Next of Kin (5)

The phone receiver is firmly attached to my ear. I feel sure that this will help speed up the process, which of course is a ridiculous thought. I listen to the phone ringing for what seems an inordinately length of time. My throat has dried up. My hands are moist. I know that once the phone is answered, there will be more waiting while whoever it is who picks it up finds Michael. It will take more time. I am scared – scared of what to say, scared of my emotions and of letting the side down in front of these strangers, kind as they are.

Sitting here and having to accept a situation that is out of my control is almost unbearable. I say ‘almost’ because I am dealing with it, just not very well. We do have the beginnings of a plan: contact Michael, contact Emma our daughter who is in Sheffield and then contact the rest of the family and friends.

My thoughts focus on Ed, wondering whether they have finished operating on him yet, whether he is with people who know him. What will the operation mean? What have the surgeons had to do? Not knowing what is going on in Camp Bastion, not to be there by his side, not to be waiting for him after surgery, not to be there should he die, not to be there if he should wake all seems terribly wrong. As mothers, our unconditional love and belief that we can make it better, no matter ‘what it is’ never leaves us. And now it is plaguing me. A sense of failure has crept in. And yet I know that I have to trust those that are doing their very best to keep him alive and those that are working behind the scenes for him and for us.

While these thoughts have been madly swirling around my head, the Lieutenant Colonel has written down Ed’s injuries on the back of a card. This helps me. It reads as follows:

“Ed has suffered a shrapnel wound to his right upper chest, a lower leg injury to his left leg and significant blood loss. He is ventilated at the moment (09.40) and undergoing surgery and a CT scan today. The aeromedevac team (medical specialists to accompany seriously injured personnel on aircraft) are preparing to accompany him back to the UK. He is very seriously injured. The incident happened on a patrol at 04.20 on Friday 21 May as a result of the explosion (Improvised Explosive Device – IED). Another marine was killed in the incident.”

Having this card in my hand is the nearest I can get to being beside him.

The phone is at last answered by the Second Officer on board the ship who says he will get Michael to call me back. The ship is a Liquid Natural Gas tanker, 279 metres long and 42 metres wide –it could take Michael more than five minutes to get to the phone on the bridge or in his cabin. I was thinking of all the places he could be. Maybe he is down one of the tanks. Maybe he is out on deck in his orange boiler suit. Maybe he has not heard that there is a call for him yet – although that is unlikely as he always has a walkie-talkie on him. If he is down a ballast tank then it really will take quite a while to get back up to his cabin to call me back. There is nothing any of us can do right at this minute. We need to wait for him to call. He must be the next person who is told the news, however long it takes him to call me back.

We have had an agreement for twenty eight years that if I ring the ship, Michael knows it is important. Of course we speak regularly on the phone, but he is the one to make the call. Gone are the days of the incomprehensible telegram and the hand-written letter that takes a few weeks to reach him. In the days of letter writing, it was almost pointless asking a question because by the time I received the reply, I had forgotten what the question was. Over the years the only reason I have called him is to break sad news to him…grandparents dying, great aunts dying, my parents dying and losing our third child who was stillborn. I am about to shatter his world again.

If he has got the message, I wonder what sort of sad news he is expecting. It seemed a hopeless situation. The longer I waited, the more I realised that I could not control something that was out of my grasp. Each challenge we faced had no simple answers. Would Michael be coming home to pay his last respects to his son, or would he be able to speak to him again and give him a hug and sit by his bed as he recovers? Nobody could give me answers. We had to move forwards believing very hard that he would live. I battled with the thought that this all felt like an equation with no variables.

The gentlemen and I remained in our seats at the table waiting for the return call. It seemed infinite. I kept staring at the phone, urging it to ring; but then wishing it would never ring so that I did not have to break the news to Michael. I fiddle with a rubber on the table, turning it over repeatedly – first one way, then the other. How am I going to work out what to say? How do I start? Is there a right way to break this sort of news? I put the question to the present company. “Just tell it as it is” they say.

I feel another wave of panic erupting, a bit like watching a saucepan of milk suddenly boil over. How come the world is trained in useless tasks everywhere – but when it comes to really important stuff, we have no idea how to choose the right words. What good is education when faced with this? There is no book I can turn to for information and if there is a book out there, it is not here on the kitchen table right now so it is of no use to me.

My world as I knew it half an hour ago has fallen down a precipice. It has vanished and is nowhere to be found. One knock on the door and my life has been adopted by the military in support of my son. Nothing around me seems familiar now. The dogs seem to sense the awfulness of it all – they have all sloped off to their beds, not a whisker stirs. The only vital things in my mind now are getting hold of Michael and praying that Edward gets through his surgery. There seems little relevance or importance to anything else.


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