Twenty-three Hours After The Darkness Fell
I’m so hungry. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced hunger like this before. At home we always have snacks around. Dad nags us about eating our five-a-day or Mum has a go about ladling too much jam onto our bread. But most of the time, whenever we get peckish, there is food around.
I’m so scared now. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. It’s completely dark and there’s no sound at all. I don’t know where Dad and Harriet are - they were somewhere near David last time I saw them. I’ve shouted, but there’s nothing, just an empty echo from the long concrete corridor. All I have is a half-drunk bottle of water.
If we got lost when we were young, Mum and Dad used to say, ‘Find someone with a uniform or wait by the ticket office.’ I was by the entrance when the darkness fell. If I had my mobile phone with me I could use the torch on it to see. I’ve tried feeling my way along the wall, but it’s terrifying walking into complete blackness where you can’t see anything, not even shapes or outlines. So I did what Mum and Dad said. I waited by the entrance. If anybody comes, that’s where they’ll go. If only I’d remembered my mobile phone in the car, I’d have some light now. And Mum wouldn’t have got caught outside when the darkness came.
Somehow we moved from a glass of lemonade getting spilled at the dinner table to a holiday in Scotland. What Dad had been trying to say when this strand of conversation had taken its first breath of life the previous month is, ‘Who fancies winning a holiday to Scotland?’ Within the mayhem of the spillage, a general consensus of opinion had been reached that Scotland might be a bit of fun and we’d never been there together as a family.
Since Dad had stopped working, money had been tight. It’s funny, nobody tells you these things when you’re young, you just pick it up from the strands of conversation and what you see going on around you. One minute you’re eating your favourite ice cream, the next minute you’re stuck with own-brand vanilla flavour. One minute Dad’s going to work in a suit, the next minute he’s showing you an online video of a funny dog, while he’s sitting at the table in pyjama bottoms and a T-shirt with a band’s name on that I’ve never heard of before. Apparently they were great in the 80s.
We used to go on holidays abroad, and we’d all sit and look at the brochures together. We’d fly in planes to places that were far too hot for me and once, we even went on a ferry. Nat loved that ferry …
See – Nat again, always with us but never there.
I’m not sure if I even saw the black car at the time. In my memory it’s there, but I’m uncertain if that’s just because I’ve heard so many people talk about the accident.
I even have a newspaper cutting hidden in my old laptop case upstairs, but I haven’t actually looked at it since I put it there. I know that if I look at that faded cutting it will instantly transport me back to the day of the funeral, when that great, empty, immovable void opened before us.
When the final person leaves the house after the funeral, that’s when it starts for real. The silence and the coping – that’s when it really begins, not when the person dies. There’s too much going on after they die, you know they’re dead but there’s just too much happening. It’s only when silence finally descends that you’re alone with death. It’s only then that you find out how you’ll be.
As a thirteen-year-old I never even thought about death. Why would you when you’re thirteen? I’m not sure I’d even think about it much now if it wasn’t for Nat. Of course, I’d see it in films and cartoons, I’d read about it in books. But that’s not really my life and it seems so far away. Always so far away until the final moment of innocence when my twin’s blood spattered across my favourite T-shirt and I heard the last gasp for life as Nat's limp body hit the concrete in front of me.
A Lucky Win
So, Dad was entering another competition to win us a holiday. ‘Somebody has to win,’ he’d say, ‘and it might as well be us!’ Then Mum would chime in with some wise catchphrase like, ‘You’ve got to be in it to win it!’ Honestly, it was as if they wrote the script before each day started. How did they come up with this stuff, seemingly off the top of their heads?
Usually we entered competitions in magazines or on the back of cereal boxes. Sometimes we even crowded round Dad’s laptop to figure out some daft question in an online contest. But I remember this one because it was different from usual. It came via email, directly to Mum.
Now, this is where I should explain that we’re a modern family and we all love our tech. Who doesn’t? This is the twenty-first century after all! So when Mum got the email, she forwarded it to Dad. ‘Hey Mike, I’ve got some holiday competition from one of my websites, do you want it?’
‘Can you forward it to me, Amy?’ asked Dad, and after a few taps from Mum on her keyboard I knew that the transaction was complete because five minutes later Dad said, entirely out of the blue, ‘Thanks’. The funny thing is, we all knew what he meant by this stray acknowledgement. An onlooker from a hundred years ago would wonder what on Earth had just happened.
This is just how modern families operate - the unspoken fusion of tech and relationships when human interaction can slip seamlessly from words to typing, to reading, and back to words again – and everybody’s still in the loop.
Now, Mum was always a deleter. It was virtually the only time that she’d cuss. I think it was because she’d taken on more responsibility in the office since Dad had stopped going into work and she was sick of emails by the time she was back home. So, about ten minutes after she’d returned from work every night, she’d sit down with a cup of tea, open her laptop, scan her emails, cuss a bit then whack the ‘delete’ button much harder than was required. ‘She’s going to wreck that button!’ I’d think to myself.
‘Sorted!’ she’d announce, and then she’d relax and become ‘Mum’ again, as if deleting those personal emails was revenge for everything she’d had to do at work all day.
That’s why I noticed this email in particular. At the time I just assumed that she’d had a better day at work. But now I can see it was something more than that. Anyway, Dad got the email and within seconds of him opening it and asking if we all wanted to go to Scotland we were tapping away at our keyboards trying to find the name of a disused Cold War nuclear bunker in the south of Scotland. David got there first, and he messaged the link to Dad to check it. Dad announced, ‘That’s the one, never heard of it!’ and that was the holiday sorted. Well, almost – until Mum nearly ruined everything by ending up in hospital.
The Empty Ward
The woman sat on the bed with a briefcase at her side. She was browsing something on a digital reader, but it was obvious that she was just distracting herself because when the man entered the room she closed it immediately. She was expecting him and, although she knew him already, she was clearly uneasy about something.
This was a strange place. It had the feel of a hospital, but it didn’t seem to have any patients. There was an antiseptic, clinical feel about it. The beds were neatly made and in rows, but there were no curtains between them, no radios on the walls, nothing extra or decorative.
As the man pressed the pen-like gadget against her neck and the tiny device entered her bloodstream, it struck her that this was almost the same as a military hospital.
A Last-Minute Panic
I didn’t even know that Mum gave blood. Not until we got a phone call saying that she’d fainted and they were keeping her in hospital overnight. Dad went into a bit of tirade at that stage. The funny thing about Dad is that he would rant away as if something had bothered him, when it was obvious to everybody in the room that actually he was just very concerned and worried about whoever was involved.
So, while Dad was moaning about Mum’s great timing and how it was going to mess up the packing and our early morning departure, me, David and even Harriet really knew that he was just worried sick about Mum. It was that script thing again, as if nobody would finish off his lines if Mum wasn’t there.
‘I’m going to have to leave you guys here for an hour,’ he started. ‘Nat, can you look after ...’ There it was again. A simple mistake, but Nat was back in the room.
Hospitals always meant bad news to me. Of course, in most cases they’re places of healing. People who have the most terrible illnesses and problems enter those buildings and most often leave them cured, healed or in greater comfort.
It was the hospital chapel that I particularly noticed when Nat died. I didn’t know that hospitals had chapels. My thirteen-year-old self thought that they were made up of wards, lines of beds and filled with doctors and nurses. So much of what we think of these places is from TV and books. A chapel in a hospital makes perfect sense, I know that now.
After all, it’s where I first watched my parents crying helplessly as they clung on to each other trying to comprehend that Nat was dead. It was the first and only time in my life that they completely shut me out. It was as if they had to go to each other first before they could come to give me comfort. I know now that the chapel is the most important place in a hospital. It’s where people go to pray and beg for help, even if they believe there is no God. It’s where people who are ill go when they must come to terms with the end of life. And it’s where those who know loss must go, before returning to a home that is missing a child.