The Neal James Website

                                           Eight Maids

                     

                               

 

1

 

Wendy Searson could see all the way across the gardens from her bedroom window. The trees were flushed with the fresh greenness of late spring, and the lawns were immaculately manicured. A cornucopia of flowers decorated the borders, and a myriad of flying insects sent a soothing buzz through the ground floor room. Such a shame, she thought, that I won’t be around to see them through the summer.

      “Ready for a cuppa?” The cheerful voice of Samantha Brooks brought her attention back into the room as the young nurse came over to the bed carrying a generous cup of Wendy’s favourite – Darjeeling.

      “You are a dear,” she whispered. “I’m parched.”

      Wendy had been a resident at St Margaret’s for three months. They were called residents and not patients in an attempt at a psychological easing of the remaining period of their lives. Wendy Searson had an inoperable brain tumour – her condition, after a number of failed attempts to treat the disease, had finally been considered as terminal two weeks earlier. The consultant, Brian Wallace, had, in practical terms, given up hope a month before that, but now it was Wendy’s turn to throw in the towel – it had been her opinion and not his that she was now going to die. The headaches had been growing in strength over the past couple of weeks, and had required increasing amounts of the painkillers which she had been taking. There would come a time, she knew, when diamorphine would be the only answer to the discomfort, but she had resisted all temptation until now.

      “Beautiful day,” Samantha said, as she puffed up the pillows which had slid to one side. “Fancy a jaunt around the grounds later? I’ll get us a chair.”

      “That would be lovely,” Wendy replied.

      The young nurse stopped on her way to the door, and picked up a photograph which was standing atop the chest of drawers where Wendy kept some of her clothes. Although, strictly speaking, it was against the rules to pry into a resident’s private life, the two of them had built up a bond in the short time that the seventy-two year-old had been at St Margaret’s.

      “Friends?” she enquired, holding up the black and white image.

      “Oh, much more than that,” Wendy sighed. “We were inseparable at school.”

      “Want to tell me about it?” She sat down at the side of the bed. “It’s alright, I’ve got time.”

      “They’d called us ‘The Eight Maids’ at Sedgwick Street Girls School in Langley Mill,” Wendy explained. “It came out of a Christmas event that the music teacher put on in 1952. The theme had been ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and we were dressed up as milk maids.” She closed her eyes, bringing back the memory of the day. “Each class in the school had a Christmas carol to sing, and we chose ‘Silent Night’. I hadn’t realised until then how well we could harmonise – it all seemed to come so naturally. When we finished it brought the house down.”

      “So, where are they all now?”

      “That’s the sad part,” Wendy replied. “I’m the last one; the rest of them are all dead, and I’ll soon be joining them.”

      “Tell me about them.” Samantha probed carefully, trying to lighten the sudden dip in the atmosphere. It worked.

      “Well, there was the Jackson twins, Jennifer and Jean, Christine Riley, Dorothy Pearson, Helen Dring, Yvonne Brown, and Rachel Heaton,” she smiled. “We all started school on the same day, and just seemed to click right away. It was the music teacher at Sedgwick Street who realised that we had something special, and she taught us to sing what she called eight-part harmony. We didn’t understand any of it at the time, we just loved singing, but when the parents stood and clapped that Christmas in 1952, well, it was just so exciting.”

      “You said you’re the last; what happened to the others?”

      “Not now,” Wendy nodded towards the window. “Sister Gray’s on the prowl; I don’t want you getting into bother.”

      “No,” Samantha said, getting up and carefully putting the chair away. “I’ll come back later when she’s gone.”

      Alison Gray was Ward Sister at St Margaret’s, and a stickler for rules and regulations. She would not have taken kindly to any member of her staff spending too much time with a single resident to the detriment of any of the others. Budgets were tight and all employees were expected to work to strict deadlines. Samantha managed to make her way out of the room unnoticed.

      Wendy switched on the television and selected a music channel. Closing her eyes, she allowed the soothing tones of Perry Como to lull her into a light sleep. The dream came easily, and she was back in her youth. It was 1958 and she was at the Grammar School in Heanor; they were all there in the music room practising for that year’s production of ‘The Mikado’, the selected Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Ronald Green, the music teacher, could only select three of his best vocalists for the lead roles of Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, and Pitti-Sing, but solved the dilemma by rotating the Eight Maids for each of the seven evenings of the production.

      The nickname had followed the group from their junior school days, and Wendy smiled in her sleep as the melodious tones echoed in her memory. Suddenly the scene changed and they were all back at the 1952 Christmas event. There were seven figures at the end of her bed, and they were all smiling at her as the song began. Her timing and pitch were perfect and the eight-part harmony, sung in two sets of four, each an octave apart, sent tears cascading down her cheeks. The image vanished with the sudden opening of the door and the figure of Alison Gray stood there, looking around the room in puzzlement. She had been about to take to task the visitors whom she thought were at Wendy’s bedside, but seeing only the sleeping form of her resident she stepped back, closed the door quietly, and walked away.

      “Don’t give up,” the voice, no more than a whisper in Wendy’s mind, came from a corner of the room, where a faint shape had begun to take form.

      “Rachel,” Wendy said, as softly as she could, “is it really you?”

      “Shhh,” the figure said, now fading into the wall. “We’ll be back.” With that, it was gone.

      Wendy blinked hard to clear her eyes – had she really seen one of her old friends? What had she meant? This was nonsense; Rachel Heaton had died in a skiing accident in Chamonix in 1970 – she was twenty-eight. Wendy had been at the funeral of the first of her school friends to die and it was the worst moment of her life. Rachel had been the most vibrant personality in their little group, and it had been her father, Don, who had set them up in a talent contest in 1959 which would result in the release of a record the following year. The recording was a minor success and stirred them all in an attempt to repeat the feat. Sadly, despite some initial interest from a number of quarters in the music industry, it never materialised and the girls all moved on to quite separate careers.

 

 

“You were going to tell me about the others earlier,” Samantha said, as she pulled the wheelchair to a halt under the shade of a large oak tree later that day.

      “Others?” Wendy frowned, trying to recall their conversation. “Oh yes, the Eight Maids; how silly of me to have forgotten so soon.”

      Both women smiled. The tumour’s progress was having an increasing effect on Wendy’s memory, and her ability to retain even the simplest of exchanges was becoming restricted. This one, however, had been reinforced by the dream which had taken her back to her childhood. She told the young nurse about the apparent statement from Rachel Heaton that she was not to give up. The circumstances of her old friend’s demise brought a sigh from Samantha and a sympathetic squeeze of the arm.

      “Go on, then,” she said. “I’m all yours for the next hour.”

      “Where to begin…” Wendy said, shaking her head as she flitted back in time. “I suppose the twins, Jean and Jennifer Jackson. They sang like birds; always perfect in pitch and harmony. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Don and Phil Everley.”

      “No, I’m sorry.”

      “Two young Americans in the fifties and sixties. They had the most wonderful harmonising voices, and the twins used to sing ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’ in the same way. The music teacher at the grammar school built our entire routine around them, and all the rest of us had to do was keep up.”

      “What happened to them? I mean, they’re not around anymore; you told me that.”

      “Very sad, it was.” Wendy reached for her handkerchief. “They both became doctors and went to Africa in 1976 as part of an aid package. You’ve heard about the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, haven’t you?”

      “Yes,” she replied. “It’s all over the news.”

      “Well, there was the very first outbreak in what was then known as Zaire, but it didn’t get the coverage of the current one. They were among the first medical staff to arrive and it was before the virus was fully understood. They both caught it and were dead inside a week.”

      “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

      “It was what they wanted to do,” Wendy sighed. “Jean’s husband was there with them but he survived the outbreak. He was never the same when he came home, though. He left Derbyshire in 1978 and no-one heard from him again.”

      “Have you got any family?” Samantha changed the subject, hoping to dispel the sudden gloom which had surrounded her companion.

      “Mum and Dad died over twenty years ago, and apart from some cousins on Mum’s side of the family I’m afraid I seem to be on my own.”

      “Were you ever married?”

      “Once,” Wendy smiled. “There were a few handsome young men who I took a fancy to down the years, but there was just this one…”

      “Children?”

      Wendy turned her head to stare across the gardens, and Samantha took the hint.

      “Marriage isn’t always a bed of roses,” she replied, changing the direction of the conversation as Wendy seemed to be distressed. “Now, my Barry, I swear I could strangle him sometimes.”

      Their chat ebbed to and fro for another half hour but with dinnertime approaching, Samantha wheeled her charge back to her room in time for the midday meal. Wendy’s appetite had declined with the progress of the disease, but she tried each day to eat as much as she was encouraged to do.

      “Have you heard Doctor Wallace is leaving?” she said, as she negotiated Wendy through the front doors and into the main corridor.

      “Really?” She tried to sound interested, but changes in staff held little fascination for her.

      “Yes, and the new bloke’s a real dish. If I wasn’t married to my Barry…”

      They exchanged a sly laugh, but all mirth came to an abrupt halt as the subject of their attention appeared at the far end of the corridor, deep in thought over a clipboard which he was carrying. Peter Shaw was thirty-four, stood six feet three and weighed in at around thirteen stone. He was a fine figure of a man, had an unruly mop of black hair, bright blue eyes, and a fashionable amount of stubble. The smile which he flashed in greeting had both their hearts fluttering wildly. He had been at St Margaret’s for two weeks.

      “Good morning, ladies,” he said, as he breezed past.

      “See what I mean?” Samantha sighed as she released the breath she had been holding. “Now, if that’s not a reason for you hanging on, I don’t know what is.”


 

2 

 

Peter Shaw dropped the clipboard onto his desk and removed the file from beneath it.  Wendy Searson’s condition, according to the latest prognosis, was deteriorating rapidly – she would be dead by the end of the summer unless another form of treatment could be found for the aggressive cancer which was bringing that time ever closer. Switching back to the clipboard, he nodded his head; there was no doubt in his mind that the new drug would, at the very least, arrest the development of the tumour, and might, just might, destroy it completely.

      Research papers going back to 2005 detailed observations of similar cancers in non-human primates, and in 2012 there had been a breakthrough. A chimpanzee with advanced symptoms had been given an experimental drug at an establishment in Atlanta – within a week the tumour’s growth had been halted; within a month it was gone completely. The primate was still alive two years down the line.

      He took the small package from his pocket. Calling in a favour, he had managed to get his hands upon a sample which was currently under the scrutiny of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Without their approval, no drug could be licensed for general use within public health care. Searson’s condition, however, would not permit any level of procrastination, and he had received permission that very morning to approach Wendy with a proposal which could save her life.

      It was after lunch when he arrived at her room during regular rounds. With Wallace’s departure imminent, he had been thrown in at the deep end and was now conducting the rounds on his own. Knocking at the door, he put on his best smile and walked in to find Wendy seated at the window, looking out over the grounds.

      “You’re seriously offering me a lifeline?” she asked in astonishment. “I thought the tumor was inoperable.”

      “It is,” he replied. “There’s no way of extracting it in any normal surgical manner; it’s too big and is pressing too hard on the brain.”

      “It’s not another dose of radiotherapy, is it? I don’t think I could manage another session of that.”

      “No,” Shaw took her hand. “It’s a completely new treatment, and it’s not even on the approved drugs list yet.”

      “So, you’re using me as a Guinea Pig?”

      “In a way, yes.” Peter was beginning to struggle for words. “Wendy, you have a matter of weeks to live; I’m sorry to sound callous, but that’s the way it is.”

      “These monkeys you spoke of…”

      “Primates,” he corrected. “Like you and me.”

      “Primates,” she sighed. “They all recovered?”

      “There were three in total, and yes, they survived. Two died of old age, but the third one, a younger male, is still alive.”

      “Are you sure it will work? I mean, are there any harmful side effects?”

      “Listen, Wendy,” he reassured her. “It’s not like the drug’s only been tested on rats and mice. Apes and humans share ninety-five percent similarities in their DNA – that makes the likelihood of success far better than any other cancer treatment.”

      “What are the drawbacks?” she asked. “Where’s the catch?”

      “The only risk you’ll be taking is in the unlikely event of failure. You’ll be no worse off than if we’d never spoken about it.”

      “But…” she said, “there’s a ‘but’, isn’t there?”

      “Yes, there is,” he sighed. “If it all goes wrong, and it won’t, I’m the one who could be in trouble.”

      “Why?”

      “The use of an untested drug could see me before the disciplinary council unless strict guidelines are followed.”

      “What if I were to sign some sort of disclaimer?”

      “That would help, yes,” he said, sensing that he was winning the argument. “There are a set of forms which you’d need to fill out, and I’d have to get them cleared.”

      There was a pause; Wendy stared out of the window – she was not ready to die, and this stranger was offering her a second chance. She looked back into his eyes; she feared that she might see some sign of malicious intent, but he just sat there and smiled. What was she waiting for?

      “Get the forms, young man; I’ll sign them.”

      Wendy was tired after her talk with Peter Shaw and the sedative given to her by Samantha took effect quite quickly. The dream came again that afternoon. The eight of them were in a recording studio in Birmingham. Don Heaton, Rachel’s father, had called in a favour from a friend who worked in the music business, and the girls were allowed an hour at the studio. After a brief rehearsal, the sound engineer gave them the thumbs up and they began.

      ‘Dream of Me’ was written by a friend of Don Heaton for a quartet. The girls completed it in one take and all the studio staff were stunned into silence. The unique sound of eight voices, all perfectly pitched, had them holding their breath. A sudden burst of applause over the speakers startled them, but what happened next went much further than they had ever hoped.

      “Instrumentals,” the producer said. “We need some backing for this. My God! We could have a winner on our hands!”

      One week later, they were back in the same studio, but this time the place was filled with other recording staff, and the better part of a full orchestra.

      “Wendy, are you alright?”

      The voice and the gentle pressure on her arm had Wendy Searson surfacing from the events of 1959. She slowly opened her eyes to be greeted by the sight of Samantha.

      “What dear?” she asked, drowsily. “Is something the matter?”

      “I heard singing, such beautiful singing.” She looked around the room. “It couldn’t have been just you.”

      “No, I don’t suppose it could have been,” she smiled. “What time is it?”

      “Just after two,” Samantha looked at her watch. “I’d just knocked off and was coming to see how you are.”

      “Much better than earlier. Can you stay for a while?”

      “Barry won’t be home – he’s out with some of the lads from work.” She pulled up a chair. “Why don’t you tell me some more about those friends of yours?” She fetched the photograph from its place across the room. “Who’s this one?” She pointed to a young blonde woman.

      “Christine Riley,” Wendy smiled. “Her dad was a professional wrestler, you know. He was on ITV on one occasion when they covered wrestling at the Festival Inn at Trowell. She lived on the same street as I did, and I suppose that made us closer than the rest of the group.” Her face suddenly fell. “She was killed in a motorway pile-up in 1986. Her boyfriend was a drinker and she shouldn’t have been in the car with him. His BMW hit a bridge support just south of Barnsley. She had a lovely voice.”

      “Oh dear,” Samantha said. “I seem to be picking out some really sad stories.”

      “Not surprising when you consider that I’m the last one, but…” Wendy suddenly cut short what she was about to say. Revealing the content of her conversation with Peter Shaw would have been a grave mistake.

      “But…?”

      “Oh, nothing,” she smiled, feigning tiredness. “Would you mind if I took a nap, dear?”

      “Of course not,” the young nurse said. “I’ll pop in again.

      With the sun shining pleasantly through the window, the warmth permeated Wendy’s mind, and she drifted off. Within moments she was with Dorothy Pearson at Mablethorpe on a similarly sunny day in 1990. Dorothy’s marriage to Richard Warren, apart from the first six months, had been a disaster waiting to happen. He was a man who believed in women staying in the home, and her ambitions in the teaching field had not gone down well at all. For a while he had let matters lie, but when the subject of a family reared its head he was very disappointed at his wife’s reluctance to have children at what she considered to be an early stage in the marriage.

      The day out was an attempt to lighten the atmosphere in the Warren household, and to give Dorothy the chance to reconsider her options away from the pressures which her husband was imposing. By the time they were on their way home, Wendy’s friend had come around to the fact that it may be a good time, after all, to have children while she and Richard were both young enough to enjoy them.

      The argument which erupted as soon as Wendy had left had been festering away in the mind of Richard Warren all day, and nothing that his wife was trying to say to him was getting past his temper. Having seen that her conciliatory manner was having no effect, Dorothy began to give as good as she was getting. She never saw the blow coming. Warren, now blind with rage, hit out and caught her flush on the jaw with a tightly clenched fist. She reeled backwards and crashed with sickening force against the edge of the dining table.

      By the time Warren had come to his senses, his wife was lying in a pool of blood. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene.

      The gentle knocking at the door brought Wendy out of her dreamlike state, and the face of Peter Shaw brought a smile back to her face as she quickly wiped away her tears.


 

3

 

“The situation is this,” he said, sitting down beside her. “The drug is still at its experimental stage and has never been used on a human subject. It’s not on the approved list, so there are no guarantees as to its beneficial effect.”

      “I understand,” Wendy replied. “Give me whatever forms you need, and I’ll sign them.”

      “Not so fast,” he smiled. “First, I’m required to tell you about the treatment so that you can make what the guidelines call an ‘informed decision’. I also have to tell you why the drug is not currently licensed for the treatment of your type of tumour. I then have to ask if you have any questions relating to the proposed treatment. Finally, and only if you are happy with what’s been explained to you, we will need your signature on a consent form.”

      “Doctor Shaw,” she sighed, “I’m a dying woman and you’ve offered me a chance that I never thought I’d have. Let’s dispense with the formalities, agree that you’ve carried out all the required routines, and get on with the treatment. Give me the forms, please; I don’t think I have any time to waste.”

      “One final thing,” Shaw said. “From our point of view, I will be the only member of staff to administer the treatment. It really is important that whatever happens remains confidential.”

      “You need have no concerns on that score, Doctor Shaw,” Wendy replied.

      The treatment began that evening, and Wendy started to wonder what she would do with the life that she had believed was slipping away from her. Samantha paid her usual visit and the evening was taken up by a further session of reminiscences. This time however, the young nurse took the conversation down a new, and unexpected, route.

      “Don’t you have any family, Wendy?” There was concern in her voice. “Memories of your friends are all very good, but they’re gone, aren’t they? Is there no-one else?”

      “There was someone… once, as I said before,” she looked out of the window. “It was a long time ago.”

      “What happened to him?”

      “Oh, he found someone else; someone more exciting,” Wendy smiled, sadly. “Life married to me didn’t turn out as he’d hoped.”

      “Did you have any children?”

      There was a long pause as Wendy’s eyes filled up, and she wiped away the tears. She took a deep breath and turned to the young nurse.

      “Just one,” she replied. “Elizabeth was the apple of her father’s eye until she reached her teenage years. That was when the arguments began and he found out that he could no longer control the young woman she was becoming. He turned his anger onto me, shifting the blame for his own inabilities. He left us a few months later. I never saw him again.”

      “So, where is your daughter now?”

      “I’ve no idea. She left our home when she reached eighteen. She’d met up with a man I didn’t approve of and there was the most terrible row. I did get a few letters from various places around the world, but then they stopped altogether. The last one was over five years ago.”

      The sadness of Wendy’s situation came home to Samantha in stark relief, and her voice trembled with emotion as she fully appreciated the dire position that the woman found herself in. Switching the conversation back to happier memories, she brought up the subject of the Eight Maids once again.

      “Helen Dring and Yvonne Brown both emigrated,” Wendy began. “Helen married an Australian she’d met and they ran a sheep station outside Alice Springs until she died in 2005. We wrote regularly but I couldn’t afford to go over there for the funeral. Steve, her husband, sent me a lovely letter a few weeks later, saying how much he felt he knew me from the things that Helen had told him.”

      “That just leaves Yvonne Brown, then.”

      “Yes,” Wendy pointed at the picture. “Little Yvonne; she was the smallest of our group and we all sort of looked out for her. She ended up in Brazil married to a financier. It was so sad – he left her penniless when the Brazilian government took an interest in his dealings with a Colombian. Raoul was his name, I believe, and he was killed in mysterious circumstances that she was never able to get to the bottom of. She lost everything over there, and ended up committing suicide.”

      “That’s terrible,” Samantha said. “Didn’t she have any family over here?”

      “No, only the rest of our group and I was the last one. She didn’t ask me for anything either. I would have mortgaged my house to help her if I’d known. I didn’t find out about what had happened until much later.”

      “I’m so sorry to hear about your friends, and you’ll…” Samantha bit her tongue. The last thing Wendy needed right now was a reminder of the fate which was fast catching up with her.

      “You don’t have to spare my feelings, dear,” she smiled. “I’m more than aware of my future – Doctor Shaw and I had a chat only yesterday; he’s a very nice man.”

 

 

A woman in her mid to late thirties stepped off the R1 on Heanor market place. She had arrived in Nottingham a few hours earlier from London’s St Pancras station. The flight which brought her into Heathrow had left Johannesburg very early in the morning and she had not slept during the entire trip. Taking a deep breath in the fresh air after the confines of the bus, she headed across the market place, down Godfrey Street, and left at the junction with Mundy Street. Standing outside a house in the middle of a range of terraced dwellings, she looked up at the place where she had spent all of her childhood.

      She stood before the front door, her finger poised over the bell, almost afraid to hear the chimes inside. She held the button down for what seemed an age – there was no reply, and she stood back and looked at the windows once more. Frowning, she made her way back along the pavement, turned left onto Godfrey Street and down the path at the edge of the recreation ground which led to the back yards of each of the houses in the row.

      The gate to the back garden was locked, but hitching her bag across one shoulder, she climbed up the edge of the wall and dropped down onto the flagstones which led to the rear of the property.  She peered through the back window, shading her eyes to get a clearer view. There was no-one in the room, and from the general untidiness she guessed that it hadn’t been occupied for a number of weeks. She was interrupted by a noise from her left.

      “Lizzie?” The voice bore a tone of surprise. “Is that really you?”

      “Hello, Mrs Barnes,” Elizabeth smiled in embarrassment. “Any idea where my Mum is?”

      “You’d best come inside, dear. I’ll pop the kettle on – there’s quite a bit you need to know.”

      It took Doris Barnes a full hour to bring Elizabeth Searson up to date, and the younger woman dried the tears from her eyes as she realised the problems that her mother had faced during the years she had been away from home. The taxi dropped her off at St Margaret’s in Derby half an hour after leaving Heanor, and as she walked through the main door into the reception area she was struggling desperately for the words she needed to express the regrets which were now threatening to overwhelm her.


 

4

 

“There’s no doubt about it,” Peter Shaw said as he sat down at the side of Wendy Searson in one of the two easy chairs near the window of her room.

      “The tumour is shrinking?” she said, hopefully.

      “No, not yet.” He smiled.  “It’s still a little early. However, it has stopped growing. The last MRI scan showed that quite clearly, and that’s very good news.”

      “How long before it does… you know,” she asked.

      “Well, with the speed that the drug’s worked so far, I would think that another few days could well see it begin to decrease in size, and then we can seriously start to think about a whole new life for you.”

      Shaw’s departure was followed some moments later by the appearance of Samantha Brooks. Wendy noticed a worried look on the nurse’s face, and was quick to voice her concerns.

      “Well, I was passing reception and the desk was unmanned. A woman was there, so I asked if I could help. She said that she has a relative here, and when I asked for a name she gave me yours.”

      Wendy’s heart skipped a beat. “How old would you think she is?” She held her breath.

      “I’m not very good at things like that.” Samantha thought for a moment. “Mid thirties, I’d say.” Her eyes widened. “Your daughter?”

      “It could be Elizabeth, but it’s been so long…”

      “Shall I show her in?”

      She merely nodded in reply – she was too emotional to speak the words. Samantha disappeared, returning moments later with the one person that Wendy never thought to see again. The two women stared across the room at each other as the nurse closed the door behind her.

      “Doris Barnes told me…” Lizzie began. “I couldn’t believe her at first…”

      “Oh, Lizzie…” Wendy’s outstretched arms were the invitation her daughter had longed for when she had started out on a journey from the other side of the Equator.

      “Mummy…” She was the little girl once more and rushed to her mother’s side, burying her face in the warm embrace.

      They sat there for a while – Lizzie at her mother’s feet, and Wendy stroking her daughter’s hair. Wendy stared out of the window and took several deep breaths. Coming hard on the heels of Peter Shaw’s good news, this was fast becoming a perfect day and she wondered whether she dared risk sharing the information with Lizzie. The decision was taken away from her as her daughter began a story which went back to the day of her departure.

      “You were right in the end,” she began. “Derek was okay in the beginning, but that didn’t last. We were in France when he decided that I wasn’t the person he thought I was going to be. He left me for a girl barely out of school uniform.”

      “I did try to tell you,” Wendy smiled. “You always used to think that you knew best. Still, you’re here now.”

      “It’s been a long time, but I didn’t know how to come back. Did you get my letters?”

      “I did, and they’re all at home somewhere. I used to read them over and over, but you stopped writing.”

      “I tried to blame you, and stopping writing was my way of justifying how I’d felt,” she sighed. “Somehow, I couldn’t face starting up again.”

      “How far have you come?”

      “I’ve been all over the world since I left home way back then, but I was in South Africa when I finally made the decision to come back. I took a number of jobs to save up, and the last of the money just about covered the bus fare from Nottingham.”

      As Wendy began to explain the way her life had begun to crumble after her initial test results, Lizzie sat in a state of shock as the full realisation of her mother’s condition sank in. The questions began forming in her mind until she managed to assemble them into some sort of coherent order. When it came out, the obvious one sickened her.

      “How long have they given you?”

      Wendy paused; acutely aware that to raise her daughter’s hopes, at this early stage in the resumption of their relationship, would be grossly unfair.

      “I’ve had a series of MRI scans since I’ve been in here,” she began. “Doctor Shaw says that he’s reasonably pleased with the results so far.”

      “So, what does that mean? Can they operate and remove it?”

      “No. It’s too big, and it’s pressing on my brain. He said that it’s unlikely I’d survive the surgery. I’ve been having radiotherapy, but it was becoming very uncomfortable and I asked them to stop.”

      “What about Chemo? There must be something they can do – this is the twenty-first century for God’s sake!” Lizzie was exasperated, and to Wendy’s relief they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Peter Shaw’s face appeared from behind it.

      Sensing that her daughter was about to launch into a diatribe directed at the doctor, Wendy smiled at them both and welcomed the newcomer into the room – but it wasn’t enough to dispel a frosty atmosphere.

      “I’ve had this morning’s scan results,” he began, smiling broadly.

      “What’s so great about that?” Lizzie saw the chance to stick her oar in. “Too late for all of  that now, isn’t it?”

      “Exactly who are you?” he asked, suddenly on edge.

      “Elizabeth Searson,” she pointed. “Her daughter.”

      “I’m sorry,” he frowned. “I don’t understand; surely then, Wendy’s explained to you…”

      “Oh, yes!” she snorted. “I’ve had the full story on what you people can and can’t do, but in the end my mother’s lying there waiting to die!”

      He looked from Wendy to Lizzie and back. “You mean that you don’t know?” he frowned. “Has your mother not told you the news?”

      “What? That she’s got a couple of months to live? Oh, yes, I’ve heard that!”

      “I think, maybe, that you’d better sit down.” He now understood the reason for her anger. “You’ll find what I have to tell you most enlightening.”

      “Why didn’t you say something?” Lizzie turned to her mother when Shaw had finished.

      “I wasn’t sure until right now,” she said. “Yesterday, all we both knew was that the tumour had stopped growing. I’m still getting the headaches but now that it looks like it’s actually shrinking, Doctor Shaw said that they should begin to ease and then stop altogether if the medication destroys it.”

      “What about side-effects on Mum’s brain?” Lizzie asked Shaw.

      “From what I understand about the experimental trials in the States, there shouldn’t be any,” he said. “Your mother needs to remain here until the course of treatment is complete, and that we’re certain that the cancer is gone completely.”

      “How long will that take?”

      “Well, going by the rate of progress so far, I would expect that she’ll be clear in a couple of weeks,” he smiled. “You can have her all to yourself then.”


 

5

 

Wendy was sitting in her favourite armchair, cup in one hand and a piece of Victoria Sandwich in the other. It was a Saturday morning, one month after the first positive results from the MRI scan, and she was back at home. Lizzie had insisted that she take things easy and, despite a series of vociferous protests from her mother, had got her way. Samantha had been a regular caller and had expressed tearful delight at the miraculous recovery at the hands of Peter Shaw.

      Lizzie’s initial anger at the doctor treating her mother had quickly turned into gratitude for his skill, and then a slow warming to his presence each time they met. He had asked her out at the end of the week when Wendy was due to be discharged, and they had been regular companions since that day.

      “Samantha said he was a dish,” Wendy remarked, slyly, as she saw him approaching the front door. She nodded in his direction. “Looks like you have a visitor.”

      “I asked Peter round for lunch, but he said he’d come a little earlier to see how you’ve been getting on,” Lizzie said.

      Shaw was all smiles as he entered the room, and confirmed that the final batch of tests which Wendy had had as an outpatient had all come back negative. The tumour had disappeared completely. The radio was on in the background, and at a lull in the conversation, the presenter’s voice had them looking at each other in astonishment.

      ‘We had a call from John in Dawlish last week about a record that he’s been trying to track down.’ Brian Matthew is the regular host of BBC Radio Two’s ‘Sounds of the Sixties’, and his easy style had made the programme a favourite of Wendy’s.

      ‘Sit back and enjoy this one from 1960, John. ‘Dream of Me’ was released on the Decca Records label, and although not making the Top 40, was a minor success for a Derbyshire female group going by the name ‘Eight Maids’. Sadly we’ve been unable to trace any of the original members, but if anyone knows who or where they are they can call me on the show.’

      Fading in from a perfectly timed introduction, the melodious tones from over fifty years earlier brought tears to the eyes of Wendy Searson. Months earlier she had been alone and dying; now she had her daughter, a life, and all of the friends from those heady days of 1959.

 

 

 

 

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