Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 43: Against all medical odds

Annette McFarlane was a nurse. She was twenty-seven and had recently become engaged to Rab Cameron, a civil engineer from Falkirk. Annette was from Oban, where she had been a keen member of a kayak club. She had met Rab at a kayak rally on Skye, and they were engaged within three months. Annette’s mother ran a small garden centre, and got on particularly well with Rab’s mother, whose hobby happened to be the cultivation of roses. Annette had studied nursing at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and had been given her first job at the Royal Infirmary. That had been in the Accident and Emergency Department, to which she had returned after a brief spell in Paediatrics, which she left after being bitten by several of her young patients.

44 Scotland Street

“I like the drama of A&E,” she remarked to Rab. “You get all of life there, you know. And then some.”

Rab was not sure whether he wanted to see all of life. “But you must see some pretty horrible things,” he said. “People with knives sticking out of their backs and so on.”

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Annette laughed. “That’s actually quite rare. You do see knife wounds from time to time, but it’s usually people cutting themselves with the bread knife, or something like that. Those very expensive German bread knives – you know, the ones that actually cut the bread – they’re the worst. We had a guy in the other night who was making himself some toast and he took the bread knife and …”

Rab stopped her. He was squeamish. “Okay, I get the drift.”

“I was just going to tell you about his thumb,” Annette continued. “You see the knife went …”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” said Rab. But he added, “He was all right, was he?”

“Yes,” said Annette. “Although there was a bit of a panic when we weren’t sure where we’d put the thumb. They wanted to sew it back on, you see, and this nurse I was working with – she’s called Julie – she had it. I swear I gave it to her, but she said I didn’t. She should have owned up – she really should. Anyway, we found it on the floor and I gave it a bit of a wash. Have you ever washed somebody else’s thumb under the tap? It’s really odd, you know …”

“All right,” said Rab. “He was fixed up. Good.”

“And there was this boy who swallowed a light bulb,” Annette continued. “No, I’m serious. He swallowed a light bulb. One of those screw-in ones. He was about sixteen, which is a bit late to be swallowing things. Over at the Sick Kids Casualty they get small kids who have swallowed all sorts of things – but he was brought in to us. He had an X-ray, and there it was – an actual light bulb.”

“What did they do?”

“I don’t know,” said Annette. “I went off duty shortly afterwards.”

But now Annette was on duty and was standing outside one of the examination rooms when Bruce was wheeled in on a trolley by the paramedics who had retrieved him from Dundas Street.

“He’s had a shock,” one said.

“A big shock, I think,” said the other.

Annette looked at Bruce, who was staring back at her, his eyes wide and unfocused. She noticed his hair, which was standing straight up, bristling like the coat of a cat that has had a bad fright. She smelled something unusual – was it cloves?

She reached out to take his pulse. “Hello,” she said. “What’s happened to you?”

Bruce struggled to say something.

“I think his tongue’s swollen,” said one of the paramedics. And then he addressed Bruce. “Don’t bother to speak, Jim. You can tell us later.”

He drew Annette aside. “Lightning,” he said. “This chap’s been struck by lightning. Down in Dundas Street. He was in the middle of the street – in the middle – and there was a muckle great burnt patch about five or six metres away. That’s where he was standing when the lightning hit him. There were two witnesses.”

“They swore it was lightning,” whispered his colleague. “They said there was a great bang and sparks – the lot. This poor guy was thrown up in the air like a doll.”

Annette looked down at Bruce. “Where does it hurt?” she asked. It was not perhaps the most intelligent thing to say to somebody who has been struck by lightning, but she found that it was usually a good way of getting a history.

Now Bruce managed to speak. “My ribs,” she said. “I landed on my front. I’ve hurt my ribs.”

A junior doctor arrived. “What have we here?” she asked.

“A lightning strike,” said Annette.

The doctor looked at her. “You serious?”

The paramedics repeated their report. The doctor listened, frowned, and then began an examination of Bruce.

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “You appear to be largely unscathed. I think you may have broken some ribs, but not much else.”

Bruce groaned. “It’s sore when I breathe.”

“That’s cracked ribs for you,” said the doctor.

A consultant was called. Lightning strikes were unusual, and word quickly got round the hospital. Notes were taken and a medical photographer was summoned. Bruce attempted to tidy his hair before the photographer got to work, in spite of being assured that it did not matter. What interested the consultant, and in due course the photographer, were the thin lines, like exposed veins, that ran down Bruce’s side. That, the consultant said, was where the current had passed down into the ground. They were surface burns, but so slight as to be inconsequential. “Lightning is a very peculiar thing,” said the consultant. “I attended a case in India where a mother who was holding her baby was struck. She was badly burned, but the baby was completely unharmed.”

Bruce listened to this. This was no accident, in his view. It was a judgement – a punishment. These people would not understand that, but he did.

Once the consultant and the photographer had left, Bruce said to Annette, “I’m really sorry.”

She looked at him. “You’ve been no trouble. And it wasn’t your fault.”

“No, I’m sorry about what I did. I’m sorry about what I did to make this happen.”

She looked bemused. “Lightning is … just lightning. It’s nothing to do with what you did.”

But then she thought: I wonder what he did. So she said, “I’m sure it wasn’t all that bad.” And added, after a brief pause, “What was it, anyway?”

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.