Authors: Lucy Diamond
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Andy Milton, eh. She hadn’t thought about him for a while. Best friend of Carl Finchley, Georgia’s first teenage love. Better not to think about Carl Finchley either though. He was water under the bridge. Best left there, too.
The train rattled to a stop. Here at last. She got to her feet, pulled her sunglasses on. All the better to fool you with, Andy. She really didn’t want to get into a long-time-no-see chat with him. Not him, not now, not ever. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, squeezing past his knees. He was plugged into his music, tapping his feet, not paying any attention. She felt the warmth of his jeaned leg as her own bare calf brushed against it. It was a hot day, she had a short skirt on and flip-flops. She reached up for her bag, willing him not to look at her. Damn it, her bag was wedged right under his, which seemed to have a ton weight in it.
Crossly, she tugged at the handles. Bloody hell! The doors would close in a minute, and she’d be stuck on the train with Gob of the North right the way into Manchester if she didn’t watch out.
‘Hey! Are you . . . Georgie, is that you?’
There. With a huge heave, her bag was free, and so was she. Ignoring the question, she turned on her heel and marched swiftly down the carriage, flip-flops slapping.
‘Georgie! Hey, George!’
Her heart galloping, she stepped through the doors and onto the platform. She could hear a knocking – Christ, was that him, banging on the window at her? She wasn’t going to turn around. She wouldn’t! He’d give up in a minute, assume he’d made a mistake. She did not want the Gob of the North to know she was back. It would be all round town in five minutes; leopards didn’t change their spots, did they? And then . . .
No. She wouldn’t think about that.
In, then out, clean and swift as a needle, that’s what she wanted. A kiss on Nan’s cheek, a bedside chat, granddaughter duty completed, and then back on the train home basking in a glow of job-done relief – the last train tonight if she could possibly get away with it. No mess, no awkwardness, and definitely no harking back to the past.
I’m travelling light
, she reminded herself, hoisting her overnight bag up onto her shoulder. No deadweights allowed.
The smell of her parents’ home was one Georgia would have recognized anywhere. You could blindfold her and waft thousands of different scents under her nose; she’d know Eau de Knight from all of them every time. So when her mum opened the front door and flung her arms around her, Georgia felt (depressingly) as if she’d never been away when she first caught a whiff of that distinctive aroma: bangers and mash mixed with Poison perfume, with faint overtones of cat pee and a hint of coffee. Not a fragrance recommended by the home-makeover experts, but there you go. The Knights did things their way.
‘Oh, Georgie! I’m so glad you’re home!’
Home? This wasn’t her home. Home, for Georgia, was premieres and nightclubs, black cabs, the office, feeling alive, in the thick of London life. Not this hallway, this house with its swirly brown carpet and woodchip wallpaper. Not for a long time, thank God.
Her mum’s arms were clamped around Georgia’s back; she hoped her top wasn’t getting creased to death or marked by her mum’s sweaty palms. ‘Hiya,’ she said faintly, turning her head so that her mum’s springy aubergine-coloured curls didn’t boing into her mouth. ‘Nice to see you.’
‘Is that our George?’
Ahh, and here came Tweedledum, lumbering through the narrow hallway, big soppy grin on his mush. Georgia felt herself melting just a little at her dad’s face – his eyes moist at the sight of her, his nose a touch shinier and redder than last time, his hair so shockingly white now. ‘Come on, Pat, let me have a turn,’ he said to Georgia’s mum, elbowing her aside. She obediently let go and stepped away, and he gathered Georgia up to him, just the same way he always had since she was a girl.
‘Hi Dad,’ she said, into his clean white shirt. He’d been retired for two years now, her dad, but still wore a shirt and trousers every day; no T-shirts or jeans unless he was on holiday. She could feel his vest through the starched cotton of his shirt, and found it both embarrassing and comforting at the same time.
‘Good to see you, lass,’ he said, clapping her on the back. ‘A tonic for the eyes, that’s what you are!’
‘A tonic indeed,’ Mrs Knight agreed, with a wan smile. It was only then that Georgia noticed how pale she was – blimey, no make-up on either. Georgia couldn’t remember a time when her mum hadn’t worn her mahogany N07 foundation and black kohl eyeliner like warpaint. There were wrinkles around her mouth that Georgia hadn’t seen before too; dark creases underlining her eyes. ‘Now, then. Cup of tea? Kettle’s just boiled.’
Georgia hesitated. In all honesty, she’d rather have had a black coffee, or even a gin and tonic clinking with ice, its slice of lemon coated with clinging tonic bubbles. The big brown teapot her mum used had probably housed whole plantations’ worth of stewing tea leaves over the years and was therefore something of a health hazard. But the worn expression on her mum’s face curbed her tongue. ‘Yes please,’ she said meekly instead.
Over mugs of strong tea thick enough almost to be chewy and Rich Tea biscuits, they told her the worst. ‘She’d popped in on her way back from the bakery, stopped for a brew,’ Mrs Knight said. Her mouth seemed so soft and vulnerable without the usual slash of lippy, Georgia couldn’t take her eyes off it. ‘And thank God she did, because there I was mashing the tea when she just started saying all this weird stuff – I couldn’t understand her. It was all like garbled. Nonsense words.’ Her hands shook on the mug, her mouth quivered. ‘And there’s me, saying, Mum? Mum? What are you on about? And as I was asking her, one side of her face – the right – just sagged.’ She demonstrated with a finger, dragging it down her cheek until her features distorted. Her eyes glistened with tears. ‘It dropped – just like that. She was dribbling and everything, it was that sudden.’
Mr Knight patted his wife on the shoulder. ‘Shocking, it was,’ he said. ‘We took her straight in to the hospital but she was all seized up on one side, we had to carry her to the car, didn’t we, Pat?’
‘You had to
her?’ Georgia couldn’t imagine her capable, stout grandmother unable to walk on her own two feet.
Mrs Knight nodded. A tear brimmed in her lower lashes, bulged and spilled through them, rolling down her cheek. ‘You could tell she was frightened,’ she told Georgia. ‘It was horrible. She was looking at me, all imploring and confused, and I . . .’ She dashed away the tears with the back of one hand. ‘I was trying to comfort her, but didn’t know what was happening either, so . . .’
Georgia took her mum’s hand and held it. Her own fingers – tanned and smooth with their buffed, French-manicured nails – seemed to mock her mum’s pale doughy flesh. She could feel a lump rising in her throat. This hand of her mum’s had peeled a million potatoes, ironed a million shirts, washed a million plates. No wonder it looked so tired and old. No wonder it trembled so.
Mr Knight took over the narrative. ‘The doctors said it was a stroke. There was a clot blocking the blood supply to her brain, they reckoned, and that’s what caused it.’
‘So how is she now?’ Georgia asked. ‘I mean, she’s going to get better, isn’t she?’
Her parents exchanged a look. Her mum stared down at the cooling mug of tea and gave Georgia’s hand a squeeze. ‘We’re not sure yet,’ she replied. ‘They operated to remove the clot, and that went okay, but the consultant said that some of the brain tissue is dead. Those cells won’t work again, so . . .’
Mr Knight put an arm around his wife. ‘It’s early days yet,’ he said bracingly. ‘She’s very tired still, and weak after the surgery. It’ll take a bit of time before we know.’
Georgia’s mouth felt dry.
Clot . . . blood . . . dead cells . . . surgery . . .
The words were like hammer blows. It almost didn’t seem possible. She simply could not imagine sturdy, jolly Nan weak and tired in a hospital bed. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t how things were supposed to be.
She licked her lips. ‘Can I see her?’ Even to Georgia, her voice sounded scared.
Half an hour later, Georgia and her parents walked through the main doors of the hospital. London seemed a distant planet in the solar system now. A world away from this warren of scuffed-paint corridors, signs and arrows, wheelchairs and trolleys pushed by whistling porters. She’d give anything to be back there, safe at her desk, phone on, PC humming, gossip and tittle-tattle streaming in from all her contacts, with the most pressing thing on her mind being whether or not to give into temptation and have a Mocha Choca from her favourite coffee bar on the Kings Road.
But no, here she was, feeling like she couldn’t breathe as she followed her parents towards the lift. Everyone she passed seemed miserable and tired-looking, as if all the hope and energy had been sucked out of them. She could hear a baby crying somewhere and its wail reverberated around the corridor. The wall-to-wall beige décor didn’t exactly help lift the atmosphere. If Georgia was in charge of the NHS budget, she’d at least make the places
A couple of girls chattering in the local accent walked past and Georgia flinched.
, she told herself as she quickened her step.
They’re only kids. Nothing to worry about.
All the same, she felt vulnerable, out in public back here in Stockport. Daft, wasn’t it, after so many years, to let it get to her, but there you go. Some things you couldn’t help. Some things you never quite put behind you, however hard you tried.
They waited for the lift. The metal outer frame was dirty, the silver call buttons smeary. She’d forgotten just how horrible hospitals were. She hadn’t been in one for years, not since . . .
She forced away the buried memory. No. She wasn’t going to start thinking about
now. Not on top of everything else.
Nobody spoke inside the lift until it reached the fifth floor with a ping. ‘Here we are,’ Mr Knight said brightly, as if they’d come for a nice day out by the seaside.
Stroke Rehabilitation Unit, read the sign as they stepped out of the metal doors, with a long red arrow running along the wall. Georgia tried to pull her shoulders up, keep positive. She hoped her nan would recognize her.
‘This is the ward,’ her dad said, breaking into Georgia’s thoughts.
She didn’t want to go in to her nan’s ward. She wanted to be home, curled up on her sofa with a glass of wine and a magazine. She wanted to be scanning a party for illicit celeb snoggers, gossip-worthy tantrums, who was wearing which designer frock. She wanted to be checking her emails, filing copy, RSVP-ing to invites at her desk. She wanted to be strolling through Covent Garden, her credit card burning a hole in her bag.
But in she went, through the swing doors and down the ward.
There was a little old lady asleep in the bed, her hair as white as the pillow, her skin like crumpled grey paper. Georgia was on the verge of walking right past until her mum went and sat down at the bedside, taking the old lady’s hands between hers. ‘Hello, Mum,’ she said gently.
It was only then that it hit Georgia, only then that she realized that the old woman in the bed was Nan, and the ground seemed to shift beneath her feet.
Christ, how had it happened? How could it be that this frail-looking bedridden person was her booming, larger-than-life grandmother? Georgia’s throat seemed to tighten; she couldn’t speak or breathe for a few seconds. It was as if her childhood memories had been an optical illusion, a trick of the light.
, a voice said in her head, and it was painfully true. That woman from Georgia’s youth, she’d vanished. This old lady breathing so shallowly in her sleep – she was an impostor. She wasn’t Nan.
Georgia could feel the stink of disinfectant sharp in her nostrils. Could hear the sound of a peevish quavering voice further down the ward (‘I said to our Reenie, he’s not good enough for her, you mark my words’), a muffled beeping from a nearby piece of equipment, brisk footsteps from the corridor behind. God, she hated hospitals. There was no window in sight in this particular ward, no natural light whatsoever. She realized she was shivering suddenly, her arms prickling with goosebumps.
Mrs Knight turned and looked up at Georgia. ‘See if you can find some chairs for you and your dad,’ she said. ‘There’s never enough in here.’
Georgia didn’t need telling twice. She was more than happy to turn on her heel and walk away from her grandmother’s bed with something practical to do. She didn’t want her parents to see the shock-horror on her face, the jolt of fear that had kicked through her. Nan was going to die, wasn’t she? How would she ever recover from this? Oh God. Georgia half wished she hadn’t come at all . . .
No. That was cowardly. That was a cop-out. But she couldn’t bear the way the feelings of guilt were churning through her body. She hadn’t visited, hadn’t been there. And while she’d been detached from her family, in her own London world, her nan had been deteriorating, shrivelling, withering. Her nan had become
, without Georgia stopping to notice.
She sighed, feeling bereft. What had seemed like a great escape not so very long ago already seemed like carelessness now. Why had she ever . . . ?
‘Hey! Watch it!’
Her head down, lost in thoughts, Georgia had just walked straight into someone. All she could see was the white coat before her eyes for a second before she straightened up and blinked. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled, raising her gaze to the cross-looking man she’d barged into.
He had dark eyebrows, olive skin, brown eyes, a dimple in one cheek. He gave her a curt nod and went on his way.
Mardy arse, she thought, pulling a face behind his back. Why did people have to be so bad-tempered, anyway?
Right. Chairs. There were two at the far end of the ward, grey plastic chairs like the sort she’d sat on at school. She stacked them up and carried them back towards her nan’s bed.
Best foot forward.
She’d just get through this ghastly day and go home. Faster than a speeding bullet.