THE ANGEL'S HEAD: CHAPTER 19 -- The Royal infirmary

The Nuttall boys, all four of them, we're sitting in the garden. Conor had his toolbox by the motorbike but it was clasped shut and his hands were clean. Frankie and Johnny were watching Conor not working on the bike. Andrew was staring at the chain link fence. He was counting the holes without actually keeping count. Their Ma was busy in the kitchen. If anyone had asked they would have probably said that they were waiting for their tea.

What were they really doing? Andrew had chased the Turner boy (that's what everyone was calling him now) down the hill. The trap had been planned and set. And it had worked, sort of. Now Andrew felt sick, right down in the churning depths of his insides. He kept getting the urge to jump up and run, to get away. But where would he run to?

There was no way he could go fast or far enough to get away from the sound of Mrs Turner's screams.

Frankie and Johnny had been right there. Turner had come past them in a chromed blur. They had heard the clack of the bike hitting the back corner of the truck, the squeal of the tyres struggling to stop and the duller heavy sound that they didn't want to think about. They looked at their brother and knew it was his fault. But it was their fault too.

Conor wanted to tell the lads that it was okay, that it wasn't their fault. But the words wouldn't come. They would be a lie, a weak attempt to make them feel better. He would be lying to himself as well. It was more his fault than any of theirs. He was the grown up. The only one who knew they were planning something.

He should have been more responsible.

He had heard those words, and others like them, so many times before. Teachers, the police, magistrates and a long like of prison do-gooders. Now sitting here with the people he loved, he felt responsible. It was too much for him to take and he too would have got on that bike and gone. But he had to be strong for his brothers.

'We should go and see him.' Conor said, as soon as the thought formed in his head. The words just appeared; quietly and simply.

Frankie and Johnny looked at him. There was nothing less than terror in their eyes, but they gulped it back and nodded.

Andrew's expression didn't change for a few seconds. Then he took a deep breath, as if it had been his first of a while.

'I should go,' he said, and forced himself to look his brothers in the eye, 'but you don't need to.' He steeled himself again with more air. 'It was my fault.'

Frankie, Johnny and Conor all talking at once, all telling him not it wasn't true. Telling him not to be an idiot.

'I tell you what,' Conor said. 'let's go up there now eh? It's not too late.' The others looked at each other in silence. 'Great, I'll tell Ma. We can get chips on the way back too.'

Mrs Nuttall had been horrified by news of the accident. She had no idea how it had happened and her boys had said nothing about their involvement. She had just finished making a chicken pie for the oven when Conor told her of their plan to go visit the Turner boy.  Tears didn't come easily to Ma Nuttall but when she heard what her fine young men were planning, she was in floods. Sure Conor had a kind heart deep down, no matter what the rest of them said.

Conor protested when his Ma forced him to take the note so that they could get a proper fish supper but she would have one of it. Her generosity, as well as her tears made the guilt coil even tighter. He accepted the money rather than argue, then he ushered his brothers along to the bus stop as quickly as he could. He was desperate to get moving, to do something other than sit and watch the three of them torment themselves. Besides, it was a fair old journey to the Royal Infirmary and he hoped they would get there in time for visiting hours.

***

Jimbo and the Youngest we're sitting in Jimbo's room when his Mum knocked on the door. She didn't usually knock.

'Paul is here.' She said with a gentle, forced sing song voice and a half smile.

'Alright Mouse.' Jimbo used the same tone as his Mum. It didn't suit him.

'Alright Jimbo, Youngest.' He nodded to them both. He was overdoing the cheerfulness too. The nods were almost a formal bow. Mouse stood in silence for a moment then said: 'I was thinking we ought to go and see the Eldest. All together sort of thing.' Then he addressed Jimbo's Mum, 'if that's alright with you Mrs Martin?'

'Of course it's alright. Hang on and I'll get some money for the bus. I think it would be nice to get flowers too.'

When she had gone the Youngest said: 'Do you want me to come too?'

'I want all of us to go together.' Mouse said. 'You should go and ask your Mum now.'

'I don't know if Mum will let me go all the way into town on my own.'

'You won't be on your own.' Mouse smiled. 'How about we come with you to make sure she knows what's going on? We can knock for everyone else on the way.'

All that took twenty minutes. In the end, it was only five of them that were ready. Purr-man hadn't been allowed out, Rabbit and Noj weren't home. When they knocked for Sparrow, it was his Dad that answered the door.  Mouse told him the plan and it looked for a minute like the grown man was going to cry. Then he did some furious blinking and shouted for his son. There was silence as they all stood there waiting for Sparrow.

'How about I drive you all up there?' Sparrow's Dad said.

'That's okay Mr S,' Mouse was very polite. 'We can get the bus.'

'Don't be daft lad, it'll only take a minute by car. You'll be hours on the bus.'

'You won't fit all of is in.'

'Course I will. It's a Granada. It’s like a proper settee in the back.'

Sparrow's Dad was right and it wasn't long before they were pulling in to the Royal Infirmary car park.

'Can you wait here for us Dad?' Sparrow said.

'Sure son, but I don't mind coming in.'

'I know, but I'd like us to go in together. You know, as a gang.' Sparrow shrugged slightly and his Dad smiled and patted him on the shoulder.

'Go on then.' He said. 'I'll get a cuppa and sit here until you get back.'

Mouse did the talking at reception. It was almost a surprise when he asked about Robert Turner rather than the Eldest. The sour faced lady behind the desk took ages. She seemed angry at having to go through her files just because a bunch of scruffy kids demanded it.

'Turner...Turner,' the lemon sucker mumbled. Then she found the right card and her face softened as she searched the details. By the time she had finished reading it was a sweet, caring old lady who gave Mouse directions to the Trauma Unit. The Youngest wondered how many times a day she went through this transformation and whether her face ached at the end of the day because of it.

It was easy enough to follow the directions. Just a lift then two corridors. The Youngest was expecting bright white lights and polished metal, but the corridor lights were a dull yellow and the walls were painted dirty blue, like old Formica. At the end of the corridor there were double doors with small circular windows. They pushed but the doors were locked.

'What now?' Sparrow whispered.

'I suppose we have to knock.' Mouse whispered too. 'No, there's a buzzer. Should I press it do you think?'  He took the shuffles and mumbles as a yes and pressed the button. If anyone heard it, they couldn't tell, but they didn't know what else to do so they stood in silence, then more silence, as if the quiet was layered and somehow thicker than usual.   

A click broke through the layers and another stern faced lady appeared as the door opened. When Mouse explained again why they were there, there was no change in her expression. An intensive care nurse must be tougher than a receptionist. She opened the door wider and waved them through.

'Is there no adult with you? There needs to be an adult.'

'It's alright Cathy,' Mrs Turner stood up from a row of chairs in the corridor and dusted herself down. 'I know these boys and I'll be happy to take responsibility for them.'

'Thanks Mrs Turner.' Mouse tried his best to smile. 'How is he?'   

'The doctors say he's still very poorly. Poorly but stable.' As she spoke the Youngest saw that she looked much older than the last time he had seen her. There was a brittleness to her, like dry Autumn leaves. He wondered if she had been waiting in this corridor all this time, slowly wilting in the darkness.

Mrs Turner gave a thin smile as she squeezed Mouse's hand. Then she turned to the rest of them.

'I'm sure that he'll be very pleased to see you all.' She said, and her red eyes glistened.

'Is he awake then?' Sparrow asked. His voice sounded harsh and metallic against the muffled hum of hospital noises.

'He was earlier, but only for a little while. He drifts in and out mostly. Don't worry though, I'm sure he'll know that you are here. Come on,' she took Mouse's hand again, 'I'll show you.'

The Youngest and Jimbo were last through the double doors. The rest of the gang were stood on the nearest side of the bed so they had to shuffle round to the other side. The Youngest tried not to gasp when he properly saw what was going on there, but he wasn't sure that he managed. The last time he had seen the Eldest, he was being carried into the ambulance and even though there had been a lot of blood on the road, he had looked quite normal. Since then, his face had swollen up and the right hand side of it had gone a vicious purple colour. You couldn't tell about the rest of his head because it was wrapped around and around in yellowish bandages. Some of his face was stained a brownish colour like an old man's tobacco fingers. There was a plastic tube sticking right into his hand, right in under the skin, and a little one that went into both his nostrils.

The Youngest felt sick. Worse than he had felt at the side of the road. Mrs Turner had used the word "poorly". When she had said that, he thought she had meant like when you were poorly with an earache or chicken pox. Looking at the Eldest now, the boy knew that poorly could be much worse. Then he realised that Mrs Turner was speaking. He couldn't know that it had been eighteen hours since she had last had someone to talk to. Her husband had been kind and caring but he was lost in his own despair.   Mouse was always a good listener and here he was now; nodding seriously, then shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders in just the right places. The voices drifted away as the Youngest became transfixed by the sound of the tubes hissing a slow rhythm as the bandaged chest rose and fell, rose and, fell. Then it was time to go. More squeezing of hands and the  Youngest got his hair ruffled, and they were back in the corridor. Mrs Turner was staying with her son, just for a few minutes longer.

The gang were heading to the lift when its doors scraped open. Four figures, one much taller than the others stepped out. The three smaller ones stopped dead. It took their older brother another second to notice so that he was about four paces ahead when he stopped too.

'What's up?' He asked.

Andrew nodded past his big brother to where the Avenue kids were standing. They too had stopped, apart from the Youngest, who took a step closer to Jimbo.

'Never mind,' Conor said. 'I get it.'

There was silence. Only the smaller ones moved at all, looking intently at other faces for a clue as to what would happen next.

'Alright lads?' Conor said. He didn't know what to do either but he was sure that the silence wasn't helping. He was right. He tried again.

'We are here to see your leader. See how he's getting on?'

'He's fine,' Mouse said. His tone was a flat line.

'Yeh? That's good.' Conor tried to hold the stare of this kid but it was difficult. 'Look, we're all upset about what happened...' Andrew nodded but kept his head lowered, focussing hard on the blue grey lino. Frankie and Johnny did the same, but Frankie kept glancing up at the Avenue kids. The Youngest noticed his expression. He was more curious than anything.

'You chased him under a van.' Mouse said slowly. '"Upset" doesn't quite cover it.'

'It wasn't like that.' Andrew said quietly.

'What was it like?' Mouse's voice echoed slightly, leaving a ringing sound that faded slowly.

Andrew looked up at the ceiling.

'Turner wanted the fight.' He said. Then he brought his gaze back to Mouse and his eyes seemed to focus, as if he was seeing them for the first time. 'You all did.' He took a breath. 'Otherwise, you wouldn't have done what you did to the Angel.'

He looked at the floor again so he didn't notice the guilty shifting of feet amongst some of the Avenue boys.

'But I am sorry.' He met their stares again. ' I really am sorry.'

'We're sorry too.' It was Jimbo that said it. The others looked at him and it took a few seconds for the words to sink in.

'Yeh,' Mouse said, 'it shouldn't have gone that far.

There was another silence. This one felt awkward rather than angry.

'I think we should go and see the lad now.' Conor said, moving back towards his brothers and resting a hand on Andrew's shoulder. 'He's the one we should be saying sorry to.'

Mrs Turner was pleased, if a bit confused, when the doors opened and more boys trooped in. She didn't recognise this lot but she knew that that Robert was well liked at school. Then the taller boy followed them in and it clicked for her. These were the rough boys from the estate that her son was always grumbling about. Robert must be more popular than she had realised.

'Hello.' She ventured, almost as a question, and gave them a smile.

'Mrs Turner,' The older boy said and then faltered. Mrs Turner noticed that the others just stared at the floor. She wasn't surprised. Hospitals were horrid places, more so when it was a sick child being cared for.

'We've come to see Turner, I mean Robert.' Andrew managed to lift his eyes for just a second before they were dragged back to the lino.'

'That's very nice of you. He's probably sleeping but it can't hurt to say hello.' She gestured them through the door. The Nuttall brothers gathered respectfully at the side of the bed.

'Hello Robert,' she said in a cheerful sort of half whisper, 'you've got more friends to see you.' There was a flicker of eyelids but nothing else.

'There you see? He is awake! I'll leave you  to chat, but not for long. He really is very tired.'

Andrew was relieved when Turner's Mum left them alone. He didn't know what he would have said if she had waited with them.

'You 'right Turner?' Andrew said, then Frankie took over.

'We've come to say sorry. You know, we didn't mean for the van to hit you.'

'Yeh,' Johnny joined in, ' and we're sorry about your bike too. That's smashed up even worse than you...'

'Johnny! Shut up!' Conor shouted as quietly as possible.

'Well, it was..'

'Just leave it will you?'

'So-rry.'

'Yeh,' Andrew took over.' We just came to say we never meant this to happen. Honestly.'

'Take it.' Came a murmur from under the bandages and tubes. Turner was speaking.

'What?'

'The Angel,' he paused, struggling for energy. 'You won it back.'

'Ah, that doesn't matter now.'

'It does to me.' The Eldest's voice rose slightly, but still only just audible above the hospital hum. 'It does to me.' He said again. 'You take it, then we're quits.'

'We're quits anyway.'

'No.' The Eldest seemed to be trying to raise his head but it was too much for him. 'You take it now.' Then his eyes flickered and he sank back into the wide hospital pillow. He mumbled some more before he fell asleep and Andrew was sure that he heard the phrase: 'Make it right.'

More about the author

About the author

Russell McAlpine abandoned his polymath ambitions to concentrate on writing and living a quiet life on the South Coast.

The Angel’s Head is his second novel.

He is also working on the screen play of a low budget zombie movie for children and writes poetry that will go to grave with him.

He spends the rest of his spare time watching the horizon.

Follow Russell on Twitter.

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