He was little more than a boy, puppy fat finally losing the battle that it had so long dominated to the fresh strong muscle that bulged proudly on belly and calf; the first tentative shadow of bristle that had been hacked rather than shaved some hours earlier; a chin of corned beef shamelessly adorned with corners of bright pink toilet paper. A man-child yelling out in exultation, "Hey look, I shaved today." He was little more than a boy sitting by his mother's hospital bed.
For three days he had sat at his mother's side, leaving only for very short periods to attend to his hygiene and feeding needs. He hid his tears from the young nurses, who fought each other to be the one to attend the sick lady and bat her eyelashes at the good-looking young man. He slept in the hard-backed chair with his head resting on his forearms, his hand closed protectively over his mother's. He slept little, and looked tired and weary.
While awake he could hardly bear to look at his mother's swollen face. He had been the one to find her. Three days earlier he came home from college. She didn't answer his shout of "Mum I'm home, what's for tea?" Carl confessed that he knew something was wrong. His mother was always there to welcome him home when he got in. He found her collapsed on the floor in the kitchen. Her purse lay with its entrails bared on the carpet beside her. He hadn't been able to tell the police how much money 'they' had got away with, but he knew that his mother's meagre wage went into the bank on a Friday. By the time Thursday night arrived, her purse would hold little more than a few pounds and a handful of shrapnel. She had no chequebook or credit cards. She possessed no gold, and as far as anyone knew she had not recently come into possession of the crown jewels. Carl White's mother had been beaten to a pulp for less than most young lads would spend on a decent night out. As he told the police, for all he knew, the booty might even have been less than the price of a packet of cigarettes.
The first twenty-four hours that Joyce had lain in the coma had been critical. Carl was told to prepare himself for the possibility that she wouldn't see the night through. He was bereft, never ate, never slept, and never left her side. After the red-light first twenty-four hour period had passed, Joyce had lifted to a lighter state of unconsciousness, waking for a moment here and there, groaning out in pain and confusion before drifting back into healing oblivion. Her morphine had been upped and she had been moved to a side ward behind the nurses' station on ward six. Still in the high dependency unit but no longer attached to twenty-three wires and tubes. "Still very poorly but stable" was the stock phrase used for patients in that particular bed. A policeman stood guard night and day for the first two days, waiting for the moment she was lucid enough to make a statement. But as it became apparent that she was neither going to expire nor wake up full of the joys of spring and sing like a blackbird, the constant police presence gave way to intermittent guarding. By the third day, their urgency seemed to have diluted to a "call us when she can talk to us " left at the nurses' station. And Carl was left to contemplate his frustration and the ineptitude of the local police force.
The third time Joyce woke up she moaned out her son's name. He reached over for her hand and held it gently, willing her to be all right; frightened to broach the subject of the attack and yet wanting to probe softly to see what she could remember.
"Shh, it's all right Mum, I'm here. Everything's going to be okay. You're in hospital and they say you're going to be just fine. You were burgled and beaten up, probably by kids, the police say. Do you remember anything about it, Mum?"
Joyce screwed up her eyes and winced, trying hard to bring into focus the events that had led her to so much agony. She rested her grey eyes on her son's face and squeezed his hand with what little strength she could muster. He couldn't return her smile and his eyes filled once again with tears.
"I'm so sorry, Mum. I'm so damned sorry I wasn't there when this happened."
Her eyes clouded over with pain and she ran back to the nothingness of being unconscious.
The fourth day was an ordeal for Carl. Up until then the nursing staff had managed pretty successfully to hold the press back. A statement had been given by one of the bigwig hospital suits as to the seriousness of the attack and the state of Mrs. White's health. The press had camped in force in every B&B within a five-mile radius of the hospital. The attack on a defenceless middle-aged lady alone in her own house had been big enough news, even in these violent times, to warrant national coverage. Every tabloid wanted to get the enraged son's interview, or better yet the waking interview scoop with Mrs.White herself.
Partly due to the constant hounding by the press, and partly due to the fact that the police hadn't uncovered a single lead in the case and were getting heavily breathed on from above, something had to be seen to be done. It was decided that Carl should go on live television to do an appeal for information.
For two hours he was taken away from his mother's side and coached in what he should say. The interview was to go out live to the four major national networks. It would be shown on every news bulletin throughout the day. He was washed and blown dry, covered in claggy make-up, and made to feel ridiculous. Why couldn't he just get it over with and get back to his mum for Chrissakes? Yes, he knew what he was going to say. No, he didn't need to go through with it one more time, and no thank-you, if he drank one more glass of bloody water he would have more to worry about than a moist upper lip.
The interview was not a success, and frantic police officers made elaborate 'cutting' motions to the cameras. Carl had become very emotional, leaping from the teak interview table and overturning it in fury.
Everything had started off okay. "If anyone, anywhere has any information at all about what happened to my mum, I would be very grateful if you would come forward. Any information passed to us will be treated with the strictest conf " And then he had snapped. "I'm going to get the bastards who did this to my mum. And I'm warning you, you scum, when I do you're going to be so sorry you were ever fucking born you sons of bit "
This was not at all the image they wanted to portray. The poor kid was distraught, fair enough, but they had been aiming for the sympathy vote, not some raving loony on a vigilante crusade. Carl had been escorted from the room while the TV crews loved every second of coverage they were getting. Okay, the interview would be cut from the later broadcasts, but this one went out live to the lunchtime nation.
It took a long time to calm Carl down. Even after he had returned to his mother's sick room he was still ranting at his mother's friend who had been called to assist in the interview. Joyce woke up twice that afternoon and both times he yelled at her, "Mum who did this to you? What did they look like? Can you tell me anything, ANYTHING at all that will help me find them? I'm going to kill them for what they did to you."
That night he left the hospital on the pretence of going home for some sleep. Two hours later he was involved in a street fight with some local youths that had called him a 'nutter' after seeing the television interview. Carl had never fought before, but it came oddly easy to him. He told the police that it had been target practise for the real battle. One of the youths needed hospital treatment for a cut eye. Carl had to be cautioned. The police made every allowance for his state of mind, but he just couldn't be allowed to take his anger out on the general public.
That night Joyce had a nightmare. She was lying on the cold tiles of the kitchen floor, her hands raised in a feeble attempt to cover her head. The leg clad in black jeans just kept on kicking her. Kicking, kicking, kicking. In her sleep she curled foetally and moaned loudly.
The man was still booting her in the face, in the soft yielding flesh of her belly. The nightmare attacker yelled the same word over and over again. " No, no, no, no, NO."
And then the dream abruptly changed; she was dishing out cottage pie for Carl. He had just come in from college and everything was nice. Bright yellow lighting, bright yellow wallpaper, her nice bright yellow life. Carl was telling her about the night out he had planned with his mates.
Joyce woke up, screaming at the top of her voice, "Don't tell me NO!"
Carl was at her side in an instant, calming, soothing, being the good boy that he always was. Such a good boy. Such a comfort. She'd had him late in life. He never blamed her for that. Never blamed her for not being able to give him everything he wanted; all the material things that the other boys had. Some of his friends drove cars already but that was way beyond Joyce's budget. Carl was a sensible lad and said that once he had finished with his apprenticeship and college he would be able to afford himself a decent car. All his hard work would pay off and then he'd look after her for a change and see that she got some of the nicer things in life. Carl knew it had been tough for his mother bringing him up on her own. He admired her for her strength and happy character. Life had not been easy for them all the time, but they had always had each other, and respect and love had seen them through the difficult times.
Carl was seventeen now. He had grown into such a son to be proud of. Joyce turned her face into the pillow to hide her tears of shame. She saw Carl's face again. Then she saw it as it had been last Thursday, when she'd asked him not to go out that night. A beautiful face contorted with ugly rage. "Don't tell me no, you old bitch."
Joyce closed her eyes to blot out the vision of the size ten boot crashing down towards her face.