Dad liberated me from the hospital the following morning. That he had actually abandoned his work for an hour to come and collect me himself when mum or Seth could have done it spoke volumes on just how worried he must have been, though he would probably never tell me .
Dad wasn’t big on speeches – not of the emotional variety, anyway.
We spent the short drive from the hospital to our house in the west of the island in companionable silence. I was relieved that Dad didn’t feel the need to ask me to recount all over again the events of the previous day. Apparently, all he needed to know was that I was safe.
A welcoming committee of sisters, mum, and jubilant dog awaited me the moment I stepped through the front door; Bell and Lucy greeted me as if I’d been gone for a year rather than just one night, Mum tutted over the stitches in my eyebrow and thrust a mug of flowery smelling tea with the bag still in it into my hand and Cosmo, my scraggy terrier, expressed his delight at my home coming by dancing around on his hind legs like some kind of deranged hairy circus act.
Dad drifted off into the background, as he was inclined to do when faced with bedlam of the female variety (of which there had been much in this house over the years)and I didn’t see him again until I passed the open door of his cluttered study, full of his work as head scientist for the environmental division of the island’s government, on my way upstairs to sink into a hot bubbly bath.
I poked my head around the door frame.
”Thanks for picking me up, Dad”
“No problem, kiddo – you gave me an excuse to have a break from this for a bit” He gestured at the stacks of journals, newspaper cuttings and reams of graph paper littering every available surface – disorganised chaos to the casual onlooker but a finely honed filing system to Dad.
He crossed the room in three long strides and drew me into a hug against his chest, kissing the top of my head. I hugged him back. It had been a while since I’d given Dad a proper hug; my arms didn’t go quite as far around him as they had done last time.
“Don’t ever put me through that again” he murmured, his voice muffled by my hair, and I quickly closed my lips against the joke I was about to make about his expanding waistline. A long moment passed before he spoke again.”Well, back to work I suppose. I’ve a report on the impact of fungal disease on potato crops to be done by tomorrow which won’t finish itself.”
“Sounds riveting, Dad. Think I’ll leave you to it. I’m off to soak in the tub for about two hours”
“Do try not to drown” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm, and dropped me a wink as I headed out the door.
“Funny” I retorted, feigning annoyance and headed for the stairs.
Submersed in the tub with a flannel over my face and the soulful sounds of Ed Sheeran on the stereo, I actually felt something approaching calm and relaxed for the first time in twenty four hours, until my peace was suddenly and brutally shattered by the insistent beeping of my mobile phone, frustratingly out of reach where I had left it on the chair on the other side of the bathroom. It brashly announced the arrival of the inevitable barrage of texts and voice mail messages from absent sisters and assorted friends who had heard about my accident, demanding a placating response. Despite my best efforts, it was a sound that was impossible to ignore for long.
Admitting defeat, I removed the flannel from my tender face and abandoned my plans for a long leisurely wallow. I settled instead for a brisk all over scrub, being careful to avoid the dark bruises that had developed around my calves and ankles. I didn’t like to look at them – thinking about what may have caused them raised too many unanswerable questions.
I pulled on my green fluffy robe over my damp skin. It had seen better days, but I’d never been able to find a replacement that could match it for softness, warmth and all round slouchability. I bundled my wet hair into a towel, being careful not to catch the stitches above my eyebrow, and collapsed in a heap onto my bed.
Cosmo, ever the opportunist, jumped up next to me and patiently waited for the head scratching to commence. I obliged, petting him with one hand while scrolling through the messages with the other.
There were texts from Natalie and Laura, my sisters on the mainland, hoping I was ok and promising to call soon, a text from my eldest sister Steph saying she would drop by the next day, a voice mail message from Gran “Please give me a call Evie love – you know how I hate to talk to a machine”, and two missed calls from Seth.
I called both Gran and Seth and made plans to see them the next day – hopefully the dull thudding throb in my head which had crept up on me again would have dissipated by then – and lay back on the bed. The CD had come to an end and getting off the bed to change it seemed like a task requiring herculean effort at this moment and so I made do with closing my eyes and listening to the sounds of the house. It had always had a music all of its own.
Mum provided the percussion to its current symphony, clattering saucepans in the kitchen below as she prepared the evening meal. Faint music and muted voices emanated from the twin’s room. It used to be much noisier than this, when Steph and Nat and Laura had still lived at home. I used to long for quiet then, but now I kind of missed the din.
Steph had been the first to go. Unlike most teenagers growing up in a small island, Steph had no urge to get away as fast as she could as soon as age and independence allowed her. She had stayed, and at the tender age of 22 had married the lovely David, her boyfriend since the age of 16. They were now the proud, though frazzled, parents of Oscar – an 18 month old blue eyed, blond haired, cheeky faced, chubby limbed cherub. Currently, his favourite pastime was expressing his love of wax crayon as an art medium on any available wall.
Next to go was Laura, off to university to train to be a doctor, never to return (well, not so far) apart from Christmas, two weeks in the summer and our parents 25th wedding anniversary party a couple of years previously. Unarguably the brains of the family and inheritor of dad’s scientific flair, she was currently working at a large hospital in Southampton, which was at least only an hour away by plane.
Natalie left next, and her departure had the most profound effect on the then 13 year old me. Despite the five year age gap between us, I was very close to Nat. The twins, only 15 months ahead of me, were nearest to me in age, but as we were growing they had seemed to me – the annoying little sister looking for someone to play with – an impenetrable fortress of twin-ness. They didn’t seem to have time or inclination for anyone apart from each other. Until they discovered boys, of course.
But Nat always had time for me. She never yelled at me if she found me skulking outside her room. On the contrary, Nat was positively welcoming, always ready to oblige my requests to have my toe nails painted blue or my hair plaited. Nat was funny and flaky, bubbly and bright. When she had left for uni in London, I had mourned her departure for weeks. I missed her still.
So that just left me and the twins and in a few short weeks they too would be gone – Lucy to college in the UK to train as a PE teacher and Bell and Fin to some far flung exotic destination on a gap year – leaving me and my parents rattling around in an empty house which used to feel as if it was bursting at the seams.
My eyelids grew heavy as I gazed around my quirky attic room that had once been Steph’s, then Nat’s, and now was mine. A hand me down – as most of my possessions inevitably were as the youngest of six daughters. Next to me Cosmo snored gently; I curled on my side next to him and followed him into sleep.
But there was no rest waiting for me in its depths; instead it was filled with the memories of spectral faces and grasping hands – the images that my conscious mind shied away from. In the realms of sleep, my subconscious freed from its shackles, there was nowhere to hide. But in the twisting midst of my nightmare, I felt a cool hand on my hot head and a comforting whisper reassuring me that it was all just a dream…..
When I woke, the shards of sunlight that had been streaming through the dormer window earlier had gone and the room was swaddled in the semi-darkness of evening. I flicked on the light on the bedside table and screwed up my eyes against the brightness. My watch advised me it was nearly eight – I had slept for over four hours – and my stomach was protesting at my tardiness in providing it with dinner.
Still in my green robe and not bothering to rake a brush through my bed head hair, I drifted downstairs in search of food.
Everyone else had eaten already, and were now slumped full bellied in front of some detective show where, defying crime statistics, the inhabitants of a tiny village seemed to bump each other off with alarming regularity, usually with a hoe in the herb patch or rat poison in the garden party cucumber sandwiches.
Mum looked up as I entered the room. She seemed back to her normal serene self, no signs of the frayed edges of yesterday.
“Good sleep love?” she asked, rising from the recesses of the sofa “I’ll pop your dinner in the microwave for you – I didn’t want to get you up for it – thought it best to let you rest after yesterday”
“Thanks Mum” I mumbled and went to sit expectantly at the big wooden table in the kitchen to await the ping of the microwave.
“Did you come in my room earlier?” I asked, remembering the dreamlike sensation of the calming hand and soothing voice.
“No. Why – what makes you think I did?” she asked curiously.
“Nothing important – I just thought someone was there when I was sleeping, that’s all – must have just been part of the dream I was having”. The words felt all wrong as I said them. Instinctively I knew that the soft, reassuring presence had been something quite separate to the melee of disturbing images that had haunted my slumber.
Mum, however, accepted my explanation with a casual shrug and leant against the kitchen counter, tea towel draped over her arm like a waiter, in readiness to remove the hot plate from the microwave.
“Seth called earlier. I told him you were asleep”
“Um – thanks Mum. I’ll see him tomorrow” The thought of Seth made me frown – not my usual reaction when I thought of my best friend – but my dream had brought back a memory – at least, I thought it was a memory – that I struggled to comprehend. It was the image of Seth, leaning over me as I lay semi-conscious on the raft moments after he pulled me from the water. His face was desperate, his dark eyes silently pleading with me to be ok – and yet despite the palpable tension of the moment, a serene white glow emanated in a perfect aura from Seth’s body, enveloping me. A warm feeling, pulsating, electrical. Safe. A trick of the light? A side effect of my head injury? It was possible – even likely. And yet, again, I intuitively knew that this was not the case.
My reverie was interrupted by the ping of the microwave and both Mum and I jumped a little. As Mum busied herself, adding gravy to the already laden dinner plate, Lucy practically skipped into the kitchen
“Evie you’re famous!” she exclaimed gleefully , brandishing a copy of the local newspaper “Look on page 3 – they haven’t named you – but it’s definitely you they’re talking about – second column “Teenager in near drowning incident” . I took the proffered newspaper as Mum placed the plate of steaming food in front of me. But I didn’t turn to page 3; my attention was instead caught by the dramatic bold print headline on the front page “Local man dies in tragic crash”. My eyes were drawn to the photograph beneath and my heart stopped in my chest. The picture showed a familiar face – a sandy-haired man in his early thirties – although looking considerably healthier than he had in the hospital ward the previous evening – looking self-conscious but smiling broadly at the camera, a holiday snap perhaps. It took a conscious effort to tear my eyes away from the photo to read the print below
“Daniel Baker, 32, died yesterday in hospital from injuries sustained in a tragic motorbike accident . Mr Baker, a postman, lost control of his 250cc bike on the Five Mile Road and was thrown from the vehicle, sustaining massive internal injuries………….” The rest of the report swam into a mess of spinning black words on the white page. Only a few leapt out at me in stark clarity “……never regained consciousness…..pronounced dead at 3pm…….Mr Baker is survived by his wife Catherine, 31, and his son Samuel, 5.”
I knew that I was staring blankly at the paper I clutched tightly in my hands, I could feel my mouth hanging open in disbelief as I tried to process what I’d just read, but I couldn’t make myself move. I knew that Mum and Lucy were staring at me with increasing unease. Lucy started to say something about me looking at the wrong page – but Mum, sensing that something was very wrong – put a hand up to silence her.
“Evie – what’s wrong love?” she asked gently. I could hear the apprehension in her voice. I couldn’t answer. Whining white noise seemed to fill my head. I felt totally detached, severed from the homely kitchen scene that had existed until a few moments ago. The words whirled around and around and I tried to grasp them, to pin them down, to force them to mean something else. Dead. Never regained consciousness. How could that possibly be? I had seen him, spoken to him, made him smile. I looked at the photo again – there was no mistaking that it was him – Dan, the ward wanderer.
“Evie?” Lucy this time, coming towards me, cautious, concerned. Did I look as barking mad as I felt at this precise moment? Is that why Lucy and mum were dancing around me like this?
I tried to speak but gorge rose in my throat – I had to get out of this room, away from their confused stares, the now nauseating smell of the food. I was suffocating.
Clumsily, I shoved back my chair and quickly rose on unsteady legs, grasping the edge of the table for support. In my haste, I sent the plate of dinner crashing to the tiled floor where the white china smashed into a rapidly spreading puddle of gravy.
Mum gasped, Lucy’s hand flew to her mouth. The smashing plate and the hot gravy splattering on the toes of my right foot at least jolted me out of my horrified stupor.
“Sorry – the dinner…..” I began lamely.
“Never mind about that – what just happened ? Do you know that man who was killed ?”
It only took me a fraction of a second to make the decision to lie. After all – what else could I do? Tell them the truth ? I could only imagine how crazy that would sound.
“No – no I didn’t know him. It’s just – his poor family, his son. It seems so unfair…”
My words sounded completely feeble to me, but Lucy visibly relaxed and Mum came and steered me around the mess on the floor with a firm arm around my shoulders.
“You’re bound to be emotional after yesterday – and you’re right – it is unfair, but right now, my only concern is you. Now, why don’t you go on back up to bed and I’ll bring you something up – you look like you might fall down if you don’t lie down.”
I nodded, relieved at the opportunity to escape – I couldn’t keep this facade up for another minute. Lucy rubbed my arm in a gesture of sisterly solidarity as I beat a hasty retreat past her, Cosmo hot at my heels.
In the privacy of my bedroom, the enormity of the implications of that glaring newspaper headline came crashing down on me. First the underwater apparitions, then a conversation with a man who had apparently been dead for roughly seven hours at the time – what the hell was happening to me? What next?
I sat heavily on the edge of the bed and buried my head in my hands…….. I felt as if I was literally holding myself together. I was so engrossed in my whirling thoughts that I didn’t realise that something was wrong until Cosmo began to whine nervously. He jumped into my lap and stared fixedly into space over my left shoulder. Only then did I start to feel the tingling sensation spreading up the back of my neck as the realisation dawned that I was not in my room alone………. someone was behind me, watching me.
I quickly weighed my options – run for the door and back down the stairs without a backwards glance – or turn and face whatever was behind me?
As appealing as the first option was at that precise moment, it only took me a second to decide that it was not the way to go. Scuttle off downstairs and then – what? Ask Mum to come and check my room for the bogeyman? If she’d thought I was losing it earlier, that would certainly convince her.
No, I wasn’t prepared to start jumping at shadows, no matter how bizarre the last twenty-four hours had been.
So that just left option two. Steeling myself, I turned to face whoever or whatever was waiting for me…………
Click below for Chapter 4