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Authors: Emma Carroll

In Darkling Wood (8 page)

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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Last time I was here it was dark. Even now, in daylight, the building is achingly familiar with its glass-roofed entrance and the blue NHS sign on the wall.

I breathe deeply. I’ve made it.

In through the sliding doors, I’m hit by that hospital smell of cabbage and antiseptic. Everywhere I look there’s doctors, wheelchairs, trolleys, teddy bear-shaped balloons on sticks. There’s a queue at reception, so I find the lifts and jump in just as the doors are closing.

‘Which floor, love?’ says a lady doing the buttons.

‘Cheetah Ward’ is all I can remember.

‘Fourth floor,’ she says.

We start to go up. I’m fidgety as anything. There are other people in the lift. No one speaks. Everyone’s watching the buttons light up.

First floor … second floor … Each one takes me nearer to Theo.

At the fourth floor, the lift doors open. I’m the only person getting out. Cheetah Ward is just down the corridor. There’s a mural on the wall, showing wild animals and flowers. It looks as nice as a hospital can look.

The doors to the ward are locked so I press a bell. No one comes. I press again. My legs start jiggling. Finally a nurse comes out. She’s dressed in blue with a face mask round her neck. Her name badge tells me she’s called Jo.

‘Can I help you?’ Jo says.

I tuck my hair behind my ears. Stand up tall. ‘I’m here to see Theo Campbell, please.’

‘And you are?’

‘His sister, Alice.’

‘Aha, I’ve heard about you.’ Jo smiles. ‘Your mum tells me you’ve been a real star these past months.’

Though my cheeks go hot, I smile back.

‘Is your gran with you?’ she says, glancing over my shoulder.

‘No, she doesn’t like hospitals.’

‘Me neither,’ says Jo. She’s joking, I think. She doesn’t seem in any hurry to let me in, either.

‘So can I see him?’ I ask.

‘Sorry, but the rules are only two visitors per
bedside,’ Jo says. ‘And now you’re here, that makes three.’

I don’t quite follow. Mum’s here and …
who else?

Jo answers for me. ‘I’ll tell your parents you’re here.’

Parents.

I’m not smiling now.

That means Mum and …
Dad?

So he did come after all.

Jo’s seen the shock on my face; she gives my arm a quick squeeze. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

At the door, she stops to use the hand gel, then she’s gone again.

I lean against the wall. My head’s reeling. Of all the things I’d expected today, Dad wasn’t on the list.

Don’t expect me to be pleased
, I think. I came all this way to visit Theo, not Dad, who hasn’t seen us for months. Who didn’t even think it was important enough to come straight to the hospital when Theo was admitted. So if there’s too many visitors
he
can leave, not me.

The door to the ward flies open. Mum rushes out into the corridor.

‘Alice, sweetheart!’ she cries, throwing her arms around me. ‘What are you doing here? Where’s Nell?’

I hug her back. She smells different. Not of soap powder like she usually does, but as if she’s been in these clothes for days. She clings on so tight it’s hard to breathe.

‘You’re suffocating me,’ I say.

Mum lets go. There’s a pause. She looks tired. Her hair’s all dirty and there are shadows under her eyes. She’s not smiling either.

‘I promised Theo I’d come,’ I say. ‘I’ve missed him so much. I couldn’t wait any longer.’

‘I’m sorry, darling. It’s been …’ Mum’s face crumples and she starts to cry. Then I remember Dad’s here somewhere too and I bet that’s why she’s upset. There are some fold-down seats on the wall opposite. Going over to them, we sit. Mum cries a bit more, then blows her nose and takes a shuddery breath.

‘Is Nell waiting outside?’ she asks.

I know then that Nell hasn’t phoned Mum. That Mum doesn’t know I’ve come here by myself. So I tell her.

She gasps. ‘You didn’t! Oh, Alice!’

‘Shush, Mum,’ I say. ‘I’m here now so stop fussing.’

‘But what about school? And Nell? Oh, Alice, tell me she knows you’re here!’

I fiddle with my coat sleeves.

Mum peers into my face. ‘She doesn’t know, does she?’

‘No.’

Mum groans. I hoped she’d be pleased to see me but this isn’t going to plan.

‘I’d better call her now,’ she says, getting out her phone.

She stands up and walks a little way down the corridor. There’s the murmur of voices, but I can’t hear exactly what’s being said.

‘School called her earlier to say you’d not turned up. She’s not happy with you, you know,’ Mum says as she sits down again. ‘But you’ll have to deal with that when you get back.’

I don’t want to think about Nell. Or school. Or going back. I’m here to see my brother and that’s all that matters.

‘How is Theo?’ I ask.

She shrugs. I wait for the cheery comment, the big smile, the little joke, but instead her eyes go teary again and my insides fall away. Things
aren’t
right, are they? I wasn’t just imagining it down the phone.

‘Can I see him?’ I ask, getting to my feet. ‘Will you come with me?’

What I mean is, I don’t want to be in there with Dad. I want it just to be Theo, Mum and me.

‘It’s only two visitors per bed,’ Mum sniffs. ‘Your dad’s with him now.’

‘So tell Dad to go.’

Mum blinks slowly. She looks done in.

The ward door swings open. It’s Jo, the nurse. Behind her is my dad. ‘Looks like he’s leaving anyway,’ says Mum.

Except Dad’s not leaving. Brushing past Jo, he walks straight up to us. As I get ready to be cross with him, Mum jumps to her feet.

‘What is it, David?’ she says. ‘What’s happened?’

Then Dad sees me.

‘Wow … I mean … Alice,’ he stutters. ‘This is a … surprise.’

He looks terrible. Worse than Mum. His eyes are all pouchy underneath and his stubble’s got grey bits in it. He looks
old
.

‘Is Nell with you?’ he asks, glancing up and down the corridor.

Because I don’t answer, Mum chips in. ‘She came by herself.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Unlike Mum, he seems almost relieved.

Jo joins us.

‘You’d better come in,’ she says.

‘What’s going on?’ Mum sounds scared; I don’t like it.

‘Please, just come back inside. The doctor wants to have a chat with you.’

She directs Mum and Dad back through the door. No one mentions visitor numbers now, so as we pause to wash our hands in antiseptic gel, I slip in too. The door clicks shut behind us.

We set off down a corridor that’s got strip lights all along the ceiling. It makes my eyes hurt. Then we go through another set of doors, past children wired up to drips and machines that beep.

We’re walking quickly. There’s another beep. This one’s nearer. It’s Jo’s pager. Instantly she’s running. So are Mum and Dad. I don’t know what’s happening, but now I’m running too.

We race down a bright white corridor. Up ahead are more nurses. Lots more nurses. They’re gathered in the doorway to a room. On the wall, above the door, a single red light flashes. When we reach them, the nurses make way for Jo.

‘What’s happening?’ Mum stands on tiptoes. ‘Let me through!’

This must be Theo’s room. I should be glad: I’m here at last.

But it’s wrong. All wrong.

The room’s crowded. I can’t even see the bed. They won’t let Mum in so I don’t stand a chance. Other people in different uniforms come in and out. They’re talking in big words I don’t understand.

Mum starts sobbing again. Dad tries to put an arm round her.

‘Don’t you dare!’ she spits, pulling away from him. She lets me hold her hand.

We stay out in the corridor, not speaking. Just waiting. Dad paces up and down, doing big heavy sighs. Time slows to a crawl. But at some point the alarm goes quiet and the lights stop flashing. A doctor comes out of the room.

‘Mr Campbell?’ she says. ‘Mrs Campbell?’

Mum ignores the mistake and straightens up. Dad stops pacing. I fight the urge to cry.

The doctor looks at me. ‘Why don’t you make some tea for your parents? There’s a little kitchen two doors down.’

What she means is: this isn’t a conversation for kids.

Mum keeps hold of my hand. ‘We don’t want tea, thank you.’

‘Carrie, please,’ says Dad. ‘Be sensible. The doctor needs to speak to us and it might not be suitable …’ his eyes flit over me, ‘… for Alice to hear.’

‘I’m all right,’ I say, because I know how sick Theo is. Unlike Dad, I’ve actually been there for him ever since he got ill.

‘She’s staying,’ says Mum.

The doctor pushes her glasses up her nose. ‘Okay, so
Theo’s not been doing too well on his antibiotics and now he’s had a reaction – quite a severe one. But we’ve managed to stabilise him,’ she says.

Mum squeezes my hand.

‘But I warn you, he’s still very poorly. We’ve changed the medication, and I’m hopeful this will reduce his temperature.’

‘Thank you,’ Mum whispers.

The doctor nods. ‘The first few days after a transplant are often the most difficult.’

We all go quiet.

Then Dad says, ‘Will he make it?’

Mum gasps. ‘Don’t ask that, David!’

I hear the doctor’s hesitation. It’s horrible.

‘We’ll have to wait and see,’ she says finally.

My bottom lip starts to wobble. Dad nods. Stuffs his hands in his jeans pockets and looks at Mum. His eyes are very hard.

‘Will you stay with Theo?’ he says. ‘Only Lara’s called to say …’

‘Go,’ says Mum, turning away. ‘Just …
go
.’

‘But Alice shouldn’t really be here. It’s too much for her.’

I can’t believe he’s saying this. I stare at him in amazement. ‘It’s not
too much
for me, Dad!’

The doctor looks embarrassed. ‘If we could maybe just …’

Mum cuts in. ‘Your daughter’s made of strong stuff, David. If you’d paid her more attention you’d know that.’

Dad doesn’t say anything. He rubs a hand over his face. Then he swings round and slams his fist into the wall.

I flinch. Mum looks away.

‘Mr Campbell,’ the doctor says. ‘Please …’

But Dad’s already halfway down the corridor. He doesn’t look back. The doors swing shut and he’s gone. Part of me’s glad. The other part is mad at him for running back to his new family because it’s easier than staying here with us. I can’t think about that now, though. All I want is my brother.

‘You can see Theo if you like,’ the doctor says, then glances at me. ‘You haven’t got a cold? No tummy bugs?’

I shake my head.

‘Good. The medication he’s on makes it hard for him to fight germs.’ She gestures towards Theo’s door. ‘Just sit with him. Let him know you’re there.’

Mum goes in first with me behind her. Jo’s the only nurse left here now. She’s writing something down but glances up at us.

‘He had everyone worried then,’ she says, trying to smile but not quite managing it. ‘I’ll leave you alone.’

As she goes, my eyes follow her. I can’t bring myself to look at the bed. The room feels too hot. It smells of antiseptic and rubber. There’s a little high-up window, and through a gap in the curtains I see the glass is streaked with rain. Perhaps it’s raining right now in Darkling Wood; I almost hear it falling through the trees. But very soon those trees will be gone, which makes me feel more miserable.

‘Alice?’ says Mum. Her voice makes me jump. ‘Sit down and say hello to your brother.’

She’s pulled up a chair for me. I sink into it. Mum sits down on the other side of the bed. Theo lies between us, a shape under a white blanket. He hasn’t said a word. I suppose he’s fast asleep; he’s not normally this quiet. Though I still can’t look at his face, his hand is at eye level so I stare at that instead.

It’s a very small hand. The back of it is covered in tape to hold the needle thing in place. I think of that hand gripping a plastic dinosaur. Now it’s lying limp on a blanket. Really I should take hold of it, stroke it, squeeze it just so he knows I’m here.

The thing is, I can’t.

A heart that stopped five days ago now beats in my
brother’s chest. The stranger must’ve had a donor card, and something of that kind stranger lives on in this room, pumping the blood inside those veins that stand out on the back of Theo’s hand. It’s really strange. Almost as if he isn’t quite
Theo
any more, now part of him was once someone else.

‘Your big sister’s come to see you, Theo,’ says Mum. ‘Aren’t you lucky?’

A machine beeps away by the bedside. Theo doesn’t move.

I wipe my eyes in my sleeve. He’s not lucky. A proper sister would’ve brought games and sweets, all wrapped up. I couldn’t even manage to bring the stupid card I made. I’ve come all this way just to sit on a chair. Despite what the doctor said, he doesn’t know I’m here.

When I do look at his face, it knocks me sideways. He’s definitely not Theo. He can’t be. He’s as white as the bedsheets. His eyes are closed; the lids seem bruised, almost greasy. He’s got tubes up his nose and in his mouth, and down the middle of his chest is a line of white tape.

It makes my own heart thud.

Looking up, I see Dad’s come back; he’s in the doorway.

‘Is he asleep?’ he asks.

Mum doesn’t answer; she keeps talking to Theo in a dreamy lullaby voice. Dad gazes at the window, the floor, the ceiling. He can’t seem to look at Theo either. It’s funny, I think, all four of us being together in the same room. I can’t remember the last time that happened. It doesn’t feel good.

Mum glances at me. ‘You all right, Alice?’

‘She’s gone a funny colour,’ says Dad.

‘I’m fine,’ I say, though I’m not. I just don’t want to prove him right. I try to breathe deeply but panic simmers inside me. Everything looks too bright. I wonder if I’m about to be sick. I get to my feet.

‘I need some fresh air.’

I rush for the exit, through double doors, past nurses and doctors and worried-looking relatives until I’m out into the corridor with the animals on the wall. Dad’s right behind me.

‘Go away!’ I say. ‘Leave me alone!’

But then my mouth fills up and I start to retch. His hand rubs my back until I’m done.

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
13.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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