Three months earlier
Karen woke up in the dark and wondered where the hell she was. A prickle of cold fear crept up her spine. She couldn't move her head - her body was a lump of lead. Sounds of snoring, then a man shouting gradually seeped into her senses. A door banging followed by the sound of softly clad feet running towards her down a long hallway only frightened her more. She tried to turn her head towards the footsteps but any movement was impossible. Her throat constricted in pain. She gave up, closed her eyes, and waited.
Urgent voices from across the room made her open them again. She could see more clearly this time - a hospital bed with two men in white uniforms attending to the patient who was covered in blood. Karen watched in horror as the attendants tried to push tubes into the man's nostrils, their voices fluctuating from soft encouragement to urgent commands.
She felt sick. There were tubes protruding from her own neck, a drip attached to her left arm and a tube between her legs. Every part of her body was sore.
One of the attendants moved towards her.
'Hello, Karen. How are you feeling?' She couldn't move. All her energy had been sucked out of her.
'Ghuuu, uhh.' She couldn’t speak. It was as though someone had poured acid into her throat. She closed her eyes, trying to stop the tears.
'It's alright love,' he said. 'You're back on the ward. I'll get you something for the pain.' He moved away, his soft shoes squeaking on the polished floor. He was lying of course. This wasn't the ward Karen knew. She had never felt so alone.
Soon he was back with a syringe, which was to take her into oblivion once more.
'There you go, my love.'
But she had already gone.
No pain, just free-floating, her body weightless.
'Don't go,' a voice in her head whispered.
'I don't want to.' Karen was sure of that. No more pain, no more struggling. 'I can't go back.'
She looked around for help but the light was blinding. She closed her eyes and drifted in a warm sea of contentment.
Sensing she wasn't alone, she shaded her eyes and tried to look about her again. Standing before her was a woman - a stranger yet somehow familiar. The woman smiled sadly at Karen and reached towards her. She held Karen's face and gazed into her eyes. Karen smiled, a deep feeling of love in her heart.
'Must be the drugs,' the voice in her head insisted.
'Go away.' Karen wanted the voice to stop. But the darkness was pulling her back, dragging her along a tunnel. The feeling of wellbeing was slipping away. There were no more thoughts. Confusion and that familiar cruel pain emanated throughout her whole body, peaking every time she swallowed. She tried not to swallow, but dribbling or choking were the only alternatives and she couldn't move her arms to wipe her face.
Someone else was there the next time she opened her eyes. Daylight now, she could see clearly the bed opposite, the man still trying to wrench the tubes from his body.
'Well, Karen, how are you today?' A familiar voice spoke to her. It took her a while to remember it was the anaesthetist. 'You certainly gave us all a fright back there.'
Karen was dumbstruck. Even moving her head a fraction to the right where he sat was impossible. So she just let him talk. Afterwards she could only recall him saying that she'd given him a fright.
She remembered the nurses on the ward, with their fancy frilly caps and lovely purple dresses. The doctors had all smiled at her and said that it was just a routine operation. She'd wake up in her own bed in the ward in a few hours. 'All empty promises,' she thought bitterly as the anaesthetist's voice droned on. The urge to be sick was overwhelming. As he tried to soothe her with his words, Karen vomited them back at him across the counterpane. A nurse appeared as he made his excuses and left Karen to be cleaned up.
'You'll be alright. It's only the Pethidine,' the nurse reassured her. 'We'll get you cleaned up, and I'll see about a drink.'
Breathing in the soft-cotton perfume of the nurse as she was bundled to and fro, Karen was overwhelmed with a deep-rooted memory which was tinged with a sadness that she couldn't fathom.
Finally slipping into a stupor of complete exhaustion, Karen forgot about the promised drink but the nurse was soon back, this time with a plastic mug fitted with a spout.
'It's tea,' she said. 'Nice and sweet.'
Karen tried to sip at the spout. As soon as the liquid was in her mouth she had little choice. Swallow or spit it out? She swallowed. It was too much.
'I can't,' she whispered.
'Never mind,' the nurse was saying. 'We'll try again later. I'll get you something for the pain.' She was soon back with another syringe of that heavenly concoction which took Karen away into the safety of her dreamworld.
It seemed a lifetime later that Margaret’s voice stirred her back to reluctant reality.
Margaret was something more than just a mother-in-law to Karen - an oasis in the desert of her life.
Karen was damaged goods. She’d always known that. Dumped at birth, unwanted wherever she went. There was no doubt about it - she was bad. They’d told her enough times and she’d always lived up to everyone’s expectations. She had few friends at school, trusting no-one and no-one liking her very much. It was better to hurt others first before they hurt you. When she finally landed on Margaret's doorstep she hardly cared any more. She was fourteen and couldn't wait to grow up and get her own place. But Margaret had taken her time - nothing seemed to bother her - and piece by piece Karen had let down the wall she’d built to protect herself.
Peter’s photo was on the mantlepiece in the cosy front room of Margaret’s house. It was the first thing she’d spotted on the day she moved in. Margaret had noticed her looking at it and had taken up the picture and smiled.
‘My son,’ she’d said.
Karen heard the pride in her voice and felt a stab of jealousy.
‘He’s at university. He’ll be an accountant one day.’ Margaret polished the glass with her sleeve and carefully placed it back on the shelf.
Not for the first time in her life Karen had wondered what it would be like to be loved like that.
When he came home at the end of the year, he’d more or less ignored her, going out with his friends, coming in late, and when he was in she often heard him arguing with Margaret. Karen stayed out of his way, feeling awkward every time they met, either in the hallway or in the tiny kitchen where he’d dash to make a coffee or grab a sandwich on his way to something more important. She was obviously just a nuisance to him, so she’d stayed in her room as much as she could and tried to avoid the embarrassment of being in his space.
The cloud that hung over the house lifted whenever he went back at the end of the summer although Margaret would never say a bad word about him even when Karen found her in tears at the kitchen table after he’d stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
‘He’s a good boy really,’ she’d say. ‘It must be hard for him - all that studying he has to do. It can’t have been easy for him - coming home to two women.’
Whatever Karen thought, she said nothing. No point really. She would always be the outsider and guessed that the tension was probably her fault.
Then Peter had moved back in. His car was stuffed with three years worth of boxes and baggage which soon cluttered the small hallway. The aroma of roast beef wafted through the house, Margaret’s welcome-home meal for the prodigal son.
Karen already half-hated him. She hated the way he kept hurting Margaret. She even hated maths - so why would she like a man whose head was full of numbers. When she eventually came down the stairs from her room she glowered down at him. Then he looked up at her with those piercing blue eyes. The slight frown on his face broke into a wide smile.
‘Hello gorgeous.’ He sounded surprised.
Karen had felt her face burning and wondered whether she could just disappear but he’d turned away and gone into the dining room with the box of books he’d been carrying.
Over the next few days Karen tried to stay out of his way but he seemed to be there whenever she sat down to breakfast. She’d creep into the kitchen to make herself a coffee and he’d appear at the door, smiling at her.
‘I can’t believe how you’ve grown up,’ he said.
Karen said nothing and hurried from the room, spilling her coffee on the way.
But Peter was persistent in his wooing and charmed her into feeling that she really was beautiful - like the ugly duckling into a swan story. What girl could resist such flattery? He wasn’t bad looking - he made her feel special in every way. And Margaret was happy.
Less than four years later they were married. But Karen’s dream of living in her own home was not quite as she’d imagined.
She opened her eyes as Margaret stooped to kiss her cheek.
'Peter sends his love.' Margaret said. 'He had to work late tonight.'
Karen closed her eyes again, hoping that Margaret would go away and just leave her alone. She was so tired. But the older woman’s voice rambled on endlessly. Eventually the bell rang.
'Oh, that'll be the bell,' said Margaret regretfully. 'I have to go now, but Peter's coming tomorrow. Take care won't you?'
Karen heard her footsteps retreating down the ward, followed by the rattle of the tea trolley.
Day and night blurred together. She couldn't work out how long she'd been there, but it was probably only twenty four hours later that Peter was walking into the ward clutching a bunch of daffodils.
'How's my girl, then?' He grinned.
Karen's heart flipped a little.
'It's been hell at work this week. All this couldn't have come at a worse time.' He paused. 'Still, you're OK now, eh?'
'Yes, I'm fine.' Karen smiled.
'When are you getting out of here?' He frowned as he looked around the room. 'Hey, they've got men in here.'
'It's intensive care.' Karen justified. ‘A mixed ward.’
'Well they've made a right mess of you.’
Karen kept smiling. 'Don't worry, I'll soon be back to normal.'
'How are things at home?' she asked.
'Eh? Oh, I haven't been in much,' he said. 'Actually, sorry love, I'll have to be going in a bit. I’m meeting up with Dave and Andy.'
Karen's smile slipped.
'It’s work my love,' he said.
'Of course. I'm sorry.'
'Don't be daft,' he laughed. 'Just hurry up and get better. Look, I'd better get going.'
'Don't go yet,' Karen said. 'I've missed you.'
'Well I miss you too my darling. I'll come tomorrow, same time.'
'I do look forward to seeing you.'
'Of course.' Peter leaned towards her and kissed her on the forehead. 'Oh, damn. I can't come tomorrow. I need to work late.' He stood up. 'See you soon then,' he added and was gone.
When the nurse bustled down the ward half an hour later, Karen called her over to her bedside.
'Can you get the mirror from my locker please.' She needed to see why Peter was in such a hurry to leave.
The nurse hesitated.
'You've had a difficult operation, but you will heal. It'll just take a bit of time.' ‘I know - just let me have the mirror, please.’
A stranger looked back at her with tired eyes. The hair framing her bloated face was lank and greasy. At the base of her neck metal clamps held together the wide gash with two drainage tubes protruding from each end of the wound. Karen was shocked.
'You will get better, you know.' The nurse tried to re-assure Karen. ‘Your face will soon be back to normal.'
'Look,' the nurse went on. 'I've brought you a nice cup of Horlicks. Please try a little and then we can see about getting you off that drip.'
She thrust the beaker close to Karen’s lips. There was no escape. Karen sucked at the spout and swallowed, then forced herself to take another mouthful. Soon she'd managed half a beaker of the sweet, thick liquid.
'Good girl, that's the way.' The nurse ticked the clip-board at the foot of the bed. 'Now I think it's time we took the catheter out and got you using a bedpan. The sooner the better, eh?'
Karen smiled her consent, too tired to argue any more.
The nurse was right, of course. In a few days she was on her way home in a taxi with Margaret. Peter hadn't been to see her again - his work, Margaret explained - but Karen hoped things would be different when he saw she was back to normal. Although she was still tired, the wound was getting better and the clamps would soon be out.
She was resting on the sofa when Peter came in, the aroma of cooking wafting in from the kitchen. As soon as she heard the door, Karen's stomach tightened as she jumped up. She smoothed down her skirt and brightened her face into a smile.
'Hello darling.' She said.
'Wow! You look great.' Peter's arms were around her as he kissed her. 'Can't wait for later,' he whispered.
'What's for dinner, Mum?' he called to Margaret, and went through to the sitting room.
After Margaret had gone up to the little spare room later that evening, Karen was exhausted and just wanted to crawl into bed to sleep. But Peter had other ideas.
'You go on up, I'll be there in a while,' he said. 'I've just got some figures to look at for tomorrow.
She was in a deep sleep by the time he came to bed. She'd tried to stay awake, looking at the clock every five minutes: eleven o'clock, five past, ten past, then drifting off, waking at midnight, ten past, one o'clock. It was two in the morning by the time he finally got in beside her, shaking her awake. She knew that the easiest way to get back to sleep was to give in although he wanted more than just her passive consent.
'Kiss me. Hold me like you mean it,' he pleaded. 'What's the matter with you? Say you love me.'
'I love you.' She kissed him, painfully easing herself so that she was lying over him, beginning to move in the way he expected. He was not aroused.
‘Make me want you,’ he moaned.