Tilly dashed along the corridors of the New York Presbyterian Hospital. She hated hospitals. They reminded her of being nine-years-old, and seeing her mother after the accident. Hearing her words, ‘Look what your father’s done to me.’
After the call form Jess, Tilly had caught the next available flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles, and an internal flight to New York. She was now jet-lagged and exhausted; her mind and body working on adrenaline. She desperately wanted to see her mother, Arabella, and make sure she was OK.
Jess led the way to Arabella’s side room, glancing back every few seconds to check Tilly was following. They passed nurses and doctors, visitors and patients - the race to her mother seemed to be taking forever.
Jess stopped suddenly, her normally pale complexion flushed, her short black hair standing in tufts. Tilly caught up, and together they looked through the window of the side room at Arabella.
‘Oh God,’ Tilly whispered, her hand springing to her mouth. Her mother’s eyes were closed – her face as white at the pillow behind her head. ‘Is she going to be OK?’
‘I’m sure she will be,’ Jess said, her tone unsure.
‘So one minute she was picking out flowers for her apartment,’ Tilly said, recapping what her friend had told her.
‘Aha. And the next she was crying, and holding her head, saying she had a dreadful headache,’ Jess said. ‘That’s when she collapsed.’
Tilly pushed open the door and approached the bed. Jess followed, but hung back.
‘So the doctors suspect a brain haemorrhage?’ Tilly said in a whisper, looking back at her friend, who’d shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans as though she didn’t know what to do with them.
Jess nodded. ‘They’ve done tests. Scans I think. I’m sorry, Tilly, I should have listened more closely. All I know is, they mentioned something about a lumber puncture procedure. You’ll need to talk to a doctor.’
Tilly’s eyes flicked through the window, and into the empty corridor. ‘Where’s Marcus?’
Despite never being close to her mother’s husband, she felt she had to ask. She didn’t hate him or even dislike him. She just hadn’t been prepared to let him into her life. He was kind, and Tilly had never gone without. It was his money, in fact, that had given her the opportunity to open her flower shop. And there was no doubting he adored her mother. Swayed, Tilly had often thought, by her beauty, and the fact she was fifteen years his junior.
She wondered now if Marcus had family who would help him through this difficult time. There’d been a much younger brother called Duncan, who’d been best man at their wedding. Tilly had only seen Duncan once after that, when he came to the house, arguing with Marcus. Would he be there for Marcus now, at this awful time? Because Tilly knew she couldn’t be.
‘I’m not sure where he is,’ Jess said. ‘But he’s been here with her every day.’
‘I knew he would be,’ Tilly said, sitting on a chair by the bed. She took her mother’s slim, tanned hand in hers. Her nails were perfectly manicured, and there were three tattooed stars on her wrist. Her red hair was tied back from her sculpted face. She looked like a beautiful waxwork, or Sleeping Beauty.
Her eyelids flickered.
‘Tilly, darling,’ she said, opening her eyes, her voice weak. ‘I feel like total crap.’ She took a deep breath. ‘They’ve got me so doped up with painkillers, I feel like I’m on another planet.’
‘Everything is going to be OK, Mum,’ Tilly said, forcing down tears, knowing she couldn’t be sure.
‘This is your father’s fault,’ Arabella said, her voice trailing off. ‘They’ve said it’s connected to the injury.’ She gripped her daughter’s hand, her nails pressing into Tilly’s flesh. ‘Your dad hurt me, remember that? Remember how he hurt me?’
‘Oh, Mum.’ Tears stung Tilly’s eyes.
‘It was unforgiveable,’ Arabella said, her eyes flickering open and closed, not quite meeting her daughter’s. There was a bitterness to her words that she’d never let go of.
Later, as Tilly and Jess drank coffee in the hospital café, Jess said, ‘I heard what your mum said about your dad.’
‘I hate him,’ Tilly whispered, eyes narrowed.
‘You can’t be sure this is his fault.’ She leaned over and placed her hand on Tilly’s. ‘Even if your dad did cause the accident…’
‘It was never an accident, Jess,’ Tilly cut in, pulling away her hand. ‘Why do people insist on calling it that?’
‘Your mum was a heavy smoker and her blood pressure was high. Either could have caused this.’
‘No. This is a result of the head injury, Jess,’ Tilly said with certainty. ‘And I’ll never forgive him if anything happens to her.’
We’d been sitting at Gus and June’s dining room table for some time. Cillian had been bombarded with questions – and he’d asked a fair few of his own.
‘We need to call Stephen,’ Gus said, looking at June. ‘He needs to know.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ said June, rising and dashing to get her mobile. She dialled and stood with the phone at her ear, and we all sat straight-backed, like meerkats on alert.
‘Hi, Stephen,’ she said, and my heart raced. ‘It’s your sister. When you get this message can you give me a call? Please. It’s important.’
She took the phone from her ear and shook her head before hanging up. ‘Voicemail, as usual,’ she said. ‘He won’t call back. He never does.’
‘He’ll be working,’ said Gertie. ‘He’s always working.’
‘Or on one of his missions to find his brother,’ said Gus with a smile directed at Cillian. ‘He never stopped searching for you, mate,’ he added, patting him on the back, and I could tell Cillian appreciated the gesture.
‘I’ll try ringing his boss,’ June said, heading into the conservatory with her phone. But she was back within moments. ‘They can’t get hold of him right now,’ she said, disappointment in her voice.
As the room dipped into silence, I wondered if we should leave. It was like bubble gum, I decided. The bubble that had been blown so big for so long had finally burst and everyone needed time to adjust.
I pushed my chair back and stood up. ‘Should we be getting back, do you think? Leave these good people in peace?’ It came out stilted, awkward, like something my gran might have said, but Mum helped me out.
‘Of course, yes,’ she said rising, and everyone else stood too, as though relieved that, for now, we were leaving.
‘We’ll have a party, once we’ve tracked Stephen down,’ Gus said as he saw us out. ‘Get all the family round.’
Gertie put her arms around Cillian, pressing her head of white hair against his stomach. ‘I’m so glad I’ve found you, son,’ she said. ‘I never stopped loving you.’
Later, another bubble burst.
Tilly called in tears. ‘My mum died, Isaac.’ she said through her sobs
‘Oh God, I’m so sorry.’
‘It was a brain haemorrhage.’
I had thought after losing my father, I might be pretty good at picking up the pieces for someone else – especially someone I felt sure I was in love with. I’d been there, done that – should have a whole bunch of T-shirts - but I was absolutely crap.
‘Are you OK?’ I kept saying, over and over, which was a waste of words, as she clearly wasn’t.
‘The injury,’ she began, her words disjointed. ‘The one my dad caused when he attacked her fourteen years ago. It triggered her death.’
‘Oh God, Tilly, are you sure?’ My heart sank. This was the worst news ever.
‘There’s no doubt. I spoke to the consultant.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ I wanted to ask her how she could be so sure he caused the injury in the first place, but didn’t want to upset her any more than she already was. ‘Are you OK?’ I said again, wishing I could think of words that would help her.
‘I so desperately want to see you,’ she said. ‘But I can’t come back to Springfield, Isaac.’ She paused to blow her nose. ‘It was hard enough being there for Carrie, but now it’s even worse. He murdered my mother, and got away with it.’
When she said it like that, I began to wonder if it was true.
‘I can’t risk seeing him, or being back where it all happened. Not right now, anyway. In time maybe, but…’
But what about us? ‘I’ll come there,’ I said, on impulse.
‘You can’t, Isaac. Your mum needs you, right now. You said so yourself.’
She was right. I dragged fingers through my hair, and began pacing the room. ‘But this is ridiculous. I want to be with you, Tilly.’
‘I want to be with to you too, Isaac. But we can stay in touch – there are so many ways.’ I could hear the tears in her voice. ‘Long distant relationships can work. And it won’t be forever. Please. I really don’t want to lose you.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ I said, still a burning desire to drop everything and race to New York searing through me. But my mum needed me in Australia, for now at least, and I’d promised her I’d stay. ‘I’ll be in touch, Tilly, in every way I can,’ I said. ‘You’ll get so sick of me calling and Skyping and...’
I could hear her laughing, through her tears. ‘I’ll never get sick of you, Isaac O’Donnell,’ she said.
A week later, I started a job at an IT company in the city. My offices looked out over the Brisbane River, and I spent the first day drifting into my thoughts as I watched the yellow Brisbane river cats shuttling people up and down. Well, that was until my new boss coughed and furrowed his bushy, white eyebrows, ‘I can hire and fire,’ he said.
I felt helpless the day of Arabella’s funeral, wishing I could have been there for Tilly. But she said it helped that she could talk to me across the miles.
Days turned to weeks, and every free moment was spent talking to Tilly. We sent each other emails and texts, and then ten minutes later talked on the phone, or Skyped.
She never once mentioned her father.
I spoke to Ricky too. His life with Esme was becoming more entwined. They were living together, engaged, and had set a date for their wedding.
There’d been no word from Cillian’s newly acquired brother, Stephen. ‘It’s nothing new,’ June had explained one day. ‘We often don’t hear from him for months on end.’
In positive news, Cillian was bonding with Gertie and his new family. They spent many hours catching up on their lost years
Mum grew stronger, becoming more like the mother I’d known as a child; forthright, organised, and wonderfully dependable. Life after death was still life, after all. We had no choice but to get on with it, and try our best not to linger in the darker moments for too long.
Four weeks after Cillian was reunited with his mother, Gus appeared on our doorstep, smiling broadly. ‘He’s here,’ he said, like an excited child. ‘Stephen is here.’