Updated: Sep 13
Chapter 7 cont: Monday 28th May 2018
My chest tightens. The nurse holds open the door.
Liz and I enter the now familiar room. Beige walls, blinds drawn, a solitary blue plastic chair. It is calmer now. The machinery has gone. There are no whirrs or beeps.
‘Hello Dan,’ I say, my voice catching with surprise. The tubes and head brace have gone too. He looks like Dan, asleep. He’s been washed clean and is cooler to my touch. His eyes, now, are not sticky or dull, but closed, his brown lashes resting softly. His hair is tousled, as usual, exactly as it should be, and free of matted blood. He’s in his newest Manchester United top, his black skinny jeans. I kiss his smooth cheek. To my lips his skin feels normal, alive.
In this false slumber it is as if he has been released, and I feel a surge of hope, almost expecting him to sit up and say flippin’ heck, what was that all about eh? and then we’d laugh and hug. But he doesn’t.
‘We had a right time getting those jeans on.’ The blonde nurse smiles.
‘I’m sure.’ I return the smile. I’m clean too. While four surgical teams worked to remove Dan’s organs, I broke the horrendous news to my parents, slept, showered and now I am here beside him in a different jumper and jeans. Liz has showered too. Her husband Gary has brought her freshly pressed clothes. They look somehow artificial in contrast with her tear-crumpled face. I cannot yet look at my face. I don’t want to see what my pain looks like.
‘We’ve been to see Nanny and Grandad, they send their love,’ I say, my attention back on Dan.
‘Everyone we’ve told has said how proud they are of you,’ adds Liz, patting his arm.
My thoughts are slippy. I know Dan is not alive, but he is right here in front of me dressed like Dan. His organs have been taken, but he still looks real to me. What else have I got now? I try to commit his face to memory, because soon I will not see it again and I want his image seared onto my mind forever. The wisps of hair at his temples and the nape of his neck. The beautiful shape of his mouth. His nose, big, cartilaginous, in the way that teenage boys’ noses are. The curve of his light brown eyebrows. I trace the freckles on his arm, the ones he would use as a dot-to-dot when bored in class. I know that wishing is pointless, but it doesn’t stop me wanting just one more chance to tell him off for drawing on his arm.
The nurse hesitates by the bed. ‘I know Dan’s a bit older than most of the children we see, but would you like to make a memory box?’ she asks.
‘Ummm,’ I pull at my lip and look at Liz. This is when I need my best friend’s guidance, because I’m not sure. He’s not a baby. Do I need this? I think of the row of infant teeth I’ve kept Blu-Tacked to the corkboard in the dining room. The teeth Dan tells me are a bit serial killer.
‘Yes, we do,’ Liz says firmly to the nurse. ‘You’ll be grateful of it another time.’
I am grateful right now that she is here, steering me. We are given a box, all powder blue stripes and gingerbread men.
Oh God Mum, you’re joking
There are little bags for keeping locks of hair in, and a cast for hand or footprints. We giggle as we try to fit Dan’s gigantic hand onto the cast. More snorts as we roller red paint on his sole to make a footprint on paper. I feel giddy, silly, because this is just ridiculous. Two days ago, Dan and I were chatting about the World Cup. Now I’m manipulating his lifeless body to make crude pictures for posterity.
‘I’m making a right pig’s ear of this,’ I say to Dan, placing the wet prints on the radiator to dry. ‘You know I’m rubbish at this kind of thing.’
Yeh, I got my lack of artistic talent from you, Mum
I cut locks of Dan’s hair as discreetly as possible. I avoid the hair where the metal staples still hold his skull together. My eyes cannot look at that part of him without my mind shrieking.
We have a box of things now.
I am not sure what to do next. Is now the moment I must leave Dan and not ever come back? The notion pierces me.
The blonde nurse tells us that Dan will be taken to Rose Cottage tomorrow. It’s such an incongruous name for the mortuary.
It’s like calling Manchester City a ‘great team’
It’s a Bank Holiday so there’s no one there today, which means Dan will stay here, being looked after in his private room on the ward.
I don’t know what to do. I can’t remember what I should have been doing today or tomorrow. I do know I need to feed the dog, and that I can’t do anything else for Dan. Liz tells me that it’s time to go home.
‘When can I see him again?’ I ask the nurse.
Tomorrow, I am assured. I can call Rose Cottage and come in any time.
Liz and I pick up our bags and bits and slowly make our way back down in the lift and through the corridors to meet Gary, who’ll drive us home. It’s hard to go. Dan’ll be on his own. I’m his mum and I’m leaving him there, without anyone he knows.
I check my phone as we reach the ground floor. It’s clogged with messages. I close the screen quickly.
I notice the Police Family Liaison Officer in a waiting area by the main entrance and my stomach bounces. What now? I’ve already told her what I know, she wrote it down. She hurries over.
‘I need two minutes with you,’ she says, and makes me look quickly through the statement I gave. I can’t see properly because the words swim and don’t make sense, and I don’t want to read them anyway, but I sign where she tells me to. She has nothing new to tell me; Dan was on his own, the van hit him as he crossed the road. That is it.
She looks into my eyes and reminds me that she is here for me, that it’s her job to keep me informed about any police investigation, to do what she can to help, and again I feel a tremor of distrust. I ask her to find out school contact details and let the Head know so she can contact Dan’s friends, even though it’s half term. She promises she’ll do it.
‘Are you sure that you don’t want me to come home with you?’ Liz checks for the tenth time. I have already quietly declined other offers from Anna, Sarah, and Eve, friends who are anxious about me.
‘I’m just going to cry myself to sleep clutching Dan’s clothes,’ I say. I simply want to sleep with his warm-caramel-and-Lynx boy scent beside me. Gary and Liz drop me home. Liz looks worn out. I tell her I love her, thank her, and wave goodbye.
Maggie bounces from the settee wagging her tail when I step over the threshold and, after a quick wee in the garden, follows me upstairs and plonks on her cushion outside my bedroom door.
I’m too tired even for tears. I crawl into bed holding the scraps of Dan’s bloodied t-shirt and fall asleep instantly.
Chapter 8: November 2005–October 2006
Dan’s birthday’ book, 7th November 2005, three years old:
You snuck into my bed at 2 am. Woke up again at 6 and asked, ‘what day is it today? Is it my birfday?’ So, we got up, came downstairs and you insisted on watching Winnie the Pooh (sickly Disney version). Ate toast for breakfast, with a drink of milk. Opened presents: doctors’ set, trains and track, Bob the Builder books and video, Maisy Goes Camping book, Animal Snap, Monkey Puzzle book. Then Nanny picked us up and we took you to nursery, along with a big bag of Milky Ways to share with your friends.
Home after lunch where you watched Bob the Builder and Winnie the Pooh (again) and played with your toys while I prepared food for your party. At 4 pm-ish all your friends arrived. Auntie Liz came along too, and, of course, your best mate, two-year-old Joe and his mum Anna. You all had a great time eating breadsticks and chocolate and drinking Ribena, playing with your toys, dancing, and running around.
Daddy came round later and brought a wooden road set which you and Joe got stuck into straightaway. Big brother Marcus called round with an Etch-a-Sketch and more chocolate. When everyone had gone, Daddy helped you into your pyjamas and then you sat on his knee and had a couple of stories and a bottle of milk and then fell… fast… asleep.
By the time autumn 2005 rolled around, I was back at work, and the ‘forever’ house was almost sold. Our we-can-stretch-to-this-because-we-love-each-other-and-will-be-a-happy-family-here home, a fabulous four-bedroomed stone terrace on a leaf lined road, was no longer ours. And the ‘forever’ family was no more either. Steve had his own new home nearby, but most definitely apart. He became fun-weekend-dad, and I became a single-parent.
Two days before his third birthday, Dan and I moved into our two-up, two-down at 18 Railway Street. Life, that had become thin and frayed, began to patch up. We were only a few streets away from our good friends Anna and Joe. Liz was round the corner. Liz minded Dan when I needed a break, scrubbed him in the bath, and ignored the howls that usually prevented me from washing his hair. She sang silly songs to him and made him laugh and cuddled and kissed him with as fierce a love as she had shown her own children.
We gained new neighbours. On one side, an elderly lady that liked to glare at small boys having fun. On the other Doris and Ted. They were the slightly dotty grandparents for any children on the street, as well being actual grandparents to Alfie and Ollie, who’d turn up often and sometimes played with Dan. Doris and Ted had our spare key. I would regularly lock myself out; they would regularly help me get back in. Dan was fascinated by Doris’s extensive garden gnome collection.
‘Deranged,’ I said.
‘Beautiful,’ said Dan.
He settled into the new home straight away. We were officially ‘Team Dan and Deb’.
Our routine was established. Dan would stay with his dad on a Tuesday night and Steve would drop him back the next morning before heading to work, and then Dan would stay with him Friday through to Saturday teatime.
‘Hello, Daddy!’ Dan would beam.
‘Hello, Badger,’ Steve would reply, scooping him into a big cuddle. ‘What have you been doing at nursery today?’
‘Err, pooing in my pants,’ Dan replied, once, memorably.
Our first Christmas as a twosome was easier than I’d thought it might be. Dan was more excited by the prospect of presents than concerned with the household occupants. At 4.30 am on Christmas morning he padded into my room wearing his Santa hat, snuggled in beside me and asked, ‘Has Father Christmas been yet?’
‘No,’ I said, muffled by sleep, willing him to close his eyes again.
He fidgeted for an hour, then reached over, turned my face towards him and stage-whispered, ‘Do you think Father Christmas has drunk the drink, eaten the mince pies and the reindeer have eaten the carrots?’
‘I suppose we’d better check…’ I sighed, and he shot downstairs. A frenzy of unwrapping, and he was back in bed at 8 am for an hour’s nap.
The new year turned without major drama. The ending of a ten-year relationship and the loss of the family home had been enough upheaval in 2005. I was working three days a week as a Development Officer at a Volunteer Centre, Dan at nursery for two of these. One day a week he went to Nanny and Grandad’s, the eternal constants in his life, in whose company he was completely secure, utterly cherished.
‘My nanny’s here!’ Dan would call excitedly when Mum came to pick him up. He would return home full of love and chocolate.
The days we had to ourselves we filled with as much fun as we could. Liz, Anna, and Joe would regularly come round after nursery and work as spring broke into summer. We’d turn teatime into ‘naughty teatime’ by adding a vodka to our diet colas. The boys would eat spaghetti hoops then play in the sandpit and paddling pool in our small, flagged garden. On other days, Liz and I would whisk them off to parks in other towns where we would eat ice creams with sauce and sprinkles, watch brass bands, and ride on miniature trains.
To celebrate Joe’s third birthday in August, we bought tickets for the Thomas the Tank Engine All Aboard Live Tour at Sheffield Hallam Arena. Brightly painted stage sets and giant-sized versions of their favourite trains, simple songs to join in with, the auditorium alive with the chaos of hundreds of other equally overexcited children. They were both entranced by the magic. Dan asked if we could stay there ‘all days’, and for the next week he strutted around in his ‘Thomas on Tour’ t-shirt, singing loudly:
‘It’s a very special daay
A VEEERRRRY special day
On the TRAAAIIIINNS!’
I had never expected to find such pleasure from the company of one other person, especially a small child. Every night, after teeth were brushed, I would read to him, cuddled up in his single bed. As I read, he would twirl his fingers through my hair, drifting into a place of calm and comfort.
‘Night, mummy,’ he’d mumble with a sleepy smile and then turn and curl his skinny body under the duvet. I would leave the room enveloped in soft wonder at the little boy whose presence filled me with warmth from head to toe. With Dan, I felt I had substance. With Dan, I had a place in the world.
That place was not, however, a fixed spot. Dan was always on the move, and that meant I was too. He could not be left unattended, would not simply sit and play quietly.
‘Dan, come back!’ I would call in the park, abandoning buggy and bag to chase after him as he zoomed off beyond the big slide.
‘Where were you going?’ I’d ask, gripping his hand, marching back to the buggy with him skipping along beside me.
‘I just wanted to see what was there,’ he’d say, with a bright-eyed smile. Not deliberate mischief or disobedience, just immense curiosity and absolute faith in his ability to deal with the world on his own terms, despite not yet being of school age. This mix of inquisitiveness and eccentricity was Dan.
‘I like being rare,’ he said, when I queried him about his sometimes-offbeat behaviours. These sideways takes cropped up regularly. He’d pick up a phrase from a TV programme and play with it.
‘Sniff dat’, he’d say, shoving items—crayons, apples, worms—under my nose. Thank you, Trap Door. Or, he’d misuse a phrase; he’d eat all his tea, or put his own socks on, or use the potty effectively and announce, ‘And the dentist will be really proud of me.’ Or, watching leaves fall from trees, a squirrel bound over a wall, water going down the plughole, he would sigh and say, ‘I’m really gonna miss those leaves/that squirrel/my bath’. Dan-isms everywhere, brightening my days like sunbursts.
We visited a local farm show. It had the usual attractions: bouncy castle, miniature train, and falconry displays. Dan dashed through the crowds with me crashing behind, apologising to those I batted out of the way, trying to keep up with him. Then he halted, captivated by a vicar waving an oversized plush turtle puppet as he entertained a dozen or so meekly seated children. Dan was transfixed as the vicar told a biblical tale.
‘…and that’s how Jesus fed so many people!’ The vicar finished, making the turtle’s mouth open in amazement. The children clapped, and Dan ran to him and reached up to deliver an enormous hug.
‘What was that for?’ I asked, as he bounced back to me.
‘Because he really loves Jesus, and Jesus isn’t here to give him a hug, so I did.’
He extended the same love to the spider plant I brought home one day.
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Dan. ‘I shall call him Peter.’