Friday Flash – A New Recruit

Mary perched on the step at the back of the room. She hugged her knees to her chest and shivered. Down below, a volunteer historian delivered a talk about 19th century surgery to gawping tourists. The woman paced around the low operating table, her plastic bangles clattering together with every movement. She held up a red block of carbolic soap to make the point that the operating theatre was in use well before an awareness of germ theory.
Mary watched the tourists. They sat on the high wooden steps where students would have once stood in this miniature amphitheatre of surgical education. Mary wondered at the ghoulish delight humans took in the suffering of others. The tourists gasped when the historian told them of the rivalry which led the surgeons to cut the operating time for a lithotomy to just forty five seconds.
The historian called for a volunteer from the audience, preferably a woman. Only women were operated on in this theatre, the men being confined to the other end of the hospital. A young man in a Ramones T-shirt and flip flops ignored the request and put himself forward. He walked down the steps and into the operating area. The historian bade him lie down, and “get comfortable” on the table. Mary grimaced. The operating table was far from comfortable.
The historian brought out an amputation case. She held up each of the knives for the audience’s inspection. The afternoon sunlight reflected on the blade of the Listen knife, sending a spike of light into Mary’s eyes. She hissed, and scuttled backwards to press her back against the wall.
The historian described the amputation procedure, drawing shudders and murmurs from the audience as she used her sleeve to demonstrate the folding back of skin. Mary’s hand explored her left knee, prodding her shin. She remembered the way the bone looked, thrusting out of her skin in an eruption of pus and blood. The doctor gave her the choice of gangrene, followed by death, or amputation, in all likelihood followed by death. She chose the latter, and death returned the lower leg removed in life.
Movement to her right caught Mary’s eye. She turned to see a Cavalier making himself comfortable beside her. He flashed a charming smile. Panic fluttered in her chest and she looked around for an escape route. Tourists blocked her way at every turn. The Cavalier laid a gloved hand on her arm and calm settled in her jittering stomach.
“Wh-wh-who are you?” she asked.
“Fowlis Westerby. At your service, ma’am,” replied the Cavalier.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was assigned a haunting at a pub along the street but I have concluded my business there. I thought I would drop by on my way back to HQ.”
“Assignment? HQ? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Mary. She decided the Cavalier had kind eyes, but she didn’t understand him.
“You have been on our list for some time, Mary. You have a fierce attachment to this place but, well there is no easy way to say this, but you need to let go.”
Mary looked away. She pointed to the back wall behind the operating table.
“The ward used to be through there. I died there, you know. I can’t go. These people…they need to know what it was like. I need to make sure that they know.”
“I know you do, Mary, but there is so much more that you could be doing! You must be ever so miserable, wandering around in the attic or listening to that woman droning on about a procedure you know all too well,” said Fowlis.
“Where else would I go?”
“Mary, try to remember the night you died. Did you see a woman you had never seen before? Long black hair, eyes full of stars?”
Mary thought of the hallucinations brought on by the ward fever. She’d seen lots of strange people around her bed that night. She grimaced to think of the red man with horns.
“She wanted to take you away from all the suffering, but you wouldn’t go. It was the middle of the cholera epidemic, and she had a lot of people to take that night so she could not stay. She was ever so distraught about having to leave you behind,” said the Cavalier.
“I think I remember her,” said Mary. “Her voice…it sounded like scraping metal.”
“Yes, it does take some getting used to, but she is a charming conversationalist all the same. I think you will like her,” said the Cavalier. “Come on, let’s go and meet her.”
The Cavalier held out his hand. Mary looked down at the tourists, now applauding the historian for the conclusion of the talk. She turned back to the smiling Cavalier. She placed her pale hand in his. The operating theatre dissolved from view, replaced by a small drawing room. Bookcases lined the wood-panelled walls, and a fire blazed in the hearth.
A woman with tousled black hair sat behind a desk. She smiled, revealing grey teeth and black gums. Mary suppressed the urge to shudder. The woman stood up and stretched out a white hand.
“Hello there, Mary,” she said. Her voice echoed with the silence of a ruined castle. “Welcome home.”
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23 thoughts on “Friday Flash – A New Recruit

  1. Jason Coggins says

    Those old theatres have to be in the top-ten most evocative places to set a story. Well done in turning a story of sorrow and loss into one of promise and hope. I took “death returned the lower leg removed in life” as further evidence of the mercy inherent in your portrayal of the afterlife.

  2. Jen Brubacher says

    That’s an amazing photo, and the story really suits it. I’m fascinated by the dark haired woman. I love the sound of her voice, the scraping metal. Really vivid.

  3. afullnessinbrevity says

    Fowlis is such a gentleman. The image of the operating theatre is such an evocative one that it really establishes the tone and feeling. Having Mary as a remnant is superb.
    I looked up “lithotomy,” the removing of stones. And in 45 seconds! Brutal practices.
    Great to see Fowlis back.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  4. Tony Noland says

    I loved the emotional depth you gave these two. I’d hate to be tied to one of those operating theaters – not a pleasant place, even when sanitized for modern sensibilities.

  5. Eric J. Krause says

    Excellent story! Fowlis Westerby is certainly quite an intriguing character. Loved the descriptions at the beginning of this one, especially “Mary wondered at the ghoulish delight humans took in the suffering of others.” That’s so true, and, like Mary, I have to wonder, too.

  6. Helen says

    OOh I love this! Poor Mary so attached to her place of death. Yay for Fowlis, the more I read of him the more I like him. I liked that you portrayed that other ghosts take care of their own.

    The descriptive element in this piece was excellent, and gave one the feeling that they too were standing at the back of this old theatre and watching things play out.


  7. Icy Sedgwick says

    Jason – You should know by now that my Death is a lovely lady, and yes, she’d like her friends to be in one piece again.

    Jen – She’s my version of Death and I love writing her.

    Tim – I’d loved to see who else I could have “met” but Fowlis was chattering on and there were too many tourists. 🙁

    Adam – I know! When she told us that, I think most of the group visibly winced!

    Deanna – Thanks!

    Tony – It’s horrific when you hear the way the surgeons treated the patients, but it certainly makes you thankful for the evolution of the NHS.

    Wendy – London’s chock full of awesome locations!

    Sam – Hehe, Fowlis has that effect on people!

    Peggy – It was more of an introduction into the world Fowlis inhabits. All will become clear when I finally get the book out!

    Sonia – Well Mary gets to leave the theatre, so I’d say it’s happy.

    Eric – Fowlis is a very dear friend of mine and it’s always nice to work with him.

    Nerine – Good!

    Helen – Fowlis is a real delight. I’m hoping he’ll talk to me some more once I’ve moved – I think he knows I’m a bit preoccupied at the moment.

    Antisocial – I’m glad you liked it!

  8. FARfetched says

    Beautiful. I expected Mary was a ghost, but I wasn’t expecting Fowlis to come for her and take her to the next stop. “Her voice echoed with the silence of a ruined castle” suggested to me that this afterlife might not be so pleasant for Mary though.

    Fowlis is a stand-up kind of ghost — how many others would swing by to pick up a stuck spirit after finishing an assignment?


    Icy, I’m taking a real spark and shine to the courtly Fowlis, wise in the ways and means of his spirited world. Your descrips spoke your tale well, and to think Mary could’ve followed a lady with starry eyes and now faced one where ~ “Her voice echoed with the silence of a ruined castle.” . . . certainly does have us eager for more chapters.

    Loved that last ‘ruined castle’ voice metaphor, and wishin’ you well on Fowlis’ book, but I’m tending to think he’s going to do a lot of speaking into your inner-conciousness.

    ~ Absolutely*Kate … AT THE BIJOU
    and ramblin’ around WebTowne again

  10. Icy Sedgwick says

    FAR – I keep having to think of ways to describe Death’s voice and describing sound is harder than you’d think. She’s lovely though so Mary is safe.

    Kate – Oh Fowlis chatters away whenever he has something to contribute but he’s lovely to work with…and I just hope I can do him justice in his book!

  11. Steve Green says

    Ah, good ol’ Fowlis rescues the ghostly damsel from eternal boredom, very atmospheric this one Icy, and it’s nice to see the Fowlis on the scene again. 🙂

  12. henriettamaddox says

    I admire your tenacity with bringing as much colour and dimension to your characters as you can. Though this was really imaginative. Was quite intrigued that her saviour had black gums and a voice like scraping metal. Would love to know what happens to Mary on the next part of her journey….if there is one.

  13. Stephen says

    Reading this story reminded me of a novel by Tess Gerritsen: The Bone Garden. When you look at the history of medicine and surgery, it’s sad to realize how many lives were lost because of ignorance. Your piece captures that as well. I’m glad that she finally let go. She definitely deserves some peace.

  14. Stephen says

    Hi there Icy — really loved the feel of a cavalier sitting down to chat with a historical surgery victim. Some lovely interplay, e.g.: “She decided the Cavalier had kind eyes, but she didn’t understand him.” Opens well and ends well. Carbolic soap (shudder). St.


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