It was the evening of the annual awards ceremony for the Licensed Victualler’s Association. Violet was nominated for three awards and was absolutely furious because the year before she had been nominated for four and had walked away with three of them. This year, the rumour mill had it that The Lakeside Hotel was going to take the overall Best Hotel in Cumbria award. The die had already been cast, the decisions made, but since her invitation had come through and she’d seen that she was only up for the three nominations she had made her staff’s life a living hell. The Best Hotel award rightfully belonged to the Halcyon Woods. She had umpteen certificates and a bloody great trophy to prove it. The trophy changed hands with each new recipient of the award, but it had been at the Halycon for five years running. The previous year she had been nominated for best restaurant, best bedrooms, best gardens and overall winner in show. She had won all but the bedrooms and the following day the housekeeper, all of the chambermaids, upstairs cleaners and laundry staff were given their notice. Violet said that the recession had hit, when in fact the Halcyon’s trade had been unaffected by it. She said that the family would be pulling together to undertake their own domestic duties. The staff didn’t have a leg to stand on and, the following day, Violet advertised for twenty-one new members of staff.
This year she had only been nominated for Best Gardens, Best internal floral arrangements and best bedrooms. Violent stormed and blustered. She said that the award for floral arrangements was an insult. She felt that it was a made up award thrown at underachieving hotels when they couldn’t think of anything else to award them. She said that it was only a slight step up from the most original garden gnomes award, which most of the hoteliers saw as a bit of fun and tried desperately to win. When, eight years ago, Donald had wanted to enter into the spirit of things with a pair of caricature gnomes, in the style of himself and Violet, his wife had thrown them at him and had threatened divorce if ever a gnome of any description laid its fishing rod in one of her ponds. From that moment onwards, gnomes were barred from the Halcyon Woods establishment. Donald felt that Violet had a dim view of dwarfs as well as Gnomes after she had refused to take a weekend booking of them in July last year. ‘All those little people weebling around and looking small,’ she’d said. ‘It would quite lower the tone.’ Donald hadn’t acknowledged her from behind his newspaper; he had given up trying to argue managerial decisions with Violet many years ago. ‘And besides, they always have such sharp, pointed little teeth, dear. They often look quite ready to bite somebody.’
Donald took a moment to ponder this insight. ‘Don’t they have exactly the same kind of teeth as anybody else, then?’
‘Oh no, dear, it harks back to when they were primordial and had to live by their wits to survive in the forest.’
‘Oh,’ said Donald. There was a lady who lived on Springfield lane. Donald once passed her a packet of Fox’s mints that were out of her reach in the newsagents and they’d had a good chat about horses. She bought the mints to feed to her horse apparently. She was a dwarf but didn’t seem to have sharp teeth and she lived in a semi in town. She didn’t look as though she’d ever had to live by her wits in a forest. Donald felt it best to drop the conversation, because he’d never win.
It was important to Violet to create just the right impression at the ceremony that year. It had been somewhat of an annus horribilis in the Woods Dynasty. James had publicly split up with Tammy in a bar. Witnesses said they’d had to pull him off her. They got back together a month later, but it had been a nasty business and involved an unpleasant restraining order that didn’t shed a good light on the hotel. Andrew had been involved in a misguided business deal. The police called it fraud and it made the newspapers. Violet said afterwards that fraud is such an ugly word. The watch maker in question should have been flattered that Andrew so admired his work that he wanted to emulate it himself. Bribes had been paid from the top rung of the civil service ladder to the bottom and Violet took her red lipstick a shade deeper to show her stiff upper lip in times of trouble. Later in the year again, James, still under the shadow of what Violet called the silly tiff with his wife, found himself the victim of a pub brawl. He’d had to defend himself against a pack of football hooligans. He stood in the dock for the second time in six months and three teenage boys were awarded thousands of pounds in damages. When the terrible year was almost at a close, there was the humiliation when James, he was such a worry, that boy, was brought home by the police in a dress. Soliciting in town, the Police said, picking up men for money. It was all lies. They had it in for the Woods. Violet screamed victimisation but never very loudly when anybody official was around. That had been the greatest scandal of them all. James was a problem sometimes but seeing her boy standing in the dock accused of such atrocities when he’d merely been on a fancy dress night out was ridiculous. Her lipstick deepened by two whole shades and preceded her face into a room. Last year had been a bad one that the family needed to dust off and put behind them. This was the occasion to shine.
It took the combined effort of three of her son’s and Donald to talk Violet out of wearing her fox fur for the award ceremony. Yes, it showed a certain prestige, but it also caused consternation whenever she wore it as people tended to be sensitive around the whole issue of fox hunting. ‘Well, I didn’t kill the blessed thing, dear,’ was Violet’s continual bleat. It took all of the tact and diplomacy that Ros could muster to talk her down and to help her choose something else befitting the grand occasion. Ros was the Halcyon Woods’ secret weapon. She was the one person in the world who had a certain amount of influence over Violet. For some reason, Violet liked her eldest son’s wife. She would take counsel from her and listen to what she had to say. She was employed as a bookkeeper for the business, but her real talent lay in stopping Violet from ruining the Hotel with any one of her terrible ideas that could land them, if not in the Court of Human Rights, then certainly in hot water and shown in an unfavourable light in the local press. Like the time that Violet had wanted to take the hotel more upmarket. She instructed the girls on reception to ask visitors for proof of their earnings and said that only people with an income in excess of one hundred thousand pounds a year should be allowed to make a booking or sign in. Luckily, on that occasion, Julia had discreetly rung up to Ros’ apartment and asked her to come down and sort her mother-in-law out. Another time, Violet had wanted guests to take a medical before using the hotel pool and gymnasium, and she once decided that every guest should have their bags and person searched on leaving to see if they’d stolen anything. Ros was the calming voice of reason on each of these, and many more, occasions. She understood Violet and could handle her and talk her down. She was an asset worth her weight in gold because, since her retirement, Violet had too much time to sit and think and, these days, although she was still as sharp as a tack in many ways, in others, some of her ideas were slewed and her judgement slightly impaired.
The evening was unfolding as expected. Violet, still smarting from the slur of her nominations, was the epitome of graciousness, an act perfected over many seasons in hospitality. She simpered and cooed, flattered corporate ego, and complimented corporate ego’s wife, before turning to the next bigwig and tittle tattling about who corporate ego’s wife was currently sleeping with.
The family had their own table toward the front of the room. She had made grand donations to various charities for this place, but she was still unhappy with the position, and before they sat for dinner, she had Donald and two waiters angling the table differently, so that she had a clearer runway up to the stage. The salmon flotage starter was too dry, she said, the lettuce too bitter, the champagne too gassy and the wine too tart. The main course had just arrived at their table and Violet was delivering her opinion of the steak when her phone rang. She coloured because it was the height of bad manners to have one’s phone turned on during these occasions. But Violet never turned this phone off. It never rang, but religiously twice a week she’d take it out of her handbag and put it on charge before putting it back in the inside pocket of her bag. In the last twenty years that telephone had never been used, but in all that time, it had never been once been switched off.
She rummaged in her bag, trying to locate the zip to the inner pocket. In her haste she was all fingers and thumbs and almost dropped it. She clasped the phone to her breast, trying to still the noise coming from it. ‘Excuse me. Excuse me,’ she said apologetically, scraping her chair away from the table and stepping backwards to collide with a waiter holding a tray laden with plates. The waiter was good and managed to sidestep Violet while maintaining balance of his load. ‘Hello. Yes, this is she,’ said Violet, ignoring the waiter and stumbling through the closely positioned tables towards the exit.
Violet returned to the dining room a few minutes later. She stood at the side of the room trying to get Donald’s attention, but he was engrossed in his dinner and had forgotten all about Violet and the mysterious phone call. The boys were more curious. Phil was still questioning Donald about who it might be. He was more observant than the others, he’d seen just how shaken his mother was when the phone rang. Her reaction was more than just embarrassment for her social faux pas. He saw that the phone she answered was not her usual one. She had never mentioned changing it and Violet never did anything like that without a performance that involved the entire family. It was Phil who noticed his mother jumping up and down in her ridiculous chiffon tent across the room.
‘Dad,’ he said, tapping Donald on the shoulder to drag his attention away from the plate. ‘Dad, mum wants you. She seems het up.’
‘Son, your mother’s always het up,’ answered Donald around a mouthful of rare Scottish beef, ‘while this hunk of meat, on the other hand, is a rare treat to be savoured and enjoyed without your mother’s acid stare turning it to leather under her shrivelling gaze. She can wait.’
Phil tutted in frustration and rose to go to his mother. He took her under the elbow and led her from the threshold of the dining room where she stood in the waiter’s way, to the relative privacy of the corridor outside.
‘No, no, Philip, I don’t want you,’ she said, swatting at him with her hand. ‘Go and get your father.’ She was pale under her thickly powdered cheekbones. She shook and seemed unsteady on her feet. He guided her into a pink velvet chair and motioned to a passing employee, demanding he fetch her a glass of water. ‘I’ve got to go, Philip. I haven’t got time for this. Oh, do stop fussing and get me your father.’
Having finished the last morsel on his plate and feeling the need to loosen his belt, break wind and perhaps get some air before dessert, Donald was less reluctant to move. ‘What is it, woman?’ he asked, as he got to his wife who had risen from the chair and stood by the main entrance to the hotel. ‘Are you ill?’
Phil had followed his father out and hovered by his parents. He was curious to know what was going on, as was James who had also come out to see what all the fuss was about. Violet pulled Donald away from her sons and spoke quietly to him. ‘There’s been trouble. The boy. He’s in hospital, intensive care. Serious. I have to go.’
Donald’s face had clouded. Phil and James strained to catch what was being said but only picked up the odd phrase. Somebody was in a bad way in hospital, but all the family was here. James commented that it couldn’t be anybody important, they were all accounted for, and yet their mother seemed to be badly shaken. Their father had straightened his shoulders. His body was stiff, disapproving.
‘I’ve called a cab,’ said Violet in a normal tone. ‘You’ll have to come for me in the car, after you’ve slept off your excesses. Make my excuses will you?’
‘Where are you going mother? What is it? Who’s hurt?’ shouted James, but their mother had already turned, opened the door of the taxi that had pulled up and was climbing inside.
It was after ten o’clock when she arrived at the front desk of the hospital. She was directed to the ICU, but nobody offered to escort her. ‘Young man,’ she said to a porter wheeling a patient covered in blood along the corridor. ‘Take me to the intensive care unit, immediately.’
The porter didn’t realise that violet was talking to him. ‘You there, are you deaf or an imbecile?’ The porter turned, confused. ‘Leave him, he’s clearly drunk, he’ll be quite all right there for a moment and this is urgent business. Intensive care?’
‘Oi who you calling drunk?’ slurred the patient behind a face full of swelling.
‘What?’ said the porter.
‘Intensive care,’ bellowed Violet.
‘If you follow the arrows to the lift, madam, ICU’s on the third floor, you can’t miss it.’ With that he came to an intersection and veered off, leaving Violet shouting at his retreating back.
There was a flurry of conversation at the nurses’ station at the intensive care ward. The nurses and a doctor behind the desk were discussing cases and the nurses to the side of the desk were talking about their love life. Violet burst among them like a border collie into a flock of pigeons. She was out of breath. Her bunions were throbbing mercilessly in the stiff court shoes. She had walked further in the last five minutes than she had in the preceding month. She flung her handbag onto the top of the nurses’ station desk and flopped on top of it. ‘Water. I need water.’ She croaked, lifting her head from her arms. One of the clips holding her hair piled on top of her head had come loose and a third of her hair had dropped to cover her face. Her red lipstick had spread from her thin top lip, to finish just below her nose.
The two young nurses beside Violet giggled. An older nurse struggled to bring her own face to order and then glared the girls into silence. ‘Can I help you?’ she asked, ignoring Violet’s plea for hydration and adopting her businesslike smile that conveyed compassion and authority in equal measure.
‘And you are?’ asked Violet.
The nurse was taken aback and the smile dropped from her face to be replaced by a look that clearly said that she was the boss around here. ‘I’m staff nurse Jeffries,’ she said, motioning to her name badge. ‘How can I help you, madam?’
‘You can’t. You won’t do at all. I need to speak to the man in charge. You there, young man.’ She poked her finger towards the doctor who had his head immersed in somebody’s records. He was out of range for her to make contact, but he raised his head to stare at her.
‘Are you a real doctor, or one of those people who follow the doctors around the wards?’
Adrian Walker smiled. He could charm any old bird out of the trees and this buzzard was no exception. ‘I am indeed a real doctor, ma’am,’ he said. ‘They even gave me a certificate to prove it. Now why don’t you tell me what I can do for you.’
‘I’d prefer somebody higher, but you’ll have to do. Simon Peter,’ she dropped her voice on the last word, ‘Woods,’ she said. At that moment the pager attached to the doctor’s pocket sounded an urgent alarm. He looked down at it. ‘I’m sorry, madam, this is important. I’ve got to go.’ He patted her arm. ‘Nurse Jefferies here will look after you. She’s got a piece of paper, too.’ He winked at Violet and took off down the ward in the direction of monitors sounding alarms.
‘You’ve come to see Simon Woods?’ asked sister Jefferies. ‘Are you a relative?’
‘I’m his,’ Violet faltered, ‘he’s my…I’m his legal guardian.’
‘Oh, right, well I guess that’s good enough. Only next of kin are allowed in at the moment. He’s very poorly, but we’ve got him sedated and he’s doing as well as can be expected. I’ll take you to him now. Don’t be alarmed by all of the monitoring equipment, it’s keeping him alive. He’s asleep, but some people believe that they can hear you, so feel free to talk to him.’ She was striding down the corridor as she spoke and Violet was struggling to keep up with her. ‘I can’t tell you anymore, I’m afraid, but a doctor will be along shortly.’ She opened a door and admitted Violet. ‘Make yourself comfortable, and when the nurses have a spare moment, they’ll bring you a cup of tea. She motioned to the bell above the bed. ‘Ring if you need anything.’
Jeffries closed the door behind her and Violet was left alone with only the droning beep of the monitor, the loud ticking of the wall clock and the noise of saline and morphine feeding into a drip bag, for company.
The doughy white figure, in the white bed, in the white room, seemed less real than the small noises around her. She approached the bed and sat in the chair beside it. Before looking properly at her son, she eased her feet out of her shoes, raised one fat ankle and rubbed it. She would have trouble walking the next day. She examined the bunion on the side of her big toe, visibly red through the thick denier of her tights. She rose, poured herself a glass of water from the jug on the bedside cabinet, and then wondered if it had been pressed to her son’s mouth. She screwed her face in disgust, lowered the glass without drinking, and sat back down. Only then did she look at her son for the first time. His chest rose and fell in time with the machine that breathed for him. His face was slack, eyes closed, fleshy mouth open, tongue protruding. Violet shuddered and willed with all her might for the heartbeat to stop. She wanted the shame to end.
She examined each piece of equipment, working out what each did, how it worked, what it was for. She saw that the drip feed worked by controlling a simple slide wheel. Take it down to lessen the flow of drugs, slide it up to increase them. The beeping monitor took its signal from the finger clamp, cradling Simon’s thumb and recording his pulse. She looked at the door, listened for footsteps in the hall. Then she removed the finger clamp from his thumb and put it on her own. She watched the number’s quickly rising on the monitor screen, but they didn’t sound any alarms. She was ready to quickly transfer the clamp again if anybody approached. With her own elevated but steady heartbeat, within the perimeters of acceptable levels, pulsing out static pictures on the graph paper and beeping like a contented robot, she studied the man that she gave birth to and felt the reflexive, familiar revulsion that she felt every time she’d ever looked at him. She could speed up the flow of morphine into his bloodstream, and then return it to its original position when somebody approached, but she doubted that it would be enough to kill him. She tested the tension on the nasal tube hooked up to the ventilator. The tube was fastened under his nose with a piece of micropore surgical tape. She loosened it enough to allow movement of the tube, but not enough to show that it had been disturbed. She wondered if she could pull it out far enough to suffocate him, without it coming right out of his airway. She tested this theory by gently easing the tube out of her son’s throat inch by inch. This was her moment, her chance. She could rid herself of this terminal disease that she carried on her soul, once and for all. God would forgive her. Surely she had passed his test of burden after all of these years. In almost thirty years she had only missed two Wednesday visits. Staff and come and gone from the home, but she remained constant. She had greater longevity there than any member of staff. She had never failed in her duty, apart from the two occasions when she’d been too ill to attend. And for thirty years she had burned with hatred and shame. She pulled the tube another inch and he opened his mouth wider, although his eyes remained shut. He was unconscious, but his broken, imbecilic mind had the presence of self enough to still send messages to his nervous system to fight for life. She watched him gasp, choking on the air that he couldn’t pull into his lungs. She watched as his impaired brain starved of oxygen and she waited for the stillness that would be her reward for bravery. He reminded her of a fish out of water, a big fat, bloated, ugly fish, gasping and flapping for a life that he hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve. He was making a gurgling sound; she felt the first stirrings of panic. What if she was caught? Her reputation. The WI. The Media. She would scream euthanasia from the dock, but could she take the risk? She might not become the people’s heroine for such a merciful and selfless act. And at the very best the secret that she’d guarded so carefully all of these years, the fact that she had a handicapped child, would be out. She wanted him to die, but she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if word was out that she had given birth to that.
Later, she didn’t know if she’d already begun forcing the tube back down his windpipe when she heard the footsteps approaching, or if the footsteps came first. But when she heard the nurse she had to act fast. The tube was a lot harder to get back down than it had been pulling it out. He made unearthly choking noises. The footsteps were almost level with the door. There was a wet mucus mark on the tube where it was three inches higher than it had been. She quickly transferred the finger clamp. The monitor dropped, slowed, settled and was still settling when the nurse came in. Violet flung the top half of her body over Simon and feigned weeping. The nurse glanced at the monitor and rushed over to the bed. She guided violet up by the shoulders. ‘Easy, love, you’ve trapped his monitor.’
She sat Violet in the chair and looked carefully at Simon Peter’s finger clamp. It was still slowing, but was steadier now. The nurse adjusted it. After a few more seconds it stuck in a slow, steady, one beep per second rhythm. ‘Crickey, I think you’d knocked all the wind out of him there. I know it’s upsetting, but try not to squash him, eh?’ Violet looked up sharply, from dabbing her eyes. ‘I mean,’ the nurse continued, ‘please, just make sure he’s got plenty of air.’ She realised that this was a dumb statement that highlighted her student status. The patient wasn’t even breathing for himself, so it didn’t matter how much air he had, but having that great lump lying all over him had certainly done something to the monitor. It was okay now though and she could see to the matter in hand, ‘Can I get you a cup of tea or anything?’