She watched two women and a man walk through the entrance. The Porters. At the moment, every bed in the hospice was occupied, and the day unit could barely cope. This was how it ebbed and flowed, though the place was never really quiet. Too many people dying, Cat thought, too many people in pain. Too many.
The car smelled faintly of disinfectant. Felix had been sick on the way home from nursery and she had had to scrub out the back seat. Disinfectant, ‘the horrible hospital smell’, Hannah had once said. When Chris had been dying, Cat had made sure there was no ‘horrible hospital smell’ in the house and kept his drugs in a separate locked cupboard in the bathroom, not wanting the paraphernalia of illness and dying to invade the house because he had so desperately needed to remain ‘home’. She had succeeded. The one pain she did not have to endure was that of having to send him to die anywhere else – even this hospice.
She wiped her eyes. Felt quieter. For the time being it was over. She was better able to save her bouts of grief for when she was on her own now, concerned above all not to distress the children. At the beginning, they had cried together – save for Felix, who had been too young to understand what had happened, and that had been nothing but good, she was sure. But after a few weeks, Sam did not cry at all, or if he did it was, like her, in private, and Hannah’s tears, though they still came, were short-lived. Hannah responded to comfort, some cheerful words, an assurance that sadness about Chris’s death was right and good, but that she did not have to feel guilty about allowing this sadness to pass.
‘I don’t think I’m worried about Hannah, you know,’ Cat said, talking to Chris as she reversed out of the car park. She talked to him all the time, asked his advice, told him this or that, as easily as she had done when he had been physically present. She had often reassured bereaved patients that, no, they were not going mad, yes, of course it was fine to talk as if the person were still alive, it was a good thing – how could it be otherwise? She was taking her own advice. She had taken it when her mother had died too. Sometimes, even now, she caught herself asking Meriel Serrailler what she would do about a patient or a concern with one of the children.
‘No,’ she said now, ‘it isn’t Hannah, is it? She’ll be fine. Oh, Chris, it isn’t Hannah, it’s Sam, you know it’s Sam. And I have no idea what to do about him.’
The streets were quiet. As she stopped at a traffic light a pair of girls ran across in front of her, miniskirts, high heels, bleach-blonde hair, and as Cat glanced after them, she saw two others on the far corner. Lafferton had never had a visible prostitute presence until the last year, but then the drug dealers had moved in from Bevham and started to target the clubs and pubs in the centre of town. There had always been a few, peddling in the underpass leading to the Sir Eric Anderson Comprehensive, but they had been small fry and local. The new ones were more serious dealers, linked together and also to trafficking. She looked at the girls again as they stood by a street lamp lighting cigarettes. They were probably no more than twenty, thin, hollow-eyed, their legs without tights under the short strips of skirt. Sexual disease. Drug-related illnesses. Every sort of violence. Even just exposure to the cold. Those were only a few of the risks they ran every night. But they went on running them, hooked on crack and heroin, or in thrall to the men who controlled them. The lights changed to green. Cat wanted to pull in, tell them to go home, protect them, but she knew it would do no good, they would be back in ten minutes unless she gave them money, which would go straight on the next fix. The street lighting threw hard shadows, but when they turned their faces to it, they were the faces of children.
‘What should I do?’ she asked Chris. ‘Somebody needs to do something for them. Help me out here.’
When Simon got back she would talk to him. He was not directly involved with the vice squad but he had a vested interest in containing the drug and prostitute problem that was spreading so fast through Lafferton. He might know of initiatives that were taking shape.
She thought of Hannah, bright, chirpy, almost nine and living in a fluffy cloud of Barbie pink, in spite of her beloved father’s death.
Hannah. Those girls had been Hannah when Hannah was born. She sped along the bypass towards the country road and home, anxious, angry and lifted for the time being out of grief.
Ground-floor lights were on in the farmhouse, but the bedrooms were dark, the children long asleep. Judith had switched on the porch light to welcome her back. Thoughtful, kind, practical Judith. Every Friday night for the past few months, when Cat was on call to the hospice, Judith had come over to help, hold the fort if she had to go in, or simply be company for her if she did not. She slept over. On Tuesday nights, when Cat went to the St Michael’s Singers practice at the cathedral, the children went to Hallam House. Usually, Cat slept there too, after choir. It had helped. Her father, Richard Serrailler, never a natural family man, seemed surprisingly sanguine about both arrangements. His new marriage, which Cat welcomed and Simon still resented, had changed and softened him. But why? Cat asked herself again now, why was it so different with Judith from with her mother? She understood why Judith had had the effect she did, but not why her father and mother had been so distant from one another and, she now knew, so unhappy.
Judith was curled up in her dressing gown watching the late news. ‘Doom and gloom and pestilence,’ she said, ‘so I shouldn’t think you want to watch.’
‘No thanks. I feel like a drink – they won’t call me out again tonight. Glass of wine?’
‘I’d rather a whisky.’
Judith followed her into the warm kitchen, where the dishwasher was humming and the cat, Mephisto, had made the corner of the sofa his own. Nothing changes, Cat thought. Nothing changes. But everything has changed.
A finger painting was pinned on the cork noticeboard. F.E.L.I.X done in bright blue across the bottom. He could paint the letters of his name and Chris did not know, would never know, would not see this stage, or later his son’s name written in pencil and then, gradually, other words and then paragraphs of writing, the small, brown-haired boy leaning over the paper, his hand moving carefully, his head the same shape as Chris’s own head.
She drew in her breath.
Judith touched her arm briefly.
‘He brought it home today,’ Cat said. ‘It’s a JCB moving a dinosaur. I think.’ She pulled the cork hard out of the wine bottle.
‘How was IH?’
Cat shook her head. ‘Cassie Porter,’ she said, ‘twenty-seven and she has Chris’s sort of brain tumour.’
She sat down next to Mephisto and scratched his ears. The cat curled and uncurled his front claws briefly but did not deign to open an eye. Judith leaned against the fridge, swirling the whisky round in her glass.
Judith did not mouth platitudes, did not try to give hope and consolation when they were not to be had. Her first husband, a medical colleague of Richard and Meriel’s, had died suddenly while out fishing. She knew. She was probably the only one who had never said the wrong thing, or left the right one unsaid. Cat had liked her very much, before Chris was ill. Now, she loved her.
Simon, of course, thought differently. His attitude to Judith had got even worse since she and their father had married, and the fault was entirely his own. Whenever Cat thought about it, she forced the thought to swerve off the kerb of her anger and fall away. There was no room for it. Nothing else had ever cast a real shadow between her and her brother, nothing in their lives until this.
‘This was always going to happen,’ she said now. ‘I don’t think it makes any difference.’
‘Of course not. You don’t need a patient with a brain tumour to bring it all back.’
‘If anything – it’s better. Better walking in through the doors of Imogen House than walking into the surgery. Every day, in the surgery I see the door to Chris’s room and the plate says Dr Russell Jones and I want to kick it down. Russell has rearranged things – of course he has, why wouldn’t he? I want to scream at him to move it all back because it’s pushing Chris out. It’s making Chris not exist.’ She gripped the stem of her glass. ‘I know this isn’t rational.’
‘Since when did any of it have to do with reason?’
Cat leaned back and closed her eyes. This is what happened. Grief. Tears. Rage, sudden rage at what had happened. And then exhaustion as the wave rolled away, leaving her beached and drained of feeling.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice,’ she said after a moment. ‘It hasn’t got easier, it’s got harder. I like Russell, he’s a good doctor. He just isn’t my sort of doctor, and general practice has changed so much. I don’t feel part of it. But when I go into the hospice … the moment I walk through the doors something happens. I do feel a part. I feel I belong and I can still make a difference.’
‘You make a difference as a GP. Don’t underestimate yourself.’
The dishwasher had finished its load and stopped humming. The kitchen was quiet.
‘When Chris died, I said I would keep things ticking on. No big changes, no decisions. I think that was right. I couldn’t have functioned at all if some of it hadn’t been automatic. But now I’m not sure how much longer I’ll want that – things just ticking on.’
‘Follow your feelings.’
‘Yes. My mother always said that.’
Judith smiled. ‘By the way,’ she said, ‘Felix was sick.’
‘And Hannah said she felt sick. I’m not entirely sure if she did.’
Judith frowned. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Sam wasn’t sick. And if he felt sick he didn’t say so.’
Sam. More silent than ever. Closed within himself, oyster-like, private. Thin. Too thin.
‘I wish I knew what to do,’ Cat said. ‘I can’t make him talk – really talk. I can’t get through to him at all. He lives like a sort of shadow in this house, he’s here and yet somehow … he isn’t. What did he do tonight?’
‘Some homework. Maths. Watched Doctor Who. Then he went upstairs. I looked in after I’d sorted Felix out. He was lying on the bed with his book but I don’t think he was reading. I asked him if he was all right and he said, “Yes, thank you, Judith,” in that way he does – rather formal. I so wanted to go and give him a hug, Cat.’
‘But you couldn’t. I know. He prickles if you go too near.’
‘I think so long as he knows that it’s there when he wants it …’
‘The hugs, the love. The listening. All of it. So long as he always knows.’ Judith stretched. ‘I’m going up. I put Felix’s bedding through the wash and it’s dry and folded. Hannah has a bowl by her just in case. I didn’t dare suggest a bowl to Sam.’
‘Thanks, Judith. I couldn’t function without you.’
‘As I said – don’t underestimate yourself. Goodnight, my dear.’
Cat sat on, sipping her wine, stroking Mephisto. She felt peaceful. Wondered if any of her children would be sick in the night or if whatever bug Felix had brought home from nursery had run its course. Wondered if Cassie Porter would die tonight. Thought that soon she would change something, she would decide something.
Move on. She would never say it, never even think it. She would not move on, because moving on was moving away, from Chris, from Chris’s dying and death, from their life together, their marriage, the past, and how could she bear to do that? How could she leave Chris behind?
‘No,’ she said aloud, ‘no. You’ll come with me. You will be as close as breath for the next ten or twenty or fifty years.’
She realised suddenly that she could make changes and yet not move away, not leave him behind. The realisation made her smile.
Sometimes, when she asked Chris a question, the answer would come at once. She talked to him about Sam almost every day, told him what troubled her, asked him what he thought she should do, and now, locking the door and switching off the lights, ‘putting the house to bed’ as Hannah called it, she talked to him about it again. Sam. What to do, what to say, how to help him. Sam.
‘He’s always talked to Simon,’ Chris said. She might as well have heard his voice, aloud in the quiet kitchen. He’s always talked to Simon.
She stood still. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You’re right there.’
Sam might talk to Simon again. If he did, she would stop worrying.
If Simon were here.
The worst thing you can do is run. That warning floated in her head when she heard the footsteps behind her, crossing the canal bridge. ‘The worst thing you can do is run.’ Who said that and why and were they right? Why not run? Because in your high heels you could slip over and fall? Because if you run he’ll run too, only he might run faster?
The other thing was: don’t look round. But when Abi got to the other side of the bridge, she did look round and then she groaned slightly, no longer from fear but because of who it was, the last person she needed. She wanted to get home. She’d got nearly £200 in her pocket. She didn’t need this.
‘Wait,’ he said.
She hesitated. £200 could be £250 but she hated him not having a car, or if he had one, not letting them go in it, hated having to go into one of the shelters on the rec or break into a shed on the allotments. Once, it had been the cemetery, the place where they put stuff, mowers and bins for dead flowers. She’d been scared witless, terrified he’d want them to lie on a grave. She had never been past the cemetery again.
Here, there were just wooden benches. It was cold. Too cold.
One of the girls had said he was mad, but Abi knew better, knew that it was an act. Sone punters did that. They put on an accent, Scottish or Irish, and they kept touching their hand to their face, half hiding it. As if you’d ever know them again in daylight, even if you walked into a shop where they stood behind the counter, or a pub where they were barman, or a bus and they were driving it. You didn’t look at them, tried not to, you blotted them from your mind even when you were with them, they left no trace. Except Beanie Man, because he was never without the black wool beanie, pulled low over his forehead, even in summer. He tried to act daft, but you could see through the act like you could see through the Scottish and Irish voices. They were thinking: if you ever see me you haven’t seen me, you don’t know me. And you wanted to say: don’t fu**ing flatter yourself.
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