Please accept my sincere apologies for the printer error in the September 24 issue (No 5342) of My Weekly that meant the first page of Sarah E England’s new serial, Under Illusion, was missing.
You can read the entire instalment below and this will also be reprinted in the October issue of My Weekly alongside Part 2.
Very best wishes,
Sally Hampton, Editor
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Thrilling new serial by Sarah E England
A crash leaves Martha’s high-flying daughter in intensive care and reveals that all is shockingly far from well in her life…
Later, Martha realised she couldn’t remember a thing about the car journey to the hospital – the windows left open at home, the frantic call to Oscar who’d been away on a medical conference, the way she’d run out to the car still in housework clothes.
Well, who would expect something like this? When their children were safely grown, steered through adolescence and into the still waters of adulthood? It wasn’t supposed to happen. Couldn’t be real.
She would never forget, though, walking into Intensive Care. Seeing Lizzie – her wavy, golden hair spread out across the starched pillow, and lily-white hands lying small and childlike by her sides – a car-accident victim. Like so many before her, she lay cut, bruised and broken.
The ventilator pumped and hissed as behind, the blue light of a brilliant winter’s day darkened, and the waiting began.
Lizzie… wake up!
Chris, Martha’s husband, was already there. Red-eyed, his greying hair dishevelled, he’d finished his operating list and rushed to Lizzie’s side – checking charts and demanding information.
It helped that he was a consultant in the same hospital, she supposed. Perhaps it also helped him to take on a professional role instead of an emotional one?
It didn’t help her, though. In fact, holding her daughter’s pale, cool hand in her own, it occurred to her she barely knew him. Perhaps that’s what came from marrying a busy NHS doctor.
You need to know something,” he said, after he’d finished cross-examining the staff.
They sat on chairs either side of the bed, each staring glassy-eyed at the girl lying between them. It was still so hard to believe this was their daughter – the vivacious, confident and successful professional who’d just been promoted
to the post of head teacher.
For goodness’ sake, it had only been eighteen months since Chris had walked her down the aisle, proudly handing her over to Oscar, a good-looking and competent registrar in general surgery.
They had a lovely new home, plans for a family, and such a wonderful future mapped out. Was it all over? So soon?
Chris repeated, a little louder, “Martha! You need to know something.”
She nodded, still in a daze.
“She wasn’t alone. She was in a strange car with another man.”
The words came like a slap in the face.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, as if it was her fault, “exactly that – she was in a car with a man other than Oscar. Maybe just a friend. We don’t know who he is.”
“Is he alive?”
He nodded. “I believe so.”
“Here? In hospital? Does Oscar know?”
“He’s still driving up from Heathrow.”
Martha frowned, watching the crisp, white sheet over Lizzie’s chest rise and fall. Surely she hadn’t been having an affair? It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had plenty of fun before getting married – as a student and young teacher she’d travelled and partied hard.
She loved Oscar – had married him for the best reason in the world in front of a hundred guests. What more could she have wanted? Hadn’t she been happy?
Oh Lizzie, Lizzie!
Which ward’s he on? This man?”
Chris shook his head. “Not sure. He was whisked out of A&E before Lizzie was taken to theatre. I’ll ask Lynn tomorrow – she’s the Sister on here…”
“Yes, of course – there’s time for all that… right now all that matters is Lizzie.” Hot tears filled her eyes. “I just can’t believe this, Chris.”
He, too was transfixed by their daughter, weariness etched around his deep-set blue eyes, pockets of greyness shadowing the contours of his face. Getting older, she realised… time creeping up on them.
The last time they’d been in this situation was when Lizzie was five. She’d been admitted with food poisoning on holiday in Tenby. All night she and Chris had sat by her bed praying.
The next morning Lizzie woke up as if nothing had happened. “I’m hungry,” were her first words. And they’d nearly collapsed with joy.
They’d been closer then, though…
Chris caught her eye, and just for a moment, a feather’s flutter of a heartbeat – or perhaps she imagined it – he seemed to be remembering the same thing.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
At dawn, just as the first rays of ghostly light began to crawl through the slats in the blinds, Oscar arrived.
To say the poor man was distraught would be an understatement. Oscar was tall, extremely tall – six foot four in his stocking feet – and his gangly frame blocked the light from the window as he loomed over Lizzie’s bed still in his outdoor coat, swaying with fatigue.
“Oh my God, Martha.”
She stood and gave him a hug as he stared at the motionless white-skinned girl covered in tubes, surrounded by bleeping monitors.
Chris fetched him a chair. He crumpled into it.
“Sit down old chap, I’ll get you some coffee.”
“What happened? I heard she was with some bloke – in his black Audi when it went off the road! I thought she was at work… safe…”
Martha exchanged a shocked look with Chris. How on earth did he know that? Already?
A nurse at the desk looked up at the sound of a raised voice.
For a while the three of them sat quietly until dawn lifted into an early mist, and the sounds of an awakening hospital clattered through the walls. There was nothing they could do now, said Chris, except wait.
I don’t understand, though!” Oscar hissed. “What was she doing? Who was the guy she was with – do we know?”
Martha shook her head, her gaze firmly fixed on her daughter. What did it matter? What did anything matter? Only that she was alive, surely?
Yet as the minutes ticked into hours his words replayed in her mind. Yes, actually it did matter what she was doing. Firstly it had put her in danger when she was supposed to be safely at work, and secondly the rest of them were getting a double whammy – the feeling that the girl they loved, trusted and knew was not that girl at all.
Right now, though – no. Right now all that really mattered was her life.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Eventually, when Lynn arrived back on duty and asked them to give her nurses some time to change the sheets, Martha stood up and faced her son-in-law.
“I don’t know what happened or why she was with another man, Oscar. But I will find out. Once… you know… once we know she’s going to be all right.”
His young face seemed utterly crushed, the life drained out of him, and her heart swelled with compassion.
“I’ll never forgive myself,” he said. “I’ve been away so much – neglected her – it was all for us, though. She knew that… and now look!”
“She’ll come round. She’s a fighter, our Lizzie! And I’m sure there’s a good explanation.”
He nodded. “He’s on Ward Ten – the dude she was with. Might be best if you talked to him, not me. If anything happens to her, I’ll…”
“Yes,” Martha agreed quickly.
Oscar was certainly well informed!
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The other man’s name was Ross.
At ten, Martha peered through the porthole into his side ward. Like Lizzie he lay cut and bruised, although unlike her he was sitting up and breathing freely, one leg raised in a sling as he dozed.
“Excuse me, are you family?”
She turned to face an officious-looking nurse in white trousers and tunic.
“No. I’m the mother of the woman he was in the car with, though, and I just wondered if…” she looked at the name on the door again, “…if Ross was OK?”
The nurse stared back at her.
“He’s still quite heavily sedated. Family only for now, I’m afraid. Come back tomorrow and I’ll ask if he’ll see you.”
Martha managed a tight smile.
“Yes. Fine, well, thank you. I’ll do that.”
She looked back at the other man. Ross. Handsome chap. Slicked back light-brown hair, clean cut profile with high cheekbones. At that moment he turned his head and their glances met – his large, clear green eyes locking with hers – and her stomach flipped.
Without doubt he was the kind of man who made women lose their minds, leave their husbands, fall headlong in love.
She bit her lip. Oh God. What had her daughter done?
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
On arriving back in Intensive Care she found Lynn changing Lizzie’s IV drip. Oscar sat staring at his wife as if he could force her to wake up by willpower alone.
Had things been difficult between them? Was it an affair after all?
“We’re keeping her sedated for a bit longer,” said Lynn. “When we’re sure she’s stable we’ll bring her round.”
Martha tried to keep her voice steady as she stood at the bottom of the bed, gripping her polystyrene cup of coffee. “Is she going to be OK?”
“She’s doing well. Honestly. Lizzie’s injuries were very serious, with damage to her internal organs and several broken ribs, and it’s possible she may need to go back to theatre – but at the moment her vital signs are good. We’ve every reason to be hopeful.”
Martha sank wearily into the armchair in the corner. Whatever Lizzie had done, it didn’t matter in the end, it could be put right. Just please, God, let her wake up.
“He looked shattered – he’s getting a few hours’ sleep in the visitor’s room next door. You look like you could do with putting your head down too, Martha.”
“No, not yet.”
“Oh by the way, there’s a woman in the waiting room called Rose – says she’s Lizzie’s best friend and could she have a word? Are you up to it?”
“Rose Mayhew? Yes, of course.”
Rose had been a family friend for donkey’s years – taking Lizzie under her wing at the primary school where they both worked. Rose had shown her the ropes and become a close confidante as the younger woman rose swiftly through the ranks. A vision of Rose at a Sunday lunch party a couple of weeks ago popped into her head – uncomfortably overweight, bespectacled, fussing over people like a mother hen instead of the somewhat reclusive bookworm she really was. Funny old stick, Rose.
Today she looked dishevelled and pale, oddly unable to meet Martha’s gaze as she sat crumpling a large, white hanky and dabbing her eyes in the waiting room.
“I can’t believe it – I mean, when I heard, when Chris phoned me… it’s just awful. Is she going to be OK?”
Martha sat next to her and touched the other woman’s arm lightly.
“They say we’ve every reason to be optimistic. I promise I’ll let you know if there’s any news.”
Rose nodded, a fresh wave of tears streaming down her cheeks. “Chris said she was in a car with another man. I feel so sorry for Oscar – it’s bad enough to find out your wife’s unconscious in Intensive Care but to hear she was with someone else as well –”
“Well, we don’t know anything yet,” Martha interjected. “It could all be perfectly innocent.”
Rose dabbed her eyes again before replacing her glasses and turning away.
“Rose?” Martha prompted.
“I probably shouldn’t say anything to you but…”
“What? Whatever it is, we need to know! Anything!”
Rose took a deep breath.
“Only that she’s been acting a bit strangely recently, and now – well maybe now it all makes sense. I’ve been off sick, you see – I don’t know if you knew – but anyway, I tried phoning her so many times and she was never there. I wanted to, needed to, tell her things and she just never picked up.
“Then when I did get through on her mobile she was rushing around muttering about not answering the phone because she was being stalked and…”
Stalked? How do you mean?” Martha reeled back.
“She said she hadn’t had any sleep, that the phone rang at odd times in the night but only when Oscar wasn’t there. She was at the end of her rope.
“Apparently she thought she was being followed, and sometimes there’d be a car parked outside. She said the driver would be just sitting there watching the house, but only when she was alone.
“She thought she was going mad because Oscar didn’t believe her. He said it was probably stress getting to her – her imagination in other words – and they were rowing about it. I don’t know, Martha – she was like a different person.”
“When did this all start?”
“I don’t know. I’d been off sick as I said, and it was ages before I got through to her and found out. I’d been cross because she wasn’t there when I needed to talk, and I put the phone down thinking how self-obsessed can one woman be? Now this happens! I feel terrible. Really awful.”
Martha sat back. It was like being punched in the stomach – winded.
Just what was going on in Lizzie’s life? Why would she be stalked? Was it something to do with this man, Ross?
“I’ve got a feeling it might be Tony,” ventured Rose.
“Tony? Who the heck’s Tony?”
“I can’t prove anything, but he’s deputy head and he was in line for the top job, which Lizzie got instead. He’s mad as a skunk about it. I don’t know for sure, though – I really can’t point the finger.”
“Well why didn’t she call the police? Or tell me? We could have helped.”
Rose reached for her handbag.
“I don’t know, Martha. No proof, I suppose. Maybe it’s nothing to do with him – maybe now we know about this other guy it’s something to do with that? Maybe his wife was stalking Lizzie?”
“This gets worse.”
“I ought to go – you’ve got enough on your plate. Can I come back tomorrow to see how she is? And please will you ring if there’s any change? I love her to bits.”
Martha squeezed the younger woman’s hand.
“Yes, of course I will. But can I just ask you something before you go? Do you know if Lizzie was happy – I mean with Oscar? You said they were rowing.”
“I think so. She mentioned a few times he was away a lot, and I know she gets lonely, but yes I’m pretty sure they were OK. I’d find it very hard to believe she was having an affair. But then again, she was avoiding me so…”
“Why on earth would she avoid you when it sounds like she needed a friend?”
Rose dabbed at her eyes again.
“I don’t know. Ashamed, maybe?”
After Rose left, Martha sat alone for a while. None of it added up to a firm conclusion. If only Lizzie would wake up.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Eventually she wandered back into the room. “I saw the other man,” she said to Lynn, while the nurses were tending to Lizzie.
“I know,” Lynn said, taking her by the elbow out of Lizzie’s earshot. “The hearing’s always the last thing to go and the first to come back,” she explained, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Carol, the Sister in charge, phoned and said you’d been down. He’s married, did you know? With a small child.”
Martha’s eyes widened. Not good. Both of them married!
“Lynn – did Carol say when he’d be able to have visitors other than close family? She told me tomorrow, but I really do need to talk to him.”
“Try this afternoon when she’s gone off duty – about six.”
Six! Good. Maybe now she would get some answers – however unpalatable they might turn out to be.
It was odd though – normally Lizzie told her everything. They’d always been extremely close, with regular catch-ups either at home or in a local coffee shop. Now she thought about it, though, Lizzie had been cancelling a lot lately.
The sense of uneasiness grew as she later related Rose’s information to Chris. They sat in a corner of the waiting room while Oscar kept vigil over Lizzie, speaking in hushed whispers.
Don’t you think we should tell the police about this man, Tony?”
Chris shook his head.
“We can’t do that – there’s no proof. The poor man could lose his job!”
Martha conceded the point. It had just been Rose’s speculation, after all.
“Why would she avoid Rose’s calls?”
For the first time in a long time, his expression softened as he looked at her.
“Martha – I don’t know. This whole business is bringing home to me just how little I know about my own daughter.”
“All of us, actually, Chris.”
He looked away. “Yes. Yes, I know. Look, perhaps we have to accept she was cheating on Oscar and the fewer people who knew the better – maybe that’s why she blocked out Rose?”
“Well that young man downstairs, Ross, is certainly one heck of a looker.” She shook her head as if to clear the confusion. “And Oscar works away such a lot – maybe she was lonely?”
“That’s not a good enough excuse.”
“No, it’s not. But Chris, I just don’t think that’s it! I really don’t. Rose said there was a stalker. What if there was some kind of car chase – if she really did have someone after her?”
Before Chris could answer Oscar opened the door and shouted, “Quick – Lizzie’s taken a turn for the worse…”
As Lizzie’s life hangs in the balance, Martha goes in search of answers…