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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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“You don’t need to thank me, Simon. You always had the strength. You just couldn’t remember how to channel it. We all lose faith from time to time.”

“Even you?”
“Even me.”
“I should have thought you would need an unswerving faith to think those bloody hens are going to lay.”

“You watch. You’ll be enjoying
Oeuf à la Hughes
by next week. Ah. That sounds like the troops.” A flurry of activity in the hallway commenced, as twenty thirsty scouts poured into Mrs. Hughes’s kitchen.

“Should we go and help?”

“No, we’ll only be in the way. Mrs. Hughes will deal with them. She rules the Foxes Biscuits tin with a rod of iron. I’m too soft and we run out before half of them have had one. Have to keep your eye on the little blighters.”

* * *

Twenty minutes later, warmed by the welcome finger of whisky, Simon fought his way through the battalion of differing sized dogs in the hall. He climbed back into the Jaguar, glad to be sheltered from the heavy rain that had begun to fall during his time inside the vicarage. Feeling pleasantly satisfied after his catch-up with Duncan, Simon was looking forward to supper with his family.

As he nosed his car down the familiar street, he was mildly surprised to see his mother-in-law’s car on the drive. Whilst the little red Honda was hardly a rare sight by his garage, it was nearing 8 p.m. and Diana, dedicated to her TV Times, would usually be happily ensconced in her sitting room by this time, snuggled up with her husband, dachshund and tray of Turkish Delight.

He waved to her as she popped open the car door and stepped out, seemingly unbothered by the heavy rain. Simon parked the Jag in its usual spot, trying to ignore the slight feeling of unease creeping over him. “Hello, you” he said, grinning. He pressed the button to lower his car window. “Just can’t keep away can you?”

Diana’s face remained neutral. No smile or amiable riposte was forthcoming. Simon immediately felt a charge in the air, the hairs on his neck rising with fear. “What is it?”

Diana leaned down and peered through the car window. Her face showed the strains of a person who has been rehearsing the delivery of bad news. “Simon, I’m sorry. It’s Sarah. We’ve been trying to call you, but we couldn’t get through. Your phone … Why didn’t you have it on? Sarah, she - she collapsed. When she came back from school. They’ve gone to the hospital. She’s very unwell. Your phone was off …”

“Get in.”
Simon wrenched the car into reverse, his expression sharp and cold. Any warmth left from the whisky was gone.
“Which hospital?”
“Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, the ambulance man said …”

Diana broke off, instinctively grabbing the handle above the passenger door as Simon screeched the Jaguar back down the street-lamp lit road. Back past St Matthew’s, back to the hospital.

Back in the direction from which he had only so recently come.

Chapter 4

The car park was beginning to empty at the hospital, visitors reluctantly leaving for the evening. Simon, retaining a doctor’s parking permit, nudged his car at the barriers to the staff car park, impatient for the achingly slow hydraulic arm to raise and let him through. The large car splashed through puddles in the badly surfaced car park, the sheets of rain backlit by the neon hospital sign. Diana and Simon leaped out, oblivious to the rain, and ran towards the main hospital entrance.

Inside, the vast four-story atrium was quiet, the only sound a squeaking of rubber shoes as porters scurried between lifts. A woman was packing up a second-hand bookstall for the day. She glanced up at the pair, then looked away quickly, embarrassed by the trauma she instinctively knew she was witnessing. At reception, the man in charge nodded a cool greeting. Simon snapped out his question, demanding the whereabouts of his daughter, and the man calmly checked the records.

“Intensive Therapy Unit, 2nd floor, yellow lift.” Diana and Simon ran off in the direction of the lifts, their wet feet slipping on the smooth hospital floor.

* * *

“Why the fuck was your phone off?” Melissa rounded on them in the lobby of ITU, too anxious for preliminaries.

“I forgot to turn it back on after surgery. I went to see Duncan. I told you.” Simon combed his fingers through his wet hair. “Where is she?”

Melissa brusquely brought him up to speed. “She’s in there. She has an infection. Her temperature has been up to 106 and her organs were at risk of failing. They’ve got her hooked up to all manner of things and she’s stable. They’re carrying out another Bone Marrow Biopsy now. She’s under anesthetic this time.” She stopped and swallowed. “Simon, she was covered in bruises. All over her legs. I missed it.
I fucking missed it
.”

Diana stepped forward and folded her distraught daughter into her arms, nodding at Simon over Melissa’s shoulder. Simon glanced at a set of swinging doors to his right, labeled ‘ITU Bay 4’. A nurse in scrubs shoved through, carrying a kidney dish containing blood-filled vials and assorted clinical detritus. He headed straight for the room, knowing instinctively that his daughter was inside.

A doctor looked up from the bed where his little girl lay prone, attached to tubes, bags, lines, pumps and monitors. Her bare white hip protruded from under the cover, her skin almost as white as the starched sheet.

The consultant looked up. “Dr Bailey? We’ve just finished the biopsy. Your little girl is very ill. We’re doing everything we can.”

Simon stared numbly at the seven-year old, barely recognizable through the clutter of apparatus attached to her face and arms. “We missed it. It’s back and I missed it.” He moved towards the bed, wanting desperately to touch her, but terrified of hurting her, of contaminating her.

“I’m afraid it looks that way. We’ll have the results of the biopsy as soon as we can. She has an infection that caused her collapse and we’re fighting it successfully at the moment, but it does seem the leukemia has returned. If it has, we’ll need to do a spinal tap to ascertain whether the cerebral spine fluid is under attack. If it is, then aggressive treatment will begin immediately. I’m terribly sorry.” The consultant covered Sarah’s hip back over with the sheet and made a note on a clipboard. “You mustn’t blame yourself, Dr Bailey. Relapses at this point can be hard to spot. Your daughter is still weakened by the months of chemotherapy. Parents get used to their child being frail. The parameters are different. The signs that originally rang alarm bells have become normal. The child often doesn’t report symptoms, unwilling to cause alarm and accustomed to a different level of wellness than other children. This is not your fault.”

Simon stared right through him. “But I’m a doctor.” He sank into the institutional blue armchair in the corner of the room.

“But you are a father first, Dr Bailey.” The consultant put his pen back in his suit breast pocket. “Sometimes we don't see things that are too close to our eyes.”

Simon sat back against the familiar faux leather of the chair, ignoring the clammy stickiness as it pressed against his sopping wet shirt. Those plastic chair backs. He had sat in so many of them. The familiarity was matched by the fears and terrors as they rose to the surface. A machine bleeped, regurgitating dot matrix paper lined by violent peaks and valleys. A respirator wheezed and clunked, breathing for the troubled little girl as her lungs struggled under the attack of infection.

As he watched her, statistics began to whirl once again in Simon’s mind, his medical knowledge as both a doctor and a parent of a seriously ill child spinning into action, computing data he had safely filed away. A figure popped up, an unwanted one. Relapse. Twenty five percent.

A one in four chance of survival.

Chapter Five

January passed and with February came snow. Not the attractive white drifts that drive even the most mature of men to manically to turn out the garage in search of the family sledge – it was the dirty grey slush that coats every pavement and road, melting into dog muck, causing accidents and delays, soaking through shoes and making the whole country irritable.

The Baileys and the Halfords convened once again around Simon and Melissa’s kitchen table. The easy companionship of the previous months had been replaced again by the hushed conversations of a family on the edge.

Barbara fiddled with her napkin. “But at least she’s coming out of ITU. That’s got to be good news hasn’t it?”

Simon nodded vaguely. “She’s going back onto the Cancer Ward. The infection has passed and she’s stable but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a very poorly girl. The biopsy showed up blasts….”

“What’s a blast?” Robert interrupted.

“New cells, presumably leukemic. The spinal tap showed the cancer has been found in the brain lining. She’s on the strongest course of chemo they dare give her.”

Porridge sighed heavily in his dog basket, aware of the heavy atmosphere. He missed his friend.

“What happens after the chemo - radiation therapy? How about the bone marrow transplant? They can do that, can’t they?” Terry stared intently at his son. Of course they would do something for his only granddaughter. It was 2009, for God’s Sake. They could cure everything now.

“The transplant is better carried out during a remission. The state of a patient’s disease at the time of the transplant can affect the likelihood of a good outcome. Sarah isn’t in remission anymore. Allogeneic transplant was discussed during her remission, but the prognosis was so good a chemotherapy course was considered the least dangerous option. Also, her best chance would be a matched sibling transplant. Sarah’s an only child.”

Terry sighed. “But she’ll get through it. She’s fought it off before. She’ll do it again this time.”


It’s not so bloody simple, Terry!
” Melissa threw the saucepan she was washing to the ground, sending splatters of water across the floor. “You’re as bad as your son. Everything is not going to just
go away
. She hasn’t got mumps. It’s not a bout of fucking chicken pox.
Jesus
.” Melissa tore past the kitchen table, wrenching open the kitchen door and barging into her mother, Diana, who had been outside. A crunch of gears and Melissa’s car disappeared down the slushy street, leaving behind an astonished Diana, fag in hand.

* * *

Melissa was relieved to find nobody else in the ‘Family Room’, the cramped common room-cum-kitchenette provided for parents just off the Pediatric ward.

She slumped onto a brown foam sofa, staring unseeing at the notice board in front of her which displayed a mix of taxi numbers, MMR jab reminders and pizza delivery flyers. When they had begun their long hospital stints two years before, the take-away menus scattered across the coffee tables had alarmed her. The cheerful leaflets, advertising
‘kebab meat and cheese’
and
‘super-sized, stuffed-crust Hawaiians’
appeared incongruous in the dour environment.

For the first forty-eight hours, Simon and Melissa had survived on black coffee, dutifully flicking donations into the Tupperware container provided. Neither wished to admit to the selfish state of hunger, both embarrassed by their own petty requirements in the face of their daughter’s far greater need. Their fast was broken when another couple wandered into the little common room and calmly ordered a large pizza. The delivery boy had arrived quickly, obviously familiar with the route through the hospital. The other couple were old hands, parents of a boy with cystic fibrosis, and they shared the pizza with the grateful Baileys. Melissa remembered how the smell had seemed somehow sacrilegious in that temple to good hygiene and health. She had no such concerns anymore. She had probably shared fifty pizzas in that room over the years, though she had not tasted a single one.

A twitch of a smile flickered at the corner of Melissa’s mouth. She had once gotten into an awful lot of trouble over a pizza at school. In fact, Melissa had gotten into a lot of trouble over a lot of things at school. ‘Pizzagate’ as her mother still referred to it, was merely one battle of many at the minor girls boarding school at which she had spent her formative years.

Beecham House Independent Girl’s School was set in unremarkable grounds and produced largely unremarkable results. The girls did reasonably in their exams, and acquitted themselves moderately on the sports pitch. The fees were low and the parents, mostly middle to upper-middle-class professionals, put up with the lack of facilities and prestige in return for termly bills that didn’t bankrupt them.

As is required of any budget manager, corners had to be cut in order to provide the low cost service. The sports equipment was circa 1951. The ‘Theatre Department’ was an old wicker basket filled with hats. The food was abysmal. Melissa, athletic and tall, was constantly hungry.

The Victorian red-bricked manor which housed the school was fifteen miles from the nearest small Yorkshire market town and surrounded largely by cornfields. Once handed over at the beginning of term along with their tuck boxes and lacrosse sticks, girls had contact with the outside world only through the medium of television, telephone (Upper fifth and Sixth Form only, younger pupils permitted a ten minute call home on Saturday), or acceptance onto a sports team. Away games created much excitement, particularly when they were to be played at a co-ed school. The brief glimmer of the opposite sex was enough to inspire a month’s worth of crushes and romantic scheming.

In summer, there was a weekly Saturday trip to Ripon for the older girls when they would shrink down in their seats as the ancient minibus, emblazoned with the name of the school and therefore proclaiming their shameful middle-class status to the ‘townies’, spluttered and backfired into the town square. Scuttling away from the Beecham House bus, the girls had two hours in which to acquire as much contraband as possible. Melissa, looking old for her age in purple crushed velvet and heavy eyeliner, was particularly successful. She took a number of orders for Marlboro lights and cheap perry. After purchasing and stashing their haul and having a quick smoke amongst the gravestones of the Minster, they had sufficient time to traipse into the nearby takeaway to purchase ‘chips ‘n’ scraps’ and flirt with the greasy boys who worked there.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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