Dear Child has been taking Europe by storm, with over 250,000 copies sold in Germany so far. It’s coming out in the UK in May, and we’ve got an early sneak peek of it for you!
THE NIGHT OF THE ACCIDENT
It’s easy to begin with. I straighten my back and take a deep breath. I climb into the ambulance and travel with it. I tell the men in the orange coats Mama’s name and that her blood group is AB negative. AB negative is the rarest blood group and it doesn’t have any antibodies against groups A and B. That means Mama can have blood from all the other groups. I know this because we talked about blood groups in class. And because it’s in the thick book. I think I’ve done everything right. It’s only when I unintentionally think about my brother that my right knee starts trembling. Jonathan will be frightened without me.
Concentrate, Hannah. You’re a big girl now.
No, today I’m a little girl and I’m stupid. It’s cold, it’s too bright and it’s beeping. I ask where the beeping’s coming from, and one of the men in the orange coats says, ‘That’s your mum’s heart.’
My mum’s heart never beeped before.
It’s a bumpy ride and I close my eyes. Mama’s heart is beeping.
She screamed and there was a bang. If my mum’s heart stops beeping now, those will have been the last sounds I heard her make: a scream and a bang. And she didn’t even wish me goodnight.
The ambulance does a little jump then comes to a stop.
‘We’re here,’ the man says. He means at the hospital.
A hospital is a building where illnesses or injuries are treated with medical assistance.
‘Come on, little girl,’ the man says.
My legs move automatically and so quickly that I can’t count the steps. I follow the men pushing the rattling stretcher on wheels through a large glass door beneath the glaring sign that says ‘Accident and Emergency’, and then down a long corridor.
As if by command, helpers swarm from both sides and lots of voices all talk nervily at the same time.
‘You can’t come in here,’ a fat man in a green apron says, nudging me to the side when we arrive at another large door at the end of the long corridor. ‘We’ll send someone to look after you.’ He points at a row of seats along the wall. ‘Go and sit down there for the moment.’
I want to say something, but the words won’t come out, and in any case the man has already turned around and disappeared through the door with the other helpers. I count the chairs along the wall – seven. He – the fat man in the green apron – didn’t say which one I should sit on. I’ve started chewing my thumbnail without realising it. Concentrate, Hannah. You’re a big girl now.
I sit with my knees up on the middle chair, picking pine needles and small brown bits of bark from my dress. I got quite dirty this evening. I think of Jonathan again. Poor little Jonathan who stayed at home and has to do the cleaning. I imagine him crying because he doesn’t know how to get rid of the stains from the carpet in the sitting room. I’m sure we’ve got the right cleaning fluid in the store cupboard, but Papa’s put two padlocks on the door. A precautionary measure. We need to have lots of these.
You always have to be careful.
‘Hello?’ A woman’s voice.
I leap to my feet.
‘I’m Sister Ruth,’ the woman says with a smile, and takes my hand to shake it. I tell her my name is Hannah and that it’s a palindrome. A palindrome is a word that reads the same forwards as well as backwards. To prove it I spell my name, first from the beginning and then from the end. Sister Ruth is still smiling and says, ‘I understand.’
She’s older than Mama; she’s already got grey hair and she’s slightly round. Over her light yellow apron she wears a colourful cardigan which looks nice and warm and has a sticker with the face of a panda on it. It says, ‘Be Happy.’ That’s English. The corners of my mouth twitch.
‘You haven’t got any shoes on, child,’ Sister Ruth remarks, and I wiggle the big toe of my left foot through the hole in my tights.
Mama stitched it up on one of her good days. I bet she’d be angry if she knew that I’d made the hole in my tights again.
Sister Ruth takes a tissue from the pocket of her apron because she thinks I’m crying. Because of the hole in my tights or because of Mama. I don’t tell her it’s actually because I’m blinded by the harsh light from the fluorescent tube on the ceiling. I just say, ‘Thank you, that’s very considerate.’ You always have to be polite. You always have to say please and thank you. My brother and I always say thank you when Mama gives us a cereal bar, even though we can’t stand cereal bars. We don’t like the taste. But they’re important because of the vitamins. Calcium and potassium and magnesium and Vitamin B for the digestion and blood formation. We eat three of them every day unless we’ve run out.
Then we have to hope Papa comes home soon and has been shopping on the way.
I take the tissue, dab my eyes, blow my nose, then give it back to Sister Ruth. You mustn’t keep anything that doesn’t belong to you. That’s stealing. Sister Ruth laughs and puts the tissue back in her apron. Of course I ask her about Mama, but all Sister Ruth says is: ‘She’s in the best hands.’ I know that’s not a proper answer, I’m not stupid.
‘When can I see her?’ I ask, but don’t get an answer to that either.
Instead Sister Ruth says that she’s going to take me to the staffroom to see whether there’s a pair of slippers I could wear.
Jonathan and I have to wear slippers at home too because the floor is very cold, but mostly we forget and our tights get dirty. Then Mama gets cross because it’s not washing day, and Papa gets cross because Mama hasn’t cleaned the floor properly. Cleanliness is important.
The staffroom is big, at least fifty paces from the door to the wall opposite. In the middle are three tables, each of which has four chairs arranged around it. Three fours are twelve. One of the chairs isn’t straight. Someone must have been sitting there and not tidied up when they left. I hope they got into trouble.
Because tidiness is important too. The left-hand wall of the room is filled with a metal cupboard with lots of individual lockable compartments, but there are keys sticking out of almost all of them. There’s also a loft bed, which is metal too. Straight ahead are two windows. I can see the night through them. The night is black and there aren’t any stars. To the right is a kitchen unit. There’s even a kettle out on the work surface. Hot water can be very dangerous. Skin burns at forty-five degrees. At sixty degrees the protein in the skin cells congeals and the cells die off. The water inside a kettle is heated to one hundred degrees. We’ve got a kettle at home too, but we keep it locked away.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ Sister Ruth says.
Three fours are twelve. Twelve chairs. I have to think, but I’m distracted by the black night without any stars beyond the windows.
Sister Ruth goes to the cupboard, opens one compartment after another, then closes it again. She says ‘hmm’ a few times, drawing it out, and the metal doors clatter. Looking over her shoulder, she says again, ‘Come on, child, sit down.’
First I think I ought to go for the chair that’s not straight. But that wouldn’t be right. Everyone needs to tidy up after themselves.
Take responsibility. You’re a big girl, Hannah. I nod at nothing in particular and count to myself, eenie, meenie, miney, mo.
There’s one chair left over, which would give me a good view of the door and which I’ll put back neatly later when Sister Ruth tells me the time to sit down is over.
‘How about these?’ she says with a smile, turning to me with a pair of pink rubber shoes. ‘They’re a bit big, but better than nothing.’ She puts them by my feet and waits for me to slip them on.
‘Listen, Hannah,’ she says as she takes off her cardigan. ‘Your mum didn’t have a handbag when the accident happened. That means we couldn’t find an identity card or any papers belonging to her.’
Grabbing my arm, she holds it out straight and fiddles the sleeve of her cardigan over my hand.
‘So now we don’t have a name or an address. And no emergency contact number either, unfortunately.’
‘Her name is Lena,’ I say to be helpful, like I was in the ambulance. You always have to be helpful. My brother and I always help Mama when her fingers tremble. Or when she forgets things, like our names or when it’s time to go to the toilet. We go with her to the bathroom so she doesn’t slide off the toilet seat or do anything else silly.
Sister Ruth is now on to the other arm. The warmth that’s still in the cardigan spreads cosily across my back.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Lena, great. Lena without a surname. The paramedic already made a note of this.’ When she sighs I can smell her breath. It smells of toothpaste. She tugs on my chair, which scrapes across the floor, until she can squat in front of me without knocking her head on the edge of the table. Table edges can be very dangerous. Mama often hits her head against the table when she has one of her fits.
Sister Ruth starts fastening the buttons of the cardigan. On my thigh my finger draws the zigzag pattern of her parting. Right, straight, left, straight, left, straight, left again, like a jagged lightning bolt. Sister Ruth suddenly looks up as if she’d sensed me staring at her head.
‘Is there anyone we can call, Hannah? Your papa, perhaps? Do you know your telephone number by heart?’
I shake my head.
‘But you do have a papa?’
‘Does he live with you? With you and your mama?’
I nod again.
‘Shall we call him? Surely he should know your mama had an accident and that the two of you are in hospital. He’ll be worried if you don’t come home.’
Right, straight. Left, straight, left again, like a jagged lightning bolt.
‘Tell me, Hannah, have you ever been to a hospital before? Or your mama? Maybe even this one? Then, you see, we could look in our really smart computer for your telephone number.’
I shake my head.
‘In an emergency, open wounds can be sterilised with urine. It disinfects, coagulates the proteins and relieves the pain, full stop.’
Sister Ruth takes my hands. ‘You know what, Hannah? I’ll make us some tea and then we’ll have a bit of a chat, you and I. How about that?’
‘Chat about what?’
I see, she wants me to talk about Mama, but I can’t think of anything to say to begin with. I just keep thinking of the big bang when the car hit Mama and the very next moment she was lying on the cold, hard ground in the beam of the car headlights, her arms and legs all twisted. Her skin was far too white and the blood flowing from all the little cuts in her face far too red.
Crimson. The glass of the headlights shattered on impact and flew straight into Mama’s face. I sat on the side of the road, closed my eyes, occasionally blinking in secret until the flashing blue lights appeared in the darkness: the ambulance.
But I don’t have to tell Sister Ruth all of this. She already knows that Mama had an accident. Mama wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Sister Ruth stares at me. I shrug and blow ripples on my tea.
Rosehip, Sister Ruth said, and she told me it was her daughter’s favourite when she was small. ‘Always with a big spoonful of honey in it. She had a real sweet tooth.’ Sweet tooth. I don’t believe there is such a thing, but I like the sound of it.
‘I think we urgently need to speak to your papa,’ Sister Ruth says. ‘Have another think; maybe your home telephone number will come to you.’
‘We don’t have a telephone.’
‘What about your address, then? The name of the street you live in? Then we could send someone by to pick up your papa.’
I shake my head very slowly. Sister Ruth can’t understand.
‘Nobody must find us,’ I whisper.
The air just after it’s rained. The first and last squares of a bar of chocolate, which always taste the best. The aroma of freesias. David Bowie’s Low album. A curry sausage after a long night out. A long night out. The hum of a fat bumblebee. Everything the sun does, whether it’s rising, setting or just shining. A blue sky. A black sky. Any old sky. The way my mother rolls her eyes when she has a spontaneous visitor and the washing-up hasn’t been done. The old Hollywood swing in my grandparents’ garden, the way it squeaks and sounds as if it’s singing a weird song when you swing back and forth on it. Those silly tablecloth weights that look like strawberries and lemons. The summer wind on the face and in the hair. The sea, the sound of it roaring. Fine white sand between the toes . . .
‘I love you,’ he moans, rolling his sticky body off of mine.
‘I love you too,’ I say softly, doubling up like a dying deer.
‘. . . Serial rib fracture on the left-hand side involving the second to fourth ribs. Subperiosteal haematoma . . .’
‘Are you saying you’re not going to tell me where you live?’
Sister Ruth is smiling, but it’s not a proper smile, more like half of one with just the right side of her mouth.
‘My daughter loved to play games like this when she was small.’
‘That’s right.’ She nods, pushing her cup to one side and leaning slightly further across the table. ‘And of course those games are fun. But you know, Hannah, I’m afraid it’s not always the right time for games. Like now, when it’s really quite serious. When someone has an accident and is taken to hospital, we have to contact the relatives. That’s our duty.’
I try not to blink when she looks at me in this very particular way. I want her to blink first, because that means she’s lost.
‘Sometimes, when someone’s badly injured, like your mama, we have to make important decisions.’
The person who blinks first loses. That’s how the game works.
‘Decisions that the injured person can’t take for themselves at the moment. Do you understand that, Hannah?’
Sister Ruth has lost.
‘Oh well.’ She sighs.
I put my hand up to my mouth and pinch at my bottom lip so she can’t see me grinning. You should never laugh at anyone, not even if they’ve lost a blinking competition.
‘I just thought we might have a little chat until the police arrive.’
The police are an executive organ of the state. Their task is to investigate punishable and illegal acts. And sometimes they come to take children away from their parents. Or parents from their children.
‘The police are coming?’
‘That’s perfectly normal. I mean, they have to work out how the accident happened in which your mama was injured. Do you know what “hit and run” means, Hannah?’
‘“Hit and run” describes the unlawful disappearance from the scene of an accident by a road-user after a road traffic accident which is their fault, full stop.’
Sister Ruth nods. ‘It’s a crime the police have to investigate.’
‘Does the man involved get into trouble, then?’
Sister Ruth narrows her eyes. ‘So it was a man driving the car, was it? Why do you ask, Hannah?’
‘Because he was nice. He sorted everything out and called the emergency services. And he gave me a coat when I felt cold while we were waiting for the ambulance. He didn’t actually leave until just before the ambulance arrived. I think he was just as frightened as Mama and me.’
I don’t want to look at Sister Ruth anymore.
‘And anyway, the accident wasn’t his fault,’ I say with my mouse’s voice. Papa invented the mouse’s voice for Mama’s bad days, because he thought she would get upset if we talked too loudly. ‘Mama needs her peace and quiet,’ he would always say.
‘Mama’s not feeling so well today.’
‘What do you mean, Hannah?’ Sister Ruth says. She seems to know the mouse’s voice too, because she’s speaking like this now as well. ‘Whose fault was it then?’
I have to think carefully about what I say.
Concentrate, Hannah. You’re a big girl.
‘My mama sometimes does silly things by accident.’
Sister Ruth looks surprised. Surprise is when you hear something unexpected or when something unexpected happens. It can be a nice surprise, like a present someone gives you even though it’s not your birthday. My cat Fräulein Tinky was that sort of surprise. When Papa came home and said he’d got something for me, I thought it might be a new book or a board game I could play with Jonathan. But then he showed me Fräulein Tinky. She’s been mine ever since, just mine.
I don’t want to. I want to think of Fräulein Tinky.
‘Have you got problems at home, Hannah?’
Mama doesn’t really like Fräulein Tinky. She even kicked her once.
‘Do you have problems with your mama?’
And she’s really clumsy, no matter what Papa says. Sometimes she can’t even light the stove without his help.
Once it was cold for more than a week at home and we froze so much we were just tired all the time. But she is my mama all the same. And when I think of her, I know that I love her. Love, it’s like happiness. A very warm feeling that makes you laugh for no real reason, even though nobody’s told a joke. The way Sister Ruth laughs when she talks about her daughter. Sweet tooth.
‘Please talk to me, child!’
‘I don’t want the police to come and take Mama away!’ I protest.
That was my lion’s voice.
Sometimes we play a game, my brother and I. It’s called ‘What does it feel like?’ We’ve been playing it for ages. I can’t remember exactly, but I think we’ve been playing it since Mama first told us about ‘happiness’.
‘Happiness is a particularly positive feeling, a state of being pleased or content, full stop.’ That’s what I read out of the thick book that knows all the answers. Jonathan nodded at first, like he always does when I read out the relevant passage. But then he narrowed his eyes and asked what it actually meant. I told him he was an idiot and he wasn’t listening properly. You always have to listen properly. Not listening is impolite. But I read it out again anyway. I mean, Jonathan is my brother, whether or not he’s an idiot. ‘Happiness is a particularly positive feeling, a state of being pleased or content.’ Then I said ‘full stop’ very slowly and very clearly, so he knew that this was the end of the passage.
But Jonathan’s eyes were still narrowed and he said, ‘You’re the idiot. Of course I understood. I meant what does it feel like, inside you, that sort of thing.’
‘What does happiness feel like?’ we asked Mama. She took us in her arms and said, ‘Like this.’
‘Warm,’ Jonathan declared, estimating that Mama’s body temperature was slightly increased. I pressed my nose into the cool between her neck and her shoulder. She smelled of meadow. Happiness feels warm, almost like a slight fever; it has a smell and a heartbeat that goes like the second hand on the kitchen clock.
We also discussed what a fright feels like, Jonathan and I. ‘A fright is like a slap in the face,’ Jonathan suggested.
‘Which comes as a surprise,’ I added.
And we were right. That’s exactly what a fright is like. And you can see it in someone’s face too. The eyes are big from the surprise and the cheeks turn red in a flash, as if they’ve been hit by a large, hard hand.
That’s exactly what Sister Ruth looks like right now. I screamed at her in my lion’s voice, ‘I don’t want the police to come and take Mama away!’
‘Hannah.’ Sister Ruth’s voice is now slightly squeaky. That must be down to the fright too. My first thought is that I have to tell Jonathan about this, we must remember it: fright = slap + surprise + squeaky voice. My second thought is that he’s at home at the moment, struggling with the carpet, then my third thought is that Sister Ruth said the police are on their way. Now I become sad, with tears.
Sister Ruth has probably noticed that I’m feeling a bit weak at the moment and so she’s forgotten the fright I gave her. Her chair scrapes across the floor when she gets up, then she walks around the table and presses my head into her fat, soft breasts.
‘I know all of this is a bit much for a little girl like you. But you needn’t be afraid, Hannah. Nobody wants to do anything bad to your mama or you. Sometimes families just need a bit of help, but they don’t realise this themselves. Is it possible that your family needs help at home, Hannah?’ She squats beside my chair and takes hold of my hands that are in my lap.
‘No,’ I say. ‘We know how everything works. We have our own rules, you see. It’s just that Mama forgets them sometimes. But luckily she’s got us, we remind her of them.’
‘But still she does silly things? That’s what you said earlier, wasn’t it? That she sometimes does silly things by accident?’
I lean forwards and make my hands into a secrets funnel.
Jonathan and I invented the secrets funnel, but we’re not allowed to use it when Papa’s at home. Sister Ruth turns her head so that I can put the secrets funnel to her ear.
‘She wanted to kill Papa by accident,’ I whisper.
Sister Ruth’s head spins around. Fright, I can see it quite clearly. I shake my head, grab her face and turn it back into the right position for the secrets funnel. ‘You don’t have to tell the police. Jonathan is taking care of the stains on the carpet.’