Authors: Charlotte Castle
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
“Simon’s Choice” was first published by Night Publishing, a trading name of Valley Strategies Ltd., a UK-registered private limited-liability company, registration number 5796186. Night Publishing can be contacted at: http://www.nightpublishing.com.
“Simon’s Choice” is the copyright of the author, Charlotte Castle, 2010. All rights are reserved.
All characters are fictional, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is accidental.
“Sarah! Hurry up!”
Sarah thundered down the stairs. Porridge, the yellow Labrador, bounded behind her. The little girl stopped in front of her mother, chin lifted defiantly. “I’m not wearing it, Mum,”
Melissa studied her daughter. Slight for seven years of age, and pale. But Sarah was unmistakably beautiful. “Are you sure?”
“Alright, then. Oh Christ, Sarah – you can't wear that top, it’s got a stain. You'll have to go and change it.” An insistent car horn sounded from the driveway. “Quickly, please. Porridge, kitchen.” She turned toward the door. “We’re coming.”
* * *
Simon glared at the open front door of the house and bashed the heel of his hand on the car horn again. He flicked a switch, lowering the Jaguar’s passenger side window. “Guys! Did I mention we’re late?”
Still, the doorway remained infuriatingly empty. His wife’s disembodied voice floated toward him from somewhere inside. Somewhere, Simon noted with weary irritation, that was not nearly close enough to the car.
I’m just feeding Porridge, Sime.”
The voice yelled.
“I’ve sent Sarah up to change her top.”
“Brilliant,” Simon muttered. He turned on the radio, resigned to a long wait, and caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror.
Was that more grey in his hair? It was certainly still thick. He wasn’t doing badly for forty-two, he supposed.
“And you’re really sure?” His wife’s voice through the open window interrupted his thoughts. He glanced up, confused, until he realized she wasn't speaking to him.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it, Mum.”
The rear car door opened, then slammed shut.
“Come on then, let’s go.” Melissa slid into the passenger seat. “I swear that dog of yours is unfillable. Next time, we get a goldfish, yeah? You strapped in, Sarah?”
Simon glanced up again at the rear-view mirror. His daughter beamed back at him and he immediately shot a quizzical look at Melissa. A slight frown and shake of the head warned him not to mention it.
Shrugging, he nosed the car out of the drive. “Do you think the Bailey family will ever be on time for church?”
“Probably not,” Melissa said, smoothing a blonde hair back into her chignon. “We’ll just sneak into a back pew. Are you warm enough, Sarah?”
Simon allowed himself another quick look at his daughter. So. She’d decided not to wear it. She’d complained about it itching before. It wasn’t that he was uncomfortable seeing Sarah like that, it was just… she looked so different from other kids. So vulnerable.
He turned left down their road, heading towards St Matthew’s. Now that they were finally in the car, he gleaned a simple enjoyment from the normality of it all. He particularly relished Sundays these days. Family day. Those words meant so much more when their continuity had been threatened. How very different it had all been a year ago.
Sarah was five when she was first diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. They say General Practitioners, or GP’s as they are commonly called, are the most unsympathetic parents. It was true that at first Simon didn’t find Sarah’s tiredness concerning. She was at a whiny age and really, who
want to get up and go to school or work? Simon was strict. She wasn’t ill, so she went to school.
Then things began to change. Little signs that dropped in unannounced. Teachers began to report back that her grades had dropped. She wasn’t playing with friends. She wasn’t taking part anymore.
They decided to move her bedtime to half an hour earlier. She asked to go to bed even earlier. She lost weight. She flinched as if in pain when hugged. She was constantly covered in bruises.
Simon, the GP, finally sent her to
GP. Her GP sent her for tests. The results came back. Leukemia.
So they had their answer. An answer as to why the sink was full of blood after she brushed her teeth; why their formerly vibrant little girl missed the cartoons and stayed in bed until 10 a.m. on a Saturday. Their daughter wasn’t lazy, she wasn’t stupid. She was tired. She was tired because she was ill. Very ill.
The trips to hospital began. Back and forth, sometimes three times a day. Tests, radio, chemo, more tests, more radio. Unlike Melissa, it wasn’t the smell that bothered him. That hospital tang: chemicals, latex, cabbage, sick. As a medical student twelve years ago, he had become immune to the institutionalized odor of the wards and corridors. What bothered Simon was the noise. The beeping, the murmuring. The hushed tones of the other parents desperately trying to pretend that
everything was alright
, or the abrasive, too-loud chatter of the nurses. The beeps and bongs, coughs and retches – each sound redolent of private miseries. Miseries that the parents, passing each other in the hallways, sharing the family room, making endless cups of tea, never really discussed – never allowed to crack their carefully crafted veneer of optimism. There was no need of course -
everything was alright.
Staring at Sarah’s tiny little body, pitifully small on a strange, hard bed, it was hard to pretend things would be okay. Cold bed-frames surrounded her. Her only lullaby was the interminable beeping of machines. Usually she had the same bed in a corner of the children’s cancer ward. Once, during a particularly harrowing time, it was hers for three long months. On shorter visits the nurses tried to make sure she got
. It was rather like being the best customer of a smart restaurant -
‘Your usual bed, Madame?’
- only the food wasn’t as good, and you got your drinks through a tube.
The family made friends with the nurses, got to know shift patterns. They knew which coffee machines worked best, which canteen sandwiches were most palatable. Security greeted them by name on arrival. Confused visitors in the foyer would instinctively ask them for directions. They recognized Simon and Melissa as people-in-the-know. As people who
The prognosis remained the same: thirty percent chance of survival. Simon had mulled this terrifying, all-important figure through his mind for nearly two years. He knew every permutation, every manipulation of those numbers so that they sounded best. Three in ten chance. Fifteen in fifty. He massaged the statistic, he summed up. He pushed it further to forty. And hey, eighty seven percent of all statistics are made up, aren’t they?
And then came the breakthrough three months ago. The cancer was in remission. The blood cells were regrouping. Following the trauma of chemotherapy the granulocytes and monocytes were re-armed, the rebel lymphocytes were retreating and the battle had turned in their favor. Macrophages joined on the Allied side. The consultants reported from the front line with renewed energy – the tide was turning. The numbers changed – sixty percent chance of survival.
And Sarah came home. His beautiful, clever, precious daughter came back. Twice a week she returned to the ward for chemo, but every night he tucked her into her own bed. Not the second home the nurses so wrongly called ‘her bed’, but her proper bed. It was wooden and traditional with hearts cut out of the headboard. Not wipeable, nor wheelable. It didn’t have bars and it didn’t raise or lower. It was homely, traditional – normal.
They were becoming a normal family again. Doing normal things. Having normal rows. The house resonated with normal complaints –
“Don’t leave your PSP there”, “I can’t find my trainers”, “Straight to bed if you don’t eat those sprouts”, “It’s not fair…”
Not once over the entire two years, did Sarah ever mention the fairness of having cancer. Having to eat sprouts, brush her teeth, tidy her room, stay away from sweets after 6 p.m., all these were unfair. All these were loudly moaned about. But never, never did she complain about cancer.
* * *
Simon smiled a thanks at the elderly lady handing out hymn books at the church entrance. He flinched as her face crumpled with pity as she took in Sarah’s head, her skull looking as fragile as a bird’s in its pinkly naked state. Simon followed Melissa and Sarah as they walked hand in hand down the aisle, feeling a surge of anger. He hated watching members of the congregation turn to watch the little bald girl. The quick whispers and the sly second glances, followed by apologetic and pitying smiles aimed at him. A woman in an expensive looking Russian fur hat actually pursed her lips in a
of distaste. Simon wanted to hit her.
Just as the family were filing into the pew in front of her, Sarah’s head suddenly turned. She piped up with bell-like clarity. “Daddy, why does that woman have a cat on her head?”
Terry grinned and held out his arms. “Hey, Tiger. How’s my beautiful girl?”
“Granddad!” Sarah flew down the garden path to greet Simon’s father. Porridge padded along beside her. “We’ve just got back from church. Grandma and Grandpa Aitch are already here – Grandma says she’s gone to look at the veg’ patch, but she’s not really, she’s having a fag and Grandpa’s in a mood ‘cos Mum won’t let him watch Formula One and she says she’s made special mash for him without butter in, and gravy without any fat in, and he says the diet will be the death of him, never mind the heart attack, and Dad says we can take Porridge to the Shibden Park Dog Competition and I’m going to…”
“Whoa, let me get in first, Sarah. All in time.” The seventy year old man, trim and attractive in his pale pink Pringle jumper, glanced back down the smartly bricked driveway towards his car and his wife. “Help Granny bring the pudding and things in. There’s a good girl.”
He looked up at his son and daughter-in-law’s imposing brick house, admiring it once again and filling with pride at his son’s achievements. Modern, but with a nod to the regency style, with large bay windows and a grand portico over the door. Sarah trotted back to his side, carrying a couple of Tupperware boxes.
“You’re looking well, Tiger, looking lovely. What a pretty skirt.” Terry Bailey appraised his only Grandchild quickly, hoping his face didn’t reveal his shock. She looked more rounded, less breakable, but - her head. Her little bare head. It seemed so brutal, so acute. Still, she was out of bed and clearly well. “Have you put on weight? You look almost plump. You’ll be on mash without butter soon. Get
, Porridge.” He gave the over-excited Labrador a hearty rub and a pat, then followed Sarah into his son’s house for their family’s weekly Sunday get together.
Melissa appeared in the doorway, glass of wine in hand. “Terry! Barbara! I love your new hair-do. Very Honor Blackman.” Melissa embraced her in-laws. “Dad’s in the conservatory. He’s in a huff because I won’t let him watch some nasty, noisy cars going round a track and Mum’s having a look at the vegetable patch.”
“Still smoking then, is she?” Terry’s kind face wrinkled with laughter.
“Terrance!” Barbara clouted her husband with a glove then turned to her daughter-in-law. “That crumble needs forty minutes on gas-mark five, Melissa. You’re looking well and let me see. Let’s look at Sarah properly. Say! You
put on weight, Sarah. You look great. Get
The two women walked into the sunshine yellow kitchen, flooded with light that streamed in through the new conservatory. Melissa ducked under a large chandelier so she could set the crumble on a vast pine table that was surrounded by an assortment of mismatched chairs. Beyond the table, the room merged into the conservatory area where Robert, Melissa’s father, sat on a sofa, a glass of merlot beside him, frowning as he scanned the TV Times. Beanbags and video games scattered the terracotta-tiled floor. Porridge’s basket, overflowing with well-loved and well-chewed toys sat by a wood-burning stove
The back door flew open as Diana, Melissa's mother, swept into the room, bringing with her the frozen January air.
“Barbara, darling, You’re here.” Diana flung a cashmere-clad arm around her son-in-law’s mother, the gesture releasing a waft of Coco Chanel into the room. “I love your new ‘do. Terry, you old rogue, let me give you a hug. How’s that back?”
Terry grinned. “Not bad. A week on a sun lounger would help it. Did you get the brochures we sent you?”