“Where will it end?” Oliver says. “That’s what I’d like to know.”
In the decade Heather and family have lived next door to Oliver, he’s never missed a chance to take soundings of her beliefs. Heather gets the feeling he uses discussions to test her, each one a personal assessment that might help him decide the final value of her character. She fishes the house keys from her handbag and stands poised with them on her doorstep, positive her body language is clear, while Oliver plants his forearms on the garden fence, ready to continue his inquiries. He’s a bald-headed and bloodshot-eyed retiree with the posture of a man convinced he’s shorter than he deserves.
“You seen they’ve had more deaths in Italy?” he says.
“I’m trying not to watch the news.”
“Hospitals can’t cope,” he says. “And have you seen the state of Calais?”
“Thousands of folk camped out there, trying to get over the Channel.” He talks like Heather has this to answer for. “It’s a death sentence, all of them crammed together like that. I thought they’re saying the continent’s supposed to be locked down?”
“I’m not sure.”
“They should all be at home,” he says. “No way the border’s opening anytime soon.”
“It’s horrendous,” she says. “Right, I’ll catch you after.”
“No worries,” he says. “Did I see you with your Fraser the other night, by the way?”
Heather retracts the key from her door, looking back. “What’s that?”
“I thought I saw you and Fraser pull up in the car, must’ve been about ten. I didn’t know that was him home?”
“He’s been home a while,” she says. “Before we shut ourselves off.”
“He’ll be counting himself lucky,” Oliver says. “Where was it he went again?”
Oliver’s forehead corrugates and he lifts his arms off the fence. “Right.”
“Take care,” Heather says.
She enters the hall, shuts the door and keeps a hand against it, forearm braced to hold it closed, though common sense says there’s no prospect of anyone shouldering it open. She calls herself some names, livid at her loss of composure that gave Oliver carte blanche to doubt her sincerity. It’s not like Heather to fail to explain herself, ending a conversation without the certainty there’ll be no need for another.
Callum, her youngest, appears at the head of the stairs. She picked him up from school ten minutes ago, and he ran ahead indoors when she got caught on Oliver’s radar, using his own key to admit himself, an act he savours. Nine years old, narrow-bodied and features softly freckled, hair an insane scribble of blonde that a toddler could sketch, he prises at the collar of his school jersey and pushes it between his teeth, champing the cotton.
“You not changed yet?” Heather calls.
“You should be.”
“Something’s up with Fraser.”
Callum’s tone is the same one he uses whenever she orders him to be honest. Any sensation of warmth leaves Heather’s face. “How do you mean?”
“He doesn’t feel well.”
“Where is he?”
Callum backs against the landing wall as Heather ascends the stairs.
“Did you go in his room?” she says. “Did you touch him?”
Callum denies both counts.
“He’ll just be tired,” she says. “Away and put your stuff in the wash.”
“Is he dying?”
Heather’s smile feels taut, like a restraint tied around her thoughts. She tries out a laugh, grips Callum’s shoulders and spins him onto the right heading for his room. “You talk some amount of guff,” she says. “Scoot.”
“I don’t want him to die.”
“Anybody starts dying, you’ll be the first to know.”
Heather lightly skelps his arse to spur him on his way. She waits for Callum to nip into his bedroom before she approaches Fraser’s door. It’s partially open, a gap the width of Callum, providing her with a view of the room’s interior and its shadows, curtains closed to the late afternoon. Movie posters for Alien and No Country for Old Men bought in Fraser’s teens remain tacked to the walls, so too snapshots of pro wrestling matches cut from magazines. Fraser’s outline is stretched out on his bed, mattress exposed, duvet lumped onto the floor to his left. Even at this time, with other concerns more pressing, Heather can’t believe the height of him – six feet and two inches accrued over twenty-four years, an evolution she wouldn’t have dared imagine.
She tugs her sleeve over her hand and reaches inside to switch his light on – Fraser’s eyes constrict at the vicinity’s sudden brilliance and he whines in protest. He’s naked save a pair of boxers, his total area of bare skin saturated in fresh perspiration and the sheet underneath him moistened from bodily contact. The bedroom’s air radiates a day and night’s accumulation of human heat. Heather repeats Fraser’s name and her eldest turns his head in her direction, both cheeks the same vicious pink as rare beef.
“Talk to me,” she says.
“I was careful.” The words sound like his vocal cords have dried out or calcified. “I stayed out of everyone’s road.”
“Then it’s more likely a bug,” she says. “It’ll be something and nothing.”
Fraser coughs once and releases a volley of others, chest convulsing at each hard spasm from his lungs. Flashes of saliva land on his torso and the bedsheet until he covers his mouth. A minute down and he hasn’t stopped, firing out coughs that must number in the dozens between heavy swills of breath. Heather fears he might shred his own windpipe, and she half-shouts above his expulsions, appealing him to breathe in through his nose, out through his mouth. The coughing does subside, and he regains a semblance of control, but she notices his upper body’s instability, diaphragm visibly straining at an urgent instinct to expel whatever shouldn’t be in his system.
“Call it what you want,” he rasps. “But this is how it starts.”
“If that’s what it is, we let it run its course and you’ll get over it.”
“We’ll be lucky.”
“It’s not up for debate, Fraser.”
“They’ll make an example of me, won’t they.”
Heather nudges the door with her shoulder, taking a step onto the carpet to speak at a closer range. “I don’t rate their chances. They’d have to get past me.”
“Don’t come in,” he says. “Don’t let anyone near me.”
“You concentrate on you,” she says. “And I’ll worry about everyone else.”
“Somebody should be,” she says. “But not you.”
She’s prepared. Heather returns to Fraser’s room wearing a surgical mask and the first pair from a box of medical gloves, supplies she purchased days prior to Fraser setting foot in the house. So protected, Heather helps him sip water through a straw – interrupted by his brutal surges of coughing – and cleans sweat from his hairline with a wet dishtowel. He’s fixated on the fact that Heather needs to keep clear and implores her to leave, but she refuses. If he’s in no state to look after himself, she’s his only alternative. After she’s fed him two paracetamol, however, she’s out of options to ease his symptoms. Much as it pains her to admit it, his immune system is on its own.
In her room Heather gets changed and places every article of clothing she’d been wearing into an empty wash basket, carting it straight downstairs to the machine. She shouts on Callum repeatedly until he materialises with arms full of today’s school clothes, all of them poured into the same load as hers that she programs for a wash at maximum temperature. Her gloves binned, she ignores Callum’s amused confusion over her mask and hustles him to the kitchen sink, her hands and his then scrubbed with liquid soap and an onrush of hot tapwater. She instructs him to go for a shower right now in her bedroom’s en suite, not the main bathroom that Fraser has used. Callum’s eyebrows contract, and he talks as if she doesn’t grasp simple logic – it’s too early for a shower. He has his routines and disrupting them is offensive, discolouring his mood unless things are corrected.
“What’s wrong with Fraser?” he asks.
“He’s just out of sorts,” Heather says. “Get moving.”
“But I can go later.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I am not telling you again,” she shouts.
Callum retreats, and she perceives his alarm at how quickly she lost the rag. Meanwhile, Fraser’s coughing thuds through the centre of the house.
Phoning Nicole, Heather is bounced to her voicemail twice but reaches her at the third time of asking. She informs her daughter she needs her home and cuts through the irritation that is Nicole’s immediate response. “Don’t use public transport,” she says.
“What you on about?”
“Get a taxi,” Heather says. “No trains and no buses. You with me?”
There’s silence from Nicole long enough that Heather checks their call hasn’t dropped. “You there?”
“What did I say to you?” Nicole demands. “What did I tell you would happen?”
“Get home,” Heather says. “And I mean faster than fast.”
She turns on the news channels for headlines at the top of the hour. It’s not often Heather predicts the day’s top stories with this much accuracy, broadcasters competing to remind her and the rest of Britain of what they already know. The country’s border remains closed even to its own citizens, international terminals and ports shut until further notice. Passenger flights are barred from national airspace and more hotels and venues announce temporary closures as a pre-emptive measure. The nation considers itself clean, free of infection, and according to medical officials and cabinet ministers sufficient measures are in place to keep it that way. Footage then rolls of Italian hospital corridors where patients inundate the floor space outside intensive care units, lying on wool blankets or coats, and Heather can’t differentiate which folk are alive and which are dead. She snatches up the remote and kills the picture.
Nicole arrives fifteen minutes later, her footsteps rapid from hall to kitchen. Heather is again at the sink, rinsing her hands, the skin of both soured red through the water’s steam. She removes her mask and turns to glance at Nicole as her daughter unslings her shoulder bag and hammers it down on the breakfast bar. Her hair is a shoulder-length snarl of auburn shot through with burnt orange streaks, and her face planes to a precisely edged chin, her expression made more daunting by strong doses of eyeshadow. Even at twenty she gives the impression she’s tired of all her experiences, serious-minded but indifferent to the future – Heather reckons she’s never been any good at being young. She updates Nicole and her daughter’s eyes won’t let her be.
“Where’ve you got him?”
“He’s upstairs,” Heather says. “Trying to get a sleep.”
“I’ll need to see him.”
“You won’t,” Heather says. “He’s off limits.”
“This is on you.”
“For all we know he’s caught it coming over.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter,” Nicole shouts.
The two of them falter, quietened by too many thoughts. One floor above, coughing blitzes the confines of Fraser’s room.
“I can drive him to the hospital,” Nicole says.
“He’s not going to hospital.”
“They can’t do anymore for him than I can do here,” Heather says. “We wait til he’s rid of it.”
“Would you give me a break.”
“Nobody’s going near him except me,” Heather says.
“So we keep knocking on wood and hope you can get him through the night?”
“We take him in, he could end up doing time,” Heather says. “It’s not happening.”
Nicole paces the breadth of the kitchen and stops, fingers cinched behind her neck. She and Heather consider their next sentences while dusk begins to solidify outdoors, dulling the atmosphere, late sunlight repelled to the west in a spread of jaundice-yellow clouds. Through the window, Heather registers movement in their garden and recognises a tabby swanning along the back wall, its pelt charcoal-grey and irises a hot yellow. It’s a local stray, underweight and scarred by territorial scuffles; recently she left out a dish of fatty chicken and dods of ham on the patio for it to devour and sustain itself for another day. The cat drops to the grass and advances, then assumes a spot near the house, seated upright with tail flinching off the ground. Its stare is blatant, assertive of its own expectancy, and Heather finds this discomfiting. She pulls at the cord to lower the blinds and the room lapses into shade.
“I couldn’t let him stay where he was,” she says.
“And it’s turned out perfect, hasn’t it?”
“Anyone else would’ve done the same.”
“That’s the problem,” Nicole says.
Within twenty-four hours Heather acts as necessary to organise their new circumstances. At times it feels like she’s working by some instinct she wasn’t aware of, her efficiency heightened and mind preset to address a hundred and one things that need doing. Her prior research into quarantine requirements and incubation periods persuades her that no member of the household should venture out in public – she concludes that, for the next fortnight, all of them have to stay at home. Callum takes this news with a nervous scepticism, eventually assured Heather isn’t having him on, while Nicole accepts it without contention as if she’s satisfied to notch up another reason for resentment. Heather rings the primary school to excuse Callum’s future absences – blaming a bad case of tonsillitis – and asks that his classwork be e-mailed to her; she orders shopping online for delivery and includes a special request that the bags be left on their doorstep; plus she drafts a message for Nicole to send to the department secretary at her university, clarifying she won’t be able to attend tutorials due to a short spell in hospital. When Nicole reads the paragraph Heather has typed on her behalf, she doesn’t suppress an amused whicker through her nostrils.
“What is it?”
“You’re too good at this,” Nicole says.
They begin a deep clean of their surroundings – Heather can’t bring herself to trust the house. Surfaces of countertops, bannisters, armrests and door handles are no longer innocent and oblivious but conceivably fingerprinted with contaminants. She and Nicole, both gloved and masked, attack the upstairs and downstairs using antibacterial sprays, disinfectants and sanitising wipes. Wefts of lemon-scented cleaning fluid and diluted bleach flavour the house’s air. In the kitchen dinner plates and cups endure several rounds of Heather’s forceful scrubbing, cutlery scalded and buffed to the severely bright glint of surgical instruments. She strips bedding for more cycles of laundry and carries fresh sheets and a blow-up mattress to the front room, explaining to Callum it’s best he and his sister sleep here rather than in their own rooms near Fraser – neither of them want to get what he’s got. Callum picks at dry skin on his lower lip, a face on him like she’s changing the rules of a game he’s played all his life.
At intervals Heather revisits Fraser’s room to scrutinise his condition. The fever recedes and intensifies, his temperature unable to maintain a constant, while Heather plies him with warm water and applies a bunched-up cloth to his cheeks and brow, ice cubes packed inside it. She has to be alert to his next fit of coughing – at the instant it flares she dodges backward and cringes at each abraded ruction in Fraser’s airway. The noise in his chest makes her picture his lungs cracking like earth in a drought. She fetches him several brands of painkiller, throat lozenges or cold and flu tablets to provide relief, but any improvement doesn’t last. Coughing keeps him awake into the early hours; on the second night Heather sits up with him, decked out in mask, gloves and an apron to minimise risk, kneeling by the bed to console Fraser through muscular pains and bouts of mild delirium. Eventually, exhaustion goes to work on him like a general anaesthetic, his eyes dipping not long after three in the morning. She stays where she is, ready to reassure if he happens to stir.
The bedside lamp tints Fraser’s face a bland yellow, and she watches him breathe, thinking of his effect on her existence. Of her three children, there’s no doubt Fraser has cost her the most sleep and brought on the greatest number of migraines. Born dangerously premature, he made Heather feel imperative from the off, her perception that only through her constant prayers and her own conviction would he survive a week. Since then, following his every playground fight, athletics injury or academic failure, she’s been his first responder, an emergency service to save him from permanent damage. Not that he’s incapable or inadequate by any stretch of the imagination; rather, he just needs reinforcements to stave off a natural susceptibility for disaster. It’s made no difference whether he’s a child or in his twenties – it’s been Heather’s responsibility to rebalance the odds in his favour since they’ve been against him from his first seconds on Earth.
In hindsight, then, Fraser’s foray to Thailand last year had again made him an easy target for events. He’d completed a course to gain an English teaching certificate, deciding he fancied some work somewhere in Asia, and nabbed a post at a public school in Bang Khla. He flew out at the end of April, unaware of Heather’s level of anxiety over how many miles would separate him from Scotland’s safe ground. Regular contact went some way to soothe her concern, video calls showing Fraser vibrant and enthusiastic as he spoke about meditation and a fondness for pad kaprao. Come January, signing off at the end of a chat, he mentioned a short news article about some odd variant of pneumonia that had hospitalised tourists in Chiang Mai. Three weeks on he called Heather to confirm all schools in his province had been shut, one of the town’s residents pronounced dead and two more on ventilators. His effort to be matter-of-fact frightened her more than if he’d advised her to panic.
He didn’t have enough money for an international airfare. Heather slapped charge after charge onto her credit card, paying for flights that were subsequently postponed or cancelled as routes to Europe and other transport hubs in Asia were severed. She transferred savings to secure him a seat on a successful flight to Istanbul, then purchased him a ticket to Paris – his plane there ended up one of the last permitted to land on French soil. Throughout his initial flight, Heather monitored television and radio bulletins mapping the geographical mania of the virus as it scorched through populations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, crossed the Turkish Straits and closed the gap on her boy like nuclear fallout. She determined he could bolt for home via other means of transport in the event airlines had to ground their fleets.
Modern civilisation, however, with its structures and general principles Heather had relied on, broke with her overnight – the government announced no individual, including British passport holders, would be granted entry to the United Kingdom. As of midnight on that date, her boy’s birthplace declined to claim him; time differences and delays ensured Fraser missed the deadline. Upon touchdown across the Channel, his nationality had no value. Heather booked rooms for him at city hostels and budget hotels, stays limited to single nights until it was decreed all accommodation in Paris must close to protect public health. She wept when Fraser messaged to say he was sheltering in an alcove of a theatre’s wall on Place de l’Odéon, his final sheaf of euros relinquished to a homeless Parisian in exchange for a spare sleeping bag. He stated he didn’t have a clue what to do, a refrain he hadn’t changed at any stage of the journey, and Heather’s stomach turned when she visualised his potential futures there on a street corner with no means to conceal his vulnerability. According to the law, she should’ve acknowledged the situation wasn’t rectifiable; phoned the embassy or the Foreign Office for assistance; and trusted in the readiness of others to prioritise Fraser’s rescue in the midst of mass contagion. It’s what’s right, and it’s what no one would do.
Don’t ask her how, but Heather managed to establish communication with the owner of a fishing trawler based out of Newhaven. She clarified he was prepared to ferry a small group of people into Britain’s territorial waters, a joint enterprise with a group of traffickers on the French coast. The sum she paid was five figures, a fee to reserve Fraser’s seat on a dinghy that took him and six others from an empty cove in Normandy to within nine miles of England’s coast to meet the trawler. She apprised Nicole of the plan half an hour prior to her drive south, Callum left in his sister’s care. Heather does regret her abruptness then, her curt dismissal of Nicole’s arguments and apprehensions, but she reasons it’s the easiest to tolerate of all possible regrets.
The weather held next morning, Sussex pressed beneath the sun’s saffron yellow and the sea content to temper its surf. It occurred to Heather that, given what he’d been through, Fraser had earned that calm a sunrise. She met him three streets from the harbour, compelled to resist an impulse to throw her arms around his neck in case he passed something on. Motion sickness and night-time temperatures had blanched Fraser’s face and fingers; his wet clothes emitted the English Channel’s petrol and salt-infused stink. She’d mentally listed info she wanted to give him, things to recommend, yet could recall none of it as she and Fraser stood there in bits, a couple of metres between them. He laid a palm on her car’s roof and cleared his eyes on his sleeve.
“So, where to?”
“Home,” she said. “Get in the back seat.”
“I’m afraid to breathe near you.”
“It’s the best we can do,” she said.
They’ve racked up five days indoors, a sixth impending. Heather rests on one of the stools in the kitchen having made a mug of peppermint tea – she believes its scent will dispel the omnipresent vapours of cleaning spray that seem to permeate through her sinuses and skin to bone marrow. She studies the dark outside the window, a square of perfect black; greasy yellow bulbs in the cooker’s range hood are the kitchen’s sole supply of light. Nicole joins her, leaning her arms on the nearest end of the breakfast bar.
“There’s a thread taped across the stairs,” she says. “Halfway up.”
“Any particular reason why?”
“Because Callum won’t take a telling.” Heather exhales and closes her hands around her cup. “He’s wanting to play in his room and I’ve said not to go up there, but he won’t let it go. I need to know if he’s away up when my back’s turned. If I find that thread snapped, I’ll leather him.”
“What if I did it?” Nicole says.
“You’re old enough to know better.”
Nicole straightens and sighs, beginning to fan herself with a takeaway menu. Heather focuses again on the windowpane and its void of scenery.
“There’s a cat in the garden,” she says. “I think it’s spending the night under the azalea. It’s been hanging about acting like it owns the place.”
“I’d prefer it took its business elsewhere.”
“Chase it off, then.”
“I shouldn’t have to,” Heather says. “It should go of its own accord.” She lifts her tea to bring its fragrance proximate to her nostrils. “Am I right in saying cats are supposed to hate eye contact?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I must’ve read that somewhere,” Heather says. “When you lock eyes with them, they see it as a threat or a challenge and they look away – that one out there doesn’t.”
“You’re not getting much sleep, are you,” Nicole says.
“More than Fraser.”
“He sounded bad earlier,” Nicole says.
“That fever’s going through him like I don’t know what.” Heather sets the tea down and slots her fingers together. “He’s been coming out with some stuff.”
“He told me to put a pillow over his face.”
Nicole stills and Heather is conscious of the strength of her look. “He’s got it into his head if he’s done away with, our problems disappear. He kept on at me and then he starts crying and says he wants his dad.”
“That’s not him talking,” Nicole says.
They extend each other a silence. Heather folds her arms and watches the middle distance. “That reminds me,” she says. “What day’s it today?”
“I would’ve been at the cemetery this morning. Your dad’s flowers’ll need replacing.”
“They will that.”
“We’ll be back there again soon enough,” Heather says.
Nicole clears her throat twice, a fist brought to her lips.
“No idea what he’d’ve made of all this,” Heather says.
“He would’ve had your back.”
“Not that it would’ve mattered, though.”
“Dad agreeing with you or not wasn’t relevant – you’d push on regardless. It’s how you operate.”
“It is not.”
“I mind him saying you’re not interested in opinions you didn’t ask for. The man was spot on.”
“That’s absolute nonsense.”
Nicole laughs at her. “So you’re not allergic to contradiction?”
Heather rotates her stool left, allowing her to properly face Nicole, heart rate escalating. “Explain what I should’ve done.”
“You’re the expert, apparently – give me another scenario that would’ve got Fraser out of harm’s way.”
“He’s in harm’s way the now.”
“Lower your voice.”
“You took all this upon yourself,” Nicole says. “That’s the issue.”
“I didn’t see any other volunteers.”
“Because nobody else got a look in.”
“What was there to discuss?” Heather says.
“Being consulted might’ve been nice,” Nicole says. “Factoring into the equation might’ve been nice.”
“Did I need your permission to go and get him?”
“No,” Nicole fires back. “But I didn’t hear you concede that other people live here. You’ve got two more kids and we were still here, if you’d taken the time to notice.”
Nicole quits the room, deserting Heather for the hall. Her mother doesn’t want to follow, unable to put up a reply. There’s a sudden crash of human bodyweight on the hall floor – Heather sprints from the kitchen to find Nicole prone by the foot of the stairs. Faint phrases wander from her daughter’s mouth, notes of surprise and perplexity. She tries to right herself using limbs that suddenly lack the power to support her. Heather crouches to help, arms around Nicole’s midriff to hoist her upright, but standing seems beyond Nicole’s ability. Heather places the back of her hand to Nicole’s cheek – it’s like touching a flagstone on a summer’s day.
Despite Heather’s attempts, it’s not possible to get Nicole upstairs to her own bedroom. Heather gives up on carrying her and beds Nicole down on the sofa in Andrew’s old study. She has to shut the door on Callum, scared when he steps out of the front room to learn what’s happening. She commands him to stay away, and the thought crosses her mind that she should barricade the door.
Nicole’s cough starts not long after. For a full day she and Fraser trade the sound of the virus between them, dry splutters of infected lungs audible from any corner of the house. Heather is forced to flit between ground and first floor with water bottles and medication, trips interspersed with frantic handwashing at the kitchen sink and switches to new masks and sets of gloves. It’s essential she keep her head, withstand the distress and severity of the current moment, because patients do recover. She’s consulted enough reports on government websites, the official statistics on survival rates, to be confident both Fraser and Nicole can best the condition. They’re young and in good nick; what they require is time to rally and cure themselves.
Near midnight, Heather is by the study window, shifting the curtains apart to look at the street while Nicole rests. Her fever has lessened a fraction, though sweat shines on her face like wet paint. Outside, the road and pavements are clear of traffic and life, the neighbourhood’s dark pared back by the ardent yellows of streetlamps and lighted windows of other houses. Heather is happy to witness nothing, enjoy some minutes of inaction. From the right Oliver strolls into her eyeline and halts at the mouth of their driveway, the leads of his two cocker spaniels in his grip. He offers Heather a thumbs-up with a quizzical expression, mouthing words along the lines of You alright? or How’s things? She’s not sure she pulled her mask down in time to hide it and hopes he’s too far away to distinguish details. She waves to him and nods, adding a smile. Placated, Oliver marches on out of view, a spaniel on either side.
“Who’s out and about?” Nicole has surfaced from her kip and she cranes at Heather, head raised from the pillow and cushions piled on the sofa’s armrest.
“Oliver’s away a walk with the dogs,” Heather says. “He mustn’t sleep.” She lets the curtains slip back together. “I can’t stand him more often than not.”
“The man loves himself.”
“That’s a shame,” Nicole says. “He’s decent.” Her voice is smaller than it should be, scratched around its edges. “He’s always in his garden putting out food for the birds. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that bird table empty. He likes looking after things.”
Heather sits on the floor and moves to cool Nicole’s forehead with a washcloth, but her daughter seizes it, laying it there on her own.
“He was really cut up after Dad died,” she says.
“Aye, he caught up with me not long after and said he was proud to have known him. He got upset.”
“I didn’t realise,” Heather says.
Nicole hacks out more coughs, levering her knees to her chest. When the spate finishes, she rolls onto her back, breathing carefully. “I’m taking it you still haven’t put out a distress call.”
“What’s your red line? Is there going to be any of us left?”
“Nic, don’t even bother talking like that.”
“But if I pick up the phone, what would you do?” Nicole says. “If I decide I’m at the end of my rope?”
“I won’t stop you if that’s what you want.”
Nicole laughs, provoking her cough. “Don’t lie,” she says. “You’d prise my fingers off the phone one by one.” She takes a read of Heather’s face and becomes sombre. “Don’t stress. I’m not planning on doing it.”
“Because I’ve no right,” she says. “Because it’s not up to me alone.”
Heather pries some fibres from the carpet, all of them tensing before they break. “I genuinely didn’t see another way through,” she says.
“But not everything’s your problem.”
Heather murmurs in acknowledgment, unwilling to confess that elements within her control she must control, to make up for everything else she can’t. She gets to her feet and interrogates Nicole on whether she needs something to eat, an extra blanket or paracetamol. Nicole rejects the suggestions in a monotone, staring at the study’s bookcase that displays multiple rows of Andrew’s political biographies, volumes on naval history and essay collections.
“I bet you no one’s opened them since he’s been gone,” she says.
Heather heads for the door, averse to sensing that ache of an absent life. She pauses and motions at Nicole to attract her attention. “Love you.”
“So you should.”
She receives another message from the university threatening Nicole with academic penalties if she doesn’t send evidence to excuse her nonattendance. A third e-mail from the school is launched at her insisting on receipt of Callum’s doctor’s certificate; Heather worries the next step could be a visit from a truancy officer. In the meantime she’s again had to narrow her and Callum’s available living space. She restricts his waking hours to the front room, preventing access to the kitchen whenever feasible so he doesn’t venture near the study. For toilet and shower she detaches the thread across the stairs before escorting him to her en suite. She wouldn’t want to calculate the square metres she’s permitting Callum to manoeuvre in and can’t blame him for his uptick in tantrums and frustration. To compensate, she’s granted him unlimited hours on his console and the internet, a guarantee of peace.
On their eighth night, Callum is cross-legged inches from the television screen, absorbed in some role-playing game’s gunfight in the Old West. Heather has inflated the mattress and fits his sheet to it, sitting back on the couch when she’s done. She has the table lamps on and they layer the room in the dullest hue of electrified yellow. Shotgun recoils and the ricochet of bullets whip out of the telly’s speakers, and she insists Callum turn the volume down. He obeys and speaks without facing her.
“Can I go back to school tomorrow?”
“When can I?”
Heather rubs her left temple while fatigue stings her eyelids and brain.
“Enough,” she says.
Callum rounds on her, smacking his controller onto the rug. “Why’d this have to happen to us?”
“Because,” she says, then runs out of words. He’s owed a better justification for his unhappiness yet she has nothing to give – it sets her off crying. She disentangles the mask from her jaw as her nose streams and tears slip from her chin. Next thing Callum clambers onto the couch to pat her shoulder. He questions Heather on what’s wrong, and she’s reminded of the instant she’d had to say his dad had gone somewhere they couldn’t go. She kisses the back of Callum’s hand and convinces him to ignore her; his mother is off her head. She adjusts his mask, tightening the bands around his ears, as he contemplates her excuses.
“Everything sorts itself out,” he says.
“So it does,” she says.
Before long he’s out for the count beside her, dreaming with his head rested against her ribs. Heather doesn’t budge, reluctant to disturb him, though lack of movement starts to agitate the base of her spine and right hip – six years after the fact those areas remain traumatised. Heather recalls the local paper had referred to her as a victim, a term she hates for implying she was vulnerable or in want of pity; she prefers saying she was involved in a hit and run, rather than the victim of one. She’d been midway home on a cool September evening, a journey on foot along Hunter Street, an east wind sieving through branches of beech trees in the park. She’d gone to step down from the kerb, ready to cross over – she’d had no inkling of danger, no jolt of a survival instinct, in the millisecond before a hatchback mounted the pavement and flung her over its bonnet. The blunt edge of the car’s bodywork had belted her right thigh and rammed her aside; she’d flailed in midair and arced through the wing mirror, slicing it from the passenger door with a crunch of plastic and glass. Her left arm had impacted the tarmac first and fractured when the rest of her landed. In a mess of thoughts and blood, she’d looked round to see the car complete its swerve, return to the road and accelerate. As to make and model, she’d been clueless, the only thing definite the vehicle’s colour scheme of mustard yellow.
There’d been no eyewitnesses. Heather had sat up and established she was alone, her left arm a rigid strip of agony and nubs of glass caught up in her hair, but all of this unnoticed by Hunter Street residents. She’d spat pieces of teeth into her palm, pocketed them and pushed herself onto her feet. Folk don’t believe her when Heather claims she’d no notion whatsoever to cry for help. It hadn’t occurred to her that she ought to, nor had she weighed up using her mobile to contact Andrew or the ambulance service. She tends to categorise actions as either necessary or unnecessary – summoning others to her aid Heather hadn’t deemed necessary. She’d had no desire to be an issue for others to solve. Instead, then, she’d walked shy of half a mile on empty streets to the infirmary and presented herself at reception, enquiring when she might be able to see someone about her arm.
Andrew never did manage to fathom her thought processes that day. On the ward, he’d taken the seat next to her bed, smoothing his hand down her good arm as though checking for dents, and challenged her on what the hell she’d been playing at.
“I could get myself here,” she’d said. “What’s the point in bothering anyone?”
“One is never served so well as by oneself,” he’d said. “That what you’re aiming at?”
“Sounds about right.”
He’d shaken his head at her. “Sometimes you’re wrong.”
They’d had twelve more months together. Heather still wishes she could apologise for not anticipating that, for not heading off what would come.
Callum stirs, pulls free of her on the couch and moans: “Too hot.”
“What you saying, Cal?”
Heather feels the back of Callum’s pyjama top, its fabric glued to his skin. The sweat doesn’t care that she’d pay any money for it not to be there.
She can’t even hazard a guess as to the time of night. The front room traps each of Callum’s coughs and their resonance thumps at the walls. After a word with Nicole, Heather climbs the stairs and takes care to stamp on the thread. She heads for Fraser’s bedroom and its pale, yellow lamplight; it transpires that he’s up, propped on his pillows, capable of a breath without coughing but his complexion anaemic white. Thick stubble infests his jawline. He doesn’t interrupt Heather’s admission of what’s occurred nor when she owns up to what she has to do; he’s more preoccupied by the plastic containers stacked beside the wardrobe. She uses those tubs to store reserves of Fraser’s old toys: straights and hairpin turns of a Scalectrix track, action figures, and perhaps a metric ton of Lego.
Fraser points at the containers, eyes thin. “I’ve been wondering what all that’s doing here. Did Callum not want any of it?”
“Callum’s got his own stuff.”
“But it should’ve all got chucked, then.”
“They’re yours,” she says. “I didn’t want to just throw them out.”
Fraser turns to her, and she can tell he’s lost weight, his profile sharpened. “I don’t think I’ve any use for them.”
She queries if he understands what’s going to happen. Fraser nods and fidgets with the washing label stitched to the bedcovers; he begins to worry his lower lip.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” she says.
“Not so sure about that.” He ponders again the plastic boxes and their contents, his bearing that of a person nervous that he’s overlooked something vital. “I promise I’ll take that lot out of here.”
“Don’t worry about it the now,” she says. “I can sort it.”
“No,” Fraser says. “I don’t want you to.” He veers his head towards the window to cough and doesn’t look back at her. “It shouldn’t be down to you, should it.”
Heather opens their back door, inhaling the air and the light. Morning rinses everything in an overcast shade of blue when banks of cloud separate sunshine from earth; it’s a blue that washes over the surface of nature like a painter’s oil. She’s uncertain when she might next get an opportunity to look at their garden and does her best to memorise its shrubs and weeds and the smell of its soil. At this angle she’s able to see into Oliver’s garden too, his bird table taller than the dividing wall and its platform covered in sunflower seeds, raisins and a burst of loose feathers; but no birds.
First thing Heather had to search her mobile’s contact list for Oliver’s info, unable to remember his number. She thought it only right to give him fair warning of events and to request he mind the house for however long all of them might be gone. She did appreciate that, by putting out a mayday, you have to rely on whoever’s closest. She’d counted to thirty when Oliver picked up.
“It’s yourself,” he said. “You’ve been missing in action.” To Heather’s ear he seemed winded from his hurry to the phone, his speech moving on top of little huffs of breath. “I was thinking I needed to pop round, actually.”
“I just wanted you to hear this from me,” she said.
“Hang on,” he said. “Can you give me two seconds?”
She listened in on Oliver’s gradual walk to another part of his home and his relief at having a seat.
“Apologies,” he said. “I’m struggling a bit here.”
Heather caught his trace of disquiet, some worry about whether he ought to worry.
“Thought I’d just got a wee chill,” Oliver said. “But it won’t let up.” He began to strain in allotting enough air for language. “I take a few steps and it’s like someone’s pouring cement in my chest.” A cough hurled out of him, inciting more, and these became dry retches that made Heather reach a hand out to the kitchen counter for support.
“Oliver,” she said.
Maybe a mile off, multiple sirens waver through the town centre, closing in with more decibels. She realises feathers from Oliver’s bird table have floated over the garden’s boundary, dabbing at the grass in multitudes. There’re more than should be natural. Amongst them on the ground she discovers minute dods of gristle and a tiny bone fragment. She eyeballs the wider garden – the grey tabby is there beneath the azalea, palpably comfortable in its own safety, a half-mutilated chaffinch clamped in its mouth. The cat doesn’t avert its eyes and neither does Heather. She has a sudden craving to destroy, retaliate for a life taken; she rummages at gravel lining the patio and retrieves a blue pebble that fits her palm. She lobs it at the stray with a scream of obscenities; though the stone doesn’t connect, the cat appears stunned by her intent, frightened that it’s no longer condoned. Next instant it darts for the back wall and vanishes in a single bound.