Amber arrived on the fourth day, and from then on everything changed for me.
Paul had been sick for two nights in a row. It was like a conspiracy. Throughout the day he would just sit quietly, wincing whenever he moved and the tube he’d had inserted in his nose snagged on his nostril. Then at night it sounded like a pack of rabid dogs had taken up residence in his bed. Marc kept coming in to help him, but all night I could hear retching and the sound of liquids being sloshed about. Every once in a while it would seem like he’d settled. Then, just as I could feel myself nodding back to sleep, it would start again.
‘You’re all right. See it up, lad,’ I could hear Marc whisper as Paul groaned some more.
‘Sleep is vital to recovery,’ I told Mum. ‘If I can’t sleep then the whole thing is pointless. Can’t I get a private room? I think I’d handle this much better on my own.’
‘Nice to see your old spirit’s intact,’ Grandma said, chewing on one of the grapes she had brought for me, which she had monopolised and didn’t seem to be in the mood to share.
‘Fiona sent you this,’ Chris said, pulling out a copy of FHM. She’d Sellotaped a photograph of herself, giving two thumbs up, on to the model’s face. ‘She says she’ll come and visit you as soon as she’s back from her shoot in Milan.’
‘I think she could be a model,’ I said.
‘You don’t say?’
Mum took the magazine and tucked it into the farthest corner of the drawer.
‘Some things never change . . . sadly,’ she said, and poured herself a glass of Lucozade. I cleared my throat and nodded towards the level in the bottle.
‘Bloody hell, Francis, I’ll buy you a crate of the stuff if you want. Anyway it hasn’t been touched since I was last here.’
That was not the point.
‘Oh,’ she said, pulling something from her bag, ‘this came from school.’
It was a card with two dozen names and get well messages scrawled inside. On the front was a picture of a teddy bear with a bandage on its head.
‘Bonny, eh? Is that from your little friends?’ Grandma asked, taking the card and inspecting the photograph on the front.
‘Ooh,’ she said, handing it back to Mum. ‘They left the price on.’
‘Do you want me to put it up?’ Mum asked. ‘No,’ I said. The picture was crass and juvenile, and would have been at odds with the impressive array of literature I had on display. It would ruin my reputation as the ward’s sophisticate.
‘Fine. I’ll put it in the drawer with the porno and the iPod. How you getting on, you know?’
Mum whispered something in my ear, nodding to the beds across from us where Paul and Kelly were pretending not to listen.
I shrugged. ‘OK, I suppose. I think I’m misunderstood, though, like Van Gogh was.’
Grandma made a joke about not cutting off my ear, which did not get much of a response.
‘You’re looking OK on it,’ Mum said, stroking my face, ‘brave lad. House isn’t the same without you, I keep cooking for two, so at least your brother’s doing all right off it.’
‘Have you remembered to record all of my programmes?’ I asked.
There was a TV on a giant, bendy metal arm that you could pull down and watch while lying down, but I was scared to use the remote as it was the same one as for the bed, and as a result had taken to reading.
‘Yes, love, I got your list,’ Mum said with a hint of sarcasm.
‘The rec room’s pretty swish,’ Chris added. ‘I had a neb around while Mum was having a chat with Jackie. We can go down later on if you’re feeling up to it. Reckon I could fleece some of those free hot chocolate sachets if nothing else.’
From outside there was more noise than usual as a bustling of feet and voices came down the corridor.
‘. . . there are an abundance of herbal remedies, too. I have a friend who deals in Chinese medicine . . .’ I heard a woman’s voice saying as she slowly came into view.
‘Bloody hell, it’s Worzel Gummidge,’ Mum said, and Grandma tried not to laugh.
The new arrival did look a bit odd. She had greying hair that seemed to do as it pleased, and flat, sensible shoes that looked like they had survived at least one major war. Her clothes were all rags and materials that flapped and folded around one another in a hundred different colours. On her thin wrist there were what looked like a dozen bracelets, each carrying a differ- ent type of stone.‘Well,’ she said, as Jackie led them on to the ward, ‘I’m glad to see those big windows . . . such beautiful natural light. How fortifying.’
‘Maybe so. The sills are a nightmare to clean, though,’ Jackie said, leading her towards the bed next to mine.
Two girls followed in their wake. One was younger, and dressed like the woman. The other was around my age, wearing a plain T-shirt and nondescript jeans, with her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. She looked like she was dressed for a fight.
‘You’ll be . . .’ Jackie started to say, but was cut short by the eldest girl.
‘. . . in the bed with my name on it. I’m there,’ she said, hopping up on to the mattress.
‘I’ll let you get settled in then,’ Jackie said, leaving us all in peace.
‘Well, isn’t this charming?’ the mother said to the ponytailed girl, who seemed wholly uninterested. Then the woman turned to us. ‘Pleasure to meet you. I’m Colette . . . Colette Spratt.’
‘Julie,’ Mum said. She went to shake Colette’s hand but she ducked the handshake and pulled Mum into a tight hug. I thought Chris was going to pass out from trying not to laugh.
‘Isn’t this just charming . . . they’ve gone all out,’ Colette enthused.
The eldest girl dragged her dirty rucksack on to the bed and kicked off her Converse before folding her legs beneath her. She turned to us and stared right at me, like she was taking aim.
‘I’m Amber,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Francis,’ she said, as if examining the word with her tongue. ‘That’s a . . . gentle name.’
‘You don’t know the half of it, love,’ Grandma snorted, and I started wishing Mum had left her at home.
‘Shall we close the curtain?’ Mum asked no one in particular.
Amber sat cross-legged on her bed and started pulling out all manner of curiosities from her rucksack: postcards and photographs, CDs and old books. Nothing was new, everything cracked or faded and looking like it came with a history.
‘You can,’ she said, answering Mum for us, ‘but it’ll be a waste of everyone’s time. We’ll still be able to hear everything you say. Point well made, though.’
‘She’s got your number,’ Chris said, and Mum glared daggers at him.
‘Quite right. We may as well become acquainted,’ Colette said. ‘Seeing as we’ll be bunking down together.’
Amber upturned her rucksack and the rest of the contents scattered messily on to the covers, followed by a fine mist of black dust, which coated the white sheets.
She picked out a giant Toblerone and unwrapped the foil, pointing the stick at Mum.
‘Triangle of Switzerland’s finest?’ Mum raised one hand and shook her head.
‘Francis?’ Amber asked.
I said yes and she brought the bar over to me.
‘Look at us breaking bread together . . . I like your snazzy jumper,’ she said to Chris.
‘I’ve got one just like it,’ I said, then felt stupid.
Amber nodded, looking unconvinced.
‘Cheers,’ Chris said.
‘If you ever wanted to buy me an icebreaker, my size is medium. Just saying.’
‘Neck of a giraffe, that one!’ Grandma said to Colette, who smiled and began picking her way through Amber’s deluge.
‘Good to know,’ Chris said, and took a square of Toblerone.
‘Here, new girl, you got any lip gloss? Mine ran out,’ Kelly called from her bed.
Amber looked up, but before she had a chance to answer her little sister chimed in.
‘Beauty should come from within,’ she said, with a wise nod.
‘I’m Olivia,’ the kid said politely. ‘Nice to meet you.’
‘Your trainers are crap,’ Kelly snorted, before returning her attention to Amber.
‘I don’t wear lip gloss,’ she said.
‘Everyone wears lip gloss.’
‘Maybe in your culture,’ Amber muttered. ‘Come on, Ol, help me with this.’
The other girl did as she was told and began rifling through Amber’s assortment of belongings, pinning photographs to the wall above her bed using a dirty clod of BluTack that she had found amidst the chaos.
‘Your fly’s undone,’ Kelly said eventually from across the room, pointing to the white patch of underwear that had begun to poke through the lowered zip of Amber’s old jeans.
Amber didn’t blush. She barely even moved. She just glanced down at her crotch and then back up at Kelly.
‘Yeah, I know, supposed to be. It’s mating season,’ she said, and then carried on unpacking.