Authors: Emma Carroll
Friday 15th November 1918
This is a very important letter because I’m writing it to prove you’re still alive. Today we received a telegram. It said you were ‘Missing, believed killed’. The delivery boy swore it was official but I WON’T believe it, not now we’re five days into peace.
Today was fated from the start. We’d had heavy rain in the night, which made the roads so tricky that Anna was late coming in from the village. So when the front doorbell rang, there was no Anna to answer it. And as Mrs Cotter was up to her elbows in flour, I said I’d go.
I wasn’t expecting to find the telegram boy on our doorstep. I remember thinking that his ears looked cold because he’d taken off his cap. Propped up against his hip was his red Post Office bicycle – blood-red, people often said. I wondered how he’d managed to ride it down our lane, which was running with water like a river.
Even then it didn’t occur to me. Why would it? The war is over. What bad news could a telegram bring us now?
Behind me, I heard footsteps. Then Mama was at my side, asking where Anna was and why on earth was I standing
on a wet doorstep with not even a shawl about me. I think she would’ve gone on, only the sight of the telegram boy stopped her.
He held out a pen; he said he needed a signature, please. Mama frowned. Then she saw the telegram in his other hand. As she took it from him, her face fell. The War Office stamp was on the envelope and Papa’s name, ‘Mr Henry Waterhouse’. The date mark was 20th October 1918.
20th October, Alfred. Nearly one month ago. Before peace was declared.
Mama started shaking her head. I felt suddenly scared. There must be some mistake, she said, and tried to give the telegram back. But the boy held up his hands and said he was sorry, it was meant for us. Sometimes news got delayed, he said. Sometimes it got lost altogether and then families never knew. I can’t imagine which would be worse.
Mama didn’t open the telegram all day. She hid it behind the clock on the drawing-room mantelpiece, then put on her best hat and went out. I didn’t like being left alone with it, especially when a little corner of the envelope was still in view. Part of me itched to read what it said. But mostly I wished I’d never ever answered that beastly doorbell.
It wasn’t until after dinner that Mama finally told Papa. We’d heard so often of families in the village receiving terrible news from the Front, and here it was, happening to us. It felt like a frightful dream.
White-faced, Papa stood before the fire and opened the telegram. He shook so hard it was a wonder he didn’t slice his fingers on the letter opener.
I held my breath as he read its contents out loud, then he screwed it up and threw it into the flames.
We all retired late tonight. It seemed none of us wanted to leave the fireside and go to our cold beds. It’s been an awful day. We’ve come through the whole war, and now … this … when you should be coming home. Instead, dearest brother, you are ‘missing, believed killed’.
Yet the thing is, boys do come home even after they’ve been reported missing. Mama says it happened to Mrs Cotter’s sister’s son. Apparently she heated water for his bath every night for two years, and eventually he did return.
So that’s what we must do. Not the hot water part, Alfred. What I mean is we must keep hoping, and prove that rotten telegram wrong.
Your ever loving sister.
SATURDAY 16 NOVEMBER
It’s past midnight when Dad and I leave the hospital. The doctor wouldn’t let me on the ward again just in case I have a sickness bug. But I think we all knew the real reason: seeing Theo wasn’t exciting or lovely. It was like being kicked in the stomach. So all this time I’ve had to wait in the Relatives’ Room with its pink chairs and pictures of waterlilies, which I suppose are meant to be soothing. And now Dad has agreed to drive me back to Nell’s and I don’t have any choice in that either.
He’s got a new car; it’s silver and much bigger than ours. Once we’ve got in, he turns the heater on high and puts a carrier bag of food into my lap. I don’t touch it, though my stomach’s growling.
‘You need to eat,’ Dad says. ‘It’ll make you feel better.’
‘I’m fine.’ I don’t want him to be right about something else.
Now we’re by ourselves, I realise just how angry I am. It took Dad five days to get to the hospital. FIVE WHOLE DAYS. What the heck’s he been doing in that time, other than ignoring Theo?
Though I’m dying to ask, I dread the excuses he’ll come up with. So I stare at the wet wipes and baby snacks on the dashboard – and that’s hard too. He’s someone else’s dad now, not just Theo’s and mine.
As the car warms up, I grow tired. But when I shut my eyes I see Theo in his hospital bed, and the fear on Mum’s face. It makes me feel ill again. It’s better to stay awake, though once we join the motorway there’s nothing much to look at any more.
‘Pass me a sandwich, would you?’ says Dad.
My stomach does another growl. I’ve got that queasy sort of hunger. I really should eat. Inside the carrier bag there are egg sandwiches, ham and turkey, cheese and salad, and two big bags of crisps. Dad’s bought orange juice and flapjacks, and a couple of red apples. Being at Nell’s, I’ve forgotten what real food looks like.
But then, Dad can cook.
cook. He’d do a roast every Sunday, make fruit pies with proper pastry and serve them with made-from-scratch custard. Just
thinking about it makes my mouth water. It’s shocking to think Nell’s his mother. Last time we ate with him it was different, though. We had burgers in a service station somewhere and Theo was too unwell to eat. That was when he told us his girlfriend Lara was having a baby.
‘Here.’ I pass Dad the turkey sandwich, which looks dry and boring.
He takes it and forces down a mouthful. ‘Today’s been tough, hasn’t it?’
‘It’s been all right,’ I say. I’m not about to bare my soul if that’s what he’s hoping. I keep eating my own sandwich.
‘You knew Theo was this sick, didn’t you? Mum’s kept you in the picture?’
‘The whole picture, I mean. The risks, not just the positives.’
I glance at him sideways.
‘The thing is, Alice, your mum’s pinning all her hopes on this operation, which is typical of her …’ He falters. ‘Don’t look at me like that.’
‘Like I’m the worst person in the world.’
I don’t answer.
‘All I’m trying to say’, says Dad, ‘is that your mother can be quite …
. She doesn’t always see the dangers in things.’
I stare out of the window. Part of me knows what he means. She’s what Lexie’s mum calls a ‘glass half full’ person. But she wasn’t when Dad first left, and she wasn’t today, and it scares me. If Mum can’t see the bright side, then maybe that’s because there
no bright side to see.
‘Alice, transplants are risky. Sometimes, people get their hopes up – they’ve tried all the other options and this is the last resort and then …’ He stops.
He rubs his eye though I don’t think he’s crying. ‘It’s a very big deal for everyone, an operation like this. I just hope it’s going to make Theo better.’
I scowl at my reflection in the glass. ‘Don’t you believe in transplants, then? You think we should’ve just let Theo get worse?’
‘Of course not! The doctors are getting better at transplants all the time, but there’s always the risk that a person’s body will reject the donor organ.’
‘They give him tablets to stop that, don’t they?’
‘Yes, but those tablets aren’t without risk either. They make it very hard for him to fight infections.’
‘I know, but …’
‘I just want you to be prepared, that’s all.’
I wish Dad would shut up.
‘Seeing Theo shocked you, didn’t it?’ he says. ‘You didn’t expect him to be so sick.’
My eyes start to water. That feeling I got in Theo’s hospital room, of being hot and trapped, is coming back.
‘I wanted to see him,’ I say. ‘I promised.’
‘Though I don’t suppose he even knew we were there.’
‘How can you say that? Of course he knew I was there!’
Even so, I see flashes of Theo lying flat in his bed, his eyelids shut, his hand a bit too still.
‘Oh just shut up, will you?’ I slump down in my seat.
We don’t speak for a bit, then I turn to face Dad. He still looks awful – white-cheeked and shadow-eyed, and he’s barely touched his sandwich. His hands are trembling on the steering wheel.
‘Dad?’ I say.
‘I’m scared,’ I say. ‘So’s Mum, and I bet Theo isn’t exactly thrilled. But don’t shut us out, Dad. Don’t pretend it’s not happening.’
Dad’s jaw clenches up. It makes him look like Nell. ‘I’m worried too, of course I am. But I’m not
‘So why didn’t you go to the hospital straight away? Why did it take you …’
He stops me with his hand. ‘Enough, Alice, all right? I’ve got Lara and Poppy to think of as well. I can’t just leave everything at the drop of a hat.’
I turn away. So that’s what this is to him. His son’s just had a transplant and he calls it ‘the drop of a hat’.
My heart is pounding really hard. I need to calm down.
‘It was a shock today,’ says Dad, finally.
‘Yes, I say, staring out of the window though all I see is dark glass. ‘It was.’
That’s something we agree on, at least.
An hour later, we finally turn off the main road. Rain lashes against the windscreen so it’s hard to see up ahead, even with the wipers on full. When we reach the place where the road forks, Dad turns right for Nell’s. We get a glimpse of the track in the headlights.
‘Oh heck!’ says Dad, slowing down. ‘I’d forgotten what happens here when it rains.’
The track now looks more like a river. Luckily, it’s not that deep yet. But the water has carried stones with it; our tyres crunch as we drive. Then the wheels start to spin.
‘This isn’t good,’ Dad says, changing gear. We slither sideways. The hedge scratches against the side of the car.
‘That’s my paintwork ruined,’ Dad says.
‘Stop, then. We can walk from here.’
‘No, I’ll drop you at the gate.’
‘Aren’t you coming to see Nell?’
He shakes his head. ‘Not tonight.’
I notice his hands gripping the steering wheel again. His jaw is still clenched up just like Nell’s. It makes me think of the telling-off I’ve got coming to me. But it won’t be the worst thing that’s happened today, not by a mile.
Just before the gate, we slide to a halt.
‘I’ll keep the headlights on so you can see your way in,’ Dad says.
So I get out and slam the door. Wrapping my arms around myself, I start walking. It’s slippery underfoot. The water comes up over my trainers and soaks the bottoms of my jeans. I don’t care. I’m just glad to be out of the car.
Up ahead, as always, Nell’s lights are on. The name ‘Darkling Cottage’ is just about visible through the rain. I’m almost relieved to see it.
‘Aha, the wanderer returns.’
Nell’s on the other side of the gate, coat hood up, torch in hand. She doesn’t sound as cross as I expected. Borage sticks his muzzle through the bars and tries to lick me. I reach over to pat him. Nell doesn’t move. Then, shielding her eyes, she squints up the lane at the reversing car.
‘Where’s your mother going?’ she says.
‘That was Dad who dropped me off.’
She squares her shoulders. Her face changes so she looks … what? … Upset? Angry? It’s hard to tell.
‘So he was at the hospital, eh?’ Nell says. ‘Wonders never cease.’
‘Of course he was there. Theo’s really sick.’ Though I don’t like her saying this because I know what she means.
Nell sighs. ‘Well, I hope David copes with it better this time.’
She doesn’t say any more. But, lifting the gate latch, she lets me in.
Just before dawn there’s a noise at my window. It sounds like someone’s pelting it with gravel. For a sleepy second I think it’s Flo come to find me, but the noise keeps on. It’s at the other window too, and I realise it’s just raining really hard. Pulling the blankets over my head, I try to go back to sleep. But my brain’s so full of hospitals that in the end I give up and get out of bed to go and make some tea.
Out on the stairs, it’s pitch dark. One hand on the rail, I feel my way down the steep attic stairs. Something makes me pause on the first-floor landing. The passage to Nell’s room looks darker than ever. Quickly, I move on. I’ve not gone three steps when there’s a noise.
All I hear now is the rain outside. I take two more steps down.
The noise is behind me. I retrace my steps back up to the landing. The noise stops. I stand very still. Even my own breathing sounds loud.
It starts again. It’s a person crying. In Nell’s bedroom.
What do I do? Check she’s all right? Go back to bed?
The crying goes on. It’s not the heaving, sobbing sort that makes your nose run. It sounds really sad. And it feels wrong to just stand here, eavesdropping. Taking a deep breath, I go towards her door. The crying gets louder. Raising my hand to knock, I hesitate.
Should I do this?
I’m not at home now, and the person crying isn’t Mum or Theo. Nell probably doesn’t want my help. She might get angry. Or embarrassed. I don’t know what to do.
There’s a draught on my feet. It’s coming from the end of the passage. A light is on down there too, as if a door’s been left open. I really ought to go and switch it off. But when I realise which door it is, goosebumps run up my arms.
On tiptoes, I creep along the passage to the point where the wall curves. Two steps down and I’m facing a door – not a red curtain this time, because that’s been pushed aside. The door’s not locked, either. It’s half open and the light from inside spills out into the passage. I should turn off the light and go. But something stops me. Directly behind me is that empty bedroom, the one that might’ve been Dad’s. Perhaps all his stuff is now stored in this little room. It wouldn’t hurt to have a look.
I slip inside. The room itself is tiny – not much more than a cupboard – yet it’s absolutely jam-packed full. Trunks, suitcases, rolled-up carpets, all tower above me in great, musty piles. It’s like being in a junk shop. It can’t possibly all be Dad’s stuff.
The trunks have names written on them: ‘Campbell’, mostly, though a few say ‘Waterhouse’, which isn’t a name I know. Up against the wall are stacks of books spotted with mould. Everything has dust on it, even the floor, which is so dirty there are footprints just inside the door.
Stepping further in, I stub my toe on something hard.
hard. The pain shoots through my foot and brings tears to my eyes. Then I see what I’ve walked into: it’s the leg of a table piled high with boxes and books, and so big it almost fills the whole room. Everything, it seems, is on top of this table.
Except for two things.
Underneath it, just out of reach, is a pot with a screw-on lid. Nearer to me is a pretty wooden box about the size of a shoebox, which I imagine is full of old necklaces and rings. There’s a lock on the front; a small key pokes out of it.
Crouching down, I lift out the box and balance it on my lap. The key’s stiff. A few wiggles and it grates, then clicks open. I lift the lid. It’s not a jewellery box. Inside are envelopes – letters, I suppose, though I’ve no idea whose. They look really old, like when you stain paper with a teabag. I take one out for a better look.
‘What ON EARTH?’
My hand freezes. Nell’s right behind me.
‘I was just …’
‘Come away from those things AT ONCE!’
I stand up slowly, putting the letters back into the box and setting the whole thing down on the floor. My heart’s leaping all over the place.
‘The weather woke me up so I came downstairs and I heard …’
She glares at me. ‘That will do.’
I stare at my feet. There’s blood on my toe.
‘You have no right to be in here, snooping around,’ says Nell.
‘I only meant to turn out the …’
‘You were snooping! I won’t have it in my house! Do you understand?’
My eyes start to fill up.
‘Yes,’ I say.
Nell takes a long breath through her nose. She’s shaking.
‘Go to bed,’ she says.
I duck past her and race back to my room. Once the door’s shut, I lean against it, heart still hammering. Nell’s already cross with me for going to London. Now I’ve gone and made things worse.