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Read a free extract from The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla



Read the opening of The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla



The Pharmacist is coming 12th May 2022


In the recreation room a man was lying on the concrete floor. He was gripping his stomach, while his grey boiler suit, identical to the ones we all wore, hung loosely from his body. Some of the Velcro strips had come undone and you could see the hairs on his chest, the growth thickening towards his groin. I didn’t know his name, nor did I recognise him. But there were so many faces in here, and I tried not to linger on any of them for too long.

Some of the kids who had been playing a board game surrounded him, and the adults who had bothered to follow the noise stood perplexed. The doctor on duty was Stirling and he was kneeling beside the man. What’s your name?

Templeton, he managed through gritted teeth. Can you stand?

Templeton let out a slow and stifled howl before he thrust his fingers into his mouth. He bit down and dots of bright red moistened his lips. For a brief moment I would perhaps have done anything for red meat.

Stirling turned to us. Help me get him to my surgery, he said, and four men flocked forward, desperate to exercise some of their fading and wasting muscles.

What happened? I asked.

A boy of maybe thirteen years old replied. We were just playing Monopoly and he came in and ate the houses.

He swallowed most of them, and the hotels too, one of the girls chimed in.

I glanced at the Monopoly board. The little metal dog was on its side and the top hat upturned. When did he eat the pieces? I asked.

They looked at each other.

He swallowed them maybe thirty, forty minutes ago, the girl said.

And you didn’t think to do anything?

They shrugged in unison. He wouldn’t let us leave, the boy said. Kept talking about little fish.


Yeah, the fish that eat the dead skin off your feet.

It made him feel clean, the girl added. Said he wasn’t clean in here.

Go back to your bunks, I said. Let your parents know you’re OK.

I turned and looked at one of the bookcases behind me.The literature had been carefully censored: children’s books, light romance, travel and craft magazines made up the bulk. I picked up a book called Upper Fourth at Malory Towers and on scanning the blurb wondered if anyone actually read this. The spine of the book had snapped in the middle and was only really held together by its cover. I opened the book randomly and my eyes traced over a few lines but I couldn’t concentrate. There was no shock left in watching someone attempt a suicide but I was struck by Templeton’s originality, impressed even. I doubted it would be something I was capable of. My whole life had been made up of these moments – envious of other people’s convictions. I felt feeble in comparison.

I made my way to the bathroom blocks. The only segre gated space in the bunker – male and female, any hint of inclusivity from our previous world completely eradicated. Fluorescent lights shone brightly regardless of the hour, and the toilet and shower cubicles were hidden behind plastic curtains so it was difficult to determine if anyone was behind them. It was only during the night and very early in the mornings that I found the bathroom blocks bearable. Sometimes I fantasised about creeping over the bunker’s boundary line and using the opposite side’s blocks just to break routine. Perhaps I’d discover something different, like more toilet paper or better water pressure.

Trying my best not to let my thoughts linger on Templeton any more, I sat down on the toilet seat and stared at my knees. They were hairy. Everything was hairy – coarse and itchy, and I enjoyed clawing at my skin, opening up buried follicles, forcing ingrowing hairs back through the surface.

There was the noise of my urine hitting the pan but nothing more and I decided I was alone. When I wiped I imagined there was a glow of light rising up from the seat. Like when my husband Daniel and I had been on a train in Malaysia and the toilets were only holes that opened out on to the tracks below. There was something liberating about urinating across the land, as though somehow you were fertilising it and hoping it would pros- per. The flush was weak. It cleared my urine but the toilet paper stuck.

Placing my toothbrush under the toothpaste dispenser, I waited for the white blob to slither out. I found myself wondering if you could overdose on fluoride. My brother used to worry my niece was receiving too much in her toddler toothpaste, fretted over the white milk spots that might appear. The ritual of brushing enamel was still strong with me. The strongest substance in my body – I challenged myself to keep them healthy. Many seemed to have given up their brushing, perhaps acknowledging it as the chore it had always been, but I considered that short-sighted, since extractions were being carried out now without proper anaesthetic.

After spitting I brought my face close to the metallic sheets screwed to the walls that offered me something of a reflection, but I was blurred and distorted, like in mirrors at a funfair. Peering at this image of myself, I could make out the bushiness of my eyebrows and the growth above my lip. I could see the mass of white that covered my scalp.

I used to think I had nice hair – black with a natural wave

  • but I’d started going grey young, maybe even as early as seventeen, eighteen. At thirty, I was dyeing it every six to eight weeks to hide the colourless And now at thirty- four I thought I looked older than I was. I’d been granted a small hairband and I tied my hair up in a knot, scraping strands back from my face. I considered booking an appointment with one of the supervised hairdressers and getting my head shaved, but, as I ran my fingers across my scalp, I decided I didn’t have the right shape of head.Too lumpy and asymmetrical.

The sensible thing would have been to go to bed, but, as I looked at the clocks displayed in the main chamber, I knew Stirling had a long night ahead of him. The lights above flickered then, the generators surging with power and the bulbs momentarily brightening before returning to normal. I was aware of footsteps in the distance, slow across the concrete with nowhere really to go. Our leader’s young wife had made exercise videos in her previous life, and when we’d first arrived she’d wanted everyone to join in with her boot- camp-style regime, but it hadn’t lasted long. There weren’t enough calories to sustain everyone who was running around the bunker. One of the inhabitants had a heart attack while she was marching and died on the spot. She was the first to go and it had only dawned on us then that we had nowhere to put dead bodies. She was wrapped in a black bag and placed in one of the two exiting airlock chambers. I suppose the logic was that she’d hopefully be nothing but bones by the time we were due to leave. But both airlock chambers held bodies in them now. I was already wondering where this potential new one would go.

The door to the doctors’ surgery was closed and I stood, staring and hesitating before knocking.

What? said the voice of one of the nurses. It’s the pharmacist.

The door opened and a small woman inspected me with a tilted head. Dr Stirling is busy.

I’ve come to help.

Beyond the waiting room I could hear Templeton’s cries of pain in Stirling’s examination room. I’d witnessed a man jump in front of a moving train once while I waited on the platform and could still remember the noise of bone and flesh meeting metal and momentum. It had felt like a great inconvenience at the time, to be burdened by a stranger’s pain. So why was I here now?

Stirling emerged from his examination room and stood at the threshold. His stethoscope was still hanging from around his neck and he forced his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. He was the son of the health secretary and appeared to benefit from the privilege. But even so there was something likeable about him – right from the start, when we’d worked together in the military hospital, I had been drawn to his kindness. He was only twenty-eight years old but he’d visibly aged since arriving in the bunker. The smile was still there, though, honest and warm.

Fuck, he said, looking from me to his nurse, before glancing back to his patient. He gestured for me to follow him and I entered. Templeton was spread out across the examination bed, his boiler suit opened to the waist. Stirling stopped beside him, crouching so that their faces were nearly touching.

Did you do this to die? Stirling said.

Templeton opened his mouth but only a piercing noise escaped.

Stirling pressed closer towards him. Nod your head if you want to die. I need to know this is what you wanted . . .

I moved forward too, peering from behind Stirling. Templeton’s head did something of an involuntary jolt forward but it didn’t seem definitive enough.

Stirling looked at me and I stared back. What did the other doctors say?

A laugh escaped from his lips. What do you think? I asked Nurse Appleby to go and get some of them but they just said it was a lost cause and I was the one on duty. I was to make an executive decision.

What does that mean?

What do you think it means?

We both turned back to look at Templeton. The noise of his agony was slowly beginning to lose its effect on me. Was it merging into background noise, like the television or radio? What I would have given then to hear an advert or even a song – my niece humming TheWheels on the Bus.

Stirling took me by the elbow and led me out into the wait- ing room, where his nurse was sitting, checking stock. She was licking her index finger and filing through a wad of sealed dressing pads, seemingly unaffected by what was taking place in the room next door.

Appleby, you can go, Stirling said.

She glanced at the small clock that ticked above our heads.

But I still have two hours left on my shift . . .

Luckily this isn’t a real hospital – and the man in there isn’t a real patient. He’s a figment of your imagination. No one else has noticed him.

But there’s nothing for me to do out there. It’s better out there than in here, Stirling said.

Appleby placed the dressing packs back inside a green first- aid box. She closed the lid over and pulled the plastic tongues down until there was a click. She rose to her feet and was almost at the door when she stopped and turned towards me. I’ve got a sore throat, she said. Dr Stirling was kind enough to check my tonsils and there’s no infection but it is very painful. Do you think you could offer me a throat spray or lozenge?

Of course, I said. I’ll be back in the pharmacy tomorrow morning. I’ll give you something then.

You couldn’t just give it to me now? It would only take a minute . . .

Appleby, is this an emergency? Stirling said. Well, no, I don’t suppose it is.

Then Wolfe will be happy to deal with your request when she starts her shift tomorrow.

Stirling closed and locked the door behind Appleby. He managed a smile but it was awkward and not a happy one. He’s got a perforation, he said. Suffers from ulcerative colitis. I’d need to open him up to see the true damage.

I was in Appleby’s seat and it was still warm. I had a grow- ing urge to unclip the plastic hooks of her first-aid box just  to hear that clicking noise again.

But can he be treated? I said.

He ate too many.

I was hoping he’d just be able to shit the little houses out and go back to normal.

They’re too sharp to pass through his gut now. Judging by the pain he’s in, it has to be a bad perforation, and then it’ll be blood poisoning and we can’t go back from that.

Quick or slow?

It’ll be slow. Really pretty slow. I wish this hadn’t fallen on you.

Stirling was quiet for a moment. The other doctors have done it before but not me. They say it’s like putting the family pet down.That it’s cruel to prolong the suffering… His hands began to shake and he forced them back into his pockets.

I’ll stay with you, I said.

I can’t ask you to do that.

You didn’t ask.

There was silence in the other room and it stayed like that. Maybe it’s already over? I whispered.

Stirling shook his head.

Will you give him an injection or something? Stirling shook his head again.

What should I do when I get in there? Maybe just hold his hand . . .

Stirling walked back in first. Templeton had rolled on to his side and was facing us. He didn’t blink, and hope started to stir within me. I was praying for him not to blink, for his eyes to already be glazed and cold, but then I caught the motion of his eyelashes flickering. He blinked again. I thought he looked peaceful, perhaps even grateful.

Stirling lifted Templeton’s head slightly and removed a pillow from behind. Templeton’s breathing quickened, his nostrils flaring, and I came closer, clasping his hand as Stirling had suggested. He gripped my hand tightly and it hurt but it didn’t matter. I wondered who this man had been and why I hadn’t noticed him before. It was difficult to gauge his age. I thought he was maybe in his early forties – staring blue eyes, and handsome before coming here. He started moving his lips, tracing silent words, but I couldn’t determine what they were. Maybe he was trying to tell me his first name, letting me know who he really was. It was probably something simple – perhaps Peter or John.

I inched closer towards his body. Everything’s going to be OK, I said, but I didn’t know for whose benefit I was saying it.

Templeton blinked and tears started to slide down his face.

Stirling cleared his throat. Try not to struggle. It’ll all be over soon. And suddenly he thrust the pillow down on to Templeton’s face and was forcing his own body weight on to the frame of the examination bed. I looked at Stirling’s hands, gripping either side of the pillow, then at the arch of his back; I couldn’t equate this with the person who treated his patients with such care and sensitivity.

Templeton started to resist and fight. The balls of his feet rolled from side to side, his toes too curled inwards, but I refused to release his flapping hand from my grip, all the while whispering words I couldn’t remember. Stirling pinned him down harder, as though his own life depended on it, using the whole weight of his body. And he was crying too, letting the tears stream down his face, begging with Templeton for it to be over.

And finally it was.