Dear World, my mum wants to take me home. She says they will call us if anything changes, but I refuse. I just stay nestled into her, like a small child, with my arms around her middle, and my head in her lap. She drops one hand onto my head and keeps it there. I hear Travis offer to get her a cup of tea, and she sighs before she agrees to let him. At some point after this I might drift off for a bit, because I am suddenly jerking awake again, wiping my mouth, and hoping I have not dribbled all over my mum’s lap. I wake up confused and unsettled, and I am reminded instantly of that strange night at Marianne’s, how I woke up with my head on Joe.
“Joe?” I ask, sitting up, pulling away from my mum, who shushes me and smoothes my hair down with her hand.
“It’s okay,” she tells me quickly, “it’s okay, he’s okay.”
“They say you saved his life,” another voice, a cracked and broken voice tells me. I look beyond my mum. The waiting room has changed. New patients have replaced the old ones, but we are all still here. Lorraine is now next to my mum, and Travis is on her other side, with his head in his hands. I squint at Lorraine. She peers back at me through red ringed eyes. Her mascara has run with her tears. There are muddy grey tracks running down both of her cheeks. I look at her blankly, not understanding. She leans forward slightly, clutching her shiny red handbag onto her lap. “You gave him mouth to mouth, don’t you remember?” she asks me. “Travis said you did. You kept him breathing.”
“I tried to…” I frown back at her. The memory is not clear. The clearest memories I have are the ones I do not want to see. The image of Joe all floppy and bloodied. Of Leon pummelling his still body.
“You did, you did!” Lorraine says urgently. “You saved his life, that’s what they are saying!”
“But he’s okay now?” I ask slowly, looking carefully at all of their faces. I cannot see Mick anywhere.
“He’s stable,” my mum slips her arm around me and pats my shoulder reassuringly. “They managed to stop all the bleeding. He’s stable. But he’s in intensive care love. He hasn’t woken up yet.”
“They’re going to let us see him any minute now,” Lorraine adds, as fresh tears push yet more mascara down her cheeks. “Any minute. They said didn’t they Shell? They said!”
“Yes love,” my mum’s voice soothes her. “Any minute now.”
“Can I come too?” I ask them. Lorraine nods at me instantly.
“You and me darling,” she sobs, breaking down again. “You and me go in first, all right?”
It is only another five minutes that we have to wait, but it feels like yet more impossible time that just does not move. I sit and stare at the floor. Lorraine falls silent, but I can hear her crying softly. Travis does not move or speak, not even when Mick comes in, smelling of cigarette smoke. He looks at me briefly, taps Travis on the head, and slips into his seat when Travis vacates it. I can feel all their questions in the air. Who, why, how, how could he? How could he? I have my own questions for them, but I do not dare open my mouth. I bite down on my tongue, and keep my teeth pressed tightly together. Inside my mind I see Joe, slumped on the bathroom floor and it fills my heart with a raw and vile kind of pain that makes me want to be sick. I sit there in silence and I feel all their guilt because the atmosphere is thick with it.
Finally a male doctor, with thick bushy ginger hair comes forward and motions for Lorraine to come with him. She leaps to her feet, passes my mum, and seizes my arm, practically yanking me out of my chair. I let her pull me into her side, where she captures me with her firm arm, and marches me along with her, her red heels click clacking on the floor as we follow the doctor. We go down long corridors, filled with swishing curtains, swearing patients, and bustling nurses. We follow the doctor into a lift and go up to the next floor. We are taken to a small room, and as we go in, two nurses finish their checks, smile at us in sympathy, and leave the room.
We shuffle hesitantly inside. In the movies, or on TV, I remember the loved ones always flinging themselves at the patient, wailing and falling onto the bed. But I realise it is not like that in real life. Lorraine is stiff and nervous, and I am terrified. The doctor has to gently persuade us to move further inside the room, so that he can close the door after us.
My best friend Joe is lying on the bed, but it is hard to make out where he begins, and the tubes and machines end. I do not know what any of them mean, or what they are doing for him. His head is heavily bandaged. His nose and mouth are covered with the tubes and a mask. All I can see of Joe is his eyes and his forehead. But even his eyes, which are closed, are so swollen that I wonder how it can really be him.
“Can he hear us?” I hear Lorraine ask in a squeak of a voice.
“We don’t know, but we think so, on some level,” the doctor tells her gently, holding his clipboard against his tummy. “We certainly believe it’s worth talking to people who are unconscious.”
“Is he in a coma?” I hear my own voice whisper.
“That’s right,” the doctor tells me. “But we think he will start to wake up, once the swelling goes down.”
Lorraine just stands there. She looks aghast. I inch forward. I am terrified of him, and yet I am drawn towards him. I slip into the chair that is next to his bed. I am staring at him, trying to find him. My eyes brim with useless, soundless tears. I swallow, and that is when I see his hand laying there. His palm is flat against the blanket. It is his hand. I can see that. I lean forward, and pick it up. I feel how cold it is, especially the palm. I rub his hand between mine, trying to warm it up, trying to reach him.
I feel Lorraine move behind me. She places her hands, awkwardly at first, on my shoulders. Then I feel her sigh massively, a juddery sob escaping at the same time. She massages my shoulders slightly. “That brings back a memory,” she sniffles from behind me. “You holding his hand like that.”
“Yeah. I’ve even got a photo. Perhaps that’s why the memory is so clear. You were both about one and a half. Not quite two. There’s me and your mum, pushing you both home from the park in your buggies. You reached out from your buggy with your little hand, to Joe. And he took it.”
I nod. I have seen the photo. It’s at Lorraine’s house, in one of her massive photo albums. All you can see is our hands linked, pulling the two pushchairs together as our mums push us home.
“I’ll give you a few moments alone,” the doctor, who we have both forgotten about tells us. We hear the door open and shut again.
“He held my hand on the first day of school,” I say. “I remember that. We were both nervous. He picked up my hand.”
“Always been stuck to each other like glue,” Lorraine says softly. “Me and your mum Lou, we were always so thankful for you two, did you know that?”
“You were both so good. We used to say it all the time. Aren’t they good? Aren’t they so good together? We had our hands full with the others, but not you two. As long as you two had each other you were fine.”
“He’s gonna’ be fine,” I say then, and I look over my shoulder and up at her face. She nods bravely, but fresh tears are flowing from her eyes.
“He better be!” she smiles at me. “God knows, he better be. I’ve got to say I’m bloody sorry, haven’t I eh?” She laughs, cries, and wipes tears and snot away from her face with a tissue she tugs out of her bag. I look back at Joe, holding his hand tightly between mine. I stare at his face, willing him to wake up. But he does not move. He just lies there. He is so still.
“Why don’t you hold his other hand?” I ask Lorraine. I feel her hands leave my shoulders.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m scared. I don’t want to…”
“You can’t hurt him,” I tell her. I nod at the chair on the other side of the bed. She sniffs, wipes her nose again and walks around the bed. I watch her slide awkwardly into the other chair, looking nervously at the machines that bleep and whirr all around the bed.
“I just can’t believe this,” she says then, resting her head in her hand just for a moment, before she looks up at me across the bed, across Joe. “My baby boy.”
“He’s going to be fine,” I tell her again, and I mean it. I fucking mean it. I squeeze his hand to make sure he knows I mean it as well. “I’m not fucking going through my life without him,” I say, and Lorraine laughs in surprise.
“What am I gonna’ do?” she shakes her head at Joe. She lifts his other hand and holds it tenderly between her own. “He doesn’t deserve a mother like me.”
“You didn’t do this,” I tell her stiffly. The silence hangs between us then, and we meet eyes only briefly before it is too much, and we both look down at the hand we hold. The silence speaks his name. Leon. The silence speaks the truth. He has become the elephant in the room. The unspeakable thing. After that, we cannot talk. We sit, holding his hands, staring at him, listening to the machines. We sit in our own minds, reminded of how close we always are to death.
I remember my Nan’s funeral. I remember how unreal it seemed that a person who was talking, moving, breathing, feeling and thinking just days before, was now inside a box. Going into the ground. While the leaves still shook on the trees that surrounded us, and the birds still screamed and glided over our heads. I remember that line they always read out; ‘in the midst of life, we are in death.’ I didn’t understand it then. How can that be? How can we be in death, while we are still alive? It made no sense to me.
But it makes an awful kind of sense to me now. As I look at the boy on the bed, who is neither dead nor alive, I understand what it means now. He is with us, yet not with us. He is hovering somewhere in-between, like my Nan was, in her final days. I remember going to see her in the hospital. I remember how tiny and ghostlike she seemed, shrunken under the blankets. I remember looking at her and knowing that she was close to death. I remember knowing that she could not and would not get back out of that bed. I knew it was only a matter of time.
I remember touching her hand, wondering what it would feel like, and discovering that it felt like cold paper. I was looking at her, I was watching her leave, and I was thinking about her soap collection. When she lived in her old house, before they made her move to the nursing home, my Nana had this collection of soaps. She kept them all on her dressing table. They took up nearly all of the space there. They were all different shapes and sizes and colours and scents. My favourite was shaped like a swan, a white swan. She never used them, she never got them wet, she just collected them, and her bedroom was heavenly with their smell. I never found out what happened to her soaps when she moved to the nursing home. She didn’t even get a proper bar of soap there though. Just that antibacterial liquid soap that you pump out onto your hand.
I hang onto Joe’s hand now. I press my lips down upon it. I smell his skin. I hold my cheek to his palm, letting him feel my warmth, my life. I beg him to come back. I beg him to wake up.
But nothing happens
Nothing happens. All that happens is, I have to go home.