The Solitary Golfer, nthposition, March 2012

From about 2010 I began to submit my stories to various publications with mixed results. Around the same time I discovered duotrope.com and how accessible the world of literary publications actually was. Up to then, I had generally sent them into nthposition.com.

This is a story which I had trouble “placing” anywhere else, and slightly by default, slightly out of laziness, ended up sending into nthposition where it was thereafter published. 

The themes are some of the recurrent ones of my fiction; a protagonist somewhat at odds with his own professional role, polite silence in the face of irritation, a too-brutal reveal towards the end. It has a medical setting that is somewhat sketchily drawn. I have a certain fondness for it. I suppose the theme of a clever schoolchild ending up one of many swots in medical school is also familiar enough.

 

The Solitary Golfer

 

Simon loved being on a golf course. Happiest playing the course alone, free of having to compete with another player, free of the steady succession of patients, he found the game an unexpected source of solace and freedom. In his surgery there was control, there were books, the internet, even Sandra’s advice on the mobile if need be – but there was still the unknowable, the potential chaos and hassle brought by every new patient.

Thursdays he took a half day. Before Paul Gildea had come back from America, he used this time to read and daydream. After this, he played golf with Prof Gildea each Thursday. They had been in medical school together, and lived with each all the way through college. Simon found that he began to enjoy the experience of being out playing golf, and began to play every Thursday, even if Paul Gildea was at a conference or otherwise engaged.

At ten to one that morning he had seen Mrs Watters. She had been attending the practice for ten years. Always presenting with headaches, or backaches, or general fatigue, nothing was ever discovered to be the matter with her. Simon knew, for Beda the practice nurse knew, that Mr Watters drank – not in a spectacular, destructive way, but in the slow corrosive way of late middle aged disappointment. It seemed obvious to Simon, at this stage, that Mrs Watters’ great disappointment with her life had transmuted itself into aches and pains, but every time he asked how things were at home, or if she felt stressed, or if things were OK between herself and her husband, she smiled and denied anything was wrong. This would usually frustrate Simon, but he found Mrs Watters likeable, always feeling a strong desire to put his arm around her and tell her that it was alright, no one would judge her if she admitted the truth.

Today, Mrs Watters looked a little more drawn than usual.

“I’m very tired, Doctor.”

She had been tired two months ago, when she was last seen, and Simon had ordered routine bloodwork which was – as always – absolutely fine.

“Are you more tired than two months ago?”

Simon was hungry, and was consciously trying not to seem irritated, for anxiety not to offend her.

“Its more intense tiredness. Then I was tired all the time. Now I’m tired right through me, all the way.”

“Has anything happened?”

“No, nothing, everything is fine. It’s only that – well my appetite is totally gone.” This was another frequent symptom of Mrs Watters’, investigated many times.

“Do you get food into you?”

“It’s a struggle. I don’t, really.”

Simon had resolved the last time to limit the investigations on Mrs Watters. This was a recurrent resolution.

“Let’s go back to the tiredness. How are you sleeping?”

“I’m sleeping better than I was, but I just feel exhausted. I go to bed for a nap after a few hours and sleep the afternoon.”

This was a new variation. Simon paused, and then launched fluently into a explanation he had given many times before.

“Now Mrs Watters, you know that isn’t a good idea. If you nap during the day, you’ll have a worse quality sleep at night, even if you sleep. If you just stay up through the tiredness, you’ll feel better in the long run.”

“I’ve tried that, I’ve really tried, but I’m just so tired.”

“I really think if you try for even a week, it’ll make a big difference.”

What he disliked about golf was having to take it seriously. It was a chance to be in the open air, to daydream. It was an escape from the cares of running a clinic, not only the stress of seeing patients but of managing the practice, ensuring everyone got paid and had their ego massaged appropriately. Paul used the game to regale Simon with malicious gossip about medical and academic figures Simon had usually only dimly heard of, if at all.

The day had begun with towering slate grey clouds looming from the Atlantic, usually the harbinger of the inescapable rain. Today, however, the day had turned out sunny. Dr Simon Harris, who took everything he told his patients seriously, shifted a little uneasily in the sun. He had no sunblock or sunglasses, and thought of all the old ladies and gentlemen he had solemnly commanded to always cover themselves in Factor 50 at the very least, and to make sure to wear proper ultraviolet-resistant sunglasses. Prof Gildea, who liked to holiday in Florida ever since working there as a medical resident, strutted confidently in the sun. Simon, feeling fat and red-faced beside him, was crushed at cutting such a ridiculous figure.

Futhermore, he was worried about Mrs Watters. He had managed not to order any investigations, which was a victory. And yet he thought back to his consultation. She did look like she had lost weight. She looked drawn. Why hadn’t he done a quick physical? She was the last patient before lunchtime, or on Thursdays finishing for the day, and he had been impatient. Despite his liking for her, his desire to comfort her and help her, he had been impatient. Thursday afternoons were a time he felt younger, when Paul Gildea was a satisfyingly bitchy companion and, by his gossip, seemed to treat him as an equal.

The night before, after dinner and a few glasses of wine at Paul’s house, Simon had lain awake for two hours, or maybe more, picking over the endless I-me-my-mines of his old friend’s conversation. He felt guilty at resenting Paul, and wondered if it was rooted in resentment at how far his academic and social star had risen. No, he didn’t think so. Paul was still very nice to him, very considerate. He suddenly thought – one could be considerate, kind even, and yet utterly self-absorbed. Indeed, the listener – or rather the one who had the privilege to attend to the egoist’s remarks – with their individual virtues, could become part of the awesome, humbling egotism of Paul Gildea.

For it was an egotism so monumental it humbled, a force of nature; which Simon found it hard to blame Paul for. Paul had always had a fairly healthy opinion of his own worth, but in the last year the self-absorption seemed to have taken nearly entire hold of his person. Simon noticed it in his every utterance – everything he said seemed intended largely to reflect the greatness of Paul Gildea. It was impossible to converse with him any more. He delivered monologues, anecdotes which he seemed to have learnt off by heart. Simon had a mental image of him getting up early each morning and polishing his lines in the mirror each morning. Paul did not so much brook no interruption as carry on unregarding of not only interruption, but the normal conversational give-and-take. It seemed at times as if he was afraid, as if he felt that to allow the other to speak would compromise him in some way. Only on the golf course did he seem to relax – a little. For there, while he needed to dominate the conversation, he seemed to want to entertain.

On the par four 15th, Simon hit the ball sweetly, full on. For once, he knew he had hit a good shot. He experienced the keen pleasure of something done well. The satisfaction of achieving. At instants like this, Simon understood why some became so fixated on golf. If only it could be a succession of these moments and nothing else, free of the false bonhomie hiding so much resentment and disappointment, free of the losing and the failure.

The ball flew high and true. It would get close to the green, Simon thought. No, it would get closer – it would make the green. It flew right towards the hole, and Simon and Paul both were seized by a feeling of certainty of what was about to happen. The ball neatly disappeared into the hole.

“A hole in one!” said Gildea, redundantly, “and on a par four too!” It was the sort of obvious thing the new Paul Gildea would say, except Simon did not mind, for this time it was said simply and unaffectedly. For an instant the achievement transcended things. They were simply two figures on the golf course, enraptured by one of those special moments that made sport worthwhile.

In the silence, Paul addressed the ball. He played (as Simon almost always did) woefully and holed in ten. The quiet continued as he completed the hole.

Walking to the next tee, Paul said “A funny thing happened the other day” and Simon knew that what he was about to hear would certainly not be funny. He tightened his buttocks and curled his toes, and tried to assume an interested expression. Does Paul notice the disappointment, disdain even, on my face? he thought. Simon however was already in anecdotal midstream, and Paul knew from experience it was impossible to steer back to any shore.

That morning, before they had gone to work.

“I need a break. We need a break, I should say.”

“Where would you like to go?”

“Well, I know I don’t want to just go to Connemara and do what we always do.”

“Oh, you know I don’t mind much where we go.”

“But you never want to go anywhere new.”

“Well, I guess I do think that if you own a holiday home, you should get use out of it.”

“I know, I know. But we’ve been done six weekends already this year. We’ve got great use out of it. We get nearly as much out of it as our own house.”

“I have no problem going anywhere.”

“But you always do, Simon, you always worry about the money.”

“Well, that isn’t so unreasonable.”

“Simon, we have nothing to worry about.”

“We still have to finish off the mortgage.”

“Yes, in triple quick time. Everyone else is buying property to invest, to let out. While we are just in hock to your fantasy about living without debt.”

“Is it a fantasy? We are nearly there. In another year it’ll be a reality.”

“Look, why not celebrate by going somewhere really nice?”

“Like where?”

“South Africa.”

“South Africa.” he trailed off. A trip to South Africa would hardly be bad. “Would it be expensive?”

“We could always take out a loan?”

“Why?”

“Not this again. Oh, Simon, this is so bloody irritating.”

“I just don’t see the point in getting into debt.”

Simon was happy enough to stay around and read novels during his holidays or perhaps go to the bungalow in Connemara. Dutifully he went on ski-ing holidays with Sandra and the Maxwells – she a psychiatrist from Sandra’s college class, he engaged in some line of business Simon could never pin down – despite the fact that the activity held no interest for him whatsoever. He would gingerly slide down the basic slopes, while Sandra and the Maxwells went straight to the black ones. These holidays had resumed after a break of some years now the Maxwells children were older. The children too could ski with verve and confidence. All Simon could do was the snow plough, badly.

At moments of loneliness in the early years of college, Simon would think to himself “I was the brightest student in one of the best schools in the country. Therefore, I’m one of the brightest people of my age in Ireland. Therefore, I’m not too far from being among the brightest people of my own age in Europe.”  He drew comfort from this. He imagined himself, after a few years of medical practice, pioneering some new treatment or – better yet – conceiving an entirely new concept in medicine. Then, in retrospect, his early years in medicine, barely passing each exam despite long hours of looking at textbooks and anatomy atlases.

He had always been around pass or at most low second class honours standard. Academic achievement was something that you never talked about, but everyone coveted.

Harris didn’t think he was a bad GP. He was kindly, and sympathetic, and had developed enough clinical confidence to have a pretty good idea what needed to be referred on and what could be kept at his level. He knew many of the patients, particularly the older ladies, had become slightly dependent on him. He had a certain edge of fear, the fear not just of litigation but of the shame of anything that he could possibly accuse himself as malpractice. As an intern, once he noticed an elevated sodium on a patient who had subsequently died, but hadn’t discussed it with anyone superior, until he was asked about the patient an hour or so later. Simon knew – he knew at the time – that it would be stretching the point considerably to blame him for this, but he still felt that if any, even the remotest, possible blame attached to him, he was complicit in a wrongful death.

Is this what I want? he often asked himself. He still indulged in the schoolboy dreaming of making some great discovery – a Harris constant, a Harris’ procedure, a Harris equilibrium.

Life was good. Sandra was extremely congenial company. They had a beautiful house in Galway and a neat bungalow in Connemara. They had had no children.

It was the alphabet that brought Professor Paul Gildea, Professor of Medicine at the University of Galway, and Dr Simon Harris together. Gibson, Sorcha. Gleeson, Sandra. Gleeson, Suzanne. Gildea, Paul. Harris, Simon. That little group, for six years, sat in tutorials together, gave presentations to each other, was ignored in outpatients and ignored on ward rounds, and ultimately filed up one after another for their degrees, their brief moment with the President of the College. Of the six, Simon had married Gleeson, Sandra, had lost touch with Gleeson, Suzanne and Gibson, Sorcha, still played the odd game of golf with Fadden, Eamon and was the best friend and confidant of Gildea, Paul.

Paul had returned to become Professor of Medicine two years previously, the youngest incumbent in living memory and wildly believed to be the youngest Professor of Medicine in Irish medical history. He had come back from Boston, having established an international reputation in his field.

Calm, judicious, politically adept in the widest sense, Professor Paul Gildea was the risen star of Irish medicine whose horizons were still expanding. The only question was, what next? He had already been inducted onto various committees, and was spoken of as the most influential voice in shaping health reform in the country. All sides, even the most seemingly radical, in the often vicious debates about the nature of the reform seemed to feel that Professor Paul Gildea was on their side.

With Simon, Paul could relax. They played appalling golf together, laughing until Simon’s cheeks seemed to hurt at the successive awfulness of each of their games and for once Simon felt it wasn’t such a bad game after all. That was the first year of Paul’s return, the first few months when things seemed as they were. .

Sandra shoved The Connacht Advertiser under Simon’s nose. She wheeled around, obviously gleeful; Simon tried to decide if it was innocent or malicious glee.

“Look who it is.”

She pointed vaguely at the page. Simon looked down, but could only make out a sea of print and photos.

“Who? Where?”

“There.” She pointed at an ad in the left-hand corner.

It was a full page ad in the tabloid section of the paper. “Dr Simon MacSorley, Natural Healer” was printed in large letters on the top of the page. “Simon MacSorley, a Registered Medical Practitioner with a degree from the University of Galway and qualifications in Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) Medicine, will be in attendance at the Merlin Park Hotel every Saturday during April”, it read.

“So that’s where he is” commented Paul. Sandra had taken back the paper. She started reading from the advertisement in an archly sarcastic tone. Paul hated it when she read stories from the paper in tones of either righteous indignation or of outright mockery. She would say something like “you should read this”,  and, after he had made some noncommittal noise, begin to read it out aloud. It was annoying, but a habit he objectively saw was so trivial that he could never bring himself to say anything to Sandra.

“Dr MacSorley has travelled Asia and South America studying traditional healing in those countries,” she put a special emphasis on the word “countries”, “as well as immersing – immersing –himself in the faith healing tradition taught by Fr Antonio del Amici in Padua, Italy.”

If Simon Harris was someone who never quite fulfilled his promise, Simon MacSorley did not have any promise to squander in anyone’s imagination. He had been a completely unknown presence to his peers as well as to the faculty when an undergraduate, both as a preclinical and as a clinical student. He had failed into the year Simon Harris’ graduated form after beginning two years previously, and somehow managed to get through despite having to repeat nearly every exam. MacSorley was neither a big drinker nor a great socialiser – indeed no-one knew him well. He graduated with his peers as a sort of afterthought. There was a certain amount of bitterness expressed by some. They had slaved so hard, had turned up at so many lectures and on so many early hospital mornings to be roundly ignored, that it seemed unfair that MacSorley had the same degree as they did. There was even talk of a petition.

By now he was the object not of sorrow but of pity. MacSorley had become an infamously hopeless intern – not lazy, not dangerous as such (enough checks and balances were in place), but hopeless. He was adequate at internship, but his was an adequacy that would go no further. He managed not to land a job after Intern year and spent time wandering around looking for work, and had then got a place on one of the nascent GP schemes. Soon he was dismissed from this for chronic non-attendance at his Obs and Gynae rotation. “By mutual consent” was the phrase used in the inevitable gossipy exchanges in the medical world.

Mrs Reilly was one of Simon’s regulars. At least thrice weekly she attended the clinic, with the elderly constellation of anxiety, arthritis, hypertension and at the back of it all loneliness and a fear of the next world.

Paul was neither particularly anti-alternative medicine not completely for it. He could reconcile an ungrudging appreciation of its possibilities with a cynicism about the scientific basis, or lack thereof, of the enterprise. His attitude could be summarised as: it might make them feel better, but does it actually work?

Mrs Reilly’s major complaint was rheumatoid arthritis, for which she was on a great range of conventional and unconventional treatments. None seemed to make much difference to searing pain of the evenings. She habitually wore a little brass band, purportedly magnetic, on each wrist, as well as various scapulars.

But today things were different. Mrs Reilly walked in – no, she bounced in. Paul, in the five years he had been attached to the practice, had known her to be his most consistently unhappy patient. Always the pain of the arthritis, always the worry of being worried.

“How are you, Mrs Reilly?” he asked.

“How are you, Doctor?”

“I’m fine. I have to say you look marvellous.”

“Doctor Mac Sorley has me cured,” she announced.

Doctor MacSorley’s name was being mentioned more and more by the patients. Most of them felt just as bad, or worse, after whatever exactly MacSorley did to them or for them – nevertheless, their reverence for him held. Simon began to feel a resentment at this unquestioning allegiance.

Simon had his memories of first year physics, and his later reading of popular science magazines, to thank for his big idea.

Every so often, seized by an enthusiasm for science, he bought a copy of the New Scientist. Seduced by the fascinating variety of the world of science depicted therein, he would subscribe to the magazine, and over the next year accumulate a stack of unread copies. For he was much more interested in the publication as an abstract entity than a reality. He would flick through the news at the front, then the letters and the amusing column at the end, start on one of the feature articles which always seemed to promise much more than they delivered, and that would be that.

He would unwrap each from the plastic wrapping, for he would feel guilty if he left the magazines not only unread but unopened (like the medical weeklies) After a while he would put the growing pile into the attic, with the other unread copies.

It was a long summer for him. Sandra’s annual leave had all been taken earlier in the year, and St Elizabeth’s Maternity was much busier than usual. Thus he was spending the earlier part of most evenings alone. The slight disappointment he had began to always feel grew. He began to think on what might have been. He should have studied history, or even better done pure science. Then he would have achieved something, left some kind of mark.

He had always felt an affinity for Simon MacSorley, possibly because of their shared first name, but more fundamentally because they were both, in very different ways, at odds with the mass of the class. MacSorley had done something with his life, he thought. Something ridiculous perhaps, but remembering Sandra’s cut phrases of disdain, Simon felt a great sympathy for him. Sandra at times like that took on the form of the great, impersonal world, crushing the spirits brave and eccentric enough to follow their own paths.

Simon Harris had never really been an enthusiast for travel, but the idea of MacSorley’s travels – not the travels themselves or the places he had gone, but the idea of them, with their search for the healing, the search for the sublime, appealed to his sense of life as a novelistic series of grand gestures. He had come to believe that the rational calculation of advantage was not only impossible, but not a true motivator for any human being, no matter how seemingly rational. People acted as they were emotionally impelled to. The rationalisations followed. This was not a call to indulgence of whims; Simon’s own thrift, for example, was his own emotional need and also in his own interest.

He was not naturally given to ruminating, and after a short while he would get up, pace around the house, and start reading a book. Or watch TV for a while, although he disliked the passivity. It was better than the ruminating, and then Sandra would come back and they would talk over the events of the day.

One evening this ruminating went on longer than usual. What might have been, if only I had used my talents, he thought. A prize he had won in school for science writing – it was on quantum physics, Simon forgot most of the details – had come into his mind. It felt so recent; his self-image was the same as that fifteen-year old. This is what the passing time means, he thought, the realisation that possibility has come to an end. And then, returning suddenly to his usual essential optimism, he thought no, that isn’t necessarily it.

He got up and went to the attic, and began to dig around the stack of old New Scientists. Then he found it.

“The Computing Power of the World in a cup of tea.” The cover showed a cup of tea in plain white mug, against a white background. One could barely tell where the cup ended and the background began. Only the crescent of brown liquid reassured the viewer that this was a cup of tea. It was an article he had never finished, but the idea had stayed with him.

The article itself he skimmed over, reading the enticing opening paragraph with great attention but gradually losing interest as the article became more detailed. The idea of immense computing power in a little liquid stuck with him. Sometimes he wondered if something like the colloid plasma expanders who used to write up for intravenous administration for so many patients when he was a young doctor might do the job.

If only he had devoted his life to something like this! It was not too late. But where to begin? After all, he couldn’t even finish the article.

Then he thought of the savings he had accumulated with Sandra. They had bought a house in Galway when the prices were reasonably, and two doctors had no problem getting a mortgage at at time when this was not to be taken for granted. As the mortgage reduced in scale, their not inconsiderable salaries had gone into high-interest accounts. And all through the years Simon himself had put a thousand pounds here, a few hundred euro there, into various saving certificates and government bonds and forestry shares.

“The Irish Investor’s Bible” – that was the subtitle of Investment Republic, the magazine which Dr Harris subscribed to. Usually he would hop over from the surgery at lunchtime, and would pick up the post. He hid this from Sandra, feeling a vague shame. It would be like being found with a self-help book, of which he had more than a few hidden in drawers and amongst piles of clothes Simon liked to keep in touch with the world of investments, as high yield and low risk as possible. These aspirations are of course mutually contradictory, and up to now he had always leaned towards the low risk.

Therefore, for a long time he had never looked in the section called “Investment Opportunities” Investing in a company as opposed to a savings plan, guaranteed by a reputable financial institution, had never appealed to Simon, but now – mesmerised by the idea of money as a stairway to, if not scientific eminence, than the visionary status of a Craig Venter, he looked eagerly every month, especially for the magic q word. He might not understand quantum computing, but he knew that his greatness, his destiny, lay in the field.

And one day it appeared. Quark Quantum Qumputer Inc. Simon giggled at the name. How could it be so incredibly perfect? Then he read the brief profile. Q3, as they referred to themselves throughout, were a start up company based in Duluth, Minnesota. Their CEO was Allan Archibald Montgomery. They intended “to bring the quantum revolution into every living room.” They were looking for an investor with one million U.S. dollars to kickstart their work. They had a promising prototype quantum computer. For more details send an email to info@q3.com. Simon accepted this invitation.

A week later so some folders came through the post. Simon had got into the habit of coming back home at lunchtime to check the mail. There were pages and pages of diagrams – the prototype computer was a small gel which exploited gammatronic properties of Polybendium. That sounded good. There were many press cuttings – from newspapers such as the Pennsylvania Democrat-Enquirer, the Skokie Constitution-Telegraph, the Alabama Vanguard and the Peoria Post-Palimpsest, from magazines such as Investment Frontiers, Technology and Computing Quarterly and The Monthly Atlantean. Simon had never heard of any of these publications before, but they were all evidently genuine – in the margins of each photocopied piece there were items of unfakeable local colour – Senators and Congressmen and Mayors praising or denouncing this or that, Skokie and Peoria residents achieving notable feats or bemoaning official apathy.

There were pages of financial details, which boiled down to one salient fact – investors who put their money into Quark Quantum Qumputer would have a unique opportunity to get involved in the tomorrow’s biggest technology – today. Not only were riches promised, but a place in history.

Why not? Why not? The thought stayed with him all through the afternoon and evening clinics. He sent another email later that evening, before Sandra came home. This was addressed directly to Allan Archibold Montgomery. In it, Simon proposed that he invest one million dollars in Q3

Two days later, he received a reply.

“Dear Dr Harris,” it began. As he opened it, Simon felt a surge of joy, of anxiety. “We would of course be absolutely delighted to have you on board. In exchange for your generous investment, we can guarantee you a seat on the board of Q3, and 20% of all profits for the next ten years. As the Q3PO prototype is nearing the end of beta testing, we anticipate a launch date in the next eighteen to twenty months.”

It continued in this vein for a while, and ended with a request for wire transfer of funds to an account in Duluth. They would dispatch contracts of agreement immediately, and once returned signed Dr Simon Harris would be on board the Quark Quantum Qumputer bandwagon.

“Separate accounts and separate beds are the secret of a successful marriage.” Sandra had once read before marriage, and sometimes repeated.  Simon was glad she had ignored both parts of the saying, and she entrusted their savings to Simon. Cashing in all their savings plans, Simon knew he could raise two hundred thousand euro. Not enough.

What about the house? His name was the only one on the deed. Sandra had never bothered to make any enquiries about it. She need never know. Their income was pretty much guaranteed, and once Q3 came good there would be no problem in any case. There was the flat above the King’s Head that they had bought as a buy-to-let investment. Every academic year it was let to students, and then in summers it would be let to tourists, or JYAers from the States.

Simon couldn’t face evicting the students now, right before their exams. For he wanted the money quickly; he wanted to have made the investment yesterday. There was a rush of impatience in him that would not be satisfied to wait. As he sat in front of Montgomery’s email, his thoughts turned to Paul Gildea. Arrogant, masterful Paul Gildea, strutting around the golf course, talking about his keynote presentation to the European Society of Renal Medicine or somesuch body of chancers. Paul Gildea. Simon resolved that he would outstrip Paul Gildea, outstrip him easily.

Sandra rang at this point. She had been driving home when a call came from the hospital – a woman in the twenty-third week of pregnancy coming in. She had to rush back to the maternity hospital. It could be late when she got back. She was sorry, Simon told her not to be.

He would do it. Tomorrow, he would go into Connacht Building Society and remortgage the house as soon as possible. He could arrange to cancel the morning clinics for a few days next week, arrange to have a valuer come round, and within a few days the remortgaging would be arranged. A house three doors down with only three bedrooms had gone for six hundred thousand euro the previous month. Theirs should easily realise at least that. At the current rate of exchange, he should easily be able to accumulate a million dollars.

Three weeks after he had went into the Bank of Ireland, and waving his passport at the disbelieving manager, arranged to have the million dollars transferred to the Q3 account, Simon sent another email to Montgomery. Where are the memoranda of agreement that were to be sent, the contracts? He had been anticipating their appearance in every post. He then thought that they would be delivered by registered mail.

There was no reply. And no reply either to the succeeding emails. At first, Simon told himself that something had perhaps gone wrong with the email server. He also wondered if the money had disappeared into the ether. There had been something unbelievable about the series of transactions. He had been a millionaire, and then no longer a millionaire, without ever seeing any money. A check at the bank had confirmed that the money had gone into the Minnesota account. The account had, further enquiries confirmed, since been closed.

Simon would always have been terrified of just this eventuality. Yet now he faced it with utter equanimity. After all, their salaries were equal to the mortgage repayments. And despite the evaporation of Q3 – their website still existed out there in cyberspace, but no-one answered the phones – Simon felt that at least he had staked his all on something. Sandra noticed his detached air, but didn’t say anything. It was just Simon. She felt no guilt when she rang to say she was working late, and then drove to a room in the Radisson Hotel to change for dinner with Paul Gildea.

There was no reason things couldn’t go on as they were, Simon realised with relief and disappointment. There was no reason things couldn’t go on as they were, until one day Sandra came home. She came into the living room, where Simon was reading the Irish Times, evidently holding herself together with great difficulty.

“I had a needlestick today. In theatre.”

A needlestick incident. Of itself, this wouldn’t necessarily be anything to worry about, he thought. There would be a tiresome series of tests. It happened to him every so often. Usually he ignored it. In hospitals, and especially in theatre, it was harder to just carry on – so many people saw it.

Sandra continued with a clipped delivery. “She’s HIV positive. High risk. High viral load. It’s always the way.”

What did that mean,  “it’s always the way”? Simon thought. Then he realised that Sandra had abandoned her mask of self-control and was weeping openly. He went to embrace her, folding his arms around her awkwardly.

She cried and cried, and then composed herself. Then she told him she needed to take some time off work for the series of blood tests that would be required. The initial tests might be negative, but she would need to have them again over the months. Due to the bloody nature of her branch of medicine, she would have to take this time off work.

“Still, she was almost smiling as she wiped away tears, we have all those income protection insurance things, don’t we?”

She was smiling fully now, with a look that said “I always thought you were a dry stick, but now look who’s right.”

Simon felt fear grasp his intestines. There was no way to avoid it now. Perhaps he could tell her half the truth, tell her that he had cashed in some of those policies, but leave out the mortgage and the bulk of their savings.

But he realised that he couldn’t – not anymore. Each lie would only lie buried for a little while, and would then be uncovered. He would have to tell her everything.

“Sandra, I have to tell you something about that.”

She looked alarmed. He wondered what was the best, the most persuasive way to explain what had happened.

“Sandra, you do know that when I was young, I was one of the most brilliant boys in one of the best schools in the country…” he began.

Simon walked out of the house. It would always be empty for him from now on. It was the end of the academic year, and the flat above the King’s Head was becoming free. He got into the waiting taxi, looking back at the door. Sandra wasn’t there.

It had all been smooth, really. Respective solicitors had taken care of everything. One day he had gone back, to get his clothes and a few books. It had been pre-arranged that Sandra would not be there. The practice was finished, after all.

When he got back to the flat, he went straight to the bedroom and lay down. He was wrecked, too tired to move his things from the house into the flat. They could stay in the car another couple of hours, what harm?

What will I do now? He thought, and for the first time he realised that this was more than just what would he do for the rest of the evening. This was what now for the rest of my life. He couldn’t go back to the practice, that was certain. While his medical registration was obviously unaffected by all this, the incident at the conference had ended it all forever. His patients had been taken over by Dr de Morgan, an eager young man with none of Simon’s apprehensions and hang-ups.

He looked through his phone numbers. He still had Simon MacSorley’s number, as he hoped. He went to find a pay phone, for he could no longer pay the mobile phone bill.

Three months later he was walking along the beach at Berehaven. Running up a sand-dune, he felt exhilarated. He had become used to the life as Simon MacSorley’s Personal Assistant, seeing the desperate men and women who came to see him.

The day of the interview with MacSorley, he put on a suit. He went back to his parents’ home to pick it up. It was the suit he had worn for work experience with an estate agents firm when he was in school. He had lost so much weight that it now fitted once again.

The interview hadn’t lasted long.

“Ha, you. Not so up yourself now, are you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You and that Sandra. Weren’t you great? Well, how the mighty have fallen, eh?”

“Look, I don’t need this…”

“But you do. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And I can tell you something else too. All of this is bull. Only fools and dopes could believe it. You have got to pretend you do, and you don’t have to pretend very well, because Simon boy you wouldn’t believe how bloody stupid people are. They believe what they want to believe.”

Simon came to hate the work more than he hated Simon. However he slept well, and felt full of energy and enthusiasm. He made the little bit of money that was needed, and most of all he had no limit on his time. He could walk in the wind and rain, and felt connected to the universe then. He had tried. The universe carried on, oblivious to our efforts, our triumphs, our failures.

As he reached the top of the sand dune, he suddenly realised how close he was to the golf course. The realisation came just as the course itself came into view, and all at once he could see Paul Gildea and Sandra on the course. They were laughing, and Gildea was standing astride Sandra, taking her hands through the motions of the swing. She never played golf before, was Simon’s first thought. He then noticed their physical proximity, their ease together.

Simon saw them on the course, and told himself: To hell with them. I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for their lives. Not half as beautiful as mine is now.

He said this to himself a few times, but he didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel sorry for them. Try hard as he could, he really longed for the warmth of Sandra again. The wind picked up a step, and the gust made Simon shiver. And with that shiver, Simon suddenly felt the beauty of the world, and he felt sorry for the laughing golfers.

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