FOR OVER A WEEK, THERE WAS NO SIGN OF EVAN. She wondered if he’d had second thoughts, or had been unsuccessful in persuading ‘the doc’, as he referred to her, to allow her this one small privilege. She started to think harshly of him, for playing such a cruel trick, but to his credit, she’d hardly given him the impression she wanted to go.
Then unexpectedly at the end of one of their hourly sessions, Doctor Reynolds came up with a revelation.
‘Oh by the way, Donna.’ She peered at her over gold-rimmed spectacles. ‘You remember Evan, the young nurse who helped you a couple of weeks ago. Well he came to see me. He tells me you’ve become quite friendly, and asked me what I thought about him taking you out for a few hours sometime next week.’
Donna’s jaw dropped. She never dreamed he’d really do it. She moved uncomfortably in her seat, feeling embarrassed. What could she say to that? On the one hand… but on the other…
‘I wouldn’t say we’re friends, acquaintances, more like. We’ve spoken once or twice because he’s worried about me.’
‘So would you like to go with him or not?’ Doctor Reynolds asked moving her eyebrows upwards in anticipation of an answer.
‘I haven’t given it much thought. Because I never imagined he’d ask you. You mean you’d allow it?’
Sitting back in her chair, she took her glasses off, and looking straight at Donna said, ‘Yes, I think that will be in order. Evan is a good nurse, responsible and trustworthy. But I’ve instructed him not to let you out of his sight. So now it’s up to you.’
The corners of Donna’s mouth moved upwards to form a tiny smile. For some strange reason she suddenly wanted to go.
‘I take it you would be interested in going?’
‘You can’t imagine how good it will be to get out in the fresh air, away from this place. It’ll be like being released from prison.’
‘Donna, I’ve told you enough times you’re not in prison. You only have these restrictions placed on you because of your own actions. We have a duty of care to protect you from yourself. Make a real effort to get yourself well, and you could still leave here sooner than you think.’
Donna laughed ironically. She’d never get out of here and wasn’t sure she wanted to anyway, not if it meant living with her parents again, and shuddered at the idea.
It had been arranged for Evan to take Donna out on his day off, a Saturday. With Doctor Reynolds agreement, he planned to bring her to Dexford town centre, or if the weather was good, drive out into the surrounding countryside, he told her.
When the day of the outing arrived, the skies were clear blue, and it looked like the hot sunny weather would continue for the foreseeable future. Donna, dressed in leggings and a short-sleeved lilac tee-shirt, decided to keep her make up to a minimum, not wanting him to get the wrong idea.
It seemed she’d been waiting for an age, when she heard a quiet knock on the door to her room. Then looking up she saw him in the doorway. Wearing chinos and a grey top, he had dressed quite differently from when he was at work. His black hair was gelled and spiked in the middle, in fact he looked rather trendy, she thought.
‘Ready then?’ he asked her.
‘As ready as I’ll ever be.’
As they walked out of the hospital side by side, Donna was at once aware of his limp. She’d noticed it before but hadn’t said anything to him and still wondered if he’d injured himself saving her life.
They went across to where his car was parked, and as he opened the car door, she couldn’t stop her inquisitiveness from getting the better of her, and asked, ‘Have you done something to your leg?’
‘What – oh, I had an accident a few years ago at work, and it was that bad I’ve never been able to walk properly since. I can’t run quickly either, but at least I’m not a cripple which I have to be thankful for.’ He slapped his thigh with his hand.
He got into the car and opened the passenger side door for her. The injury to his leg still quite intrigued her.
‘So how did it happen?’
He looked a little irritated by her persistent questioning, and answered. ‘Playing football. A player came in hard to tackle me. I slipped and turned my ankle and broke it in two places. You wouldn’t believe how bad the pain was.’
And as they drove off Donna said, ‘I can imagine, but I thought you said you did it at work, yet just then you said you did it playing football.’
‘Yes, well football was my work before I became a nurse. I was a professional footballer.’
‘No, I’m not. I played for Ashfield Rovers, who if you know anything about football were at the time in the Championship, one step below the Premiership. I was nineteen when it happened and had just broken through to the first team. In only my sixth game my career was finished before it even got started.’
She saw him go full up and felt for him. ‘You must have been devastated.’
‘I was shattered. Not being able to play the game I loved so much was sheer torture. The day they told me I’d never play again was the worst day of my life.’
‘How awful for you.’
‘Yeah...well. So where would you like to go? What do you think about visiting a stately home with a large picturesque garden? There’s one about half an hour away from here. Seaford Hall Gardens is four hundred years old I’m told. It has a wonderful collection of antiques and the grounds are superb.’
She’d never given it a thought, had never heard of the place, but she didn’t care where they went. ‘If you say it’s good, it has to be.’
The house was situated in a beautiful area of countryside and as they approached the hall, she saw the gardens were immaculately kept. Evan stopped the car a time or two so that Donna could take it all in. Very impressive, but not a place she’d have chosen to visit. But what could she say? Best try to enjoy herself since he’d gone out of his way to make sure she had a good time.
At last, Evan drove the car onto the car park, situated next to the Great Hall. The building was grey stone, half-timbered in places and covered in ivy, but what impressed Donna was how well it had been maintained. Inside was even better, with old oak furniture in all the rooms, wooden floors and enormous fire places. The rooms were made up to look as they had in the seventeenth century, when the civil war was at its zenith.
Although Donna hadn’t a great love for history, she enjoyed looking round the old house, trying to imagine what life must have been like all those years ago.
After their tour of the house, they sat on a bench in the middle of a row of conifers and recently cut hedges. Much more pleasant in the shade, as the sun was scorching. In earlier years she’d always liked to get a suntan, but living in the hospital, meant there was little opportunity to sunbathe. Now she didn’t care about lying in the sun.
‘Well, this is nice,’ Evan commented stretching his arms and legs having finished the cheese salad sandwiches he’d bought them earlier on.
‘Wonderful,’ she said nodding to him, taking in the smell of freshly cut grass.
‘Hope I haven’t bored you - I wasn’t sure where to take you.’ He blinked his eyes a little more than normal.
‘I’ve looked every minute Evan - it was sweet of you to bring me here.’
‘Thank God for that. I was a bit worried. Listen – would you like to come back to my house once we’ve finished here? Mum said to tell you, you’re welcome to join us for dinner. It’ll be nothing elaborate – I promise you.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding – haven’t you? I hardly know you, let alone your family. They’ll think I’m your prospective girlfriend.’
‘No, they won’t, because I’ve already told them you’re just a friend and a patient who needs cheering up.’
‘Oh really. Did you tell your mum I was the mad woman who keeps trying to top herself?’ She replied bitterly, her mouth quivering with emotion.
‘I didn’t say anything of the kind, except to tell them you’re really nice, but that you’re had a rough time lately. And no more than that. The hospital don’t allow me to talk about your case with anyone. But I did promise mum and dad I’d try to persuade you to come, so they’ll be disappointed if you don’t.’
She frowned. Was he up to something? Yet she had to trust him, perhaps he’d done this with the best of intentions. In that case, if it was only for an hour, she might as well go.
‘All right! All right, I’ll come.’ She drummed her fingers on the bench. ‘Just don’t expect too much of me – that’s all.’
‘I won’t and neither will they. Be your normal self and you’ll be fine. They’ll take to you straightaway.’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure of that.’
A little time later, they walked back to the car.
‘I would have liked to have taken you somewhere else, but time is getting on, so we’d better go to my house now. Perhaps I can take you out again some other time.’
She nodded her head, but didn’t say anything. Although she didn’t tell him, she just wanted to get this ordeal with his family over, as soon as possible.
Donna wasn’t familiar with the area of Dexford they drove through, but could see it wasn’t a select area. Harvest Road where he lived was narrow with red-bricked semi-detached properties either side. They might have been built in the fifties or sixties, she thought.
He stopped the car outside number twenty-three, a house in the middle of the left side of the street. It looked a little let go, but nothing a good lick of paint wouldn’t cure. The garden seemed wild too; she couldn’t help wondering why it was in this state, but again didn’t ask Evan about it. There were a few children playing hopscotch and skipping in the street, which took Donna back to her childhood. She smiled at them on getting out of the car.
As they approached the door, she began to tremble, not knowing what to expect from these people who she’d never met before. Still, it would be over soon enough, she kept telling herself.
Evan opened the door with his key, allowing her to go in first. The aroma of homemade cakes, vanilla and chocolate hit her at once and made her feel hungry.
‘Something smells nice, not on my account, I hope,’ Donna said.
‘No, of course not. Mum’s always cooking something, cakes are her speciality. In particular, Sponge Cakes, Swiss Rolls, and God knows what else. You name it and she can bake it.’
He squeezed her arm, then led her into the living room, where Donna saw two people sitting down. One was old, maybe mid-sixties with short grey hair; the same light blue eyes as Evan, looking much like Evan too, but was plump with a double chin – obviously his mum. She had a ball of wool on her lap and was knitting. From the warm smile on her face Donna soon felt welcome in this house.
The other person sitting opposite was a young girl, Evan’s sister. At first glance, Donna’s heart flipped with horror; as although one side of the girl’s face was normal and quite pretty, the other side was almost completely covered by a large growth, hideous and lumpy with blue veins running all over it. Donna tried not to look away, as she’d never seen anything so disturbing in her life. But it did make her pause for thought, and feel like crying. Yet the girl was acting normally as if there was nothing wrong. The most annoying part was that Evan hadn’t prepared her for this, had never said a word, unless this was at his sister’s request.
‘This is Theresa, my sister,’ Evan said, introducing her. ‘And of course mum is sitting opposite her.’
Donna shook hands with both of them, and with much sincerity said, ‘I’m pleased to meet you Theresa…Mrs Lacey.’
‘You were right about her, son. She is indeed very pretty.’
‘I bet loads of guys fancy you, don’t they Donna?’ Theresa said, the good part of her face forcing a smile, which looked genuine without any form of animosity.
Donna didn’t react except to feel embarrassed and blush. ‘I don’t know about that. Maybe - but it can be annoying, when these guys won’t leave you alone.’
‘Don’t say that Donna. You could have them eating out of your hand, get them to do whatever you want.’ Theresa’s one eyebrow rose in confirmation of her observations.
‘Oh, sure I could, but I wouldn’t want to anyway. I want people to like me for who I am rather than as a dumb blond. It wouldn’t be right.’
‘That’s good, Donna.’ Theresa nodded as if she was impressed.
‘Anyway both of you, stop standing around like spare parts and come and sit down.’ Mrs Lacey raised her arm to beckon them to their seats. Evan sat in between his mother and sister, while Donna moved to the armchair opposite.
‘I hope you’re hungry, Donna, because I’ve made lots to eat.’
‘Oh, I am, Mrs Lacey, your son has forced me walk my socks off today.’ She put her tongue against her cheek, which made it puff out a little as she smiled.
‘So how long before we can eat?’ Evan asked, rubbing his hands together.
‘Not long, you’ve got time to freshen up if you want,’ his mother suggested.
He nodded, and they both got up. Donna was glad of the respite.
In the hall, he turned to her. ‘You go first; the bathroom is the first door on the left, at the top of the stairs.’
Donna nodded, took a deep breath, shut her eyes for a minute, then looking at Evan said, ‘I feel so sorry for Theresa. I had no idea. Why didn’t you tell me about her before we got here?’ She reached out and squeezed his wrist. ‘I might have been horrified at the prospect, but I’d still have come.’
‘I couldn’t take that chance. It’s very distressing about Theresa, but underneath it all, she’s the same as everyone else. You’d be surprised how normal she is despite what she has.’
‘It makes me feel incredibly sad. Is there nothing the doctors can do?’ With moist eyes she looked into space, feeling so guilty.
‘Apparently not. She has a type of facial cancer that’s slow growing but also inoperable. The doctors now say she may only have months to live.’ Evan swallowed hard, obviously as his emotions came to the fore.
‘I can’t believe that. She’s so young.’
‘Yes, and it’s tearing mum and me apart too. You should have seen her pretty face before the cancer took hold. She’d have given you a run for your money. But she’s a credit to the family and very brave. Never complains and always looks on the bright side of things. To be honest, I don’t know how she does it.’
‘I don’t think I could cope with it either.’
‘Well, to her life is precious, so she intends to saviour every minute she has left.’
‘I admire her for that.’ As she rushed upstairs to the bathroom she felt so bad about trying to take her own life. The feelings of inferiority and shame came to the fore. Maybe it should have been her and not Theresa in this dreadful predicament. If the tables were turned Donna had no doubt that, with Theresa’s zest for life and strength of mind, she would have dealt with the attack and everything it brought more adeptly.
‘All right?’ Evan asked her when she came out of the bathroom.
‘Yes, still a little nervous, but I’ll be fine.’
As soon as they went back into the living room, Donna smelt the aromas of freshly cooked chicken, and perhaps sage and onion stuffing.
They walked towards the dining room table at the end of the room. Evan’s mother sat at the head of the table, with Theresa opposite. Donna and Evan occupied the other two places. The meal had already been served and was in front of them.
‘Well tuck in everybody,’ Evan’s mother encouraged them picking up her own knife and fork. Everyone else followed her lead. At first, it appeared no one knew quite what to say, and Donna sensed an atmosphere.
For her this was so nerve-racking – she kept feeling herself go hot and felt they were watching her every move. She tried not to look at Theresa, because she had trouble getting food into her mouth. Several times a forkful dropped back onto the plate and even onto the tablecloth. Donna felt so sorry for her, but Theresa never batted an eyelid, and continued as if nothing had happened.
Perhaps Theresa had sensed the atmosphere in the room too, as she suddenly looked up and said, ‘So Donna, have you ever entered any beauty contests or done any modelling?’
Donna jumped slightly. Why did Theresa have to bring up the one subject she hated talking about the most? It would take all her strength of character not to lose her temper over it. And might spoil an otherwise perfect morning.
‘My parents used to enter me for beauty contests, but it always went against the grain. I can’t stand horrible old men gawping at me.’
‘Oh I don’t mind people looking at me,’ Theresa smiled. ‘I bet you never thought you’d hear me say that, what with my face, eh. In fact, I find it so amusing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them staring and trying not to look but it’s so obvious. But if I let it get to me I’ll never go out of the house, and in a way it’s given me the strength of character not to let other people upset me.’
Donna smiled and listened intently to her.
‘It won’t stop me doing what I want to do. I’ve always been musical – I play the piano, the violin, the keyboard and I write my own music,’ she boasted with pride.
‘It must be wonderful to have a talent like that. I’d love to hear you play some time.’
‘Oh I don’t think you would. It’s not the type of music people our age enjoy. I wouldn’t want to bore you.’
‘You wouldn’t - honestly. I’m very interested,’ Donna insisted, her eyes sparkling in anticipation. ‘Perhaps when we’ve finished our meal you’ll play for us?’
Theresa looked towards Evan and her mother for encouragement, appearing unsure of what to do, but she was urged on by both of them.
‘Theresa – I’ll just telephone the hospital to let them know we’ll be late, then I’ll fetch your keyboard from upstairs, shall I?’ Evan said, when they’d finished their meal.
Within a few minutes he returned carrying a large keyboard. He unfolded the metal legs and placed the instrument in front of the piano stool which he reached for from under the table, before plugging the keyboard into the mains.
‘So what are you going to play for us sis?’
‘Oh, a few tunes you might know and a few others you won’t.’
She got up from the table to move slowly to the stool, and making herself comfortable, adjusted the keyboard so it was just the right height. She looked up at them all, smiling, but her hands were shaking slightly. They were small delicate hands with long fingers.
First came the classical tunes played to perfection with much emotion. Then as she became more confident, she announced she would play her own tunes, which sounded just as good, if not better, than the well-known ones.
For Donna this was so moving, it left her speechless. To see such a talented and accomplished musician at the peak of her ability despite her condition, was in her opinion, a miracle. She could only sit back and admire her.
After about half an hour, Theresa began to look tired and so her mother suggested she should stop playing. Evan looked sad but must have been relieved, as he wouldn’t have wanted her to overexert herself. Donna was in awe of the scene she had just witnessed. If only her own parents had been the same, and listened when she told them she didn’t want to be in the public eye.
Theresa smiled in appreciation, looking particularly at Donna whom it seemed she wanted to impress. Donna couldn’t understand why, after all, who was she? Just a neurotic woman who’d attempted suicide twice. Although Theresa wouldn’t have known about that.
Evan glanced at his watch. It was late, time to get back to the hospital, or he’d have ‘the doc’ wondering where they were.
‘Right Donna, I suppose we’d better go. Or else they’ll be thinking something’s happened. And you know them – they’ll soon get their knickers in a twist.’
‘Do come again, Donna,’ Evan’s mum said with the same warm smile as before.
‘That’s very kind of you Mrs Lacey.’
‘Hope you get well soon, Donna,’ Theresa said, her good side seeming to look genuine, her eyebrow rising expectantly. ‘And yes please visit us again. I know looking at me will probably give you nightmares, but I promise you there’s a real person underneath all this. It’d be great to have someone of my own age to talk to.’
Donna smiled, feeling a little embarrassed but also honoured that they should take to her in this way.
‘Your appearance won’t give me nightmares, love; on the contrary you’re an inspiration to me. The talent you have is amazing. I’m aware of your disfigurement, but I don’t see it. To me you’re incredible.’ Donna bent over to kiss her on the unsightly side of her face, which caused Theresa to gasp slightly but hug Donna in return.
In the end after all her fears about coming to this house, she felt rather sad to say goodbye.
They were quiet on the way back to the hospital, locked in their own personal thoughts. It wasn’t until they walked through the corridors towards Donna’s room, that she felt it was time to talk to Evan.
‘Do you just have the one sister, Evan?’
‘No more sisters, but I do have a brother.’ He smiled.
‘Really, younger or older?’
‘Older by two years. Cole is in the army, so we don’t see much of him these days. He’s in Germany right now, but he’s going to Afghanistan in a few weeks. We’re all worried about what will happen to him over there,’ he sighed deeply.
‘Your mother seems to have had a lot of worry – hasn’t she?’ As they came to her room, Evan opened the door for her.
‘Don’t all mothers. Mum’s had her fair share, perhaps more than most,’ he replied, his lips in a straight line, as if he himself had been guilty of something in the past. But didn’t elaborate.
‘Thanks for taking me out today, and for introducing me to your family. I enjoyed it, and I must admit it puts my own stupid problems into perspective,’ she said as she entered her room.
‘I didn’t do it for that. Just wanted you to meet them and be friends. Sorry I didn’t tell you about Theresa - hope it hasn’t put you off coming to visit us again.’ He looked sad, standing at the door, his eyes dropping slightly to the ground.
‘No, not at all. I wish there was something I could do to help her.’
‘We all wish that. But there’s nothing anyone can do. Except to make her last few months as happy as possible. I’ve no idea how mum’s coping. You know, it’s only been three years since we lost my dad to cancer as well, and that was incredibly painful, watching him slowly die. So now it’s happening to Theresa, it’s going to cut us up even more.’ Evan suddenly heaved with emotion. A deep frown formed on his handsome face.
‘I feel for you Evan.’
’Anyway enough of my troubles – don’t want you to feel sorry for me, babe. So is it all right to take you out again if ‘the doc’ allows it?’
‘Yes, it’s done me good to get out.’
‘Wonderful, I think it’ll help your therapy no end. See you around then - I’ll be in touch.’ He turned, giving her a mock salute with his hand.
Donna smiled, closing her eyes once he’d gone, realising she’d enjoyed their day out, but as for the future, it was impossible to predict.