Tag Story – written by all members of the group, one isolated day at a time, then put together as a whole.
One For Sorrow, or Two For Joy …
After a heavy morning cleaning the house and feeding the kids, Jan decided she needed a brew. Kettle on and Woman’s Weekly on the table, Jan settled into a cozy hour of self-indulgence. Little did she know how much of a U-turn her life was about to take. As the kettle started to whistle a songless tune Jan could hear something louder. Eventually, it drowned out the sound of the kettle. She rushed to the window and could see what could only be described as Armageddon outside. The garden shed was ablaze, and debris was everywhere. She ran outside and tried to make sense of the scene before her. There was a large crater where the shed should be, and the heat drove her back into the house.
She ran to the bottom of the stairs.
“Claire! Alex! Where are you? Are you up there?”
Claire’s voice sounded as if it was coming from a long way away.
“I’m doing my Chemistry homework. What was that noise?’
“Never mind that. Is your brother up there? Alex? Alex? Claire can you check if he’s in his room?”
Jan ran back into the kitchen and felt under the Woman’s Weekly for her phone. In her haste she dropped it onto the beige tiled floor. A large crack appeared on the screen. She picked it up and returned to the bottom of the stairs.
“Claire, is he there? Claire…”
Claire’s voice sounded even more distant than before.
“Mum, he’s not here.”
“Where are you? Try the bathroom. In fact, look everywhere! I’m coming up.”
Jan mounted the stairs, two at a time, nearly tripping on Jess, the cat which yowled past her indignantly.
Not in his room. Jan wrenched open the door and hunted wildly round the room, with its strewn rugby socks and mounds of crumpled clothes in a miasma of unwashed teenager.
He’d really gone and done it now!
“He SAID he’d help me with my chemistry,” Claire wailed. “You said if he got one more demerit, you’d ground him for a WEEK!”
“OMG! OMG! Claire LOOK!”
Jan yanked at Claire’s shoulder, wrenching her violently into Jan’s own bedroom with its view of the devastated shed. She gestured at the window. It looked worse from up here. Raging sheets of flame shot skyward and they could feel the heat through the glass. The wreckage that had been the back garden, if garden was not too kind a word for the mud splattered, overgrown weed pit that used to do duty for lawn, was littered with twisted, blackened nameless things.
“What’s he done now? – what’s he done – Dad’ll kill him!” raged Claire, then suddenly with real pain, “that’s MY BIKE!”
“Alex, where are you – are you alright?”
Jan yelled wildly and launched back down the stairs, stomping on the cat and out the front, where at least the temperature was manageable, tempered by October drizzle.
Claire came hurtling down the stairs behind Jan, narrowly missing the cat and burst outside, just behind her mother, into the garden.
“OH NO! LOOK at my BIKE Mum, it’s totally WRECKED!”
“Never mind your bloody bike, girl, I’m worried about your brother,” Jan wailed.
Just at that moment they heard an eerie, groaning sound. Claire and Jan stared at each other in confusion. Suddenly Claire understood. She pointed to a bundle of what looked like smouldering rags, situated a few feet away and caked in the mud.
“Oh Gosh Mum, look over there…I..I..th..I think it’s Alex!”
Jan rushed over, bending down to see more closely, the horror dawning visible on her face.
“It IS him. Oh no, what on earth has happened to you, my baby?’ she sobbed. “Claire, find my mobile, call 999, get an ambulance. NOW!” Jan shouted her instructions.
As Claire rushed back into the house, Alex opened his eyes, raised his head slightly and Jan heard him whisper.
“Dads’ fertiliser. Ammonium Nitrate.” With these words his head fell backwards, his eyes fluttered closed, and his world went black.
Blue lights flashing. Sirens blaring. Emergency serviced flooded the cu-de-sac. Neighbours straining out of upper windows, concerned for the Smith family and their own properties as thick, sparkling charcoal grey plumes chugged upwards. Halo’s bellowed instructions.
“Close windows, prepare to evacuate.”
Foot Officers banged on doors. Leisure centre being made ready. John Smith, however, out of reach of any signals, was approaching the thirteenth hole of Castle Golf course when he spotted Stewards running towards him, arms flailing, whistles blowing. He wondered whatever could be so important as to interrupt the Golf match. His ashen, tortured face grimaced as he took in the enormity unfolding at home. He collapsed like a stone, clutching his chest. Time, now critical.
The air ambulance landed on the thirteenth, red coated doctors hunched over, pressing, pummelling. John Smith was in their hands, or God’s hands, as stretcher bearers arrived on the scene.
Jan sat there, staring into nothing, the only sound the bip, bip, bip of the ventilator that was keeping her son, her precious son, alive. She’d not been home for five days, she’d not eaten properly for five days, just weak tea from a polystyrene cup and fruit shortcakes, these were keeping her alive. If only it was so simple for Alex.
They said it was a freak accident, …but was it? She’d been nagging John to clear out the shed for years, but there was always an excuse, always a round of golf, always too tired, always tomorrow; but now there wasn’t. This was John’s fault. At best Alex would be in hospital for months; he’d need skin grafts; he’d need reconstructive surgery and she was sure she’d never have to wash a muddy rugby kit ever again. Jan stood at the bottom of the bed, caressing the pinkie toe of her baby. The anger welled up inside her; it should be John in this bed.
Jan was feeling guilty for her anger and thoughts of retribution against John. Yes, it was his fault that the horde of fertiliser had remained in the shed, but if Alex hadn’t been doing his experiments in there, as Jan thought he had, it wouldn’t have exploded. He was always playing with his chemistry set which they had bought him for his last birthday. John was in the same hospital now, a few wards away from Alex, in Intensive Care. Jan and Claire held vigil day and night on their suffering kin, praying to the powers that be that they would both survive.
Each face was a pale imitation of its once carefree self, shock and helplessness keenly etched. Drained. The silence was the worst, hushed conversations of few words. What could they say? Neither could tell the other what they felt. Jan thought of her exasperating husband, his irritating habits. Claire regretted she had told Alex every single day that she hated him. That was then.
In one day, the family roles had changed, maybe for ever. J an realised that John was her rock, successful, strong and stable mostly, though occasionally he threw a curve ball, resulting in a yawning chasm that threatened their routinely happy marriage, needing to be navigated very carefully. He loved his family but was a risk-taker, hated being told what to do and found it virtually impossible to admit he might have got things wrong.
Alex, her gorgeous, clever, beloved son, inherited all of this, good and bad.
Her sleep deprived exhaustion reminded Jan of the last time she was pushed beyond what she thought she could bear, that time when Alex was teething, such a helpless little thing but controlling everyone around him. Rather like now she thought. He didn’t mean to put us all through this but it’s happening. A freak accident that was changing her life drastically.
As she sifted through the thoughts from the last few days and nights, she wondered how she could think so clearly and decisively. Yes, she had thought she loved John – she always had, but what did she get in return? Ironing his golf clothes? He was successful in his career but where did that rub off on her? Her life was that of looking after the kids – wasn’t there more? When did he last take them all out as a family or take her out on a ‘date’?
“Pull yourself together woman!”
Jan’s ‘inner voice’ was anything but hushed. Constantly analysing; criticising … was it only a week ago her friends were telling her she was living the dream? The reality dawned that she hadn’t contacted any of them! Why hadn’t she thought to let someone know? They’d be expecting her in about 10 minutes. It was a ritual,, every Friday morning. Rain or Shine.
Was this denial? Another element of this nightmare she hadn’t got the energy to face? Well she would face it. And now … It’s not like things could get any worse!
The guest sitting room was empty. The television screen showed scuffles; raised voices; people being dragged down corridors, pushed into empty rooms. Subtitles were telling the world that concerns were growing in China.
She switched it off. She had no idea what was going on in the world; and right now, no time for other people’s problems!
Jan stood contemplating what she should do. She had spent the last week attending to others. Well, not just the last week, it seemed like all her life she had run around for others. It had been her Dad and her brother and sister when she was a child, and her own family as an adult.
It had been a difficult week, running between two patients, but as she sat at the bed-sides she’d had time to think. Alex, she knew, had a long road ahead, but she’d been there and she felt sure he was turning the corner. John seemed so much better! It had been touch and go for a while, and she thought that she would give him time to recover fully, before she told him she was leaving him. She knew she would be judged for this, but she didn’t care! Although John had been her rock, he had always been so selfish. Even in this crisis, he had to be top trumps. The last week had made her realise that life is held on with a piece of cotton, that someone could snip, just like that, so some hard decisions were going to be made. John didn’t know yet, but they would sell the house and she would spend her money on living and enjoying herself. She would be there for the kids of course, but when John was well enough he could take some of the responsibility from her, and do a few of the mind-numbing tasks that she had done for so many years.
She decided to set her own clock ticking (it was ticking anyway) to make sure that she didn’t waste too much more of her life, and get on with it. She would wait until the time was right of course, until John was better, Alex back on his feet, and then, she thought, it would be her time.
She picked up her phone and texted her best friend.
“I might be a bit late, but I’m on my way…I’ve got loads to tell you…”