When the phone rang Garry groaned. He was reading a good book and didn’t want to put it down. Perhaps if he ignored the rings it would stop. But it didn’t. On and on it kept ringing and ringing. Half-heartedly he picked up the receiver, saying under his breath, ‘Who on earth can this be?’
‘Hello,’ he mumbled.
‘Garry! Garry…’ The caller whispered, battling to get each breath.
‘Mum! Is that you?’
‘Garry, please come quickly. I’m not well. I … I’ve got a terrible pain in my chest,’ she rasped, hardly able to breathe.
He felt his own breath leave him in an instant. He dragged his free hand through his thinning blond hair and forced himself to stand up. ‘Mum, try to keep calm. I’ll call an ambulance and come straight over.’ The phone was slippery in his hands. ‘H... hold on Mum, don’t move – I’ll be there in a minute.’
He slammed the receiver down, just missing its target in his haste, then picked it up again and dialled 999.
Two minutes later, he was sitting in his car. His hands were still shaking, but as he turned the ignition key, the Ford Fiesta wouldn’t start. ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’ he whispered almost inaudibly. After four attempts it sprang into life. God, what was the matter with him?
With a screech of tyres, he sped off towards the main road. The early-evening traffic looked bad for a Saturday.
‘Come on ... come on, you bastards!’ he mumbled. It took an eternity to get through the traffic.
Anxiety fuelled by adrenaline pumped through his body as the car stopped right outside his mother’s bungalow. He got out, hurrying to the front door. Breathing in deeply, not knowing what to expect, he unlocked the door and went inside.
Terrified, he ran towards the living room. As he opened the door he saw her frail still body lying face down on the carpet. He heaved as if about to throw up, momentarily frozen to the spot. Please no, God, he said to himself. He was at his mother’s side in three short strides.
He bent down and turned her delicately onto her back. Picking up her bony hand he could just detect a weak pulse. Where was the damn ambulance?
Five minutes later, he heard the sirens. Then came a knock on the front door, which he’d left open on purpose.
He almost wept with relief when what he took to be a paramedic, followed by his colleague carrying a stretcher, entered the room.
Quickly moving away so they could examine his mother, he asked, ‘Do you think she’ll be all right?’
‘It’s far too early to say. Her breathing is laboured and her pulse is weak. Are you the next of kin?’ The paramedic briefly glanced up at Garry.
Garry nodded, and as the paramedic placed an oxygen mask over the patient’s face he said, ‘We need to get her to hospital straightaway.’
Garry’s eyes smarted as he watched her being skilfully put on the stretcher and then taken to the ambulance.
‘Don’t worry sir; we’ll soon have her sorted out,’ the paramedic reassured him.
‘All right if I come too?’ Garry asked.
‘Of course, sir. She’ll feel more comfortable knowing you’re with her.’
As they drove the paramedic sat in the back, continually monitoring his patient. Garry watched, wondering if she’d survive. This growing feeling of helplessness had left him disorientated. He used to be so competent in times of crisis; the one everyone else could be sure of. Until he lost his job, that is. The floor of the ambulance swam beneath his feet as he forced himself to breathe.
With sirens blaring and lights flashing, the ambulance sped through the traffic. He held his mother’s cool hand and began to feel guilty, fearing this was all his fault. Had he neglected her? He’d been so wrapped up in finding himself another job after redundancy, his visits had dwindled. Perhaps if he’d seen more of her this would never have happened. He should have helped her care for his father more, especially when the cancer really took hold three years ago. It must have been exhausting for her. He had stood at his dying father’s bedside, and promised to look after her; but now he’d let his father down and broken that promise. What if the chance to put it right never came?
The ambulance came to a halt outside Dexford Hospital. The doors were flung open by two medical staff who carefully placed Garry’s mother onto a gurney and wheeled her swiftly into the hospital. Garry strode briskly alongside her until they reached the doors of Intensive Care. One of the nurses assured him he’d be kept informed of her progress.
In the silence of the waiting room, he allowed his thoughts to run free. He dwelt on the worrying fact that his mother hadn’t moved a muscle since they’d left the house, before the realisation that he’d now have to inform the family brought his mind into focus once more.
He glanced at his mobile phone and selected Delia’s number. His wife had taken their daughter Cassie and six-year-old grandson Adam out on a Saturday afternoon shopping expedition. He hoped to God she hadn’t switched off her phone.
‘Hi Garry, we’re just getting in the car now. Put the kettle …’ she said before he could speak.
‘Deel, Deel!’ he interjected. ‘I’m not at home. This is awful.’
‘What’s the matter? Where are you?’ He could hear the panic in her voice.
‘I’m at the hospital. Mum’s had a heart attack.’
‘Oh, my God! That’s the last thing I expected to hear.’
Garry blew his nose.
‘I’ll drop Adam off and be right over.’ The phone went dead.
In his mind’s eye he pictured Delia’s eyes brimming with tears – she cared so much about her family, and there was nothing she wouldn’t do for them.
He left the waiting room, preferring to pace up and down the corridor. His legs were shaky and he began to feel lightheaded. He sat down on an empty plastic chair and stared at the coffee machine in front of him. Perhaps a drink would do him some good. A sticky pool of brown liquid had formed a puddle around the base of the machine. Perhaps not, then. Every five minutes he glanced at his watch, trying to imagine what was going on. He recalled how three months earlier, in June, he’d talked about relocating with his employer from Dexford, a town about five miles from Birmingham, up north to Leeds, and had it not been for Delia’s unwillingness to move he would have done just that. Thank God she hadn’t budged. It seemed sad when the company’s plans for relocation had been announced, as he’d only been promoted to foreman some eighteen months earlier. He started working for the car manufacturer at the age of seventeen after dropping out of college, and had been with the company for nigh-on twenty-five years. How would he have got back here to mum in time if they’d moved to Leeds? Better to be out of work than have her death on his conscience. He prayed the doctors would save her.
A little time later, he looked up to see the slim figure of Delia, with Cassie, their faces tear-stained and ashen, rushing towards him. Both of them walked easily into his arms, crushing him with emotion.
‘Delia, Cassie,’ he whispered.
‘Oh, Dad, is she gonna be all right?’
‘How is she, Garry?’ Delia asked. ‘And how did it happen?’
‘I don’t know … she’s in Intensive Care.’
He opened his mouth to speak again when his attention was drawn to a nurse walking briskly towards them.
‘Mr Garry Flynn?’
‘Yes, I’m Garry Flynn.’ He glanced anxiously at Delia and Cassie.
‘I have some news about your mother.’ They gathered round, and she continued: ‘She’s weak but stable, and is asking for you, so I suggest you see her alone.’
‘All right, I’d better go to her.’
‘Thank God she’s alive,’ Cassie whispered.
‘Garry, please tell her we’re all thinking about her,’ Delia began, but he was already racing down the corridor behind the nurse.
On entering the Intensive Care Unit, Garry noticed three cubicles each containing a bed. The nurse pointed to the bed closest to the window, and as Garry got nearer, he could see his mum lying quite still, her mouth and nose covered by an oxygen mask. He pulled up a chair and took hold of her hand, squeezing it lightly, hoping for a reaction; but there was none. He wasn’t sure he could face what the next few days might bring, and a sense of dread settled firmly in his stomach.
He sat gazing at the still form on the bed and was surprised when her eyes flickered open. Recognition showed on her face, and a faint smile indicated she was glad to see him.
‘Garry,’ she whispered through her mask, trying hard to lift her head from her pillow.
‘Please, Mum, be still. Try to conserve your energy.’
‘I love you … so … much.’ She grabbed hold of the sleeve of his shirt, which quite shocked him. He put his hand over hers.
‘Love you too, Mum.’
‘I’m dying, son … I know I am…’
‘No, Mum, you’re not. You’ll get better, I promise you. The doctors have said you will.’
She shook her head in disagreement. Her dark brown eyes were filled with love, not fear. Lifting her other trembling hand, she beckoned him closer, to hear her better through her mask.
‘Garry … please God forgive me … but there’s something I must tell you…’ she whispered again, her breathing erratic. A tear trickled down the side of her face. What was causing her so much concern at a time like this, Garry thought, perplexed?
‘Don’t talk now Mum… it’ll only make you feel worse.’
‘But I must, this is my last chance. Your dad… we should have told you years ago, but… frightened. Got away with it… when he died... but you deserve the truth… before it’s too late.’
He didn’t understand – whatever it was, didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she got better.
‘We’re not your real parents,’ she said quietly, tears spilling out of the corners of her eyes and wetting the pillow.
‘Mum, what are you talking about? That’s nonsense, and you know it. Please, I don’t want to hear any more of this.’ He began to think she’d gone a little funny in the head.
‘I’m not your mum… you have to believe me… only wanted you, nothing else,’ she mouthed, the grip of her fingers on his shirt slackening. Then, shrinking away from him, her eyes widening, she appeared to accept the inevitable: ‘Love you so much…’
Her final words were followed by a piercing bleep from the monitor beside her bed. It set off a flurry of activity around him: doctors and nurses flocked around the bed. Someone asked him to go outside while the medics tried to revive their patient. A few minutes later, a sombre-looking doctor approached them. ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Flynn; we did everything we could to save her…’
The doctor gripped Garry’s shoulder with his hand, recognising his grief, saying, ‘Would you like to see her? She looks very peaceful.’
Garry nodded, sniffing back the tears, and followed the doctor back into the ward, through to where his mother’s body lay.
So many emotions went around in his head, including despair, guilt, and acute sadness at losing his only remaining parent. And not least her final words to him which, if true, boiled down to the fact that he’d been adopted.
She looked at peace, eyes closed, hands clasped together in front of her. He took hold of her hand. It was still lukewarm. His grief was interrupted by a swell of confusion and frustration. What had motivated her to say that thing about not being his real mother? Surely it was just a symptom of her confusion in those pre-death moments. It had to be.
At last he regained control, kissed his mother on the cheek one last time, and left her bedside.
He made his way out of the ward in a daze. Why would she say such a thing if it wasn’t true? Wouldn’t it have been better if her secret had died with her? His head began to spin as he walked down the corridor. At the sound of his name, he looked up to see his wife and daughter approaching.
‘Dad, is she?’ Cassie began, bursting into tears at once as he shook his head.
‘Oh, Garry, this is awful,’ Delia sighed, allowing him to slump into her arms.
They stood, huddled in a tight little group, united by their tears. Garry stroked his daughter’s head and acknowledged silently that he couldn’t let his mother’s words die with her. He had to find out if what she’d said was true. If there were secrets, well, they’d been hidden long enough.