The five thirty-three to Reading departed London Paddington. Onboard the train was Jill. Jill was in love with Saj; she was married to Ben. Ben, better known as Dr Benjamin Morgan MBE (awarded for “Services to Paediatric Medicine”), was a good man.
As Jill sat there, head pressed up against the glass window, watching the suburbs of London fly by in the dusk light, she reflected on her recent revelation: she was leaving Ben today. Saj had been offered a job in Canada, something in IT, and she had decided to move with him. Why? She was in love.
The couple had met on a website for extra-marital affairs. After a few weeks of messaging, a cheap hotel was booked in Pimlico. Many visits to the same hotel followed, under the guise of various conferences and workshops. It was a curious number of work trips to London for a part-time local librarian, but Ben trusted her (naturally).
The small, shabby room offered Jill sanctuary. Often the couple would just lie on the bed in silence for hours, her head resting on his chest, feeling the warmth of each other’s bodies. Sometimes Jill would read a book, whilst Saj would content himself by gently coiling her hair around his finger. Words were seldom exchanged about their other lives; they followed an unwritten rule that this was for the best.
At their most recent meeting, from which Jill was returning, Saj broke his news. ‘I’ve left her,’ he said. ‘And I’m taking this new job. The flight leaves tomorrow.’ He then unsheathed his hand from his pocket to reveal two plane tickets. Jill took one of the tickets and placed it in her handbag.
'I'll do it today,’ Jill replied in parting, before catching her train. The words surprised Jill as they left her mouth, but they felt right. Saj was what she needed, she thought to herself. This is what everyone needs.
Deep in thought, the train journey was over in a blink and Jill found herself walking through the barriers of the station trying to figure out the quickest route home.
‘My darling!’ A voice beamed through the crowded station. A clean-cut man approached Jill. ‘You’re glowing. How was your conference?’ said Ben, as he thrusted a bunch of sunflowers into Jill’s hands (her favourites).
‘We have a lot to talk about. Let’s sit down and have a drink.’ Jill glanced towards the pub opposite the station.
‘Absolutely,’ Ben agreed. ‘Some of the gang are actually hosting a small shindig at the hospital as we speak.’
Jill hesitated. ‘I think I’d like to chat just the two of us.’
‘My darling, I must insist. Everyone would love to see you. We can talk on the way there.’
Jill acquiesced, deciding that the privacy of the car would be better anyway. The pair got in the car and started driving to the hospital.
‘So, what is it you want to talk about?’ said Ben.
‘Well, I—.’ The speakerphone started to ring.
‘Your parents,’ smiled Ben, as he touched the screen to answer the call. ‘Hello, Martin and Susan. I’ve just picked up Jill from the station.’
'Hi Ben,’ two voices echoed through the speakers. ‘Glad we could finally get hold of you.’
‘Hi Mum and Dad.’
‘Hello dear.’ A pause. ‘Ben, we were actually calling to congratulate you on your MBE again. What you did for those children during the pandemic was just extraordinary.’
‘You’re too kind, Susan. But really it was a whole team of us. And Jill was such a great help.’
‘Don’t be so modest,’ interrupted Martin, ‘the way you cared for all of those unwell children whilst we were all locked up...well, it makes me so proud. And, I know that you don’t have parents anymore, and, well, we’re just so happy that Jill chose you as her husband, and, we wanted to let you know that we think of you as a son.’
‘Martin. Thank you. I’m lost for words.’
‘But enough from us,’ they said in chorus. ‘Enjoy your celebration! Bye, Jill.’
‘Bye,’ Jill said as she leaned over to press the button to hang up the call. ‘Celebration?’
‘Oh, it’s hardly a celebration. Just a few people having drinks to congratulate the team for all our hard work during the pandemic.’ Ben pulled the car up into the hospital car park. On the green in front of the hospital was a marquee with a congregation of twenty or so.
‘So, my love, what is it that you wanted to tell me?’ Before a syllable had left Jill’s mouth there was a knock on the window. And another. And another. Ben let down the car window in order to address the shoal of grinning scrub-clad doctors and nurses encircling the car. ‘Hold on a moment guys, Jill and I need to discuss something.’
‘Our hero!’ a voice joked.
‘M-B-E,’ chanted another.
‘Stop it, you lot,’ Will said, half-heartedly. ‘My darling, please tell me, what is it you want to talk about?’
Jill looked at the people surrounding the car. They all looked the same. They all looked at Ben with fervent admiration. ‘Don’t worry, it can wait,’ she said.
‘Only if you’re sure.’
Of course, Jill wasn’t sure, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. The doctors and nurses opened Ben’s door with greedy haste. Within seconds, Ben was hoisted onto their shoulders. Jill watched them through the windscreen whilst they paraded him to the marquee. Along the way, someone at the back of the troupe cracked a joke and Ben looked to see who it was. As he did so, his eyes caught Jill’s for a fleeting second. ‘Don’t forget Jill,’ he said, pointing at the car.
At this point, half the group splintered off and returned to the car.
‘You really don’t have to,’ said Jill.
‘But we must, it’s Ben’s celebration.’
‘I thought that was last month,’ Jill muttered.
‘That was for the money he raised for the hospital,’ said a beautiful, young female doctor. ‘This is for all he did for the children during the pandemic. He’s a fantastic man, you know. You’re very lucky to have him.’
Inside the marquee, Jill was placed in the middle of the front row of seats. Opposite her and sitting alone was Ben, seated on a large chair. His throne was adorned with fluorescent blue wings.
‘Gang, is this really necessary?’ said Ben. ‘I’d much rather sit with Jill.’
‘Of course it is! Jill understands. Right, Jill?’ a voice in the crowd said.
‘If you say so,’ said Ben, shrugging his shoulders at Jill.
Nobody else had taken a seat in the front row, leaving Jill alone and sitting opposite her husband. She turned around and saw that the congregation had grown to around fifty people, most of whom were now seated and murmuring to each other in anticipation. A suited man, whom she recognised as the manager of the hospital, walked up to Ben’s throne and clanged a teaspoon against his glass. The crowd hushed.
‘Thank you everyone for coming. Thank you. I’ve been working at this hospital for over twenty years now—five of which have been as manager. On the whole, I’m happy to report that we’re an alright bunch, save a few exceptions (everyone laughs). However, once in a while you stumble across someone who goes a little further than everyone else; somebody who tries a little harder. Today we’re here to celebrate such a person. Ben: this isn’t the first time we’ve celebrated your successes, and I have no doubt this won’t be the last. With that in mind, we wanted to make sure that all the work you’ve done will never be forgotten.’
The manager then walked over to the back of the marquee and pulled on a string dangling from the roof. In dramatic fashion, the back panel of the marquee fell to ground, revealing an imposing bronze statue. It was Ben, striking a Herculean pose. The crowd gasped and shuffled in order to get a proper look at the statue. It was an uncanny likeness, Jill admitted to herself, as cheers and applause ripped through the crowd.
‘Now, we have some very special guests who want to speak to Dr Morgan,’ said the hospital manager.
Jill turned around to see three children walking towards Ben’s throne. Behind them the crowd had increased and spilled far beyond the perimeter of the marquee. People leaned and shuffled forward like supplicants trying to get a glimpse of the magical healer.
The three children stopped in front of Ben to present three homemade cards to him, one at a time. Sensing their nerves, Ben reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a red clown nose. He started a well-rehearsed skit with his stethoscope and the red nose.
The final child to present her card to Ben was an eight-year-old girl. Jill recognised her based on Ben’s description. She was very, very unwell and it was immediately obvious that Ben found it inappropriate that she had been asked to participate. Jill heard Ben whisper: ‘You’re the bravest person I know,’ before he chased her around the throne trying to place a red nose on her. The girl’s face showed such intense joy despite her adversity that even Miss Trunchbull would have repented her child-hating ways. Unsurprisingly, the crowd awwed. After playing a few minutes longer, Ben gestured to the hospital manager to take the child back to the hospital, concerned that it was too stressful for her.
In all the commotion, Jill took a surreptitious glance at her phone. One new message from Saj. ‘I love you.’
Her legs started to bounce restlessly and she felt her arms tremble. She placed the phone back in her pocket and got up, bee-lining through the crowd and out of the marquee. Once out, she rushed up to the hospital building.
‘Jill! Jill!’ A voice echoed through the corridor. Jill couldn’t bring herself to look back and continued walking towards the toilet. ‘Wait!’ the voice said, getting closer. Finally, Ben caught up with her. ‘My dear, I’m so sorry for putting you through all this again. It must be rotten to go through. And to put that poor girl through all that in my name—it’s shameful.’
Jill’s eyes were glued to the ground. ‘Sorry for slipping out like that. I just need to pop to the loo.’
‘I’m so grateful for all that you’ve done for me. I know you get forgotten sometimes.’ Ben’s hand softly touched Jill’s arm. She quickly glanced up at his beseeching eyes. ‘I love you,’ Ben said.
‘Don’t be silly. Really, I just need the toilet,’ she said, her voice cracking.
‘I’ll wait for you outside.’
‘You made her very happy. You make everyone very happy.’
Jill locked the door of the bathroom before Ben could respond. She stared at her reflection in the mirror as tears rolled down her cheeks. The contours on her face were harshened by the clinical lighting.
She fumbled in her bag looking for the plane ticket before pulling it out. The card was smooth and she looked over the bold, night-black lettering detailing her flight tomorrow. It was at half-six in the morning. The trains didn’t start until six, so if she wanted to catch it she would have to leave tonight.
One minute passed, then two, then three as Jill stared at the plane ticket with glassy eyes. There was total silence, save the noise of a solitary trolley being pushed along the corridor. After five minutes, Jill placed the ticket back in her bag. She wiped her face and allowed herself a brief, resolute smile. She walked over to the door and turned the lock.
‘Where’s the man of the hour?’ she said.