I don’t remember much about the day my son was born. Or the day he died. I was off my head on both days. What I do remember is the snow. And the cold. And the pain. In some ways, not much has changed.
Thank God for Janet. If she hadn’t helped me, I’d probably have died on the pavement. There again, maybe that would have been for the best. I know I shouldn’t be here now. It’s just so hard to stay away. Things could have turned out so differently but it’s no good looking back. Just a few minutes. Even seeing her through the window will be enough.
I wonder how long she’s been using the snow globe for the Christmas window display. It’s hard to believe that something so beautiful can cause so much pain.
I remember standing right here on his birthday, in the snow, looking through the same shop window, desperate for someone to notice me. All I saw were flashing white lights, and my head felt as though it was going to split open. I can still taste the blood at the back of my throat. I remember looking at my feet. I couldn’t understand why they were so red. I mean, I was freezing. Then it all went black.
When I woke up in a clean, warm bed, someone was tapping my hand. Then a nurse put a baby into my arms.
“This is your son. Do you have a name for him?”
I called him Luke.
Janet McElroy pointed to the window and called out to the other two women in the shop.
“There’s that girl again. She’s in real state this time. No coat, black eye and a bloody nose. We can’t leave her out there in this weather, poor thing.”
“Wait a minute, Janet. You don’t know what trouble’s following her. You’ve seen that fellow she hangs around with. No-good layabout, if you ask me. Probably on drugs, too. I don’t think Head Office would be very pleased if one of us was hurt or the place was trashed.”
Janet shook her head and sighed. “You mean that we can work in a charity shop, take money off people for charity, but we can’t directly help someone who obviously needs it? Sorry, I’m going out.”
Janet pulled open the door as Tia slumped to the ground. The girl was wearing a thin shirt, a short black skirt and summer shoes. She lay on the pavement with her hair spread out around her, but Janet’s eyes were drawn to the slashes of red on the snow beneath the girl’s legs. She ran back into the shop.
“Quick! Phone for an ambulance. I think she’s losing the baby. She’s tiny but looks almost full-term to me. Tell them she’s unconscious but breathing. Where’s that box of blankets that came in last week? We can’t move her but I’ll try to keep her a little bit warmer. I need that big umbrella as well. The snow’s coming down much heavier. Can one of you help me? Now!”
Kay Jones screamed and was rewarded with a mask clamped over her mouth and nose.
“There now, don’t fuss. Keep calm and breathe like we’ve told you. It’ll make it easier. You’re nearly there.”
Kay grunted. There had been a stream of nurses over the past ten hours telling her the same thing, and now she was tired of it all. If she could have a pill to stop everything for a few hours then she’d willingly take it, but no such luck. This baby was coming out whether she liked it or not. Another contraction washed over her and she grabbed the nurse’s hand.
“Don’t waste your energy on me, girl. Push!” The nurse turned to one of the juniors in the room and lowered her voice. “Doesn’t she have anyone with her? Doesn’t seem right, her being on her own. She’s only eighteen, for goodness sake.”
“There’s no one waiting.” The junior nurse shook her head and looked through Kay’s notes. “She hasn’t put anyone as her next-of-kin, either. Looks like she’s in one of those new council flats over Crompton way. Are Social Services involved at all?”
“Not sure. I think there’s something from them at the back of her notes. She might need some extra help here. Can you see if there’s a medic free?”
Kay shouted again and the nurses turned back to her. Half an hour later, after a forceps delivery, they told her she had a son. She called him Adam.
I wish they’d stop asking me all these questions. First the nurses, then the doctors, now the police and Social Services. I can see by the way they keep looking at each other that they don’t believe anything I’ve said, but if I told them the truth, they’d take Luke away before I could spit. I thought that’s what I wanted but once he curled his little hand around my finger, I knew I had to keep him. I’ve got to find a way for us to stay together.
“Now try to remember. Where have you been living these past few months? And who was it that hurt you? We can’t help you if you don’t help us.”
I’m so tired. I just want to sleep. I can’t remember the last time I had sheets or a pillowcase. They’re bringing the food trolley around now. I’m starving, but I’m afraid that I’ll puke. It’s been ages since I ate anything more than toast or chips.
“Come along now. I think that’s enough questions for today. She’s not going anywhere for a while so you can come back tomorrow. She needs to rest.”
She’s the only nurse who’s been kind to me. Since they cleaned me up in A & E and brought me to the ward, the others have just done what they needed and left me to it. I saw a couple of them in the corner looking over at me and whispering. I know what they think and they’re wrong. I’ve never touched anything apart from the vodka and a few pills, nothing heavy. Not like Jake and the others. I can’t go back there. He’ll kill me next time, that’s for sure. And what about Luke? No way. There must be something I can do to keep him.
The nurse swished the curtains open and the group of people who had been questioning Tia left the ward. Kay leaned over and looked at her son. He was asleep, and she touched his face and his long, black eyelashes. She glanced across the room at Tia and saw that she was crying.
“What’s the matter? Stitches? Mine hurt like bleedin’ hell. Ask for some painkillers when they come around. They help a bit. I’m Kay. What’s your name?”
Tia looked up and wiped her hand across her eyes. The girl in the bed opposite looked all right but Tia didn’t know if she could trust her. Still, there was no one else in the room, and she could always deny everything if Kay told anyone what she’d said.
“I’m Tia. I didn’t have any stitches. I’m just tired and a bit scared about what’s going to happen next.”
“What d’you mean? With the feeding and stuff?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know if they’ll let me keep him. I don’t really have anywhere to live.” She gulped. “My boyfriend, well, he beat me up yesterday, and I ran away.”
Kay frowned. At least she had her own place, although her baby’s father didn’t know about him. It was going to be tough, having to look after a baby as well as herself, but she was going to try. She thought about her parents and how she’d hurt them, but she wasn’t ready for any kind of reconciliation just yet.
“That’s not good. Don’t let on about that kind of stuff. Isn’t there anyone that you could stay with? They might let you have him then, even if they keep an eye on you for a while.”
“I don’t have anyone.”
Tia began to cry again and Kay slipped out of bed and crossed the room. She put a box of tissues on Tia’s bed.
“Here, have those. They don’t seem to have given you any. God, your face is a mess. You look like one of those paintings – you know, the ones where the nose is on the wrong bit of the face!”
Tia tried to laugh but cried even harder instead. After a few minutes she blew her nose and edged herself off the bed.
“Thanks. I haven’t got anything of my own here. I don’t know what happened to my clothes. Probably in the bin. Why have you got your baby in here and I haven’t? You don’t think they’ve taken him away already, do you?”
“Naaw. Probably not. I expect they thought you needed a bit more sleep. They’ll bring him when it’s feed time. What’re you doing?”
Tia raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“Bottle or boob? I’m doing the bottle. They tried to talk me into doing it myself but no way! At least with the bottle you can get someone else to take over. If you’ve got someone, of course.”
Tia smiled. “Bottle for me, too. But I don’t know anything about babies. Maybe this is a stupid idea. Maybe he’d be better off in care. Not that it did me much good, but at least there was always food and it was warm.”
Kay didn’t say anything. It appeared Tia’s past was more interesting than hers. When she saw the nurse wheeling a cot up the corridor, she climbed back into bed.
“Look out. Here comes the friggin’ night patrol! Don’t make up your mind now – about the little one. Wait until tomorrow, after you’ve had a sleep.”
Tia nodded and her stomach began to jump about as the nurse pulled the curtain around her bed and put Luke into her arms. She wasn’t even asked how she wanted to feed him. A bottle was put in her hand and the nurse turned away.
“Wait. Please. I don’t know what to do.”
The nurse turned and tutted. She was one of the ones who had been whispering about Tia earlier. She spent a few minutes explaining about teats and air bubbles and wind. She put a disposable nappy on the bed and told Tia to ask Kay to show her how to use it. Then she left. Tia felt like crying again but bit her lip instead and concentrated on the gurgling sounds that Luke was making. She began to count the bubbles that were racing up the side of the bottle.
“You all right there?” Kay called across the ward. “I’ve nearly done with this one. Just got to clean his bum, then I’ll come over. Okay?”
Tia smiled. Maybe this could work after all.
Across the other side of town, Kay’s estranged mother, Ruth, opened the front door and greeted her sister, Janet.
“Hello, love. You’re early. Come in. I just need to set the next lot of washing running and then I’ll make some tea.”
“Hello Ruth. Not much traffic today. You carry on. I’ll make the tea.”
Janet filled the kettle and sat at the table. She looked around at the neat kitchen, the clean worktops, and the spotless floor. She sighed. Sometimes she wished her life was more like her sister’s, but then again maybe it was better that it wasn’t.
The kettle boiled. Janet made the tea and put the cups on the table.
“Do you want to have it here or in the front room?”
Ruth turned around. “Oh, we’ll stay in here if you don’t mind? I’ve brought the decorations out and it’s a bit of a mess in there.”
Janet laughed. “A mess? The only room that was ever messy was Kay’s!” She clamped her hand over her mouth and made a clicking noise with her tongue. “I’m so sorry, Ruth. I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry.”
Ruth smiled at her sister and shook her head. “Don’t worry, love. It’s not like she died, is it? No point pussyfooting around. That’s not going to change things. It does hurt, I’ll admit, but never talking about her hurts even more. Paul just walks away if I try to say anything to him.”
“Is he still as bad?”
“Yes. Probably even worse. The first time she left he was really upset, but he got used to it. When she finally got in touch, and said she had a job, there wasn’t much we could do about it. He calmed down a bit when she told us she was staying with one of her friends from school, but then he flared up again when she wouldn’t tell us where that was.”
“Did you ever find out why she wouldn’t tell you?”
“No. She clammed up when we asked, so we didn’t bother trying any more. When she told us last May that she was expecting, everything fell apart again. I’ve never seen Paul so angry. I think he was more disappointed really. She wouldn’t say who the father was either, as you know, so he couldn’t even take it out on him.”
“Do you still think it was one of those twins she used to walk home from school with?”
“Hard to say, but I don’t think so really.”
“I wish I could have done more to help.” Janet picked up a biscuit and dipped it in her tea. Ruth’s eyebrows raised ever so slightly. The corners of Janet’s mouth twitched.
“After Paul calmed down, I thought that if she came home we could work something out, but we were fooling ourselves, again.” Ruth wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. Janet leaned forward and handed her a tissue.
“Come on now. I didn’t mean to upset you. When I saw you all together in the summer, it looked like you had everything sorted. I couldn’t believe it when you told me she’d run off again. No wonder Paul’s hurt, but bottling it up won’t help, though.”
Ruth blew her nose quietly. “I think it hurt him more because she stole from him. She knew that the money was only here because he’d missed the bank. He never usually kept much at home.”
“She must have made a quick decision to go, then? I mean, if there wasn’t usually much money about?”
“I can’t say, love. Maybe she was planning it anyway and it was just lucky, for her, that the cash was here. We’ll probably never know. It was so unlike her. She was always stubborn but … Anyway, let’s change the subject. What’s happening with you? Still working at the charity shop?”
“Yes, as much as I can. I’m glad I went part-time at the hospital. It gives me more chance to do what I really want. Talking of the shop, we had a real fright the other day. You remember that girl I told you about, the one we’d seen hanging around the square? Well, she only turned up in a right state outside the shop and collapsed on the pavement. Looked like she’d been knocked about and I think she was miscarrying. The ambulance came right away and they carted her off to A & E. I did think about going with her, but I couldn’t leave Marge to manage the shop. You know what a drama queen she is!”
Ruth finished her tea and put the cup down quietly. “So, what happened?”
Janet grimaced. “I don’t know. I was going to go and see her later, before my shift started, but they’d taken her to St. Jude’s, not Rowan Tree District. When I thought about it, I convinced myself that it wasn’t a good idea to get involved. I might still go, though. What do you think?”
Ruth screwed up her mouth. “That’s up to you, love, but if it was me, I’d probably stay away. More tea?”
The sisters drank a second cup almost in silence, each thinking of Kay and the impact of her disappearance on their lives. Ruth leaned forward and tapped Janet’s hand.
“Before you go, there’s something I want you to see. It’s in the front room.”
They crossed the hallway and Ruth paused for a moment before opening the door and standing back for her sister to enter. Janet blinked as the room was in darkness except for a faint glow in the far corner. She moved towards it, then drew in her breath sharply.
“You still have it.”
She reached out her hand to caress a large snow globe and stood transfixed as a pale blue light flickered over the figure of Jack Frost that sat on a dead tree trunk. Everything inside the globe was made from crystals and as the snow swirled, the whole scene glistened and shimmered. Ruth flicked a switch at the base and Janet shivered as the haunting strains of A Winter Lullaby filled the room. She felt the hairs on her neck stiffen and realised that she was crying. Her! She wasn’t ever the soppy one.
As she gazed into the globe, she remembered how Kay had been afraid of it when she was small and that it had eventually been banished to the spare room cupboard. They’d all laughed at her at first; at her insistence that Jack Frost knew what she was thinking and that he was going to take her away. Now, in the eerie stillness of the room, Janet thought she understood the little girl’s fears. There was something ethereal about the globe, something unexplainable, yet she felt a more positive energy from it. It took a lot of effort for her to stop looking at it but eventually she turned to Ruth who was crying quietly.