Authors: Emma Carroll
MONDAY 11 NOVEMBER
At 3.23 a.m. the hospital call to say a heart’s been found. Put like that, it almost sounds funny, as if someone’s just discovered it in a rubbish bin or on a doorstep like happens in the news sometimes with tiny babies.
Except that’s not how it is.
What they really mean is someone’s died. A stranger, carrying a donor card, has stopped living. It’s hard not to think of that person’s family and what the hospital have had to tell them tonight. Yet without that donor heart my little brother will stop living too.
So for once, I think we’re the lucky ones.
The first I know of it is a beeping noise near my head. It’s my brother Theo’s favourite and most annoying joke. Last time he set my alarm clock for 3 a.m. I got him back by putting cheese in his
pillowcase. But nowadays it’s mostly me who’s washing the bed linen and buying the cheese, so I’m a bit more sensible.
The beeping goes on. It’s not my clock. And as my brain catches up, I remember I can’t blame Theo either. These past few weeks he’s slept in the dining room because he can’t climb the stairs any more. Once we’d moved his bed in and put up his
posters it looked like a normal kid’s bedroom, if you ignored the oxygen tank and the plastic box full of pills.
The beeping is coming from the room next door. It sounds like Mum’s pager, the one given to her for emergencies. My stomach goes into knots.
There’s a thud. An ‘Ouch!’ The beeping stops.
I hear Mum’s door open. That creaky third step tells me she’s going downstairs. The kitchen light clicks on and she starts talking fast. I lie very still to listen.
‘We’ll be there, doctor,’ says Mum.
Two years ago Theo blew out his birthday cake candles in one big puff then collapsed right in front of us on the carpet. We thought he was mucking about at first, but then his lips went blue like they do when you’ve been swimming in the sea too long.
When the ambulance came Mum tried to be cheerful; she even offered the paramedics some of
Theo’s cake. Then came the hospital tests – X-rays, scans, needles that left bruises on the back of Theo’s hands; it got harder to stay cheerful after that. A virus had attacked my brother’s heart, so the doctors said, which apparently can happen to anyone. Except Theo isn’t ‘anyone’: this stupid, random thing has happened to us.
There’s a different sort of beeping now as Mum sends a text. Then she’s waking Theo. I can’t hear her actual words but her voice is high-pitched like she’s telling him we’re going somewhere exciting. Next she’s back upstairs, opening my door.
‘Alice?’ Mum hisses. ‘You awake?’
I am. Wide awake. Like she’s chucked water in my face.
‘What’s happening?’ I say.
‘A heart’s become available.’
My stomach knots get tighter. I wriggle up the bed and turn on the bedside lamp.
‘And is it …?’
Mum leans against the doorframe. Her hair is all on end. She’s smiling and crying at the same time.
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘it’s a perfect match.’
Twenty minutes later we’re in the car. The hospital is in London, which is 110 miles south down the motorway. We’ll need to get a move on because a donor heart doesn’t last long. They pack it in ice and inject it with potassium to stop it beating. After that, it’s only good for four to six hours.
Theo sits in the back, oxygen line in his nose. He’s managed to sneak his dinosaur toys in with him; there are T-rexes and diplodocuses and triceratopses all over the seat.
‘You’ll have to give those to Mum when we get there, buddy,’ I say, as I fasten my seatbelt.
‘Will I, Mum?’ Theo sounds worried.
Mum looks in the driver’s mirror. ‘Don’t worry, love. I’ve heard nurses are BIG dinosaur fans.’
Then she glares at me.
‘What?’ I say. ‘It said “no toys” in that booklet from the hospital because of germs.’
that,’ says Mum, but I’m guessing she’d rather not think about it. There are so many things that could go wrong, and the leaflet lists quite a few. ‘Can’t we think of something nice like … I don’t know … chocolate cake or Christmas or …’
‘… unicorns and fairies …’ I slouch down in my seat. ‘All right, I get it.’
We take the main road through town, passing shops, then pubs, then takeaways. Mum’s driving faster than normal.
‘Aren’t you dropping me at Lexie’s?’ I say, as we don’t take the turning to my best friend’s house. Ever since we knew Theo needed a transplant, this has been the plan. The hospital has space for Mum to stay, but not me.
‘Sorry love.’ She pats my knee. ‘I texted her mum but she can’t have you tonight. She thinks the baby’s on its way. Great timing, huh?’
I stare out of the window. Bite down on my lip.
No tears. Not now.
‘You’re disappointed, aren’t you?’ Mum says.
I shrug. Staying at Lexie’s is a treat these days. It happens so rarely, what with Mum working and Theo being ill. But now the baby’s coming and Lexie’ll be so excited that I can’t feel bad about it. And Kate, her poor mum, looks ready to burst.
‘So am I coming to the hospital?’ I ask.
‘Just ’til we sort something out.’
I don’t much like the sound of this. I mean, it’s not like I can stay with Dad or anything. Not unless she fancies sending me all the way to Devon.
‘I’d be fine at home on my own, you know. I
look after myself,’ I tell her.
‘I don’t doubt it for a minute, sweetie,’ Mum says. ‘But you’re under sixteen so the law advises that you shouldn’t be left alone overnight.’
A sinking feeling hits my stomach. This isn’t the sort of thing my mother normally knows. Or says.
The motorway is almost empty. It starts to rain. Theo’s gone quiet in the back so I swivel round to check he’s all right. He’s fast asleep, a T-rex in each hand. I look closer just to check he’s still breathing. I don’t tell anyone I do this, but lately I’ve been checking an awful lot.
As we get nearer London, there’s more traffic. The roads sound hissy because of the rain. Just after 6 a.m., we pull up outside a huge old building with lights on at most of its windows. The hospital looks different at this time of day, like a hotel or a smart block of flats.
Mum lifts Theo from the car. He’s still asleep so thankfully there’s no tussle over dinosaurs; I ease the T-rexes out of his hands. The rest stay in the car along with the stuff I’d brought for Lexie’s. We enter the hospital through sliding doors, Mum with one arm hooked around Theo, the other pulling the little trolley thing that holds his oxygen. The doors close
behind us. It’s bright and hot inside. There’s the hum of floor polishers and a smell of antiseptic and cooking mixed together. We go up to where a man sits almost hidden behind a desk.
‘Hello, we’re an emergency admission,’ Mum says. ‘The name’s Theo Campbell. Cheetah Ward.’
The man takes ages checking his screen. Mum shifts Theo onto her hip. I can tell she’s dead nervous. She catches my eye and winks, which is her way of asking if I’m okay. I try to smile back but my stomach’s churning. Suddenly Mum stares over the top of Theo’s head.
‘Oh my word. This must be her!’
I turn round to see a woman I don’t recognise in a long dark coat. She’s standing in the entrance. Behind her, the sliding doors keep opening and shutting.
Mum goes over. ‘Nell!’ she cries.
I follow. Up close, the woman looks old – not seriously old, but older than Mum. She’s very thin and tall, with grey hair in a plait over one shoulder. Pinned to her jacket is one of those Remembrance Day poppies. Then I notice her hands. They’re enormous, like a scarecrow’s. There’s dirt under her nails. She still hasn’t moved. The doors open-close open-close. Letting go of Theo’s trolley, Mum beckons her forward. At last the doors slide shut.
much for coming at such short notice,’ Mum says. ‘I didn’t know who else to call.’
‘I suppose you tried David?’ the woman says.
My ears prick up because
is Dad’s name. Nearly three years ago he took a job designing houses made of wood, which meant moving to Devon. But Mum said she didn’t want to live somewhere that had more cows than people. If Dad wanted us to go with him, she said, then they should get married since they’d put it off for long enough. But instead of a proposal, there was shouting. In the end Dad went to Devon on his own.
‘I’ve left a message,’ Mum says. ‘But I expect he’s still asleep.’
The woman snorts. ‘There’ll be some excuse. There always is.’
I don’t like her saying this, not when we haven’t seen much of Dad lately. He’s been busy with work, so he says, and with his new baby daughter. Now I’m wondering if these are excuses too.
‘Nell, you remember Alice, my eldest?’ Mum says, a bit too brightly. I can tell she’s struggling to stay calm.
But the woman keeps staring at Mum. ‘It’s been a long time, Carrie – ten years, maybe?’
The woman keeps talking. She has a rich-sounding
voice. No one in our family sounds like that – well, only Dad. It’s then I work out who she is. As my mouth drops open, Mum introduces us.
‘Alice, this is your grandmother from your father’s side. You’ve not seen her since you were little. But she’s going to look after you for a bit and we’re grateful, aren’t we?’
? The woman’s a total stranger! I don’t remember her at all. Leaning in to Mum, I hiss in her ear, ‘I’d be fine on my own. You know I would.’
‘Sorry, sweetie,’ Mum whispers back. ‘Nell’s all right really. Just do your best. You won’t be with her for long.’
‘Can’t I come with you? I won’t get in the way.’
Mum sighs. ‘Alice, we’ve been through this. There’s only accommodation here for me. It’s a busy ward. There’s no space for patients’ sisters.’
I bite my lip to stop it wobbling. Behind us, a phone rings. Deep inside her handbag, Mum’s emergency pager beeps. The man at the desk calls over.
‘Hello? They need you now. They’re ready for him in theatre.’
Instantly I feel bad for being pathetic. Theo groans in Mum’s arms and starts to wake up. He rubs his eyes then does his usual wet cough. Out of habit, I check
his line. It’s fine. It’s always fine; the problem isn’t with the oxygen.
Mum puts her free arm around me. She smells of home. ‘I’ll phone you as soon as it’s over.’
‘When can I visit?’
‘In a day or so, hopefully.’
It’s all happening too quickly. I’m not ready to leave. Theo looks pale and sleepy, like a little animal nestled up against Mum.
‘Be brave, bro,’ I say, trying hard not to cry. ‘I’ll see you very soon.’
‘Promise, Alice?’ he says.
‘With bells on.’
He sighs and shuts his eyes.
I think suddenly. It’s still in the car. The man on reception is trying to hurry Mum. She looks flustered and almost drops Theo as she searches one-handedly for her keys. As usual, they’re right at the bottom of her bag. Her fingers shake as she hands them over.
‘I’ll leave them at the front desk,’ I say.
Backing away, Mum blows me a kiss.
‘Call you,’ she says.
By the time I’ve got my bags then dropped Mum’s keys at reception, there’s no sign of Nell in the hospital. Eventually I see her waiting for me on the opposite side of the street. She starts walking as soon as I join her.
‘Are we going straight home?’ I say.
I nod, relieved. At least I’ll be in my own house, in my own bed. And I’ll see Lexie later at school, which’ll help. We cross another street and go into a car park. She starts unlocking a car that looks even older than ours.
In the back seat something moves. It makes me jump.
‘You’re not scared of dogs, are you?’ Nell says.
I’m not. But this one’s massive. As Nell opens my door and I get in, I’m hit by the doggy smell.
‘He really is a dear thing,’ Nell says, reaching round to smooth the dog’s head.
‘But our house isn’t that big,’ I say. ‘And he’s … well … huge.’
Nell starts the car. ‘We’re not going to your house, Alice. You’re coming home with me, to my house. Didn’t your mother explain?’
‘No,’ I say, gritting my teeth. ‘She didn’t.’