The risk factors
As soon as I had said it I regretted it, asking about her husband, her partner, but she was very open, very honest.
‘He’s in a coma,’ she said, sipping a small glass of white wine for about the tenth time.
I knew that if I sounded shocked or surprised or attempted to offer sympathy, it would sound insincere. I had to remain cool, impassive. I needed to listen. But what do you say to someone whose dearly beloved is comatose?
‘You can go and see him if you want,’ she said, lifting her eyes so they were angled slightly towards the large open window of the bar. ‘He’s in there, across the road.’
She meant the hospital, its great Victorian façade recently repaired, with strange words carved into the stone: Relief Only.
‘You’re right,’ she said, leaning back in her leather-bound bath chair, ‘it wouldn’t make sense.’
She then turned her head and looked over at the building, where I assumed her husband was being kept alive and ventilated.
‘It was his own fault,’ she said, continuing to stare, the back of her neck revealing some of the age she skilfully disguised with make-up.
She angled her body, so she was back facing me, the twitching of her hands the tell-tale sign that she wanted a cigarette. I studied her hazelnut eyes. They were bright, signs of a better life once lived, before something else had created her jaded languid tone and movement.
‘You see,’ she said, warming to her subject, ‘he was an insurance man… which you would think would mitigate risk… you would think he would be the last person to end up in a coma through his own recklessness.’
‘Was it an accident?’ I asked.
‘Yes and no,’ she said, clearly reflecting on the event which had caused his bodily incarceration. ‘Somehow he got me involved. I suppose it wasn’t an accident, because I did what he asked me to do… run him over…’
I think I laughed, or chuckled to myself.
‘Was it an insurance scam?’
It was then her turn to laugh.
‘Who knows… only he knows what he was up to… and he’s not going to wake up and explain anything.’
‘You mean, you didn’t get any money?’
‘No,’ she replied, returning to sipping her wine.
‘But he still wanted you to run him over?’
‘Something like that. Maybe I just wanted to kill him! Well, he’s half dead now, or almost dead. He’s selfish like that… he would never do something on his own. Anyway, the point is, I was not meant to drive so fast… but I did. He went up so high in the air it took forever before he hit the ground.’
I wanted more detail.
‘What car were you driving?’
‘It was stolen… some fancy saloon. All I had to do was put my foot down and vroom... it shot off like a bullet.’
‘That’s not your fault,’ I said. ‘It was a strange car… one you were not used to.’
She turned to look wistfully out of the window again. She drew in a deep breath.
‘Do you know much about risk?’ she asked. ‘You might do. He did. It was an obsession… a science and an art. He wrote books about it. He taught students all they needed to know, then they would go and make their money… but he couldn’t do it.’
She flicked her head and her hair whipped back across her face.
‘There are those that do and those that teach,’ she said, running her fingers through the long strands of her curls. ‘You see, it was always about probability… probability this… probability that…’
She then reached down and picked up her drink.
‘I think I might need another,’ she said, this time finishing off the wine in one swift swallow.
‘I’ll go to the bar,’ I said, looking around at the empty tables and chairs.
‘No need,’ she said, catching the eye of the barman.
I tried to think of something else to say. I thought it should be part of my mission to cheer her up, but instead she asked me another question.
‘Have you studied?’
‘Yes, once,’ I replied.
‘And did you like it?’
‘No, it wasn’t for me.’
‘See!’ she said, lifting herself up in her chair and arching her back. ‘You’re like me. We can’t all be academics. We can’t have too many thinkers in the world or nothing would get done… would it?’
‘No, it’s not for everyone.’
‘But they put so much emphasis on it today… don’t they… going to university… don’t you think?’
‘It has become important.’
‘Still, there’s one less thinker, thanks to me.’
I looked back at the bar and watched the barman finish pouring her wine. He raised his hand and placed the wine glass on a small black circular tray with another small bowl of peanuts (which both of us had previously ignored).
‘Have you ever been obsessed about something?’ she asked.
‘Only as a boy,’ I said. ‘Perhaps something on TV, but I can’t remember.’
‘Madam, shall I take the glass?’ interrupted the barman, as he placed her drink down with the peanuts next to the other bowl.
‘Yes please… thank you.’
She started to sip the wine again, but I think she noticed I was scrutinising her consumption so, instead, took what I would call a normal swallow.
‘You know,’ she said, easing back in her chair, ‘I don’t think it was me that half killed him. It was his obsession, his permutations, his risk analysis… and getting taken in by that stupid group of students. They took things to another level… but he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. He should have seen it coming. I mean… the consequences of his actions… his misadventure. Now, I don’t know when he will die… and I don’t know if it is going to be my decision… to switch him off so to speak. The doctors only tell you to keep talking to him as if he is still alive… but he never listened before… so I can’t imagine he is particularly attentive in his vegetative state…’
‘It must be difficult…’
‘What is difficult?’
‘With your husband.’
‘No, it’s not difficult. It was difficult when he was alive… but with him lying there flat on his back not saying a word… no, trust me… that is not difficult… just time-consuming.’
‘Would it be a problem for you if he wakes up?’
She burst out laughing, too loudly in a way.
‘I like that,’ she said, at last resorting to the peanuts and throwing a handful into her mouth.
She rubbed her hands to remove the salt, took another gulp of her wine and settled back into her chair.
‘I’ll tell you the whole story, just so you know what sort of man he was. These students… well… they were different. Not many of them… half a dozen. They were clever… cleverer than any students he had taught before… so he said. That was something he didn’t like at first… because they would listen and challenge him. However, once he got over himself… his great big fat ego… he started to listen to them. Oh, and they had calculations… risk analyses he had never seen before… algorithms I think you call it… all worked out on a computer. Not only could they calculate the level of risk… they could also predict the outcomes of the actual event… if it was to occur… what was going to happen… the characteristics of that person… their biology… their personality… their previous life events and so on. Then they applied it to themselves. That’s clever don’t you think?’
‘It’s still a risk…’
‘Exactly,’ she said, raising her hand with one finger to acknowledge my point. ‘But you have to realise that my husband didn’t believe them. He kept on going on about it… rubbishing the mathematics, the statistics, the data… that was… until he discovered what they actually did…’
‘You mean the accidents?’
‘Made to look like… but they were real alright. I suppose I should have put my foot down… told him to step away… not get involved in anything so… risky. But you can’t tell an academic risk guru to…’
She stopped herself as she searched for the words and then decided to restart with another sentence.
‘Yes,’ she continued, ‘a man obsessed… that was my husband. But he was convinced, once he had seen it all in action. The morality of it was irrelevant once he saw it for himself…’
And again, she stopped herself from completing her sentence. There was more to tell; it was obvious from her strained furrow, her sighs of resignation.
‘But you participated,’ I said, perhaps rather unhelpfully. ‘I mean, in the accident… which I assume he had created for your benefit… for the money…’
‘I wish! I only found out, once he was well and truly unconscious and unlikely ever to return to the land of the living, that he never took out the insurance plan from which we could have benefitted. Now, I would like to ask him about that!’
‘Not if you’re my husband it isn’t. Oh no, he was sucked into their little game and didn’t care in the end about the money. In fact, it was never about the money, it was all about the risk. I met them all once, at one of those terrible Christmas Dean of the Faculty dos they always put on. That’s when I should have twigged, when I should have put my foot down… because I’m streetwise compared to him. I can smell a rat… a madness…’
‘What was wrong with them?’
She picked up her glass and drained it of the remaining contents.
‘You may well ask… I wish I knew… I couldn’t understand it. It took me quite a while to think it through, before I realised that none of them were interested in the money. Although I think they made the occasional claim to pay for a few things… their props. No, they were addicted… addicted to the thrill… the danger… the what if… the prediction… the outcome… And so was my husband. It was as if they had found the nirvana of the risk calculation and just wanted to revel in it.’
‘They were risk takers because they were thrill seekers?’
‘Yes, but not in his way. He decided to go one step further. He wanted to cheat death.’
‘Are you sure you had to take part?’
‘There was one side of me which was rational and wanted to have nothing to do with it, then another side of me had some kind of… what would you call it… opportunity cost. I thought to myself, one way or another, I couldn’t lose. That was my risk calculation… and I am almost free.’
‘Oh, I see,’ I said, grasping her meaning.
She remained impassive, fumbling in her handbag and searching for her phone.
‘Shall we go?’ she said.
‘Of course,’ I replied.
I quickly checked my own messages, as she paid. I needed to let them know.
When we got outside, I could feel the impact of the overcast day plunge a grey invisible shadow over us both. We both knew where we were going.
I disguised my limp as we walked across the road. We went to the left of the hospital and then passed separately through the revolving doors of the hotel. We ignored reception and got into the lift together. I smiled. I wanted to say sorry. But then I had to calculate the risk factors and decided the best option was to keep quiet, all the way to the end.
Author Notes: I am an author and artist living and working in London and Essex. I published my first novel, Zombie Park, in 2017, a sharp, witty, intense portrayal following the lives of trainee psychiatric nurses in the mid-1980s. I like to create characters who have been cut-off from the real world, enclosed in a less tangible one, which is nonetheless frighteningly gritty and surreal. As I work to complete my second novel, I am publishing short fiction and a flash fiction blog: Fiction Point, where dark and disturbing tales await!