Authors: Joanne Phillips
Table of Contents
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters, localities and incidents portrayed in it are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events or localities is entirely coincidental.
An imprint of Bostock Publishing
Kindle Edition 2015
Copyright © Joanne Phillips 2015
Joanne Phillips asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved in all media. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author and/or publisher.
The first time Kate Steiner learned to walk she was eleven months old; the second time, she was two months past her thirtieth birthday. Kate had no memory of those first ambitious steps, cruising around low-level furniture, every adult in a six-foot radius poised to catch her when she fell flat on her face. What she did know, twenty-nine years on, was that learning to walk was probably a damn sight easier when your legs were short and chunky, and your centre of gravity only a foot above ground level.
‘Come on, Kate. You can do it!’
Not a caring mother with wide eyes and outstretched arms, but a young physiotherapist called Joseph, with muscular arms that bulged underneath a tight T-shirt as he guided Kate towards the end of the parallel bars.
‘I can’t,’ she told him. ‘It’s impossible.’
‘You know better than that.’ His tone was admonishing, with a hint of tease. ‘Nothing’s impossible – haven’t I told you that already?’
‘Once or twice,’ Kate grumbled, gripping the bars with shaking hands. She shifted her body to the left, taking the weight on her elbow, then swung her right leg around, planting her foot on the blue mat as firmly as she could. Sometimes her limbs felt as though they were borrowed, grafted on, as though she’d been in an accident instead of in a coma, and had been rebuilt, part by part, but that something had gone slightly wrong in the rebuilding.
She was lucky. Over there was the woman who’d lost a leg in a skiing accident; yesterday there had been a young man learning to use his left hand after his right one got crushed at work. All Kate had lost was ten months of her life. Not too bad, in the grand scheme of things.
Ten months of her life and ten months of Sam’s life, too. Time she could never get back.
‘Kate? Do you feel ready to try putting all your weight on both legs now?’
She refocused on Joseph. After a month of this, of seeing him every day, she thought she could read him pretty well.
‘I’ll try,’ she said.
He smiled, his eyes lighting up. ‘That’s all we can do, Kate. Just try.’
She pulled herself upright, willing the feeling into her legs, giving them a little shake, summoning her resolve.
‘And your core,’ Joseph said. ‘Remember your strength is in your core. Remember it gets easier every day.’
One step. That was all he wanted. Since the first time she’d been wheeled in here, still confused and groggy, all Joseph had wanted was one unaided step. He said that once she did that she would be able to carry on outside of their sessions, practising around the corridors of the hospital whenever she liked, and that before long she’d be running.
‘I didn’t run before,’ she’d told him. ‘Why would I want to now?’
Joseph had merely smiled that weary smile of his and said nothing.
One step. She pulled in her stomach, which felt hollow inside her loose clothing, and concentrated on visualising the blood flowing into her limbs; her muscles getting stronger; her bones the scaffolding that held her body together. She pushed off from the bars.
‘Okay, now we’re talking!’ Joseph took a step back, but kept his eyes trained on hers. ‘This is the day, Kate. I know it. You know how I get a feeling for these things. This is breakthrough day.’
She shook her head, smiling in spite of herself. Idiot.
‘I want to do it just so I can get you to shut up with all the pep talks,’ she said.
‘Whatever floats your boat. Now stop talking and start moving.’
Her right foot was tingling, pins and needles starting up again, but her left foot felt okay. Better than okay – it felt almost normal. She shifted her weight slightly, then began to lift her left foot. One minute she could feel the mat under her toes, and then she couldn’t feel it anymore.
‘I think I’m doing it,’ she said. Her voice rose in astonishment. Joseph said nothing.
Now there was an inch or more of space between the mat and her foot. Kate looked down to check. She wobbled.
‘Look up,’ Joseph commanded. ‘Look at me.’
‘Okay, but I …’
It was too late. Kate began to wobble – at first a tremor snaking up from her tingling right leg, then a violent shaking all the way through her core. Lurching and clutching, her hands outstretched, Kate began to fall. She landed awkwardly, her elbow bent beneath her. When Joseph came to help her up she could barely see him through her tears.
‘I’ll never be able to do this,’ she whispered.
‘Yes, you will.’ Joseph knelt on the floor and slid his hands around her waist, but she pushed him off and sat up by herself, drawing her knees into her chest. ‘Kate, you can get around fine with the walker, and soon you’ll be strong enough to walk with crutches.’
And then a stick, and then nothing. She knew all this. The theory was fine. It was all just taking too damn long. She shook her head, but couldn’t speak. She thought about her son, trying to picture how he might look right now, what he might be doing. Was he thinking of her? Did he even know that she’d woken up?
Did he even know she’d been asleep?
‘You will do this, Kate,’ Joseph said again, ‘but you won’t do it for me, or for yourself.’
He stood and looked down at her. Kate could feel his eyes boring tunnels into her pain.
‘You’ll do it,’ he said, ‘for Sam.’
The letter arrived the following morning. For once, Kate wasn’t waiting at her usual post, having hurt her hip along with her elbow when she fell the day before. She was still in bed, unable to face the idea of getting dressed yet, despite the cajoling of the shift-change nurses.
‘Hey, good-looking.’ The post boy’s jaunty greeting didn’t raise a smile, but when he held out an envelope – white with some large, looped writing on it – Kate practically leapt out of bed. She winced at the pain in her hip, then grabbed for the letter.
‘Cornwall postcode and everything,’ he said, grinning.
‘Thanks,’ Kate said, staring at the envelope. There was no mistaking those letter Es or that elaborate way of looping off the S.
She sat on her bed and ripped open the envelope. She read with her fingers in her mouth, chewing on her nails, biting down hard when she reached the end. So. At least she had her answer. Not that any of it made sense.
Kate shimmied to the edge of the bed, a sudden whirlwind of energy catching and containing her. She pulled all her things out of the fake wood cabinet and threw them on top of the crumpled covers; she scooped up spare underwear, her three books, her phone, her purse, all the items that had come with her onto the ward. The rest of her belongings from the flat had been packaged and put into storage before the flat was re-let – her landlord wasn’t going to keep it empty for a woman who might never wake up, and clearly no one was willing to foot the bill on the off chance. She rammed everything that was on the bed into a pillowcase, tied a scruffy knot in the top, then yanked the curtain all the way back.
‘Kate?’ One of the nurses – one of the nice ones who didn’t talk to her like she was three years old – came out from behind the nurses’ station. ‘Are we okay here?’
Kate didn’t speak to her. She was dimly aware of the other people in the ward, of rows of beds and interested eyes. She reached for her walker. She could stand unaided now, and this gave her hope – she wouldn’t be so helpless again. For now she needed this thing, but she wouldn’t need it forever.
She began to move towards the ward’s exit, her escape slower in reality than it had looked in her mind when she imagined it only moments ago, pulling her legs along by the force of her will alone.
‘Kate,’ the nurse said again. Her name was Bettina, or Letitia, Kate couldn’t remember which. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting to Sam.
She reached the double doors and slammed through them, turning instantly for the lift. From there the exit was only a stone’s throw away. She would jump in a taxi, go to the train station; she would take a train from Manchester Piccadilly to St Austell; there would be one, even if it wasn’t direct. Then another taxi to Corrin Cove. She hadn’t been there since she was eighteen years old, but she could see it now as though she’d lived there only yesterday. Her parents’ house. White-painted with roses around the door. Perfect in every way. Just like them.
Nothing like them.
‘Kate.’ A hand on her arm halted her progress. Someone took hold of her gently by her shoulders. She writhed out of their grip, but couldn’t move far enough away to stop them getting hold of her again. When she looked up, angry, her face slick with sweat, she was surprised to see it was Joseph. Joseph and the nurse stood side by side, regarding her with expressions of such pity she wondered briefly what had happened.
‘Can you just get out of my way?’ she said, trying to edge the walker around them.
‘Kate, where do you think you’re going?’ Joseph shooed the nurse away, turned back to Kate and began to walk alongside her.
‘To see Sam, of course.’ She didn’t look at him. Keep your eyes on the prize, Kate. Joseph had told her this often enough during their sessions.
‘Oh, right.’ Joseph started to whistle. He was sauntering, his hands in the pockets of his tracksuit pants, while Kate huffed and puffed and struggled beside him. She was starting to tire. She had no intention of stopping.
‘Don’t try and stop me,’ she warned him. ‘This is a hospital, not a prison. I’m going to see my son like I should have weeks ago. Sitting around here, waiting for her to bring him to see me, when clearly she never had any intention of doing that. I’ve wasted so much time! Not anymore. My son needs me. Sam … Sam needs me.’
Her breath was coming in short bursts; she desperately wanted to sit down and take the crushing weight off her legs.
‘I have to see him,’ she said, throwing Joseph a challenging glare. ‘I have to.’
‘Sure. I know that.’ Joseph looked at her – she could feel the intensity of his stare burn a hole in her cheek. Then he skipped ahead a couple of paces and took up a position ahead of her.
‘Okay, Kate. We both know that you ain’t going nowhere in this condition, with that thing slowing you down the whole time. Plus the fact that you’ve got no money, no proper clothing, and no real plan for this. So here’s the deal.’
‘You can keep your deal, Joseph,’ Kate told him, panting. ‘I’m going, and that’s that.’
‘Fine. Go as you are. You won’t get out of the hospital. They need to discharge you first, and they won’t do that until you’re fit enough to look after yourself and have somewhere to actually go and live.’
He spread his legs into a wide, challenging stance. ‘Here’s what I will do, though. If you can walk from there to here, right now, I’ll help you get out of here. I’ll help you arrange your journey to Cornwall, I’ll even lend you the money for your train fare. But only if you prove to me that you’re ready to take that first step on your own.’
Joseph spoke softly; he was standing no more than four or five feet away from her, his hands hanging loosely at his sides. ‘Do it, Kate. Think of Sam. If your mum won’t bring him to see you, you’ll have to go to him. And to do that, you need to get better. This is the only way.’
Kate looked down at her hands, the white knuckles gripping onto the walker, her wrists like pipe cleaners. She remembered how strong she’d felt when she gave birth to Sam, how vibrant, like the well of life sprang from her and her alone.
She swung the walking frame to one side and pushed it as hard as she could. It clattered away, smashing into the far side of the corridor with a satisfying echo. She tipped her chin into the air defiantly, then began to move forward. Her hands flew out to the sides for balance; her gait was uneven, half-shuffle, half-stagger. But she moved on her own, and Joseph held out his arms and caught her as soon as she was close enough. She expected a whoop of joy, a high-five or a cheer, but he just shrugged, then told her to stay where she was while he went to get her some crutches.