Monday 9th May 2005 Prologue: The Boy in the Bed
The solitary noise was the cold, harsh beep of the life-support machine. Given that it was supposed to signify the continuance of life, it was strangely alien and mechanical. It was slowly, certainly, torturing Alison Lodge, tearing at her nerve endings: shredding them. That was it; she was being shredded: torn apart. Long dramatic fingernails. That was what the noise was like; drawing blood, breaking skin. It would not be happy until her body was broken and bleeding, in perfect correlation with the boy in the bed: dying.
Of course, no wishing for it to stop. Obviously not. However, the sound, and the expectation of its stopping, it hung in the air like a noxious smell. Impossible to ignore, it infiltrated everything. It was in her clothes, her hair, like sitting in a fog, dampness clinging to every single fibre. Impossible to think of anything else. She was alone in the room but even if someone had been there, conversation would have been unachievable.
Of course, not actually alone. Reminded herself of that. A mantra of a sort. Life was present yet. The Boy in the Bed. That was how she thought of it. Capitals representing: this was now his name. Separating him from his former self.
Of course, this was the very reason she was here. Barely human, neither dead nor alive: neither one thing nor the other: in-between realities. It was hard to imagine any life left in him. He looked so empty, no trace of the anger, the energy that had brought him here. She watched his chest rise and fall, slow and regular, mesmerised by the only movement in the desperate stillness. If not for the skin-shredding beep, it might be possible to imagine the normality of sleep. Alison made herself focus on the breathing, the hands at the sides, the shape of his body in the sheets, deliberately did not look at the ruin of his face. She did not allow herself to think of the jagged wounds hidden by the sheets but they existed nonetheless, the cause of blood loss, the cause of sleeping. They shattered any illusion of peace.
This time to think: horrendous. Mere hours had passed since she had found him lying bleeding in Coles Park, screaming for his very life. She tried not to think ‘the body’, forced herself to think his name; repeated it superstitiously. Lest we forget.
She turned events over continually, picking at details, considering every side; the way he was lying, the awkward angle which straightaway suggested brokenness and then the appalled gasp of realisation when she recognised his face through the agony, through the blood. The insane panic, the action of getting here had occupied her. No sleep yet. Not that she would be physically capable, even if they presented her with a bed. The exhaustion was there undoubtedly, but the remaining adrenalin was still lingering, hanging around with nowhere to go, making her twitchy. Furthermore, there was the nerve shattering beep. It was impossible to shut that out.
She would be enraged if she had the energy. The wound to the face, so gruesomely vivid, a lightning strike of flesh, revealed on his cheek. Beauty destroyed: and youth, yes, that as well. The main suspect, obvious: a former friend. The abject horror of a murderer with a smile on his face and a knife in his hands.
She stole a look at his face. From this side, the unsullied skin, pale, the unchanging expression, and the suggestion that something was missing. Something had already disappeared. It was beyond imagining, this waking up. His body had an air of infinity to it, a never-ending slumber. He was no longer there; nothing, an empty shell. This was what they were looking at, talking to, hoping for. Alison did not utter this aloud because, firstly, it would make it true, but mostly because of the expression on his mother’s face. The hope etched there. Hot desperation fuelled the hope, made it strong and unbreakable like forged iron. This was what was keeping the shell alive. It was feeding on their emotions. If we stopped hoping, it would die. (He would die she hastily corrected herself.) Wasn’t that how it went? His life in my hands; perhaps that was how you stopped feeling powerless. It is not God’s decision, it is mine.
She had gone to get them coffee and had taken her youngest son with her, safe in the knowledge that someone was watching, waiting. Alison was not sure what she was still doing here. Nevertheless, she could not find the words to suggest her own leaving. What could you say? His mother was clinging to her presence like she was a rock and the rushing waters were threatening to pull her down. Maybe this was Alison’s role; an extra pair of eyes, reassurance that someone was always on guard. Out of sight, out of life?
It was Monday morning now and she wondered briefly how her classes were behaving for the supply teacher. Year 11 would have heard about events by now and so would probably be suitably subdued. The rest, well, the only problem might be bottom set year 8. She never missed teaching them. The Head had been kind. How could he be anything else? He had said take as long as you like but for once school would be preferable.
The beep had nestled itself so firmly in her subconscious that when she went to the toilet later, she could still hear it. She perched on the toilet, not really needing to go but wanting to get out of the suffocating room. How long would she have to stay? When was it polite to leave? Maybe there were etiquette rules. It was okay to leave the bed of a coma victim who was not a direct relation after – well she had been here at least 12 hours, probably longer – time was becoming vague – surely, that was enough. Alison smiled ruefully to herself. Dear God!
It would be cruel to go, selfish. Of course, she knew that. His mother had no one else. Well, one other son. Only thirteen. Only just hanging on himself. Still the only words the voice of self-interest in her head would let her think, ‘go, for God’s sake, go’. Alison rested her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. She desperately wanted to cry but the tears were stuck, blocked somehow. She looked at her feet, in last night’s trainers, traces of mud on them still. She had stopped home briefly to deposit Sandy, her Labrador, and then raced to the hospital. It did not bear thinking about, what might have happened if she had not decided, last minute, to take the dog for a walk. Best not to think about Sandy attempting to lick the pool of blood that lay beside his body.
Back in the room and Alison found herself staring intently at the monitor. The peaks moved in time with the beep. She was studiously ignoring the boy’s brother because she could not think of what to say. Again, she thought of etiquette. Maybe she could write a book. How to Deal With Coma Bedside Conversation without Mentioning Death. It would probably sell like hot cakes. They could sell it in hospital bookshops. Jesus H. Christ, this was no sort of humour at all. His mother was outside again trying to get her ex-husband on the phone: to no avail. When she returned to the room, an air of quiet desperation had settled into her expression. The younger brother looked up briefly from his intent study of the floor. She did not speak, simply shrugged and shook her head.
The police had spoken to Alison already although she was sure they hadn’t finished with her yet, that the number of times she would have to recount the events of the night before would continue to increase. One thing that would be dreadful about school: the kids would want all the gory details. Once she was late for school because there had been a nasty car crash. She had seen it happen but had just focused on how she needed to be at school, needed to see this class to start a piece of coursework and she hadn’t really stopped to think about it until she was stood in front of Year 10 and realised she was shaking. Some of the kids had been horrified but most had just wanted to know if she could see bone, how much blood had been shed. Typical teenage ghouls. It would be like that now, no doubt, despite the fact that they had all known the victim in this case. Knew. Knew. She quickly corrected herself. Not dead yet. Present tense essential.
One more look at them, mother and brother. Vacant, as if the vampiric shell of a boy really was sucking in their energy. Probably she looked the same. As long as he did not live, then neither did they. There was a lot riding on the boy and his living.