In a lifetime it will beat some three billion times, yet it is capable of more than twice this. Unravaged, the human heart would beat for two hundred years.
Naomi does not know this. She is nineteen. She knows only that the man beside her on the bench was blue when she turned to him - blue, a colour which up to now was no more than an idea for the sea and the sky. Blue and bloating. A party balloon for a face. An ECG flat line for a mouth. He didn't belong - not there under the horse chestnut outside the High School for Girls. Hadn't she been there every day this week with her lunch, her magazine and the bench all to herself?
He was already rigid, she explains, when she lifted his hand. Now he's so stiff they can't unfold his arms to clear the way to his heart, or even lie him flat on the bench because his knees are swollen and locked. He's a human seesaw from an old-fashioned comedy routine and still, still, they're getting a heartbeat, irregular and remote, unreal as an echo, but a heartbeat nonetheless. Somewhere in the cold meat locker of his chest, under the brown tweed jacket, below the faded shirt he had buttoned to the neck, he's clamouring for release. A man who looked at her only the once, moving over only slightly as she sat down with her plastic lunchbox and the women's magazine she has been buying each month to know what it is to feel like a woman. He's in there now running from death, knocking to be let out, to please God be let back into the world again. Only fifty-one, breathes the paramedic, fumbling with a driving licence, but fifty-one seems not unreasonable to her. And the corner of her new bias-cut skirt is wet because something was seeping from him, that's what made her turn and in this moment she can still feel the chill of his hand branded on her palm where she touched him. Even the hairs of his knuckles, starched as they were with the cold of him, go on bristling at her fingertips. And she wants him dead, she wants him still, like she wants old people sexless, so disgusted is she by the force of the human heart.
The smell of him trails her on the hem of her skirt as she walks back to work. Her knees feel like two china plates balanced on a busker's sticks. Her chest flutters. She stops at M&S to collect herself, to feel strong and clean again under the bright, false lights of retail. She has ten minutes. She threads her way through Childrenswear, past Linens and into the decorous calm of Houseware. He'll be on a steel table somewhere by now. Maybe in a cold drawer.
Had she known he wasn't going to move over, she would have found another bench. What kind of a man moves without really moving at all? She'd had no choice but to cross and recross her legs so theirs did not touch. She'd had to balance both her magazine and her lunch on a single knee, with her handbag and her can of fizzy orange on the ground at her feet, so little space had he yielded her. She was wearing shimmer tights. How her legs must have shimmered for him in the bright light of noon.
And when she had moved her hand to swat away a buzzing of bluebottles, everything had nearly toppled. Did she hear a choked apology, or was it a cough? She'll never know. She remembers only his ankles, and his trousers rolled up in thick, fraying bunches. Here was a man on his own who couldn't shop for himself or sew, a man who knew only what his shaving mirror showed him. And what was that? She can't remember his face, only the pale blue balloon of it knotted at his neck. She struggles for the detail, tries to see again his eyes. Blue or brown? Light or dark? And were they wide or squeezed tight when the pain kicked in the door of his heart? She can't remember, and she can't understand why she can't remember. She had stared at him, she'd had no choice, flat as he was at last under the paramedics' white paddles. Yet the look of him has vanished into the hazy mirage of her mind, like when Jason went away last summer on the Outward Bound course, only two weeks after they had started going out, and she had confessed to Carrie at the salon that she was embarrassed, she felt unfaithful, because she couldn't remember what he looked like. She wanted to picture him, to linger over the thought of him, over his face, his eyes, the dimple in his chin. She really wanted to, but he kept disappearing on her. All she could see was the thick wave of his hair. "That's why you can't," said Carrie.
"Because you want to too much."
Naomi claps her hand over her mouth, but it's too late. The torrent of fizzy drink, egg and cress sandwich and low-fat crisps spills into a display vase of imitation lilies. Her eyes stream. The muscles in her calves tremble. Her stomach lurches again. She throws everything up, hollowing herself out.
When she raises her head, a child in blue dungarees is staring at her and the lilies are sprayed with orange. In the near distance she can hear the castanet click of heels coming close and she hates him, she hates that dead man who would not die, that dead man who would neither let her be nor give her a second thought.
At the salon, she scoops a handful of mints from the bowl by the till and walks head down into the tiny staff loo, bolting the door behind her. She shoves all the mints into her mouth at once, chewing them fast, burning her windpipe with their cold fire. She slips off her skirt and runs the stained corner under the hot water tap, heedless of the dry-cleaning tag. She squeezes it out, then bangs the hand-drier on the wall into motion.
"Naomi, you back? Mrs Deleuze is at sink three."
She drapes the wet skirt over the drier, washes her hands under a scalding tap, digs in her small handbag past the rolled-up magazine and quickly applies wide strokes of blusher to her bleached cheeks.
"Naomi? You in there?"
She slips into the still damp skirt, unbolts the door and smiles apologetically at Davina, a senior stylist.
Naomi is a hair technician. She will ask Mrs Deleuze if the water temperature is all right. She will remind her to avoid conditioning her crown, as she is prone to an oily build-up at the roots. She will not mention dandruff. Instead, she will recommend tea tree oil shampoo, essential fatty acids and biotin-rich foods. She will manipulate Mrs Deleuze's scalp as she learned to do on her Indian head massage training day. She will make pleasant conversation, though she has not had time to consult Mrs Deleuze's index card. Was her new terrier puppy called Fido or Dido? Would Mrs Deleuze name her dog after a pop singer? Naomi thinks not. She will ask after Mrs Deleuze's last holiday, remembering not to mention Mr Deleuze until Mrs Deleuze does so herself. She will not say she found a man, stiff and blue, on the bench beside her at lunch. She will not say, "Poor man. What a shock for his family. I wonder who he was." She knows all she needs to know. She knows he was looking at her legs. She knows he was looking at her slim feet in her gold strappy shoes. She knows he sat uncomfortably close. It was awful because Naomi was in the middle of "Seventeen Ways to Have an Orgasm."
She has been sleeping with Jason for three months now and is not sure that she's had a proper orgasm yet. That's what she told Carrie one night as they scoured the sinks before closing.
"What do you mean… fuckin' hell, there goes another nail! The glue they give you with these things is cheaper than spit."
"Like, you know, a proper one."
"Proper? Me, I'm happy with the plain old improper kind any day." She winked at Naomi, and Naomi laughed as if she had got the joke, but the truth was she hadn't, not really.
As a child, she had played on the old oak banister that rises from the cellar to the hatch in the floor of her mother's small kitchen. She had tested her own strength, hauling herself up its creaking length by her arms, clutching it with her thighs as if she was a lone survivor escaping a rising flood. The first time, her legs had fluttered like they had belonged to someone else and she lay still and breathless under the sound of her mother's light footsteps, her hot cheek pressed to the secret of the banister. But it was different with Jason. Of course it was. Jason was warm and alive. Jason was no piece of dead wood. Jason was everything she wanted. He was handsome. He was strong. How could she become her cellar self in front of Jason? How could she let that happen to her face?
Number one: Girl Power. Number two: Handiwork. Number three: Good Vibrations. Number four: Mouth Organ. Number five: A Bird in the Hand. Number six: G-Spot Magic. Number seven: Bottoms up! Number eight: Twist and Shout. Number nine: Wet Wet Wet. Number ten: Please Come Again. Today, at lunch, Naomi had only got as far as number ten when she noticed the corner of her skirt was damp. Had it rained that morning? Should she have wiped the bench before sitting down?
"Naomi, Mrs Deleuze would like a jasmine tea."
Naomi waits for the kettle to boil. The client in chair six is a tall redhead, early thirties. She wants layers after all and she's telling Zoe, a junior stylist, about the aunt she has just visited in Nice. Naomi has never been to France, not even to the diesel cloud of a French ferry port for a duty free shopping day.
The redhead is called Claudine. Her family on her mother's side, she explains to Zoe, has had a commercial ice company in Nice since the turn of the century and the aunt, whom she apparently takes after, was delivering ice one day, back in the fifties, to a famous hotel. "Picture this," says Claudine, through the curtain of her hair. "It's a sweltering summer day, in the hundreds, yeah? And my aunt, who's not even eighteen, is in the hotel kitchen when the phone rings. Someone wants enough crushed ice to fill - wait for it - a double bath, and they want it delivered to their room straightaway. The kitchen manager rolls his eyes and says 'pah! pah!' several times. He's understaffed that day as it is and with the heat and the humidity the kitchen's an inferno. The last thing anyone wants to do is help some rich bastard to more ice than anyone has a right to. So my aunt, never one to miss an opportunity, gets her pretty backside into gear and delivers not one, not two, but twelve tureens of crushed ice to the room all by herself. She knocks once, announces the arrival of the ice through the door, and leaves the trolleys just outside. She's just turning on her heels when…"
"When what?" Zoe changes her scissors.
Claudine's face peeks through the curtain of red. "When the door opens and a little dog comes running after her, licking her toes and jumping up to say hello. Ten minutes later and guess what?"
"What?" Zoe's cutting hand goes limp.
"My aunt is in that double bath with one, a French cabinet minister, two, a toy poodle and three - no word of a lie - Brigitte Bardot."
"But I thought she was an animal activist."
"How much activity do you want? The worst of it is, when I asked my aunt what happened next, all she would say is, 'Zee ice melted, pet.'"
Zoe laughs. Davina and Mrs Deleuze at chair four laugh. Naomi does not. She squeezes the jasmine infusion bag hard. She is glad her aunties do not visit upon her stories of bisexual romps in the bath with house pets. She is glad her aunties live in Streatham.
Tonight, even though it's Friday and balmy too, she and Jason will not have sex in his little brother's pop-up garden tent because his coach says he's got to save it for the away game tomorrow. But he will kiss her a long goodnight among the Kit Kat and Galaxy bar boxes in the alleyway between the One Stop and her mother's house. He will press himself hard against her. He will show her again, on his special sports performance watch, how she makes his digital heart rate race. And she will leave him, unsure why she didn't mention the man on the bench.
All night she is restless. She tells herself it's the mobile phone under her pillow. Jason is going to ring her first thing from the team minibus and she cannot miss his call. He needs her to say, in a voice just for him, "Go get 'em, Lightning Man," the way Posh might say it to Becks. It's his lucky saying, and his private name for his thingy, the one she sometimes whispers in his ear when she nuzzles him. She can't remember how it started or where it came from but now she has to whisper it to him before each game, even though she is too embarrassed ever to say it with the throaty desire he would like. It's the only thing Jason is irrational about so she tries to oblige as best she can, like when he wants her to go down on him and the force of him at the back of her throat almost makes her dinner come up, but she keeps at it anyway, and swallows too, even though the thick salty slick of it makes her stomach judder, even though Carrie has told her there are over a thousand calories in every ejaculation and Naomi wonders if that's why she's putting on weight, like the prostitute Carrie read about - the one who ate nothing, smoked fags instead, but swallowed several times a day and put on three stone. Naomi does it anyway since what kind of girl would tell her boyfriend she can't because she might throw up all over his thingy, his bit of lightning in this world.
Still, when the call comes she jumps from sleep, her heart banging like an old tin can tied to a bumper.
Incoming call. Not Jason. Not Carrie either.
"Miss Naomi Phillips?" A woman's voice.
"Yes." Naomi sits up and pulls her duvet around her.
"This is the patient care office at St Richard's. I believe you passed your details to one of our paramedic teams yesterday."
Naomi almost hits the call-ended button. She wants to say, this is a mistake. If she had known he was going to die she wouldn't have sat down in the first place.
"Yes. They asked me to fill out a form."
Already in her mind, she is rehearsing the words: she will not be able to attend the funeral, she is glad she was able to do what little she could.
"We thought we'd update you on Mr Peter Bartholomew."
It is a long moment before Naomi realises that the woman on the phone is talking about the man on the bench. She doesn't like him having a name. She can't quite believe he has - had - a name.
"I'm pleased to tell you he survived surgery."
What surgery? Naomi's chest goes hollow, as if something has punctured her lungs. "But the man I saw was…"
"It's only natural you feared the worst."
"An understandable mistake. That's why I…"
"Yesterday must have been very upsetting for you, Miss Phillips. That's why I'm glad to be able to give you some good news. Mr Bartholomew's condition is critical, and I cannot overemphasise the seriousness of the situation, but…"
"…there's still hope." Naomi's legs go numb. She feels half dead herself.
"Since the operation Mr Bartholomew has been in and out of consciousness. All we can say at this point is, that's encouraging."
"He has said very little. However, one of our staff nurses told him he was a lucky man, that a young woman phoned 999 on her mobile phone. He seemed to become a little more coherent. The nurse had the impression he'd like to thank you. That's nice, isn't it? Nice to know you made a difference."
"There's no need. I only…"
"Visiting time is strictly limited in the cardio unit, and usually only family, but under the circumstances and, given that there seems to be no one else, we felt it right to let you know."
"Of course I'd like to come, but I'm on lates this week. I'm a hair technician. My shifts don't start till 3.30 so that means I'm on late every night this week."
"We generally discourage evening visits in the cardio unit. Visiting hours are any time between 12 and 4pm. I'll register your name at the reception desk. You can tell them you spoke to Mrs Booth."
Naomi gets up and locks her bedroom door. She doesn't want her mother to come in. She has to think. How is he doing this to her? How is he stitching her life to his even still? How has he twisted everything around? Blue but still breathing. Helpless but demanding. Passive but rigid as a corpse.
When Jason rings, Naomi panics. He tells her they're almost at Grantham, that the pitch is supposed to be rubbish, it's raining there, and if she's wondering what the stink is, it's Jimmy's kit and she should close her bedroom window. There's a battery of laughter and he says low, just for her, that he thought he'd give her a quick call. He wanted to hear her voice.
"Naomi, you there?"
"Yes. And… I wanted to tell you something."
"What's that then?" His voice is warm as beer. He tells her to wait. He moves to an empty seat at the back. The bus goes through a tunnel and they lose each other.
"There's someone else, Jason." She doesn't know what she means. But she says it again. "I'm really sorry, Jason. There's someone else."
Down corridor after corridor, through Witterings ward, Middleton and back again. She can't concentrate. Many-eyed machines on wheels, on two legs, on leads, litter her route like a watch-ful menagerie. She doesn't belong here. She is a fraud. The grapes in her hand are from her mother's fridge. She can't remember what the man on the bench looks like. Outside a patients' toilet, a nurse is laughing with a one-legged man. "See, Harold? What did I tell you? Your sins will find you out."
On her left, she passes a door marked Dirty Utility Room. "Please keep this door shut." But it's not. Naomi sees a wide sink, a black bin for waste marked "incinerate only," and a stack of commodes under another sign: "If you return it, you wash it."
Down the corridor, two giggling cleaning girls in fitted green smocks, sunbed tans and platform shoes wrap themselves in cellophane aprons and gloves they pull from a dispenser on the wall. She wonders what might splash on them; where they will have to put their hands. She wonders if they have read the notice on the wall about the proper way for staff to wash their hands. "Do not forget your thumb," the final line warns, and Naomi feels she is wandering alone in a world where danger is at your fingertips.
At the cardio reception desk, the nurse ticks her name off a list, confiscates the grapes like she would a petty weapon, ushers her into a small ward and pulls back a plastic curtain to reveal what Naomi must assume is the man from the bench. She does as the nurse says and pulls up a chair to the foot of the bed. His eyes are closed. She does not know if he is asleep or unconscious. She does not ask. She tries to summon the face under the bubble of the mask, but it is lost in the mist of his ventilated breath.
She looks around nervously. Eight beds. Six men. Windows too high and narrow to see through if you're confined to a bed. Two other visitors, both women. At the end of the ward, one, middle-aged, with a face like porridge. Across from Naomi, another, old but dignified. A Chichester lady. A major's wife, Naomi decides. Her lipstick is well applied. She has a clear widow's peak, which must have been striking when she was younger - Naomi would tell her as much if the major's wife were a client at the salon, though the truth is she can never really imagine old people any younger than they are.
Technology pulses and sighs. In the dim hush of this place, drips, defibrillators, ventilators, pacemakers, balloon pumps and Hewlett-Packard monitors are more alive than the anonymous hearts and lungs over which they watch. It scares her. She wonders how long she has to stay. She doesn't feel right sitting beside the still body of a strange man, possibly naked but for the hospital-issue blanket over him.
She crosses her legs and her left foot accidentally kicks the end of the bed. Its metal frame shudders. "Sorry," she whispers. To bed or man, she is not sure. She stands, walks to the window behind his bed and pretends to take in the view: the back wall of the hospital laundry. Mounds of linen in rolling skips glide in and out of double doors. She almost took a job as a chambermaid once, the summer before her GCSEs, but the thought of the sheets of strangers made her turn to Shippams and fish paste instead.
Rain spits at the window. She turns. Finds herself suddenly near him - over him. They've shaved his chest. The light is poor but if she squints, she can see the new growth of dark stubble rising below the pale, flaccid skin. He is pierced all over like that saint in the picture she saw on a school trip to the National Gallery, the one with the long hairless body and all those arrows sticking out of his white flesh. There are needles in his chest, his arm, his wrist, his hand. Twisty tubing springs from each, like the crazy straws her mother used to buy to get Naomi to drink her milk. For a time, she cannot stop herself watching the slow drip of his wound into the drain-bag at the side of the bed. She does not know a word for the colour.
Beyond the wound, through the tubing and wires, there are red electrodes taped like too many nipples to his sunken chest. He doesn't look real. She stares at his chest and for a moment it seems as if she need only take the blue biro out of her bag and connect the dots to bring him back into being.
She takes her seat once more and resumes her role as a visitor. "Hello," she tries in a low voice. "Hello?" Miracles are possible. This is the Church of the Heart. "I'm Naomi. I'm the girl who phoned for an ambulance. I think you wanted to see me?"
The IV monitor starts to bleep angrily. Naomi sits back, embarrassed. The nurse who seized her grapes arrives, pushes past her chair, adjusts a dial and fingers the drip feed suspiciously. "You haven't touched this?" Across the room, the major's wife looks up.
Naomi shakes her head, eyes wide. Do they think she wants him in pain? Do they think she wants to kill him? Will she demand to know her exact relationship to the man from the bench?
"Been playing up all week," she sighs. "Must be faulty. I'll order a replacement, okay?"
"Thank you," says Naomi, relieved, relieved not to stand accused, relieved that the nurse feels instead she must be accountable to her. Naomi is important. Suddenly she is the loved one of the mortally wounded. The nurse smiles at her briefly and leaves.
Naomi tries again, quietly, so the major's wife can't hear. "Perhaps you don't remember me. I'm Naomi. I'm nineteen. I live here in Chichester. I'm a hair technician. I was having lunch on the same bench as you yesterday. There were all those flies buzzing round, remember? Weren't they a nuisance? And I was reading a magazine. Of course you might not have noticed me. I was wearing, um, gold sandals. Anyway, that was me. I mean, um, those were my feet."
"I SAY, IS THIS A CHINESE SEX OUTFIT?"
Naomi swivels in her chair. The major has sat up and is shouting from his bed.
The major's wife tries to shush him into submission. She pats his hand. She wipes his bald head.
"IS THIS OR IS THIS NOT A CHINESE SEX OUTFIT?"
Her coiffed silver hair slips loose, falling over her face. "The morphine," she apologises to Naomi from across the room. "And the cataracts don't help."
Naomi smiles kindly, one wife to another. It gives her courage. She stands, picks up her chair and moves it from the foot of the bed to the side. She bends down and opens the small plyboard cupboard squeezed awkwardly between the bed and the IV monitor. His clothes. The ones he was admitted in. One by one, she refolds them: the brown tweed jacket; the faded cotton shirt, its buttons ripped off in the scrabble for his heart; the trousers with the frayed hems; a pullover vest; a pair of white briefs; brown socks; black shoes with worn laces. She returns each item to the cupboard with care. Then she takes the hand of the man from the bench in hers.
She sits by his side for two and a half hours. She sits until ten past three when she has to leave at last for her shift at the salon. He does not open his eyes even once. He does not squeeze her hand.
"Tomorrow," says the nurse. "Try again tomorrow. I had a few good minutes with him this morning, you know. It's just going to take time." And she returns Naomi's mother's grapes to her.
The following morning, she wakes to the sound of voices downstairs. Her mother and - she listens - Jason.
She takes her time. She irons her hair so it falls sleekly past her shoulders. She slips into a clingy pink summer dress with spaghetti straps. Her nipples rise through the jersey. Which is fine. Nipples are in. Nipples are the new cleavage. She finds one gold sandal under the bed and the other in the wardrobe. She squirts her wrists and neck with Elizabeth Arden eau de toilette. She reaches for a delicate white cardigan that ties at the breast with a single silk ribbon.
The clack of her sandals on the stairs is unabashed.
"Naomi, I was just going to wake you. Jason's here. To help us clean out the cellar, like he said last week. Isn't that nice? He thinks he might even be able to replace that rickety old banister."
Jason smiles nervously. "You look lovely."
Her mother has made him a cup of tea. She will have remembered that he likes two sugars and lots of milk. Her mother likes Jason. Too much. "If I were twenty years younger," she had teased him once.
Now she's giving him a conspiratorial smile. "I'll get back to Woman's Hour then." He has told her. That Naomi has someone else. That her only daughter is leading a double life. She cannot believe it will last. She cannot believe that a daughter of hers will pass up a boy like Jason.
"I'm on my way out, Mum."
"But the cellar."
"Can't today. Sorry."
"I thought you were on lates this week. That's why I asked Jason round this morning."
"I'll give you a ring later. Bye, Jason."
"I'll walk you into town."
"No. Finish your tea. I'm fine."
Outside, the breezy sunshine is a relief. She fills her lungs. Her heart quickens. Women, Jason once said, have faster heart rates than men. Today, she feels this must be true. She has life enough to share.
She hardly looks up as she walks. She wonders what colour his eyes will be when they open.
When the double doors of the hospital slide back she realises she is early. Visiting hours don't start for another forty minutes. The hospital shop is open. She looks at the cards, but decides against one. Get-well-soon cards are from acquaintances. She chooses instead a sewing kit, a comb, a nail clipper, some lotion for extra dry skin, a pack of disposable razors and a magazine for ramblers. "He loves walking in the Downs," she hears herself telling the major's wife.
When she arrives at the desk, the same nurse looks up. Naomi smiles, juggling her purchases.
"I'm very sorry. You can't go in."
"Sorry. I'm early, aren't I? I thought maybe…"
"Miss Phillips, is it?"
"Yes, my name's on your list? I was here yesterday?" Her voice does this sometimes - turns statements into questions. Someone asked her once if she was Australian.
"I'm very sorry, Miss Phillips. Mr Bartholomew passed away this morning."
"He passed a what?"
"He passed away. I'm so sorry. Please, sit down."
"But just yesterday, you said he…"
"He was critical. Let me get you a glass of water. It's a shock, I know it is."
She hates this nurse. She hated her yesterday by the IV drip. She hated her too for her "few good minutes" with the man from the bench. "He can't be. Perhaps you got the wrong bed. He was in the one by the door."
"It was heart failure. I'm afraid our efforts at resuscitation failed. The doctors did everything they could. Would you like to speak to one of the team? Would you like a doctor to explain?"
"No." She has read the poster. It hangs outside the door of the ward. She can see it now over the nurse's blue shoulder. She doesn't know why medical staff need a poster to tell them about cardiac life support. One: mouth to mouth ventilation. Two: administer precordial thump. Three: place paddles correctly. Four: give oxygen. Five: intubate. Six: cannulate large vein.
"Can I ring someone for you? A taxi perhaps? A friend? We have a chaplain on staff."
"Can I see him? Mr Bartholomew. Is he here still?"
"Let's give it some thought. Why don't you sit down?"
"I want to see him."
"The fact is, the porters will be here shortly." She pauses, studies the blank insistence of Naomi's face. "Okay. Take a few minutes. Slip through the curtains."
The hospital-issue blanket is gone. He's almost unchanged against the fresh white sheets. Paler. But better in some way. No mask, needles, tubes or wires. She can see the outline of his thighs through the single sheet that covers him. More muscular than she would have thought. "He loved walking in the Downs." Will she be able to tell the major's wife?
His hands are by his sides, bloodied slightly where the needles for the drips have been withdrawn. The wounds are small stigmata, like the ones she saw in a documentary about the supernatural.
He will not bleed for her.
Someone has left a piece of transparent surgical tape on one wrist. There's another strip on his chest. She moves to his side, hesitates, then peels each piece away. The skin hardly lifts with it. She raises his hand, his arm. He's stiff. Cold.
Beneath her white cardigan, beneath her pink summer dress, Naomi's heart clenches into a fist.
Later, she will not remember slipping off her sandals. She will not remember climbing on to the bed. She will remember only the sharp stillness of the ward, the sweat at the back of her knees and the explosion of words in her mouth as she rode the dead muscle of his thigh.
Love me. Love me.