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'Her name's Sophie Gillespie. She's six months old.'
A surprisingly heavy burden, but perhaps that was because Gemma hadn't thought to bring a pushchair and she'd been holding the baby on her hip for far too long already. The A and E department of the Queen Mary Infirmary in Manchester, England, was heaving and, because it was Christmas Eve, it all seemed rather surreal.
Reams of tired-looking tinsel had been strung in loops along the walls. A bunch of red and green balloons had been tied to the display screen, currently advertising the waiting time as being an hour and a half. And if they were this busy when it wasn't quite seven p.m., Gemma knew that the waiting time would only increase as new cases came in by ambulance and demanded the attention of the doctors and nurses on duty in the department.
'Look this is an emergency.'
The middle-aged receptionist looked as if she'd seen it all. And she probably had. There was a group of very drunk teenage girls in naughty elf costumes singing and shouting loudly in a corner of the reception area. One of them was holding a bloodstained cloth to her face. Another was holding a vomit bag. A trio of equally drunk young men was watching the elves with appreciation and trying to outdo each other with wolf whistles. The expressions on the faces of the people between the groups were long-suffering. A woman sitting beside a small, crying boy looked to be at the end of her tether and she was glaring at Gemma, who appeared to be attempting to queue jump.
The receptionist peered over her glasses at Sophie, who wasn't helping. Thanks to the dose of paracetamol she'd given her as she'd left the house, the baby was looking a lot better than she had been. Her face was still flushed and her eyes over-bright but she wasn't crying with that frightening, highpitched note any more. She was, in fact, smiling at the receptionist.
'She's running a temperature,' Gemma said. 'She's got a rash.'
'It's probably just a virus. Take a seat, please, ma'am. We'll get her seen as soon as possible.'
'Whatin a couple of hours?'
Gemma could feel the heat radiating off the baby in her arms. She could feel the way Sophie was slumped listlessly against her body. The smile was fading and any moment now Sophie would start crying again. She took a deep breath.
'As soon as possible might be too late,' she snapped. 'She needs to be seen now. Please ' she added, trying to keep her voice from wavering. 'I just need to rule out the possibility that it's meningitis.'
'Rule out?' The receptionist peered over her glasses again, this time at Gemma. 'What are you, a doctor?'
'Yes, I am.' Gemma knew her tone lacked conviction. Could she still claim to be a doctor when it had been so long since she'd been anywhere near a patient?
'Not at this hospital you're not.'
Gemma closed her eyes for a heartbeat. 'I used to be.'
'And you're an expert in meningitis, then? What you're going to tell me you're a paediatrician?'
Like the other woman waiting with a child, the receptionist clearly thought Gemma was trying to queue jump. And now there were people behind her, waiting to check in. One was a man in a dinner suit with a firm hold around the waist of a woman in an elegant black dress who had a halo of silver tinsel on her head.
'Can you hurry up?' the man said loudly. 'My wife needs help here.'
Sophie whimpered and Gemma knew she had to do something fast. Something she had sworn not to do. She took another deep breath and leaned closer to the hole in the bulletproof glass protecting the reception area.
'No, I'm not a paediatrician and I don't work at this hospital.' Her tone of voice was enough to encourage the receptionist to make eye contact. 'But my husband does.' At least, he did, as far as she knew. He could have moved on, though, couldn't he? In more ways than just where he worked. 'And he is a paediatrician,' she added, mentally crossing her fingers that this information would be enough to get her seen faster.
'Oh? What's his name, then?'
The woman behind her groaned and clutched her stomach. The man pushed past Gemma.
'For God's sake, I think my wife might be having a miscarriage.'
The receptionist's eyes had widened at Gemma's words. Now they widened even further as her gaze flicked to the next person in the queue and a look of alarm crossed her face. She leapt to her feet, signalling for assistance from other staff members. Moments later, the man and his wife were being ushered through the internal doors. The receptionist gave Gemma an apologetic glance.
'I won't be long. I'll get you seen next and and I'll find out if your husband's on call.'
No. That was the last thing Gemma wanted.
Oh Lord. What would Andy think if someone told him that his wife was in Reception? That she was holding a child that she thought might have meningitis?
He'd think it was his worst nightmare. The ghost of a Christmas past that he'd probably spent the last six years trying to forget. Just like she had.
Dr Andrew Baxter was in his favourite place in the world. The large dayroom at the end of Queen Mary's paediatric ward.
He was admiring the enormous Christmas tree the staff had just finished decorating and he found himself smiling as he thought about the huge sack of gifts hiding in the sluice room that he would be in charge of distributing tomorrow when he was suitably dressed in his Santa costume.
It was hard to believe there had been a time when he hadn't been able to bring himself to come into this area of the ward. Especially at this particular time of year. When he'd been focused purely on the children who were too sick to enjoy this room with its bright decorations and abundance of toys.
Time really did heal, didn't it?
It couldn't wipe out the scars, of course. Andy knew there was a poignant ache behind his smile and he knew that he'd have to field a few significantly sympathetic glances from his colleagues tomorrow, but he could handle it now.
Enjoy it, even. And that was more than he'd ever hoped would be the case.
With it being after seven p.m., the day-room would normally be empty as children were settled into bed for the night but here, just like in the outside world, Christmas Eve sparkled with a particular kind of magic that meant normal rules became rather flexible.
Four-year-old Ruth, who was recovering from a bone-marrow transplant to treat her leukaemia, was still at risk for infection but her dad, David, had carried her as far as the door so that she could see the tree. They were both wearing gowns and hats and had masks covering their faces but Andy saw the way David whispered in his daughter's ear and then pointed. He could see the way the child's eyes grew wide with wonder and then sense the urgency of the whisper back to her father.
Andy stepped closer.
'Hello, gorgeous.' He smiled at Ruth. 'Do you like our Christmas tree?'
A shy nod but then Ruth buried her face against her father's neck.
'Ruthie's worried that Father Christmas won't come to the hospital.'
'He always comes,' Andy said.
His confidence was absolute and why wouldn't it be? He'd been filling the role for years now and knew he could carry it off to perfection. Being tall and broad, it was easy to pad himself out with a couple of pillows so that his body shape was unrecognisable. The latest beard and moustache was a glue-on variety that couldn't be tugged off by a curious child and it was luxuriant enough to disguise him completely once the hat was in place.
Ruth's eyes appeared again and, after a brief glance at Andy, she whispered in her father's ear again. David grinned at Andy.
'She wants to know if he's going to bring her a present.'
'Sure is.' Andy nodded. There would be more than one that had Ruth's name on it. Every child on the ward had a parcel set aside for them from the pile of the donated gifts and parents were invited to put something special into Santa's sack as well. Not that Ruth would be able to join the throng that gathered around the tree for the ceremony but, if her latest test results were good, she should be able to watch from behind the windows and receive her gifts at a safer distance.
'Of course, he can't come to deliver the presents until all the girls and boys are asleep,' Andy added, with a wink at David. 'Might be time for bed?'
Ruth looked at him properly this time. 'But how does he know I'm in hosin hostible?'
Andy knew his face was solemn. 'He just does,' he said calmly. 'Santa's magic. Christmas is magic.'
He watched David carry Ruth back to her room, making a mental note to chase up the latest lab results on this patient later tonight. He might put in a quick call to her specialist consultant as well, to discuss what participation might be allowable tomorrow.
Andrew Baxter was a general paediatrician. He was the primary consultant for medical cases that were admitted to the ward and stayed involved if they were referred on to surgeons, but he was also involved in every other case that came through these doors in some way. The 'outside' world was pretty irrelevant these days. This was his world. His home.
It didn't matter if the young patients were admitted under an oncologist for cancer treatment or a specialist paediatric cardiologist for heart problems or an orthopaedic surgeon who was dealing with a traumatic injury. Andy was an automatic part of the team. He knew every child who was in here and some of them he knew extremely well because they got admitted more than once or stayed for a long time.
Like John Boy, who was still in the day-room, circling the tree as he watched the fairy-lights sparkling. Eleven years old, John Boy had a progressive and debilitating syndrome that led to myriad physical challenges and his life expectancy was no more than fifteen to twenty years at best. If the cardiologists couldn't deal with the abnormalities that were causing a degree of heart failure this time, that life expectancy could be drastically reduced.
Of mixed race, with ultra-curly black hair and a wide, white smile, the lad had been fostered out since birth but had spent more of his life in hospital than out of it and he was a firm favourite on this ward. With his frail, twisted body now confined to a wheelchair, John Boy had lost none of his sense of humour and determination to cause mischief.
Right now, he was making some loud and rather disgusting noises, his head hanging almost between his knees. Andy moved swiftly.
'Hey, John Boy! What's going on?'
John Boy groaned impressively and waved his hand feebly. Andy looked down and stepped back hurriedly from the pile of vomit on the floor.
'Oh no '
A nurse, Carla, was climbing down the ladder she had used to fasten the huge star on the top of the tree.
'Oh no,' she echoed, but she was laughing. 'Not again, John Boy. That plastic vomit joke is getting old, you know?'
Andy nudged the offensive-looking puddle with his foot. Sure enough, the edge lifted cleanly. John Boy was laughing so hard he had to hold onto the side of his wheelchair to stop him falling out and the sound was so contagious everybody in the room was either laughing or smiling. The noise level was almost enough to drown out the sound of Andy's pager.
Still grinning, he walked to the wall phone and took the call. Within seconds his grin was only a memory and the frown on his face was enough to raise Carla's eyebrows. She straightened swiftly from picking up the plastic vomit. She dropped it in John Boy's lap, which caused a new paroxysm of mirth.
'What's up, Andy?'
But he couldn't tell her. He didn't want to tell anyone. It couldn't be true, surely? He kept his eyes focused on John Boy instead. On a patient. An anchor in his real world.
'His lips are getting blue,' he growled. 'Get him back to his room and get some oxygen on, would you, please, Carla?'
He knew they were both staring at him as he left the room. He knew that the tone of his voice had been enough to stop John Boy laughing as if a switch had been flicked off and he hated it that he'd been responsible for that.
But he hadn't been able to prevent that tone. Not when he was struggling to hold back so many memories. Bad memories.
Oh God If this was really happening, why on earth did it have to happen tonight of all nights?