Following a degree entitled Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Acting Devised Performance and a year at East 15 Acting School, Victoria Palmer has excelled at having a vast multitude of random and not very well paid jobs. An excellent training for her role as mother to two intrepid, fearless and courageous boys. She regularly sacrifices the house work to hide and have a quiet scribble. Her favourite saying, which resounds throughout her tiny corner of England's Oxfordshire woodlands is, “I’ll be finished in a minute!”
“Elizabeth, can you tell me how you fell?” The question came to me as if from the top of a very long tunnel. I could hear the words echoing down but my brain struggled to connect them to any meaning. My whole body hurt.
“Elizabeth, are you still with me?” The voice echoed persistently like the whine of a mosquito, elusive but highly irritating.
“Ngh!” was all I could manage.
“Elizabeth, the ambulance is almost here. Can you tell me how you fell?”
I felt an irrational rush of anger. Always a fortifying emotion. It can rise above almost anything with enough strength and impetus. I had one pure, lucid moment. I saw the white, anxious face of a man with dark, neat hair and tired eyes. I blinked up at him. What did he want me to say? That I was pushed? That I had felt a hand between my shoulder blades, shove me head long down the escalator? Even in the grips of agony I have enough clarity to know that sounds mad. The airport was practically empty, I was the only one walking to the gate. How could I have been pushed? I looked at the expectant, bloodshot eyes. I can't think what he asked me.
“You look tired,” is all I could manage before the white, hot pain plunged me back under and I was alone again, battling the fire's of hell.
When I woke up, I had to blink several times to adjust to the bright light. The backs of my eyelids sandpapered my eyeballs. I wanted to cry out from the stabbing in my ribs but my lips remained firmly closed, tongue glued to the roof of my mouth, membranes dried out and sticking to each other. Something squeezed my hand.
“Hello, lovey. Awake are you?” It was a deep, husky sound, with coarse vowels and sloppy consonants but beautifully filled my barren senses. I clung to the hand on mine and my eyes hungrily searched for the voice. She was the opposite to me; short and stocky, her hair a brassy blond and mouth turned up in a perpetual smile. I blinked at her yearning deep in my breast for her to cradle me like a baby to her ample bosom.
“How's the pain?” I had forgotten for a few seconds, it returned with a vengeance, knocking the breath out of me. I let out a thin hiss. I tried to mouth, “it hurts” but my mouth was so dry the only sound I made was sticky clicks, from my tongue clinging to my teeth and gums.
She directed a straw to my mouth. I sucked gratefully and soon drained the beaker dry. I closed my eyes, my stomach pleasantly swilling with cool water, mouth and throat lubricated and soothed.
“I'll go and get you something for the pain.” She patted me on my shoulder. I leaned to kiss her hand but had just enough wherewithal to stop myself.
The muffled ring of a mobile phone sounded from somewhere near my left elbow. I twisted towards it, but jerked back as the pain shot up through my ribs. I lay there, propped against the pillow, breathing hard, trying to quell the pain but unable to stop my muscles clutching at it making it worse. The ringing stopped. Gradually I relaxed and the grinding ache became bearable.
It was visiting hours, there were people everywhere. Occasionally I felt a curious glance in my direction. I closed my eyes, the only privacy I could give myself.
An elderly man was lying in the next bed. I turned my head and opened my eyelids a crack to see. The blankets only covered his legs, he was wearing a dressing gown but he hadn't done it up and his pyjama top was undone most of the way. The sight of the white, sagging flesh was distasteful. A young man and woman sat beside him. No one spoke. He just lay there staring at the ceiling whilst the couple looked about the ward, their discomfort so palpable I could feel it.
When the nurse came back I asked if she could find my mobile phone for me. She rummaged gingerly through my bag. It was large, old and full of rubbish. I kept meaning to turn it out but never quite got around to it. I could feel the blood heating my cheeks when she pulled her hand out with a yelp, a sticky sweet stuck to one of her fingers.
“I'm sorry,” I mumbled, mortified. I avoided looking at her, fixing my gaze on the edge of the woman's bed across from me. She was older, sat up, her hair freshly brushed and make-up a little on the heavy side. A young girl sat beside her carefully applying nail polish to her toes. I wiggled mine in response. I never put polish on mine, I'm not sure I could even reach them any more.
“Here you are then.” She tossed my bag back into the cupboard and swung the door shut. She had lost the angelic glow from my first waking. Her skin was lumpy with a shine across her nose and hair like straw.
“Thank you,” my eyes fixed on the phone, waiting for her to go. She did, turning to the next bed and tucking in a loose sheet.
Two missed calls. I called my answer phone.
“Hello, Mrs Peterson. I'm Dorothy Waites. I run Mortan House where your sister is resident. I would appreciate it if you would call me at your earliest convenience."
My mind filled with spleen at the mention of my sister. I was flying to see her last night. She couldn't even be bothered to call and find out where I was. I glared at the phone. Margaret was ten years older than me. Our mother died when we were young, leaving us in the care of a distracted and dispassionate father. I looked to Margaret for love and affection but she was too busy living the high life, getting pregnant and being kicked out of the family home. She blamed me for not standing by her; I was nine. I blame her for being a slut and not staying home at night.
I left the mobile lying on the bedside table and tried to turn my thoughts away from my sister. I had already wasted too much of my life on her. I was injured and entitled to keep my focus to myself. It was a hard fought battle, not to give into the bitter thoughts; years of seeking her approval, desperately chasing her affection but always being let down.
“Good morning, Mrs Peterson. I'm Doctor Lambert.” He was a small, grey man, devoid of personality and bed-side manner. He dealt with me because he must. I was on his list and he must get me off it. My mind drifted in and out of the conversation. He was looking at me expectantly.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“Do you recall the fall?” There was that question again. I scrabbled around in my mind trying to make something up. He waited for an answer. I noticed the fingers of his right hand drumming against his leg.
“No, I'm sorry, it happened so fast. My bag was heavy, perhaps I over-balanced.” I shrugged helplessly. He scribbled some notes onto my chart. I didn't like that. It felt as if I had failed a test I didn't know I was taking.
“Someone will be here to take you up to x-ray shortly.” Before I could acknowledge this, he had slunk away.
A nurse followed hot on his heels with a thermometer. She didn't speak to me at all except to issue terse commands.
“Relax! Don't fidget! Give me your hand! Relax!” She added more notes to my chart. She mumbled something and stood there waiting for a reply. I had no idea what she had said and blinked at her like an owl, mute, wishing I could rotate my head around away from her.
The porter arrived to take me for my x-ray.
The morning passed in short bursts of activity, followed by long stretches of interminable boredom. It was not until they served me an inedible lunch, (cold mashed potato, anaemic baked beans and soggy pastry containing something brown) that I noticed my phone and recollected my sister. I picked it up and was about to dial when a woman started shouting for help.
The elderly man with the naked chest was lying in the bed. Skin, the same greyish white as the sheets, eyes glazed, fixed to the ceiling. The woman by his side was clutching her hands to her chest, sobbing uncontrollably. The phone fell from my hands forgotten. I lay there watching as the drama unfolded before me. Curtains were whipped closed and the woman was led away weeping. When things had calmed, a porter came and wheeled him away, sheet over his face and body.
I quaked inside, shuddering to be so near the cold hand of death. I fell down a flight of escalators with only a few broken ribs to show for it. They were keeping me in for observation, release for good behaviour the next day. It could have been much worse.
I peered through the window at the end of the room. The sun was dipping low in the sky, emitting a pale glow from behind a bank of white cloud. I contemplated taking a turn about the ward, but I was wearing a hospital gown and whilst I had little vanity, I'd enough to prevent me from revealing my backside to any who cared to see it. I remembered the call I needed to make.
I always hired a car and took Margaret out when I visited. A walk by the sea, lunch at the pub followed by a drive. Always the same idle chat for the first hour, silence for the next four, followed by a bitter exchange for the last half an hour. Stiff, tight-lipped farewells. She liked to go out. The message wouldn't be concern for me, she'd just be annoyed I wasn't there with the car.
I sighed and dutifully searched for the number. I tapped my fingers whilst it rang, trying to contain my growing agitation.
“Mrs Peterson, it's Dorothy Waites.” She had a brisk manner. I could imagine her sitting behind her polished mahogany desk, everything in its place, her clothes and hair neat and correct.
“I'm sorry, I haven't been...” She didn't give me the chance to explain my absence.
“I am sorry to inform you your sister passed away sometime last night.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, devoid of any warmth.
“Oh!” My mind ran dry and I opened and closed my mouth like a drowning fish, gulping on air.
“The doctor hasn't signed off on her. It's likely The Coroner's Office will be in touch with you, in the next day or two.” I mumbled something incoherent. “Please accept my condolences.” The line went dead before I could collect myself.
After a time, fragments of thoughts fell into my mind. Nothing solid, nothing I could make sense of. I just sat there, the bright strip lights blotting out the moon. Finally, one thought made it through the jumbled mass. I grasped it hungrily.
“So I was pushed down the escalator,” I muttered to myself. My first reaction was relief, I wasn't going mad. The second, the old bitch just couldn't leave quietly. She always had to have the last word.