THE ACCIDENT by Taylor, C.L.
22nd April 2012
Coma. There’s something innocuous about the word, soothing almost in the way it conjures up the image of a dreamless sleep. Only Charlotte doesn’t look as though she’s sleeping to me. There’s no soft heaviness to her closed eyelids. No curled fist pressed up against her temple. No warm breath escaping from her slightly parted lips. There is nothing peaceful at all about the way her body lies, prostrate, on the duvet-less bed, a clear tracheostomy tube snaking its way out of her neck, her chest polka-dotted with multicoloured electrodes.
The heart monitor in the corner of the room bleep-bleep-bleeps, marking the passage of time like a medical metronome and I close my eyes. If I concentrate hard enough I can transform the unnatural chirping into the reassuring tick-tick-tick of the grandfather clock in our living room. Fifteen years fall away in an instant and I am twenty-eight again, cradling baby Charlotte to my shoulder, her slumbering face pressed into the nook of my neck, her tiny heart out-beating mine, even in sleep. Back then it was so much easier to keep her safe.
‘Sue?’ There is a hand on my shoulder, heavy, dragging me back into the stark hospital room and my arms are empty again, save the handbag I clutch to my chest. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
I shake my head then instantly change my mind. ‘Actually, yes.’ I open my eyes. ‘Do you know what else would be nice?’
Brian shakes his head.
‘One of those lovely teacakes from M&S.’
My husband looks confused. ‘I don’t think they sell them in the canteen.’
‘Oh.’ I look away, feigning disappointment and instantly hate myself. It isn’t in my nature to be manipulative. At least I don’t think it is. There’s a lot I don’t know any more.
‘It’s okay.’ There’s that hand again. This time it adds a reassuring squeeze to its repertoire. ‘I can pop into town.’ He smiles at Charlotte. ‘You don’t mind if I leave you alone with your mum for a bit?’
If our daughter heard the question she doesn’t let on. I reply for her by forcing a smile.
‘She’ll be fine,’ I say.
Brian looks from me to Charlotte and back again. There’s no mistaking the look on his face – it’s the same wretched expression I’ve worn for the last six weeks whenever I’ve left Charlotte’s side – terror she might die the second we leave the room.
‘She’ll be fine,’ I repeat, more gently this time. ‘I’ll be here.’
Brian’s rigid posture relaxes, ever so slightly, and he nods. ‘Back soon.’
I watch as he crosses the room, gently shutting the door with a click as he leaves, then release the handbag from my chest and rest it on my lap. I keep my eyes fixed on the door for what seems like an eternity. Brian has never been able to leave the house without rushing back in seconds later to retrieve his keys, his phone or his sunglasses or to ask a ‘quick question’. When I am sure he has gone I turn back to Charlotte. I half expect to see her eyelids flutter or her fingers twitch, some sign that she realises what I am about to say but nothing has changed. She is still ‘asleep’. The doctors have no idea when, or even if, Charlotte will ever wake up. She’s been subjected to a whole battery of tests – CAT scans, MRIs, the works – with more to come, and her brain function appears normal. There’s no medical reason why she shouldn’t come round.
‘Darling,’ I take Charlotte’s diary out of my handbag, fumble it open and turn to the page I’ve already memorised. ‘Please don’t be angry with me but …’ I glance at my daughter to monitor her expression. ‘… I found your diary when I was tidying your room yesterday.’
Nothing. Not a sound, not a flicker, not a tic or a twinge. And the heart monitor continues its relentless bleep-bleep-bleeping. It is a lie of course, the confession about finding her diary. I found it years ago when I was changing her sheets. She’d hidden it under her mattress, exactly where I’d hidden my own teenaged journal so many years before. I didn’t read it though, back then, I had no reason to. Yesterday I did.
‘In the last entry,’ I say, pausing to lick my lips, my mouth suddenly dry, ‘you mention a secret.’
Charlotte says nothing.
‘You said keeping it was killing you.’
‘Is that why …’
‘… you stepped in front of the bus?’
Brian calls what happened an accident and has invented several theories to support this belief: she saw a friend on the other side of the street and didn’t look both ways as she ran across the road; she tried to help an injured animal; she stumbled and tripped when she was texting or maybe she was just in her own little world and didn’t look where she was walking.
Plausible, all of them. Apart from the fact the bus driver told the police she caught his eye then deliberately stepped into the road, straight into his path. Brian thinks he’s lying, covering his own back because he’ll lose his job if he gets convicted of dangerous driving. I don’t.
Yesterday, when Brian was at work and I was on bed watch, I asked the doctor if she had carried out a pregnancy test on Charlotte. She looked at me suspiciously and asked why, did I have any reason to think she might be? I replied that I didn’t know but I thought it might explain a thing or two. I waited as she checked the notes. No, she said, she wasn’t.
‘Charlotte,’ I shuffle my chair forward so it’s pressed up against the bed and wrap my fingers around my daughter’s. ‘Nothing you say or do could ever stop me from loving you. You can tell me anything. Anything at all.’
Charlotte says nothing.
‘It doesn’t matter if it’s about you, one of your friends, me or your dad.’ I pause. ‘Is the secret something to do with your dad? Squeeze my fingers if it is.’
I hold my breath, praying she doesn’t.
Friday 2nd September 1990