Better to get it checked out, but not the family doctor; they moved in the same circles. Any hint of scandal, and Rhona would disown him. Rhona was a socialite wife, with zero sex-drive. How they’d had two boys was a mystery. Not exactly, vintage champagne had a hand in it. But prostitutes were cheaper and low maintenance - up to then.
He had located the clinic on the Internet; private and confidential, with no details registered on NHS medical records. Full screen for the price of a - yes - he was going to clean up his act. He told his Business Support woman at the Town Hall that he had an impromptu meeting in Bristol, and would be back later.
The clinic was as described; discrete. Plain Mr. Winters was ushered into a small room, brimming with shelves of medical books and documentation. There were various STI posters adorning the walls with nasty looking alien organisms invading healthy body cells. He took a seat opposite the distinguished looking man dressed in a three piece tweed suit - immaculate, with a spotless white kerchief neatly peeking out of the top pocket of his jacket.
Dr. Avis had a perfect bedside manner. He smoothed his dark hair, greying at the temples, and explained that, in the UK, there was only a small risk of HIV infection by the person doing the penetration. One in a thousand. The ‘receiver’ was more at risk, citing Gay men as an example, rather than heterosexual males.
Do not worry.
He had a blood sample taken - filled up three differently coloured vials, which were sealed in a plastic bag. A Mr. Winters label was stuck on the front and he was told to wait in the reception lounge; hot or cold drinks and biscuits, and newspapers, provided free of charge.
Dixon settled back into a soft velour armchair and dipped a digestive biscuit into his Earl Grey tea. He put on his titanium reading spectacles and read the personals in the early edition of the Evening Post. If he was clear, he would celebrate with a chocolate chick. Plenty in Bristol - last one before Lent.
He was pulled out of his reverie by the lady receptionist. A friendly, but business-like woman with her auburn hair in a tidy bun and a trendy red silk scarf loosely tied around her neck. ‘Mr. Winters. Dr. Avis can see you now. Same room as before.’
Dr. Avis was sitting at his desk, reading through some documentation. His phone was off the hook. Engaged. He had a solemn look on his face. ‘Ah, Mr. Winters. Please sit down.’
Dixon began to sweat a bit. He felt a slight churning in his stomach.
Just get it over with.
The doctor glanced down, then back up from his paper work. ‘We’ve had a preliminary result from the HIV test. We’d like to take another sample ...’
That was when it all started to fall apart for Dixon Winterbotham.
The lymph node tests were the worst. He hated needles. Biopsy, followed by an armful of blood. They wanted to see how his immune system reacted; no need for ARV’s yet.
He’d read up on the side effects that these drug cocktails induce. And they weren’t pleasant; nausea, diarrhoea, and nasty rashes were common.
Dr. Avis explained. ‘Mr. Err ... Winters ... the number of CD4 cells you have in your blood gives a picture of the health of your immune system. A normal range would be between five hundred to fifteen hundred cells per cubic millimetre of blood.’
Dixon’s left arm still ached. A purple bruise was turning green. ‘Cubic millimetre? That much blood?’
Dr. Avis smiled. ‘Actually it’s a very small amount; about one drop.’
Mr. Winters didn’t smile. In fact, he felt rather unwell. ‘So where am I on your CD whatsit scale? I feel like I’m with the baritones right now.’
Dr. Avis looked perturbed. ‘Last week, yours dropped to below the five hundred mark. That was quite a fall from the previous week.’
‘Eh? What’s that mean?’
Dr. Avis waved a more encouraging hand at him. ‘The numbers usually fall as HIV progresses. That’s normal. But when the immune system loses too many, it becomes weak and is unable to fight off germs.’
Shit. Normal. What the fuck was he talking about? It certainly wasn’t normal. There was no avoiding the question. ‘When would I need to take ARV’s?’
Dr. Avis avoided eye contact. ‘It depends ...’ Could be as soon as next week.’
An honest answer. That was worrying in itself. ‘My infection’s the same as all the others, right?’
Dr. Avis sat back in his chair, and steepled his hands; manicured fingernails all present and correct. Fresh eyed and alert, clean shaven, immaculate, in a navy blue Burberry blazer and dark grey Chinos, he appeared to Dixon as a picture of radiant health oozing from every sun-tanned pore. No Dr. Drudge working all hours; this Doctor probably spent more time on the golf-course. Clinic Expressway would be very lucrative; it was certainly very expensive.
The price of discretion.
Dr Avis was in a talkative mood. All at a cost. ‘Not quite, Mr. Winters. When HIV replicates it often makes slight mistakes, so each new generation of HIV differs slightly from the one before.’ He stopped, and gazed at his hand written notes. ‘In your case, the mutations have been severe.’
Dixon became agitated. ‘Severe? What do you mean?
‘I don’t know why it’s happening.’ A frown briefly crossed the doctor’s face, before the patient smile returned. A lone cloud in a blue sky, heralding the approaching storm, perhaps.
He had a pang of doubt; then felt bile bubbling inside his stomach. ‘It is treatable, though?’
‘Of course, Mr. Winters.’ The bedside manner was prominent. ‘We’ll start you on the standard treatment. See how it goes.’
He could taste the bile at the back of his throat. ‘And if it doesn’t work?’
‘Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.’
He gulped back a hot stream of bile. ‘Dr. Avis. It’s my life we’re talking about. I’m worried sick, I can’t sleep at nights. I get headaches, feel dizzy. You name it, I’m suffering.’
Dr Avis nodded. ‘I understand it must be extremely worrying. But you’re in good hands.’
Dixon half rose out of his chair. He emitted a strangled noise. ‘Save me the sodding platitudes. Just tell me.’
Dr Avis brushed a hand through his greying hair. ‘If your infection becomes resistant to the standard treatment, I would give you a combination of three or more anti-HIV drugs. This is referred to as Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy.’ He pointed to the HAART map on the wall.
Shit. Three or more drugs. How many more? ‘And if that doesn’t work?’
‘You need to be positive. It would.’
Dixon rubbed his eyes, and spoke through clenched teeth. ‘Just answer the question. If it doesn’t work?’
Dr Avis shrugged, as if distancing himself from the consequences. ‘Your immune system would be open to opportune infection. Cancers are common, so is pneumonia.’
And then a painful death.
The paracetamols weren’t doing any good. Nor was the gin, and the bottle was empty. Molly looked rough, felt rough. She padded around her cold flat in Harmony estate, moping with the injustice of it all, just wearing a fluffy pink sweater and black panties. No money, no punters. She was also very worried. There was a knock at her door. She padded up to it and opened it on the chain.
She recognised the voice. Landlord, Gilbert the pervert. She frowned; it wasn’t collection day already, was it? And he usually went after the young coloured ones, not her.
‘Molly,’ he said more urgently.
‘What you want?’
‘Eh ... can’t be. What day is it? I’ve lost track.’
‘Molly, it’s Monday. Open up will you.’
‘I ain’t well. Go away.’
‘Molly, don’t play games with me. Open the door, before I kick the fucker in.’
She was too weak to argue. She unlatched the chain and went back to lie down on the bed. He could do what he sodding well liked. She didn’t care.
‘You look a mess,’ he said, closing the door and relocking it.
She opened an eye and stared back. He swam into focus. Greasy, fat pig. Dirty white shirt hanging outside his trousers, with his hand fondling his groin. ‘You don’t look too good yourself.’
‘You got my money?’
‘I told you once. I’m not well.’
He walked over to the bed. Straddled her and unzipped himself. ‘Suck it.’
She didn’t argue. It was easier.
He groped her; put his hand behind his back and felt her up. He smelt of stale sweat; tasted of stale sweat. She felt him get hard. He was ready. He moved back down and pulled aside her panties, and opened her legs. Then he was thrusting...
Monday today. I must go to the hospital STI Unit and get checked out for HIV and any other infection. Maybe I should warn him. No ... I told him I wasn’t well ... it’s his problem.
…He let out a sigh. She felt his warmness spurting inside her, and then he withdrew and moved back up. ‘Suck it.’
She didn’t argue, it was easier. Tasted of semen and blood.
When he had finished, he gave her a warning. ‘Rent by Wednesday. I want all of it. Or else.’
She shuddered. Or else. She didn’t want to think of his dirty gangster mates giving her a lesson. Maybe the Unit would give her some stronger tablets to make her feel better. Then she would go back on the streets, despite DI Hemming’s warning.
After he had slammed the door, she ran a luke–warm bath; the electricity was nearly finished. She tried to scrub his smell off; and the blood. He had been rough, but she had felt no pain. Not at the time. But now it hurt. She dried, and rubbed some Germicide over her pubic area to stop an infection.
The lady at the STI Unit told her to come back in two hours. She waited instead, fed one of her last ten pence coins into the coffee machine, and filled up a plastic cup. She sipped the hot liquid, read the out-of–date magazines, and then dozed off...
‘... Mrs. Butler.’ A hand on Molly’s shoulder woke her up. ‘Doctor will see you now. Room Four.’
A young man, with floppy hair over one eye, and dressed in a white hospital uniform was waiting. He was frowning as he read the report.
She closed the door behind her, and coughed.
He looked up from the desk. ‘Mrs. Butler?’
‘Take a seat, please.’
She sat down opposite him: she felt his gaze on her, she felt sick.
He looked at her closely. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Flu, swollen glands.’
He nodded. ‘Mrs. Butler. It’s not good news. Your tests for HIV infection were positive.’
Molly just sat there in silence. She ddn’t register him explaining. It all went over her head. Finally he stopped. She sniffed. ‘What’s going to happen?’
He looked at her, seemed surprised. ‘Well I’ve already ...’ He tried again. ‘In your case, the infection seems virulent and highly active. So we need to test you each week.’
‘Can I have some medicines?’
‘I want to wait a bit and see how your immune system reacts to the infection. Don’t worry.’ He smiled and pointed to a large wall chart pinned up on the side wall. There were pictures of brightly coloured “Smarties” with strange names. ‘Nowadays there are many types of HIV drugs available.’ His voice lowered, as if imparting a great secret. ‘They are free on the NHS. But–you-would-have-to-take-them-for-life.’
‘Oh fuck.’ The realisation hit her.
Molly started to cry.