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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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The Mercedes pulled up to the grand porticoed entrance of the hotel and an American-styled busboy immediately appeared, greeting the driver as he climbed out of the car. “Mademoiselle.” The chauffeur opened the door next to Sarah and, as he did so, made a little bow, an indulgent smile flicking across his face.

“Wow.” Sarah stared wide-eyed at the chauffeur. “Oh, wow!”

Simon tipped the driver who signaled to two other busboys. There was a rapid exchange of French leading the young men to look at Sarah quizzically. Simon bristled, his protective instincts rearing up irrationally. Sarah, resplendent in her pale blue satin dress, her tiara only slightly off kilter; stared up rapturously at the neon palace. One of the busboys retreated back into the hotel as the other loaded the luggage onto a brass-domed trolley, the type seen in Hollywood movies.

Everything about the moment was, in fact, like stepping into a film. As the bellboys scurried to and fro, their burgundy livery immaculate, the hotel gleamed before them, its windows glowing with welcome. The giant illuminated clock on the façade suggested somehow that here in this magical place, time could be distorted.

A gasp of pleasure from Sarah alerted Simon’s attention and he groaned inwardly as a giant Minnie Mouse, with ears the size of dinner plates, appeared in the door of the hotel, greeting guests returning from a day’s fun-making. The costumed actors were a key part of the experience and an aspect the shy and serious Simon had been dreading.


Monsieur, celui-ci est pour la petite.”
Simon turned toward the quiet voice.

The busboy addressing him pushed a wheelchair, the footrests cumbersome and mechanical, a high head support and drip stand attached to the backrest. It was, Simon realized, a wheelchair used more commonly for those requiring neck support. A leather strap hung down from one side.

“No, Daddy.” Sarah looked aghast, Minnie Mouse forgotten as she backed instinctively behind her father’s legs. “I don’t want it.”

A large family in German football tops, making their way into the hotel, paused. Their sticky, junk food fuelled children stared unabashedly at Sarah over the top of their Augustus Gloop style lollypops.

“Daddy. They’re looking at me.”

Simon eyed the clinical contraption, its ugliness exaggerated by the shiny, cinematic backdrop of the hotel. He put a hand on Sarah’s shoulder, drawing her in close, no words available to him. Melissa moved forward seamlessly, crouching to Sarah’s height and taking her hand. She grinned at her daughter and gave her a conspiratorial wink. “They are looking, Sarah, because you look so beautiful in that dress. Shall we go in?” She pulled her child towards the door, steadfastly ignoring the gawping group of guests and the ten-foot mouse. “Chin up, Sarah. Princesses always keep their chins up.”

Simon watched with relief and fierce pride as his wife, more regal than any Disney royal creation, led Sarah up the steps and into the hotel. A bellboy approached him, gesturing at the chair, irritation belying his pretence of servitude.

“My daughter,” Simon said, speaking clearly but quietly, “is not ill.”

Chapter 10

When Simon was eight, his pet terrapin, George, died. An inhabitant of 31 Primrose Close for only months, George had succumbed (despite Simon’s care and attention) to a respiratory infection. No amount of tank cleaning or freshly dug earth worms could save the little amphibian.

One day Simon returned from school lugging with him a beach bucket full of worms, pilfered from his father’s compost heap. He peered through the glass, noting with interest that the dandelion greens he had provided the day before were untouched. Simon pushed his NHS spectacles back up his nose, and tapped the side of the glass. George lay on the raised, dry area of his tank. Simon stared at the tiny turtle, willing it to respond. Still, George remained motionless, his flippers ominously facing upwards.

Simon bit the inside of his mouth, a tic he habitually performed when concentrating or concerned. He thought methodically through the available options.

One, his pet was dead.
Two, George had got even poorlier than yesterday and was having a very long nap.
Three, George was better and was having a very long nap.
Pushing possibility number one to the back of his mind, Simon plumped for option two.

He lifted George gently out of the tank and placed him in a shoebox lined with cotton wool and loo-roll. He cleaned out the tank meticulously, removing the uneaten food and replacing it with fresh. Dropping one of the pilfered earthworms into the tank, he stowed the rest in an old ice-cream box in his wardrobe. Then he carefully replaced George back on the rock on which he had found him.

Three days later, George had yet to stir. Simon’s research in the library of Shelton Park Primary had produced limited information. A tatty collection of out-of-date encyclopedias had finally provided some data - terrapins did not hibernate. Terrapins were not supposed to smell - George stank.

Returning from school that day with a heavy heart and an even heavier book-laden bag, he was mildly surprised to find Barbara and Terry waiting for him at the kitchen table. A large plastic margarine container took centre place on the table, and nestled amongst strips of newspaper and tissue lay George.

His mother sniffed. “Simon, sit down, lovey. We’ve got something to tell you.”

Simon wrinkled his nose. George really did pong. “I know,” he said simply.

“Simon, lad.” His father began, disconcerted by Simon’s calm. “Your mother found George today. She smelt something funny in your room and when she took a look at George, well, I’m sorry to tell you lad, but George is dead.”

“I know,” repeated Simon.

Terry cleared his throat, briefly catching the eye of his wife. “Well, what the devil were you keeping him for, lad? He must have been gone a week.”

Simon shrugged, uncomfortable under his parents' perplexed gaze. He chewed his cheek and stared at his shoes. “I thought he might wake up if I gave him long enough. I thought I might make it better.”

Terry sighed. “You should have told us, lad. That was a right stink your mother’s had to clear. Now, we’ve made him a coffin and I’ve dug a hole. I thought you might like to be the man to put the lid on it. He was your terrapin and that. Then we’ll pop him in his grave in the garden and you can say a few words if you like. Your mum’s taken some cuttings. You can lay some flowers on the grave, right proper like.”

“No.” Simon looked at his father staunchly.
“No? Well, I can do it alone if you’d like. If you think you’d find it too upsetting, like. Perhaps that’s a better idea.”
“No. I don’t want him to be buried. He won’t like it out there.”

Terry looked at Barbara again, the well-rehearsed scenario not playing as it was meant to. “He’s dead, laddie. He doesn’t know anything.”

“I don’t care. He’s not going in a hole. He’ll be lonely.” Simon held his father’s gaze steadily, chewing his inside cheek furiously until he tasted the tang of blood. He knew his pet was dead. He was not stupid. But he was not going to let George be alone in the dark and in the cold. George would not like it, dead or not.

“Simon,” his mother began tentatively, “Simon, lovey. George is in heaven now. It’s only his little body that’s left here. Think of it more as an overcoat. Just a big old overcoat he’s taken off. It’s just a shell.”

“He’s not going in the ground.”

Terry let out an exasperated sigh. “Simon, be reasonable now. You can’t keep him. He’s stinks to high heaven. Now I know you're upset, lad, but it can’t be helped. I’m sorry you lost your pet, he was a nice little terrapin and you looked after him ever so well, but sometimes our pets die and when they do it is just as important that we behave responsibly about their burial as we did when we were caring for them.”

“I want him to be buried at sea.” Simon said simply. “He’ll like that, will George. Much better. It has to be a burial at sea.”

“Simon!” Barbara exclaimed, both relieved and perturbed. “We live seventy miles away from the sea.”

“He has to be buried at sea,” Simon said evenly, and taking the Stork tub in which his reeking terrapin lay, walked back up to his room to do his homework.

It was nearing midday the next day when Simon, Terry, Barbara and George The Putrid Terrapin, arrived at Cleethorpes. Terry, purple with rage, having followed a caravan at thirty miles an hour for the entire four-hour journey, parked their Austin Allegro on the sea front. Negotiations the previous evening had gone in the seven-year old Simon’s favor and eventually, exhausted, Terry had agreed to make the one hundred and forty mile round trip to the seaside, to bury his son’s pet terrapin at sea.

Cleethorpes, whilst commonly referred to as a seaside resort, was actually situated on the mouth of the Humber River, the vast and filthy expanse of water that served the industrial port town of Hull. Had Simon been aware of this geographical quirk, he would almost certainly have insisted they travel on to the sea proper, but as it were, he was blissfully unaware of the geography of his country. Water was water.

“Right then, lad,” said Terry, looking out over the horizon, “let’s say goodbye to George.”

The tide was out. The initial sandy beach giving out after a hundred yards, there then sprawled black polluted sludge for the next four hundred yards. Terry sighed and looked down at his suede loafers. Then, taking his son’s hand, he started the long walk out to the water.

* * *

“My daughter,” Simon repeated to himself, “is not ill.” And ignoring, the bellboy and his wheelchair, headed into the lobby of the hotel.

Chapter 11

Simon pushed three postcards into the Disney post box and turned in the direction of the restaurant where he had agreed to meet Melissa and Sarah.

29th March 2009

Dear Mum & Dad,

Well, tomorrow is the last day and we’ve actually had a great time.
I’m writing this in a café with a beer (7 Euros!!!!). Mel and Sarah have gone for a well-earned nap and I’m meeting them for tea later. Sarah’s had an amazing time and even I have to say it’s been fun.

See you on Saturday, Sime.

The Mexican restaurant was packed with early diners, the sombrero-wearing waiters irritable. Simon settled in a corner table, ordered a beer, winced at the price, and took out his holiday paperback.

Tomorrow afternoon they would return to Yorkshire. Despite his discomfort with all things Disney, Simon had genuinely enjoyed his week away. The weather had stayed good for them and Sarah’s quiet but unabashed joy was infectious. He opened a paper-wrapped breadstick, leaving his spy novel unopened on the table. He supposed it was time to start thinking of going back to work. There was a pane of glass in the greenhouse that needed re-glazing. Porridge was due for a check-up at the vets. He mulled over a number of domestic duties that awaited him in England, enjoying the cold beer and the ambience of the crowded eatery.

His mobile buzzed in his pocket and retrieving it, he pressed it to his ear. “Hi, Mel. It’s packed already, but I’ve got us a nice table. There’s a lot of very grumpy Parisians in Mexican hats serving. It’s hysterical. There’s plenty on the menu that Sarah will like. If nothing else, she’ll have nachos, won’t she? Do you want me to order your drinks?” Simon's free hand fiddled with his beer mat.

“Simon, Sarah isn’t going to make it down there for tea. She’s not well enough. She was very weak by the time we made it back to the room, near collapse. She slept for two hours but she’s no better. I’ve made her comfy in bed and I’m going to get room service, but she’s pretty adamant that she doesn’t want to eat. Her headache’s got worse and she’s nauseous. I’m checking her temperature now. Should I give her more Calpol? I gave her some a couple of hours ago but it’s only kiddy stuff … Simon? Hello? Are you there?”

Simon closed his eyes and tightened his fingers around his beer bottle. “Yeah, I’m here. Give her the Calpol. I’ll be right there.” Simon threw a couple of notes on the table and, forgetting his novel, edged his way through the packed tables and waiters, back to the hotel.

* * *

“So, what do you think?” Melissa clicked the bedroom door shut, moving into their slightly larger adjoining bedroom and speaking quietly. “Her temperature was 38 degrees. She’s lethargic with no appetite. She’s complaining that her mouth is full of ulcers – actually she’s been complaining about those for a couple of days. Do you think it’s another infection? Do you think we should take her into hospital? It’s ten kilometers from here, we can get a taxi. Lagny-sur-Marne, I think it’s called. Shall I call reception?” Melissa moved towards the phone by the bed.

Simon stayed her hand gently, removing the telephone from her. “No, no hospitals. I think we should just get her home. She’s responsive and she can walk. I’ll make arrangements for a car and a flight. It’s only 5 p.m.. We can have her home by midnight.”

Melissa exhaled slowly and deliberately. “No hospitals. Simon, are you sure that you’re in a position to make a judgment call on this?”

“What do you mean?” Simon glanced sharply at his wife.

“I mean, are you thinking this through and making the correct decision for the welfare of the patient, Simon? Or are you thinking this through and making the best decision for yourself?”

“How dare you?” Simon spoke quietly through his teeth, his anger palpable.

“I’m not trying to hurt you, Simon, but you know you’re not dealing with this. Jesus, Sime – I have been sick with worry, watching Sarah get more and more tired over the week, while you,
you, the fucking doctor
, have carried on as if this is just a normal family holiday.”

“Keep your voice down, and stop swearing,” Simon hissed.

“You see?” Melissa sprang towards him, her voice lower. “Is this really the moment to argue about how much I swear? You’re ostriching, Simon. You’re burying your head in the sand and you’re leaving me to deal with all this.” She moved towards the window, looking out over the panorama of the park and the iconic Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at its centre.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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