Lesley Kelly is a Scottish novelist with twenty years’ experience in the public and voluntary sectors. Having dabbled in both poetry and stand-up comedy, Lesley Kelly’s fiction has won numerous competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Lesley now lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.
What follows is an excerpt from The Health of Strangers, Lesley Kelly’s upcoming novel, in which the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team faces new threats and unforeseen risks.
Excerpt from The Health of Strangers
‘He’s dead all right.’
Mona stepped back, and ran her eye over the corpse. She’d seen worse than this, much worse in fact, but not in the last few months. Funny how quickly you forgot the sights and smells of death. Maybe you had to forget, maybe the amnesia was some kind of defensive mechanism; if you remembered what it was like you’d spend every night downing a bottle of wine while surfing jobs websites for less traumatising employment. She glanced over her shoulder to where her partner, Bernard, was standing, and quickly stifled a laugh at the expression on his face. From past experience she recognised the signs that he was channelling all his energy into keeping his breakfast safely lodged in its rightful place. He ran his hands over his short hair a couple of times, tugged at the collar of his polo shirt, and, despite his distress, managed to choke out a few words.
‘Hard to say, with him being so decomposed.’ She took a further step away from the armchair. ‘I mean, when the skin’s turned black like this, and the teeth and hair have started to fall out there’s not much to go on. And look at this–there’s some kind of larvae on his cheek here.’ She waved him closer. ‘Come and see.’
He bolted out the door, and Mona gave in to a grin. You either had the nerve for these kinds of things, or you didn’t. That being said, the smell of the room wasn’t doing her stomach any good either. She gave a quick look over to the door to check Bernard wasn’t about to reappear, then negotiated her way between the heavy wooden furniture toward the window, stopping only to pull a handkerchief out of her pocket and clamp it over her nose.
The curtains were a seventies relic, a lurid orange-and-brown mess of swirls and curlicues. She pulled at them one-handed, and after a couple of tugs they opened, filling the room with weak April sunshine. Yellowed netting covered the length of the pane; she reached behind it and found the catch. She fiddled with it for a minute, succeeding only in cutting herself on the rusting paintwork. She cursed and pulled her hand back. The rust had dyed her fingertips brown, and a small cut was sending a river of red down her index finger. Wiping her hand on her jeans, she made a mental note to dig out the Savlon when she got back to the office. There were enough ways to die at the moment, without succumbing to good old-fashioned tetanus. She gave the catch another try, and to her relief, it opened. She hauled the window up a couple of inches and crouched on the floor next to the fresh air.
Mona pulled her notes out of her bag and gave herself a quick refresher on the facts. Their visit had been triggered by the non-appearance of one Reginald Dwyer at his monthly Virus Prevention Health Check. According to her notes Reginald was in his seventies, Caucasian, 5’6” tall, with grey hair and blue eyes. She poked her head and handkerchief back round the curtain and eyed up the corpse. The nylon trousers and woolly cardigan combination suggested a senior citizen’s wardrobe, but the other facts were lost to the indignities of decomposition.
Now it was a judgement call–phone the Health Enforcement Team first or the Police? Alerting the Police to a potentially suspicious death made it their problem. Phoning it in to the office as a Health Check Violation Due to Fatality left it resting firmly in her in tray, with a tonne of attached paperwork. She walked back into the middle of the room, and looked round in search of anything that could justify her phoning her former colleagues in Police Scotland.
A little wooden side table next to the corpse had a newspaper resting on it, open at the TV listings. She picked it up, trying her hardest not to disturb the deceased. The last thing she wanted was a shower of teeth, hair, or worse, falling off the late Mr Dwyer. The date on the paper was the 21st February, just over a month ago. Probably the length of time he’d been lying here, which fitted in well with her gut feeling about how long he’d been dead.
‘Bernard?’ She removed the hanky from her face.
‘Yes?’ Her partner’s voiced echoed feebly down the hall.
‘Can you check with the neighbours when they last saw him? Or when they first noticed the smell?’ She put her makeshift face mask back on.
‘I tried. No-one’s in, apart from a woman in the ground floor flat who doesn’t speak English.’
No surprise there. Getting the average Edinburgh tenement dweller to answer their doors to a stranger had always been a struggle, but these days a warm welcome would have been some kind of miracle. She didn’t blame people for their caution. After you’d spent a fortune germ-proofing your home, why take the risk of opening up to find someone coughing and spluttering on your doorstep?
Bernard’s face appeared in the doorway, wan as a waxing moon. ‘I peered through the letterbox of the flat across the hall and I don’t think it’s occupied.’ He paused and grimaced. ‘Can we get out of here now?’
‘Just a sec.’
There were two doors leading off the living room. She threw open the nearest one, which revealed a bedroom, the divan resplendent with an orange candlewick cover. She took a couple of strides and pushed open what she assumed was the door to the kitchen.
‘Bernard–look at this.’
He appeared at her side, and gaped, as she had done, at the tinned goods that were stacked from floor to ceiling all across the room.
‘He didn’t pay much attention to our advice about not hoarding food, did he?’ Bernard took a step back. ‘Ironic really, given how he ended up.’
Mona smiled. ‘Poor sod.’
‘Can we go?’
She took a last look around the room, and sighed. ‘Yup. Just let me phone it in.’ She dug out her mobile and selected the North Edinburgh HET office from her contacts list as she walked toward the stairwell. ‘Maitland, it’s me, Mona.’ She pulled the door of Reginald Dwyer (deceased) firmly closed. ‘We’ve got a stiff.’
‘So–did you puke?’
Bernard ignored the question and walked purposefully in the direction of his desk. Undeterred, Maitland rolled his chair across the office and ground to a halt an inch from his side, trapping Bernard’s little toe under a castor. Bernard pulled his trainer loose, booted Maitland back toward his desk, and was gratified to hear a tiny squeak of pain from him as he collided with a sharp edge. Unfortunately, the injury was not enough to silence him.
‘But did you?’ Maitland was beaming from ear to ear, every inch of his six foot three frame bouncing up and down with pleasure at Bernard’s discomfort. He sat back, knitted his fingers together, and rested them on his dark hair. ‘C’mon, Bern, did you spew when you found the body?’
‘No, Maitland, I did not spew, as you put it.’ Bernard reached the safety of his own workspace, and lowered himself into his seat. OK, so he had left Mona to deal with it and stood outside trying to overcome his nausea. But he wasn’t going to give his colleague the satisfaction of admitting it. ‘I’ve seen dead bodies before, as you are well aware.’
‘Aye,’ Maitland grinned and dived toward Bernard’s desk, ‘but those were in a medical setting, where everything is nice and clean and neat.’ He rested his elbows on the back of Bernard’s chair, and lowered his voice. ‘This time, we’re not talking hospital corners and disinfectant. We’re talking weeks-old corpse, maggots, bluebottles burying their eggs in the decaying flesh…’
Bernard’s stomach heaved, and he leaned on his desk with his hand over his mouth. After a moment, he pushed Maitland’s arm off the back of his chair, and his tormentor turned away, laughing.
‘Mona, so did he puke or what?’
She dismissed Maitland’s question with a wave of her hand. Her hair hid her face and Bernard wondered if she too was mocking him under the blonde bob. It was impossible to tell. He thought about going over to see if she was actually laughing, but worried he would seem overanxious. Mona had made it plain over the past few months that she did not like needy men.
Maitland wandered back to his side of the office, still chuckling.
Bernard sighed, and started looking for the piece of paper that would let him know just how bad the rest of his day was going to be.
It wasn’t in his tray, or on top of the neat pile of previous cases he’d left sitting prominently in the centre of the desk, in the hope that someone would file them. It wasn’t caught up in his personal papers, and, when he picked up his copy of the Guardian and shook it, it didn’t fall out from within its pages.
Bernard leaned back in his chair, sighing again. There was definitely no Defaulter List on his desk. ‘Mona–have you got our DL?’
Across the room his partner was still engrossed in paperwork. She looked up, shook her head, and shrugged.
In the four months he’d been working for the Health Enforcement Team this had never happened before. As surely as night followed day, by 9am every morning a memo appeared on each of their desks outlining who had defaulted on their Health Checks that week. The idea was that this notification arrived the day after someone had defaulted. The demise of Reg Dwyer was testament to how well this system worked. Bernard looked round the office for someone else to ask. Maitland’s desk was now empty, although his coat was thrown over the back of his chair.
He looked over at Carole Brooks’s desk. In amongst the pictures of her kids, and a range of handmade and, probably, fair trade clutter, Carole was on her mobile. Bernard overheard snippets of her conversation.
‘So, how much is his temperature up by?’
Bernard winced, and feeling suddenly breathless, sat down at his desk. This was what grief felt like, the poleaxing power of a stray comment, or a TV show, or, like this, an overheard conversation to knock him sideways. Six months now since his son had died, too young and weak to fight off the Virus. And when the memory hit him, it wasn’t just of the boy’s death; it was of the paralysis, the helplessness, the overwhelming impotency he had felt in the face of the illness. He’d not told his colleagues about his loss; how to describe it to these people he barely knew?
Carole ended the conversation but sat staring at her desk. She pulled out the band that was holding her hair up, and let it fall loose. She ran her hands through it, then after a second she gathered up the strands and tucked them away.
He decided not to bother her and reluctantly looked in the direction of his boss’s office. Once upon a time, the building that the HET occupied had been a grand Georgian house on the Southside of Edinburgh. It had remained intact until the owner had racked up gambling debts so astronomical that the only method of staving off creditors was the sale of the family home to the newly formed South Eastern Regional Hospital Board. Lothian Health Board had taken the premises over in 1972, and had knocked through rooms, boarded up chimneys, and bricked up doors with a cheerful disregard for the intricacy of the cornicing, or the delicate tiling on the Adam fireplaces. In a final mortification, when the HET moved in, a corner of the room had been partitioned off with MDF to create an internal office for the head of the team. Bernard knew that deep within this temporary structure sat Team Leader Paterson, drinking tea, regretting the day he left the Police, and thinking of new ways to make Bernard’s life miserable.
Bernard caught Paterson’s eye through the office’s window, and within seconds his boss threw open the door. He stood in the doorway, his greying crew cut scraping the top of the door frame. Paterson was a very big man, in a very small office.
He pointed a large finger at Mona, then Bernard. ‘You two–in here now.’
They exchanged glances and got to their feet.
‘You were right, Guv, the No Show was dead. Looked like he’d been lying there for weeks. Seems that he’d…’
Mona broke off as she walked into Paterson’s office. Bernard peered round her side and saw there was someone else in the room. This was interesting; Paterson was not in the habit of entertaining visitors. A stranger in the boss’s office, hot on the heels of the missing Defaulter List, meant that today was veering off the fairly repetitive course that Bernard had experienced since his arrival at the HET.
The man was tall, with neat blonde hair and square, brown-rimmed glasses. A raincoat was folded across his knees, and at his side was a brown leather briefcase. He radiated an air of controlled competency not often found nestling in the chaos of the HET office. The new arrival had been given the only comfortable seat in the office and was sitting behind Paterson’s desk.
The Team Leader leaned his considerable bulk against his desk, and gestured a thumb in the stranger’s direction.
‘This is Doctor Toller.’
The three of them shook hands, which involved a fair bit of manoeuvring, given the limited dimensions of the office. Mona sat on the plastic chair that Paterson had swiped from the canteen some months ago. Bernard looked round for somewhere to sit, and in the absence of options, stayed standing.
‘Toller here works for the German Government and is investigating a Missing Person. Heidi Weber, eighteen years old, exchange student at Edinburgh University. Showing up on our Defaulter List for the first time today.’ He passed a case file across the desk which Mona grabbed and started reading. ‘I want you to give Doctor Toller every assistance in locating this young lady.’ Paterson pointed his finger at each of them to emphasise the point. ‘Every assistance.’
Mona spoke without looking up from the file. ‘Can I ask why she is of interest to you, Sir?’
The Doctor smiled. ‘She is not, of herself, of particular interest.’ His English was good, but tinged with a German accent. ‘We are concerned about the Health Status of all our nationals who are living abroad. As you know our infected population is much lower than yours, which is twenty-eight per cent, I believe?’
‘Twenty-eight per cent average, lower for older people and children, higher for young adults.’
Paterson coughed. Bernard ignored the hint and carried on.
‘But the infection rate is falling year-on-year. We’re anticipating an eight per cent infection rate next year.’
A thin blonde eyebrow was raised by the German. ‘Yet you still have mortality of 2.5 per cent?’
‘2.4 per cent, to be precise.’
‘Bernard…’ Paterson had a familiar tone of warning in his voice. He wasn’t a big fan of Bernard’s ability to remember facts and figures relating to the Virus. Bernard was torn between avoiding his boss’s wrath and defending his country’s public health record. Patriotism won.
‘And twenty per cent of the population is already immune.’ He finished the sentence as quickly as he could.
‘In Germany we have mortality of less than two per cent.’ The Doctor smiled and folded his arms. ‘You can see why we are concerned about any health risk that our citizens may be encountering.’
Before Bernard could open his mouth to pursue the point, Mona spoke up. ‘She hasn’t been reported missing by her parents.’ She waved the case file in the air. ‘Although they have expressed concern that they hadn’t heard from her?’
Paterson jumped to his feet. ‘Doctor, I think my colleagues have enough to go on. I need to brief them about a couple of things, then the three of you can make a start on locating young Heidi.’ He yanked opened the door, causing the walls of the office to vibrate.
The Doctor stayed seated for a moment staring at Paterson, then slowly stood up. ‘I wish to use the lavatory before we leave. I will meet you in the main entrance.’ He stopped and turned to address Mona and Bernard. ‘I am not overly concerned about this young woman. We made a check of her room, and all her documents were there, including her passport.’
Paterson smiled expansively at his guest and extended an arm in the direction of the exit. He waited until the door shut behind the German. ‘Dickhead.’
The Health of Strangers releases on Thursday, June 15th, 2017, and will be available as a paperback and e-book, courtesy of Sandstone Press.