Warren fell into the backseat of the taxi and let the stillness settle over him.
“The wind will tear the clothes off your bloody back,” the cab driver said.
“Yeah, well, at least it’s dry today.”
The cabby pulled away and switched on the radio. A sombre female reporter announced: It’s official, we can now add the Butterflyfish to the list of marine species extinct in the wild. Numbers of coral fish have dropped dramatically since the unexplained death of large parts of coral in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
“Is that for real, another one?” Warren said. He leaned forward. “Turn it up please?”
But it was too late; the reporter had moved on to the next horror story, yet another fatal air crash over the city. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch had cancelled all flights over central London until they carried out a full investigation into the multiple, seemingly unrelated accidents.
“Bloody madness,” the cabby mumbled. “People are wondering why this stuff is happening, ain’t they? Well, if they read the Bible they’d understand…”
Warren nodded politely and closed his mind to the cabby’s melodramatic reckonings. He was late visiting his mother and would have to put in another all-nighter at his lab tonight. The thought made his head throb.
The nursing home looked like the other neighbouring Victorian town houses. There was no shortage of profit in converting large houses into homes for the rising number of mentally ill. The only things that identified their purpose were subtle signs set back into the wide driveways. Warren’s mother, Joyce, had never outright said she liked it here, but Warren knew she enjoyed walking the grounds and listening to the residents natter.
Joyce was in her room. The walls were cream, the carpet a slightly darker wheatgrass. The cleaner had made the bed up with white linen to exact standards. Joyce’s only piece of personal furniture was her pale wooden chair with white floral cushions. A far-side window overlooked well-tended gardens, and the TV hanging from the wall angled down towards the chair, switched off. But Joyce stared up at it as if enthralled by an epic romance.
“Hi, Mum. What’s happening?”
She stiffened slightly, but didn’t face him.
Warren pulled up a stool from under a desk and lightly touched Joyce’s arm. Perhaps there was a hint of a smile, perhaps not.
“Are you okay, Mum?”
It was a standard question. He didn’t expect an answer, not when she was like this. He’d be lucky to get a coherent sentence out of her today.
“Work’s busy. The project deadline is this Friday and I haven’t even tested my scanning system yet.”
Joyce jolted like she’d just woken up. Her lips curled up into a sharp smile. “You better get it finished or they won’t pay you,” she said.
“Well, yeah. I know that, Mum. I was just… Never mind.”
“Your grandfather used to spend most of his money hot from the pay envelope, you know? The landlord of the Dog’s Inn did well, mind. I bet his daughters didn’t go hungry.”
Joyce’s breathing quickened, and her eyes glinted with tears.
“It’s okay.” Warren took her hand and looked her in the eye. “It’s my turn to look after you now, me and the nurses here.”
Joyce relaxed. Her frightened expression dissipated through an emerging smile, a breath-taking glimpse of the strong woman she had been. “Warren, I know you look out for me. You’re a good boy.” She giggled, then leant forward, her face darkened to a knowing frown. Warren braced himself.
“I see them every day now, the hidden people. They fly in the clouds and spit their germs down on us. They make us crazy.”
Warren choked back sorrow. “Things will get better. The work we’re doing is taking us closer to mapping the brain. We’ll soon understand why so many people are falling ill like you. Maybe, one day soon, we will find a cure.”
Joyce’s expression glazed over. Her gaze stared through her son. He waited a minute, still and silent, then leant forward and kissed her.
“See you tomorrow, Mum.”