The message, p.1
Copyright by Hylton Smith 2014
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Olivia was running late, as usual, and her mood darkened abruptly. The rather contrived Christmas party for her work colleagues was upon her once more. It was, in truth, a ritual, nothing more, a gathering they all pretended to enjoy. This was all she needed. Her husband Tom announced that he wasn’t going to accompany her.
“We don’t have a choice Tom, I don’t want to go either. Why do I have to say this every damned year? I’m so close to this new post and you simply aren’t going to blow this for me. Just get ready while I ring Dad.”
“You never listen Olivia, do you? Not to me anyway. I’ve had enough of this career bullshit of yours. You just arrange the rest of us like sheep to follow your schedules. You hardly ever spend time with Kieron because there happens to be this emergency, or that seminar to attend. To you, he’s just a box which has been ticked in your march to glory. Even your parents feel used, but you don’t see that either. You can rant all bloody night but I’m going to the match with David, and I’ve got something else to tell you when you get home, but I need to be pretty pissed before I get it off my chest. David is picking me up in ten minutes, end of.”
“You selfish sod. Where the hell would you be if I wasn’t earning enough to indulge your pretence at becoming a writer? You sit around all day scribbling nonsense, which doesn’t even make it to your laptop. You can’t get the food shopping right, and I make out the lists for you. I know you spend a lot of time with Kieron, and I appreciate that, now get ready and we can talk about this later.”
Tom ignored her and put on his ski jacket, checked his watch and texted David. ‘Hi mate, slight change of plan. I’ll get a taxi to the ground now. See you in the bar.’
Olivia stood open-mouthed as he slammed the door on his way out. She’d never failed to calm his little tantrums. Her father, Peter Radford, picked up the call from his daughter’s landline.
“Are you feeling alright Olivia? You sound as if you are on the verge of tears.”
“It’s ok Dad, just another tiff with Tom. Are you still able to sit with Kieron tonight?”
“Yes, of course, but your mother isn’t too well. She’s gone off to bed with a fever. I shouldn’t stay too late, so can you get back before eleven?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I’ll try. Anyway, Tom should be back from the match before eleven. I’ll call you at about ten-thirty to check if he’s made it back by then. Thanks Dad, tell Mum I’m sorry to hear she’s unwell. I can call around tomorrow evening to see how she is.”
“Right, I’d better get a move on and start up the car, you know the ‘old banger’ doesn’t like this cold, damp weather. See you soon.”
Olivia Radford-Wickham was used to hitting targets, whether they were professional or personal. Thomas Wickham used to tease her about it during happier times. He often quoted her desire to retain her maiden name as some kind of ‘anti-assimilation’ crusade. Tom was born in North London, Acton to be precise. He lived with his parents and two brothers until he astounded everyone by showing them the formal letter of acceptance of his application to read medicine at Balliol College, Oxford. A tall, lean and handsome young man, he felt his life path was clear. A slight complication arose when he demonstrated considerable athletic prowess in the impressive times he regularly posted over 800 metres on the track. He’d always done well at school events, but never realised he could compete with students who were being groomed for regional and national meets. This distraction brought him closer to Olivia Radford, who was also reading medicine. In stark contrast to Tom, she had somewhat lesser natural sporting talent, specifically the instinct to marry flat speed with hurdling technique. She tended to make up for the deficit with ruthless tenacity, whereas Tom wasn’t driven by the same competitive edge of the sport, yet he continued to progress. He always claimed that the effort required for very fleeting celebrity in such a glamourous pursuit was not in his make-up. He liked running for the feeling of freedom it gave him. The last thing he wanted was to be ‘bound’ by strict training regimes. Hopefully, the journey to the pledge of the Hippocratic Oath would supply all the strictness he would ever need.
They became inseparable, and according to all tutors, both of them were perfectly on track for an honours degree. Just prior to their finals, Olivia and her two dormitory friends hosted a pre-exam ‘gathering.’ Letting off a bit of steam quickly mutated into a drunken riot, kicked off and fuelled by drugs. Fighting, vandalism and nudity sprung from nowhere and despite the unwanted publicity, the college had to call the police.
Had there not been hard drugs involved, things might have turned out differently. Olivia and her two roommates were to be charged with supplying illegal substances, because the real culprits denied involvement, other than getting high like everyone else. The ripples of ultimate consequences rapidly surged through Tom’s mind. And despite him being the only one who had refused all on offer except for a couple of beers, he stepped forward to falsely confess to bringing the drugs to the dorm, but refused to name his source. The rest of the gathering faced disciplinary action by both the police and the college for their respective offences, but Tom was prosecuted and served a jail sentence, which was commuted to a few months. Expelled by the college, his life lay in ruins, except for his love for Olivia.
He moved to the Northeast of England to be with her, as she interned, and they settled close to her parents. She excelled in her chosen speciality, as a surgeon in the neurosciences wing of the regional general hospital. However, there was unease between Olivia and her father. Peter Radford had never seen Tom as anything but a bad influence on his precious only child, and Olivia had never told him the truth about Tom’s sacrifice to exonerate her. He opposed the marriage a couple of years later, but was unable to prevent it without alienating Olivia. She deflated all resistance by telling him that he was about to become a grandfather. Everything seemed to flourish – for a while. And then it struck like an asteroid impact, a tectonic shock followed by a toxic, inescapable atmosphere. Kieron was born with neurological abnormalities. None of the family dared to mention the coincidence of the baby’s affliction and the expertise of his mother. At least that was the case until Olivia finally declared that nothing would ever get in the way of her finding a means of correcting Kieron’s condition.
Peter knocked at the bedroom door and announced that he had a hot toddy for his wife, Pauline. There was no reply, so he entered and woke her. She smiled and he told her he was off to babysit Kieron. “I won’t be late, you’ve got my mobile number if you need anything. I’ve told Olivia I want her back by eleven. See you then.”
She nodded, waved him goodbye and took a tentative slurp from the steaming mug.
The vintage Jaguar spluttered repeatedly then suddenly burst into life. It was only around seven miles from Axwell Park to Hamsterley Mill estate, and the traffic was light for a change. He pulled on to the drive, alongside Olivia’s car, and began walking to the brightly lit porch. His sea legs had long deserted him and he struggled with the gravelled approach. Peter
“I didn’t ask on the phone, but why is Tom going to the match when he should be at the dinner supporting you?”
“I don’t know Dad, I suppose he has his reasons, but he didn’t want to talk about it until later tonight. He just walked out.”
“Well, if he’s back before you, he’ll certainly get a piece of my mind. I can promise you that.”
“Just leave it for tonight Dad, I’ll make up an excuse that he’s down with the flu, or something like that. Anyway, I need to go. Kieron’s on his computer, and there’s some sandwiches in the fridge for both of you. If you’re gone before I get back, tell Mum I asked after her.”
They hugged, and he waved her on her way. He wasn’t surprised to see his six year-old grandson glued to some indecipherable text on his computer screen. Few words were exchanged, that’s how Kieron liked it. He would suddenly come to life when the time was right. Peter switched on the TV and found the local news channel. Finally finding a position of comfort, close to being supine, he drifted from the news to how he would tackle Tom. He wasn’t going to put up with these tantrums any longer. He was startled by Kieron shouting. “Hungry Granddad, are you?”
Peter smiled and nodded. “Let’s go and see what’s in the refrigerator.”
They took turns in selecting each sandwich, it was some kind of game for Kieron, because they always swapped one or two if the little boy found certain flavours to his dislike. Back to his computer, Granddad went into the kitchen to clear away the dishes, when the phone rang. As Peter picked up the receiver, he noticed the red recording light was on. He checked himself from switching it off, remembering that Olivia’s position as a surgeon required her to have all work-related calls, whether mobile or landline, to be recorded. “Hello.”
An agitated male voice prevailed over the surrounding noise. “Is that Mr Radford-Wickham?”
“No, I think you may want to speak to Thomas Wickham, he’s my son-in-law. My name is Peter Radford. Tom is married to my daughter. Sorry, it must sound complicated.”
“I’m afraid I have bad news Mr Radford. Your daughter has been badly injured in a road accident. She’s in need of emergency surgery. You need to get to the general hospital as soon as you can. Can you reach her husband?”
“No, I can’t. He’s at a stupid football match. I’ll come immediately.”
Peter was close to exasperation. Kieron couldn’t grasp the principle of someone who wasn’t with him being in a different condition to when they were with him. Peter got the boy’s overcoat and said they were going for a ride through the lights of Newcastle, and thankfully it did the trick.
The dimly-lit hospital car park was sparsely populated and Peter found a spot as close to the entrance to A&E as possible. He winced as he swung his weaker leg out over the seat. This old car didn’t have child locks, so he told Kieron to sit still. He opened the rear door, bending to take the boy’s hand, when everything turned black. He silently fell to the ground. The little boy was dumbstruck, completely unable to react. It took almost five minutes before another driver noticed the prone shape of Peter Radford. Kieron was nowhere in sight, the driver couldn’t revive Peter and alerted the hospital staff. He was stretchered to admissions without anyone knowing that a child was missing.
The emergency admission department was thrown into chaos. It wasn’t a heart attack or a stroke, or any known natural cause. The stretcher bearers radioed ahead to report a gaping wound to the back of Peter’s head. Blood was still trickling out of the circular hole made by some sharp implement. He suffered several spasms as he was rushed to theatre. The discovery of Olivia’s father’s identity, as shown on his driving licence and credit cards, puzzled the registrar on duty. As the patient was finally taken to one of the very theatres where Olivia Radford-Wickham performed similar procedures every day, it suddenly struck home, this was her father. He remembered that he’d actually met the man a couple of years ago, and more to the point, he also knew that Olivia was supposed to be at the annual dinner party. He immediately called Sir Ian Gladstone, the senior attendee of the function. “It’s Connor Jameson, I’m sorry to interrupt the conviviality, but I thought it was a bizarre coincidence that Peter Radford was admitted to emergency surgery half an hour ago. He’s in critical condition as a result of being attacked in our car park, of all places. I think you should tell Olivia she needs to get here as soon as she can.”
“Christ, are you certain? What on earth was he doing in the hospital car park? Has anyone contacted the police?”
“Yes it’s him. After scrutinising the admission sheet, I went to see him. I’d only met him once before, he was with Olivia in the coffee lounge. It was a while back. I still wasn’t absolutely sure, but then I saw it, the tiny birth mark above his left ear. It’s definitely her father. Oh, and the police are on their way.”
“Right, we’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Gladstone gathered himself and glanced at the other end of the long table. He caught her attention and with the motion of his head, beckoned her towards him. He stood up and took her arm as she approached. “Let’s go to the foyer, nobody else needs to hear this.”
Olivia briefly swelled with excitement, convinced that this was the moment. Although she was generally accepted as a top surgeon in the region, it was never enough. She had to be the top dog, not simply one of the best. Gladstone had made no secret of his intention to retire in the New Year and she prepared herself for something to be said in total confidence. She felt it, she knew now that she would ascend to Sir Ian’s position.
“There’s no easy way to say this Olivia. We need to leave quietly, right now. Your father has been admitted to our hospital with a serious injury.”
She couldn’t take it in. The world had just spun off its axis. “What? It can’t be…. I mean he’s at home looking aft…oh God, where is Kieron? Where’s my son?”
“Your son? Isn’t he at home with Tom? Even if Tom isn’t feeling well you can call him. Do it now Olivia, we really have to go, your father is in surgery.”
“No, I should have told you the truth. Tom refused to come with me tonight, he went to a football match with my cousin David. My Dad was already booked to look after Kieron. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
She was overcome with conflicting emotions and began to wobble. She couldn’t rationalise what was happening. A sharp contrast to resolving a potential crisis in theatre. There was personal detachment there, even when peering into someone else’s open brain tissue. Gladstone reacted by grabbing her shoulders and steadying her.
“I don’t have my car and I can’t drive yours because I’m probably over the limit. You can’t drive in the mental state you’re in. I’ll get reception to call a cab, so you stay here until I tell the others there is an emergency, but there’s no need for them to leave. I wasn’t going to tell you just yet, but as you’ve just said Kieron was with your father, I’m compelled to do so. The police are on their way to the hospital because your father was subject to an attack, his head injury must have been inflicted by some maniac. You need to call Tom while we wait for the taxi. When I took the call about your father from Jameson, there was no mention of a little boy. Come on Olivia, you have to do this now, while I tell the others we’re leaving
She pressed the speed dial with a shaking finger. Her home landline rang a few times and then went to voicemail. Just typical. Her helplessness began to give way to anger. She couldn’t be sure that even if Kieron was at home, he would answer the phone. He didn’t like talking to people he couldn’t see, the computer was different, text replaced the talking. She left a message. ‘Hello darling, if you’re there but didn’t answer the phone, please send me an email to let me know you’re ok. Can you do that for me please?’ She then rang her husband’s mobile, but it also shot to voicemail. ‘Tom, if you can drag yourself away from the football, my Dad is in hospital with serious injuries. I’m on my way there, but as yet nobody knows where Kieron is. Do you think you could do something? Like jump off the Tyne Bridge? What am I thinking? Cancel that. I’m on my way home to check if our son is there. I left a message for him to email me but he’d have to pick up the landline to get it, and you know how he hates that. Shit, I can’t think straight, to hell with you.’
When Gladstone returned, Olivia had cleared her head a little and surprised him by slipping into control mode. “I need to call my mother, she’s got the flu, but she’s also in the early stages of Dementia, and gets confused from time to time. I’ll tell her Dad has bumped his head and he can’t drive so he’s staying over at my place tonight. I’ll ring her neighbour and ask if she can look in to see Mum, then I’ll pop over myself tomorrow and pick her up. Then I should go home before going to the hospital, to check if my son is there, I can drive, I’m calmer now. You wait for the cab please, and I’ll get there as soon as I can. I can’t believe my Dad would leave Kieron alone, but as we don’t know what he was doing in the hospital car park I can’t be sure. Kieron is different, and if Dad had suffered a funny turn, he may have left him to tell one of the neighbours. Kieron would then be quite happy on his own. I can’t understand why Dad didn’t ring me, or an ambulance. Anyway, we can speculate all night. My father is in expert care, but I can’t say that about my son. I’ve left a message on Tom’s phone because he didn’t answer. I’ll call you as soon as I’ve checked the house. Got to run then.”
The Message by Hylton Smith / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.8 out of 5 / Based on19 votes