I knew, the door was being bashed down and one of my guards was hitting me. "Go!", I screamed at Chris, seeing three more guards approaching. But he was with me in a second and got the first guard down. I wasn't at my best, I must admit. I had received a blow to my head, which had made me rather dizzy and unsteady."
I pushed his hand that held the cup gently to his mouth. Drink, my gesture said. He did, obediently as I was steering him into taking care of himself.
"He could have easily got out. But he wouldn't leave me. And I should have just sent him away. I could have held on. But the crazy idiot just didn't go."
He swallowed again, and the words came out a little more unsteadily now. His eyes filled with tears, generated by the fear for his friend's life.
"He took the bullet that was meant for me. Last I heard was that it had hit him in the chest and his lungs were filling with blood. He's drowning in his own blood, ma'am."
The look he gave me was heart breaking. He dropped the cup and buried his face in his hands, while his shoulders shook from suppressed tears. I wrapped my arm carefully around him, softly putting my hand on his hair and stroking it. His body, through his clothes, felt muscled, lean and strong under my arm.
When I spoke I did it slowly, with infinite care, measuring my words carefully.
"You can't blame yourself, really you can't. He is your friend and he was worried about you then, just as you're worried about him right now. I am certain that you would have done exactly the same for him, if the situation had been reversed.
Your guilty feelings only make your motives to care more sincere and more honest. If you didn't care, you wouldn't be feeling this way. If your friend should die, then he dies with the certainty that the man he risked his life for, is safe."
"But it should have been me..." he muttered.
"No. No, that wouldn't make things any easier. Then I'd be sitting here consoling your friend. Value what you've got, friendship like that is rare, believe me. His unconditional loyalty to you is a like a flower that blooms in the desert. Preserve it well."
We fell silent. I had said what needed to be said and he was too wrapped up in his own confusing thoughts to say anything.
Just as I was about to offer him one of the sandwiches that I had put into the plastic bag as well, a doctor stepped in.
Curtis jumped up. I saw him swallow hard, fighting to accept the inevitable verdict that he thought he was going to hear.
"You can see your friend now. Five minutes, no longer - he's still very weak, but his condition is no longer life threatening.
His facial expression changed totally. It suddenly felt like the sun was shining in the grey, colourless waiting room.
He started to follow the doctor outside, then stopped and turned to me. Again the green irises struck me - this man could be a real charmer but he seemed unaware of his own looks. He put out his hand to shake mine.
"Thank you. I don't know who you are, but... thank you."
I took the hand he offered me and our mutual smiles entangled somewhere in the space between us.
"I needed to talk, and someone to listen to me. You're a good listener."
"You're welcome. The pleasure was all mine." I got a warm feeling inside. This man was genuine, apparently as rare as the man he'd been so worried about.
I laughed. Go, I thought, go and see your friend.
Impatiently he moved to the door, unable to withstand the urge to see his partner, and then he said, as if he suddenly realised:
"I didn't get your name?"
I smiled once more. Go, Mr. Curtis.
"That's not important, dear. Go."
The waiting room wasn't as gloomy anymore after he'd left.