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All at Once

by Bruce Costello

Dr. Miles Chatwick had decided today was the day. Standing up from his chair at the peer support meeting, he straightened his tie, cleared his throat and told his colleagues he’d just been given his own cancer diagnosis. They stiffened, made little marks with their pens and averted their gaze.

Finally, they turned to him with expressionless faces. Dr. Mathewson, head of Haematology, asked for details then discussed treatment options across the table with Dr. Stein from Oncology. The two of them disagreed on probable outcomes.

Miles withered unseen in his chair. The sad face of his daughter Poppy was heavy on his mind. Poppy had died in his arms of leukaemia almost twenty years before, at the age of six. It seemed like yesterday.

A swarm of oncological words rose up from the polished surface of the boardroom table and billowed in front of him, but he flew through it and they scattered like sparrows.

* * *

An Angel appeared, flew alongside Miles, and guided him to a shining hilltop, where past and present patients were gathered. They cheered and waved as Miles and the Angel whistled by, low above their heads.

“Are those people alive or dead?” Miles asked, without speaking.

“We don’t make that distinction,” the Angel replied.

Miles raised an eyebrow. “For me, as a doctor, it’s a crucial one.”

The Angel shook its head and muttered, “Simplistic, primitive thinking.”

Miles frowned.

“Don’t you know where we are?” the Angel asked. “You’ve got a face on you like a smacked backside. Do you not like it here?”

Miles gazed around him. “It’s lovely... but this is not my time.”

Time?” whispered the Angel. “Time? We don’t have that concept. What on earth do you mean?”

“I’m too busy. Got a practice to run, patients to see. And a wife I love.”

“Okay, fair enough,” replied the Angel, after a lengthy pause. “I think I get it. You want me to take you back there then?”

* * *

The meeting was still in progress. The fluorescent lighting was shimmering, shining oddly on the bald heads and clean shaven faces around the table.

Nobody seemed to have noticed his absence. Miles’ chair scraped a little across the floor as he slipped back into his body, and Dr. Mathewson swiveled in his chair and refocused his attention.

“What are your immediate plans for the future, Miles? You’ll be eligible for as much leave as you need.”

“I’ve decided to carry on working as long as I can,” Miles said, pondering how ‘immediate’ and ‘future’ could be used so mindlessly in the same sentence as if both were guaranteed. “It’s something I have to do.”

* * *

Miles looked up from the Oncologists’ Monthly Review a week later, wiped his brow and glanced at the appointments schedule on the computer screen.

“Nice of you to drop by,” he murmured to the Angel, who had just flown in to perch on the edge of the chair in front of his desk.

“I do like to keep in touch,” the Angel said.

Miles looked at his watch. “I don’t want to be rude, but I’ve still got patients to see. You Angels may not distinguish between the living and the dead, but we doctors do.”

“Okay. Fair enough. See you later then,” said the Angel, flexing its wings for flight.

“Sure,” said Miles. He grinned. “I’m still terminal, you know. My time is coming.”

“Time? The word has no meaning to me. What is the purpose of this time you keep going on about?” exclaimed the Angel.

“Here on Earth, the purpose of time is to keep everything from happening at once.”

The Angel roared with laughter, slapped its side, and left.

Miles’ receptionist ushered in his next patient, a young woman with short hair and tight lips. He stood as she entered, greeted her warmly and motioned her to the chair the Angel had vacated.

The test results he gave her that day were bad, but her face lightened as Miles spoke.

“We are all dying,” he said, “but I know for sure there is nothing to fear in death.”

“Thank you for that,” she murmured, blinking.

* * *

Two months later, the Angel visited Miles in his bed at the hospice. “You don’t look so good. You’re struggling, I see.”

“I’m so tired, so tired. And worried sick how my wife will cope.”

“She’ll be fine. Trust me,” said the Angel, touching Miles’ forehead. “Human are such worriers,” it murmured.

They flew low over a valley with emerald fields. The land rose gently from both sides of a slowly flowing river. Grapevines grew on the lower slopes and above them a kauri forest. A tui sang from the tallest tree, its head tilted back.

People in a meadow gazed upwards as the Angel and Miles glided down to land. Their faces were just as he remembered them, except their expressions were more vibrant and glowing.

Uncle Albert was there with his handlebar moustache. Aunty Joy, grinning, holding out a bag of boiled lollies. Grandma, in her fireside chair. Mother, looking up with a smile that went from ear to ear and back again.

Alongside Mother was a man in army uniform, whose face Miles knew only from photographs. “My son, my son!” the soldier was calling out.

And there was Poppy, Barbie doll in hand. “Daddy, Daddy!” Poppy cried, tripping over her feet as she ran to Miles and leapt into his arms.

“See!” called the Angel, as it flew away. “I told you there was nothing to worry about. And the best is yet to come!”

Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Costello

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