David R Ewens

IED

2nd August 2009

Lucy Deevers was in the hospital staff common room, her feet up on the coffee table, the rest of her slumped with exhaustion from her busy day. As a radiographer, she was walking and standing most of the day, and twelve months into her job she was still getting used to it. ‘Last lap’, she thought to herself, and then it would be a cycle ride to Victoria and the 5.48 home. That’s if her bike was still in the cycle racks. Already three had disappeared, the first on only her second day in post. She’d wept with bitterness, and when the other two had gone the bitterness was supplemented by rage and a thirst for retribution. If the bike wasn’t there, maybe there’d be some consolation. Her brother had given her the idea – innocently of course – but the idea had grown and it had been easy to put it into effect.

If she’d been able to look with special radiographer’s X-ray eyes out of the grimy corner window of the staffroomand round the corner to the space between Oncology and ENT, she would have seen Mickey Marshall. Mickey Marshall was part of the group Lucy loathed and despised, a bike thief who stole bicycles to order, supplying them to a fence at a bike shop near Kent House station. That’s why he was hovering around the large cycle shed at the back of St Saviour’s hospital, his hood up over his head just enough to defeat the unblinking gaze of the CCTV cameras guarding the array of medical staff bikes and just down enough not to raise too much suspicion. He had his story ready in case of any challenge. He was meeting his girlfriend at the end of her shift. An empty crisp packet blew along towards him like a bit of tumbleweed in some deserted Wild West town. It caught for a moment round his trainer and he shook it off, watching as it continued in its haphazard way. There were one or two cigarette butts on the ground where someone had clearly had an illicit smoke. The day was dusty, gritty.

Jimmy down in Kent House wanted a ‘lady’s bike’. Obviously he had a customer lined up. Mickey took in the fifty bikes in the racks with a cool and quickly appraising eye. He spotted it quickly – a new-looking little number – black to stop it standing out but with at least eighteen gears by the look of it. It had gear levers on the handlebars – proper mudguards too. Mickey could never understand why people didn’t bother with mudguards. On the odd occasion he’d been caught in a downpour on a bike without mudguards he’d got a wet stripe right from his backside up to his shoulder blades. He glanced surreptitiously around him, taking in the windows overlooking the bike park as well as looking right and left. He refined his story. It was his girlfriend’s bike and she’d got a lift home with a friend. He was doing her a favour. He noted the D-lock.

They always made him smile, those phrases next to the bike locks in Halfords – ‘Thief proof for two minutes’ or ‘sixty seconds’ or whatever the claim was. ‘Not for a professional like me.’ He deftly worked his magic. It was a nice bike. He was pleased. He’d ask £150 for this one. Jimmy would be pleased too. Mickey was a bit nervous leaving the hospital, but knew he’d got away with it when he got to the Elephant and Castle. He celebrated by slipping his hoodie over his head as he road along. A startled driver overtaking him in an old red Nissan didn’t know whether to glare or smile.

The dry wind blew dust into Mickey’s throat.

‘What a kind nurse!’ he muttered, looking down at the frame. She’d even left a canister of fluid in the bottle-holder on the frame – not water, not cola – maybe some fruit drink.

That afternoon, he never had another thought. In fact it was doubtful he’d think anything ever again. As he unscrewed the bottle he was enveloped in a ball of explosive flame. No one on the 33 bus just passing on the opposite side of the road would ever forget the terrible scream that pierced the windows of the bus. The man in the Nissan, seeing the whoosh behind him, smacked straight into a lamp-post. When the medics got to him an hour afterwards he still couldn’t stop the shaking. Mickey seemed to writhe forever in his bicycle pyre. Terrified by the explosion, the bus passengers and everyone close by were now assailed by the unique and awful smell of charred flesh. ‘Like a hog roast’, said one white- faced passenger to his girlfriend later.

In the hospital staff common room, Lucy’s friend bustled in, her plump face flushed. Lucy realised that there was something much more interesting to think about than dinner. Mary was breathless.

‘Someone’s just been admitted to casualty – barely alive, burns all over. People are saying it was that weird thing, what’s it called? Spontaneous combustion. Or those things in Afghanistan.’

Mary looked pleased to have remembered one of the phrases she was looking for. Vocabulary wasn’t her strong point.

Lucy sat up straight. She wasn’t tired anymore, but she didn’t want to appear too interested.‘Where did they bring him in from?’

‘He was cycling along near the Elephant and Castle.’

So it had happened. Lucy pursed her lips. Her hand shook a little as it went into her pocket for a strip of Nicorette. She’d have preferred a cigarette. The bottle was perfectly safe unless you unscrewed the top. Some idiot had stolen her bike. Curiously, it wasn’t shock and guilt she felt, or a jostling of her conscience. She was just plain angry. As Mary droned on, Lucy thought back to the conversation with her brother, an infantry officer on tour in Afghanistan, and how he’d described the Taliban’s ambushes and booby traps, and how they set them up. She’d been particularly interested in the bombs

‘Lucy, you’re miles away’, said Mary peevishly. ‘I’m trying to remember our troops call those bombs in Afghanistan. It’s driving me mad.’

‘IEDs’, Lucy murmured. ‘Improvised Explosive Devices.’ She’d just introduced one to London.

David R Ewens

 

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