‘You know how much better you were when you had Mr Sharpe’s treatment before, Jake, and you want to get back on to the team, don’t you?’


Jake had grumbled, but his mother knew how to get to him … he was a passionate football player, and had scored enough goals the previous year to take the team as far as the county junior championship semi-finals before they were beaten. For Christmas, he had even got, via someone his dad knew at work who knew someone in Manchester, a shirt with ‘Beckham 7’ on it, signed by his hero.


‘OK, OK.’ Jake stood up from finishing his shoelaces, and began to fall towards Jenny.


‘Jake, what’s the matter? It’s all right … sit down here. Bend forward and put your head on your knees.’


‘Everything went all wobbly … the floor wasn’t there.’


‘You felt faint. It happens sometimes when you stand up quickly. Just sit there for a minute, I’ll get you a drink of water. We won’t go until you feel all right, don’t worry.’


Ten minutes later, she put a protesting Jake into the front seat of the car.


‘I can put the belt on myself, I’m OK, Mum, don’t fuss …’


‘Sorry.’


But he was too pale, Jenny thought, far too pale. The quicker he was sorted out the better.


When she was six, she had had three teeth taken out. In advance, her friends at school had filled her full of horror stories about the pain she would suffer, the blood and the gruesome dental instruments she would see, so that by the time she had arrived at the dental surgery she had been hysterical. She had never forgotten the gentleness and kindness of the dentist, Mr Peat. He had been tall, with a thick shock of hair and a high shiny forehead, and he had spent a long time talking to her, explaining that she would feel nothing at all except some soreness later, which would go as soon as she took ‘the magic tablets’, that she certainly would see no blood or instruments, and that she would go to sleep holding the surgery teddy bear and wake up only a few minutes later after a beautiful dream and with the bear still looking after her. Everything had happened as he had said and she had never been afraid of the dentist again.


Aidan Sharpe had the same quiet, calm, gentle manner as Mr Peat, although he was not so tall, and his hair and small goatee beard were both neatly cut. Now, as they walked into the bright reception area of his surgery, she felt herself relax for the first time in days. Jake was going to be looked after. Jake was going to be all right.


There was a water cooler, there were comfortable chairs and a sofa, a low table with the day’s papers and a neat stack of recent glossy magazines. The table and the desk of Mrs Cooper, the receptionist, had bowls of sweet-smelling hyacinths and a tiny glass of snowdrops. There was something welcoming about the place, an indefinable air of cheerfulness and calm, which was not at all what Jenny had expected on her first visit.


‘Nothing weird,’ she had said to Dr Deerbon afterwards.


‘I know. That’s one of the reasons I’m happy to send my patients there. Not so much as a collecting tin for Friends of the Earth!’


It was true. Aidan Sharpe’s professional qualification and membership certificates were framed on the wall beside the reception desk, together with a photograph of him with the Queen. Otherwise, there were several unexciting watercolours, bland seascapes and pretty woodland scenes.


‘Mum, have I got to have it done?’


But Jenny had no time to answer.


‘Good morning, Mrs Spurrier … Jake.’ Aidan Sharpe was crossing the room from his surgery, his white coat crisp, his brown brogues shining.


Behind his mother, Jake made a face, caught only by the receptionist, who winked at him.


The surgery was more businesslike than the outer room, with a desk and chair, the treatment couch and the tray with needles and steriliser. But the sun was on this side, and filling the room with watery lemon light.


‘Now, Jake, how long is it since I last saw you?’ Aidan Sharpe looked down at his notes. ‘Nearly eighteen months. And the sore throat’s cleared up?’


‘It only took the two treatments,’ Jenny said. ‘He’s been so well.’


‘But they’re back now, and you said there was something else worrying you about Jake, Mrs Spurrier?’


The boy sat staring down at the carpet, kicking his legs.


‘Don’t worry, Jake, I know how maddening it is when people talk about you not to you and I want you to tell me how you feel in just a moment. But mothers do have a way of knowing things about you, I’m afraid.’


He wrote carefully as Jenny Spurrier took him through Jake’s tiredness, his recent sties and sore throat, and that morning’s near-faint.


‘OK, Jake, would you swap places with Mum please … I want to have a look at you in a good light. Great. Let’s have a look at the throat first.’


He took a sterile spatula from its packet and pressed the back of Jake’s tongue down, then examined his eyes, followed by a slow scrutiny of each ear.


‘When you say you’ve felt tired a lot, can you describe that a bit more? Have you been staying up late reading or playing computer games? Not getting enough sleep? Don’t worry if you have, it’s not a punishable offence.’


‘I can’t stay awake long enough.’


‘You feel tired during the day?’


‘Yes.’


‘Games? You’re something of a footballer, I know.’


‘I can’t run fast, I get too tired.’


‘Do you get breathless – wheezy, when you run?’


‘No.’


‘Do you get aching legs after games?’


‘He often complains that his legs ache even when he hasn’t been playing,’ Jenny said.


‘Right, Jake, take off your outer clothes and T-shirt and just keep on your pants. Then lie on the couch. I’d like to have a look at the rest of you.’


Jake lay, watching the sun make bright discs on the white ceiling as it reflected against the metal rim of the lamp. His legs ached now and if Mr Sharpe had stopped talking, he thought he could go to sleep here for hours and hours.


‘Has someone been having a go at you, Jake?’


‘No.’


The acupuncturist was touching Jake’s calf and then his upper leg gently.


‘Rough game?’


‘No, they just came.’


‘I see. Any more bruises like that?’


‘I had one on my arm but I think it’s gone.’ He looked, but saw that another bruise had formed, larger than the first.


‘Right. Have you had any nosebleeds recently?’


‘No.’


‘You did, don’t you remember,’ his mother said, ‘a week or two ago, you called me in the middle of the night. I thought he must have been thrashing around and banged his face on the bedpost. I had to soak half a dozen hankies in iced water and hold them to his nose before it stopped.’


‘Any more since then, Jake? At school?’


‘No.’


There had been, but Jake had had enough of being interrogated and decided to practise the James Bond technique of lying under torture.


‘OK, Jake, you can get dressed now and then would you just wait outside for a few moments while I go through the boring bits with your mum. Mrs Cooper has some orange squash if you’re thirsty.’


‘Aren’t you going to stick the needles in me?’


‘Not today.’


‘Yessss.’


Jake grabbed his trousers and T-shirt and pulled them on anyhow, took his other things under his arm and vanished before the acupuncturist could change his mind.


‘So there’s nothing much wrong after all, if you aren’t going to treat him? Well, that’s a relief. But I just wish you could have done something to buck him up a bit.’


‘Mrs Spurrier, I think it’s Dr Deerbon who will be doing the bucking up. I’d like you to make an appointment with her for Jake as soon as possible.’


‘Why?’


Aidan Sharpe was looking at her steadily and with an expression she had never seen on him.


‘I don’t want to make any diagnosis. I’m not a doctor, you know.’


‘As good as. Better than some I’ve known.’


‘Thank you.’ A smile of pride and pleasure lit up his face. ‘All the same. Jake ought to see the GP and I need to have a report on him from her before I can consider giving him any treatment. There may be nothing at all wrong, but some of his symptoms need to be investigated. I’ll drop Dr Deerbon a note. Don’t worry, please. I am just very careful. There are far too many complementary practitioners without medical knowledge who are too ready to jump in and treat things they don’t know enough about. I’m not one of them.’


He stood up.


‘When I’ve heard from Dr Deerbon and if she’s happy, we’ll make another appointment for Jake and then see if I can help. There’ll be no charge for this consultation.’


‘Oh, I must pay you, I know you haven’t given him any acupuncture but we’ve taken up your professional time.’


‘No. It’s a point of principle, Mrs Spurrier. I don’t charge when I don’t treat. Now, let’s go and release young Jake from the acupuncturist’s prison.’


Aidan Sharpe saw Jenny Spurrier and her son cheerfully off the premises, but when he returned to the reception room, his face was grave.


‘Julie, I’ve got ten minutes before – who is it next?’


‘Mr Cromer.’


‘I want to sort this out beforehand. Would you try and get me Dr Deerbon – Dr Cat? If she isn’t available, leave a message asking her to call me as a matter of urgency.’


But Cat came through straight away.


‘Aidan? Good morning. How are you?’


‘Fine and I’m sorry to interrupt.’


‘No, surgery’s just this minute finished. What can I do for you?’


‘Jake Spurrier … aged ten. Felstead Road.’


‘I know. Mother is Jenny. Nice family.’


‘Yes. I’m afraid I’m rather concerned. She brought the boy into me this morning … sore throats, tiredness. I saw him about eighteen months ago for the sore throats … gave him a couple of treatments and they cleared up. You and I agreed they were viral anyway.’


‘I remember.’


‘Well, this isn’t viral. I haven’t treated Jake and I’ve suggested his mother bring him to you as soon as possible. He reports excessive fatigue, nosebleeds, aching limbs, occasional faintness, some sties, and has a nasty strep throat at the moment. He also has some bruising on his legs and one forearm. Alarm bells rang pretty quickly, as I’m sure you’ll understand.’


‘Pallor?’


‘Yes.’


‘All the signs then. Thanks very much, Aidan, I’m glad you picked up on it. I’ll get them to put him in as an emergency appointment.’


‘Let me know, will you? Of course, I might be overreacting.’


‘You don’t, in my experience. Anyway, a blood test will tell us what we want to know pretty smartly.’


Aidan Sharpe put down the phone and swung his chair round to look out of the window on to the garden. Two squirrels were leaping from tree to tree at the far end, then running fast down the long trunks and racing across the grass, before climbing after one another in the chase again.


If Jake Spurrier did indeed have one of the aggressive forms of childhood leukaemia, as both he and Cat Deerbon expected, it would be a long time before he would be racing about, climbing and playing with such ease and abandon – if he ever did.


Thirteen


The sensation of well-being and tranquillity, as if she were cocooned in the deep blue healing aura Dava had created for Debbie Parker, did not fade or weaken during the next few days. She slept wonderfully well each night and woke calmly, happy to face the day. She cleared out every tin, packet and jar of food from the cupboard and her section of the fridge, and spent almost a week’s benefit money on wholefoods and organic fruit, vegetables and cereals.


She went out every day and walked, around parts of Lafferton she had never been near before, in the park, along the towpath and on the Hill.


Sandy watched her, and said nothing. She was still concerned and she thought the diet and the exercise would be a nine-day wonder, but it was a relief at least not to see her flatmate grey and crushed under her misery, not to have to coax her out of bed in the mornings nor worry about her while she was at work.


Almost a week after Debbie had been on the bus to Starly, a package arrived.


The tablets looked and smelled like a mixture of seaweed and compost and the plastic pot of ointment was of a repellent texture. They were packed with a list of complicated instructions and a bill for £75.


She had not asked how much it would all cost and now, defiantly, she told herself that she did not care; Dava was making her better. He was gifted, he had understood her and touched something deep within her subconscious that no one else had ever reached. She had only to remember the sound of his voice and the vivid, mesmerising quality in his eyes, only to think of the blue, to feel a thrill of excitement and response, as if Dava had called to her and met with an immediate and willing reply. It did not matter if the bill had been five times £75. It had to be worth it. You could not put a price on what he had already done for her.


Later that morning, she wrote to her father, asking if he could send her £100. ‘It’s for some medical treatment for my skin. Unfortunately, as with so much these days, the NHS won’t pay but it will make such a difference to everything for me if only I can have my skin clear.’


The tablets were to be swallowed with pure mineral water, after a meal of raw vegetarian food, twice a day. Nothing else apart from liberal quantities of the water was to be eaten for two hours afterwards. The bottle was to be kept away from chemicals of all kinds, in a dark cupboard.


The ointment was to be applied thinly before going to bed, on skin washed in pure mineral water and scent-free soap. It smelled of tar and of something else Debbie remembered from childhood but could not place.


She undressed, washed her face meticulously, and patted it dry, as directed, on a clean kitchen towel made of bleach-free paper. The ointment made her skin tingle slightly.


Something about the ritual, like that of preparing the organic vegetables and fruit and drinking the mineral water, made her feel in contact with Dava, and the calm feeling, as if she were drifting out to sea, lulled her into one of the new, dream-free sleeps.


Something was wrong. She was dreaming again, but the dream was part of a struggle to come awake. She could not make out whether she was in pain or could not breathe and in the half-waking dream someone had glued her eyelids together and even when she prised them apart, there was darkness and a burning sensation. Then, through it, there was a sudden, painful flash and Sandy’s voice, somewhere near to her.

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