There were no taxies or busses running so they had to ask a neighbour for a lift to the hospital. As they walked into the Accident and Emergency department Lucas almost held back, terrified of what news he was about to hear. The five minutes in the waiting room cuddling a weeping Cara were torture. As soon as he saw his mother emerge from the doctor’s office he knew by the look on her face that the news was good. The relief was almost painful; he came close to fainting from it.
An hour later the family were allowed to see him. Charles Doughty was in a curtained off space on a bed asleep with an oxygen mask on his face. He had a black eye and his body was covered in cuts and bruises. His legs were encased in white plaster wrapped in fabric. He’d been in theatre having his leg bones surgically repaired. “Daddy, can you hear me?” Cara asked quietly. Her father didn’t respond, but sighed deeply in his drug-assisted slumber. “How many Muslims did you kill, Dad?” asked Brendan proudly.
The family went home an hour later and planned to return the following day. Lucas got up early the next morning and went out. The small shops in the centre of the estate had reopened and he bought a bunch of grapes, some flowers and a get-well card. When he got home the family wrote loving messages of the card and tenderly wrapped the flowers before leaving the flat and catching the bus, which was running once more, to the hospital. They’d called earlier and a nurse confirmed that Charlie was awake now and they could visit; therefore it was mystifying to arrive on the ward and be intercepted by a nurse who told them they couldn’t see him. “Why on Earth not?” demanded Mary.
“He’s requested no visitors.“
“”What!? We’re his family! I’m his wife!“
“I’m sorry, Mrs Doughty. We have to honour the patient’s wishes, and he’s requested no visitors, not even you.“
The nurse shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know.”
They went home in silence.
The TV still showed permanent news on all broadcasting stations; the others were closed down. The riot in Liverpool was just one of many up and down the country. The gang from Lucas’ estate had marched on the Liverpool Central Mosque. In their thousands they had broken in and laid waste to the building, smashing ornaments, ripping up the carpets and trying to set the place on fire. A handful of the mob had commandeered a bulldozer and managed to demolish a wall. Some of the rioters were crushed when the rubble fell on them, Lucas’ father included. All in all, across the country 160 people had been killed and several thousand injured. The programme switched the international situation: The Prime Minister and US President were back on TV. The call had gone out for action. Mohammed Evel Al Kokkah was currently reported to be ensconced in the mountains near Dushanbe in ACAIR, the Autonomous Central Asian Islamic Republic. The US Secretary of State was in the ACAIR’s capital, Ashkhabad, holding emergency talks with the Republic’s president Akbar Jeen. He demanded that ACAIR seek and arrest Al Kokkah and extradite him to the United States to face charges over what had already been dubbed the “Three/Twenty-Three Attacks“. Akbar Jeen denied that Al Kokkah was located anywhere inside the ACAIR’s borders. America had asked if US troops could be deployed on his land to make sure and Jeen had refused. The following news-piece on the 3/23 attacks was a horrific recording of mobile phonecalls made by passengers on the aircraft. “Oh God! There’s these Arab-looking guys on the plane!… They’ve killed the stewardesses!… They’ve got screwdrivers to this guy’s throat!… “Tell the kids I love them…” and it went on for several minutes while Mary gritted her teeth and winced. The voices sounded a bit tinny, robotic even, like artificial electronic voices. The newsreader explained that this was caused by distortion, because the mobile phone signals had been so bad on board the aircraft, up in the sky and moving quickly.
The next day school reopened. When Lucas went with all the other children there was a bad and fearful atmosphere. Everybody walked around the playground looking nervously over their shoulders; and more often than not, up into the sky. Along with many other pupils, Lucas’ girlfriend Jody wasn’t there and she’d been his only reason for attending school himself. After a particularly tedious maths lesson filled with thoughts of his father, Lucas decided to play truant and try to visit him again. Her guessed that the police wouldn’t be interested in him; they had other things on their mind. He caught a bus to town and walked to the hospital.
There were no nurses manning the ward’s reception desk. He heard voices behind the curtains pulled round the beds and guessed that they were all busy. He waited a few minutes to ask permission, but nobody appeared. Eventually he got tired of waiting and began walking slowly around the ward bays searching for his father’s bed. Eventually he heard his father’s voice coming from behind one of the screens. Lucas paused for a moment, wondering if it was OK to enter; a nurse might be washing him: “My credit rating ain’t that bad. I paid back every penny on the loan for my van.”
Another voice replied: “I know, Mr Doughty, but that was a mere five thousand pounds; this is a far greater sum. And I understand you’ll be wanting to borrow even more money for this… other investment of yours.”
“So.” Lucas’ father replied with a chuckle. “If I don’t pay up you’ve got my car, my van and my pension.”
“Your collateral won’t cover the amount you want to borrow.”
“Well how much can you lend me… Lucas!”
Lucas had poked his head through a gap in the screens. “Dad? What’s going on?”
His father was sat up in bed reading some documents in a folder. A smart young man in a suit sat on the bedside chair operating a laptop computer which was resting on the bed. Doughty seemed to almost recoil from his son. “Lucas, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, Dad. I was worried about you.”
“Why aren’t you at school?”
“I bunked off.”
“Go back, Son.”
“What’s going on?”
“Go! Now!” He shouted so loudly that the conversation in the rest of the bay stopped.
Lucas fled from the hospital and retuned to school, his mind churning. When he got home from school he opened his emails and was surprised to find one from his father: Hi Son. I’m sorry about what happened today and I’m sorry I’m keeping you, your Mam, Bren and Cara away from me at the moment. Please don’t tell them you’ve been to see me. It’s not because I don’t want you to be with me. To be honest, it’s because I feel ashamed. Not because of what I did to those Muslim bastards, no I’m proud of that. No, I’m ashamed because I feel like I’ve betrayed you by giving you the life you’ve got. I can’t face you again until I’ve at least begun to do something to repair the damage I’ve done to you. Then we’ll all be together again, I promise. Love you always. Dad.
Lucas frowned as he read the email again and again, then he clicked “Reply” and composed a response: Hi Dad. What do you mean you’ve done damage to us? I don’t understand what all this is about. Please tell me. Love from Lucas.
He had to wait till evening for his father to answer: I can’t now, Lu. Not this way. I’m getting out of hospital next week. I’ll explain then.
The following Wednesday Lucas and his brother got home from school at around the same time as their mother got home from picking up their sister from her primary school. They’d just sat down to a cup of tea when a key turned in the lock of the front door. The door opened and footsteps were heard in the hall along with a strange, repetitive thumping sound. They all came out to look and saw Charlie hobbling towards them on crutches; it was these that made the thumping sound. His right leg was encased in a plastercast. He grinned broadly. They all laughed and ran forward to embrace him. “Thank God I’m back.” sighed his father as he limped into the lounge. “I’m looking forward to a good roast dinner. That hospital food must kill more people than…” He stopped in the doorway to the lounge of their little council flat and froze. He stared at the room as if seeing it for the first time.
“Charlie?” His wife looked at him with a quizzical frown.
He took a step forward and ran his finger over the crumbling plaster of the walls. His face blanched and his eyes glazed over with tears.
“Charlie, what’s wrong, Love?”
“’Love’?” he muttered hoarsely. “Do you really love me, Mary?”
She chuckled nervously. “Of course I do. Charlie, what’s the matter with you?”
He smiled and raised a had to wipe his eyes, the crutch hanging from his forearm. “You’re a beautiful woman, Mary. You could have had your pick of the fellers. Why did you marry me?”
Brendan appeared from the kitchen with a streaming mug of tea and offered it to his father. Charlie reached out to take it then stopped and said in a much stronger voice: “Thanks, Bren, but there’s no time.” He brightened up. “Everybody, get in the car. I’ve got a nice surprise for you.”
“You’ll have to drive, Mary; I can’t manage it with my bad leg.”
“I haven’t driven for years.” Mary protested. “Anyway, where are we going?”
There was barely enough room for them all in his family’s beat-up old Ford Fiesta. Lucas was in the middle of the back seat with Cara squeezed against his left shoulder and Brendan against his right. He felt uncomfortable with one leg on either side of the driveshaft. His mother drove in a flustered (Synonym?- Ed) manner, punching the pedals hard and making the car jerk. Her hands shook on the wheel and she ground the cars manual gearbox. Her husband sat in the front passenger seat with his crutches across his lap giving directions. To their increasing wonder, he guided her out of the city and onto the motorway.
Charlie stubbornly deflected all questions about their destination and simply ordered his wife to continue driving. They stopped for a meal at a service station in Birmingham when it began to get dark and sat around a table in silence, munching microwaved burgers and sipping from plastic coffee cups. Soon after they returned to the road Lucas fell asleep. He began to stir when the car exited the motorway. He teetered in a pre-awakening stupor for a while as they drove along slowly through the carotene wash of the streetlights, then roused totally when his father said: “This is it. Park us there, Mary, just behind that lamp-post.”
Lucas looked at his watch: 10.22PM. “Where are we?” he yawned.
“Hertfordshire.” replied his father, hoisting himself out of the car with his crutches. “Come on, out you all get.”
The night air was chilly and Lucas could see his breath in front of his face. They were parked on a long, suburban residential street bordered on both sides by rows of large semi-detached houses. Streetlamps punctuated the pavement at various intervals and there were lights behind most of the windows. His father led them along the pavement, counting the numbers on the doors. “Fifty-six… fifty-eight… sixty… This is it!” He stopped at a house that was completely unlit. The garden was a tangle of weeds and the curtains in the windows were all open. A wooden signboard stuck out of a patch of mud by the bare brick wall and there was enough streetlight for Lucas to make out the word “SOLD” on it in large black letters. Charlie thumped confidently up the gravel path to the front door. Lucas expected him to ring the doorbell, but instead he took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. He turned to them and grinned playfully. “Are you coming in or are you going to stand out there in the cold all night?” He pushed the door open with the rubber pad on the end of his crutch and vanished inside. Mary paused then trudged after him without a word. Her children followed.
The interior of the house was cold and dark; none of the light switches worked and the streetlamps outside were the only illumination. Charlie opened a cupboard under the staircase and began fumbling around. “Aha! Here it is. Let’s try this out. Great!” The bulb on the corridor exploded into light; he tried more light switches and they worked too. “There’s a charge key on top of the meter. It’s got five quid in it, just like the estate agents said.”
Lucas screwed up his eyes until they adjusted to the glare of the shadeless light bulbs. The house was almost bare except for a settee in the lounge and a bed frame in one of the upstairs rooms. Sounds echoed off the smooth wallpaper and the rooms looked cavernous without furniture. The kitchen had linoleum on the floor and the rest of the house was carpeting with clean white pile. “Charlie?” said Mary. “What is this place?”
Her husband smiled and gave a luxurious sigh. “This is our new home.”
There was a stunned silence. “What?” she chuckled. “Of course it’s not, Charlie… Are you feeling alright?… We shouldn’t be here. How did you get they key? We’d better leave before the owners turn up.”
“They… we have tuned up.” He lowered himself into the settee and tossed his crutches onto the floor.
“What are you talking about, Dad?” asked Brendan. “We don’t live here. We live in Liverpool, in our flat.”
Charlie winced as if in pain and put a hand to his face. “No! We used to live in Liverpool in that place! That stinking, poky little flat! Don’t ever remind me of that again!”
“Dad.” said Lucas. “Are you saying we’ve… moved?”
“Yes, Lu. But we’ve done more than just move. This is a new beginning for us. The first day of the rest of our lives. We’ve died and been born again!” His eyes glistened with passion.
“Charlie!” snapped Mary. “Stop this nonsense! I don’t know if you hit your head in that accident as well as your legs, or if this is a side-effect of your painkillers, but… come on! Let’s get in the car and go home before the neighbours call the police.”
“Didn’t you hear me, Woman!?” he shouted. “We can’t go back! We’re not going back!”
“Well then you can stay here and rant by yourself while I take the children back home.”
“It’s too late!” he laughed. “I’ve already been to the council and cancelled our tenancy. We’ve got two weeks to clear out our stuff.”
She gasped and took a step back. “Tell me you haven’t!”
He shrugged and laughed again. There was a look in his eyes that Lucas had never seen before.
“Sweet Lord Jesus!” she crossed herself. “Charlie! We spent a week living in your mother’s garage to get that flat!” It’s been the only home we’ve ever known!”
“I told you not to remind me!” he yelled.
Cara started crying and ran over to her mother. Mary put her arms around her and stroked her hair.
Charlie paused. He seemed to soften as he looked at his daughter. “Mary, you talk about that mouldy little council shoebox as if it was a place to be proud of.”
“I was proud of it!” his wife retorted. “And you had no right to take it away from us without discussing it first!”
Charlie breathed deeply and sat back stretching his limbs; his plastercast rose off the carpet. “I guess there are mules who are proud of their hovels… I wanted it to be a nice surprise; sorry if you don’t see it that way. We can’t go back, Pet. We’ve burnt our bridges."