The trip to the lavvy took far longer than Lynn intended – she ran into so many people she had to say goodbye to – really the hospital had been just wonderful – and when she got back Charlotte was back in the carry cot and Sarah was sitting on the bed, transfixed by the muted television. On the screen, the eager crowds outside the hospital waved banners and gifts. Stills flashed up: Sarah and Peter on holiday in Ibiza; Sarah in the hospital, tubes everywhere; Peter snapped in the street, gaunt with worry; Peter with Charlotte. Lynn’s heart contracted: it hurt to relive it.
“Micah told you not to watch,” she tutted, switching the channel to Cbeebies. Rastamouse bounced across the screen, guitar in hand. Sarah’s beautiful face was pale. A single tear was making tracks in the careful professional make-up Micah had organised. Lynn rummaged in her handbag for her compact and held it out to her daughter.
“Mum?” said Sarah, not moving. “The person they’re all waiting for, it’s not me.”
Lynn patted powder on to repair the streaks, wishing she could fix everything as easily.
“I know it’s a lot to take in, love, I do. But they love you.”
“How can they love me? They don’t know me.”
“And Peter loves you. And Charlotte. And Dad. and me.”
She squeezed Sarah’s hand. Sarah wanted to scream that none of them knew her but instead she squeezed back. Lynn turned her attention to Charlotte.
“Mummy will feel better when we get her home, won’t she poppet? Who’s Nanna’s princess?”
Sarah baulked inwardly at the baby talk, but said nothing as she took the baby. The weight still surprised her: her daughter was solid and strong. Charlotte’s little face wrinkled and reddened as she wound herself up for a big cry.
“You take her, Mum, she’s better with you.”
Lynn demurred, but Charlotte made a liar of her, calming down instantly.
“Hush. It will come”
Baby or no, Lynn couldn’t keep still. She bustled about, re-checking cupboards she’d already checked, keeping up a constant stream of chatter that was only partly to distract Sarah. Truth be told, she was thrilling with happiness and even Sarah’s obvious anxiety couldn’t dull the feeling. Lynn couldn’t remember being this happy since the day that chubby Geordie nurse laid Sarah in her arms a quarter-century ago. Not even the day Sarah woke up.
Sarah let her mother witter on, listening just enough to know when to grunt a response. Her right hand, the chewed fingernails masked with acrylics, worried at the angry red scar on her left arm. It was becoming a tic. Touching it made the fear recede. It was proof a violence had been committed against her, that everything was not okay, despite what everyone said.
The room – her home these past, bewildering weeks – had been cleared of all the presents and flowers. Her few personal possessions were packed, waiting for her in the car. Without them, the room was sterile but she was loath to leave. She had nothing. Knew nothing. No idea what the car looked like. No idea what the house she was going home to looked like. No idea how she was supposed to get up in the morning or what she was supposed to do. She sat on the edge of the bed with the unfamiliar designer clothes she’d been given covering the body she didn’t recognise and felt her grip on reality slipping away.
The door opened and Peter strutted in, groomed to a gloss, with Micah trotting behind, glued to her Blackberry. Lynn lit up like a schoolgirl with a crush.
“All sorted” he said, “How’s my beautiful Mother-in-Law today? And my bewdiful baby girl?”
Sarah watched Lynn’s giddy worship and tried to remember if her mother had liked Peter that much Before.
Peter took Charlotte from Lynn and carried her to Sarah
“And our beautiful, miraculous baby-mama?”
“Don’t call me that”
Lynn and Peter exchanged glances.
“Go to Mummy,” he said and held Charlotte out. Sarah stopped worrying at the scar and reluctantly took the baby.
“Isn’t that the most amazing sight?”
He leaned over to kiss her. She steeled herself not to turn away. Micah glanced up.
“Wait!” She thumbed the device in her hand and held it up, clicked off a picture of the three of them.
“Twitter,” she said, as though that explained things. Charlotte started crying again.
“Somebody take her,” said Sarah, holding her out. Lynn bustled forward.
“You’re going to have to hold her in the press conference, so just laugh it off if she cries. It’s what babies do”. Micah barely even looked up from her Blackberry to issue the order.
“And what if I don’t?”
Lynn chortled at the snappy tone.
“And that’s why Grampy calls Mummy Little Strop.”
Micah turned to Peter.
“Are we going to have a problem here?”
“Hello? I’m here. You can talk to me.”
Peter was all charm.
“Hey, we’re all on the same team here. It’s a big day for Micah, too. This is important. For us. For our family.”
He cradled Charlotte’s head tenderly in his wide, flat palm and reached out with the other hand to stroke Sarah’s cheek. The gesture almost destroyed the brittle composure she’d built up. She looked at the floor.
“Good,” said Micah, “It’s time to go.”
Sarah fumed to see Lynn and Peter jump to Micah’s command. Once again her frailty frustrated her. ‘Wait till I’m well,’ she thought, ‘then we’ll see who’s boss’.
Peter helped her into the wheelchair the hospital supplied. Sarah’s anxiety switched up a notch: she smoothed her skirt to dry the damp from her palms. Lynn jiggled Charlotte in her arms and made her laugh.
“A joyous sound for a joyous occasion!”
The speaker was a burly older man who swept into the room with the entitlement of success. Micah snapped to attention and the Blackberry disappeared from sight.
“Rex,” she said, visibly flustered. “You made it.”
Sarah made the connection, dragging the information up from the recesses of her damage brain. Rex Boyd, the self-proclaimed King of PR. She’d met him once at one of Lorenzo’s openings. He brought a page 3 girl who vomited in a sculpture. He was locked on Micah now, telling her in famously dulcet tones what a great job she was doing. He shook Peter’s hand, kissed Lynn’s, then turned the wattage of his attention on Sarah.
“And you’re our Sleeping Beauty. It’s truly a pleasure to meet you, Sarah. How are you feeling? Are you ready for this?”
Sarah nodded dumbly, hypnotised by the warmth of his hands, the promise of his gaze. He smiled reassuringly and she felt good, like she’d been praised by a favourite teacher. The devil wears Prada, indeed.
They moved out en masse, their progress down the corridor slowed by the nursing staff and orderlies saying their final farewells. Lynn was in her element, lapping up the attention.
As they approached the conference room an excited buzz leached into the corridor. Sarah’s heart rate shot up. Suddenly she couldn’t go through with it. She felt a strangling fear of what waited for her through those doors, outside the hospital, of the enormity of living up to everyone’s expectations. She felt an urgent impulse to flee and tried to stand but the chair was still moving and she crashed to the ground. Hands were everywhere, grasping at her. She flailed at them, wanting to be left alone and the tears that crept out earlier rushed out in a flood of frustration and fear.
“I can’t, I can’t,” she blubbered, hating herself for being so weak.
Rex lifted her into his arms and carried her into an empty room, everyone else hurrying behind.
“We’re going to be late”
Micah was terse but Rex stilled her with a gesture.
“They’ll wait. It’s Mum here we need to worry about.”
He put his arm around Sarah, spoke softly and calmly as her shoulders shuddered, “We’ll only go in if you want to.”
Sarah wondered if she could believe him. She looked into his face and he held her gaze with limpid grey eyes. She looked away first, and saw Micah and Peter head-to-head in the corner.
‘He’s got more time for her than for me.’
The thought came unbidden, and left unexamined.
“Do I have to go in?” she asked quietly.
“Yes, Sarah, you have to,” said Peter, “Otherwise it all goes away.”
“Calm down,” said Rex. To Sarah, he said, “You don’t have to go out there, I promise you. But those people out there won’t go away. I know this isn’t something you asked for but you’re part of something huge. You’ve only had a few weeks to adjust to this but people have followed your story for months. When Peter married you it was reported in a few women’s magazines but Charlotte’s birth was reported around the world. And when you woke up, it was the biggest story in town.”
A nurse appeared with water. Sarah drank, wishing she was washing down something that would take her away from it all.
“If you go out there now, you give them closure. They get what they’ve waited so long for: to see the Sleeping Beauty in person, reunited with her Prince Charming and carrying their miraculous baby. Seeing you together as a family for the first time, that’s what they’re here for: the happy ending.”
“And if she doesn’t go out there?” Peter’s tone was still terse. Sarah remembered the fights, the grudges that could be held for days.
“They’ll still want that happy ending, I’m afraid”
He looked genuinely regretful. Part of Sarah admired him.
“If you go out there now, you take control. You and Peter – with our help – will control the story.”
Sarah nodded slightly: he made sense. Peter jumped into the opening: he crouched before her and took her hands in his.
“I know it’s scary, I do. It was weird for me too, at first. But this nightmare is giving us our dreams, baby. Everything we ever wanted can be ours now.”
Sarah looked at the husband she didn’t remember marrying. She looked up at her mother, who smiled encouragingly. Lynn was rocking the grandchild she’d longed for in her arms: Sarah knew how much it meant to her. What choice did she really have? No home of her own. No job. Fourteen months is a long time to be out of the world.
“I’ve ruined my make up,” she said, smoothing her skirt again.
“That, we can fix,” said Rex, and snapped his fingers at Micah.
Once again, Sarah submitted herself to the care of others. She sat motionless while they made up her face; shook her head when offered the mirror. On the day of the accident, she’d confirmed a commission for a spread in Wallpaper that could have been her big break. The issue would have come and gone, some other photographer’s work filling the pages. She was no longer unknown, but now the lens was on her.
Just outside the conference room, Sarah held up her hand.
Micah and Peter exchanged exasperated looks. Sarah pretended not to notice.
“Peter should carry me over the threshold”
“Oh, yes!” said Lynn
“Genius,” said Rex. He caught Micah’s eye and winked.
Peter swept her up in his arms, his body slight and cool and unfamiliar. He looked down in her eyes. He half-smiled then stopped as his eyes started to fill with tears. He blinked them back with a nervous laugh.
“This is genius,” he whispered. “I knew you’d come through. We’re gonna be a great team. I love you…Mrs Ackbourn.”
His kiss was soft and tender. Sarah noticed a loose lash on his eyelid. What had he told people? she wondered, not for the first time. But when the kiss ended she smiled at him. Micah took a family snap with Lynn beside them holding Charlotte then, finally, Rex opened the door to the conference room.
Covering the back wall were giant reproductions of newspaper headlines on the day Sarah came out of the coma. Sarah turned her head away. As Peter stepped through the door the buzz turned to applause and cheers, then the thunder of rubber chair ends dragging on vinyl as the assembled stood as one, but the audience were invisible behind the wall of exploding light.
Peter put her gently to her feet and helped her get steady, all the time smiling down into her face. She smiled back and kept her gaze locked on him, until Lynn stepped forward with Charlotte. She passed the swaddled bundle to Sarah. Charlotte wrinkled her face, but stayed asleep. Sarah’s smile widened. Peter stood at Charlotte’s head and Lynn stepped aside. A cheer went up and the flashbulbs went wild. Sarah stood outside herself. Rex looked happy. Micah looked happy. Lynn was beside herself. In her minds’ eye she could see perfect composition for a picture titled ‘the happy family’, so she looked into Peter’s blandly handsome face, and tilted her head a little, gifting the shot to the photographers. And wondered if she believed in happy ever afters.