Maria and her dad didn’t talk much as he drove them to the hospital. Neither dared say anything. They didn’t know how bad things were. And they didn’t dare to speculate. Alan didn’t want to say anything like ‘It’ll be all right’ because he didn’t know it WOULD be all right.

Maria just thought about how she had HATED her mum for not coming to her party, and really felt guilty about it.

“I didn’t mean it, mum,” she thought. “Please be all right.”

They parked in the hospital car park and ran into the A & E department. Alan gave his name and the receptionist told them to sit down and wait. After their long, anxious drive it seemed the cruellest thing to find that they were asked to wait, as if their family crisis wasn’t important enough to be dealt with straight away.

Did it mean things weren’t as bad as they thought, or that things were WORSE than they thought and somebody would come to tell them that in a minute?

At last they were told they could go through to the A & E treatment area where patients were sectioned off in curtained cubicles. And they discovered that it WASN’T as bad as they thought. Ivan had hardly been hurt at all. He had a sprained wrist and some slight cuts and bruises and had taken a taxi home already.

Chrissie Jackson was sitting on the hospital bed with her left leg in plaster, having a cup of tea.

“Mum!” Maria ran to hug her tightly. “Oh, mum, I’m so glad you’re all right.”

“Of course I’m all right,” she answered. “Oh, Alan, you didn’t have to come down. And Maria should be in bed. She’ll be worn out in school tomorrow. It’s lovely to see you, Maria, darling. It seems like ages…”

“I saw you yesterday, mum,” Maria answered. “When you were too busy for my birthday.”

“Of course I CAME,” Alan said. “Somebody had to be with you. What happened? He wasn’t drinking and driving, was he?”

“He only had one glass of Saki,” Chrissie answered. “It wasn’t his fault. This absolute fool of a van driver cut us off at the junction. Nearly hit us. Ivan swerved and we crashed into a bollard.”

“I’m glad you’re not really badly hurt, mum,” Maria said. “I was so worried.”

“Oh, sweetheart. That’s nice. But really, I’m all right. Course, we’ll have to cancel the canoeing weekend. But we’ll probably get a new car from the insurance and Ivan says I should sue the van driver for compensation. For the trauma and personal discomfort. He says I’ve got a good case.”

“You should sue Ivan for not being able to stop a car without swerving into a bollard,” Alan said. But Chrissie didn’t hear. She was talking about how she had had a near death experience, seeing a white light and how Ivan’s voice had brought her back from the brink. Ivan’s voice swearing at the van driver, that is.

A nurse looked in at them and said they had a bed for Chrissie in ward three and they’d be taking her up soon.

“You can come and see your mum tomorrow afternoon,” the nurse added to Maria in what struck her as a rather patronising voice. “Visiting time is five till five-thirty.”

“We’ll be there,” Alan said. “Can we bring you anything, Chrissie?”

“No, I’m all right,” she said. “No, tell a lie. Could you bring me a big bottle of Lucozade. And some chocolates. You know the sort I like. And could you find my make up case… and… oh, I’m all out of shampoo. Can you pick some up for me – Pantene Pro-V. And a jar of Nivea cream. And….”

Maria kissed her mum, if only to stop the list getting any longer. They walked away, back through the A & E department. As they reached the door, they saw an emergency coming in. The ambulance lights were flashing urgently and as soon as it stopped the doors were flung open. A casualty on a trolley was rushed past and into the hospital. A woman dressed in a long nightie and an ambulance blanket came a little more slowly, helped by a female paramedic. She looked unharmed, but her face was red and sweaty and there were smudges of black smoke. She had obviously been in a fire.

“Mrs McKenzie!” Maria exclaimed as she recognised the woman. She turned and looked around at the doors that still swung slightly after the trolley had been rushed through them. “Oh, no. Oh, no. Lizzie?”

“Come on,” said a nurse who came out to take Mrs McKenzie from the paramedic. “We’ll get you sat down and somebody will get you a cup of tea for the shock. Is there anyone coming for you? Can we call anyone?”

“We’ll stay with her,” said Alan. He and Maria came back into the hospital with Mrs McKenzie. The nurse brought her to a quiet room with chairs and a table. Alan went to fetch the tea while Maria sat with her and the nurse took her name and her daughter’s name and their address and other details for the records.

“I don’t know what happened,” Mrs McKenzie sobbed in between managing to tell the nurse what she needed to know. “We were asleep. Then the smoke alarm went off. And Lizzie was screaming. The fire was in her bedroom. She was screaming and she couldn’t get to the door. I couldn’t get to her. I thought… I thought… |The firemen got her out. But she’s burnt. And in the ambulance she wasn’t breathing properly. I don’t know… if she… If….”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” Maria said. “I am so very sorry.”

Alan pressed the cup of tea into her hand, but she hardly seemed aware of it. She cried pitifully and clung to Maria’s hand.

“You’re a good friend of hers aren’t you,” Mrs McKenzie said. “Maria… isn’t it? You’re the one who had a birthday yesterday. Lizzie was there. She was happy when she came home. She said she had a nice time. But then… Oh….”

Good friend? Maria thought about how Lizzie had nearly spoiled the party for her. How she had HATED her last night. But she certainly wouldn’t have told Mrs McKenzie that right now. She wondered what Lizzie would think, though, about her being the one comforting her mum. She probably wouldn’t be grateful.

But that didn’t matter. Neither her nor her dad could have left the poor woman alone. They did what they could to comfort her.

Which was precious little, it had to be admitted. Alan felt utterly helpless. What could you say to somebody who’s daughter might be dying in agony not far away?

“Drink your tea, it will make you feel better,” he said. But he knew that was useless. Would tea comfort him if it was Maria who was dying? But it was the only thing he could think of to say or do.

A long, sad hour passed in which Mrs McKenzie went from crying to trying to be brave, to crying again several time. She talked about Lizzie, about what a good girl she was, how sweet she was. Maria thought about Lizzie burnt and in pain and tried not to think about how she WASN’T a good girl, but was a quite nasty, mean girl who had said spiteful things behind her back. Even if she was, she didn’t deserve what had happened to her.

Oh, don’t let her DIE, Maria thought. Please don’t let her die.

At last a doctor came to talk to Mrs McKenzie. He mistakenly thought that Alan was Mr McKenzie and that Maria was Lizzie’s sister. Nobody felt up to explaining the mistake. It didn’t really matter, anyway. The important thing was that Lizzie was alive. The burns were not as bad as they first thought and she would not be badly scarred. But she had inhaled a lot of hot smoke and her lungs and throat were scorched. She would be in hospital for quite some time until she was better, and she would not be able to talk for a while.

Mrs McKenzie cried with relief that Lizzie was not dead, and not so badly burned as she feared. Then cried again because her daughter WAS rather horribly injured even so. Alan went with her when the doctor said she could see Lizzie for a few minutes before she was transferred to the special burns unit. Maria stayed in the waiting room. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see Lizzie with her hair burnt and bandages on her arms and neck and breathing through tubes. Besides, the less people there the better. Couldn’t burn patients get infected? Best if there wasn’t a crowd.

Anyway, Lizzie WASN’T her friend. She didn’t want her to die, but really she WASN’T a friend in that way.

She stood up as her dad came back to the waiting room. He looked upset. He reached out and took her hand and just said ‘let’s go home’. Maria followed him out to the car park. They got in the car. Maria fastened her seatbelt, but her dad didn’t yet. He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at another ambulance arriving from some accident, somewhere. Then he turned and reached and hugged her, and she was surprised to find that he was crying.

“I’m so lucky,” he said. “I’ve got you, still. We’re ok. We’re fine. We’re just fine, the two of us.”

Maria hugged him back, then he wiped his eyes and fastened his seatbelt and drove them home. He made another pot of tea, but this time they didn’t feel like birthday cake and Maria went to bed as soon as she had finished it. She slipped in between the cool sheets and cuddled up to her new doll and fell asleep, exhausted mentally and physically.


The next thing she knew, it was bright daylight and somebody was putting a cup and saucer on her bedside table. She murmured something like ‘thanks, dad,” then opened her eyes and realised it was Sarah Jane.

“Hello,” she said, sitting up in bed and laying her doll on the pillow. She had gone to sleep hugging it. She blushed. “I don’t usually sleep with a doll,” she said. “I just…”

“You had a couple of bad shocks last night,” Sarah Jane said. “Is it any wonder you wanted something comforting as you went to sleep.”

“Dad told you what happened?”

“Your dad dropped by to say he had to go into work, and asked if I’d look in on you. He said he’ll be home in time for you both to go to the hospital at visiting time. He told me all about what happened in the night. I’m sorry about your mum. And about your… your friend,. Lizzie? She was the one who…” Sarah Jane thought about the gaggle of girls at the party. Her eyes turned to the doll. Its eyes opened and closed as she looked at it. Maria had moved in the bed as she put down her tea cup and caused the plastic eyelids to wobble up and down over the blue glass eyes.

“Lizzie was the one who made fun of Nina,” Maria said, picking up the doll and sitting it up so that the eyes snapped open properly. And she made some of the other girls laugh, too. But… that didn’t mean. Sarah Jane… last night, I REALLY hated her. But I AM sorry this happened to her. Mum, too. I was angry at her for not staying at my party. But I didn’t want her to be hurt.”

“Of COURSE you didn’t,” Sarah Jane assured her. “And even if you DID, this is all just a coincidence. You couldn’t MAKE them both have horrible accidents.”

“We’re going to see mum later,” Maria added. “She wants dad to bring her LOADS of stuff, so I think she’s not as badly hurt as she looks. I expect she’ll make Ivan run around after her. And it probably serves him right. I think the accident was probably his fault, really.”

“They call that Schadenfreude,” Sarah Jane said with a laugh. “The enjoyment of somebody else’s misery.”

“It’s IVAN. He deserves it,” Maria answered. “It’s HIS fault mum and dad…” She stopped. “No, he doesn’t really. No. Ivan is a prat, and he thinks he’s something special when he isn’t. And mum can’t SEE that he is, but I suppose he can’t help what he is. And it’s NOT his fault. And I SHOULDN’T say things like that. He doesn’t DESERVE anything rotten happening, not even my mum nagging him to death.”

Sarah Jane smiled as she let Maria chat on about Ivan and her mum and a relationship that made her very GLAD that she was single.

Then her eye fell on Maria’s new watch. She noticed that the LED under the watch face was lit up. She reached and opened it, then opened her own and compared them.

“That’s ODD,” she said aloud, then wished she hadn’t.

“What’s odd?” Maria asked.

“Oh… er…” Sarah Jane put down the watch and turned to Maria again. She noticed the doll’s eyes flick open and closed again and wondered how sensitive the mechanism was, since nobody had even touched it. “Oh, it’s five minutes slow,” she lied. “I thought I’d set it exactly right before I wrapped it. Never mind. It’s easy to adjust. Anyway, you should get a bit more sleep. Come around and see me and Luke later after you’ve visited your mum.”

“I will,” she answered. “Thanks for coming to see me, and the tea. You’re a real friend.”

Maria lay back down in the bed. She WAS tired. She pulled Nina down under the covers with her and snuggled the doll. Sarah Jane turned and left the bedroom quietly, and hurried out of the house. She crossed the road and let herself into her own house. She ran up to her attic, catching her breath on the landing.

“Mr Smith,” she said as she stepped into her inner sanctum. “Maria needs you.”

To Be Continued...