The minister put on his coat and finished the last of his coffee. He made a face. There was nothing wrong with the coffee. What bothered him was the upcoming media hubbub. There had been a bit too much of negative publicity around the health insurance lately. Some PR person had dreamed up the idea of a meeting with one of those lazy - hm - people on sick leave in front of a huge media posse. Maybe that would show the public how seriously his government took the reforms of the welfare chaos. In his opinion it was completely unnecessary and an outrageous waste of time, but now it had been decided and fortunately it shouldn't take more than about fifteen minutes or so, not counting the hopefully brief opportunity for questions afterwards.
His assistant fussed around him and was brushing away invisible or non-existent motes of dust on his coat collar. The minister began to walk faster. To his relief he noticed that the woman gave up and let him go. The press secretary joined him and together they approached the exit.
There she was, that person whose hand he was going to shake. He had to admit that she put on her show rather convincingly. Two other women, who looked very much like her, were supporting her. She was pale and her face was twisted somehow. Incredible what lengths they were prepared to go to, in order to live comfortably at the tax payers' expense. But her eyes - they were actually quite unpleasant. The gaze burned him and he swallowed nervously. Maybe mentally disturbed - but that wasn't any excuse not to pay one's own way. When he got closer he noticed that one of the women was quite a bit younger than the one they were supporting, and the other much older. Her mother and daughter, perhaps?
Time to get this nonsense out of the way. He took another step forward, smiled even more widely and sought out the cameras with his gaze, while he held out his hand in manner he thought looked friendly and open.
"How do you do? Hello. Anna, right?"
The press secretary whispered loudly in his ear. The minister's smile faded a little.
"That's what I meant to say. Howdy, Hanna. Nice to meet you."
She made an attempt to hold out her hand to him, but her arm fell down weakly by her side. Remarkable. A rather good looking woman of about forty. Shouldn't she herself want to work and pay her own way in life? The daughter glared at him from underneath a thick fringe of hair so black it definitely looked dyed. The mother was watching worriedly over her daughter and strengthened her grip on the daughter's other arm.
The minister grabbed the hand that was hanging limply and squeezed it. The woman began to say something, but he wasn't going to let this charade drag on any longer than it had to. He took a deep breath and prepared to speak loudly and clearly so that even the parts of the audience that were sitting at the back would hear him.
"You'll see that you'll be feeling better in no time once you get back to work. Thanks, everyone."
He was about to let go of the cool hand that was hanging limply in his grip, but suddenly she evidenced far greater strength than before. She held his hand so tightly his smile vanished entirely. Her eyes looked unnaturally big and he found it impossible to break eye contact.
"Very well, then. We'll switch. You get sick and I go back to work."
What was she really saying, that creature? No one else seemed to have heard anything and now her hand dropped out of his and she fell weakly backwards as if the meeting had used up her last strength. Her mother and sister were there to catch her, but she nearly fell anyway. Her face was so pale that the minister wondered briefly if she was going to fake a faint before the cameras. Speaking of fainting - suddenly the minister felt dizzy and he almost blacked out.
When he regained control of himself, he heard the press secretary nagging him about something. He gathered his strength and returned to the table where he would be answering the media's questions. Very briefly. That would really have to do. He could still feel that woman's touch in the palm of his hand, that felt cold and numb. If she was so very ill, how had she been able to squeeze him so dreadfully hard? Shit. The hand was almost completely numb. He had to get his circulation going again. It felt as if a nerve was stuck and the pain shot up through his wrist and followed his arm all the way up to his shoulder.
He couldn't help casting a glance in the direction of that woman and her family members. At first he couldn't see them at all, then he thought he caught a glimpse of them over by the wall in the back. At least the daughter's intensely black hair was clearly visible. But he had really wasted enough time. Enough was enough.
"Thanks. No more questions."
He got up abruptly and began walking out despite the press secretary's nervous whispers. That man's voice was beginning to get on his nerves. It was giving him a headache and in some odd way the ache had spread to his neck and shoulders where they met the squeezed nerve from his arm. Was it really only five thirty? It felt as if he would need to rest for a while before he could deal with the rest of his schedule. But that wasn't possible. He was booked solid until about ten pm, at least if no delays occurred.
Not until some time around one fifteen that night, the minister was able to get to bed. He slept fitfully and woke up several times that night. The clock radio rang around five and it felt as if he'd just fallen asleep, when the shrill signal hit his ears. His wife turned away from him, pulled the covers more tightly around her and put her pillow over her ear. He fumbled for the off button but found it hard to reach the clock radio that was supposedly very close to the bed, as always. His shoulder hurt more badly today and his arm felt weak. This couldn't have come at a worse time. Was some flu going around? But he'd been inoculated against that along with all the other politicians and other vital staff. This shouldn't be possible. As soon as he got out of bed, he took some painkillers. On second thought he'd better take another pill. After a moment's more consideration, he took another, one more than the recommended maximum dose.
In the kitchen he tried to turn on the kettle - his filipina housekeeper hadn't arrived yet, what was he paying that lazy girl for anyway? Then he recalled that he paid her practically nothing. She should just be grateful that she wasn't deported. Quite right too. She was far better off here than back in her own native slums. A twelve-hour working day for a minimum wage would probably be like a vacation to her compared to what she did back home. If she really had been working as a housekeeper. She had a bloody nice body. If only he had more time -
But time was exactly what he didn't have. He'd barely finished the thought before the sound of the phone ringing again cut through the silence in his luxury villa. That would be his tiresome assistant or maybe that press secretary. He had an extremely annoying voice, that man. Maybe they should have him replaced. Oh, well. Fortunately it was just his assistant. One of the meetings had had to be postponed. That should give him half an hour of extra time at least. He hurried out into the bathroom to shave and brush his teeth. That was odd. His arm never felt that worn out normally. There had to be some nasty bug going around. He'd get his assistant on it. She would have to find out what was going around and make sure he got the vaccine against that too. This couldn't go on.
The phone rang again. Another meeting had been pushed forward. Feeling annoyed, the minister called for his driver. He'd have to memorize the text he was going to discuss with the job center people. It wouldn't do to drag out the wrong figures about employment. To his surprise, he found that he had difficulty reading the fine print. It hadn't looked that tiny as late as yesterday morning. He knew that for a fact. And his sight was excellent, at least according to the examination he'd done last spring. If he hadn't, he'd have to undergo surgery. A man in his position couldn't look like an old owl.
When he arrived at the meeting, he still hadn't finished reading the text on top of the pile of printouts that he'd held on his knees. He crumpled it up and shoved it into his briefcase. If he'd missed something, someone was bound to remind him. But it would look bad. He had to handle this infection somehow. This was the most busy time of the year for them.
But towards the end of the week, he wasn't feeling better at all. Quite the contrary. The pain had spread throughout his entire back and was more or less permanently lodged in his neck and shoulders and both arms. Besides, he had a headache and increasing difficulties reading the fine print. In the end, he realized that he had to go and see his doctor. All the members of the government had access to the most skillful doctors in the capital so he had no doubts his personal doctor would be able to deal with this little infection.
That was exactly what his doctor told him, during that first visit. He prescribed something a little stronger for the pain and promised that the pain would be gone within a day or two. For the eye problems, he recommended another visit with the optician. "After all, it's at this age those little problems sneak up on you", he added. "Nothing to worry about."
The minister took his prescription and left the surgery. Finally, he would be able to get ahead with his work. He had already sensed a few of his colleagues staring at him and a few of the other party members were looking as if they were hoping to succeed him. Never. Over his dead body. Though - that might not be the best possible expression to choose. In any case, they would be disappointed.
Over the weekend, he managed to reschedule most of his meetings and only had to stay in his own study, polishing a speech he would be holding for business owners south of the capital. That shouldn't be too hard. But to his disappointment, the painkillers didn't help at all against the insistent pain, that seemed to be getting worse every day. These days he even had trouble walking and he had to use all his willpower to make sure it didn't show in his posture. If the opposition found out about his temporary weakness -
When Monday morning came, he could hardly force his aching body out of bed. That bloody fool of a doctor. Had he received his licence through mail order? Someone else had to make a proper examination. How extremely inconvenient. He had far more important things to do than pamper himself. When the assistant called him to ask what had happened to him, he interrupted her brusquely.
"Call Dr Marcel immediately. I need to talk to him."
"How are you, really? Is it that -"
"Please call right away. I don't have time to make a fuss about it. And let -"
He broke off, smothering a moan. The pain cut like knives through his shoulder, arm and the hand that was holding the phone.
"I'll have to come in after lunch. Postpone the meeting - You know the drill. Hurry."
He hung up on the assistant and leaned back on his pillows. No point in getting up now. Marcel would have to set up the tests right now. He'd have to keep some ordinary patient waiting instead.
During the hour it took before Marcel's nurse called him back, the minister stayed in bed, moaning. His wife had gone to see her sister in Sardinia, but he could hear the filipina working in the kitchen. If he called her - surely a little coffee wouldn't be beyond her capabilities? But he had no appetite and the call from Marcel could come at any time.
Then at last he was given the appointment for the tests, but unfortunately, it wasn't until around one thirty. What were those lazy doctors doing anyway? Were they helping lazy parasites go on sick leave all day or were they just playing golf? He thought of asking Marcel what his handicap was, but decided not to. He had to find out what was causing all this.
Should it really hurt this much to have a blood test done? Was that nurse some kind of student? But the woman seemed to be at least thirtyfive. Outrageously imcompetent of her, in any case. He glared angrily at her and when he found out that he'd have to wait a while before they could run another series of tests, he couldn't keep quiet anymore.
"And perhaps you could get a more experienced nurse to take over the tests?"
The older woman who seemed to be in charge, raised her eyebrows.
"Nurse Margita is actually our most skillful nurse, except for myself, naturally. But by all means. I'll take over."
But when the older woman did, it hurt just as badly. When she attached the little band-aid in the crook of his arm, he could barely suppress a scream. The woman studied him, looking amused and he was sure that as soon as he'd left the lab, they would all laugh at him and gossip about him. But he didn't feel up to producing much indignation about it.
"When will I find out about the test results?"
"It usually takes about ten days."
Ten days? That wasn't good enough. A man in his position -
"Unacceptable. I don't suppose I need to tell you who I am?"
"We usually treat all our patients the same here."
He demanded to speak to Dr Marcel, but it seemed to be completely out of the question. No matter how much he insisted, apparently the doctor was unreachable. Frustrated, the minister had to return home, but en route he had to turn around and return to his office at the government building. An unexpected crisis had turned up and he had to deal with it himself. When he was about to get out of the car he could hardly get his legs to move. He fell back against his seat and pretended to check his mobile for messages, rather than exposing his weakness to his driver. His next attempt didn't succeed any better, but now he couldn't wait any longer, so he grabbed the door and pushed himself up. Now he didn't care if the driver saw him or not. Somehow, he managed to get to his office, but after the end of the meeting, he ended up staying in his chair behind the desk for so long his assistant looked in and studied him inquiringly. Now that intolerable woman would start gossiping about him behind his back. Who knew what they were saying anyway? Maybe they were hinting that he had taken to drinking.
The following days were a nightmare. It became harder and harder to walk and he could hardly use his arms either. When he woke up on Thursday morning he couldn't force himself out of bed and had to give up, and call yet another doctor, Dr Lundin. He demanded he be given some really strong painkiller and after a long ominous pause, the doctor promised to get him a prescription right away.
But that medication didn't help either and in his desperation, the minister began to look for something stronger online. A Taiwanese company could get you all kinds of medication and eventually he found something he thought might help. When the package arrived he had already received the test results. He hardly knew how he was able to get to Dr Marcel's surgery, but somehow he had managed it in the end.
The doctor looked apologetic but at the same time slightly amused. But surely that wasn't right? What was he really suffering from?
"You're completely healthy. I couldn't find anything wrong with you, except for slightly elevated levels of stress hormone, but I suppose we all have that to some extent."
"That simply isn't possible. The pain is - you have to help me. Besides, I can't walk properly or use my arms normally. You must be able to find something?"
Was Marcel laughing at him? It certainly looked that way.
"You seem to have caught psychogenic rheumatism or neurasthenia."
"What the heck is that?"
"What we call fibromyalgia today."
He was definitely laughing now. Clearly he wasn't nearly as competent as people were saying. Perhaps he had one of those notorious fake licenses?
"I can't see anything funny in this."
"Of course not. Just a little joke. Fibro is something that mainly old women get."
"Isn't there anything you can do?"
Marcel mumbled something and handed him another prescription but by now, the minister had stopped hoping it would work. Instead he began to take the medicine he had imported himself. That wasn't completely legal, strictly speaking and risked ending up as a tasty treat for the opposition in the upcoming elections, but there was nothing to be done about that. If only it was effective, it would be worth it.
From the first day he noticed an effect, but unfortunately, not on the pain. It was more what you'd call a side effect. He found it hard to stay awake. When he was awake, he felt sick and instead of just seeing everything as through a thick haze, he also saw double. The dizziness got worse too. But hopefully that would get better in a few days time.
The pain didn't stop and soon the minister found himself unable to write and type. He couldn't even use his mobile phone. These days he could hardly tolerate being touched. When one of his colleagues patted him on the shoulder, he had to bite his lip to stop himself from screaming out loud. It was getting increasingly difficult to hide his condition from the colleagues. Worse still, it was only a matter of time until the media found out.
By now, he didn't feel up to worrying much about his work. The pain dominated every waking hour. Unfortunately, he could hardly sleep either. He called desperately for the filipina who reluctantly punched in the number for Dr Marcel. There was no way she didn't understand what he was saying, especially when he repeated his words in English. Surely it just suited her to pretend that she didn't understand a word he said.
"Put the phone down there", he hissed.
"Yes? Dr Marcel speaking."
"You must help me. I can't stand it anymore. Do whatever you have to. Put me on a saline drip. Whatever it takes to make it stop."
"Aren't you exaggerating a bit now? The medication I prescribed for you -"
"Is useless. It doesn't help at all."
"Hm. It should. Well, I suppose you'll have to come in. I have a -"
"Now, immediately. Send an ambulance. I can't -"
After an unbearably long pause, Dr Marcel replied.
"Then we'll do that."
He sounded like a grownup who was humoring a stubborn child.
It didn't take more than half an hour before the ambulance arrived, but to the minister the waiting felt like it was taking hours. He was whimpering loudly when the paramedics handled him.
"Well, go on then. Give me something. Now, immediately. Something for the pain, you idiots. Anything, as long as it makes it stop."
The paramedics exchanged glances, then one of them reached for a bag. When the injection penetrated the minister's skin, he whimpered again. Then finally, he began to fade away. When he opened his eyes again, Dr Marcel was standing over him.
"I really don't know what this is, but I see no other way of dealing with this than putting you under anaesthesia. Here, nurse."
The minister was only vaguely aware of a woman bending over him. Something pricked the skin in the crook of his arm, but compared to the rest of the pain he didn't feel very much. But he didn't want to agree to being unsconscious. He needed to work. The whole point of all this was to -
"No, I don't want - I don't want - No."
He felt a hand touching his shoulder and he screamed.
"What's the matter with you?"
That voice -
"Yes, of course it's me. Were you expecting someone else? Your assistant?"
"But you're - aren't you in Sardinia?"
"I won't be leaving until next week. What's wrong with you?"
The minister considered. Had the treatment worked? He did feel quite well, even though he had broken out in a cold sweat all over. But Margareta hadn't left to see her sister yet so -
"You might as well get up and prepare for that meeting."
"What day is it?"
"Monday. How are you, really?"
He considered again. Monday. The meeting with that person on sick leave. Oh, right. Then maybe all this had just been a very long, very drawn out nightmare.
"I'm fine. Sorry I woke you up."
"Oh, never mind. I'll go back to sleep again. Good luck today then."
An hour later he was waiting to see that woman on sick leave. What was her problem again? Fibromyalgia? Severe pain, it said. He shuddered. The press secretary looked at him strangely.
"How are you doing?"
"Just fine. It's about time now, right?"
They walked into the hall and as usual they were met by flashes, cameras whirring and the audience and the reporters mumbling.
Wasn't that the woman on sick leave, supported by two other women, one older and one younger - in fact, rather a teenager? The girl had hair that was dyed black and was heavily made up all in black too. The woman they were supporting together, looked very weak. Pale and marked by the pain. Involuntarily he stared at his own hands. Compared to those of the woman they looked big and strong.
He held out his hand and when the woman's hand didn't quite reach his, he gently took it.
"How do you do? Hello."
"It's Hanna, right?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Nice to meet you."
"I suppose so."
"I just wanted to tell you, Hanna, that the health insurance rules need to be changed. This isn't right. A young woman like you must have a proper chance at rehabilitation before you can think about returning to work."
He heard the press secretary draw in breath and so did the entire media present. That really wasn't what he had intended to say and it was completely against the party line, but somehow he had felt impelled to make that statement. No, they couldn't go on as they were. He felt that strongly.
He wasn't quite sure of how Hanna was reacting to his words, because very soon she had to go and sit down. Now it was time to answer the media's questions. He wasn't completely sure of how to defend his statement, but there was no turning back now.
"Well, you see -"
The questions rained on him, but he could hardly focus on them. Instead his gaze moved across the audience, to the bench at the back of the hall. Couldn't he just make out a glint in those remarkable dark eyes? At last he could relax a little. It felt great to be able to stretch out his legs under the table. To be healthy. And if you weren't, that you'd get a chance to stay away from work until you were well again. Yes, that was how it was. They'd have to cut back on something else. He would personally make sure that Hanna had the help she needed. Why he felt that way, he didn't want to dwell on. It's over now, he thought.