The leap, p.2
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       The Leap, p.2
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  Time dragged. I’d learned my lesson from the last time and had brought along a book, but like a fool it was one I’d nearly finished, and after fifteen minutes it was done and dusted and I was just as bored as ever. I read the cover blurb and counted the number of lies the publishers had printed about the excellence of the writing. This took another minute. Then I had to fall back on my own initiative, which sadly meant watching the comings and goings in the hospital car park. I tried to add a bit of spice to it by guessing the ailment of each passer-by, but that didn’t help much. They were either too easy, like the man with the broken leg who swore at the woman who was wheeling him in (I hoped she’d push him down the slope into the bins at the back of the hospital canteen, but she didn’t), or too difficult like most of the rest. They were all just pale and drawn looking, and often I couldn’t tell if they were patients themselves or just visiting. One way or another, it was depressing viewing.

  Ten more minutes trudged by. I tried telling myself I was angry with Mum for bringing me along at all, and that I would rather have been back home watching TV. But it didn’t wash. Really, I was furious about being kept in the car like some little kid, when I should have been in there, doing the elder brother bit, looking after Charlie.

  I’d seen her the day before for the first time. But I blew it; Mum did all the talking and I just sat there like a lemon saying nothing. What was stupid was that I had plenty to say, or thought I had. It had been a whole week, and I hadn’t set eyes on her since the night before it happened, when we played snooker together in the spare room. Charlie won 3-2, on the pink in the last. I’d tried to extend the series to best of seven, but Mum had yelled at us through the wall and we’d gone to bed. When I got up, she’d already gone round to Max’s place.

  For some reason, the thought of that snooker game made me feel a bit weepy. I tried to find a tissue in the car, but there was only an oily one under the seat, so I used my sleeve instead. A fat lady chose that moment to try and squeeze her bulk down between our car and the next one. She caught my eye just when my nose was in mid-sleeve. I felt embarrassed, not because of my sleeve, but because my eyes were still watery. It gave me intense satisfaction to watch her struggling on between the cars, and even more when she had to open her driver’s door and pour herself, wheezing and panting, through the tiny aperture on to her seat. Then I remembered she was probably back from visiting a dying husband or something, and that made me feel guilty and even worse than before.

  I thought of Mum going in, wearing the same pinched weary look that all the other people I’d seen had had, and wished once again she’d taken me in for moral support. But Mum likes to keep things as simple as possible and having me around somehow complicated matters. I think she wanted to keep me separate from Charlie for as long as possible, until she was sure Charlie was all right again. I’d only got in the day before because I’d started a shouting match in hospital reception.

  Charlie had seemed calm enough when we’d sat down, and had talked reasonably with us about unimportant things. There wasn’t any wild light in her eyes; she was looking forward to getting out, she said, and was bored in there. Mum gave her some books. She looked fine, just a bit pale – but there was something odd about her which I couldn’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was how quiet she was. Normally, she and Mum can’t go five minutes without an argument starting, and even then, when she was being extra-careful, Mum came up with a few beauties which should have roused Charls into action. But she just sat there, pale and composed, ignoring the cues. I was silent too, thinking about what Mum had told me on that first dreadful morning, when she’d come back hollow-eyed from her vigil at the bedside. About the accident. About what they found in the pool. But most of all, about Charlie’s story.

  When Mum had wept it out, it had made no sense to me. I couldn’t connect with it, I couldn’t link it to my sister at all. For the whole week it had festered in my mind and I was no nearer to digesting it. And then, when I saw her sitting up in bed, quiet, polite and completely bored, the whole thing hit me all over again – I mean the utter impossibility of what she’d said – and I found I was too upset to talk.

  A figure was walking swiftly through the car park. I was looking right at it, but it took a few moments before I realised it was Mum.

  I leaned over and opened the driver’s door from the inside. Mum flopped down on the seat, red-faced and gasping.

  ‘What’s happened? Is she all right?’

  ‘She’s coming out, Jamie. Let me get my breath back. I ran down three flights.’

  ‘When’s she coming? Today?’

  ‘Now. Give me a minute.’ So I had to wait while she puffed and blew for a bit. She seemed on the verge of a coronary. Finally, her breathing subsided.

  ‘She’s coming out now, Jamie. They’re just signing her out. I’ve come down to collect her things.’ Mum had secreted a bag of Charlie’s clothes in the boot against just such a moment.

  ‘That’s great, Mum. So she’s OK?’

  ‘Of course she is. She’s much better.’ She wasn’t listening, busy checking in her bag for her keys.

  ‘But the doctors – what do they say?’ I hadn’t expected this – my heart was beating furiously, driven by excitement and anxiety.

  ‘They say she’s fine.’ A frown appeared on Mum’s forehead as she looked up at me. ‘She’s quite better. You saw for yourself yesterday. She’s almost her old self again. Just very tired.’

  ‘Yes, but I mean, what about what happened—’

  ‘She remembers it better now. There’s no more of that nonsense. And listen, James, while we’re on the subject—’ Mum closed up her bag with a sharp click and leaned forward. ‘It’s important that we’re very careful with Charlotte for a while. The doctors say we mustn’t talk about anything that could upset her. That means anything about Max or the funeral. I’ll keep her off school for the moment too. She’s easily disturbed at the moment, and we just want to help her get on with things slowly, all right?’

  ‘But do they know why—’

  ‘Promise me you’ll help me out in this, Jamie. It’s important.’

  ‘I promised that already, Mum.’

  ‘I know you did, sweetheart. It’s going to be a difficult few weeks, dear, but we’ll get along if we stick together as a family. The doctors will see her for a few check-ups now and then. So it’ll be fine. But remember what I’ve said, won’t you?’

  ‘Yes, Mum.’

  ‘Good boy.’ Mum levered herself out of the seat and turned back with her hand on the door. ‘You know, I think she’s got over it a lot faster than they expected. She’s a sensible girl, my daughter. I’d better run, sweetheart. We won’t be long.’

  ‘Do you want me to wait here?’

  But Mum had already slammed the door and raced round to the boot, where she retrieved the bag. Then she wheezed off again between the cars and was gone.

  So that was that. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her about any of it. I had to ignore it had ever happened.

  A few check-ups now and then. What did that mean? As I sat looking towards the glass doors, I found my heart was pounding against my chest, harder than ever. I drifted again. In my mind’s eye, I saw her as she’d been the day before: watchful, reserved, answering the questions put to her and asking none. It was all very unlike the sister I knew and, now that she was coming home, I realised just how scared I was by what had happened – to her and not to me.

  And here she was, almost at the car and like a fool I hadn’t noticed her coming.

  THREE

  Prof. Sir. Peter Andover

  Child Trauma Institute

  St Giles Hospital

  London

  WC1V 8EA

  To: Dr A. E. Brown

  Victoria Surgery

  15 High View

  Wrensham

  WR13 7RT

  Cc. Dr David Tilbrook

  20th September

  My ref: FL1/1099

  Your ref:

 
Re: Charlotte Fletcher

  Dear Dr Brown,

  Thank you for your letter of the 16th September. As requested, I am writing to you with my immediate impressions of Charlotte Fletcher, whom I saw at Wrensham General Hospital last week.

  Charlotte seems a bright, articulate and personable girl. In ordinary circumstances I am sure she would be both truthful and precise in any accounts she gave. However, she is at present vague, hesitant and suspicious of anyone taking interest in her story. From what she has said, to me and to others, I think we can divide her recollections of this tragic incident into two distinct phases, which are directly related to the responses of those she confided in.

  1. Original story

  I did not witness this directly, but I have been given a written summary by the doctor to whom Charlotte spoke when she arrived at hospital. In addition, I have talked with Charlotte’s mother, to whom she gave her fullest original account. The response of the mother I take to be largely to blame for Charlotte’s subsequent change of story.

  You are well aware of the substance of her original claims. I would first say that accounts of this type – that is, ones of a fantastical and detailed nature – are by no means uncommon with trauma cases, nor with ones in which the patient has been near asphyxiation, as was the case here. To take the latter point first, restriction of blood supply to the brain often induces visual disturbance, which commonly consists of bright, disorientating coloured lights, and more rarely, of prolonged dreamlike hallucinations. Such visions are commonly accompanied by intense physical sensations, which in retrospect often gives the memories a strongly ‘realistic’ feel. If the circumstances of the sensations are highly unusual, as is tragically the case here, the patient may be easily convinced of their accuracy.

  Turning to the former point, namely the circumstances of trauma. As you will no doubt be aware, intense shock and distress nearly always lead to the following chronological symptoms: denial, anger and final acceptance. It is commonly the case with children that loss of a loved one that is actually witnessed can lead to some particularly strong ‘explanatory’ fantasies, which at root seek to deny what has happened.

  I think this is the case with Charlotte. It seems that after the boy fell in, she very bravely – her teacher says that she is an average swimmer, not a strong one – followed him into the pool. She was probably underwater for a long time, and may well have seen her friend below her, even if she could not reach him. The heroic effort that she made nearly cost her her life. In addition, those brief moments of oxygen starvation were combined with an almost insurmountable grief that she had been unable to save her friend. It is unsurprising then that her resulting memories of the event are confused.

  I may say in passing that the notion of abduction of the deceased is not unknown, though it is unusual. It is an attempt to make sense of the senseless loss. It is true that some aspects of Charlotte’s story are remarkably specific, e.g. the explanation of the slash on her leg, implying a strong analytical imagination.

  2. Current situation

  Although the doctor to whom she originally told her story had a modicum of training and refrained from passing judgement in any way, the girl also told her mother, who, perhaps understandably, was strongly disconcerted by the distressing combination of fantasy and tragedy. I think you will have observed that the girl’s mother is neither diplomatic nor particularly sensitive, and it is clear from what she says that she greeted Charlotte’s story with obvious disbelief.

  Charlotte, who is an intelligent girl, and who was almost certainly aware of the incredible nature of her story, has subsequently refused to repeat it to anyone. When the police interviewed her, and later in a private talk with me, she was deliberately vague. The only details she gave of the event were these:

  1. Her friend was playing in the tree.

  2. He fell in.

  3. She went in after him.

  4. She saw him below her in the water, but could not reach him.

  Although these are reasonable enough statements, and may confirm to what actually happened, she presented them with a singular clarity and a surprising lack of emotion. I suspect they were calculatingly presented in an effort to tell us what we ‘wanted’ and rid herself of us as quickly as possible. Whether she believes this version is doubtful.

  Analysis:

  Although Charlotte may have rejected her false memory and reached a more accurate account of the event, it is more probable that she has suppressed it following her mother’s sceptical response. She should be monitored closely over the next few months. Specifically, regular psychiatric counselling should be employed to ensure that she gradually comes to accept the truth. Great care and tact is required and the dangers Charlotte faces should be made known to those close to her. I am confident, however, that her visits to Dr. Tilbrook will help her gradually to come to terms with her tragic loss.

  A full report will follow in due course. In the meantime, if I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.

  Yours etc

  Peter Andover

  FOUR

  THE STARING IRRITATED me a little. I got a taste of it straight away from Mrs Mortimer next door whose sixth sense told her precisely when we’d be back. She was hovering just over the wall, busily testing her washing with her big thumbs, though anyone could see it was bone dry. All the while we were getting out of the car she had her back to us, but then, as I walked up to the door, she got a good look in, swivelling her neck right round like an owl. I heard her clucking away with ostentatious pity as James fumbled with the keys. Mum was red-faced and flustered as she ushered us inside. From then on, whenever I ventured into the yard, Mrs Mortimer was always somewhere in shot, peering through her windows as she cleaned them, or picking her runner beans while looking at me out of the corner of her eye.

  If Mrs Mortimer was persistent, the kids down our street were louder. Fat-boy Larson and his mates turned up in the back alley on the second morning I’d been back, balancing on their pedals and whispering. I was going to the shops and had to pass them, but as I headed up they whooped and screamed with shrill false fear and sprinted away laughing. Snivvens called out a few things over his shoulder which I only half heard. I went on walking, but James, who was in our yard, heard it too. When I came back an hour or so later, he was in the kitchen bathing a cut lip.

  ‘What’s up with you?’

  ‘Walked into a door,’ he said, and went on dabbing. We didn’t mention it again, but I knew he’d gone looking for Fat-boy and Snivvens.

  Maybe the thing that got to him was that they had mentioned Max. To James, their words probably seemed an obscenity and a direct assault on me. But in truth, I had barely registered them; it was as if their shouts came from a far distance.

  At that time, everything seemed like that – distant, padded and muffled somehow. Even my house was affected. When I first got back, I went straight up to what I remembered was my room and sat on the bed looking at the posters, the silly lamp shade, the old faded carpet and the books piled high on the little shelf. It was like when you come back from a long holiday, and for a few minutes you see the house as a stranger would see it, all unfamiliar colours and haphazard objects. But this time I could not make it fade back into comfortable familiarity. Everything stayed just that little bit different, alien, untouchable. The books and games stacked in the corner seemed the possessions of another.

  Worse than this, a thick veil was over my eyes and I could not see Max anywhere. It seemed that the massive, unspoken certainty of everyone around me that Max was gone forever pressed down upon me every minute of the day. I had its heaviness when I awoke, when I lay down to sleep, and in every unappetising minute of activity that filled the hours between.

  Not once, except for those gleeful boys running down the alley, did anyone refer directly to him. And I was no better than they were, for the assumption about his fate that everyone silently imposed upon me almost snuffed out my memories of the pool. The images that I ha
d replayed time and again on the hospital night-screen flickered and dimmed. They became less close, less insistent, though not less real.

  As the commonly-held view closed itself around me, it sealed Max off. I could not think about him directly, nor the pool, nor the green-eyed women who had stolen him away. My mind shut it all out amid the tedium of life back home. But I see now that Max was always there, just out of vision, like that group of stars Dad used to point out to us when we were small, that mazy cluster that smudges into nothing when you look at it head on, but which flares into individual pinpricks of light when you look away. Max was always waiting, just beyond the edge, and everything I tried to do then was in his shadow.

  All this is clear to me now. But in those early days, before the dreams began, I lost my way completely. I was listless and sapped of strength. Everything I did seemed pointless. I tried reading some of my old favourites, but their pleasures turned to dust on the page. Even Treasure Island and Tales of Arthur were dull. I found myself often just lying on the bed, with a book open on my lap, thinking of nothing.

  I would have gone out a lot more, but during my week in hospital the weather had changed. The last remnants of summer vanished, it was cold and wet. A persistent drizzle fell on the town, forcing me to spend a lot of time indoors, rubbing up continually against my mum and brother.

  James was trying so hard to be considerate it was painful. He went so far out of his way to keep everything light and trivial that I just wanted to scream. He offered to play snooker more often in three days than he had done in the previous three years. Other hitherto unknown things on his itinerary were taking me to the cinema, playing rubbish old board games we hadn’t looked at for years, and wandering into my room aimlessly to see how I was getting on. I played a few games, but usually I just wasn’t on for company. I couldn’t summon the energy to tell him to get lost either, so one way and another he was always hanging around.

 
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