Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker, and the person who punches holes into Filofax paper. She recently graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University, earning an MA in Writing for Young People. In Darkling Wood is Emma’s third novel. She lives in the Somerset hills with her husband and two terriers. Visit Emma at emmacarrollauthor.wordpress.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Monday, 11 November
At 3:23 a.m., the hospital calls to say a heart’s been found. Put like that, it almost sounds funny, as if someone’s just discovered it in a rubbish bin or on a doorstep, like happens in the news sometimes with tiny babies.
Except that’s not how it is.
What they really mean is someone’s died. A stranger, carrying a donor card, has stopped living. It’s hard not to think of that person’s family and what the hospital had to tell them tonight. Yet without that donor heart my little brother will stop living too.
So for once, I think we’re the lucky ones.
The first I know of it is a beeping noise near my head. It’s my brother Theo’s favorite and most annoying joke. Last time he set my alarm clock for three a.m. I got him back by putting cheese in his pillowcase. But nowadays it’s mostly me who’s washing the bed linen and buying the cheese, so I’m a bit more sensible.
The beeping goes on. It’s not my clock. And as my brain catches up, I remember I can’t blame Theo either. These past few weeks he’s slept in the dining room because he can’t climb the stairs anymore. Once we’d moved his bed in and put up his Doctor Who posters, it looked like a normal kid’s bedroom, if you ignored the oxygen tank and the plastic box full of pills.
The beeping is coming from the room next door. It sounds like Mum’s pager, the one given to her for emergencies. My stomach goes into knots.
There’s a thud. An “Ouch!” The beeping stops.
I hear Mum’s door open. That creaky third step tells me she’s going downstairs. The kitchen light clicks on and she starts talking fast. I lie very still to listen.
“We’ll be there, Doctor,” says Mum.
Two years ago, Theo blew out his birthday cake candles in one big puff, then collapsed right in front of us on the carpet. We thought he was mucking about at first, but then his lips went blue like they do when you’ve been swimming in the sea too long.
When the ambulance came Mum tried to be cheerful; she even offered the paramedics some of Theo’s cake. Then came the hospital tests--X‑rays, scans, needles that left bruises on the back of Theo’s hands; it got harder to stay cheerful after that. A virus had attacked my brother’s heart, so the doctors said, which apparently can happen to anyone. Except Theo isn’t “anyone”: this stupid, random thing has happened to us.
There’s a different sort of beeping now as Mum sends a text. Then she’s waking Theo. I can’t hear her actual words, but her voice is high-pitched like she’s telling him we’re going somewhere exciting. Next she’s back upstairs, opening my door.
“Alice?” Mum hisses. “You awake?”
I am. Wide-awake. Like she’s chucked water in my face.
“What’s happening?” I say.
“A heart’s become available.”
My stomach knots get tighter. I wriggle up the bed and turn on the bedside lamp.
“And is it . . . ?”
Mum leans against the doorframe. Her hair is all on end. She’s smiling and crying at the same time.
“Yes,” she says. “It’s a perfect match.”
Twenty minutes later, we’re in the car. The hospital is in London, which is 110 miles south down the motorway. We’ll need to get a move on because a donor heart doesn’t last long. They pack it in ice and inject it with potassium to stop it beating. After that, it’s only good for four to six hours.
Theo sits in the back, oxygen line in his nose. He’s managed to sneak his dinosaur toys in with him; there are T. rexes and diplodocuses and triceratopses all over the seat.
“You’ll have to give those to Mum when we get there, buddy,” I say as I fasten my seat belt.
“Will I, Mum?” Theo sounds worried.
Mum looks in the rearview mirror. “Don’t worry, love. I’ve heard nurses are big dinosaur fans.”
Then she glares at me.
“What?” I say. “It said ‘no toys’ in that booklet from the hospital because of germs.”
“I know that,” says Mum, but I’m guessing she’d rather not think about it. There are so many things that could go wrong, and the booklet lists quite a few.
“Can’t we think of something nice, like . . . I don’t know . . . chocolate cake or Christmas or . . .”
“. . . unicorns and fairies . . .” I slouch down in my seat.
“All right, I get it.”
We take the main road through town, passing shops, then pubs, then takeaways. Mum’s driving faster than normal.
“Aren’t you dropping me at Lexie’s?” I say, as we don’t take the turning to my best friend’s house. Ever since we knew Theo needed a transplant, this has been the plan. The hospital has space for Mum to stay, but not me.
“Sorry, love.” She pats my knee. “I texted her mum, but she can’t have you tonight. She thinks the baby’s on its way. Great timing, huh?”
I stare out the window. Bite down on my lip. No tears. Not now.
“You’re disappointed, aren’t you?” Mum says.
I shrug. Staying at Lexie’s is a treat these days. It happens so rarely, what with Mum working and Theo being ill. But now the baby’s coming and Lexie’ll be so excited that I can’t feel bad about it. And Kate, her poor mum, looks ready to burst.
“So am I coming to the hospital?” I ask.
“Just till we sort something out.”
I don’t much like the sound of this. I mean, it’s not like I can stay with Dad or anything. Not unless she fancies sending me all the way to Devon.
“I’d be fine at home on my own, you know. I can look after myself,” I tell her.
“I don’t doubt it for a minute, sweetie,” Mum says. “But you’re under sixteen, so the law advises that you shouldn’t be left alone overnight.”
A sinking feeling hits my stomach. This isn’t the sort of thing my mother normally knows. Or says.
The motorway is almost empty. It starts to rain. Theo’s gone quiet in the back, so I swivel around to check he’s all right. He’s fast asleep, a T. rex in each hand. I look closer just to check he’s still breathing. I don’t tell anyone I do this, but lately I’ve been checking an awful lot.
As we get nearer London, there’s more traffic. The roads sound hissy because of the rain. Just after six a.m., we pull up outside a huge old building with lights on at most of its windows. The hospital looks different at this time of day, like a hotel or a smart block of flats.
Mum lifts Theo from the car. He’s still asleep, so thankfully there’s no tussle over dinosaurs; I ease the T. rexes out of his hands. The rest stay in the car along with the stuff I’d brought for Lexie’s. We enter the hospital through sliding doors, Mum with one arm hooked around Theo, the other pulling the little trolley thing that holds his oxygen. The doors close behind us. It’s bright and hot inside. There’s the hum of floor polishers and a smell of antiseptic and cooking mixed together. We go up to where a man sits almost hidden behind a desk.
“Hello, we’re an emergency admission,” Mum says. “The name’s Theo Campbell. Cheetah Ward.”
The man takes ages checking his screen. Mum shifts Theo onto her hip. I can tell she’s dead nervous. She catches my eye and winks, which is her way of asking if I’m okay. I try to smile back but my stomach’s churning. Suddenly Mum stares over the top of Theo’s head.
“Oh my word. This must be her!”
I turn around to see a woman I don’t recognize in a long dark coat. She’s standing in the entrance. Behind her, the sliding doors keep opening and shutting.
Mum goes over. “Nell!” she cries.
I follow. Up close, the woman looks old--not seriously old, but older than Mum. She’s very thin and tall, with gray hair in a plait over one shoulder. Pinned to her jacket is one of those Remembrance Day poppies. Then I notice her hands. They’re enormous, like a scarecrow’s. There’s dirt under her nails. She still hasn’t moved. The doors open-close open-close. Letting go of Theo’s trolley, Mum beckons her forward. At last the doors slide shut. “Thank you so much for coming at such short notice,” Mum says. “I didn’t know who else to call.”
“I suppose you tried David?” the woman says.
My ears prick up because David is Dad’s name. Nearly three years ago, he took a job designing houses made of wood, which meant moving to Devon. But Mum said she didn’t want to live somewhere that had more cows than people. If Dad wanted us to go with him, she said, then they should get married since they’d put it off for long enough. But instead of a proposal, there was shouting. In the end, Dad went to Devon on his own.
“I’ve left a message,” Mum says. “But I expect he’s still asleep.”
The woman snorts. “There’ll be some excuse. There always is.”
I don’t like her saying this, not when we haven’t seen much of Dad lately. He’s been busy with work, so he says, and with his new baby daughter. Now I’m wondering if these are excuses too.
“Nell, you remember Alice, my eldest?” Mum says, a bit too brightly. I can tell she’s struggling to stay calm.
But the woman keeps staring at Mum. “It’s been a long time, Carrie--ten years, maybe?” The woman keeps talking. She has a rich-sounding voice. No one in our family sounds like that--well, only Dad. It’s then I work out who she is. As my mouth drops open, Mum introduces us.
“Alice, this is your grandmother from your father’s side. You’ve not seen her since you were little. But she’s going to look after you for a bit and we’re grateful, aren’t we?”
Grateful? The woman’s a total stranger! I don’t remember her at all. Leaning in to Mum, I hiss in her ear, “I’d be fine on my own. You know I would.”
“Sorry, sweetie,” Mum whispers back. “Nell’s all right, really. Just do your best. You won’t be with her for long.”
“Can’t I come with you? I won’t get in the way.”
Mum sighs. “Alice, we’ve been through this. There’s only accommodation here for me. It’s a busy ward. There’s no space for patients’ sisters.”
I bite my lip to stop it wobbling. Behind us, a phone rings. Deep inside her handbag, Mum’s emergency pager beeps. The man at the desk calls over.
“Hello? They need you now. They’re ready for him in theater.”
Instantly I feel bad for being pathetic. Theo groans in Mum’s arms and starts to wake up. He rubs his eyes, then does his usual wet cough. Out of habit, I check his line. It’s fine. It’s always fine; the problem isn’t with the oxygen.
Mum puts her free arm around me. She smells of home. “I’ll phone you as soon as it’s over.”
“When can I visit?”
“In a day or so, hopefully.”
It’s all happening too quickly. I’m not ready to leave. Theo looks pale and sleepy, like a little animal nestled up against Mum.
“Be brave, bro,” I say, trying hard not to cry. “I’ll see you very soon.”
“Promise, Alice?” he says.
“Really, really promise?”
“With bells on.”
He sighs and shuts his eyes.
My stuff! I think suddenly. It’s still in the car. The man at reception is trying to hurry Mum. She looks flustered and almost drops Theo as she searches one-handedly for her keys. As usual, they’re right at the bottom of her bag. Her fingers shake as she hands them over.
“I’ll leave them at the front desk,” I say. Backing away, Mum blows me a kiss.
“Call you,” she says.
By the time I’ve got my bags, then dropped Mum’s keys at reception, there’s no sign of Nell in the hospital. Eventually I see her waiting for me on the opposite side of the street. She starts walking as soon as I join her.
“Are we going straight home?” I say.
I nod, relieved. At least I’ll be in my own house, in my own bed. And I’ll see Lexie later at school, which’ll help. We cross another street and go into a car park. She starts unlocking a car that looks even older than ours.
In the backseat something moves. It makes me jump.
“You’re not scared of dogs, are you?” Nell says.
I’m not. But this one’s massive. As Nell opens my door and I get in, I’m hit by the doggy smell.
“He really is a dear thing,” Nell says, reaching around to smooth the dog’s head.
“But our house isn’t that big,” I say. “And he’s . . . well . . . huge.”
Nell starts the car. “We’re not going to your house, Alice. You’re coming home with me, to my house. Didn’t your mother explain?”
“No,” I say, gritting my teeth. “She didn’t.”
By the time the journey is over, I know not to call her Grandma or Nanny or Nan: her name is Nell. She doesn’t say anything about Dad, only that she hates hospitals. When I ask why, she pulls a face.
“Yuck,” she says. “Just yuck.”
The stinky dog is called Borage. He’s gray and shaggy and has doggy eyebrows, and he leans like a human when we take corners. So this is who I’m spending the next I-don’t-know-how-long with. Honestly, I’d have been far better off at home on my own.
We’ve driven two hours out of London to reach Nell’s house. It’s daylight now. The last few miles are on country lanes that actually have grass growing down the middle. I lose the signal on my phone. Things really don’t look promising. Then the road splits into two. We take the right-hand part, which quickly turns into a track and goes very steeply downhill. It carries on like this for a bone-shaking half a mile, then stops at a five-bar gate. The house is just beyond, surrounded by trees: both look really old. The building is made of gray stone, with funny arched windows and a front door so wide and dark it makes me think of castles. It’s called Darkling Cottage; the name’s nailed to the gate in brass letters. “Darkling”: it’s a funny word. Old-sounding.
“Why’s it called that?” I ask.
“It gets its name from those woods.” Nell points to the trees that surround the house on three sides. “Suits it, don’t you think?”
I don’t know. It sounds spooky to me.
“Did Dad bring us to visit when we were little?” I ask. “Because I don’t remember it if he did.”
“No. He didn’t,” she says.