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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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Melissa smiled to herself as she made her way back into the kitchen to check on the roast chicken and stir the bread sauce. She opened another bottle of wine, half listening to the two sets of grandparents as they amicably discussed the pros and cons of various gîtes in Brittany.

The Bailey Sunday Lunch, attended weekly by both Bailey and Halford grandparents, was a twelve-year old tradition. Despite their different backgrounds, Melissa and Simon’s parents had become firm friends from the moment they first met at a BBQ arranged by their courting children.

“Do you remember that watermill we stayed in, when Sarah was about four, Melissa?” Barbara, called from the conservatory end of the kitchen. “There’s a lovely gîte very close to there. Just the right size for the lot of us and walking distance from the sea.”

“I’ll take a look at the brochure after lunch. Red or white, Barbara?”

“Can I be a pain and have a sherry, pet?”

“Course.” Melissa poured the sherry and a bitter for her father-in-law. “It would be lovely to all get off together again. Like old times. Like before.”

Barbara took the drink. “LBL – that’s what Terry and I call it. Life Before Leukemia. A holiday is just what we all need. What will this be? Our sixth all together?”

“Fifth.” Simon strolled into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of wine. “Sarah’s just putting her Lego away, by the way. Yeah, it’s the fifth. Do you know, I feel quite robbed of the opportunity to tell mother-in-law jokes. We all get on far too well.” He grinned and joined his family in the conservatory area. “It’s all a bit smug really, isn’t it?”

Robert, Melissa’s father, put his magazine down and took up his glass. “Lucky thing. You need a bit of unity in your life, what you’ve been through. To the Halfords and Baileys. Long may we be a family unit.”

The family raised their glasses together, the toast familiar.


Halfords and Baileys!”

Diana and Robert Halford, were both retired school teachers. Barbara and Terry Bailey, on the other hand, were respectively a housewife and the supervisor of a bus depot. Both couples were equally thrilled with their children's match. Diana and Robert were just as proud as his own parents when Simon, the shy South Yorkshire medical student, became a fully-fledged GP.

Both sets of grandparents took news of Sarah’s leukemia staunchly and with British grit. They had rallied around their terrified children - dog-sitting, tea-making and house-watching whilst staying resolutely cheerful throughout, constantly optimistic. Melissa’s freezer was kept well stocked and her floristry business babysat when she needed to be at Leeds General Infirmary eighteen hours a day. Simon’s car was washed and the leaking gutter mysteriously fixed whilst he was at work. Individual child-sized portions of homemade favorites were dropped into LGI for Sarah. Barbara’s cat got used to having Porridge around.

For a while Sunday lunches had stopped. But the weekly summits between the grandparents had continued at Diana and Robert’s house. Diana always provided the main course and Barbara, as ever, brought puddings. It was around Diana’s pine refractory table that they shared out dog-sitting duties, agonized over prognoses, and made practical plans for a potentially dark future.

Now the tables were turning. The statistics were looking better. They had quietly discussed emergency measures for so long, planned how best to deal with forthcoming grief. Now it seemed action would never have to be taken. Their clever little granddaughter was beating the odds. The family that they had been so careful to nurture, so horrified to see so damaged, was starting to find happiness again.

* * *

“Am I to be banned pudding as well?” Robert snapped as his daughter handed him a specially prepared, low-cholesterol, non-heart-condition-aggravating version of their meal. Robert’s heart attack six months ago had been minor, his weeklong stay in hospital completely over-shadowed by a pivotal week in Sarah’s treatment. But his collapse during a weekly bridge game still served as a stark reminder that they needed to look after themselves, as well as Sarah. All three women had leaped into action, promising the doctor to reduce the bon-viveur’s waistband from a well-rounded forty-two inches, to the medically preferred thirty-four. The patient was an ungrateful one and Diana was forever finding Fruit & Nut wrappers under his car seat.

“Dad, you know you can have the crumble. Just not the cream.” Melissa gave the same answer she gave every Sunday. “Sarah, I want to see all those greens gone please, no excuses. Porridge, there’s no point sitting there looking like that. Nobody’s going to feed you at the table.” Simon and his father both whipped their hands back into view as Porridge settled himself down between them.

Terry helped himself to gravy. “So, no more chemo eh, Tiger? I hear you’re back at school full time now. Climbed back up to top place yet?”

“Terrance!”

“I’m only asking, Barbara. She’s a clever kid. If anyone can catch up she can. Comes from clever stock eh, Simon?”

Sarah looked up from her chicken. “English is okay, but I’m rubbish at math. I hate math. I missed the seven and eight times tables and the whole beginning of fractions. Caitlin Harris is worse than me though. She doesn’t even know her two times table and she never misses school. Oh and Jacob Davidson got detention and had his lunch monitor badge taken off him because he said I was a freak with no hair and Mrs. Bainbridge heard him. Did I tell you, Dad says we can take Porridge to the dog show?” Sarah swerved the conversation suddenly, as seven year olds are apt to do.

“You should have thumped him, lass.”
“Terrance!”
“What?”

“How’s everything at the surgery, Simon? Shall I top you up?” Diana glugged cheap red into her son-in-law’s glass and filled her own. “Everyone still off having babies?”

Simon took a sip from his replenished glass. “The Practice Manager is back, thank God, but the Practice Nurse goes on Maternity Leave next week and one of the admin staff has decided she’s not coming back. Also, there are talks about the surgery shutting and us moving into a sparkly new Medical Centre in town. The local ladies of leisure have embraced it as a
‘cause’
and keep popping up with placards. Add to the mix that every person who’s sneezed or coughed in the last month thinks they’ve got Swine ‘Flu, it’s been a pretty fun week.”

Diana scoffed. “Swine ‘Flu. Load of stuff and nonsense. How’s the florists, Melissa?”

“Not bad, Mum. Ticking over. Can’t expect better in this climate. We’re starting floristry courses – glass of wine thrown in, learn how to hand-tie a bouquet, that kind of thing. Got a wedding coming up next Saturday. I’m hoping Swine ‘Flu is going to take off – lots of funerals…”

“That’s not very nice, Mum.” Sarah said quietly.

There was a slight pause. “Your Mum’s just kidding, Tiger. Load of sensationalized nonsense anyway. It’ll all be over by the end of the week. Now tell your old Granddad about this dog show. What’s Porridge going in for then? Best Fed Dog?” Porridge put his chin in Terry’s lap, hoping for another bit of chicken.

Barbara got up. “I’ll help you clear, love. Who wants custard and who wants cream?”

* * *

“That was a pretty crass remark you made over lunch.”

Simon and Melissa leaned against the counters in the kitchen as Simon poured the last of the wine. The grandparents had gone in the same flurry of kisses as they had arrived, and Sarah was drinking warm milk and watching cartoons in the sitting room.

“I know. I didn’t think.”

“Didn’t think? Christ, Melissa, how can you think of anything else? If our daughter catches a bloody cold it could kill her, never mind Swine ‘Flu. What, are you planning to do the flowers for her funeral, too?”

“Simon, that’s a disgusting thing to say. You’re drunk.”
“A little.” Simon sighed heavily. “Come on. Let’s get her off to bed then we can watch Midsomer Murders.”
“Dad, can I watch Midsomer Murders?” Sarah’s head popped through the kitchen door. “I’ll be very quiet.”

“No, darling, you’ve school tomorrow. You look shattered anyway. Go on, go up and get those teeth brushed and I’ll come up and read you a story.”

Sarah traipsed off, muttering, Porridge faithfully in tow.

“I’m sorry, Mel. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that with things looking so much better … you are using the antibacterial wipes, aren’t you?”

“Don’t worry, Simon. We’re going to be fine. She’s a fighter, we’ve been through the worst.”

“I know. Come here, give me a hug. That was a cracking roast you did today, honey - my Dad always said - at
least
she can cook.” He gathered his wife into his arms but quickly leaped back, laughing as Melissa pretended to clip him around the ear. “Are you ready for me, Sarah?” Simon yelled up the stairs, dodging as Melissa changed tactic and tried to flick him with a tea towel. “I hope those teeth have been cleaned properly…”

* * *

Upstairs, Sarah rinsed out the sink and held her toothbrush under the tap. There was no need for Dad to see all the blood that had streamed from her mouth as she gently brushed. They’d been bleeding again like that for a week now but it didn’t hurt.

Dad would only worry.

Chapter 3

“No, no, Mr Varley, you did the right thing making an appointment. Always better to err on the side of caution.”

Erring on the side of caution was not something Mr Varley actually needed encouragement to do. As one of Simon’s most determined hypochondriacs, Ernest Varley visited his doctor at least once a month, and frequently more. The mole that Simon had just inspected, sited as far down Mr Varley’s back as is possible before it became an internal examination, was fine. Mr Varley’s moles, pains, veins, coughs and aches were always fine.

His previous three patients - a teenage girl dragged in by her mother who wanted her prescribed the pill, a particularly odious four year old with conjunctivitis and a jolly lady with quite the worst fungal nail infection he had ever seen – had all been dealt with quickly and he was, for once, running on time. As long as the Practice Meeting didn’t over-run (and without Howard, the Senior Partner, there to meddle it wasn’t likely to) he should be away and in his car for 6 p.m.

He saw Mr Varley to the door then pulled at his tie, unbuttoning his top shirt button.

His consulting room was small, but full of light, with an unobstructed view of the small town's scrubby park.

Brighouse was not an attractive town. Any proof of its bustling industrial past was limited to a couple of handsome Edwardian high street bank buildings and a couple of cheaply done mill conversions. The canal and river that ran through the town had been tidied up, and an attempt made at creating ‘waterside living’. A number of family delis and bistros had managed to find sufficient business to tick over, but the main shopping street looked tired. The serried ranks of West Riding back to back terraces were largely uncared for. Vast council estates provided housing for legions of impoverished families who kept Simon’s practice busy with teenage pregnancies, alcohol and drug related illnesses, and ailments caused by bad nutrition. There had even been a recent case of rickets – an illness supposedly wiped out by 50 years of improved national nourishment.

Simon had grown up in a 1960s two bedroom semi’, in the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley. Not poor, but certainly not well off, his working class parents had encouraged him to study hard and believe in himself. His nights were spent furiously scribbling away in his bedroom at a desk made out of bricks and an old door. Terry and Barbara had been so sure of his place at Barnsley Grammar School that they had saved for two years so they could buy him a watch for passing his eleven-plus entrance exam.

His school days were unremarkable. He kept his nose down, largely eschewing the common distractions of girls and stolen cigarettes. He was no ‘square’. He managed the occasional school disco grope and he got drunk on cheap cider once or twice – the most memorable occasion being when he was sick in his friend’s mother’s goldfish bowl. (The fish were still in it).

Still, Simon worked hard, his natural ability greatly enhanced by his determined nature. It came as no surprise when he was given a place at Leeds Medical School. A steady student career followed, in which he adequately met the course requirements but failed to shine by the highly competitive standards of the prestigious medical college.

In the summer term of his final year, his last surviving grandmother died, leaving her house and a small nest egg to his father. For four years, Simon made daily commutes from their small terraced house in Barnsley to Leeds, using the 50 minute train journey to study. Whilst the journey was not arduous, he was largely left out of ‘student living’ and had only a small circle of friends as a result. His father, deciding his son deserved the full student experience, bequeathed his inherited house to Simon and with this grand gesture bought Simon a social life.

The house, a little red brick, three-bedroom terrace in the Burley Park area, became a Mecca for (what felt like) much of the student population of Leeds. Since it was privately owned and not subject to the rules and regulations of a long-suffering landlord, the parties were frequent and legendary. His flatmates, who paid a small rent to Simon’s dad, painted the previously floral sitting room black and installed marshal stacks and disco lights. The house shook to the strains of Guns 'n’ Roses and Def Leppard. The neighbors gave up complaining and bought earplugs.

Simon had never met most of the people who passed through his front door, filling the avocado colored bath with bottles of beer and throwing up spectacularly in his toilet.

During one such night, he staggered into his room, intending to sleep before an important ward round the next day. In the gloom he tripped over a body on the floor. Irritated at this intrusion of his personal space, he woke her up, and then spent half an hour holding her hair back whilst she vomited cheap red wine and cheesy puffs into his basin. For the rest of the night they sat on his bed, talking about everything and anything.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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