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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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Her future stretched out luxuriantly before her. She was to be married to a doctor. They would fill their house with laughing children, dogs and Laura Ashley cushions. There would be wickedly witty guests for dinner and committee ladies in hats for lunch. She would have an Aga, and a dog to sleep before it.

And her dreams had been fulfilled. She had the doctor already. The house came a few years later, and the baby shortly after that. Laura Ashley being momentarily unfashionable, the curtains were instead from Habitat and her range cooker was a Rayburn, but the sparkling dinner parties and charitable luncheons went ahead. Porridge, the puppy, chewed everything and enchanted everyone. Melissa was content.

Now it was as though, in a moment of spite, someone had fed Melissa’s contentment into a shredder. The macerated strips of her life had been reduced to a pile of incomprehensible remnants, carelessly heaped on a hotel bed.

They had checked into the St George’s Hotel the night before, having spent the day with Sarah. After leaving Mr. Abnam’s office, they stood in the lift lobby for a while, steadying themselves, checking their emotions. Without discussion they headed back to Sarah, united in their overwhelming desire to be with their little girl.

“Did you get my brochure, Dad?” No preliminaries. Sarah could pick up a conversation three weeks after it was interrupted and expect her conversant to keep up. “When will you be getting the brochure? They’ll have them at Thomas Cook, Daddy. There’s one in Huddersfield.”

Simon paused, confused. His mind seemed to be struggling to compute basic information. Brochure. Brochure? Disneyland.
“Sarah may be quite well for a few weeks, two months, perhaps three.”
Disneyland. Simon attempted a smile, though his mouth refused to contort upwards. He gave up.

“Do you know what, darling? I think I’ll go and get that brochure now. I suppose if we’re going to see Mickey, we had better get planning. Don’t you think, Mummy?” Simon turned to Melissa. She was startlingly white, her expression unfathomable. Shock. “Mummy? Would you like to come with me? We’ll only be half an hour. Melissa?”

“No, you go ahead.” Melissa turned to him, a blank-eyed rictus passing as her smile. “I want to hear what happens next to Harry Potter.”

“Yey! Me too!” Sarah grinned, grabbing the book and holding it out towards her mother.
“Okay. I’ll, erm … I’ll be back soon. You okay, darling?” Simon asked his wife.
“Yes, fine,” she snapped brightly, the unnerving faux-smile flashing once again.

Simon headed out of the ward, stopping briefly at the nurses' station. “Hi. My wife, she’s had a shock. Could someone …” His brain once again stalled, its basic mechanism apparently seized up.

“Of course, Dr. Bailey. She’s had a terrible shock. I’ll get her a strong tea and something to eat and we’ll keep an eye on her.” A young nurse smiled sympathetically, completely unaware of the rage that she had stirred within the handsome GP. ‘Of course?’ Of
course
? Did they all
know
? How long had they known? Had they all been muttering and pitying them as they had sat watching television with their daughter that morning? Had they known last night? Had these, these
women
all known the fate of his daughter before he had?

“Do that.” Simon spat out the words, then turned on his heel, unable to hide his hostility towards this ...
nobody
, who knew more about his daughter than he did.

* * *

“I’ve still got a couple of those biscuits, you know.” Melissa spoke in a dull monotone. “I must have eaten about twenty but I kept the rest in my dressing case. They’re still there, tucked into the little pocket at the back. They even went into hospital with me. I had one with the cup of tea the nurse gave us after the birth. Do you remember? That horrible nagging midwife had just been lecturing us about cot death.”

Simon did remember. The midwives had left the newly formed family to get to know one another. As Melissa and the baby sat up in bed, Simon took his shoes off and climbed onto the bed beside them. The urge to hold both his wife and his new daughter outweighed the discomfort of three in a bed made for one. For a blissful few minutes they had lain together, his arm around his wife, hers around the child. All linked. Team Bailey. A familial triumvirate.

An unpleasant midwife with an abrasive personality looked in and scolded them for ‘unsafe practices’ around a baby. With a strong Glaswegian accent, the stout red-haired woman ranted incomprehensively about
‘the bairn’
and
‘the beed’
. Simon and Melissa caught each other's eye and then failed desperately as they both tried not to giggle. Hysteria welled up in both of them in the manner of naughty children. When they could hold on no longer they both exploded, tears of laughter coursing down their cheeks. The midwife strode out in a huff. A member of the nursing staff, one blessed with a sense of humor, made them a cup of tea and Melissa, remembering the pilfered biscuits, shared one with the father of her new child.

“Simon?”

“Yes.” Simon’s voice was little more than a whisper as he sat down next to his wife on the king-sized hotel bed. The decision to book into the hotel had been mutual. Somehow an unspoken agreement had been made and after settling Sarah down for the evening and checking that she was happy on her own for a night, they got in the car and drove wordlessly to the town centre hotel, past laughing students falling drunkenly out of university bars in a ritual of bad behavior for which Simon and Melissa would never have the privilege of scolding Sarah.

Home had become a hostile place. No comfort could be drawn from a building so reverberant with memories and stuffed with objects that were now so sacred. They didn’t want to see the crayon and felt tip scrawls stuck to the fridge door. They could not cope with the pile of shoes and skipping ropes entangled by the door. They were incapable of facing the closed door to Sarah’s room, its
‘Kids Rool!’
sign somehow mocking them.

Far better the impersonal sanctuary of a hotel bedroom, with its bland yet tasteful furnishings, and none of the painfully familiar
accoutrements
of domestic life.

Thank God for text messages. Unable to face speaking to either of their parents, they had sent a short message to Diana, who had been both watching the florists that day as well as dog-sitting the indefatigable Porridge: CAN U PLEASE LOOK AFTER P TONIGHT? Diana, intuitive and wise, responded with a mere YES. Explanations would be given later. She allowed herself the fragile fantasy that Melissa and Simon had gone to the cinema, or perhaps the new tapas bar they had talked about.

But a merry trip to a restaurant it was not. They ordered room service, the food lying largely uneaten as Melissa and Simon, two thirds of Team Bailey, had cried with a ferocity neither would have thought possible, until finally falling asleep, their pillows sodden.

Now, the ethereality of night had passed and dawn’s raw reality had broken.

“Simon.” Melissa looked up at her husband, repeating his name as if for strength. “How do we tell Sarah?”

Chapter 9

Discharged and told only that she had finished her chemo session, Sarah returned home, a little weak, but upbeat and wildly excited about her longed-for trip to Disneyland. Her grandparents, now fully informed of the situation, defiantly threw off the ‘no spoiling Sarah’ rule and deluged the delighted child in sweets, DVDs and extravagant gifts.

Porridge abandoned his lovingly chewed basket to sleep by Sarah’s bed each night. The normally docile dog had surprised everybody by baring his fangs like a hellhound one evening when Melissa had tried to remove him from the room, having finished their evening installment of Harry Potter. Porridge remained, the Tinkerbell rug becoming unarguably his.

* * *

Simon heaved the last bag into the back of Robert’s old Audi Estate. “That’s the lot, Robert. I’ll do a quick run around the house, check the TVs are unplugged and then we can get off. You set, Sarah?”

Sarah, who had been voluntarily sitting in the car since teatime, now almost two hours ago, cheered. She was dressed in a replica Cinderella costume, complete with matching princess head-scarf (cannibalized from a Disney pillowcase) topped with a jauntily balanced tiara. Her hand luggage, a miniature airhostess style trolley emblazoned with Disney princesses, had been packed around ten times, before she had finally decided on the toys, books and ‘essentials’ she deemed necessary for the one-hour flight to Paris. One Nintendo DS, one Nintendo DS Dogz game, one notepad, one pencil-case, one Disneyland map, one tube of fruit pastilles. “Bye, Porridge! Bye, Grandma Aitch! Don’t forget, Porridge likes to watch Ben Ten in the mornings and he doesn’t like Pedigree Chum in gravy …” Porridge, fully aware that he was being excluded from some pleasant excursion, huffed and turned back into the house.

Inside, Simon did last minute checks, pulling out plugs and checking windows were shut. He mentally ticked off the list of required documents and felt his inside pocket, reassuring himself that his Euros were where he had put them. In their bedroom, he found Melissa frantically scrabbling in one of her dressing table drawers. “You ready for off then, Mel? Want to go through the checklist?”

“I can’t find my bloody passport anywhere. I swear I put it in here. I separated it from the others when I used it for ID the other day. Oh, where is it?” Mel dragged open another drawer, randomly flinging bottles and make-up stained scrunchies onto the bed.

“I’ve got it here, Mel. I put them all together this morning.”

“Oh great! Oh, that’s just fantastic, Simon. So you’ve let me spend the entire morning searching for it, when you had it all the time? Oh marvelous, that’s just wonderful. Thanks ever so much.” Melissa’s eyes narrowed, a sneer contorting her usually attractive mouth.

“Hang on, Mel. I thought I was helping. I didn’t know that you were looking for it.”

“No, because you don’t notice anything do you, Simon? Did it not cross your mind to ask why every conversation we have had today has been conducted while I turn out the contents of a drawer?”

“Well why didn’t you ask me? I would have…”

“Because!” Melissa exploded, “I didn’t know you had been rifling through my dressing table. How was I supposed to know that you were dealing with the documents? I normally do that.”

“Melissa. It’s not a problem. You’ve got it, your Dad’s waiting, let’s go.” Simon backed away from his wife and made his way back down the stairs, chewing the insides of his mouth, a habit that had recently left them ridged and sore.

For the past fortnight, living with Melissa had been like living with a spitting cobra. Whilst she managed to keep from striking in Sarah’s presence, venom poured forth regularly and always in Simon’s direction. It was exhausting and hurtful. He understood that this was part of Melissa’s grieving process and as such, desperately tried to let the shockwaves of anger bounce off him, but it was hard not to absorb some of Mel’s ire.

With the exception of his wife’s vitriol, for Simon the last month had been a period of strange calm. Granted an indeterminate length of compassionate leave from the surgery, Simon had enjoyed three precious weeks with his daughter, who, though clearly slowing down, remained her usual, bright, funny self. From time to time thoughts of the future crept up on him and, when they did, he simply pushed them away.

Sarah’s voice broke his thoughts. “Come on! Honk the horn, Granddad Aitch. Daddy!” Simon gallantly held the door open for Melissa, locked up, kissed his mother-in-law, shouted a farewell to the sulking Porridge and joined his family in the car, ready for Robert to drive them to the airport.

The Audi pulled out of the drive, Simon and Melissa waving back at Diana, who waved them off from their front door.

“Now, everyone.” An authoritative little voice piped up from the back. “I thought we could start with
Ten Green Bottles
.”

* * *

Mercifully, the trip to Leeds Bradford Airport was short, allowing for only two rounds of
‘Ging Gang Goolie’
.

On landing at Charles de Gaulle, an executive car took them straight from Arrivals to The Disney Hotel. The expensive transfer meant that Sarah would need only to walk from the luggage carousels to the exit, from whence they would be taken directly and in comfort to their hotel.

The airport was situated in the industrial part of town, and the Mercedes S Class crawled through the heavy Parisian traffic. The car was large enough to allow all three of the Baileys to sit together in the back and Sarah, exhausted by the short journey, slept soundly between her parents, her mouth open and her breathing shallow.


Putin!”
The driver gesticulated out of his window, a Gallic display of road-rage erupting between three or four cars.

“Sorry I was a bitch.” Melissa gave Simon a little smile.
Simon shared a reciprocal grin. “Forget it.”
“So, are you dreading your descent into a cartoon character nightmare?”

“Actually, I’m almost beginning to look forward to it, though I do suspect it may be the outer ring of Hell. I’m Dante and our driver friend here is Virgil.”

“Surely he is Charon, the ferryman?”

“And this bloody traffic jam the river Acheron.” Simon looked at his sleeping child between them. “Then Sarah must be Virgil. Sarah is our guide.”

* * *

Sarah, unaware of her promotion to tour-guide of the underworld, slept soundly. She woke an hour later as the car turned into the entrance to the park. Simon had chosen The Disney Hotel, grandest and most traditional of the numerous hostelries serving the parks. The imposing building dominated the entrance, negating the need for shuttle buses or long walks. In the early dusk, lights sparkled from the roof, giving it the appearance of a lit up wedding cake. Its profile was somehow reminiscent of a great Indian palace.

Sarah scooted over onto her father’s knee and pressed her face against the car window. Simon kissed the back of her scarf-wrapped head, inhaling deeply, enjoying the little girl smell of Sailor Matey bubble bath and dressing-up box musk.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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