The Innocent Party

Anneke Ryan | 03/11/2011

Beth made fortune cookies. She coated the insides with syrup that would glue the edges together. She wrote the fortunes on tiny slices of paper and slid each between the folds of dough before the cookie hardened in the oven. Four cookies only. One for each person at the table.

The table was perfect.

-White, starched cloth. Simple is best.- Beth had bought it at Myer in the city and hadn't washed it yet. Once you wash them they never look the same.

-Linen napkins, indigo to complement silver cutlery, Baroque motif.- Beth was serving Chinese food and given their history of chowing down at Chinatown during student years, no-one at the table tonight would be unable to eat it Chinese-style. Alongside lacquered chopsticks, Beth put down forks and spoons, designer magazine style. The chopsticks rested on little ceramic chopstick holders in the shape of fish; white and indigo fish, to match the tablecloth and napkins.

Beth flicked open Vogue Living, January edition, and held up the dinner party page, eyeing the picture, eyeing the table.

-Blood red rose, centrepieced in brushed white ceramic pigeon vase,- she read.

-Blood sucking,- more like, she thought. That vase had cost three hundred dollars.

She flicked the rose a little more to the side, cocked, like Tanya's head... cocky. Better. Over the years these dinner parties amongst neighbours had become something of a competition.

"Emeralds." Tanya flounced through the door and flicked her ring-finger in the candle light. "Emeralds and other precious stones. Diamonds even... Robert found them in Bangkok, had the ring made especially."

Beth looked at Robert, who raised one eyebrow. There were no diamonds on the ring. And Bangkok was known for rubies.

"Lovely," Beth said. "White wine, or Chinese tea?"

Tanya took wine and turned her face away for the first long swallow. Robert may have been born in Kogarah, but his genes were Chinese. He was weened on congee and raised eating Cantonese cuisine from the secret stash his mother kept in the restaurant pantry; sneaking it between studying for medical exams and serving over-salted instant short soup to ungrateful Westerners. Tanya can't even manage white rice in a rice cooker. "Where's Jean-Louis?" she said.

Beth poured wine for Robert, ignoring Tanya.

Tanya started fingering the banner Beth had used to decorate the mantelpiece. "Silver and indigo; the colours of Firenzo de Milano. I recognise the knight on a horse emblem of their gonfalon." Tanya fancied she knew about fabrics and such things. "I suppose you got it on your Italy trip in one of those quirky antique shops."

-They're the colours of the Uralla Country Women's Association,- Beth thought. Six weeks in Italy and she'd not been near an antique shop, quirky or otherwise. -And it's a banner, not an Italian religious army artifact.-

* * *

...The old lady had been propped up against a pile of hospital pillows. There were plastic covers underneath the pillow cases, plastic for hygiene. Every time the patient moved, the pillows squeaked. Beth had never seen a patient before, had never set foot inside a hospital apart from the time when she was eight years old and sick. She cued herself with the notes painstakingly taken down in tutorial. -Presenting Complaint,- the notes said. -Ask the patient what brought them to hospital.- ...

* * *

All these years later, she still hated that opening question. It didn't matter how you asked, patients tried to make a fool of you because of it.

"What brought you to hospital?"
"An ambulance."
"Why did you come to hospital?"
"I'm sick." Add smart-arse tone and mix.
"So, what's the matter today?"
"You tell me..." Beth hated that one the most. "'re the doctor."

For months at a time Beth had lived for the moment when Mr Youtellme came back in the middle of his heart attack. "What brought you to hospital?" She'd twiddle her pen as he lay there clutching his chest, gasping for breath. Beth remembered tossing up between Palliative Care and Emergency Medicine as career options. In those days they'd seemed such different specialties but now... The banner was draped over the unused fireplace, indigo and silver to match the table setting, weighted down by Ben's trophy. -Benjamin Le Coeur,- it said in neat, engraved letters, under a statue of stylised musical notes and the Latin motto of the Conservatorium of Music, -Advanced Harmony. First Place.-

Palliative Care, Emergency Medicine. Either way the outcome is eventually death.

* * *

... The gnarled hand of the old woman lay on the bedspread near Beth, one finger tapping the sheet with a fine tremor. Beth looked back at her cheat sheet. "What brought you to hospital?" she said.

Tap, tap, tap.

Beth started to panic. "What..."

"I stabbed him, you know," the dying woman said. "Must be... sixty years ago. Was about your age. What are you? Fifteen?"

"Twenty-two." Old people never could figure out age. Past the hospital curtains a yellow flower had creeped above the window sill. A bird sang in the overhanging tree. Pen poised, Beth stared at her notes.

"You can write that down." The voice had a tremor too.

Beth scanned the sheet. "Presenting complaint... history of presenting illness... past history, medical and surgical... medications... allergies... social..." Beth made a note under Social History. "Stabbed," she wrote.

The old lady picked at the plastic oxygen tubing where it had rubbed her left nostril red. "Policeman didn't charge me for it. He used to beat my mother, you see. Everyone knew. My mother was the president of the Uralla CWA. Won the scone making competition twenty years running; even when she walked with a limp. She never limped again after I killed him."

"Scones," Beth added to social history, although she wondered about "him".

"I've still got the banner." The old lady cleared her throat. Cleared. Coughed. Rubbed her trembling hand across her chest. "We appliqued a bushranger on it, riding a horse. Uralla's famous for the death of Captain Thunderbolt, you know."

-Famous,- Beth thought. Under On Examination, she wrote, -Tachypnoea, cyanosis, finger clubbing. On oxygen 2L, nasal prongs. ?Delusional.-

"What's your name, sister?"

Beth said, "Beth. And I'm a medical student, not a nurse."

"Student nurse. That's nice."

"Medical student. I'm going to be a doctor." ...

* * *

Robert clinked his glass against Beth's, brushing her finger tips. "Penny for your thoughts."

Beth took her hand away and sipped, wondering if she'd ever used that cliche in a fortune cookie.

"Where is Jean-Louis, then?"

Beth answered, since it was Robert asking this time. "Triple A. Showed up in the ED about midday. He said he'd be here by eight o'clock."

Robert looked up at the clock above the picture of Benjamin. Quarter past eight. It hung skewed, as though the weight of the minute hand had dragged it down the brickwork. "Hmph. Who'd be a surgeon?"

Robert had wanted to be a surgeon when Beth had first known him, when they'd worked fifteen hour shifts at the same hospital, when they'd showered at midnight in the mixed gender bathroom, scraped in a few hours sleep then gone back to work. Had Beth been the only sceptic when the hospital adminstration had thought green curtains would be quite adequate, thank you very much? -We're all adults. Who needs a door that locks?-

Jean-Louis slumped down in his place at the same moment that Beth served dessert: mango pudding and coconut icecream. It was Beth's first attempt at coconut icecream and it was too icy. Jean-Louis waffed it down in three swallows. Tanya used the silver spoon, Baroque motif, to swirl hers around over and over on the plate, glancing up at Jean-Louis through long fake eyelashes. Twinkling her eyes. Someone brushed a foot against Beth's peep-toe shoe and up her ankle. She looked at Jean-Louis but he was watching Tanya.

"Fortune cookies," Beth said, retreating to the kitchen.

She opened the back door and tried to inhale air that Robert hadn't contaminated. A mistake. Jean Louis had started turning the garden beds again. It was an annual ritual; turn the garden beds, add manure... the reek which lasted for weeks. Then surgery would get in the way and no-where in his eighty hour working week would he find time to plant anything. The garden had been made by Jean Louis' father; half a dozen raised circular beds which he'd called vegetable wheels. He'd bought the house as a wedding present. Saved them the cost of a mortgage, so that Beth would never have to work as a doctor again, and raised the garden beds so that Beth wouldn't have to kneel during her pregnancies.

Pregnancy. Just one. And Beth hated gardening almost as much as she hated the house. Filthy rich dictatorial Mauritians.

Last year Ben had overflowed them with flowers. After the accident Beth had picked them all and taken them to the service but a few had sprouted anew this year; jonquils in the fifth wheel.

"...crazy old lady," said Jean Louis as Beth listened from the kitchen. "Willed it to Beth when she died. Wrote a note: -For Beth, the lovely young nurse who plumped my pillows,- or something. Beth never was cut out to be a doctor."

Tanya said something under her breath and laughed.

"...trying to be tolerant," added Jean Louis. "She's never been the same since what happened to Ben."

"Fortune cookies." Beth smiled as she offered one to each dinner guest.

Tanya crumpled hers. "Love thy neighbour. Doesn't sound very Chinese."

"Love thy neighbour, but don't get caught." Jean Louis brushed a finger across the back of Tanya's hand, right there in Beth's presence.

Beth frowned. Jean Louis passed his smooth expression right across her face and on beyond Tanya's shoulder to the picture of Ben. He cracked open his own fortune cookie. Beth was through with subtlety. "Beware a woman scorned," it said.

* * *

... Beth thought it was Jean Louis who had slipped into the shower behind her, Jean Louis with his smooth Creole accent and his Mauritian good looks. Not that they'd ever done something like that. Though the dating had been going on for almost a year Jean Louis seemed shy about sex, conservative. Robert was the same height, the same slim build; settled similarly shaped lips on the back of her neck. Beth turned and wrapped her arms around him in her fifteen-hours-of-work stupor before she realised. She'd pushed him away then. Too late. With the tiles hard against her back, Robert's hand hard across her lips. Beth made love to Jean Louis just a few days later, but by then...

* * *

Robert cracked open his fortune cookie. "The early bird gets the worm."

Beth cracked her own cookie as the other party goers put the pieces in their mouths and began to eat.

"What does yours say?" Jean Louis pretended to be interested, though he was really looking at Ben's picture. Gorgeous, swarthy, but as he'd grown to adulthood it had become more obvious that he had Chinese, not Creole features.

"The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese." Beth smiled.

Jean Louis swallowed, Robert swallowed, Tanya swallowed. Beth turned back to the kitchen, her cookie uneaten, wondering if she'd regret that none of the mice had seen the trap.

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