The Ache – Amber Rollinson

On edge, her teeth gritted, she calls the medical centre. It is the only medical centre for miles, but never has any appointments – too many patients, too little medicine. People might say it is a sign of the times, but she hasn’t seen people for months to be sure of this. The ache is sudden and unignorable, too much top of everything else. So, she calls the medical centre, asks for an appointment to see Dr Hangman, thinks she will be waiting a long time.

Actually, the voice says, clipped and icy, we have space later this afternoon.

The waiting room is empty, with enormous bay windows looking onto the equally empty landscape. In the bare field opposite she can see the burnt remains of a car. Beyond that, there are the leftover trunks of the large forest that used to blanket these hills in a thick sponge of pine needles, rotting down. Now the land is exposed, harder.

Dr Hangman will see you now.

Dr Hangman is a small man with tiny rat’s eyes and pink ears which match the pink of his nose, spidering with veins. He looks unhealthy and she wonders if she should go and see someone else. Surely she will not find a cure with a man who looks the way he does? Then she remembers there is nowhere else to go and takes the proffered seat, smoothing her grey skirt over her knees.

What seems to be the problem?

There’s this ache. It won’t go away.

Is it high or low?

He tuts irritably when she doesn’t understand.

A high note or a low note. Sharp or more general?

General, she says at last. All over.

He types something into his computer, fingers moving in a burst of furious speed. She cannot see what he has observed about her because the screen is turned away. Waiting for his pronouncement, she inspects the room, its magnolia walls, the plastic skeleton in the corner, jaw hanging open in a deranged smile.

Right. Stand up.

She stands.

Hmm. Yes. Sit down.

She sits, wondering what his thoughts are, the ache spreading, beginning to grow claws.

I have some medicine for you. Just go back to the waiting room, wait a minute, then come back.

But why?

Just one minute, he says. Is that all right?

Thinking about it, she can’t come up with any reason why it isn’t all right. She will go out there, return in one minute, and then he will give her medicine. If that is all she has to do, it is not so much to ask for a pain free life.

She goes. Returns. On the desk there is an orange vial with a single white pill inside.

That’s enough? She asks.

Oh, for now. For now. Dr Hangman says, nose twitching, confirming her impression of him as distinctly rat-like. As he stands to show her out, she almost expects to see a scaled tail swishing behind him, but there is nothing.

Come back and see me if the ache doesn’t go.

In her car, she dry-swallows the pill, desperate for the ache to go. And it does. For a few days, she lives a pain free existence, goes running, sneaks to the brow of the hill to look down at the village lights. But the following week, the ache returns, and she phones the medical centre for another appointment.

Dr Hangman doesn’t have any appointments available.

How about next week?

No, the icy voice responds.


Dr Hangman doesn’t have any appointments left at all.

How can that be? What am I supposed to do?

She sighs and asks her to hold, returns five minutes later sounding more irritable than ever.

I’ve spoken to Dr Hangman and he’ll see you, but he’s not convinced you are doing enough to get the ache to go away yourself.

Like what? What am I supposed to do?

Well, are you exercising for example?

I run a lot, I go walking.

Okay. How about sleep?

She considers this and sighs. No, actually, I sleep rather poorly at the moment. It’s the worry. Everything seems so difficult.

Right well that will be it, she says sharply. His advice is to try sleeping in different places. It will trick your mind.

Is that true?

He’s a doctor. I’ll book you in for an appointment next week, but you must try sleeping in different places. Okay?

She agrees to do as she is told and hangs up the phone, wincing as the movement jars her spine, which twinges her hips, which pangs deep in her ankles and her hands. All over, she aches, cramps up, coils stiff and tight like old metal. She shifts her neck from side to side.

That night, she pulls a blanket onto the sofa and curls up into a ball trying not to think of the ache. Her jaw is clenched so she wiggles it, turns over. The wind rattles the windows, she sees a light and goes to investigate but there is nothing. Returning to the sofa, she rolls over, throws the blanket off because she is too hot, pulls it back on because she grows cold, her fingers ice, her breath misting. She turns the heating on, but the sound of the boiler disturbs her.

In the morning she phones the medical centre again.

I tried to sleep in a new place, but I just couldn’t get comfortable and there were all these new noises. It won’t work – tell Dr Hangman I just need one of those pills again and I’ll be fine.

The receptionist is silent for a moment, then says Dr Hangman expected this. He expected you would get back in touch. Let me put you on hold and see if he’s available to talk.

The song that is the hold tone is a pop song people used to sing back in the village years ago. She remembers going to art classes where they would all fill each other in on their latest ailments, their colds and fevers, their brittle bones and misshapen feet. One of the ladies had a cracked spine because her husband hugged her. You’re like porcelain, they exclaimed, how sad!

But we all, don’t we, do damage to each other? We’re innately damaging creatures, doing damage to the environment as well. It’s our nature, I mean, look at the forest, that is half the size it was when I was a girl.

At this, they fell silent. The woman was an environmentalist, and her political comments were consistently grating when they just wanted to draw flowers and hilltops.

She, for one, found this woman a piece of work and wanted to tell her so. Always, just as she was about to come out with it, blurt her vindictive feelings, the teacher would arrive, and they would stop chatting. Back then, she had been working on an oil painting of a cathedral, green and ivy-sprawled, open to the sky; a green cathedral, a sacred parcel of land, broken open.

Yes, this is Dr Hangman?

He answers like he doesn’t know who will be on the line, even though – so she said – the receptionist just went to check if he was free.

I came in about my ache?


You recommended sleeping in new places.

I can’t prescribe any more medicine until I know you’ve tried all the alternatives. There’s no point taking pills to cover up the pain when that won’t solve the root of the issue.

I have tried. I can’t sleep wherever I sleep.

How many places have you tried?

One other.

Well exactly. If it’s noises bothering you, why not try outside? I find that very soothing.

She pictures him as an outdoorsy kind of person, with diamond-shaped calves and arms like knotted rope, wearing hiking boots and technical fabric fleeces, backpack on, trail mix in his pocket, surveying the blank land, the scraggled, wind-beaten place they live in with his sunken, rat’s eyes. He might have once been able to name all the flowers, hear birds and identify them just by their song.

Now bin bags and fluttering polythene are the new petals, and he can name those too; he can hear car engines and guess their make and manufacturer.

Trust me, go and try.

That evening, she sets off, woollen blanket in hand, thick-socked, to the forest. It is one of those nights where the moon is the white of an eye, unblinking, near-daylight in its brightness. She finds a spot by a large oak tree, spilling a green tongue of moss into the surrounding ferns, serrated copper. Amongst them, bottles and cans stud the grass like mushrooms, appearing in the night.

She sleeps fitfully, becomes cold, decides to scrape out a hole like she has seen people do in arctic conditions on the television. It is difficult – time passes – her hands turn brown and mud-caked. But at last, the soft earth like a duvet over her, she sleeps.

And in the morning, the ache is gone.

She goes home, eats a can of baked beans to warm herself up. Fresh food is hard to find these days. She looks out of the window and sees where she has come from, sees the forest flicker before her eyes in the wind. All of a sudden, the pain returns. Stabs her, grinds her to dust. She picks up the phone.

The pill is smooth and white, perfectly formed, delicate, bitter in her mouth. She swallows it and thanks him.

Dr Hangman frowns.

It’s my job. You don’t need to thank me.

According to the doctor, is it time to forget the sleep problem and focus on diet. You are what you eat, after all, he says.

You are a can stamped flat, a plastic bottle, a handful of nuts.

Obviously, fresh vegetables and fruit are out of the question these days. I’ve prepared a diet sheet for you. All of it should be fairly self-explanatory.

At home she fills her bowl with mud from the garden, tests a half-spoonful on her tongue, finds it sharp and bitter, swallows. She cannot make it through more than a few mouthfuls, and the ache in the small of her back pangs as she rushes to the bathroom to be sick.

Out with the darkness that is inside you, he will say. Out with it. You are suffering greatly.

He withholds the pill for the whole of the next appointment. She is salivating nearly, is clenching her fists to hide her sweaty palms. Hunched over, she watches him, brow cold, knees twinging.

Ah, I almost forgot. He reaches over and for some reason she opens her mouth, allows him to place it on her tongue himself as if he is giving her communion. She swallows it dry, too desperate to wait for water in a tiny plastic cup.

The pain fades but doesn’t go completely. Each time, the pill has become less and less effective. She is terrified of the day when it will do nothing at all.

The diet is working, Dr Hangman says, as per my expectations.

She doesn’t know how to respond, and the ache eats her words, so she sits back, exhausted.

There is this plant you could try which has been known to help in cases such as these, he says. I’ll draw you a picture.

He is an artist too, creative, ink-stained fingered, paint-splattered plates by the sink, brushes on the draining board. She leans over to see it; a sketch that seems to be real, to move and flutter in invisible wind, to be touchable, edible. She hasn’t seen many plants in her time but the trees of the receding forest, and those seem grey, haggard; not alive like this one.

This is what you need.

On her plate she arranges the leaves. She is on the edge of the forest, nestled beside a mattress with springs escaping like teeth, a car wheel thrown from the road, a disposable barbecue and foil trays. There is no light coming from the moon tonight, she could be the only one left in the world. The hemlock tastes like a hello from a stranger, deadly, delightful. They are handsome, with mud-dark eyes.

Like water streaming from her body, the ache leaves her. Already she is lighter, could run for miles, climb a mountain. Tonight though, she is tired.

There is a time for everything, Dr Hangman might say.

Yawning, she burrows down, pulls the soil over her head for warmth, sleeps.

Amber Rollinson is currently studying for the MSt Creative Writing at Oxford. She writes fiction and poetry and has been featured in Epoque Press’s e-zine, Channel Magazine (forthcoming), and The Common Breath (forthcoming). She is also a cyanotype artist and has had artwork featured by Epoque Press, Streetcake, Aeonion, and Neon.

Image via Pixabay

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