Empathy

 

Phil enjoyed his visits to the Starlight Centre, almost as much as Monty, his ageing golden Labrador. The dog revelled in the attention from patients recovering from traumas most people fortunately never have to contend with. Some had been devastated by the death of a loved one, or were dealing with drug withdrawal symptoms. Others had lost colleagues and limbs on active service. All were confronting their recovery in different ways and with varying degrees of success when Phil and Monty arrived as part of a pet therapy programme.

So every day, between six and seven o'clock in the evening, the teenager and his dog would be welcomed into the retreat, accompanied by Angela carrying her wide-eyed Persian cat, and Ahmed with his giant lop-eared rabbit. All of them were appreciated, but Monty appeared to work magic. Many patients were so relaxed by his presence, Phil sometimes experienced a glimmer of what they were going through. The sensations could often be so overwhelming his sleep was disturbed by strange dreams for nights afterwards. Yet Monty always slept soundly, totally relaxed after the dayís encounters. Phil was baffled by his reaction to meeting the mentally and emotionally wounded. The only trauma he had ever suffered in his 16 years was having to save his younger brother from drowning in a reservoir, and he wouldn't have been able to do that if Monty hadn't helped them swim to shore. The golden Labrador had been much younger then, but apparently could still work miracles.

The only patient to distance herself from what she considered to be a patronising circus was Lieutenant Poulson who had lost a leg and several of her comrades to a roadside bomb. Some experiences were too traumatic for even a friendly pet to ameliorate. But the recovery of others who patted and petted the dog was so remarkable another traumatised ex-soldier suggested that Monty should be cloned and made available on the National Health Service. This encouraged Phil all the more to pass the exams he needed to take up a career in medicine. His Great-aunt Edwina had promised to pay his college fees, so Phil felt duty bound to qualify with merit.

Then the unthinkable happened - Great-aunt Edwina died. She was 97, so was quite entitled to. Unfortunately she had forgotten to make provision for Phil in her will and everything went to her ghastly oldest nephew's family. The fortune was considerable. The beneficiaries were already wealthy and, like many privileged people, could be mean-natured, believing that Phil's hard-working parents were poor because they deserved to be. So the prospect of Phil's glittering career in medicine evaporated overnight. His family did not believe in borrowing money when there was little hope of paying it back. The nearest their son would get to healing people would be through the ageing Monty.

So when he was summoned by his great-auntís solicitor to be handed a letter it was unexpected, especially as the will had been read several weeks previously. It transpired that the ghastly nephew had also tried to lay claim to the one bequest he wasn't entitled to. He knew that it was valuable yet was unsure why and it was necessary for her executor to wrest it from his family's avaricious clutches.

With the letter was a long, battered box containing a scroll. Phil was invited to unroll it on the solicitor's desk. There was a dusty glow on the parchment's surface, as though it had been powdered with crushed pearls which sparkled through the characters carefully inscribed in vermilion. Not only was the scroll very precious, it was ancient and totally indecipherable. In the same box was a list of linguists specialising in ancient languages who had already examined it in great depth.

Phil looked over the parchment carefully and wondered why on earth Great-aunt Edwina had left it to him. He then let the solicitor gently re-roll the document and replace it in its box. Perhaps his eccentric great-aunt thought he could make sense of it where so many scholars had failed. But then, she had always overestimated his intelligence.

Phil was worried by the responsibility of looking after such an important, precious parchment. He would have donated it to the British Museum if Great-aunt Edwina had not stipulated that he should protect it until he died, and then it be bequeathed to his daughter - or failing to have one - his nearest female relative. There was no indication of what would happen to him if he rejected the terms of the bequest and he wasnít sure that he wanted to find out.

The solicitor could tell what was going through Phil's mind. "Perhaps it's safest in a bank deposit vault. No one has been able to work out what it is, only that it's very old, and valuable because it is such an enigma. Provision has been made for the documentís safe storage so you won't need to pay for that."

"But didn't Great-aunt Edwina tell you why she wanted me to have it?"

The solicitor didn't reply straight away. He was familiar with the mythology attached to the heirloom and thought it best this young beneficiary was not told about it until he was 21. "I'm sure it will be safe enough with you for a couple of days. That will give you chance to examine the parchment thoroughly. Then, if you prefer, you can return it to me for safekeeping."

Phil felt uneasy about taking the heirloom home, and just wished the scroll would unfurl and flap out of his bedroom window like a magic carpet, carrying all the weird and incomprehensible characters with it. But he did as the solicitor advised.

That evening, when everyone else was asleep, he unrolled the parchment and gazed at the intertwined characters on it until his head hurt. Still none the wiser as to what they meant, Phil left it on his computer table and went to bed where he fell into a deep sleep to chase away the conundrums of the perplexing day.

About midnight a cold, wet nose nudged his hand. Monty rarely wandered about during the night, happy to remain slumbering in his basket until morning.

Phil sat up.

In the darkness he could see an odd glow emanating from the parchment. He brought it over to his bed where he propped it up on his pillow.

The luminous characters began to move.

He and Monty backed away warily as it became apparent why they had been indecipherable. The writing had not been a language or code, but elements of a drawing. The glowing lines slowly moved about the parchment until they delineated a living face.

It smiled.

Part of Phil wanted to jump out of the window and run for dear life; the other insisted he stay calm and watch. Apart from that, he was on the first floor and would have probably broken a leg.

The face was more alien than human and Monty whimpered anxiously.

The eyelids in the strange features slowly opened and amber eyes gazed at the teenager.

The lips did not move, yet he heard its thoughts.

"Child of the Cosmos, are you aware of the power you possess?"

Phil had no need to answer. His confusion must have been transmitting on all wavelengths.

"You carry the talent special to your forebears; the sons of daughters, and daughters of sons, from time before your history."

Phil was aware of a great grandmother who had been an extraordinary healer, though there was nothing exceptional about his parents as far as he knew.

"Your mother had the power," explained the apparition, "and passed it on to you."

The face then closed its eyes as though the one-sided thought conversation was over.

"Wait!" Phil managed to blurt out. "What do you mean?"

The glowing amber eyes opened again. "You have the power to comprehend the anguish of others, and the power to heal them."

"But that's Monty."

"No Philip, it is you. Do not be afraid of this ability, as your mother was. Use it wisely. Your great aunt understood this, though did not possess it. That belonged to her brother, your grandfather, who is long dead. You will pass it on to your daughter."

Then the eyes finally closed and the lines that had been the features of the face reverted to their original positions on the scroll.

The next thing Phil remembered was waking up at six in the morning, Monty asleep by his bed and the unfurled scroll lying on the pillow beside him.

He sat bolt upright to be was dazzled by a shaft of sunlight. "That was a bloody funny dream." Then he noticed the golden Labrador. "What are you doing here, Monty?"

The old dog just carried on snoring.

It was Saturday, which meant open morning at the Starlight Centre with coffee and biscuits for visitors. It was usually too busy for the pets so Phil decided to take along the flapjacks his mother had baked for them.

The morning was bright. Patients and visitors were milling about the garden, apart from Lieutenant Poulson who was, as usual, sitting by herself in the shade of a tree. She preferred to be left alone. Having lost a leg to that roadside bomb and seen her comrades killed, she refused company, determined to keep the horror and irrational guilt of it to herself. Phil had always been dissuaded from approaching the soldier by the nurses who feared her reaction might alienate him and Monty from wanting to return to the Starlight Centre.

But now he now had the confidence to go over and to sit on the bench beside her. It was the only way to find out whether or not he had dreamt the experience of the previous night.

He opened the tin. "Flapjack? Made this morning."

Lieutenant Poulson turned her hostile gaze towards the teenager.

Phil didn't feel intimidated and reached out to lay his hand on the back of hers. "If you can't manage a whole one, we can share."

The gaze softened a little, as though a tiny thought had been sparked into life at the back of her mind.

There was a long, silent pause. Nearby nurses noticed what was happening and held their breath.

To their relief and surprise the ex-soldier took a flapjack from the tin, broke it, and offered half to Phil.