It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon, and Dan was sat in bed looking down at the plate of food that had been presented to him for lunch. Once upon a time, it had resembled bangers and mash with peas and gravy. Now it looked liked something that had passed through the digestive system of a cow. Dan picked up his fork and pushed half a blackened sausage through the watery mash like an icebreaker surging through the Arctic chill.
“Are you going to eat that or just play with it?” Mel asked, with a half smile on her face, watching him from her seat at the corner of the bed.
“Even if this was a medium rare sirloin steak covered in peppercorn sauce, I don’t think I could eat it,” Dan replied miserably.
“You need to eat something, Dan,” Mel told him sternly. “The nurse said so.”
“It’s her job to say that,” Dan pointed out. “Besides, I bet what she eats doesn’t look like this slop.”
“No, probably not,” Mel agreed. She was glad to see a bit of the old spark she liked in Dan creeping through. She had spent the morning with her parents, but after a few hours in their company she had been reminded why she lived so far away from them. She had wandered back down to Dan’s ward just as the nurse on duty had been handing out the food and she had offered to help Dan with it.
Dan pushed the fork away and let it drop on the plate. It clattered down and made Mel jump.
“Hey, now,” she said. “That’s not the attitude.” She brought her chair to his side, sat forward and picked up the cutlery and began sawing into the sausage.
“I’m not a complete invalid, you know,” Dan said, watching her.
“Really?” she replied. “You do a good impression of one.” She lifted the chunk of incinerated sausage to Dan’s mouth. He stared at her with his mouth firmly closed.
“I’m not going anywhere in a hurry, remember,” she said. “I can do this all day.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Dan replied through gritted teeth. A few moments later he begrudgingly leant forward and tugged the sausage off the fork, chewing it slowly.
“That’s better,” Mel beamed. “For a minute there I thought I was going to have to go and find that doctor again.”
“You really don’t have to do this, you know,” Dan said.
“Maybe I just want to,” Mel answered, attacking the sausage again. “How does that doctor know you, anyway?”
“Decker?” Dan said, receiving another piece of sausage. He was starting to enjoy having this personal service from Mel. Mel nodded.
“Yeah, you seemed like you knew him pretty well.”
“You could say that,” Dan said. “Remember a few years back when I was getting into a lot of trouble at school?”
“How could I forget?” Mel replied. “You were Dangerous Dan back then, you know?” Dan laughed scornfully at that. It was a nickname he had hated.
“Yeah, well, mum and dad....” he tailed off for a moment, his gaze going distant. Mel stopped cutting food and looked at him with sympathy.
“Tell me, Dan,” she said softly, wanting to keep him occupied.
“They were obviously worried about me,” Dan continued, his voice cracking as he avoided her gaze. “They tried all sorts of stuff. I always hated all that counselling crap. But Decker was different. He didn’t treat you like a patient; more like a mate or something. He was actually friends with my parents from way back before I’d ever met him. My dad made me go and see him. I really didn’t want to but it was totally different with him. The first few sessions” - as he said the word he formed quotation marks with his fingers - “we just spent fixing up old motorbikes.”
“That’s cool,” Mel said. “My parents drive me nuts even now.”
“Yeah, mine too,” Dan said. “Well, did.”
“I’m sorry, Dan,” Mel said, putting down the fork and touching his hand. Her skin was warm and smooth and soft.
“No, it’s okay,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I guess I’m going to have to get used to it.”
“It’s horrible,” Mel said sympathetically.
“Yeah,” Dan murmured.
“I’m glad you turned out okay,” Mel said appreciatively. “You were trouble for a while.”
“Thanks,” Dan grinned at her. She put the knife back down on the plate next to the fork.
“I think you’re going to have to fend for yourself for a little while,” she said. Dan visibly sagged.
“You’re going already?” he asked.
“Yeah, I really need to go back to mum and dad,” she answered.
“Oh, okay,” Dan said, not even trying to hide his disappointment.
“I’ll come back later,” she told him. “They would kill me if they knew I was here.”
“Why?” Dan frowned.
“Dangerous Dan, remember?” Mel said, standing and leaning over him to give him a kiss on the forehead. It felt like the kiss of an angel to Dan. He realised that they didn’t know she’d come to see him; in fact, she’d probably promised them that she wouldn’t.
“I’m not dangerous,” he said softly. She looked down at him, her face close to his.
“You always will be to them,” she told him. “See you later, trouble.”
By the mid-afternoon, Dan had been examined by a couple of different doctors, both of whom had remarked how lucky he was to have so few injuries. Their words had bitten into him as he had thought about his parents but he had not let them know how he felt. Instead he chose to escape his ward and start wandering around the hospital. His nurse scowled at him for trying, but Decker arrived before an argument could start and offered to walk with Dan. Shortly thereafter they found themselves outside in an small ornamental garden, sheltered from the bitter wind. They sat on a bench facing a large fountain. In summer it would have been a lush sun trap, colourful and filled with life. In October, it was cold and grey; their breath hung in the air as they talked.
“I can’t believe they’re gone,” Dan said.
“I know,” Decker answered. “It’s always a shock when someone is taken away so quickly.”
“Two days ago they were alive, just living their same old life, and now...”
“It’s never an easy thing to come to terms with.”
“Do you know what’s upsetting me most?” Dan asked. Decker looked at him, waiting for him to continue. Dan stared down at the ground as he continued to speak. “It’s not that their dead. I mean, everybody dies, don’t they? It’s not even that I didn’t get to say goodbye to them because really how many people get to do that?
“It’s that I’ve achieved nothing in my life, and all I’ll ever remember is that they were disappointed in me.”
“That’s not true, Dan,” Decker started to say but Dan kept talking.
“Look at me. I’m eighteen. I’ve got no job. I’ve barely got an education. I’ve done nothing with my life. I’ve got no home, no family, no money, nothing. All I’ve got a is stupid cut on my head. What sort of legacy is that? They must have hated me.”
“That is most certainly not true,” Decker said. “They loved you. It was them that put you in touch with me, remember? They wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t care about you.”
“I just feel like I’ve wasted my life so far and they’re never going to get to see whatever it is I do.”
“Then make that their legacy,” Decker said. “Make something positive come out of this.”
“Do you know I’ve got less than a thousand pounds in the bank, and that’s only because I got eighteen hundred quid on my eighteenth birthday.”
“That’s not a measure of your worth, Dan.”
“No, but it’s a pretty damning indictment of me, isn’t it? All I have is what they gave me. That’s it. I’ve been so horrible up to now and it’s taken this for me to really see it.” Decker didn’t answer that immediately. He knew there was more than a grain of truth in what Dan was saying. Dan knew it too. “Thanks, doc, your silence speaks volumes.”
“This could be an opportunity for you to really prove yourself, then,” Decker said encouragingly.
“How?” Dan answered in an exasperated tone. “You know what, I was thinking before we came out here I’m going to have to organise their funeral and sort out what happens with that house and everything else. I haven’t got a bloody clue how to do any of that but I bet you anything it’ll cost more than a thousand pounds. I can’t even afford to bury my own parents.”
“I’ll make sure you get help with that,” Decker said.
“I don’t want your money,” Dan answered miserably.
“I’m doing it for them as much as you,” Decker answered. “They were my friends, remember.”
“Okay,” Dan conceded, grateful for the offer of support. “That would really help because I have no idea what to do.” Decker patted him on the back.
“That’s better,” he said. “Come on, let’s go inside. It’s freezing out here.”
Dan nodded, and they got up and went back into the hospital. They turned left and began to walk down the corridor towards Dan’s ward. Their footsteps echoed on the polished floor as they walked and Dan was hit by the smell of the place – the smell of santised suffering. It made him feel physically sick. Decker saw the look on his face and spoke quickly.
“I don’t want you to be alone at the moment. I can get you discharged from here; you’re well enough for that but I don’t want to leave you hung out to dry. Is there anywhere you can go tonight?” he asked. “Friends you can stay with?”
“Not really,” said Dan. “I was going to call my Uncle Chris and see if I can stay there for a few days but we aren’t exactly close, you know.”
“I know,” Decker said. Dan had talked to him about his uncle before, and he knew that Dan hadn’t seen him in over ten years. Thrusting Dan into an alien environment like that didn’t seem like the best idea to him. “I’ll tell you what,” he began, but he was cut short by a woman’s voice from further down the corridor calling out, “Danny? Is that you?” They both looked up and saw a plump, grey haired woman. Dan recognised her immediately.
“Maggie?” he called back , slightly startled. It was Mel’s mum, his parent’s next door neighbour, and his mother’s best friend. His surprise was not from seeing her; Mel had told him she was at the hospital. It was because of her appearance. Everyone who knew her laughingly called her Hyacinth Bucket, which was an image she was more than sporting enough to play up to. But standing there in the hospital, wearing a dark dressing gown and with her hair barely combed, she looked anything but the image of suburban perfection. Her face was streaked with tears and she was clutching a tissue, which she dabbed at her tear-stained cheeks. Stood with her was her husband Trevor, a rotund man with a bald head and a pepper-pot moustache. He looked as equally dishevelled as his wife.
Maggie came tottering down the corridor towards Dan and when she reached him she threw her arms round him, hugging him tightly; it was a show of affection that caught Dan slightly off guard. He didn’t find it a pleasant experience suddenly being clutched tightly against this woman he only knew civilly, and he was unsure how to respond.
“I’m so happy to see you in one piece,” Maggie said warmly.
“Yeah, and you,” he agreed, his body tense in her embrace.
“Oh, we’re fine really,” Maggie answered, looking up at him. “You know doctors; they wanted to check us inside out before giving us the all-clear. You’re the one who’s got the worst of it.”
“Not as bad as Mum and Dad.”
“I’m so sorry, Dan,” Maggie stuttered, starting to cry again, dropping her head again. Dan brought his hands up gingerly and placed them on her back, holding her awkwardly, his expression registering his discomfort. He had never seen Maggie like this. The only occasions he had ever spoken to her had been in his mother’s kitchen, and that had always been the same polite but stilted conversation over a cup of tea. Now she was an entirely different proposition, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
“It’s alright,” Dan told her. “It’s not your fault.” He hugged her a little more tightly, and as his awkwardness began to dissipate he found himself trying and failing to fight off his own tears. He bent his head and they stood there crying into each other’s shoulders, not caring about anyone else around. Trevor and Decker stood back awkwardly, glancing at each other but giving Dan and Maggie their moment of grief together.
It was Decker who finally broke the moment up. “I was going to offer you somewhere to say tonight, Dan,” he said. “You can stay with me for a few days if you like.”
“Nonsense,” said Maggie, wiping away her tears and effortlessly slipping back to her usual brusque manner. “He can come and stay with us. He wants to be around people he knows at a time like this.” She knew just as well as Decker that Dan had no-one else to go to. “He knows me,” said Decker, firmly, “and he couldn’t possibly impose on you under the circumstances,” he continued, driving home the point. Dan found himself agreeing with Decker.
“Yeah, I mean I’m not sure I want to go there right now, you know?” he said bluntly, wincing at his own sharp tone as soon as he said it.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Maggie replied. “I don’t want to go back there, either.” Dan looked slightly abashed, but she continued quickly. “We’re going to stay with Mel for a couple of days.”
At that thought, Dan’s face lit up. There was a surge of emotion in Dan’s chest totally at odds with the anguish he was feeling. It was inappropriate and it suddenly sent Decker’s offer of hospitality reeling back against the ropes with a killer blow.
“Sure, okay, I can come with you guys,” said Dan, a little too obviously. He looked to his doctor. “I mean, is it okay for me to leave?” Decker nodded.
“I’ll see to the admin side of things, don’t worry. But I think you should come with me.”
Dan found that the thought of spending a few days staying with Mel was rapidly overwhelming his grief, and that realisation brought with it a sudden surge of anger - anger at himself for even thinking about her, or his own selfish needs, at a time like this. He clenched his fists, not knowing how to deal with the bizarre mix of emotions churning inside him. Wherever they were headed, Trevor, who was all too aware of Dan’s interest in his daughter and none too keen about the prospect of them getting reacquainted, intervened.
“Maybe you should go with the doctor, Dan,” he suggested. His cool tone immediately doused the flames of Dan’s inner turmoil. Dan knew full well that Trevor didn’t want him anywhere near Mel.
You’re still Dangerous Dan to them.
Decker, sensing a chance to regain his footing in the emotional tug of war that was unfolding, leapt into the fray to side with Trevor.
“I really must insist…” he began, but Maggie cut right across him.
“He’s coming with us, and that’s the end of it,” she said, directing the statement at everyone in the vicinity in a tone that was not to be argued with. There was a moment’s awkward silence. Dan broke it.
“Can we just get out of here?” he asked her. The maelstrom of confusion and emotion whirling round in his head was beginning to overwhelm him. If he stayed any longer, he felt sure he would end up going with Decker. He didn’t even know why; but if they weren’t going to let him see his mum and dad, then he wanted to be as far as way as possible from the hospital, and as close to someone who would be able to distract him from his grief. Somehow he didn’t think Decker would do that as well as Mel. He wondered if he shouldn’t feel like that, but he did and that realisation brought back the sickening wave of guilt again.
“I really do think you should come with me, Dan,” Decker said, quite forcefully. “I’m not sure you’re ready to go anywhere else.”
“I’ll be fine, doc, really,” said Dan, sounding almost happy. Decker winced at the colloquialism but Dan barely noticed and continued to jabber away. “Actually, I think it might help. You know, get me away from here; take my mind off it.” He was talking much too quickly.
Mel was the reason he wanted to go with them, and everyone standing there knew it. There was no other good reason to go against his senses and do what he was doing, but he didn’t want to even admit it to himself, never mind to Decker. He knew how well Decker knew him, and how easily he could pick apart his thoughts. Decker wasn’t going to give in so easily though. He spoke earnestly, trying to reason with Dan.
“You don’t need to run away, Dan. I can give you the support you need at this time, personally and professionally. I really don’t think they can. I’ve dealt with this situation before. They haven’t. Please, come with me.”
Dan looked at him, taking in his words. True as they may have been, the thought of that girl was enough to blunt the sharpest of hooks, and he shook his head.
“Sorry, doc,” he said, sounding genuinely apologetic for a brief moment. “I’ll be in touch, okay?” he said, holding out his hand. Decker reached out and shook it and smiled, but it was not a happy smile.
“Okay. Just call me if you need to talk.”
“Sure thing,” said Dan, and looked to Maggie.
“I’m ready when you are.”
They met Mel by the front entrance of the hospital; she had pulled her Golf up outside and ran in to find them. Trevor chastised her for parking on double yellow lines outside a hospital but she ignored him, until he insisted on driving ‘to show her how it’s done’. That led to a brief argument which Trevor won.
“He’s always doing this,” Mel muttered to Dan as they clambered into the back seat. “He thinks it’s his car.”
“It is my car,” Trevor said, looking at her in the rear view mirror. “You aren’t the registered owner; you’re only a named driver on my policy.”
“Dad, the car lives with me. It’s my car.”
“Not in the eyes of the law, it’s not.”
“For God’s sake,” Mel muttered as they pulled away from the hospital. Dan glanced out the window as they drove up to the main road. The sign next to the junction read Chase Farm Hospital.
I’m in Enfield, he thought. It made sense; it was the nearest A&E hospital to his home.
“Are we going straight to my house?” Mel asked her dad. “Only Dan hasn’t got any clothes or anything with him. Can we stop somewhere on the way?”
“There’s a Tesco Extra on High Street,” Trevor answered. “We can stop there. We need to fill up anyway.”
“Is that okay?” Mel asked Dan. “I just figured you’d need a few bits, that’s all.”
“I haven’t got any money,” Dan said quietly.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said firmly. “I’ll cover you.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s the least I can do,” she answered.
“Thanks, Mel,” he said gratefully.
Darkness had fallen before they left the supermarket. The Friday rush hour traffic was heavy, and their slow progress led to long periods of silence in the car. Maggie had tried to keep conversation going but eventually gave up. Mel offered to drive for a while to give her dad a break but he refused. Dan got the impression that even if both of Trevor’s legs had been cut off, he still would have insisted on staying behind the wheel.
As they drove northwards, Dan leant his head on the window and watched the dark, sodium-lit world rush by. The bass rumble of the road brought back the memory of car journeys with his Mum and Dad when he was a small boy. They seemed to take forever, and he would entertain himself by waving at passing cars, or pretending to shoot at them, imagining himself to be a gunner on an old bomber and the other cars were attacking fighter planes.
A sudden, horrible image filled his mind. His Mum and Dad, lying wide-eyed, open-mouthed, pale, cold and dead, awaiting their post mortem, ready to be cut open like carcasses in a butcher’s shop. The thought snapped him upright and left him trembling. He was starting to regret leaving the hospital without seeing them. He had walked away without fighting to see them. He wanted to go back, but he knew he couldn’t.
Forget it - Trevor would never say yes.
He felt Mel give his hand a squeeze and he looked at her. She was looking back at him sympathetically.
“You okay?” she mouthed to him. He nodded back. She knew he was anything but okay, but she left it at that. It was not the right time or place to push him.
The journey to Mel’s was slow, the Friday night traffic compounded by bad weather. It was nearly eleven o’clock by the time they pulled off the A1 at Norman Cross and headed into Yaxley, just south of Peterborough.
“I can’t wait to see what you’ve done to the place,” Maggie said to Mel as the turned onto her road.
“Don’t expect too much,” Mel warned her mum, and then said to her dad, “It’s the next one on the left.”
“I know,” said Trevor, sharply. “I have been here before, remember?”
Dan took in the surroundings. They were on a non-descript street, the name of which he had missed as they turned into it. It was lined with semi-detached houses that were decorated with wheelie bins outside the front doors and satellite dishes peppered over the dirty brickwork. Dan felt disappointed; he had imagined Mel in an old farmhouse with sheepdogs running in and out and chickens pecking around in the yard. He had pictured her living with a high flying lawyer who drove a Range Rover and had a guffawing laugh. That image quickly dissolved away as Trevor slowed and pulled onto the driveway of one of the better maintained houses. There was a general sigh of relief from everyone in the car.
“Well, here we are,” said Trevor.