Dr Edgware reacted with his signature calm and equanimity when presented with yet another patient. That is to say that he only cried very little this time. Then he took Rudyard away on a gurney, patched him up and prescribed bed rest and a mysterious pill he selected at random from a fistful of medicine like he was sharing out jelly beans at recess.
As for my part, I wandered off to the buffet to nibble on the underwhelming croissants that were trying their best to shrivel up and disintegrate in their deep-seated shame.
And this is how I spotted Chapman when he turned up in the foyer unexpectedly. He cleaned himself up, changed his suit and rearranged his hair in its usual artful coiffure. He seemed to have recovered the familiar, unnatural glow to his aura he’d carried like a solar crown of friendliness around him and he was nodding and smiling at the people passing him by, greeting him by name. But he also looked a bit harried under the surface of that abundant amicability. His eyes were fluttering, bouncing around the foyer impatiently as if in search of someone.
He was also stumbling somewhat awkwardly under a truly inexcusable amount of flowers and trailed a lofty, self-conscious looking balloon behind him. Peering a bit shortsightedly over his abundance of daisies, peonies, pansies and hydrangeas Eric spotted Dr Edgware at long last and dashed the physician when he located his slouching, fatigued figure across the hall.
'Hello there, Eric.' The doctor greeted him as he peered up from his clipboard. 'Took the wrong turn on your way to a baby shower?'
He asked this almost merrily, in a rare fit of joviality Eric remained entirely impervious to.
'I am here to see Rudyard, actually.' He said with a tad of urgency to his demeanour, just short of bouncing his leg impatiently, so unlike his ordinary, smooth-talking self.
‘Rudyard.’ The doctor narrowed his eyes at him.
‘Rudyard FUNN.’ Edgware repeated disbelievingly.
‘The very man.’
‘In this hospital?’ The physician sounded somewhat fearful as he said that. He developed a natural weariness of the local undertakers that originated around the STIF’D conference and did not improve since their spectacularly disastrous encounter around Bijou’s funeral.
‘I'm afraid so.’ Eric shrugged in apology.
‘What would Rudyard Funn be doing in MY hospital of all places?’
‘Well, this is where I brought him earlier this day.’
‘I thought that was just a nightmare I had.’ Shuddered Henry Edgware.
‘He was in a bad way back then.’ Eric added suddenly, in a slightly wavering register. Sounding a bit breathless as if he overexerted himself just by standing, shifting from one foot to another, lumbering around a small meadow’s worth of flowers.
‘And when was that?’ Demanded the doctor darkly.
‘Around two in the afternoon.’
‘Well, I don’t see little fires everywhere and there isn’t a flood of casualties littering my waiting room. So I'd wager that he must have expired by now - he'd been here for a while after all.’ Dr Edgware explained, consulting his watch. He visibly relaxed at the thought, making a debonair gesture at Eric. ‘Have you tried looking in one of the many fine funeral homes this island has to offer?’
‘Because,’ Continued the one medical professional with an abrupt shift to his mood, the register of his voice and his expression suddenly growing stern. ‘you see, you'd think having two funeral homes is a bit exuberant for a village that's only a mile long. But it turns out that the only thing we can't afford to have two of around here is bloody doctors.
‘Listen, Henry, I know I said that he was in a bad way.’ Eric sighed, gathering his composure, trying for his trademark excessive cheeriness, explaining himself with renewed patience. ‘But I doubt that he would have died from a sprained ankle.’
‘In that case, let us try the intensive care unit on the third floor.’ Groaned the doctor with palpable disappointment.
'Yes, let's.' Eric lit up again as he beamed at the doctor like the human equivalent of a stadium strobe light. ‘Cheers, Henry.'
We climbed the many floors, laboriously; Eric behind the shattered, sulking doctor and I in his pocket.
Only when we arrived, at last, did Eric seem to hesitate. Seeing how he struggled to bring himself to enter, Henry put a hand on the doorknob with an expectant stare.
'Just a minute.'
We watched Eric smooth his suit, his hair and his frayed nerves in turn. He tugged on his jacket and on the string of his floppy balloon that was trying its best to escape as if in a fit of stage fright. It was with a deep, shuddering gulp of breath he asked the doctor.
'How do I look?'
'You look perfect.' Edgware assured him with a tortured sigh. 'But don't bother.'
And he pushed the door in.
There was Rudyard the way I had left him. Curled around himself, on his side in a frail ball of brittle limbs, barely a shade darker than the starched linen of the bedding. Knees pulled to his chest, cheek resting against his palm. The room had a heartbeat matching the rhythm of Rudyard's soft snoring, his little, hapless puffs of breath as he slept on, not even stirring as we entered.
I was quick to scamper over to my friend. Confronted with the sight of him, however, Eric hesitated on the threshold before, strengthening his resolve, he decided to approach the bedside after all.
He did this on his tiptoes, with such delicacy that he hardly disturbed the dust particles dancing in the shafts of afternoon sunlight. He arranged his bouquet on a small sideboard and tied the balloon to the leg of the bed. Looking up, he saw how Edgware moved noiselessly beside the bed too, which made him jump.
'Crikey.' He floundered back while the doctor fixed him with a knowing sort of stare.
'There's absolutely no need for such care and consideration, Mr Chapman. You won't wake him. We had to put him in an artificial coma.'
'What?! Why? Was his condition so serious?' Chapman asked in a state of raw agitation, but the doctor remained calm.
'No.' Henry sighed, his expression going hazy with reminiscence. 'But he was getting on my nerves.'
'I see.' Chapman seemed unsure about whether this should make him feel relieved while Dr Edgware fondled the flowers rather menacingly.
'And how would you explain this?''
'Oh, these?' Chapman reacted like he'd only just noticed the impromptu garden he'd planted around the bed, his right fluttering to cradle the back of his neck. 'Just a tiny token of appreciation, really.'
'More a grand romantic gesture, won't you agree?'
'Hah, good one!' Eric laughed nervously, not fooling anyone. 'N-no, no, absolutely not. It's a small sign of goodwill at best! I mean, you know how it is. When you are down on your luck you sort of need your friends and I just thought-'
'Eric' the doctor's voice rang hollow. 'stop talking. I think it's time we had a chat, don't you?'
'I really can't do both.'
'How have you been feeling lately? Any mood swings? Intrusive thoughts?' asked the physician, giving Chapman a dry once over...
'I'd never had either of those thi-'
'Do you think that you could be a danger to yourself or to society at large?' The doctor steamrolled on, making Eric cry out in protest.
'Hmmm. I see. A-hm. I see.' Henry produced a pen, jotted something down. Looked back up at Chapman with a calculating glare. 'And would you like to be?'
'Nevermind.' Edgware muttered tonelessly.
'Look, Henry, what is this all about?'
'Just trying to establish what kind of mental disorder caused you to fall for this man here.' Edgware demanded to know, giving Eric a kind of look others would reserve for people who said things like 'What's so bad about genocide?'
Eric let out a soft puff of breath. He had the guilty air of a criminal about him, caught red-handed, as he admitted.
'Your guess is as good as mine.'
He looked down where Rudyard lay sleeping in a state of peacefulness and bliss hitherto unknown to him. Chapman hooked his fingers around the frame of the hospital cot like he was wrestling with the urge to reach out and sweep the lock of dark hair out of Rudyard's face.
'Rudyard, he is a brilliant man.' He said softly then he added, more insistent, when he caught Henry's eye. 'Somehow.'
The response was no more than a mere, doubtful sort of chuckle from the doctor.
'I know he is. But he's not my type at all. Because usually, and you can take this from me, usually I don't go for short, bitter and despondent with enough ineptitude to be classified as a deadly weapon .'
'Probably for the best.' Henry muttered, his sarcasm smarting. 'Now if everyone on this cursed island was as sensible as this-'
'I tend to prefer my dates' Chapman barrelled on, talking over him. 'to have great legs, an even greater personality and enough self-sufficiency so that they rarely seemed to need anyone else. Least of all me...' He admitted miserably in a sudden, rare moment of introspection. Then he turned his eyes back on my friend, his gaze overly distant. 'Whereas Rudyard…Well, he cares deeply about his people. And while I don't have the fanciful notion that he'd find me tolerable, you can't blame me for wanting in on that.'
It was unmistakable, the way Chapman's whole being seemed to dim upon uttering these words, his expression growing tight, eyes clouding over with something indiscernible.
'I don't doubt the validity of your feelings, Eric. All I say is that there is enough change and decay all around caused by Rudyard Funn without you interfering.' The doctor said mildly, with only the slightest hint of reprimand. 'So take my advice. Stay away, avoid him and leave me out of this. It's the best prescription I've got!'
'Sure, Henry. Whatever you say.' Chapman's frazzled demeanour was as far from his usual silver-tongued philanderer pose as it can get. He further surprised me by adding. 'And don't tell him that the flowers are from me, would you?'
'To be honest, I won't even remember that they were.'
'Cheers, Henry.' With that Chapman started to make a leeway then paused on the threshold to shoot a final look of utter supplication at the hospital bed and the patient in it before he nipped out of the door and disappeared from our sight.
Henry Edgware used this frail moment of tranquillity to take off his glasses, rub his face down, then place them back on the bridge of his nose again.
'You can stop pretending now, Mr Funn.' He said to the empty air.
Rudyard’s eyes popped open so readily, I became convinced he had been conscious all along. My friend groaned, rolled onto his back and pushed the heel of his hand into his eye sockets with a huff. He stayed like that for a moment or two before sitting up, contemplating the balloon by his foot.
'Can we both agree that this madness must end?' Dr Edgware inquired coldly from the room at large.
'It's not my fault that the man has no shame!' Rudyard bit back in riposte, dangling his foot from the side of the bed. 'Why wouldn't he leave me alone? It boggles the mind!'
'More importantly, why won't you?'
'Now look here-
'Let me identify a real solution for you: stop stringing him along. It will only end in tears.' Edgware said this in a deceptively steady voice but his calm was still clearly tinged with the resounding waver of a threat. 'I know that you don't like what he does or the way he does it, but hadn’t Eric earned some small measure of mercy at least? Have some consideration!'
'Thank you, doctor, but if I wanted to feel terrible I'd talk to myself. Now if you'll excuse me-'
Rudyard stood, scooping ,e up from his pillow and placing me onto his shoulder.
'Where are you going? Where do you think you are going?' The doctor's face remained impassive as he posited this question, only his voice dropped to a murderously low register.
'Well if all you're going to do is tell me stuff I already know then I'd better get a shift on. I've got some important work at home I could be ignoring!''
'If you think that I'll let you go home just so you can die a painful and completely unnecessary death without my help then you are very much mistaken!' By now Henry's cadence was nothing if not the honeyed purr of sheer deadly menace.
'Well if I do drop dead then I'll be in the right place for it' Rudyard squabbled back, oblivious to the growing danger his doctor has now posed. That is until Dr Edgware's hands clasped around him like a bear trap when he tried to glide seamlessly out of his room, as much as his limp would allow. 'Now let go of my arm! I'm very attached to it!'
The violent tussle that followed was not going to make Henry a poster boy for the Hippocratic oath. I was forced to jump onto the ground as Dr Edgware and Rudyard spilt out to the halls in a confusion of pinching and groping where the doctor would undoubtedly have overpowered his charge if it wasn't for a call that interrupted them.
It was none other than our funerary rival, sitting on a nobbly looking bench, reserved for visitors. Now he emerged from bracing his head on his arms, which were folded on his knees, in favour of striding over to us.
The other two men staggered apart, their momentum interrupted by Chapman's timely appearance. However, their eyes remained trained on each other and Henry's fingers were flexing involuntarily in a show of impatience. Only when Eric drew nearer did Rudyard dare to risk a quick glance behind himself.
'Chapman! What are you still doing here?' He yelped as he danced a bit further out of reach of the doctor who tried inching imperceptibly closer in the impasse. 'Don't tell me that you were going to camp outside my room until I woke up!'
'Ok, I won't.' Chapman conceded with ease, grace and a touch of relief before honing in on the scene at hand. 'Look, what is happening here?'
'I'll tell you what is happening.' His face marked by a deep furrow between his brows Edgware made no attempts to hide his displeasure as he pointed a shaky, accusing finger at his patient. 'Bearing in mind the circumstances of today's events and indeed his entire lifestyle, it's my opinion that Mr Funn here should see a psychiatrist.'
'I'll thank you for letting me decide what I ought to be doing.' Replied Rudyard in a shrill, sarcastic voice. 'And besides which, I've always thought that doctors, like you, are the most untrustworthy, devious, self-important charlatans in the whole of-
'Really? Good to know that you retain some vestige of sanity then.' Scoffed the doctor then his expression narrowed into that of a physician who was clearly contemplating the benefits of euthanasia. 'But let me tell you this: if you don't stay in bed, avoid stress and do as you are told I'll give you a real reason to be put in intensive care myself.'
'O-okay let's not get carried away here!' Chapman interrupted and he marched closer to sort of function as a human shield between patient and doctor. His usual, dazzling smile remained plastered on his features. Only, it wouldn't quite reach his eyes. 'Rudyard, are you sure that I can't persuade you to stay in Dr Edgware's care?'
'No, frankly you can't. Why should I bother undergoing a treatment that is only going to make me feel worse?'
Chapman paused to contemplate this question but then he breezed onward, sunny grin back in place.
'Now, now, Rudyard, that's not fair. You know what they say about St Pratt's: some people do make it out alive!'
'Look, Chapman, I'm having a terrible day, I can't feel my knees in this hospital gown - I'm going home.'
We could both see however that the good doctor was already gathering himself to pounce on his stubborn charge to wrestle him into obedience. So Rudyard shied and cowed while Eric swiftly planted himself between them and me- Well-
I scampered up and down Eric's trouser leg.
'Listen, Henry.' Chapman began and when he spoke every word was like a hearty slap on the back, enunciated with perfect friendliness. 'You work too hard. Why don't I help you?'
'Finally some sense. Now you grab his arms and I'll take his legs and together we can just sort of hoik him-'
'I meant by taking him home, seeing to it that he's laid up just like the doctor prescribed-'
Henry blinked at him, momentarily nonplussed.
'So-so-sorry are you talking about bedding one of my patients?'
'I would call it a non-emergency medical transport I think.' Spluttered Chapman blushing with unprecedented fervour while Rudyard choked discreetly on his own spit a little way off, bewildered.
'Eric, I'm in no mood to argue-' bristled the doctor in a court tone but Chapman remained indifferent to his concern.
'You know I think it's a really good idea. You just need someone to keep an eye on him for a couple of days so you could put your mind at ease and free up some of your time to spend with your many, many patients.' Suggested Chapman and he followed it up with a raspy chuckle. 'And I am just across the square after all. Who better than me to take these duties off your hands?
Henry decided to shoot them one last, jaded stare before his reserves depleted all at once.
'Oh, why not. Sure. Take him.' He relented with a sigh.
'You mean-' Chapman's face broadened into a slow, unbelieving grin.
'Take him, what do I even care. After all, you are perfectly entitled - as well as qualified, I suppose - to dig your own grave against all medical advice.' Conceded the doctor, his words brazen and resolute.
But rather than growing defensive, Chapman just beamed.
'Don't worry, I'll make sure that he follows your instructions to a tee!'
'I wasn't talking to Rudyard.' Edgware regarded the pair of them with a chastising look. 'I'll get the paperwork over to you. Wait here.'
And with that the doctor made to leave, dashing off in a cloud of fury, his coat billowing around him.
Eric followed him with his eyes until he was out of earshot then his gaze flickered right back at Rudyard.
'No bones broken, Rudyard?'
'My dignity is bruised but otherwise, I'm fine.' Rudyard confessed, trying to control his face, shape his expression into careful, trialled ambivalence. But he couldn't quite help the little something about the set of his mouth that belied his nerves. 'He's right, you know.'
'Hmm?' Eric blinked, slightly distracted.
'Stop trying to be nice to me, Chapman! When have I ever been nice to you? Or anyone?' Rudyard swallowed hard, his long throat working. He was dishevelled and looked, once again, unsteady on his feet. His voice had that sad and too honest quality that would surface at the oddest of times. Mostly when he was reminded that he did not bargain well in anything other than sincerity. 'I don't deserve your sympathy. Or anyone's. For all you know I've tried to injure or flat out murder you multiple times. Why do we still talk? It doesn't make any sense to me!
'Nor to me. But it is one of those little anomalies you have to build around.' Shrugged Chapman with a rueful little smirk, making Rudyard press his lips into a thin line of displeasure and the tension he lost briefly when laid up seeped back into his shoulders.
'You should really try to get better at self-preservation, Chapman.'
'Why? Am I making your job too easy?' Asked Chapman, his smile staying bright but growing brittle around the edges while Rudyard merely bristled at his bluntness.
'That's not funny! And as of that little incident at the radio station, you shouldn't even want to be on speaking terms with me, let alone…' Rudyard drifted off for a moment, agonising over his word choice before he finally settled on. 'help me.'
Chapman's grin went lax and a bit resigned as he kept looking at Rudyard with soft eyes like he was waiting for him to catch on.
'Do you really think that if I somehow managed to grow to like you through all these years of endless bickering and squabbling through all the tricks and pranks then I'm going to stop now? Besides, I wouldn't want any of that to get in the way of our friendship, Rudyard.'
'Friendship, what friendship?' Rudyard squawked so hard he nearly overbalanced, staggering heedlessly onto his bandaged feet. There was a degree of pleading to his voice but no trace of scolding. 'Chapman, I try to wreck everything you do, I scorn your every attempt to make friends-'
'Far be it from me to seem too naive or trusting but you probably wouldn't be standing here, trying to warn me if you intended to lead me cruelly on.'' Chapman admonished, but he only made Rudyard's pitch more hysterical.
'Well how would you know ?' he cried, making a frustrated noise, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. 'It could be a double bluff.'
'I doubt that you have the necessary skills to pull that off.' Chapman shot a look at his rival that was both fond and chiding and Rudyard pulled himself up in response.
'Oh don't underestimate me, Chapman! I disguised my contempt for you so far, I can keep it up a little while longer.'
For a moment, Eric's eyes widened in blatant surprise and when he began to talk it didn't feel like he was seeing Rudyard, even though he still stood facing him.
'Well I just hoped- I wouldn't have thought- that all that animosity between us was just a point principle, nothing personal. Just showmanship that's all it was. And that we still liked each other. Deep down.' Seeing Chapman's good humour fading was an oddly sad sight, something that made Rudyard fill with strange, diffuse compassion for the man. It made his heart shudder in dismay inside his chest.
There was another long silence between the two undertakers, heavy and stilted. Then, setting his jaw, if possible, even more firmly, Rudyard raised his gaze to catch Chapman's.
'Yes, alright.' Something was shifting behind Rudyard's expression, his sharp features softening to reveal something more tender. 'If it wasn't for the fact that we are in a competitive industry then I'd say that you are the only person I might conceivably, potentially, come to that sort of situation could describe as a friend.'
Several feelings chased each other on Chapman's face upon hearing that admission. I could see the startled surprise fizz then flicker out, to make way to panicked overanalysis, wary acceptance and — finally — to cautious hope.
'Rudyard. A-are you telling me that you don't hate me?' Chapman whispered.
"Hate" is a very flexible word, Chapman.' deflected Rudyard, abruptly very interested in his toes.
'And that maybe you even… care about me?' Eric wagered and there was a lightness around him that made the entire hall feel a little brighter in turn.
'Well, in a manner of speaking, no, I don't. But in another manner of speaking, which is a rather more precise and accurate manner of speaking, I do, yes.' Mumbled Rudyard, shying from the sentiment.
'Rudyard' Breathed Eric and the way he said his rival's name was almost too much to bear.
Certainly too much for Rudyard.
'But who cares? What bloody difference does it make?' He said pointedly, his brief tenderness gone as quickly as it came. 'Chapman, you moved in across the square, opened up your own funeral home, it's better than ours and you know it. How do you think we are supposed to get on? No, sorry. There is only room for one funeral home on this island. It is, as they say, still on. And Funn Funerals should keep on going until you've been squished right into the dirt.'
For once, Rudyard said this without a trace of mockery or anger, keeping his voice deliberate and restrained and his tone entirely too earnest for a threat, making it sound more like an apology. He endeavoured to smooth out his suit and his face grew more drawn when he realized that he wasn't wearing one. Instead, he fiddled restlessly with the suction cups from the EKG machine still attached to him, the needles still sticking out of his various blood vessels.
Only once he felt composed enough did he look up at Chapman, his eyes intense and steady on his rival.
'And I suggest you do the same. And you can start by stopping to come to my rescue. Like bringing me back from the literal grave? From a certain perspective, it's a counterproductive waste of your time.'
'But that's an entirely different thing!' Eric cried out in protest, his features creasing with a touch of distress and he drew closer to Rudyard as if unable to help it. 'Surely, you would have done the same for me if I were in your position. You know, if it really came to the crunch.'
'No, I wouldn't have.' Rudyard insisted in a gravelly voice, his stare suddenly distant.
A silence crashed upon us, drawing longer and longer, fraying my nerves, already wearing a bit thin.
'Oh. Well in that case I suppose I am the better man.' Chapman allowed, his earlier joy fading slightly. But the curious thing was that while this pulled a sudden, offended flash of a frown from Rudyard, the corner of his mouth crinkled with the slightest bemusement.
'Oh. Oh, I see. So that's what this is really all about!' He muttered in one long, menacing growl. 'I can see right through you, you know!'
Chapman's eyebrows drew swiftly together with a fresh bout of doubt.
'Blatantly, you are just flashing your generous nature and trying to make me look like a terrible person! Well, over my dead body!' Rudyard declared and the return of the frantic, nervous twinkle behind his eyes was almost a welcome change.
'Rudyard…! Eric complained with a big, put-upon sigh but to no avail.
'Mark my words, I will keep on going until I am a better person to be than you, Eric Chapman.' Rudyard snarled. He spoke like he was delivering an oath to bloody vengeance but the effect was spoiled somewhat by the quick, savage smile he flashed at Chapman. 'Starting from now! So better clear your schedule Chapman, because we'll have you over for dinner again, perhaps the occasional brunch! Yes, prepare to be wooed! Because I'll make it up to you if it's the last thing you do!'
'You mean the last thing you do.'
'I'm making the offers here.' Rudyard decided, then turned on his heels, sharply, saluted once, and fled the scene.
'Wait, Rudyard…!' Chapman called after him, too stunned to follow, as the first great inspection of Funn Funerals ended with nothing but a sorry trail of medical paraphernalia Rudyard had kept dropping carelessly on the floor on his way out.
The energy settled on resigned dread in the hall between us as Eric turned to look at me. 'Madeleine, can I ask you… Am I mad? Or is he?'
And to be perfectly honest, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was really the only one who wasn't.