Authors: Charlotte Castle
One particularly unlikely love affair involved Melissa’s best friend, the daughter of a local solicitor, and Kyle a member of
staff and son of a local car thief.
On one occasion they took a menu back to the school, promising to call during the week. The following Tuesday, after a particularly small and inedible supper, Melissa and Laetitia grabbed the excuse to talk to the monosyllabic Kyle and ordered a pizza to be delivered to the school for 7.30 p.m.. It was unfortunate that Mrs. Metcalf, the Headmistress, happened upon them, waiting at the top of the school drive just as Kyle’s moped whined into sight. The Headmistress encouraged them to pay for their goods, politely dismissed the slack-jawed Kyle, then promptly informed the stricken girls that the pizza was to be confiscated, shoving it unceremoniously into a large bin outside the kitchens.
Hauled into Mrs. Metcalf’s study the two girls explained, in part truth, that the takeaway had been purchased simply because they were hungry, but the headmistress wasn't interested in excuses.
“Ladies do not eat pizza. Ladies from
school certainly do not eat from boxes,” Mrs. Metcalf announced grandly, a plate of unfinished macaroons on her desk, undoubtedly the product of Fourth Year’s domestic science class that morning.
“Ladies,” Melissa replied calmly, “do not knowingly starve children in their care, whilst using the savings they make on the catering budget to provide higher quality food for themselves and their staff.”
Mrs. Metcalf eyed Melissa. Melissa eyed Mrs. Metcalf. Laetitia stared intently at a smudge on the corner of the desk. “Go back to your dorm, Laetitia. I shall deal with you in the morning.”
Melissa chewed the inside of her cheek as her friend scuttled out of the room. She had gone too far.
Mrs. Metcalf sat down at her desk. “Never in thirty years of being a headmistress have any of my charges ever spoken to me like that, Melissa. We have met in this office many times now and there is really very little left to say. I think it high time that your parents took you away. In fact, I think it prudent that you be removed from this school tonight. Now, to save my getting your file out, you will kindly provide me with your mother’s telephone number.”
Melissa blanched. Her mother generally fought her corner, but even her mother would consider speaking to her headmistress like that unacceptable. Being expelled with immediate effect at 8:00 in the evening was even worse. Nevertheless, lifting her chin just a little and determinedly looking the older woman in the eye, she gave her home telephone number.
Melissa was dismissed to her dorm with orders that she pack. She traipsed upstairs and tried to speak while her friends fell on her, talking all at once, eager to hear the news. She started to gather her things, gloomily imagining her mother receiving the call in the hallway of their house, a twenty minute drive away. Her father would be standing in the doorway, listening to one half of the conversation, his evening whisky in hand.
Oh God, she was going to be in trouble with her father.
The girls assembled around the dorm window, which looked out over the drive, and waited for Melissa’s mother’s dreadful Rover Metro, pockmarked with rust, to roar down the drive for a final time.
Eventually, it did and, as ever, Diana’s graceful legs appeared out of the battered old car, followed by her slender body, a cigarette held dramatically between her beautifully manicured fingers.
She finished her cigarette, dropped the butt onto the driveway and ground it under her elegant heel. Then, with her chin raised in an expression that looked remarkably like her daughter’s earlier regal pose, she slammed the tinny little car door shut and sashayed into the school.
Fifteen excruciating minutes later, the girls watched in astonishment as Diana glided back out of the school, got into the car and disappeared. The dorm exploded in cheers and Melissa began a tense wait to be recalled downstairs.
After another twenty minutes, Melissa had yet to be de-briefed. Instead, the girls heard the familiar tappety chunter of Diana’s metro coming back down the drive. They re-congregated in the window and watched in amazement as, once again, Diana unfolded herself out of the car and walked briskly back into the school, pizza box in hand.
Melissa smiled at the memory. Her mother, and by association she, had been a school hero for a month. The pizza had been delivered to her dorm by a junior member of staff. The matter had not been mentioned again. The girls did not, however, order takeaway again.
* * *
She dropped the pizza flyer back onto the Formica coffee table as her thoughts returned to her present situation. She had been rude to Terry. Her father-in-law had certainly not deserved that.
She had always had a problem with her temper – words tumbled out of her before she had time to stop them. There had been countless instances where she had said things that she had regretted. She supposed she had better apologize, though it was coming up to 6 p.m. now and she would need to go and settle down for the night with Sarah. They were reading ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’, the sixth book of the wildly popular series of seven, and she had come to the Family Room only to make a coffee. An apology could wait until morning. Everyone would understand the pressure she was under.
Simon nodded at the nurses milling around their station as he took a well-worn path through the ward, to the bay that held Sarah’s bed. Giant, brightly colored stickers of jolly children’s characters decorated the glass partition windows and walls, in sharp contrast to the wheelchairs, drip stands and monitors that were parked along the corridors. Food trolleys designed to look like trains lined the passage-way outside Sarah’s bay, stacked with the remnants of the evening meal. The familiar stink of overcooked cabbage hung in the air.
“Hullo, Princess.” Simon kissed Sarah’s smooth, hairless head and glanced up at Melissa who sat nearby, Harry Potter in hand. “More quidditch matches? Here, let me help …”
Simon grabbed the plastic beaker Sarah was reaching for and positioned the straw so she could drink. She remained still, propped up with pillows, her pallor clashing with the green hospital blanket. She sipped the drink and then squinted to indicate she had had enough. Her voice was hushed, labored. “Potions lesson. Harry just won a bottle of lucky potion. That would be good, Dad, wouldn’t it? If you could have pure luck for a whole day?”
“It would.” Simon sat on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling, Princess?”
Melissa cut in. “Sarah’s having a bad evening. the chemo’s really got to her today. Oh shit …”
Melissa leaped up as Simon grabbed a grey cardboard bowl from by the bed. He thrust it towards Sarah's chest as she began to retch. The tiny amount of water she had ingested returned violently, tinged with green bile. Her body was trying to eject the poison of the chemotherapy, but there was nothing inside for her grasping stomach muscles to bring up. Tears coursed down the child’s face.
A nurse in cartoon character printed scrubs appeared, a sympathetic smile on her face. “Oh, Sarah. It should calm down a bit soon. We’ll give you more anti-emetics in half an hour if it hasn’t, but we don’t really want to give you any more drugs at the moment if we can help it. Would you like an iced lolly to suck, sweetheart?”
Sarah nodded, the tears still streaming down her little cheeks, her whole body undulating with each muscular contraction.
“Orange or blackcurrant love?” The kindly nurse asked, removing her water jug to refresh.
Sarah didn’t respond.
“I’ll choose then shall I, pet?” The nurse wandered off as Sarah gave a little groan.
“I’ll stay tonight.” Simon looked up at Melissa. “You slept here last night.”
“No, I want to stay. You go home, I’m fine.”
Simon wanted to argue. He wanted to stay on the little pull-out bed the hospital provided for one parent by the bed of their child. But rows were the last thing his daughter needed now. Besides, it was near impossible to get a decent night’s sleep on the ward, the children regularly being woken for temperature checks and drip changes. He had to work, therefore he had to sleep.
The nurse returned, ice-pop in hand, a re-constituted grey cardboard bowl in the other. “Here you are, sweetheart. I got you orange. Let’s just change your hydration bag shall we?” She proceeded to unhook an empty bag from above Sarah, replacing it with another, chatting to Simon and Melissa as she worked. “Mr. Abnam would like to talk with you both in the morning. He’ll be doing his rounds around 9 a.m., so if you could be here for 9.30 a.m. that would be great. There now, flower. That’s all done. Try to get some sleep. Mrs. Bailey, will you be sleeping here tonight?”
“Okay, well you know how to make the bed work. It’s quiet at the moment, so I’ll get you both a cup of tea if you’d like? No? I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” The nurse sidled off, waving at other parents as she left.
“Can you get off work?” Melissa sounded tired.
“I’ll have to. It’s no problem, I’ll call in first thing. They know what’s going on. Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”
“No. Thanks. I …” Melissa gave a false little smile. “ … I have to be here.”
“I understand. Sarah, darling? Are you awake?”
The little girl had rolled into a ball on her side. Now she mewed a quiet affirmative.
“Here, shall I open your ice-lolly? It’ll help settle your tummy.” Simon helped Sarah sit up again, then tore the wrapper with his teeth, and handed her the cool, soothing ice-pop. “Should Daddy get off then?” Simon asked, unwilling to leave them, not wishing to tear himself away but knowing both his girls needed to settle down for the night. Sarah nodded her head once in agreement.
“I love you Daddy.”
“I love you too. I’ll be back in the morning.”
* * *
When Simon arrived back at the hospital the next day, the ward was alive with activity. It was a stark contrast to the strained, half-lit, whispering world of the evening before.
Porters criss-crossed the ward, wheeling children to other parts of the hospital for tests and scans. Nurses called greetings to each other as the night-shift handed over to the incoming team. Crockery clattered as health care assistants retrieved the children’s breakfast cereal bowls and teacups and loaded them onto the little train trolleys, ready to be returned to the kitchens in the bowels of the building.
The parents who had stayed with their children were packing up their beds, bringing order to their individual campsites. Mothers struggled into day clothes, pushing overnight bags out of the way, throwing down cups of weak, milky tea and munching on cold toast. Televisions, swinging on arms above each bed, blared out a selection of cartoons.
The Ward Sister, newly arrived on the day shift, went from bed to bed, familiarizing herself with each patient’s night time notes, greeting children and soothing fraught parents. Two volunteers made their way up the ward with a trolley, the bottom loaded with tired looking paperbacks, the top with sweets, crisps and tabloids. Simon passed them all as he returned to Sarah's ward.
“I’ll take a Daily Mail, please.” Simon counted out some money and handed it to one of the ladies. “And some polo mints as well. Thanks.” He pocketed his change and headed towards Sarah’s bed, relieved to see her sitting up and watching TV while her mum folded clothes into the nightstand.
“How are my girls?”
“Better. Daddy! It’s Ben Ten! Look!” Sarah grinned, pointing at her television. He glanced up at the small cartoon boy fighting an enormous green alien. “Are those for me?” She pointed at the polo mints in his hand. The ravaging effects of yesterday’s chemo had obviously lessened overnight and Sarah’s indomitable spirit had made a welcome return.
“Yup. You had some breakfast?” Simon pulled up another of the shiny armchairs. The wooden arms and high back were so familiar now.
“I had a bit of cereal. I wish they had oranges. I’d really like oranges right now.” Sarah continued to stare, rapt, at the screen. On the television, drool poured from the alien creature's mouth.
“Oranges, eh? I think we can provide those.” The cravings, Simon knew, were similar to those of a pregnant woman. Chemotherapy affected patients in different ways. The nausea was standard, but controllable to some extent by anti-nausea drugs. Patients often didn't want to eat, but equally would crave certain foods. It was important to help Sarah eat as much as possible on good days.
“Hey, Babe.” Melissa leaned forward and kissed Simon on the cheek. “You’re here early.”
Simon gave an inward sigh of relief. Melissa, though looking dog-tired, seemed to have thrown off the anger of the day before. He pointed at a Starbucks bag he was carrying. “Thought you might like some proper breakfast.”
He pulled up the sliding hospital bed table and unpacked two large lattes and a small hot chocolate, along with assorted Danish pastries, paper napkins and plastic stirrers. “Better than cheapo cornflakes and cold tea, hmm?”
“Hell, yes.” Melissa fell on the Danish pastries. “Can I have the pecan one, please?”
Sarah nodded, grabbing the cinnamon swirl, leaving Simon with his usual apricot. He grinned. “Did I do good?”
“You did good.” Both Melissa and Sarah mumbled affirmatives, their mouths full of pastry.
Simon settled back in the chair with his coffee. “Has anyone been round yet?” It was only 8 a.m., but ward life started early, as Simon knew only too well.
”The SHO came round half an hour ago. She was pleased to see Sarah is feeling stronger today. We go onto bag three of six – high dose Ara-C, through the chest catheter. They’re pumping her full of saline solution to keep her kidneys and bladder happy, which is making her pretty uncomfortable. Mr. Abnam is coming later and we’ll hear more. Is there any sugar?” Melissa scouted through the contents of the Starbucks’ bag.