The front door banged behind her, the sound reverberating through the house. By the time she reached the car she was soaked: her wet hair lay flat against her head, raindrops running off it and down her face, mingling with her tears. She pulled the car door open and got in, careless of the water dripping from her coat. She switched on the ignition and slammed the car into gear; the powerful engine pulled away instantly and bore her down the drive, through the iron gates that always stood open, the grass tall and thick around their base, and onto the main road. Without more than a cursory look for traffic—more from habit than diligence—she turned left and headed north. The rain had emptied the streets, confining people to the shelter of their homes; yellow street lamps cast regular pools of light along the deserted pavements. It was raining heavier now and the windscreen wipers struggled to cope with the torrent of water cascading down the glass. The headlights sent a stream of light onto the empty road ahead, the occasional puddles, dark, irregular shapes. Teresa was oblivious to it all. She drove like an automaton, like someone in a dream, unable to see for her own tears.
How could he have done this to her after twenty-five years of marriage? And after all they’d been through together? She couldn’t believe it. The man she was married to had been deceiving her for years, and worse than that, with her best friend. A double betrayal. She’d known Michelle since she was fourteen, longer even than she’d known Mark. She was her closest friend. Until Teresa had married Mark they’d been inseparable: first school, then college, even getting their first jobs with the same company.
The junction loomed ahead of her, and without bothering to change down, she pulled across into the main stream of traffic. It was late evening and commuters were still battling their way home. She had no idea where she was going, hadn’t even considered it. All she knew was that she had to get away from him and his lies. She couldn’t stay in the house a moment longer, listening to Mark’s confession, looking at his tears and wondering why he was telling her all this. What did he want? Forgiveness? Why now? She’d forgiven him once before—at least that was what she’d told him but her heart couldn’t forget so easily. Now here he was again, saying how sorry he was, that it really wasn’t his fault, that he wanted her to understand that. Once again it would be forgiveness at her expense. Once again he had turned her life upside down. She’d known nothing about their affair, suspected nothing; her life could have continued unaffected if he hadn’t been troubled by a guilty conscience. She felt a surge of anger, and her foot pressed down harder on the accelerator. He had taken her son from her and now he’d taken her best friend and destroyed their marriage. What more did he expect from her? Did he think he could confess his sins and all would be forgiven? Well, he could confess all he wanted to; she was no priest and she would never forgive him. For any of it. Never.
An articulated lorry overtook her, its gigantic form obliterating her view and spraying the car with dirty water; for a moment she was blinded. Instinctively she slowed slightly, letting the lorry pull ahead and removing herself from its slipstream. The windscreen wipers were at maximum, but they still had difficulty keeping pace with the lashing rain.
Michelle? She’d never suspected it for a moment. For years they’d been such good friends. Michelle had loved the children—she was godmother to all of them. Why hadn’t Teresa realised what was going on? It had all seemed so natural: Michelle staying overnight, Michelle babysitting, Michelle coming on holiday with them; they were all used to Michelle’s presence. Teresa had never asked herself why Michelle hadn’t married, why she didn’t even have a boyfriend; she had never wondered why Michelle preferred to spend so much time with Teresa’s family. Now it was becoming clearer, and the clearer it became, so the rage inside her grew until she thought it would overwhelm her. She thumped the steering wheel in her frustration and a sharp beep from the horn startled her back into the present.
The rain was a torrent now, bouncing back off the road surface under its own momentum, sparkling rods of water shooting up from the ground. The drumming sound it made on the roof was hypnotic, making it hard for her to think clearly. A large blue and white sign signalled the approaching motorway; she flicked the indicator and entered the slip road.
So now what? No husband and no Michelle. He said he didn’t want to leave her; he said he didn’t love Michelle. He loved her. It had just been a fling, he said; it hadn’t meant anything. This enraged her even more. If he had been in love she might have forgiven him; after all Michelle was very easy to love. Teresa had loved her for years; her sons loved her; even Teresa’s mother loved her. But he had thrown away their marriage for a stupid fling. And what about their sons? They’d be devastated, forced to take sides, their lives turned upside down. She couldn’t believe this was happening; she wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve; her stomach was churning with agitation and there was a burning sensation at the back of her throat. She accelerated once more, increasing the speed to ninety. They were not going to get away with it. They had treated her like a fool. Her mobile was ringing. Mark? She was going to ignore it but she felt so angry with him she picked it up and accepted the call. She would tell him it was over. She was leaving him. What was the point of going on? Their marriage had never been the same since Peter died, anyway. How could she love the man who was responsible for her son’s death?
One moment the car was cutting through the night as smooth as silk, the next it was spinning and turning, aquaplaning across the wet road surface. She dropped her mobile and wrenched at the wheel with both hands, pulling it back to the left, but the force of the skid was too much for her and the steering wheel resisted her efforts. She was sliding sideways, unable to stop. She braked hard, but that only flung the car into a greater spin. She was heading for the central crash barrier. A bright light was bearing down on her, closer and closer. She could hear the discordant blare of a car-horn. Suddenly there was an enormous cracking sound and the clash of metal hitting metal. The air was filled with splintering glass. The car lifted up, defying gravity and turned over and over. She was suspended in space, an acrobat of the night. The car was turning slow motion somersaults. It was quiet now. Unreal. Time had stopped. Suddenly she was falling into the darkness. A searing pain sliced through her body as the car came to rest on top of the crash barrier. Then there was nothing.
Mark had been stunned at her reaction. They’d been getting on so much better lately, that’s why he thought it was the time to confess, to get it all off his conscience. He thought she’d understand. How badly he’d judged that. He should have known better. He should never have told her about Michelle.
It was so like Teresa to over-react. That Irish temper of hers made her fly off the handle so readily. If only she’d waited to hear him out. But no, not Teresa. He could see her again, tossing her black hair in rage, her eyes flashing green with anger. He’d tried to say he was sorry, making some feeble excuses for his unacceptable behaviour, but she hadn’t wanted to listen; she’d raged like a mad woman, sweeping the supper dishes off the table, hurling her half-empty wine glass at him, screaming abuse.
After she’d run out, shouting that she never wanted to see either of them again, he’d tried ringing her mobile, but she didn’t pick up. Well so much for trying to be open and honest with her. He should have known she’d take it badly. And at the back of his mind was this niggling worry that although all this rage was turned against him, she was probably more upset about Michelle betraying her than her own husband.
The police had contacted him at once; they’d got the address from Teresa’s handbag. He had it with him now. They said he might as well look after it. He picked it up and stroked the soft leather: it was a plain black sack, with some shiny metal bits, and a fancy Italian name. He’d bought it for Teresa the year before. She took it everywhere with her. He gave a sad smile; even in her anger Teresa wouldn’t leave the house without her handbag. A tear rolled down his nose and landed on the bag. The policemen had been very kind; one of them had made him a cup of tea, then the other suggested they take him to the hospital in the police car. They told him that an ambulance had taken her directly to St James Hospital, the major trauma hospital for the area.
He didn’t remember very much about the journey; his mind had frozen, fixed in a state of shock at the news. The police dropped him off at the entrance to the Accident and Emergency unit and as he walked through the glass doors, he saw her. She was still on the stretcher where the paramedics had left her, strapped to a back-board and wearing a neck restraint; an oxygen mask covered her face and a saline drip hung from her arm. Someone had wrapped temporary dressings round her leg. The remains of her coat trailed below the hospital blanket that covered her; it was dirty and stained with blood. He hurried towards her but as he approached, a nurse started to wheel the stretcher away.
‘Stop. Stop. That’s my wife,’ he cried, over-loudly. ‘Where are you taking her?’
‘Mr Rushton? I’m sorry, but we need to clean your wife up. She’s got to have a CT scan so we can assess the damage to her head.’
‘I want to stay with her.’
‘I’m sorry sir, it’s really not possible. Why don’t you go over there,’ she pointed to the A and E admissions desk, ‘and give the nurse your wife’s details. That would be a great help.’
Mark clutched at the stretcher in desperation; he was frightened that if he let go he would never see his wife again. He couldn’t drag his eyes away from her body. It made him feel sick to see her like that and yet he couldn’t bring himself to touch her. His eyes ached from staring at her; maybe if he stared hard enough it would all prove to be an illusion and they’d both wake up. They’d be back in their own home. Teresa would be making the dinner and telling him about her day and he’d be opening a bottle of her favourite wine.
He looked up. The nurse was saying something. ‘Sorry?’
‘Just wait here, Mr Rushton. I’ll let you know how we’ve got on, once we have your wife stable.’ She smiled at him, kindly.
She was a young woman, who, despite the fraught atmosphere in which she worked, seemed able to maintain a calm, almost serene, composure. Only the premature lines across her forehead suggested that she’d been working in A and E too long. She gently prised his fingers from the stretcher, and pushed Teresa away, towards the lifts.
‘Mr Rushton.’ The woman at the desk was calling him. ‘Mr Rushton, would you mind giving me your wife’s date of birth?’
He felt he was moving through water, every step heavy and slow; he was aware of everything around him yet nothing seemed real. He answered the woman’s questions one by one, some automatic response taking control of him.
‘Fine, that’s all I need for now. Thank you Mr Rushton. Now if you’d like to take a seat over there, someone will come and tell you when you can go up to see your wife.’
She took the consent form he’d just signed and put it on a pile of similar papers. Mark didn’t move. He watched as she turned back to her computer and began to type. She must see people like him every day. It meant nothing to her. She would continue with her mundane job while his world lay in ruins.
‘There’s a coffee machine down the hall, if you’d like some coffee,’ she suggested, looking up at him.
‘No, thank you. I’m fine,’ he replied. ‘I’ll just sit here and wait.’
It wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t know the pain he was feeling. He chose a seat that gave him a clear view of the passage; he didn’t want to miss Teresa when they brought her back. He leant against the wall. This was all his fault; he had done this to his wife.
A tall woman rushed into the waiting room, shaking raindrops from her umbrella as she struggled to close it. Mark didn’t look up at her; he continued picking at the stuffing that protruded from a slash in the plastic covered chair.
‘Mark, darling. I’m so sorry. This is awful. I just had to come to see how she was. So how is Teresa? Do you know what happened yet?’ The woman stopped, waiting for him to break the awkward silence that was lengthening by the minute.
‘Michelle, what are you doing here?’ he asked at last. He looked anxiously around him. He didn’t want anyone to know that the first thing he’d done when Teresa had stormed out of the house, was ring Michelle. She’d come straight round, just as he knew she would. She’d still been there, in the house, when the police arrived with the news, although they hadn’t been aware of her.
‘I’ve come to see how Teresa is, of course.’
‘She’s unconscious. But she’s alive. They haven’t told me anything else yet,’ he replied in a monotone.
‘Oh, thank goodness. My poor Darling, you look terrible,’ the woman said, attempting to put her arm around his shoulders.
Mark sprang to his feet. ‘Don’t touch me,’ he snapped.
Michelle stopped, her mouth dropped open in surprise. ‘But sweetheart, I just wanted to comfort you,’ she explained.
He looked at her coldly. ‘Maybe you should come back later, Michelle. There’s nothing you can do now. We won’t know anything for ages.’ He saw the tears well up in her eyes and added, more gently, ‘I’ll telephone you when there’s some news.’
‘What about Teresa’s mother? Does she know?’
‘Yes. It’s all in hand. You go. I’ll ring you later,’ he repeated.
‘Okay, if you’re sure that’s what you want.’ She seemed uncertain whether to believe him.
‘Yes, it is what I want.’
There was no mistaking his tone of voice this time, so she picked up the umbrella. But still she didn’t leave. She stood there, smoothing the skirt of her coat and pushing some strands of blond hair back into place.
Mark knew she wanted him to relent. He knew she was suffering as much as he was but he continued to stare at the black and white tiles at his feet.
‘Well, just ’phone me if you need anything,’ she said at last. ‘Promise.’
‘Yes, okay. Now go.’
As soon as she turned away, he slumped down in the chair and buried his head in his hands. He could hear her high heels clicking rhythmically on the hard, hospital tiles as she left.
Mark couldn’t stop thinking about how angry Teresa had been when he’d tried to tell her about him and Michelle. She didn’t even let him explain that it was all over, had been for months. Her rage had just wiped all reason from her mind. He should have restrained her, stopped her from taking the car; he knew how her temper could consume her, making her do things she’d later regret. But he’d done nothing to hold her back, neither by his words not his actions. He had let her go. Then, when it was far too late, he’d phoned her mobile. Was that what triggered the accident? Had that been his fault, too? The police said her mobile was open on the seat beside her. Had she reached for it and then spun out of control? He put his head in his hands. He couldn’t bear any more of this.
He looked up. An elderly woman, with short, white hair that lay close to her head in well cut layers, and eyes the colour of cornflowers, stood before him.
He stood up and took the woman into his arms; her frail body was shaking with sobs. He could feel her fragile bones protruding under her raincoat and he held her until the sobbing ceased, then sat her down in a chair next to his own.
‘Where’s Teresa? Is she alright? What happened? I don’t understand. Where was she going at that time of night?’
His mother-in-law’s questions poured out one after the other. He waited for her to calm down before answering, ‘Teresa’s unconscious; they’ve taken her for a scan to see if there’s any brain damage.’
‘Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. My poor baby. Oh no.’ The woman’s crying began again. ‘No.’
‘Bridget, we must try to be calm. We’ll know soon how she is. At least she’s alive,’ he added, taking out a paper tissue and wiping his mother-in-law’s face gently. Somehow caring for her made it easier to cope with his own distress.
Bridget took a deep breath and struggling to control herself, took her son-in-law’s hand in her own. ‘Where are the boys?’ she asked.
‘Well it will take them a while to get here, you know. Alex’s in Brighton at a conference and Ian is working in Edinburgh at the moment. I telephoned Alex as soon as I heard and he said he would let everybody know.’
‘Yes, he telephoned me right away. I’d just gone to bed. He said not to bother coming over tonight; he said come over tomorrow, when they would know more. But I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d seen her. I just had to come. So I walked down to the corner and got a taxi. I couldn’t face driving; I haven’t stopped shaking since I heard.’
Mark noticed that her hands were trembling as she spoke. He stroked the back of her hand, trying to comfort her; the skin was smooth and fine, slightly brittle, like paper, and its paleness was broken by a scattering of dark stains—age spots she called them. Her nails had been carefully shaped and filed into perfect ovals and painted with a pale pink polish. She wore no adornments, only her wedding ring, now worn to a thin band with the passing of time.
‘How long were you and Patrick married?’ he asked, his fingers touching the ring lightly.
She looked at him in surprise. ‘Fifty years,’ she said, ‘actually it was nearly fifty-one, when he died.’
She didn’t ask him why he wanted to know; she knew he was thinking of himself and Teresa. They sat, side by side, not talking, each lost in their own thoughts. Mark looked at his watch; it was almost ten o’clock. He’d been there less than an hour and yet it seemed like days.
‘I think I saw Michelle leaving just as I arrived,’ Bridget said, suddenly.
‘Oh, yes. Alex must have ’phoned her. I told her not to stay; I said we'd ring when there was some news.’
Bridget looked at him, her pale blue eyes swimming with tears. ‘You haven’t told me what happened,’ she said.
‘Well, I’m not sure I know for certain. The police said that when they spoke to the lorry driver he said that she skidded and went out of control; he tried to slow down and avoid her, but the car just kept coming towards him. He said it all happened so fast that there was nothing he could do; he hit the side of the car full on.’
His mother-in-law gave a low moan. ‘Oh my poor Teresa.’
‘Then the car turned a few somersaults and landed upside down on the central reservation.’ Describing the accident aloud was painful, but he couldn’t stop; he could leave out no detail. ‘The fire brigade had to cut her out.’ He stopped, then added, ‘The police said she wasn’t wearing her seat belt.’
‘What? No. I don’t believe that. Teresa always wore a seatbelt. She was fanatical about it. My daughter was a very conscientious driver; there’s no way she would have been driving on the motorway without a seatbelt.’
‘That’s what they said.’ Mark had found that strange, as well. Bridget was right. Teresa even buckled her seatbelt before she backed out of the garage. If she drove without one, it meant one of two things: she’d been so upset she didn’t realise she hadn’t put it on, or—and this he wasn’t going to say out loud to anyone—he’d hurt her so much she wanted to die.
Bridget’s grip on his hand had tightened with each new revelation, until now he could feel her nails cutting into his flesh. ‘Was anyone else hurt?’
‘Only the lorry driver; he had a broken collar bone. There wasn’t actually a lot of traffic, according to the police. That’s why they found it a bit strange; they think she may have been driving too fast for the wet conditions and lost control.’ He didn’t tell her that they’d asked if Teresa had been drinking, nor that they said they found her mobile open on the seat beside her.
‘I have always thought that Teresa was a very careful driver. It would surprise me if she was driving too fast in bad weather. And with no seatbelt. No, I can’t believe it. It’s so out of character. Something must have upset her.’
‘Well, we don’t know that she was driving too fast; it’s only an assumption. We’ll ask her as soon as she’s better,’ he said in a vain attempt to sound positive.
‘God willing,’ she murmured.
He squeezed her hand gently.
‘Have you seen her yet?’ Bridget asked, her voice barely audible, as though she didn’t really want to hear his reply.
‘I saw her being wheeled down for her scan.’ He saw his mother-in-law’s pleading look. ‘She didn’t look too bad. She had some cuts to her leg and some minor abrasions to her face.’
‘Oh, good. She’s such a pretty girl; she wouldn’t like her face to be scarred.’ Her mother smiled sadly to herself.
Time seemed to pass very slowly as they sat together, their closeness giving them some combined strength to face the ordeal. In the stark neon light of the waiting room his mother-in-law’s face looked old and tired; Mark thought how her outward frailty belied her inner strength. He remembered how well she had coped when his father-in-law died, only a few years previously.
‘Here’s the nurse coming, now,’ he said. The same young woman that had wheeled Teresa away was walking along the corridor towards them. He stood up.
‘Mr Rushton, you can come and see your wife now, but just for a moment,’ she said. She looked tired and her face was drawn, but she smiled cheerfully at him.
‘How is she? What did the scan show? Is she alright?’ Mark was desperate for some kind of answer.
‘We’ve moved her into Intensive Trauma for the night. We’ll know more tomorrow when the neurologist has a look at her.’
Intensive Trauma. That sounded serious. ‘Does that mean she might die?’
‘She has to be under close observation until we know the full extent of the damage.’
She looked across at Bridget.
‘Oh, sorry. This is my wife’s mother,’ Mark said, putting his hand on Bridget’s shoulder.
The nurse smiled at Bridget and said, ‘Well you come along as well. But I’m afraid you won’t be allowed to stay very long.’
They followed the nurse along the corridor; her rubber soled shoes moved silently across the gleaming floor. Mark hated hospitals; he hated the pervading smell of antiseptic; he hated the preponderance of stainless steel vessels and cold hard surfaces; and he hated the filtered and warm air that seemed to stifle him. But today he was grateful to be there, because this hospital was going to care for Teresa, make her well and send her home to him. Then he would make it up to her; he would show her how much he really loved her.
They took the lift to the fifth floor, where the IC unit was located. The nurse indicated that they should wait outside, while she went in to check on the patient. A moment later she returned.
‘Only one of you can go in at a time. Maybe you’d like to go first, Mr Rushton, then your mother-in-law can go next,’ she suggested.
Bridget nodded meekly and sat by the door. Mark followed the nurse into the room. He felt unbelievably nervous; his hands trembled and he thought that he might be sick.
The IC unit was made up of a number of hexagons, each with a small room on five of its walls and a central nursing station and control centre. The nurse led him to the hexagon that was identified as Neuro ICU and into the room where Teresa lay. Despite the fact that she had an oxygen tube attached to her nose, a saline drip in her arm and numerous attachments to her body which fed back instant information to the bank of screens and monitors that formed a backdrop to her bed, she looked relatively peaceful. There was a soft humming in the room, broken by occasional bleeps. Someone had removed her stained clothes and washed her body; they had dressed her in a pale blue cotton robe and placed her arms on top of the sheet. He saw the bruises from the accident and gently traced the purple stains with his finger. This was not his Teresa; this woman was too fragile and still. He looked enquiringly at the pulsating screens.
‘They’re to keep a check on her blood pressure, breathing rate and pulse,’ the nurse said.
Mark nodded. He leaned across the bed and stroked his wife’s hand; it was cool and clammy.
‘I think she’s cold,’ he whispered.
The nurse felt her hand. ‘No, she’s fine,’ she said, but nevertheless pulled the thin hospital blanket over Teresa’s arms.
‘Has she gained consciousness yet?’ he asked.
She shook her head. ‘No, we’re keeping her sedated to control any brain swelling.’
‘Is that why she’s on a ventilator?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it’s standard practice with traumatic brain injury,’ the nurse explained. ‘We mustn’t let the blood circulation to the brain become restricted.’
Mark remained there looking down at his motionless wife. He bent down and kissed her lightly on the forehead. He couldn’t stay there any longer. He had done this to her. It was as if everyone knew it was his fault. Her motionless body was accusing him.
‘Maybe her mother could come in now,’ he suggested, standing up abruptly.
By the time the taxi dropped him at the end of his drive, it had stopped raining and a pale moon cast its watery rays across the garden, making everything look unfamiliar and forbidding. Mark fumbled with his door key, eventually slipping it into the lock and opening the door. The house was dark and empty—the policeman, who’d come to give him the news—had made sure that he’d gone through the usual routine tasks before leaving: switching off the lights, locking the doors. Now he longed for some bright light, some warmth, some company, anything to alleviate this numbness that dragged at his legs and arms, that had made him incapable of thinking straight.
He went into the lounge, switching on the lights and turning on the central heating. It was only just September and, in the interests of the environment, they tried to put off for as long as possible the moment when the heating was set to automatic. He heard the boiler purr into life. Moving to the drinks cabinet he poured himself a large glass of Glenfiddich and sat on the sofa in front of the television. He picked up the remote control and began to flick through the channels: a game show, the re-run of Arsenal’s match against Chelsea, the latest situation in the Brexit negotiations—something he and Teresa had argued over vehemently, now so inconsequential—a South American soap opera and a very old movie with Humphrey Bogart. Nothing that appealed. Nothing that could distract him from the thoughts whirring around in his head, nor ease his guilt. He switched it off, tossed the remote onto the sofa and selected one of his favourite CDs instead.
The London Philharmonic were into the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony when his mobile rang.
‘Hi, Dad. It’s Alex.’
‘Alex, where are you?’
‘I’m just entering the M40 now. Where are you? Are you still at the hospital?’
‘No, I’m at home.’ Mark could tell from the silence that followed that his son feared the worst. ‘No, it’s okay; Mum’s still alive. She’s in Intensive Trauma. They wouldn’t let us sit with her. They said it was better if we went home.’
‘So how is she? Is it bad?’
‘It’s too soon to say. She’s still unconscious. They won’t know any more until tomorrow when the neurologist looks at her.’
‘I’ll come straight home. Be with you in about half-an-hour.’
‘Drive carefully, Alex.’
‘Yes, don’t worry Dad. See you soon. ’Bye.’
Mark leaned back and closed his eyes; he felt comforted by the fact that his son was coming home. He knew he should be the one consoling his sons, but right now he needed someone to put their arms around him and tell him that everything would be alright. For a moment he wished his parents were still alive; they would have known what to do.
The sofa was made of soft leather; Teresa had bought it in the January sales. Most evenings, when they watched the television together, she would kick off her shoes and sprawl along its full length, leaving him to sit in the reclining chair next to her. He felt an ache at the thought of her, as if someone had reached inside him and squeezed his heart. If he’d been a religious man he’d have gone to the church and lit a candle for her—that’s what Bridget would do. She was probably there now, going through the mumbo-jumbo that gave her solace. Instead he reached for the whisky and poured himself another glass.
‘Oh, there you are Smokey Joe,’ he said as their Burmese cat leapt up onto his lap. ‘Your mistress isn’t coming home tonight. You’ll have to make do with me.’ He stroked the cat’s silky fur and began to sob. He was to blame for this.
Mark was woken by the sound of the door bell; the music had stopped and his empty whisky glass lay on the sofa beside him, a tiny dribble of liquid spreading across the leather surface.
‘Alex, come in. God, it’s good to see you.’
Mark hugged his son, burying his head into the young man’s shoulder, hiding the tears that he was unable to prevent spilling down his cheeks.
‘Dad. Hey, don’t take on, now. It’s going to be alright. She’ll pull through this, you see,’ his son said, patting his father’s back awkwardly. ‘Here, let me get you a drink.’