The key stuck, it took some jemmying but she got it to obey her hand. It was cold outside and if it was anything like her old front door, the keyhole would shrink in the chill. And particularly chilly it was; when she would exhale a fog and want to get into the warmth of her home the most, the keyhole would try its best to deny her. As this new door performed the same malicious trick she began to take it personally. She didn't get angry with the lock, she had no right. The simple fact that she was using something so personal as a door key to get into someone else's home was daunting enough without drawing attention to herself, and one of her childish tantrums.
The heft of the door was unexpected, she pushed at the oak with not nearly enough muscle. She heaved again successfully and the vacuum of warm air escaped to meet the icy street. The amber glow from inside was as inviting as the warmth but still she felt hesitant. It was her first day and this being only the second job of her twenty-three years, she couldn't help but feel anxious.
Anna was a nurse, a live-in nurse to be precise and the home behind the cumbersome oak door was now to be hers, for as long as she was needed anyway. Her last patient had passed on after a year of Anna's invested care and devotion. A tiring occupation she had discovered, both emotionally and physically, but she was drawn to it, and after a grief-stricken three month break, she was ready to do it all over again. Anna had a knack for picking herself up, no matter how dreary life would get she seemed to carry on, safe in the assumption that things happen for a reason. A delusion, but she had to believe it, as anyone in her profession would have to.
Sealing herself in and bitter winter out, she stood to accustom herself with her new lodgings. It was an old city house, grand masonry work on the outside and inside delicate, decorative wood. More oak panelled along the bottom of the walls, and a rich pool table green above it. It was old fashioned, but she liked it. Compared to her last job this was positively grand, straight away she noticed the smell, or lack there of. Mrs Cloister was helpless by the end, and her bladder and bowels were the first things to enfeeble. She would urinate where she lay, and it had taken Anna three months to forget that sour smell. This place smelt clean, if there were such a smell, and the varnished floorboards underfoot seemed near spotless.
Being a city house it was narrow, but this was compensated for by several levels. Anna's room was on the top floor, the third. This seemed strange to her, being so high in the building, and her patient existing only the ground floor, but it was not her choice. She begrudgingly climbed the narrow stairwell to her room, caught her breath, then unpacked her things before her patient would wake. It was still early and she had time to admire her new bed. This wasn't her first time in the house, she had been shown around by Edmond, her senior co-worker, a few days earlier. It was an interview of sorts, an opportunity for the owner of the house to meet his potential carer, and in-kind an opportunity for Anna to meet Mr Raab.
Anna, Edmond and Mr Raab sat around a breakfast table; Anna and Raab meeting and greeting while Edmond nursed a cup of tea. She was taken with Raab almost immediately; an elderly man, balding on top with shoulder length, slicked-back grey hair that started by his ears. His face was gaunt (to be expected) and eyes sunken, but they sparkled as Anna imagined they did when he was a younger man, in his courting days, and he had all the charm to marry them. Dressed in his best buttoned down shirt it seemed he had made an effort, and as they spoke she noticed he had worn his best dentures too. Palpably white and perfectly straight, and as he got carried away with his words they would leave his gums for a moment, like they were trying to escape his mouth every time he opened it wide enough for them to make a run for it.
He spoke of his travels and his beliefs, his opinions on foreigners and the government, and the more he spoke to Anna, the more she questioned her purpose in being there. He wasn't senile or demented, she was sure of that. There was a frailty about him, but no more than anyone of his autumnal years. Then she noticed something, behind the table and hidden by his shirt, the hollowness of his sleeves that had become obvious to her when the conversation ceased for a moment, when she had nothing to do but examine him. At the end of the affable interview Mr Raab mouthed a plastic tube attached to his motorised wheelchair. As he rolled over to Anna and Edmond, already standing, she noticed the hollow trouser legs, folded at Raab's waist. She felt stupid. How can she have not noticed? Why hadn't Edmond mentioned it? Mr Raab was a torso, a head, and nothing more. A quadruple amputee.
It was getting light now, the long winter night was finally receding and Anna was almost ready to start work. The last thing she unpacked was a picture of her parents and sister, in a freestanding ornate frame that she placed on her bedside cabinet. She smiled at the captured moment before removing her clothes, feeling strange as she did so in the unfamiliar room, shivering in the chilled grey light of the frosted sash window. She put on her nurses uniform with a sense of pride, patting out the odd crease and caressing the clinically white garment that hugged her figure so well.
Anna had enjoyed Mr Raab's company the other day, but still felt apprehensive about leaving her new room and approaching the man this morning. Though she had been doing this job for a few years now, this was still new to her; Raab was an educated, cognitive man. Nothing like Mrs Cloister, who would twitch and slaver all day long. Anna would speak to Mrs Cloister like she would a child, and this method was all she knew. Unintentional condescension. Something she was sure Mr Raab wouldn't take to kindly too.
Anna's plimsolls quietened her descent, her padded feet on the wooden steps allowed her to make her way to the kitchen without a sound, as lengthy and arduous as the descent was. She opened the kitchen door, surprised to see Mr Raab perched at the breakfast table in waiting.
'Good morning dear.'
Anna was taken aback, she was sure that she would have to help him to his chair from his bed.
'Good morning to you Mr Raab, how long have you been up?' She asked.
'A while dear, a while.'
'I'm sorry, I thought that I would have to help you up.'
'No, no dear. I can manage. I've been like this for a long time now.' He breathed.
'I didn't mean to offend you.' Anna explained.
'You didn't, why would it offend me.'
Raab smiled, and tilted his pale head towards a kettle.
'Would you like a hot drink? Some breakfast?' She asked, snapping into action.
'If you would be so kind, dear.' He nodded. 'A cup of tea, a boiled egg and soldiers. This is what I have.'
'Oh, sure. Not a problem.' Anna smiled.
His instructions were clear, the sudden directness had blindsided her a little. But she was there to serve, she had to remember this. Tea was easy, it was all in the open. She found the eggs and butter in the fridge, but Raab had to casually nod to the breadbin and the pot cupboard.
'How are you finding your room?' He interrupted Anna.
'It's nice, thank you.' She blurted in between stirring his cup of tea and lighting the stove.
'Calm down, there's no rush, I'm not going anywhere. Make yourself some, in fact, make a pot.' He said, a thinly veiled order.
Raab ordered through a grin, but they were orders nonetheless. Anna knew this, and occasionally she would turn to check if the smile was still there. It wasn't. His face dropped when she wasn't looking but reignited each time she turned and he was aware of her eyes upon him. She spotted the change in the reflection of the chrome on the kettle, as warped as the image was, it was obvious.
They sat, ate and drunk. Anna finishing last, saving her breakfast with a sense of guilt as she ensured she'd fed Raab first. It was clear on his face that he didn't enjoy this, that he was humiliated but she tried to make light of it. Unsuccessfully. This was harder than she expected but she would have to get used to it. This was the first meal of many to come. The happy pretence was tiring, Raab was struggling to keep his demeanour and as his dentures shifted he squirmed uncomfortably, embarrassed. Anna tried to reassure him with smiles of her own but it was face-cramping.
It was a while before she had raised the courage to ask, and she coughed up after a period of silence;
'I hope you don't mind me asking, but how did you get into your chair this morning?'
Raab looked at her, and immediately she felt guilty for inquiring. This was what he had hoped for, it was a look he would give to anyone who had pried into his situation. It's not that he was avert to anyone knowing, it was just that he enjoyed to see the discomfort in others.
'I'm sorry, it's none of my business.' She blurted.
'No it's okay… My chair. I so rarely part from it. Even to sleep, you'd be surprised how comfortable sleep can be with no awkward limbs to cramp.' He explained.
Anna giggled slightly, assuming his statement was made in jest, but the sternness of his face suggested otherwise.
'Anyway my dear, we cant be leisurely all day. I have work to do, if you'll excuse me.'
Raab mouthed the tube and drove out of the kitchen, Anna followed behind like a keen pet. He nudged a door open in the hall with his chair. The must of the room hit Anna's nostrils.
'This is where I work, it is my office, and it is private. I would appreciate it if you could remain on this side of the door and never the other. I will call if I need you, as I am sure I will. But for now. Please, make yourself at home.'
Raab nudged the door closed behind him, not meeting Anna's gaze as she stood, lost in the hall. This wasn't how she expected it to be, she imagined that she would have to be at his side at all times, never a room away. Sudden relief filled her, the overwhelming prospect of the job was suddenly halved, it seemed that Mr Raab could manage more than Anna had given him credit for. But what to do now?
She opened a door to what she assumed was the living room, though it was hard to classify it because of the lack of a television set, a generational prerequisite. The room was more like a library or a museum as far as Anna was concerned. It certainly had an academic feel, an atmosphere that she hadn't felt since she was a youth, her school days and the extracurricular excursions. The accumulation of books and antiquities peppered along overarching book shelves made for minutes of investigation. Not well-read or particularly scholarly she managed to find some interest in Raab's collection, enough to pass some time at least. She noticed pictures on the walls, so many in fact that there wasn't room for anymore; Most of them were of landscapes, taken on Raab's travels no doubt, and in some of them she spotted a younger, fully-limbed man. Her patient, beaming in sepia and black and white tones, standing shoulder to shoulder with proud tribesman, ascetic monks and other foreign mystics.
Raab's travels seemed to be off the beaten path. The kind of holidays you wouldn't find in a brochure, and the sort of expedition self appointed adventurous types would toy with. Bragging about the prospect of considering it in their midterm break, but instead, settling for an all you can eat, all you can drink, tourist trap. This was Anna; sun, sea, sex and simplicity.
Mr Raab had become an Indiana Jones type in her head, pop culture references being all that she could draw upon. Her awestruck smile soon faltered as she remembered how proud he was at the breakfast table, Anna spooning egg yoke into his mouth, wiping his lip with a napkin. It must be harder for a man, so venturesome, so full of life, to become suddenly, so unable. This room was a reliquary, celebrating the life of Mr Dreyfus Raab, a life that was cut short.
She had questions for her patient, questions about his past and his adventures, but she would ask them tactfully. Time was a commodity she had plenty of and until she felt the moment was right she was going to do her job and nothing much else. Right now she was waiting to be needed, sitting in a worn, studded leather armchair reading a randomly selected book from one of the many on the shelves. It didn't matter what the book was about, she perused the words just to pass the time.
Barely four pages in and the vacuous silence was broken; She heard her name, muted through the wall. Dropping the book at her side she sprung to life and head to the next room, the door still closed she rapped on the door.
'Mr Raab,' she whispered 'Mr Raab, are you okay?'
No reply came. She pressed her ear against the crack between the door and its frame. The house was old, built to last and the doors solid, she couldn't hear much but what she managed to pick up sounded like sobbing. She knocked again.
'Mr Raab, is everything okay? Did you call me?' She asked a little louder this time.
'Wait child, wait.' Came the muffled voice.
She waited. Suddenly the door opened steadily, Raab was already ushering Anna away from the door with his motorised wheels. She caught a glimpse of a metal contraption at the top of the doors hinges before it closed automatically.
'What girl? What is it?' Raab snapped.
'I thought you called my name?'
'Did I?' He lowered his head in recollection 'Perhaps I did.'
'It was only a few seconds ago, is everything okay?'
'Yes child, everything's fine, it's time for my medication. That's it.' He smiled 'Top drawer, in the kitchen, chop, chop.'
He sped into the kitchen, leading Anna to the drawer. She discovered a veritable trove of pharmaceuticals; syringes, vials of liquids, tablets of all colours, pipettes, bandages. She buried her hands in as Raab yelled;
'Two red, one blue, one white!'
He did this over and over again until she pulled out what she thought were the right containers. The blue and red pills were easy to find, but there were a lot of white tablets, all shapes and sizes. Holding out a handful of whites she let Raab select the right one with a nod of his head, hoping not to have patronised him.
Four tablets and a glass of water later, Raab seemed to be back to his collected self. Sitting at the table holding the empty glass, Anna watched the beaded sweat trickle on her patients head. It was clear to her that something had happened to him, he was in pain and tried his best to hide it. His face was taught, and though he smiled a smile of relief the pain was still twitching beneath the surface of his mouth and brow. Anna wanted to ask him if he was okay, but instead asked an easier question.
'So what are the tablets for?'
Raab met her eyes.
'Oh all sorts child, one is for blood pressure. The blood doesn't flow so well without the extremities to pump it.'
'The others?' She pried.
'Oh I cant remember, I've been taking them for so long now.'
'That's a point, If you don't mind me asking, How did you take them before?'
There was a tenuous pause, leading Anna to think that she had crossed the line again. She held her breath until Raab spoke.
'A nurse… Like you. You're not the first my dear child. There have been plenty others, not quite as young, or as radiant as you my sweet but they were here, in this house. In your bed.'
It was an ominous statement, it filled Anna with doubt. Why so many? Why didn't they last? Raab noticed her concern;
'Don't worry child, I know how it sounds. They just got tired of me is all, as I'm sure you will too.' He said, feigning a sorrowful look.
'I'm sure I wont.' She claimed.
'Your not the first to say that either?' He muttered the words before mouthing the tube, turning and then heading for his office. The door closing behind him.
Days had passed without incident. Aside from regular bouts of boredom, Anna was succeeding in her mission to satisfy Raab. She had kept her prying to a minimum, getting snippets of information out of her patient from time to time, but never so much as to annoy him. Raab was easily annoyed. Anna had noticed his frustrations, his shifting temperament, so fragile, so unpredictable.
The newspaper seemed to be the bane of him, he read it every morning and cursed its columnists by name, as if he knew them. It was the immigrants that angered him so, the news that more and more foreigners would come to Britain for a new start. Anna couldn't understand how a man so well-travelled, could be so narrow-minded. Each time he yelled at the black and white pages, it made her toes curl. One time he spat on to a printed photo after a particularly viscous rant, the phlegm acting as a full stop to his outburst, followed by silence and Anna's sudden disappearance from the kitchen. She would rather pretend she hadn't witnessed it, than be asked for her opinion. Her opinion being the polar opposite of Raab's, and no doubt, if she argued her views it wouldn't end well. Anna could be stubborn in her own way.
Knowing now, after her few days in her new job, that Dreyfus Raab was not quite the pleasant old man he had once seemed, Anna felt her plastic smile falter. The façade didn't seem so necessary anymore, and the more bitterness she witnessed, the more she would perform her duties, unhindered by the niceties that would need so much upkeep. Raab didn't seem to notice, his pleasantries were always a façade, and they still were, both playing their roles and everyday becoming quite the act.
The old man was in his office, or tomb as Anna had begun to think of it, sealed away and never to be exhumed until he would decide to rise from the dead once more. Not a regular smoker, Anna had recently taken to having the odd cigarette. Standing outside the front door, she propped herself against the wall. The air cold enough to make her shiver and fold her arms tightly around her chest, one hand close to her chapped lips, the cigarette between her fingers. She watched the street and its commotion through her fogged breath and cigarette smoke. This was the centre of London and the bustle of suits and shiny cars seemed so juxtaposed to the home she leaned against. While inside she would feel alone and stranded somehow, claustrophobic in the narrow halls. The prospect of so much life, living on the other side of one heavy oak door seemed incomprehensible.
Raab had beckoned her, he yelled from the hallway. Anna tossed the cigarette into the street, coughed and went inside.
'Where have you been?' Asked Raab.
'I just had a quick smoke while you were busy, is everything okay?'
'I wish you wouldn't, I can smell it on you, every time you come back you reek of it!' There was bile in his tone.
'I don't do it often, Mr Raab.'
'You shouldn't do it at all!' He snapped.
'I'll smoke if I want to, now what is it you want?'
Raab didn't like this sudden confidence, Anna could see it in his gnarled face.
'The fact that you don't know girl, is disappointing.'
Anna looked at her watch, 12:46 it read, a whole minute late for lunch. He liked organisation, everything in its place, anal retentive was an understatement.
'I'm sorry Mr Raab, lets get you fed.' She sighed.
The pair ate lunch, whether they were hungry or not. It was lunchtime as defined by Dreyfus, and so it was to be, same as dinnertime and breakfast alike. Bath time was next and the realisation sent shivers down Anna's spine; Her patient required one bath a day, and it was to be performed at its allocated time the same as everything else. A quadruple amputee cannot wash himself, this is obvious, and so it is Anna's hands that are to lather and scrub Raab's flaking, liver spotted skin.
She ran the bath, temperature specific, gauged with a thermometer until it reached 37 degrees Celsius and only a few inches deep. The same as a baby's bath. Then she lowered him in, the disgrace ever apparent on his face, repulsion thinly veiled on hers. Raab saw her face, he could read her well enough to spot this but he tried his best to ignore it, the sooner the ordeal was over the better for both of them. Today something was different, as the patient lay in the tepid water, he watched his nurses face as she cleansed him. He saw her frown, her curled lips, the occasional closing of the eyes as she longed to be somewhere, anywhere else. It was at this moment that he had decided to throw pride out of the window; although Anna was grimacing, her hands were still touching him, Raab begun to see this as a caress. As he looked at her, face first, then tracing the lines down her body.
He begun to see her for what she was; a young attractive girl, shapely and firm, hugged in tight white cotton and the plunging neckline, slightly unbuttoned, evoking just enough temptation. He was sick of the pretence, same as her, and so now she was just an asset, an object to aid him and nothing more. As he mentally undressed her he felt no guilt, no more than he would striping wallpaper from one of his walls. Anna was no longer human, just a sexual aid and Raab had decided to enjoy her without consequence.
It was seconds before Anna had noticed; Raab's one remaining extremity filling with blood and standing to attention. Immediately she moved her hands away, startled and slightly surprised that it still functioned. Being a professional she continued to bath him, avoiding the waist at all costs. She looked everywhere but down, and it wasn't until she saw Raab's face that she felt complete unease. The erection she could understand (self confidence issues withstanding) he was lonely, she a was a young woman and she didn't have to be attractive to stir the mans libido, the feel of skin on skin was usually enough. But Raab's face, and the expression it wore pierced her. Dreyfus lay, head cocked and smirking, eyes fixed deadly on Anna's, waiting for her reaction. He seemed to revel in her discomfort, and as his mouth tightened and his false teeth bit into his bottom lip, She stopped scrubbing and acknowledged him fully. This didn't perturb Raab, her fixed look of disgust seemed to rouse him even more. The water around his waist seemed to ripple, though he remained perfectly still, strange as it was this wasn't her concern. It seemed like minutes before Anna swallowed some air, and then spat out the words; 'What are you doing?'
The words were no more than a whisper, but the tiled room seemed to amplify them. As they reverberated through the room and hit Raab's one good ear, he snapped out of his trance with a violent blink, his manhood dropping like a stack of pennies.
'What!?' He exclaimed 'What's wrong?'
His expression and tone was that of someone wronged. Anna, awestruck, didn't respond, she didn't know how too. If it wasn't for her professional pride she would have ran away, never to return.
'What are you gawping at girl?'
Disgust soon turned to anger, but she swallowed it, like she so often did. Kept it deep inside with all of her past frustrations. Her centre brimming with buried unpleasantness, that would someday be released as some kind of blight she often thought. She broke her glower to engage her mouth once more.
'Nothing… Nothing Mr Raab, nothings wrong.'
She choked on the words. Raab's charm seemed to return, his smile first and his eyes second. Revelling in some kind of sordid triumph, knowing that he could get away with anything now.
'Dreyfus please, none of this Mr Raab nonsense. I think that we're close enough now to forget formalities… Don't you?' He leered.
This smile was a new one, it sent ice down Anna's spine and set her stomach on a spin cycle. All she could do to prevent her lunch from making a reappearance was look away. Ignore the man in the bathtub.
She grabbed a towel (Egyptian cotton) and placed it on the Raab's wheelchair. She reached in and lifted him to her chest, his wretched face mere centimetres from hers, his stub of a shoulder resting on her breast. It took all of her will power to resist dropping him to the ground, just to wipe that smile off his face. The pair didn't make a sound, and after a tense few minutes she had dried and dressed the man. It was when he scuttled off to his private room that Anna fled. Fumbling the front door handle until it opened and then stepping out of the stale, noxious air of the house, and onto the street. A welcomed cocktail of exhaust fumes and the stench of fox-opened bin bags. Anything but the tangible humidity and maleficence inside.
'Answer the phone!' Said Anna as she held her mobile to her ear. It was late but this was Mr Owens private number, he had to answer. It rang once more then clicked;
'Ed, it's Anna.'
'Anna… What's wrong?'
She took a moment to collect herself. Suddenly she realised just how silly and incapable she might seem if she told Edmond Owens what she had been rehearsing in her head since bath time.
'Is everything okay?' asked Ed, after a brief silence.
'Yes, everything's fine,' She lied 'I just wanted to talk to you about Mr Raab.'
Anna wanted to tell Edmond everything, but even now, as she ran the lines in her head, it seemed a little premature. Maybe she'd overreacted, and maybe this was all to be expected, as part of the job.
'What did you want to know Anna?' Asked Ed impatiently, obviously preoccupied.
'It might seem like a strange question,' She planned each word, 'But I was wondering why Mr Raab's previous nurse had left?'
She tiptoed around what she really wanted to say, she wanted to ask Ed 'Why is Mr Raab a massive pervert? And why didn't you warn me?' But she couldn't. There was a certain professional etiquette to be maintained, and although Edmond and Anna were relatively close (They had shared a drink or two) he was still her superior, and technically her boss.
'What makes you ask that?' Anna had got his attention.
'Well as curious as you are Anna, it is late, and I need to put my kids to bed.' Ed was trying to end the conversation, Anna wondered whether it was in fact his children, or something else.
'I know it's late, and I'm sorry to bother you, but I'd appreciate it if you could tell me.'
Anna's confidence of late surprised even her.
'Well, as far as I know, she emigrated. Family in Australia if I remember correctly. I don't see why it matters. Is there something you're not telling me?'
She wanted to tell him about bath time but resisted.
'No Ed, there's nothing I want to tell you, I'm just curious is all, you know me. Nosey!'
'I wont disagree with that,' He chuckled. 'Anyway, you need anything else, you call me on my work phone okay. My other half is asking questions, thinks I'm having an affair!' They both chuckled.
'I'll let you go then, sorry to have troubled you.' Anna always so polite.
'It's okay, goodnight.'
Before Anna could reciprocate the pleasantry, Edmond had hung up.
Suddenly she was alone again, in her darkened bedroom, sitting on the edge of her bed. Mr Raab didn't care for televisions or radios, there were none in the house, he would deny any electricity within his walls if it was possible in this day and age. With nothing to do but wait for sleep to take her, she lay down to encourage it.
Skipping sheep and cloudy landscapes were furthest from her mind. Closing her eyes only brought back images of Dreyfus, images she hoped would dissipate with time, but the intensity of them seemed to promise long life. His uncharacteristic smile, the deadened stare, his unexpected arousal. The idea that her patient was a kind man had faltered before the incident, but she assumed he was bitter with age, same as so many others, Mrs Cloister included. But Raab was different. He seemed malevolent, not in his actions necessarily, but in the energy around him. A kind of electricity that made Anna's hairs stand up, her flesh goosepimply. She gauged the sensation with that of love; the unexplainable feeling one gets when they're overcome with it. But this wasn't love, it was the other end of the scale. The complete opposite of love.
Morning came instantly, like a light bulb switching on. Sleep had snuck up unawares it seemed, she couldn't remember dropping off. Not even the heavy eyelids that proceeded it. Anna couldn't remember undressing either but she must have in her unconscious state, her clothes were folded on the chair, in her own compulsive way. Still cold, it seemed like spring would never come, the grey light of London's smog being all that she could see from her bed. The narrow sash window, dominating the room.
She stood in her unflattering underwear by the window, it was a full length display to any eyes that might spot her, but she was high up, and there was only red bricks and indistinct tower blocks to notice. She opened the painted-shut window at some effort and hung half out of it for a secretive cigarette. It occurred to her that it didn't matter if she smoked inside, or start a small fire for that matter, Dreyfus could never make it up here. She wondered if he'd visited the third floor in years. If ever.
Anna had decided to descend the stairs as if it were the first time. She was going to pretend that nothing had happened, and with this revelation she begun to doubt that anything actually had. Like London, her memories were foggy. She could remember what happened, but the images were fading fast. Grateful to forget she let them disperse in the ether of her mind.
Raab was in the kitchen to greet her, obviously unperturbed and maybe unknowing of the events that unfurled according to Anna. It was back to their roles, the patient and his nurse. The bile that teased her gullet would have to remain there.
'Morning Dear.' He said.
'Morning Mr Raab, how are you?'
'Same as ever. Breakfast?'
Same as ever he said; was this act of theirs going to last forever, Anna hoped not.
'I'll get right on it.' She said, while simultaneously grabbing food and kitchen utensils from the cupboards.
Intimacy was her job, there was no getting around it. As she spoon fed Raab, he didn't squirm with discomfort like he usually did. He was different, accepting of Anna's help, the proud man was no more. She wasn't sure if this was a good thing. Pride was all that Raab seemed to have left. Wiping some egg yolk from his mouth, she noticed him smiling.
'Anna' He said 'You used to ask so many questions at the beginning, what's changed?'
She dropped the fork to the plate.
'Everyone's entitled to their privacy Mr Raab. I can be a little too nosey.'
'I think we're closer now, close enough to share,'
What did he mean? Anna wasn't any closer to the man than when she started the job, if anything she couldn't feel more detached from him.
'I want to tell you everything!'
Before she could insist otherwise, Dreyfus rolled his chair into the living room. Anna obediently following. The room Anna had thought of as a museum was about to begin its tour, Raab poised by the first and earliest of his photos. Anna was once curious, intrigued maybe, but now she didn't care.
'This is me!' Raab pointed to a photo of himself, mid twenties, wearing a moustache and an untamed head of long hair. 'This was the start of my travels, look at me, so young, so handsome.'
Anna wanted to disagree, but he was kind of handsome back then, as far as the fashion dictated at the time.
'We don't have to do this Mr Raab.' She insisted.
'Don't be silly girl, you wanted to know, I want to tell you.' There was a masked aggression to his tone, like she had forced a confession out of him.
'South Africa was my first. I was a travel writer technically, but I always saw myself as an explorer, like Magellan or Raleigh.'
Delusions of grandeur, she thought, a phrase she had heard on television but it seemed to fit. Raab inched to the next photo.
'China, Tibet, Siberia…' He pointed to each photo. 'India, Japan, Peru, Madagascar.'
He certainly had travelled the world, and though she would never admit it, she was impressed. The tour involved the travel logs he had published along his shelves, the artefacts from each of the places he loved and finally the last remaining photo. Raab paused, his face dropping as he lost himself in the image Anna had noticed when she first visited the room; Dreyfus Raab standing next to ominous tribesman, looking ecstatic.
'This was the last of it, the end of it all.'
The mood suddenly changed.
'Have a seat.' He demanded. Anna happily obliging. After the twenty minute tour on her feet, she had no blood left in her head.
'Do you know what the paraponera clavata is?'
Anna shook her head.
'Commonly know as the Bullet ant?'
It sounded familiar, as anything you overhear on television does, but she most likely recognised the words 'bullet' and 'ant' and decided that she had heard them together. Her apparent ignorance seemed to agitate him.
'My travels in Brazil led me to a tribe, the Satere-Mawe. Friendly people, superstitious, ritualistic people. My friend Lenard McNamara, the man taking the photograph, and I, were welcomed in to their community.' He paused. 'Months we were there, I cant quite remember how long, but it was a while. To become part of the tribe a ritual is performed, this is when I became acquainted with the Bullet ant.'
Anna was enthralled, perched on the edge of the chair.
'The Satere-Mawe would take lots of these little bastards and weave them into a gauntlet made of leaves, it looked like a giant oven mitt. Now bullet ants have stingers like many ants. Have you ever been stung by a red ant? A wasp?'
'Well that is a tickle. These ants squirt a venom that is said to be the most painful, agonising venom of anything else on this planet. So, this gauntlet has over a hundred of these little monsters attached to it, stingers pointed inwards. The initiate wears the oven mitt for ten minutes, and repeats this for weeks to come.'
Raab dropped his head, recalled his last travel in his mind and winced at the memory.
'Did you do it?' She asked.
'Of course I did girl!' He snapped, knocking Anna back into her chair. 'I had too, both Lenard and I had too.' He gritted his false teeth.
Anna hesitated to ask, but she had to know;
'What did it feel like?' She asked, knowing how stupid the question was. Surely it was beyond description to someone so oblivious to anything but comfort.
He half looked at her like she was an idiot, the rest of him was lost in the reminiscence of the pain.
'Gauntlet it was, gauntlet being the perfect word. An endurance of agony like that changes a man. When they took it off, my arm was black, shrivelled like charcoal, and for all I knew, dead. It shook violently for days, convulsed uncontrollably, and for a while I believed that it was no longer mine. I thought that my arm had taken on a life of its own.'
Anna wanted to know how he became the limbless man he was today, but this didn't explain it.
'Is that how you lost your arm?' She dared to ask.
'No. Not quite.' He replied, calmly. His sudden stoicism, surprising Anna.
'Lenard, my friend, was to be my downfall. A ladies man, he had always been, and I don't know what had happened to him. Perhaps the pain drove him over the edge, but he lost the plot. He had the libido of an alley cat, I would always tell him. My second trial was a public event, the village would watch each ritual. Lenard wasn't there.' Raab shook his head. 'He was busy raping a tribeswoman.'
Anna gasped at the bluntness of the statement. A look of repulsion washed over her, the same expression she might have offered Raab during his bath. She started to think that maybe he didn't deserve it, this story, and his friend Lenard, had put it all into perspective.
'I didn't get a chance to confront him, I was lost in disorientating pain myself, but I have vague memories of the tribal Chief taking his head clean off. Blurred images of his body kneeling and then falling to meet his severed head that rolled like a coconut across the ground.'
Anna raised her hand to her mouth.
'The white devil, had an accomplice as far as they were concerned. Me. And after the Chief's fury had settled, his clarity returned. He took his time with me. More gauntlets, on each of my limbs, and they were left there until the ants died. It takes a long time for anything to die when you pray for it.' He dropped his head.
'I'm so sorry.' She said, genuinely sympathetic. The first genuine emotion she had felt since she was employed by Dreyfus.
'I was left to die. Days of agony, and eventually, I'd forgotten anything else.'
'How did you survive?'
'After all of my misfortune, luck found me in the form of a documentary crew. An eager television personality took me back to a remnant of civilisation. And from there, I was transported back to England. This is what I'm told, I don't remember much. When I woke up, days later I didn't know where I was. I remember feeling myself, rubbing my chest, wiping my face. I could still feel my limps twitching. It wasn't until I opened my eyes that I noticed this.' He moved his shoulder, gesturing to it with a nod of his head.
Speechless, Anna did nothing but gawp. Raab looked at her, waited for another word that never came. Mouthing the straw he left the room, slamming his office door behind him. Leaving the girl in the shrine to his past, lost for words, and a little less innocent than she was when she woke up this morning.
Guilt was the humming undertone of Anna's actions for the next few days. She overcompensated for her previously detached attitude towards Raab, and the difference was obvious. The poor man deserved better, she thought, he has been through more than anyone should ever have to endure.
Mealtimes were on the dot, prepared to the greatest of her abilities and laid, steaming, on the dining table before Raab could arrived. Gratitude did not come naturally to Raab, though he tried, it was never clear enough. Anna didn't expect it anyway, she was there to help this man, and help this man she would. It was her job, and Mr Dreyfus Raab, explorer, deserved the best care she could offer.
It all went without a hitch, until one night when Anna was roused from her sleep. It was as dark as it would get in London, with the orange glow from the streetlamps outside throwing shapes across the floor and far wall. Anna had heard a noise, it was faint, but it woke her nonetheless. It was from downstairs, the sound buffered by three levels of ceiling, floorboards and carpet.
Throwing on a dressing gown she made her way to the stairs, the gloom made her descent potentially lethal, not thinking to switch on the light as she bounded two steps at a time. The sound grew louder and clearer by the last stairwell, clear enough to be interpreted as Mr Raab, crying and screaming a cacophonous medley. Amongst the shrieks she deciphered her name, shrill and barely distinguishable from the rest of the unpleasantness coming from his mouth.
Instinctively she head to his office, but he was not there; The door was ajar and the light was on but the yells were not coming from inside. She wanted to take this opportunity to investigate the secretive room but she followed the now deafening sounds to the living room. Raab was in darkness, on the floor, face down a few feet away from the safety of his wheelchair. Anna switched on the light, illuminating the scene, and immediately noticing the smell of urine that had filled the room, and the stain that had saturated the carpet around him.
As she hurried to his aid, picking him up and calming his screams, it hadn't occurred to her how he'd managed it; he was securely strapped into his chair when she left him. The buckles were fiddly even for her able hands. He writhed as she tried to lift him, thrashing with more force than she had expected. In the commotion she felt a blow to her cheek, and though it stung, the adrenaline of wrestling Dreyfus back to his chair trumped everything else.
'I can see my arms!' He screeched.
Naively Anna looked at where his arms would be. She didn't know how to respond, it seemed like he was having a night terror. She had experienced this before; Mrs Cloister would wonder the house some nights, sleep walking until woken by her Anna, who would often take a blow or two for her efforts.
'It's okay Mr Raab, you're dreaming, you've been asleep.' She assured him.
'I haven't been asleep you stupid girl!' He snapped. 'I'm awake, have been all night!'
His words were spiteful, but they didn't lack conviction. The expression he wore, a look of anger and sorrow in equal measures, seemed genuine enough. His body was beaded with sweat, and there was a small trickle of blood from his left nostril. He must have landed nose first, Anna thought, and as the streamlets of sweat, blood and tears met at his chin, she could have cried with him.
It was a long night. Eventually Anna had calmed Raab, washed the stale urine away and secured him to his chair. As she fastened the buckles she screwed up her face, baffled as to how Dreyfus could get them undone in the first place, but it wasn't the time to inquire. As miraculous as it seemed it had to wait, it was time to sleep, the sun threatening to make itself known on the London skyline. Parking her patient outside his office, Raab making his own way in, she retired to her bed. Burying her head under the pillow to keep the peeking glare of outside out of her eyes, for any hope of sleep before their regimented breakfast time.