Gracie’s Secret – Jill Childs

I was in the supermarket when the phone rang. The clear plastic bag was heavy with tomatoes and almost ready to tie. When I held my phone against my face, my fingers smelled of them. Ripe and pungent. ‘Where are you?’ Richard. My heart stopped. He was tense. Braced. My stomach chilled. I didn’t say a word, waiting. ‘Jen?’ ‘What is it?’ It couldn’t be you. It couldn’t be. ‘I’m at Queen Mary’s. OK?’ He paused and that deathly pause, that hesitation, told me everything. ‘You need to come.

’ The words hung there. The bag slipped and fell. A tomato rolled free, spilling down the display and coming to a halt against the plastic barrier. A woman pushed roughly past me to reach for spring onions and dropped them into the wire basket in the crook of her arm. Behind her, a baby, hidden inside a buggy with raised hood, started to wail. ‘What?’ I asked. The woman tore a plastic bag from the roll and reached for tomatoes. ‘Don’t freak out, alright.’ Richard sounded a long way away. ‘Is anyone with you?’ I steadied myself against the bottom of the stand.

The woman’s grasping fingers plucked tomatoes and filled her bag. Richard said: ‘It’s going to be alright.’ I couldn’t breathe. ‘What is?’ He hesitated and that pause, his fear of telling me, told me how bad it must be. ‘There’s been an accident. OK? In the car.’ Pause. ‘Just come.’ ‘Accident?’ My hands tensed with rage. I wanted to throw something, to hit out.

‘Call me when you get here. OK?’ ‘Tell me. For God’s sake!’ He sighed. ‘Just get here.’ The line went dead. I started to shake. I banged the heel of my hand into the tomatoes. Juice squirted from a split. The young woman jumped back, glared. A couple, passing behind with a trolley, stopped and turned to look, their faces hard with disapproval.

Richard’s eyes were heavy. He was waiting for me at the entrance to paediatric intensive care. As I approached, my steps sharp and fast down the corridor, he looked me over, his face strained. Inside, in the waiting area, his coat lay across a chair. A takeaway cup sat on the table in front of it, coffee stains on the lid. Behind, the wall was decorated with a giant stencil of Minnie Mouse. The tip of Minnie’s left ear was peeling off. I looked round. ‘Where is she?’ He pursed his lips. ‘Calm down, Jenny.

Please.’ I dug my nails into my palms as my hands closed into fists. ‘One night. You promised. You promised you’d look after her.’ He’d begged to have you that weekend. I should never have let you go. My voice was strangled as I struggled not to shout at him. ‘Tell me right now. Everything.

’ He sat down and gestured to the chair beside him. I was so brittle I could barely bend my legs. ‘A car hit them. Head-on. It was going the other way and skidded and…’ He hung his head, spoke into his solid brown lace-ups. ‘Hit them?’ He’d said them, not us. I leaned closer, struggling to understand and caught the old, familiar scent of his skin. ‘Weren’t you there?’ He didn’t answer. The heaviness in his cheeks made him suddenly old. My legs, my feet flat on the hard hospital floor, started to judder.

‘The airbag went off. Ella’s OK. Bruised but OK.’ He broke off. ‘They sent her home. But the other driver…’ He bit down on his lip and looked away. ‘What about Gracie?’ I pulled away, angry. ‘Where is she?’ Richard’s eyes found mine. They were red-rimmed. I saw the fear there before they slid back to the floor.

He swallowed. ‘She’s in a coma. They’re not sure—’ A sharp pain in my stomach made me lean suddenly forward, doubled over. I opened my mouth, tried to speak, closed it again. My hands pressed against my belt, holding back the pain. A pause. Behind us, heels clicked down the corridor, turned a corner, faded. Richard said: ‘Keep calm. Please. Everyone’s doing their best.

OK?’ I struggled to steady myself, lifted my head. I looked past him to the double doors that led further into the ward. ‘I need to see her. Now.’ He nodded and got wearily to his feet. At the doors, he made a performance of pressing the flap for a blob of hand sanitizer and rubbing it over his knuckles, his palms, pointing me to do the same. He tugged out blue wads from a plastic dispenser and handed one to me. I stared at it, then watched him unfold the other one into a mask, slip two elastic loops round his ears and open the flap across his mouth and nose. My stomach contracted. The pain again.

My God. My dear God. He gave me a sharp look. ‘She may be able to hear.’ His voice through the mask was muffled. ‘Be careful what you say.’ You don’t look like you. You’re so pale and fragile, your face still, your eyes closed. Your fringe is brushed back from your forehead and there’s a clear plastic mask fastened across your nose and mouth. Your arms are arranged outside the sheet as if you’ve already been laid out for death to take, and a needle, stuck sideways into the soft skin of your forearm, feeds pale liquid from a bag on a stand.

Machines on both sides whirr and click, and, through it all, your breathing makes a soft steady suck in the mask. I stand and stare. My arms shake at my sides. I fight the urge to leap forward and tear out all their damn wires and tubes and scoop you up in my arms and hold you, run with you, take you home. A nurse fiddles with the drip. When she turns away from it, she doesn’t look me in the eye. Her face is hard and too carefully neutral as if she really wants to say: so you’re the mother, are you? Really? And you let this happen? Where were you, exactly? Richard pulls a chair from the bottom of the bed and sets it by your side and I sit down, reach through the metal side bars that form your cage, take your hand and encase it in my own, squeeze it, stroke your small fingers and start to sing to you, my voice so low that only you and I can hear, the songs we sing together in the night, when you’re feverish or just can’t sleep and need a cuddle, the songs we’ve sung together ever since you were born and the midwife first put you in my arms, wrapped round in a snowy white towel, all red and scrunched and beautiful. Such a perfect baby… I thought the other parents on the maternity ward must be mad with jealousy. My breath makes the inside of the mask hot and moist. I don’t know how long we sit there, you and I, joined at the hand, singing together.

You can hear me, I know it, you know I’m there, reaching for you, willing you to come back to me. TWO The doctor wasn’t old enough. She looked barely out of medical school and her manner was officious. She spoke to us in a bare consulting room off the corridor. It had squares of rough beige matting on the floor, a cheap settee and several matching armchairs with wooden arms and lightly padded seats. An insipid picture of a vase of flowers hung on one wall. On the other was the stencil of a gawky cartoon dog and cat, grinning. ‘We are grateful, Doctor.’ Richard sounded lost. He always tried to ingratiate himself with important people in the hope it made a difference.

‘Everyone’s been so kind.’ We were sitting side by side on the settee. It was low and our knees rose awkwardly. I reached across and squeezed his hand. His fingers were cool and firm and familiar in mine. He pulled away, giving me an absent-minded pat in the process. We made you, this man and I. We were happy once, before our small family broke apart. ‘The brain bleed is extensive.’ The doctor spoke with exaggerated care, as if we were half-wits.

‘That bleeding puts a lot of pressure on brain tissue. It’s still unclear how much damage it has caused.’ She sat forward on the edge of her chair with her hands neat in her lap. She gave the impression she didn’t plan to stay long. ‘Why?’ My voice was abrupt. ‘She was in a child seat, wasn’t she?’ Richard cut in at once. ‘She was. I’ve already—’ I nodded, carrying on. ‘That’s the point of it, surely? It protects her.’ The doctor hesitated.

‘The seat probably saved her life.’ She lifted her forearm and demonstrated a rippling motion with her hand. ‘But even strapped in, the force of the impact still causes internal trauma to the brain. We call it a coup injury. The soft tissue is thrown forward against the inside of the skull, you see. That causes blood vessels to tear and bleed and the blood has nowhere to go. So it can invade brain tissue and cause damage.’ Richard blinked. ‘So what—’ he hesitated, groping for the words ‘—what does that mean?’ The doctor looked at a spot on the wall behind us. She had no softness in her face, just awkwardness.

‘The prognosis isn’t clear. If there’s no change, we’ll keep her comatose for as long as twenty-four hours and then review the bleed.’ She drew her eyes from the wall and glanced at me, at Richard. ‘The coma supports recovery by reducing cranial pressure.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Her body has been through a significant trauma. You do realise she was resuscitated? She’s done well to get this far.’ She hesitated. ‘There’s also the possibility of a contra-coup injury. Bleeding caused by a secondary impact at the rear of the skull.

But so far, there’s no evidence of that.’ Shouting outside. Voices far below, called from another universe. My car was in the car park, waiting. A space where your seat should be. The footwell strewn with toys and biscuit wrappers and empty juice cartons. ‘She’s a fighter,’ I said. ‘She’ll be OK.’ The doctor cleared her throat. ‘In my experience, in cases like this—’ ‘How many exactly?’ She paused, gave me a questioning look.

‘How many cases have you had? Like this?’ ‘Jennifer!’ Richard, embarrassed. The doctor’s face was impassive. ‘In my experience, stability at this stage is crucial. It’s the body’s best chance of recovery. I suggest you go home and get some rest tonight. We’ll call you at once if there’s any change.’ ‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘No. I’m staying.

’ Richard frowned. ‘Maybe the doctor’s right. If she—’ ‘I’m not leaving her. I’m her mother.’ He shook his head at the doctor, as if to apologise for me. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to scoop you up into my arms and leave this desperate, sterile place and take you home and draw the curtains and settle in the lumpy armchair in the corner of your bedroom and rock you and hold you close and never let you go. The doctor rose to her feet. At the door, she turned back and looked at me. ‘I can assure you, she’s getting the best possible care.

’ They didn’t let me see you often. In the early afternoon and in the early evening, I was allowed to sit beside you for a short time, to hold your hand in mine and press it to my lips, to stroke your cool, smooth forehead and sing to you. You seemed so far away, my love. Flown from me to an unknown place. I strained forward to check the slow, steady flutter of your breathing, proving to myself that you were still with me, still in this world. The machines by your bed whirred and pulsed and numbers on monitors climbed and fell and sometimes flashed and on another screen, a line rose and fell in an eternally undulating wave. A television screen on a mechanical arm was tucked up high against the ceiling. A white enamel sink stood against the far wall with surgeon’s taps beside shiny metal dispensers of liquid soap and paper towels and, underneath these, a white metal pedal bin labelled Offensive Material. No clock in sight. This was a room outside time, where day and night, morning and evening were the same sterile nothingness and the only rhythm was the suck and puff of your breath inside the mask.

And I sat there, watching you, aching for you, dreading the footsteps that would come to make me leave. The hours away from you were heavy. The waiting area was largely deserted. I tried to imagine Richard and Ella at home. She would be resting and he would be fussing over her, awkward and slightly inept but gentle. I wondered how much of him was there with her, and how much was here with us and how anyone could split themselves in two like that. The ward stilled and quietened. I stood on a side table and pressed Minnie’s peeling ear back into place against the wall. I watched the nurse behind her desk, shuffling papers and chatting in a low voice to the young woman who came to relieve her. Resting the side of my head against my hand, I stared at the large clock on the wall behind her as it slowly turned towards night.

The light above me emitted a low buzz. The floor shimmered with shifting, cloudy patterns. My mind was numb. They were wrong. You wouldn’t leave me. You were a fighter. I sensed you there, reaching out for me, battling to survive. I closed my eyes, hunched my shoulders and strained to send you all the strength I had, to tell you I was here, willing you well. ‘There’s a café down the corridor.’ The nurse, a youngster with freckled cheeks, was bending over me.

She made an attempt at a smile, pointed to the right, out of the ward doors. ‘It’s not much but it’s better than nothing. You haven’t eaten, have you?’ I shook my head. I felt sick. ‘It’ll close soon. I’ll come and get you if anything happens.’ She gave my shoulder a pat. ‘Go while you can.’ I tensed, ready to fight, then tilted and saw her face. Her eyes were kind.

I heaved myself to my feet, swayed and she took my elbow to steady me. ‘Try to have something. You’ve got to keep your strength up.’ She paused, considering. ‘You might be here all night.’ The café wasn’t much, she was right. A sprinkling of a dozen plastic-topped tables with hard chairs and a counter selling tea and coffee, sandwiches and panini, bars of chocolate and crisps. The tables were deserted and the whole place felt forlorn, as desolate as a motorway service station at three in the morning. I bought a bottle of fizzy water and settled in a corner, rested my head against the cold, whitewashed wall and closed my eyes. ‘Are you Gracie’s mum?’ A gentle male voice.

I opened my eyes, sat up at once. ‘What’s happened?’ He smiled, put out a hand to calm me. ‘Nothing. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’ He was tall with floppy dark hair and wore a grey cashmere coat. He was carrying a coffee in a takeaway cup and had a newspaper tucked under his arm. The Daily Telegraph. ‘May I?’ He nodded to the chair opposite mine. I shrugged.

What did it matter? What did anything matter apart from you? ‘Matthew Aster. I’m in paediatrics. Just coming off shift.’ I looked more closely. He looked about forty-five, perhaps a little older. His skin had a lined, lived-in look as if his life had been more interesting than easy. His eyes were intelligent and thoughtful and they were searching mine, waiting. ‘You’re a doctor? Are you treating Gracie?’ ‘Not exactly but we’re a small team here. We talk. I saw you in IC earlier.

’ He shuffled his feet. They stuck out from under the table. Black lace-ups, neatly polished. ‘I’m sorry. Not an easy time.’ He set the newspaper down on the table. There was a picture of the Royals on the front page, a smiling Charles and Camilla on their travels. I’d seen it on the newsstand as I went into the supermarket all that time ago. An image from another lifetime. He gestured to the water.

‘Is that all you’re having? Can I buy you something?’ I shook my head. ‘I’m fine. Really.’ He pulled a Kit Kat out of his pocket, snapped it in two, set one stick in front of me and unwrapped the other, then ate it, sipping his coffee after each bite. I peeled off the silver paper and nibbled the chocolate. The sweetness was cloying. I put it down. ‘Will she be alright?’ He narrowed his eyes. I wondered what the officious young doctor had told him about me. The mother’s difficult.

Rude. No wonder the husband strayed. ‘It’s too early to know,’ he said carefully. ‘But she’s doing well. No sign of complications, so far. That’s very positive.’ He hesitated. ‘One step at a time.’ I sipped my water and looked past him into the drab hospital corridor. A stout woman was shuffling down towards the toilets on a walking frame, her head craning forward, her legs swollen.

‘This can’t be happening.’ I spoke almost to myself. ‘She’s only three. I just want to take her home.’ He reached forward and briefly covered my hand. His fingers were strong and warm with curling black hair above the knuckles. I thought of the way Richard had pulled his hand from mine and how comforting it felt to be touched, even for a moment. I swallowed, trying not to cry. ‘She’s everything to me. Gracie.

I’d do anything. If she needs, you know, organs, she can have mine.’ He nodded. ‘I know. I’m afraid it’s not that simple.’ The woman at the counter started to pack away the crisps and chocolate into cardboard boxes. He crossed to her, took one of the few remaining sandwiches from the fridge and bought it, then came back to me and set it on the table. ‘Just in case. It might be a long night.’ He reached into his coat pocket and took out a pen, scrawled ‘Matt’ on the top of the newspaper, along with a mobile phone number, and tore it off.

‘If you have any questions. Or if you just need to talk. Any time.’ He picked up his newspaper, nodded to me as if something unspoken had been agreed between us and turned away with a swish of his coat. He had a long, confident stride and a broad back. I stared after him down the corridor long after he had disappeared from sight.

.

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