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?’
My heart stopped. He was tense. Braced. My stomach chilled. I didn’t say a word, waiting.
‘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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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 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.
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.
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.