The Sign

by Caroline Smith on Thursday, 8 December 2011

friends at school call me Immy. Mum calls me Imogen. Gran calls me Dear or
Darling. The three of us, Mum, Gran and I, live together in Mum's house. There
used to be four of us, when I had a hamster called Daphne. She lived in a cage
in my bedroom, not doing very much, to be honest, apart from scurrying on the
wheel in her cage, making a rattling noise. I used to open the cage door
sometimes and Daphne would potter about in my room. There are a million objects
in my room, so it was always tricky to find her. Then one day she disappeared
completely and utterly. Gran and Mum helped me look for her but I think they
were relieved when she had gone, as the wheel noise used to give them each a
headache, or so they said.

only the two of us at home at the moment. Gran and I have just got back from
visiting Mum in hospital. I don't really understand why Mum is in a hospital so
far away when there is a hospital in our town. My friend Naomi's dad, Mr
Williams, took Gran and me in his car. Naomi couldn't come with us, as she had
her first netball match against another school. Her sister was playing in the
team as well. Lucky Naomi, I mean, she could run as fast as her older sister,
so fast she was picked for the team. Her mum, amazed that Naomi was in the
team, was going to watch them both play. Most lucky of all, of course, Naomi
didn't have to come with us today.

that is what I was thinking, on my own, in the back of the car going to the
hospital. Lucky Naomi. I was hearing Gran talking to Mr Williams but I wasn't
really listening. It was the usual things about the garden, Gran's sister, the
food shopping. Most of the time, I don't mind hearing all the details again,
just not then. Thinking about Naomi and the people in my class, I seemed to be
the only person who had a mum who was ill or at least ill for a long time. But
Gran is like another mum to me. Not that I need another mum: as Gran says, I am
very mature for my age. It is my job now to help her understand the bills, the
bus timetables, the TV remote. I am supposed to tidy my bedroom as well but
moving a million objects around a small space is no joke.

Mr Williams parked the car close to one of the entrances to the hospital. The
wrong one it turned out but naturally he did not know that when he parked. Gran
can never find her way around places, so although she had visited Mum before,
she couldn't remember which way to go. Mr Williams seemed to find the signs
confusing. We walked for ages in the hospital corridors. The linoleum was so
shiny, I was worried that I was going to slip, as I was wearing my new school
shoes to show Mum, so I held Gran's hand. Our shoes made squeaky noises and our
footsteps echoed off the bare walls and linoleum: no curtains, cushions or carpets
to soften the sounds. Most of the corridors were windowless, the lights harsh
white like spotlights on a stage. We walked past the café three times as all
the corridors looked the same: the walls light blue, the doorways white and the
shiny linoleum grey.

we found Mum's ward, about twenty people were waiting outside the door.

said, ‘When I've been before, the door has usually been open.'

expect they'll open soon. Ann said they often run a bit late. She's sorry she
couldn't come today but she wanted to watch the girls' netball match. She
thought Stella might like these.'

Williams opened the paper bag he was carrying and held it out to Gran. It was
plums. Mum is allergic to plums. Gran looked at the plums and then at Mr
Williams but she didn't say anything, which must have been some sort of record
in restraint for her. I think Gran was just so grateful that Mr Williams had
brought us, as the bus journeys to and from the hospital used to take her all
day. She had to wait for two bus connections. Sometimes, when they could, one
of my Mum's friends would bring Gran.

the pause, Gran said, ‘Stella would've liked to have seen Ann but she gets
tired easily, it will be enough for her to just cope with the three of us.'

Williams said, ‘I'll just say hello to Stella and then I'll wait for you in the

really appreciate this, John, I cannot thank you enough.'

anything we can do,' said Mr Williams.

looked at me. I hoped he wasn't going to ask me something about school or about
my new shoes, which Gran had been telling him about in the car. No one else in
the corridor was talking; they were looking at the door, opening their bags and
peering in or looking at Mr Williams, Gran and me. Whatever they were doing
they all seemed to be listening to Mr Williams's conversation with Gran, as if
he and Gran were actors on a stage. The other people seemed totally separate
from us, part of another world. I wanted to stare at them or shout, ‘stop
listening'. Fortunately a nurse opened the ward door and we all walked in. I
was still holding Gran's hand.

ward was painted the same colour as the corridor. There were four beds in the
first section but Mum was not in any of them. Then I saw her in the next
section. The bed-head was angled so she looked like she was sitting half
upright, while lying in bed. She was looking towards us and when she saw us she
smiled and waved.

let go of Gran's hand and went up to the bed and gave Mum a hug. She hugged me.
She seemed to be shaking slightly. When I drew back, I could see that Mum was
crying. As Gran gave Mum a hug and kiss, I sat down on one of the chairs by the
bed. I left the nearest one for Gran so she could talk to Mum.

Williams said, ‘Hello Stella.' He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

was still crying. She said, ‘I am really sorry John. It is just that I haven't
seen Imogen for such a long time.'

Williams said, ‘Don't worry at all. Ann sends her love and she sent you these.'
He put the fruit down on the bedside table. ‘Ann will be in to see you soon.
I'm going to get a cup of coffee now. You get better soon.'

was really crying now. Gran gave her a tissue. Gran always has tissues in her
bag, as she has, what she calls, a runny nose. Gran hugged Mum.

be all right in a minute,' Mum said.

didn't know what to say. I just wanted Mum to stop crying and get better so she
could come home and the three of us would be there together, rather than in a
hospital ward with lots of beds and people.

sorry I didn't mean to cry,' Mum said.

okay. Look, have you seen Immy's new shoes?'

leaned forward and I lifted my feet pointing my toes towards her.

like the colour,' said Mum,' Are they nice and roomy?'

they are fine,' I said

does school start again?'

week. We'll be in a new classroom and we are all wondering if we can choose who
we are going to sit next to or whether the teacher will tell us.'

looked at me, not saying anything.

said, ‘I expect you will be able to choose. The teacher seems nice.' Then she
turned to Mum and said, ‘Stella, dear, how are you feeling? Are you in any

fine really,' Mum said to Gran but she was still looking at me. In fact she
hadn't looked anywhere else.

you get a good night's sleep?'

too bad, although it is very noisy in here, especially at night, with people
coming and going. The girl in the next bed had just had an operation and she
was crying all night and shouting out a bit for the nurses.'

turned slightly and looked at the next bed. Mum had called her a girl but she
was a lot older than me, at least twenty. The two people around the bed looked
like her parents. They were leaning in towards her, their three heads almost
touching. Her mum was holding her hand and her dad had his hand on top of her
head. I couldn't hear what they were saying, they were so close together.

said, ‘It will be so good to get you home, it will be much more peaceful.'

continued to look at me, not exactly staring, but in the way people do when
they are thinking about something else and you just happen to be in front of

Gran told Mum about all the food she had bought that week and what she had
cooked for our lunches and suppers. She continued about how the garden was
looking, who had called to see her and how her sister, Aunt Mary, was. In other
words, all the usual things Gran always talks about. I looked at Gran while she
talked but I felt Mum was looking at me rather than Gran. Mum asked how Gran
had got to the supermarket and whether the electricity bill had arrived.

Gran said, ‘Stella, dear, you look tired, we better be going soon and we don't
want to keep John waiting too long.'

looked at Mum, thinking she might cry again but instead her eyes were
half-closed and she looked like Gran does when she is about to fall asleep in
her chair in front of the TV: her mouth slightly open and her face somehow
stretched downwards.

hugged and kissed Mum. I put my arms around Mum; she kissed the top of my head
and said, ‘I love you.'

love you too,' I said.

took my hand and we walked around the bed and towards the door. Glancing back,
I could see that Mum was still looking at me. I smiled and she smiled and

found the café surprisingly easily but then we had seen it three times before.
I don't remember what Mr Williams and Gran said because by then I had seen the
sign. It was just outside Mum's ward but I hadn't seen it on the way in because
of all the people.

Care Unit'

a very tiny way, I had known before I saw the sign. I had heard them talking
quietly one evening when they thought I was upstairs doing my homework. Coming
downstairs to watch a TV programme, I heard them in the living-room. I sat on
the stairs, trying to listen but I only needed to hear a few words; treatment,
cancer, operation. Then I went back upstairs to finish my work as there was a
test next day at school. I guess I thought they were talking about someone
else, not Mum, maybe a friend of theirs or someone on TV. I don't remember
thinking any more about it. I didn't mention it to Mum or Gran and I didn't
talk to Naomi about it. A week or so later, Gran told me that Mum was tired and
was going into hospital so the doctors could look after her. That sounded fine.
Mum had been tired and anyway I would be busy with my school exams. Mum always
fussed me about work, as if I couldn't be trusted or wasn't a responsible
enough person. It would be good to get a break from that, or so I thought.

sign connected up everything together. Of course, I didn't say anything about
it to Gran.

Williams finished a final sip of his coffee and we set off to find the exit. I
hadn't noticed earlier how stuffy and cold the hospital corridors were, so I
was really glad when we got to the main door and it was sunny outside.

Williams and Gran were walking ahead of me. Gran was not talking much, just
saying yes or no to Mr Williams's questions about Mum, sniffing a lot and using
her tissues to dab her runny nose.

of them looked behind at me but Mr Williams had his arm out stretched behind
his back, the palm facing me. I knew he was wondering if I wanted to hold his
hand. Part of me wanted to, another part wanted to say thank you but I am okay
and the main part of me wanted to show that I didn't need to hold my friend's
dad's hand. To be honest, I didn't want to have to react to him, even though he
meant it kindly. I wanted to take things at my own speed.

just pretended that I hadn't seen anything.



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