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Badger by Ann Abineri

I woke at five a.m. to an empty space next to me and a firm knock at the door. As I went downstairs I saw the dark shadow of police uniforms but I think I already knew. They had come to tell me that I was a widow.

I sat on the sofa sipping sweet tea while the policewoman told me that Nick had been thrown clear of the car and had died of a head injury. She also told me that despite the remote location in which Nick’s accident took place, and the fact that it was very late at night, he did not die alone. A passer-by stayed with him through the night until a car passed and the driver rang the emergency services. I assumed the late night Samaritan did not have a mobile phone and could not find Nick’s.

In the following days there was a lot to do. A bag of belongings was returned to me. I was puzzled to see that Nick’s shoes laces weren’t in his shoes but didn’t really want to think too much about the contents of the bag. A month later, once the formalities had been concluded, we held Nick’s funeral. It didn’t take long to arrange. Nick had left no instructions and our son had no particular wishes so I kept it short. I was leaving the front pew, sharing a few words with mourners who had to get back to work, when I noticed the policewoman who had come to the house.

'Came to pay my respects,' she said. 'I’ll tell you who else has too. That chap at the back is the one who found your husband and stayed with him.'

I looked across at the man, who was starting to shuffle down the row of chairs, head bowed. He was wearing khaki trousers and an Army surplus jumper with a few determined leaves and twigs clinging to it. I visualised a flash of fluorescent yellow and a belt with dangling strips of fur and tails, and realised it was Badger.

When I took the job on Cedar Ward, Badger Canham had already lived there for thirty years. He had been admitted following a breakdown in his teens when he had tried to drown himself in a fenland dyke. He had violently resisted his rescuers, a couple of field workers, and local police had been called to take him away. The stigma attached to mental illness in a rural community was vast. You could be as mad as you liked in the village but once you had been taken away to the House on the Hill, you might as well be dead.

By the time I nursed Badger, he was completely institutionalized, and one of the patients who would never cope in the community, even when the edict came to move as many patients as possible into sheltered housing or hostels. Ours was one of the few wards remaining when most of the hospital buildings and grounds were sold as offices and light industrial units. Patients were now known as clients and we were told by administrators that if clients were disturbed enough to still be there, they should be locked in at all times. I argued strongly for Badger’s freedom and after several case meetings, which he sat through impassively, he was allowed to take a daily walk as long as he signed in and out. His walks began in the morning, after the drug round, and he rarely came back in daylight. To help protect him from traffic we persuaded Badger to wear a fluorescent belt, long before high-visibility jackets became everyday wear for outdoor professions, cyclists and even children walking to school. Staff often drove past him and were aware that unlike many clients for whom a walk involved looking in the gutter for coins or cigarette ends, Badger cast his eyes from road to hedgerow looking for injured animals. He was sometimes seen sitting on the bank or verge nursing an animal but he never bought any back to the ward. He did bring tails and scraps of animals though and as long as these were clean, we let him keep them. We had patients who hoarded far worse in their lockers. Some staff referred to Badger’s little collection as his trophies.

I loved my nursing job but Nick hated me working there and made comments like ‘you can’t tell the staff from the patients' and 'those people should be put down at birth.' I gave up my career when he got promoted and couldn’t drop me off at work anymore. He’d always told me I would be a terrible driver and it would be best if I didn’t make a fool of myself trying to learn. The staff and clients gave me a little leaving party, tea and cakes, and said they would miss me. Badger wasn’t at the party but I thought I saw a flash of yellow in the hedge when Nick picked me up. I’d have liked to have said goodbye but Nick was eager to drop me at home and get to the golf club.

Now, in the Chapel I had the chance to speak to Badger again. I turned to move towards the back but my son spoke to me about the arrangements at the pub and whether I thought they’d have anything gluten free for his wife. By the time, I turned my attention to the back of the chapel, Badger had gone. I looked around outside as we walked to the cars but there was no sign of him.

The reception following the funeral passed quickly. We both came from dwindling families and my husband didn’t have many friends. I’d lost touch with most people I’d known over the years because Nick didn’t like me going out without him. A few old faces from the golf club said they were pleased to see me then stuttered and mumbled that of course, it would be better under different circumstances. I was glad when we could leave. My son dropped me at home and I didn’t mind at all when he said he and Louise couldn’t come in as she’d been hoping to make it to her book group.

I checked the heating was on nice and high and got comfortable on the sofa with my feet up, previously a forbidden act. I had a glass of Sauvignon on the table next to me. I felt momentarily guilty about the wine, hearing Nick’s voice saying that alcohol made me foolish. But still . . . I flicked through a magazine I’d bought the previous day, my first one for a while. Some of these articles looked interesting, not the recipes and knitting patterns I had been expecting. On the margin of the cover, I’d jotted down a driving instructor’s number which I’d spotted on an advert in the newsagent’s window.

I just shut my eyes to rest them but woke with my heart pounding. I had been thinking about Badger just before I fell asleep and now I remembered the rumour that had passed amongst the staff. It was said that Badger’s experience in the fens and his mental health condition had given him a mission in life. He didn’t believe in rescue or redemption, only in the importance of ensuring that suffering was ended quickly. I thought of my husband lying at the side of the dark road with a shadowy figure alongside but now the scene wasn’t a still shot, a tableau. Now, for the first time, there was action, a sense of what happened. In my first vision, Badger was standing over Nick with a large rock held high. In the second Badger was sitting alongside an inert body, lacing his own shoes with Nick’s laces. I took a sip of wine and smiled. In one way or another, things work themselves out.

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