It seemed wrong to post the chapter without the preceding one. This is it.
The Calm before the Storm, from Watching Petals Fall
Juliette always loved being outdoors, but our garden was tiny. The house had been a school, and a large part of the playground area was once the village’s air raid shelter. When the school moved to a new building, developers had turned the shelter into a huge garage that now dominated our outside space. Juliette had the idea to knock it down.
Steph and I found reasons not to do it. Where would we keep all our stuff? Could we afford it? As the garage formed a barrier to the road, we wondered how we would contain the dog once it had gone. Juliette however had visions of grass to play on and nagged me to call demolition companies until I relented.
Amid a great deal of mud and argument with the contractor, the garage and rubble from the foundations were finally removed, and Steph, Elodie, Juliette, Pierre and I spent a day digging and raking the ground in preparation for laying the turf. By early evening Elodie and Pierre had given up, and Steph and I were exhausted. Not Juliette, though. She continued raking well into the twilight, all by herself.
In June, the country celebrated the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Juliette was excited by the pomp and passion of the Jubilee and with photographs and film clips of the Queen everywhere, she developed her own startlingly realistic impression of the monarch. She captured the Queen’s eyes, her walk, demeanour and imaginary crown jewels. She loved it when people laughed.
The girls’ school put on a special production celebrating the years of the Queen’s reign and the annual village fete had a Jubilee theme. Elodie and Juliette painted each other’s faces and decorated umbrellas with red, white and blue before joining a procession of other villagers from the green down to the main field where the fete was taking place. Union jacks fluttered in the sunshine and a brass band played.
The fete weekend was the point where we were finally able to walk on our new turf. We were all pleased with how it looked but it was Juliette who initiated picnics, games of football and lay stretched out to luxuriate in the space.
Two weeks later Dido and her husband, Mike came to England with their children. They had arranged for their four-month old baby, Sophie, to be baptised by a friend of theirs in London and had asked me to be one of the godmothers. Sophie wore the christening gown that my grandmother, who we called ‘Baggy,’ had embroidered with a new flower for each baby that wore it. When Baggy died soon after Pierre was born, my aunt and I tried to continue the tradition, but lacked her vision and skill. After Sophie’s christening there was a lunch party at my dad’s weekday flat in West Kensington. Juliette was not well. She spent most of the afternoon curled up in Steph’s arms.
After a few days, Juliette was better and we joined the rest of the family at my parents’ house. They had heated their small pool and the garden rang with shrieks of joy from the children in the water. Dried off, they ran around playing an elaborate Harry Potter-inspired game. Both boys wanted to be the lightning-scarred hero and Elodie and Annie shared the role of Hermione.
‘Which character are you, Juliette?’ I asked.
‘Susan Bones,’ she replied, wielding her twig wand with a giggle.
‘Well, I didn’t want to be the same as everyone else.’
Cousin Harry celebrated his sixth birthday while we were there. On my parents’ piano Elodie had taught herself the basic notes of ‘Happy Birthday,’ and she played as we sang to the little blond boy. He blew out the candles on his special Spiderman cake, which Dido had spent hours making. It was a work of art. Dido first honed her skills from library books, creating the three-tiered walnut cake Steph and I had at our wedding.
After the weekend we all dispersed, but gathered again at our house a few days later for Raphi’s first birthday. We had a party in the garden, with a shop-bought cake. Juliette was at her healthy best, loud and giggly. She played football with the other children and Tarik. ‘Why aren’t you filming me, Mummy?’ she asked.
Dido took her family back to the States, and Elodie, Juliette and Pierre settled back into the last weeks of school and nursery before term ended. The weather was beautiful and on one Saturday morning, I took them to pick strawberries at nearby farm. I wanted to make jam for the first time.
Elodie’s picking started well but she soon got distracted, chatting and eating many of the berries from her basket. Pierre stuck close to me, gabbling his thoughts excitedly as his chin became ever more red-stained. Juliette did not say a word. She started close to me but then marched across the field in pursuit of another group of pickers. She guessed correctly that they had found a good patch.
Coming home, they all sat with baskets on their knees and Elodie and Pierre continued to pop berries in their mouths. Juliette was almost in tears. ‘Don’t eat them,’ she pleaded, ‘they’re for Mummy’s jam!’ She herself did not eat even one.
On the 6th of July, we set off back up the A12 for our second holiday in Southwold. The children were thrilled to be back in the same house we had rented the previous year, with Elodie and Juliette happily rediscovering their attic bedroom. Pierre’s little room now had to accommodate a travel cot for his baby brother.
The familiarity was lovely. We beat a well-trodden path to the little supermarket on the high street for supplies and bought boogie board floats for the children. Without her Hickman line, this year Juliette could swim. As the children were a bit older, we had packed plenty of card and board games. We played these at the kitchen table when the weather kept us inside.
It was familiar, yet so unlike the previous year. Not being heavily pregnant, I had more energy for activities but the most striking contrast was Juliette. She seemed a different person to the fragile one of our last holiday. She squawked with her brothers and sister, doing a wiggly-bottomed naked dance at the bedroom window, to her own hysterical giggles and Elodie’s horrified ones. All the time the girls sang a song they had learned that term at school. It was called ‘Dreaming of a Summer Holiday.’ They tried to teach it to Pierre, and Steph and I learned the words by exposure… Dreaming, of going on a holiday with sun and sea, going to places I’ve never seen before, out of doors…
Steph and I felt at last that we could relax. Juliette clowned and we laughed, and all at once, I pictured her as a teenager with Elodie; the first time I’d been able to imagine her future since she’d been ill. I told Steph. It felt like a good omen.
Always in a hurry to get to places Juliette would stride ahead of us in the mornings, dragging her crabbing net on the ground, her pink bucket slung over one arm. ‘Mummeee, what are we doing today…?’ became a refrain that Elodie and Pierre took up that week, in parody of Juliette.
Most days we tried to get down to the beach, although it was often not warm enough to stay very long. We visited the local Otter Sanctuary. Dragonflies zipped out of the long, lush grass all around us, and kingfishers swooped over the surface of the clearest river I have ever seen. Elodie, Juliette and Pierre gathered feathers to make Native American headwear. On another day, we drove to Norfolk to see the aunt I called ‘Old Aunt’ and her husband, my Uncle William. My cousin Sarah joined us for an outdoor tea and treasure hunt with her two children. My uncle, who had spent the later part of his career photographing ballet dancers, took pictures of all the children playing in the garden.
We ate fish and chips at Southwold estuary harbour, leaving the car there to walk the mile or so along the beach to the town. Elodie, Juliette and Pierre ran ahead, wading through puddles left on the sand by the retreating sea.
‘I think I’m in heaven,’ I said to Steph. Juliette appeared beside me stuffing pebbles and shells into my pockets.
‘Only white ones, Mummy.’ One of her stones had a hole all the way through it.
‘That’s good luck!’ I told her, and she grinned. I wondered if she was humouring me – Steph joked that I had missed the beautiful tropical horizons on our honeymoon because I spent too much time scanning the ground for pebbles and shells – but it was a lovely thing to share.
The next day we crossed the estuary on the Walberswick Ferry to catch crabs. The ‘ferry’ was just a man with a rowing boat and the children sat three abreast, bubbling with excitement during the ten minute journey. I sat with Raphi on my lap and Steph struggled with the pushchair.
On the estuary bridge at the other side, seagulls hovered as we tied strips of bacon to our crabbing lines and waited for a bite. I helped Juliette. She loved scooping the crabs up in her net and dropping them into the bucket. She was fascinated by a group of teenage boys who were picking up their captured crabs and holding them aloft before releasing them beside the water. ‘I want to hold a crab, Mummy.’
‘No, darling, it’ll nip you,’ I said, too scared to help her. I turned to give Pierre a hand untangling his line.
Juliette was quiet for a few minutes then said, ‘Look, Mummy!’
She was holding her crab. Its claws flailed but they could not reach her fingers. She looked so proud. ‘How on earth did you manage that?’
‘I watched to see how the boys did it.’
For the second year running, Saz and Tarik came to stay in a nearby Bed & Breakfast for the weekend. We took them crabbing, played boules, and Tarik read stories to the children.
We had arranged for Juliette’s blood test each Monday at Ipswich hospital. The first test had been fine and the second time we went in, Juliette and the others played noisily in the waiting room. It made me realise again how different things were and how relatively relaxed we had become. Juliette’s blood test was still normal.
We promised the children an ice cream and kite flying at Dunwich beach on our way back to Southwold. Steph and Elodie took charge of the kite, and Juliette was bored. She came to sit next to me, letting a stream of pebbles flow from her fingers between Raphi’s chubby, outstretched legs. He reached out to catch them as they tumbled. A ghost of the image of Juliette amongst the petals in London passed over me. I took pictures, while Steph, Elodie and Pierre flew the kite in the distance beyond us. On the way back to the car, we found an enchanted-looking grassy dell on the scrubby heath, and I told the children I saw fairies there.
The next morning, Juliette came into our bedroom early. She did not feel well, and I checked her forehead for a temperature. She was hot. We knew though from the previous day’s blood test that she was not neutropaenic, so we relaxed. I opened the curtains. Grey clouds threatened rain so it was easy deciding to play games at the house and not go anywhere. Juliette lay quietly on the sofa beside us, covered with a blanket. ‘Do you feel any better, darling?’ I asked her at bath time. She shook her head.
‘Mummy, can I sleep in your bed tonight?’
In the eighteen months of Juliette’s illness, I had tried to keep some rules, and one of the rules was she always slept in her own bed. ‘Yes, you can sleep with me,’ I heard myself saying. Steph wouldn’t mind spending the night beside Elodie.
Juliette fell asleep while I read my book. I switched off the light and put my arms around her. My hands felt cool on her hot skin.
When I woke up on that sunny Wednesday morning, I spent a few moments studying my daughter’s beautiful sleeping face. She seemed to sense me watching her. She opened her eyes and a long look passed between us, like the ones we had shared when she was a baby.
‘How are you feeling, my darling?’ I asked. ‘Do you want to do something exciting today or would you like another quiet one?’
‘Another quiet day,’ she said, closing her eyes.
I went downstairs where the others were eating breakfast. ‘I think I’ll take Elodie and Pierre to the Transport Museum,’ said Steph. ‘They loved it last year.’
Elodie went to see Juliette, still in our bed, to let her know what they were going to do. Juliette cried. ‘I’ll get up,’ she said. ‘I want to go to the Transport Museum too.’ She wasn’t well.
‘How about if they just go crabbing at the harbour again,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t mind missing that, would you?’ Juliette shook her head. As soon as the others had gone, Juliette got up.
‘Let’s play the Shopping Game, Mummy.’
She just wanted me on my own, I thought.
I didn’t mind. We played the card game she chose, and afterwards she wanted to draw. She picked up an electric pink felt tip and traced around her hand, colouring it in and then used a purple one to write ‘J u i l e t t e L a f o s s e’ solemnly within the shape.
She was colouring, but then all of a sudden she stopped. Her pen fell with a thud onto the paper. She looked up at me. Her skin was grey, her eyes dark-ringed.
‘Darling, you really don’t feel very well do you?’ She shook her head. I took her temperature again. 38.5⁰. I did a quick mental calculation and realised that after two days, it was possible she was neutropaenic.
I rang Steph on his mobile. ‘We have to take her in, don’t you think?’ I asked him.
‘Yes. Can you come and pick us up in the car?’ We agreed that Steph would stay at the hospital if necessary, because I was still breastfeeding Raphi. I phoned the hospital, packed an overnight bag for Steph and walked with Juliette to the car.
The others were lined up on the harbour wall. Steph threw their crabbing lines and buckets into the boot, and we swapped seats so he could drive. When we got to the hospital, a nurse showed us into a tiny side room on the day ward while they prepared to take blood from Juliette.
It was a routine we had been through hundreds of times. I bought a newspaper but unusually, I could not concentrate to read it. Juliette was sleepier than normal, and snapped at us all if we sat on her bed, or if Elodie and Pierre were too noisy. She refused the fish fingers a nurse brought her at teatime.
As we waited for Juliette’s results, the fever started to make her delirious. I asked her what she was trying to say, but this too made her irritable. She needed a wee so I took her to the little cubicle across the hall from her room. I held her as I often did when she was ill, kneeling on the floor so I could put my arms around her to support her weight. We were like that for a while until I realised she had gone to sleep. I tried to lift her up but then she woke and said, ‘No, Mummy I do need a wee.’ Eventually I did take her back to the room, to find a young doctor with a small sheet of paper in his hand.
‘She’s not neutropaenic,’ he said, ‘and all her other levels are normal. There’s no reason for us to keep her in, which is good news,’ he smiled. ‘You can carry on with your holiday.’
I had always hated being in hospital. Over the previous year and a half, my heart sank each time Juliette had to be admitted and I felt huge relief when she was well enough to leave. In that moment however, I did not feel relief. I felt anxious. Something was not right.
I exchanged a look with Steph, and knew he felt as I did. ‘I think we would rather she stayed in tonight, if that’s alright.’
The young doctor shrugged. He did not know Juliette. All he had was his experience and the results in front of him, and neither of those told him that our daughter needed hospital care. He sighed. ‘Alright. I’ll find her a bed.’
It was by now early evening. We were a forty-five minute drive from Southwold and Steph persuaded me to leave so that I could get Raphi into bed. He was getting tired. I drove back, hoping that none of them would fall asleep on the journey. After a quick bath and a last feed for Raphi, I settled him into his cot. I realised I had forgotten to get Pierre’s pyjamas out of the room and instead of risking waking the baby, I found some nightclothes of Juliette’s for Pierre.
It made sense for him to sleep in Elodie’s room. I read them a story and as I went to switch off the light, I looked at Pierre. He lay in Juliette’s bed wearing her favourite pyjamas, and suddenly I had a horrible premonition.
It was not the first. More than once I thought, ‘maybe that’s the last time I’ll ever see her alive,’ as I left hospital in the evenings, but this one seemed especially poignant. Pierre had physically taken Juliette’s place next to Elodie, and was wearing something of hers. What if that meant that Juliette was never coming home?
Steph called me on my mobile at about eight the next morning. ‘How’s our Looby lu?’ I asked.
‘She’s OK, she slept really well. Hang on…’ Steph laughed, ‘she’s asking what time breakfast is. I’d better go, you know what she’s like! Don’t rush to get here. They’re talking about keeping her in one more night for observation.’
We pottered in the house; Elodie and Pierre watched some television and we played a couple of board games. Late in the morning, we headed off to the hospital. I switched on Radio 4 as I often did in the car. Woman’s Hour was on. One of the segments had interviews with kindly voiced women and after a few exchanges, I realised they were from a firm of all-female undertakers.
The undertakers were telling the interviewer about how they tried to make things easier for the bereaved. One of the families they mentioned was grieving for a man who had been a keen angler, and the undertakers suggested their loved one be buried in his fishing clothes with some of his equipment. This had made the family laugh. They seemed lovely, sympathetic, and made death sound peaceful and acceptable.
During this reverie, my mobile rang. It was Steph.
‘Oh…you’re on your way!’
He sounded relieved, but strange and tense.
‘Why? What’s going on?’
‘Well… Juliette started being sick and there are traces of blood. They want to put a camera in her stomach to find out why.’
‘She’s been moved to a high dependency room so she’s nearer the nurses.’
I started to drive a bit faster, wondering if a policeman would believe me if I got stopped.
Steph is standing in the corner of the room. I have never seen him look like this; hunted, helpless and lost. Juliette lies naked on the bed, struggling to breathe through an oxygen mask. My eyes go back to Steph.
‘What’s going on?’
We have walked in on a surreal scene. We’re used to the drill and rhythm of hospital but what is this? Nurses bundle Raphi, Pierre and Elodie out of the room.
The bearded consultant addresses me in his dull monotone. They don’t know what is happening to Juliette. He says they need to find out. They want to sedate Juliette so they can put a camera in her stomach to find out where the bleeding is coming from.
I’m next to Juliette.
‘I love you so much.’
She says something but it’s muffled and I can’t hear.
In frustration, she shouts through the mask.
‘I love you too!’
Suddenly her body convulses, her eyes roll back in her head. She is still. Alarms go off. The rhythmic tick, tick of the heart monitor stops and now it’s a continuous noise.
In slow motion, a nurse hits the button behind Juliette’s bed. Where is the doctor now? I’m not part of the scene any more. Someone pretending to be me keeps yelling ‘Come on!’ in falsetto. I try to go near Juliette but arms bar my way. I remember we must give them space, to help Juliette. Steph and I grip each other’s hands, nails in our flesh.
Where are they? Why are they being so slow?
The crash trolley appears. I can’t see what’s happening but suddenly there is the tick, tick again. Thank God. It’s over.
The consultant is in front of us. We are relieved, grateful, but he says Juliette needs intensive care. OK. I try to call my parents, on holiday in France. I get only my father’s voicemail.
Adam picks up the phone when I call. His voice is so comfortingly normal.
‘Adam, come to Ipswich hospital. Juliette’s had a heart attack. She’s being moved to intensive care.’ He wants to get Dani but as he is talking, they wheel Juliette’s bed out of the room and Steph gestures at me urgently to come with them. I hang up and from nowhere appears a nurse. She says she’s from intensive care. She grabs our arms and we run. We have to use a different lift from the one Juliette is taking. It’s the long way round so we run faster. People stare at us.
Why are we running? She’s out of danger, isn’t she?
It’s like acting in a play, not real.
Juliette is unconscious. They fiddle with their machines and then the tick-tick stops again. Alarms go off and the room fills with people. A fog descends. The doctor who last night told us to take her home is injecting something into Juliette’s groin. He is shouting, writing furious notes on his shirtsleeves, on the flesh of his arm. A crowd of male doctors talk loudly at the same time, consulting each other. One of them says he was sent there from Addenbrookes. They don’t speak to us. I don’t know who’s in charge. I see Juliette’s naked body rise up off the bed as they shock her again and again. Agonising minutes, then the infernal, continuous tone of the heart monitor is broken, and there is the tick, tick again.
Slowly the room empties and a comforting female presence of nurses remains. They start cleaning the blood off Juliette’s legs where needles have punctured her. I want to help. They hand me some wipes, smiling. Someone brings a strange paper blanket and they blow hot air into it, to warm her up. It’s so soothing after recent horrors. I can be Juliette’s Mummy again. I talk to her, although her eyes are still closed. I tell her she should be pleased about the blanket, because it’s pink.
Suddenly her eyes are open. I am the first to notice and the nurse goes to fetch a doctor. He shines a light in her eyes. The nurse standing near Juliette turns round and smiles at us. Juliette’s pupils are contracting. It’s a good sign. Does that mean she’s going to be alright? Brain damage is possible after the first heart attack, but I don’t care and don’t believe it. She looks so wise lying there, so beautiful and inscrutable, like a sphinx.
The doctor is happy she’s opened her eyes, but now they have to sedate her. Awake, she might resist their efforts to help her and that’s too dangerous. I can’t watch this; to get her back and then lose her again to a drug. The kind nurse who ran with us, asks us to go and sit down in another room; have a drink. She promises to fetch us if things change. My head is splitting; it’s been three hours and we’re so tired. We go.
We sit there for a minute then the nurse is in front of us. We are on our feet, running back to the room and it begins again; doctors, noise, shocks, injections, running, shouting, the hellish, unbroken tone of the heart monitor.
I’m sobbing. Steph and I grip each other. I pray desperately, plead for something to change. The nurse takes my hand and says something about prayers. She’s kind but I want her to shut up. Save my daughter. Juliette’s losing her battle; doctors are looking at each other, the frenzy is losing momentum. I’m screaming in my head.
Don’t you dare give up! This is Juliette…
‘DON’T LEAVE US!’ I shout.
We need you. Please. Don’t leave us…
The bearded consultant turns towards us, ‘I think we’re getting to the point…’ but his voice trails away. Something has given him hope, but only briefly. Again, he faces us. ‘Really, we’ve done all we can.’ Like a half-finished project. We have to agree to let this man tell the other doctors to stop trying to save Juliette’s life.
No. I don’t accept it. I can’t accept it.
Steph and I were standing together at the end of Juliette’s bed. He turned to me, his face twisted. ‘I’ve let you down. I lied to you. I told you she wouldn’t die.’ We clung to each other.
All the people and all the machines were gone, wires detached, screens switched off. Our small daughter lay stretched out and naked. After the horror of the previous three hours, she looked utterly beautiful, peaceful. Sleeping. The only evidence of her fight the needle marks that covered her.
She did not look like someone who had died. That’s the cliché. She looked like herself, dreaming. I fell across her, screaming. I don’t remember anything else.
I was sitting in an armchair as the young doctor placed Juliette in my arms, his shirtsleeves still covered with numbers and symbols. I was transported back to the moment after she was born. He said, ‘sometimes the air when leaving the lungs…’ Yes. She might make the sound of a live child.
I held Juliette, and she was warm; peaceful. It was truly like that moment after the chaos of birth. My head mixed up the times, and I started talking to her like a baby newly born.
Only she was newly dead.
I whispered to her, saying I had held her in my body for nine months and from now on I would hold her in my heart. In that moment, it was an intense and comforting certainty. I could bear it.
A nurse told us Dani and Adam had arrived. They were on their way up to the unit. All I felt was relief that my little sister missed the scenes we’d just witnessed. The nurse asked us if we wanted them to be told before they came into the room. Yes. Suddenly I felt nothing at all. I was blank. Empty.
With her purposeful stride, Dani came into the room. Tears burst out of her eyes when she saw us, and every muscle on her face sagged.
That’s what I must feel, somewhere, I thought.
At some point I said to Steph, Elodie needs to know. We should let her say goodbye to Juliette. He went to fetch her from the playroom.
‘Does that mean I don’t have a sister any more?’ were the first words she said. Steph hugged her while she cried.
Dani and Adam looked after Elodie. We took it in turns to hold Juliette, drifting between ‘her’ room and the family room. I had a migraine. We made phone calls. I rang Dido, sleeping in the Californian dawn but she couldn’t form any words. She hung up and just screamed, until Mike woke up.
Dani told our parents. They were at a French airport, about to board a flight home. I went back into Juliette’s room where Adam was holding her. He had a horrified, stricken expression. I took Juliette from him. Her face had lost its colour, she was no longer warm and her body had stiffened. It was too real.
We left the nurses to dress Juliette in the only clothes she had there; her favourite blue pedal pushers and a long sleeved T-shirt saying ‘I love pink’ in three different shades. They were not even clean. She had no shoes.
Perhaps we were not expected to stay so long. They must have thought we had left, but we hadn’t. We went back to Juliette’s room to say a last goodbye.
She lay on the bed, dressed, with an oxygen mask over her face.
I screamed. The female porter whipped the mask off. ‘I put it on her so members of the public wouldn’t get suspicious,’ she explained.
So ‘the public’ needed protecting from the sight of our daughter being moved to the mortuary? She was going there alone, without me or Steph. How could she bear it? How could we bear for this to happen to her?
I unzipped the overnight bag and pulled out Juliette’s soft rabbit. ‘Can this stay with her?’ I asked a nurse. She can’t sleep without it, I wanted to say. The nurse looked worried, and exchanged a look with another woman who quickly left the room. When she came back, she had a hospital wristband. She fitted this around the rabbit’s paw. I belong to Juliette Lafosse, it read.
Of course. In the mortuary, Juliette would not be able to tell anyone the white rabbit was hers.
The bearded consultant appeared. ‘We don’t know why this happened to your daughter, so there will have to be a post-mortem,’ he said. I blinked at him and wondered why he had used those words; post-mortems were for dead people. I hated him.
We went to collect Pierre and Raphi, still playing on the children’s ward. The women looked sad, sympathetic and they gave us some toys from the hospital playroom. I did not understand why.
Steph found the car. I had no memory of where I had parked it. He hugged me before we got in to drive back to Southwold. Dani and Adam followed, to help us pack up the house.
When we had left the house that morning, Juliette was still alive. Her pink mackintosh lay on a chair; her bucket of white stones and shells was by the door. On the kitchen table was the last drawing she had done as we sat together alone. Steph saw it now. The pen lay where she had dropped it across her drawn-around pink hand. Proud purple letters spelled out her name.