By Ashley Summerfield
The man leapt from his chair, and scurried across the empty waiting room in record time.
Following the Doctor into the room he looked around. The room was small and relatively bare, save for a large desk cluttered with loose bits of paper, an old computer, a waste paper basket and two chairs, one on either side of the desk.
‘Please take a seat,’ the Doctor said, pointing to the closest of the chairs.
Jack did not need to be told twice. He collapsed into the chair and began picking at his nails.
The Doctor remained standing. ‘Glass of water?’ he asked, gesturing towards a large jug resting upon a small table in the corner of the room.
‘Has that always been there?’ Jack asked.
‘For as long as I can remember, yes.’
‘I think I’ll take –’ But Jack was unable to finish his sentence. He squeezed his eyes shut and clamped his large hands over his ears. It was becoming more frequent. He had to get to the bottom of it, to make it stop.
‘Jack, are you okay?’ the Doctor asked, placing a hand upon Jack’s shoulder.
‘If I were okay I wouldn’t be here, would I? Jack said through gritted teeth. He took a deep breath before continuing. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you, it’s just my damn ears.’
‘Yes,’ he said, running a hand through his thinning hair. ‘I’ve been hearing a noise for the past twenty-four hours and it’s driving me insane.’
‘What sort of noise?’ the Doctor asked.
‘A loud beeping.’
‘And it began yesterday, you say?’
‘Yes. When I was at the supermarket.’
‘Go on,’ the Doctor said, taking a seat behind his desk.
Jack rearranged himself in the chair and cleared his throat. ‘Well, I was standing in the queue for the kiosk. I had to make a pit stop on the way to collecting my daughter from school. I was down to my last cigarette and I was stressed enough as it was, without the added pressure of making it to the school on time. My job is hectic at the moment. I work in casting and I was stupid enough to undertake three major projects simultaneously. I know of people who can take on more, but I’ve never coped well with stress. My wife tells me not to sweat the small stuff, but no matter how hard I try I always find new ways of raising my stress levels. She left me going on three months now and took our daughter with her. She lets me see Hayley on Fridays and every other weekend. But due to me being swamped at work I’ve been arriving to the school late and on one occasion I forgot to pick her up. My wife wasn’t very happy about that. She told me I couldn’t see Hayley anymore. I begged her for one last chance and eventually she gave it to me. This brings us to yesterday. Yesterday was my last chance.’
‘But where does the noise come into this?’ the Doctor asked.
‘Sorry, Doctor, I tend to go off on tangents when I’m worked up.’
‘Not to worry. Please proceed.’
‘Right,’ Jack said, scratching his temple with a yellow finger nail. ‘When my stress levels were at its peak, I researched ways of coping with it. I wanted quick results. The long and short of it is that I turned to cigarettes. Now, I’m fully aware that smoking is bad for you, but so is stress for that matter! But from the first puff I felt the stress evaporate from my body. It was wonderful. I felt the best I’d done in years. The problem is that when I stop, even if it’s only for a little while, the stress comes flooding back. I’ve started to fear running out of cigarettes which in itself causes me an unbelievable amount of stress. That’s why I found myself in a queue at the supermarket.’
Jack got up from his chair and walked over to the small table. He poured himself a glass of water and gulped it down. He allowed his eyes to wander the room.
‘Sorry, yes,’ Jack said, resuming his seat. ‘It soon became my turn to be served. I walked up to the cashier and asked for the cheapest cigarettes they have – I’m really not doing well financially. Without a word the cashier turned her back on me in search of the cigarettes. When she’d found them she turned back around and scanned the barcode. The beep of the scanner was deafening. I let out a yell and plugged my index fingers into my ears. The cashier looked up at me with worried eyes. I hastily removed my fingers and apologised profusely. But the beeping returned. I couldn’t understand it. At first I thought she was scanning the packet over and over again. But why on earth would she do that? I started yelling at the poor woman. But then I looked at her arms. They were by her sides. She couldn’t possibly have been scanning anything. I told myself that the till must be broken, but then that didn’t account for the fact that nobody else was reacting to the beeping.’
‘And then what happened?’ the Doctor asked, intrigued.
‘Well, I sat in my car, screaming with pain. Eventually, the beeping became less frequent. At first I put the whole ordeal down to nicotine withdrawal, but I’ve smoked a tonne of cigarettes since then and I’m still experiencing that same infuriating beeping. Perhaps it’s tinnitus, Doctor?’
‘Yes, perhaps. Have you been listening to loud music?
‘Well, perhaps once I’ve examined your ears we’ll have some answers.’
The Doctor unzipped a small bag, about the size of a pencil case and removed an instrument used for examining patient’s ears.
The Doctor checked one ear and then the other.
‘Well, everything seems to be in order. Your ear drums aren’t perforated and there isn’t a build up of wax.’
‘Then what could it be?’
‘I’m not sure,’ the Doctor said, solemnly.
‘Please think. You’ve got to help me – it’s unbearable. I can’t go on living with this noise. But at the same time I must because of my Hayley. Seeing her little face light up when I arrived at the school – just in time. She walked out of her classroom straight into my arms. I scooped her up and held her tight. Spending this precious time with her almost made the noise bearable. But when we arrived at the car –’
Jack grabbed his ears and fell to the floor, writhing in pain. The wretched beeping was worse than it had ever been.
‘Stop it! Please stop it! I’ll do anything! I’m sorry!’ Jack cried.
‘Jack! Jack! Can you hear me?’
Jack opened his eyes to discover a change of scenery. He was no longer with the Doctor – he was in a hospital bed. The room in which he now found himself was quiet, save for the beeping of a heart monitor.
‘Mummy, he’s awake,’ said a voice.
Jack was startled. He had not noticed the two people sitting in the corner of the room – his wife, Sarah and his daughter, Hayley. He could not help but smile.
Hayley, I’m so happy to see you! What on earth happened?’
But it was Sarah who spoke next, choosing to respond in Hayley’s stead. ‘You were in a car crash, Jack. At the roundabout, outside the school.’
Jack’s smile was replaced with an abject look of horror.
‘My God, Hayley! Are you okay?’
‘Does it look like she’s hurt? Anyway, you crashed before you picked her up. The police said you were driving recklessly and the nurse who’s been tending to you said you’re lucky to be alive. What sort of example have you been setting Hayley lately? This was your last chance, remember? I’m sorry but I’ve had enough – we’ve had enough – it’s all decided, so don’t bother arguing. We’re moving to Devon to live with my mother. You know, she was right about you all along, Jack. I only wish I’d listened.’
Sarah stood up and left in a hurry, closely followed by Hayley. Neither one of them looking back at the distraught Jack lying in his bed.
‘Sarah, wait! Hayley! Please come back!’
But it was too late, they were gone