‘Oh, tactfully put.’
‘Ma and I decided we weren’t going to tell you.’
‘Because you needed your holiday and there’s nothing you can do, Martha won’t know you …’
‘But I will know her.’
Cat was silenced for a second. Then she said, ‘Of course you will. I’m sorry.’
‘No need. Listen, I won’t be back till pretty late but I’ll go straight to the hospital.’
‘OK. Chris is out on a call and he may well go in to see her again if he’s up that way. Will you come over here tomorrow? I’m getting too big to be behind the wheel safely.’
‘What about Ma?’
‘I just can’t tell what she’s feeling, Si, you know how it is. She goes up there. She goes home. Sometimes she comes here but she doesn’t talk about it.’
‘What exactly happened?’
‘The usual – cold then chest infection now pneumonia … how many times have we been there? But I don’t think her body is up to fighting it now. She’s barely responded to the treatment and Chris said they’re now wondering how aggressive that ought to be.’
‘Poor little Martha.’
Her brother’s voice, concerned and tender, echoed in her ears as Cat put down the phone. Tears filled her eyes, as they did so easily in pregnancy … even the sight, that afternoon, of one of her daughter’s soft toys, lying scrumpled on the grass after it had been left out in the rain had made Cat soften to weeping. She heaved herself awkwardly off the sofa. She had forgotten almost everything about how it felt to be expecting a baby. Sam was eight and a half now and Hannah seven. They had not planned this third child. She and Chris were the only two partners in their general practice and stretched to the limits of their time and energy. But though she meant to take the odd surgery as soon as she could, realistically Cat knew that she would be out of action for the next six months and part-time at work for the year after that. Besides, now the baby was coming and she had got used to the idea, she wanted to be at home with it and give more time to the other two, not rush back to the exhausting grind of medical practice. There would not be a fourth child. This one was precious. She was going to enjoy it.
She lay on the sofa trying to sleep but unable to stop the cycle of thought. How odd and yet how typical of their father to make the phone call to Venice and in those terms. ‘If you want to see your sister alive, you’d better come home.’
Yet how often did he ever see Martha? Cat had scarcely heard the girl’s name cross his lips though he had once infuriated her by calling Martha ‘the vegetable’ in Sam and Hannah’s hearing. Was he ashamed of having a brain-damaged child? Or angry? Did he blame himself or Meriel?
And what had been the reasoning behind his call to Simon, the other child for whom he had precious little time?
Simon, the person she loved, aside from her husband and children, above all other.
The cat Mephisto appeared from nowhere to leap softly on to the sofa beside her and settle down.
All three of them slept.
The streets were dark and almost deserted though it was barely ten o’clock. But the lights of Bevham General Hospital blazed out and as Simon Serrailler turned into the slip road an ambulance overtook him, siren wailing, speeding towards A & E.
He had always liked working at night, liked it from his first days as a uniformed constable on the beat, liked it now on the few occasions when he had to take charge of a night-time operation. He was fired up by the sense of emergency, the way everything was intensified, every movement and word seemed significant, as well as the strange closeness engendered by the knowledge that they were people working on important and sometimes dangerous jobs, while the rest of the world slept.
He got out of his car in the half-empty car park and looked at the great slab of hospital building, nine storeys high and with various lower blocks at angles to it.
Venice was light years away, yet for a second he had a flash picture of the cemetery at San Michele as it had been in the cool light of that Sunday morning, of the ribbons of gravel path and the pale, still, grieving statues. There, as here at the hospital now, so much emotion was somehow held, packed into every crevice, so that you breathed and felt and smelled it.
He walked in through the glass doors. By day, the hospital foyers were more like the concourse of an airport, with a mall of small shops and a constant passage of people. Bevham General was a teaching hospital, centre of excellence for several specialties, with a huge number of staff and patients. Now, when outpatient areas and offices were dark, the real hospital atmosphere crept back into the quiet corridors. Lights behind ward doors, the screech of a trolley wheel, a low voice, the rattle of cubicle curtains … Simon walked slowly towards ITU, and the atmosphere, the sense of life and death together, pressed in on him, raising his pulse.
He smiled. One of the few people here who knew him professionally happened to be the sister on duty.
The ward was settling for the night. Screens were drawn round one or two beds, lights on in a side ward. In the background, the faint bleep and hum of electronic monitors. Death seemed very close, as if it hovered in the shadows or behind a curtain, its hand on the door.
‘She’s in a side room.’ Sister Blake led him down through the ward.
A doctor, shirtsleeves rolled up, stethoscope dangling, came out of a cubicle and shot off, checking his pager as he went.
‘They get younger.’
Sister Blake glanced round. ‘Down to about sixteen I’d say.’ She stopped. ‘Your sister is in here … it’s quiet. Dr Serrailler has been with her most of the day.’
‘What’s the outlook?’
‘People in your sister’s condition are prone to develop chest infections … well, you know that, she’s had them often enough. All the physio in the world can’t make up for the lack of essential movement.’
Martha had never walked. She had the brain of a baby and virtually no motor function. She had never talked, though she made babbling and cooing noises, never gained any control over her body. She had been in bed, in chairs and wheelchairs, her head propped up on a frame for the whole of her life. When she was a small child, they had taken it in turns to carry her, but her weight had always been leaden and none of them had been able to manage her beyond her third year.
‘That’s the ward phone and there’s no one on the desk … understaffed as usual. I’ll be there if you want anything.’
Simon opened the door of Room C.
It was the smell that hit him first – the smell of sickness he had always loathed; but the sight of his sister in the high, narrow, uncomfortable looking bed cut to his heart. The monitors to which she was attached by various wires and leads flickered, the clear bag of fluid hanging from its stand bubbled silently now and then as it was fed, drip by drip, into the vein in her arm.
But when he went closer to the bed and looked down at her, the machinery became invisible, irrelevant. Simon saw the sister he had always seen. Martha. Brain-damaged, inert, pale, heavy, a dribble coming from the corner of her slightly open mouth. Martha. Who knew what she had ever registered about her life, the world, her surroundings, the people who cared for her, the family who loved her? No one had ever really been able to communicate with her. Her awareness and understanding were less than those of a pet.
And yet … there had been something of the life spark within her to which Simon had responded from the beginning, and which was deeper and greater than compassion or even a sense of simple kinship with someone of his own flesh and blood. Before she had gone to live in Ivy Lodge, he had often taken her out to the garden, or strapped her into his car and driven her for miles, sure that she enjoyed looking out of the window; he had pushed her chair around the streets to divert her. He had always talked to her. She had certainly known his voice, though she could have had no idea of the meaning of the sounds that voice made. Later, when he had gone to see her in the home, he had been aware of an intent stillness that came over her as soon as she heard him speak.
He loved her, with the strange, pure love which can receive no recognition or response and demands neither.
Her hair had been brushed and lay loosely round her head on the high pillow. There was no real character or definition in her face; time seemed to have passed over it leaving it quite unaffected. But Martha’s hair, which had always been kept short so as to be more manageable for her carers, had recently been allowed to grow, and shone in the light of the overhead lamp, the same white-blonde colour as his own.
Simon pulled the chair out, sat down and took her hand.
‘Hello, sweetheart. I’m here.’
He looked at her face, waited for that change in her breathing, the flicker of her eyelids, which would indicate that she knew, heard him, sensed him, and was comforted, reassured.
The green and white fluorescent lines of the monitor flowed on, making small regular wavelets, across the screen.
Her breaths were shallow as they passed rustily in and out of her lungs.
‘I’ve been in Italy, drawing … lots of faces. People in cafés, people riding on the vaporetto. Venetian faces. They’re the same faces you can see in the great paintings from five hundred years ago, it’s a face that doesn’t change, only the clothes are modern. I sit in cafés and drink coffee or Campari and just look at the faces. No one minds.’
He talked on but her expression did not change, her eyes did not open. She was somewhere further away, deeper down and more out of reach than she had ever been.
He stayed for an hour, his hand over hers, talking to her quietly as if he were soothing a frightened infant.
He heard a trolley being pushed down the ward. Someone called out. An immense tiredness came over him so that for a moment he almost put his head down on the bed beside Martha so that he could sleep.
The bump of the door brought him up.
His brother-in-law, Cat’s husband Chris Deerbon, slipped into the room. ‘I thought you might need this.’ He held out a polystyrene cup of tea. ‘Cat said you’d got here.’
‘She doesn’t look good.’
Simon stood up to stretch his back which always ached if he sat down for long. He was six feet four.
Chris touched Martha’s forehead, and glanced at the monitors.
‘What do you think?’
Chris shrugged. ‘Hard to know. She’s had this all before but there’s an awful lot against her.’
‘It’s not much of a life.’
‘Can we be sure?’
‘I think so,’ Chris said gently.
They stood looking down at Martha until Simon finished his tea and threw the cup across into the bin.
‘That’ll see me home. Thanks, Chris. I’m bushed.’
They left together. At the door Simon looked round. There had been nothing since he had arrived, no flicker, no indication, apart from the rusty breathing and the steady blip of the monitor, that the body on the bed was a living young woman. He went back, bent over Martha and kissed her face. The skin was damp and slightly downy, like the skin of a newborn baby.
Simon thought he would not see her alive again.
There had to be something of course, even today, just to let him know that nothing changed, until eight o’clock the next morning.
Hickley was holding up the garden fork. ‘Call this clean?’
Andy Gunton went back into the long shed where all the tools were kept. He had cleaned the mud off the fork as carefully as he always did. If Hickley, the one screw he had never managed to get on with, had found a blob of dirt between two of the tines, then he had stuck it there himself.
‘No dirty tools, you know how it works.’ Hickley shoved the fork into Andy’s face.
Go on, the gesture said, go on, try me, answer back, cheek me, have a go at me with the garden fork … do it and I’ll have you in here another month, see if I don’t.
Andy took the fork and went over to the bench under the window. Carefully, he wiped every prong and probed the cloth down between the blades, then he rubbed the handle over and over. Hickley watched, arms folded.
Beyond the window, the kitchen garden was empty, work over for the day. For a single, strange moment, Andy Gunton thought, I’ll miss it. I’ve sown seeds I won’t harvest, I’ve put in plants I won’t tend as they grow.
He caught his own thought and almost laughed.
He turned and handed the recleaned fork to the screw for inspection. He didn’t resent Hickley. There was always one. Hickley wasn’t like the other screws here who treated them more as teachers with pupils and got the best out of them as a result. To Hickley, they were the still inmates, the enemy. Scum. Was Andy scum? The first few weeks behind bars, he had felt like it. He had been shell-shocked by everything, but most of all by the reality he could not get his head round, that he was inside because, in the middle of a botched robbery, in panic he had shoved an innocent man and the man had crashed to the concrete, fractured his skull and died. The word killer had rung round and round his own head like a marble in a basin, killer, killer, killer. What else was a killer but scum?
He waited while the man inspected the garden fork. Go on, get your microscope out why don’t you, you won’t find an effin speck.
‘Put it away.’
Andy Gunton slid the handle slowly into the metal holder on the shed wall. ‘Last time,’ he said.
But Hickley wasn’t going to wish him well, would have choked sooner than congratulate him on his final release. ‘Don’t let the bugger wind you up,’ someone had advised on his first day out here eighteen months ago. He remembered it again as he walked, without a word or a backward glance at Hickley, out of the shed, through the market garden away to the east wing of Birley Open Prison.
Through one of the ventilators in the kitchen block came the smell of boiled egg; through an open window the sound of a ball to and fro across a table tennis table, pock-pock, pock-pock.
Once, overhearing him say, ‘There’s always a first time,’ one of the screws, during his first week in Stackton Prison, had snarled back at him, ‘No, Gunton, there isn’t always a first time but there’s sure as hellfire always a last one.’
In the raw and still shell-shocked state he had been then, almost four years ago, the words had thwacked into his memory like an arrow on to a target and stuck there.