by Karen Gilleland © 2015
Prayers and good thoughts go out to everyone afflicted by the hostilities in our world. In the midst of conflict, the Christmas season still inspires hope, solace, and the promise of peace. Paris symbolizes that spirit.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
— Ernest Hemingway
The fragrance of evergreen infused the house. Martin fingered the gold-and-pearl tie tack Louisa had given him and leaned back on the sofa, eyes slanted toward her. She wore a long red skirt and top, and he was stunned, as he always was, at how beautiful she looked.
“It’s still pouring,” she said. “Two days now. The roads must be terrible. Hard for people traveling tonight.”
He nodded, thinking how nice it was to spend Christmas Eve alone with his family, James curled up on a pillow near the sofa, he and Louisa together. The thought of how close they’d come to not being together crossed his mind, and he stiffened.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m feeling lucky to be here with you and James, that’s all.”
She moved closer, snuggled against him. As he slipped an arm around her, the telephone rang. He brushed his hands across his face and stood up. “Sorry.”
Picking up the phone in reception, he heard Ruth’s voice, agitated.
“I’m at the farm. We’re hosting children from a boarding school. One of the boys has taken ill. He’s very feverish. Can you come?”
“I’m on my way.”
Martin explained quickly to Louisa, picked up his medical bag and trekked out into the storm. Mud and water caused the car to swerve twice as he sped along the slick road. At the farmhouse, he tugged off his drenched coat and hung it on a hook.
“I’m glad you’re here,” said Ruth.
He heard children laughing in the front room. “Where’s the sick boy?”
“Has he complained of any pain?”
“No, he seemed fine when he arrived. He didn’t eat much lunch. Said he felt tired. I kept an eye on him and got worried when his face became flushed. His name’s Omar.”
In the small bedroom, a thin youngster from India lay on a bed. Martin sat down and examined him, frowning at his rapid pulse, elevated blood pressure and high temperature.
“Hello, son, I’m Doctor Ellingham. Where do you hurt?”
“My side,” he whispered. His eyes met Martin’s, closed, and he drifted off.
Martin touched the boy’s side and felt him flinch. He stood and ushered Ruth into the kitchen. “I’m afraid it’s appendicitis. He needs surgery.”
Taking out his mobile phone, he dialed 999 and explained the situation. The operator replied: “We can’t send a helicopter in this weather, and we’ve just had a report that a semitrailer jackknifed on the road out of Truro. Both lanes are blocked. It may be hours before anyone can get through.”
“Well, send an ambulance as soon as you can.”
Martin stood motionless, fingertips at his lips, weighing options. At last he spoke. “Aunt Ruth, I’m going to have to operate on that boy.”
“Here? No, you can’t. It’s not safe . . .” She put up a hand, palm outward. “Sorry, Martin, what can I do?”
“Call Penhale. Tell him to go to the surgery. I’ll have Louisa pack what I need. Who’s responsible for the boy?”
“His teacher. I’ll get him.”
“Yes, but make that call first.”
Martin finished his instructions to Louisa as a gangly, ginger-haired man in his twenties, wearing a Saint Gerren’s Academy blazer, entered and extended his hand. “William Aldridge, Doctor Ellingham. How is Omar?”
“His condition is critical.” He explained what he proposed to do and asked if the man could contact the parents.
“They’re in India. We do have authority to provide medical treatment, but this is so unorthodox. . .”
Martin stopped him. “I grant you, surgery here is high risk. The kitchen is not a sanitized operating room.” He paused. “But if I don’t operate, my diagnosis is that he won’t make it through the night.”
“I’ll call Headmaster,” he said, then squared his shoulders. “But do whatever you deem necessary.”
“Thank you.” Martin’s eyes followed him as he walked away, punching numbers into his phone.
He raised his eyebrows at Ruth and asked, “Why are these youngsters here?”
“For a ‘Santa’s Adventure.’ I thought we could drum up a little winter business, plus offer the kids a treat. Not much fun being away from home at Christmas, as you well know.”
He nodded, but said. “You’re supposed to be taking it easy.”
“There are only six children, and Al has done most of the work.” She walked over to the sitting room door and opened it a crack. “Take a look.”
Glowing candles and tree lights softened the room, while white streamers hinted of snow. Morwenna, “Mrs. Claus,” held hands with the youngsters while Al snapped photos.
“What do you think?”
Bert Large, rigged out as Santa Claus, bustled into the room with a hearty, “Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!” The youngsters ran up to him, pulling on his arms, patting his stomach. He set down his red pack and took a seat in an overstuffed chair by the tree. The kids gathered round, and he began reading from a Paddington Bear storybook.
I wager Bert didn’t need a pillow to stuff that suit, Martin was thinking when, behind him, the door opened, and wind and rain swished about the room. P.C. Penhale, Janice and Louisa, carrying James, clamored inside, shaking out their soaked clothing, grumbling about the nasty weather.
He walked over. “Louisa, why have you and James come?”
“It’s Christmas Eve, Martin, and we want to be with you.”
“And I’m under arrest,” added Janice, cocking a smile at Joe and putting her arm around his waist, water spattering her fuzzy red sweater.
Eyeing the newcomers, Martin said, “Penhale, I’ll need you to assist.”
“Me?” he gulped, leaning sideways as though sidestepping a blow.
“You, too, Louisa. Everyone else, out!” Janice reached for James and strutted after Ruth.
Martin prepared the makeshift operating theater and returned to the bedroom. He lifted the unconscious boy, brought him in and readied him for surgery.
“Louisa, stand here, please, and hold this IV.”
He went over the instruments with Penhale, and said, “When I ask for an instrument, make sure I have it before you release your grip.”
Adjusting his surgical mask, Martin looked at the two recruits, also in scrubs. “Ready?”
Just then, a vicious crack of thunder crashed through the house, and the lights flared up and went out.
“Martin!” cried Louisa.
He heard the children scream and Bert’s voice: “Nothing to worry about. Sit tight. Santa knows lots of stories.”
Martin yelled into the blackness, “Al, torch!”
Seconds later, Al stumbled into the room, pulled a torch out of a cabinet and clicked it on.
“Point the light here,” directed Martin.
“Let’s begin. Scalpel.”
Martin made the initial incision, and the procedure was under way. He caught his breath when he saw the tube-shaped appendix sac was already leaking. God, he’s full of infection.
As surgery stretched on, light from the torch wobbled, gasps sounded, but Martin worked tirelessly, his fingers sure and steady, removing the appendix, mopping up infection. Finally, he inserted a drainage tube and closed the incision. That’s the best I can do, he thought, but it’s going to be touch and go.
He felt Penhale shudder, heard him clear his throat. “That was amazing, Doctor Ellingham.”
“Umm.” Without turning, he realized Al had set the flickering torch on the counter and was moving about lighting candles. He looked over and watched him gulp down a glass of water.
“Thanks, Al. Turn off the torch and go and sit down.” Al lifted a hand, wiggled his fingers and left.
“Penhale, tell the teacher the boy came through surgery, but his condition is still critical.”
“Will do,” he said and moved toward the door.
“And, Joe, thanks. You did good.” Penhale stopped, jerked his head back, apparently touched by the praise and at being called “Joe.” He saluted and left.
In the candlelight, Martin secured the materials from the surgery.
“Will he be all right?” asked Louisa.
“Depends on whether his body can fight the infection,” he said, but thought, The odds aren’t good.
He took the IV from her and connected another, stretching the tubing over to a hook above the sink. “Let’s sit down,” he said, and draped his arm around her shoulders. The two sat, quiet, listening to the child’s faint breathing, his soft moans, watching him shiver.
“Can we put a blanket on him, Martin?”
“No, it’s an odd phenomenon. The higher his temperature, the colder he feels, but it’s important not to cover him.”
As the hours drifted by, his temperature climbed to 105. Martin fidgeted, struggling with a decision. “He’s burning up. We’ll have to try an ice bath.” He felt Louisa’s fingers dig into his arm. “It’s a last resort. Tell Ruth.”
“Yes, of course.” She stood and walked out of the room.
Martin slumped in the chair, face in his hands, knowing the child was losing the battle. A Christmas carol floated into the stillness.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
A phrase jumped across his thoughts, one he’d never used before. No, please, God, he needs a miracle.
He sensed Louisa coming back, standing behind him. As her fingers massaged his shoulders, he felt his muscles relax, but he couldn’t turn off his fears.
She spoke softly, “Al is fixing up the bath.”
A moment later, the clock struck midnight. “The rain must have stopped,” she said. “The stars are out. It’s Christmas.”
He looked out the window and saw a sky fired with stars. He glanced over at Omar. Oh, God, please. Moonlight blazed on the boy’s face, and it appeared to glisten. Martin leaned in close, saw the sheen was caused by moisture. His throat caught as he pushed out the words, “He’s sweating!”
Ruth looked in, and Martin said, “Tell Al to forget the bath. His fever’s broken.”
“Thank God.” She nodded and left.
Bending forward and touching the boy’s forehead, Martin whispered: “It’s all right, son. You’re going to make it. Merry Christmas.”
Omar blinked at him. “Santa,” he mumbled. “Santa, you came.”
Martin leaned back, and Louisa’s arms tightened around his neck, her face nuzzling his hair. “Merry Christmas, Santa. You pulled off a miracle.”
He looked back at the boy and out at the stars, thinking, It was a miracle, but I’m not sure I’m the one that pulled it off.
— THE END —
“Doc Martin” is owned by Buffalo Pictures.
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