Secret Promises

Elegant woman wearing red lipstick and fingernail polish


Jenna watched as Adam lay back on the treatment couch and put his head where the nurse had told him.

He was wearing his red shorts because it was summer and she could see his knobbly knees. His top half was bare, too, because that was where they had to send the beam.

The nurse had explained to them all that the beam came from the round machine that was above Adam’s head. Adam thought it looked like something out of Doctor Who but Jenna thought it looked like a giant hairdryer.

“Right then, sweetheart,” the nurse began, “I want you to hold on to this piece of ribbon as tight as you can. Have you got that?”

Adam nodded and the nurse smiled.

“Your mummy is going to be holding the other end. So I want you to think about her doing that. OK? Even though she won’t be in the same room – she’ll be there on the other end of that ribbon.”

Jenna watched wide-eyed as her little brother took the end of the yellow ribbon.

“Will it hurt?” he asked again.

“No, it won’t,” their mother said and she gave both him and Jenna a little wink to back up her words. “And when it’s over and done with, we’re going to get you and Jenna the biggest ice cream you can eat. How does that sound?”

“Cool,” Adam said. But Jenna felt sad. It didn’t seem very fair that Adam was the one being zapped by the machine but they were both getting the ice cream.

She bent forward and gave his forehead a kiss.

“I’ll help Mummy hold the ribbon,” she said solemnly. “Don’t be scared.”

“I’m not,” he said, but she knew that was a lie. She knew from the quietness of his voice and the stillness of his eyes.

Then she and Mum and Dad and the doctors and nurses had to leave Adam alone with the hairdryer machine. They had to go out of the door into another room.

The yellow ribbon went with them. It stretched across the space and snaked between the door and the door jamb. One end was held tight in Adam’s fingers, the other end held tight in their mother’s.

When they were outside and a little way up the corridor, the nurse took the ribbon from Mum and Jenna saw that it had run out. They couldn’t go any further – not holding the ribbon anyway.

The nurse tied it into a little bow on a hook in the wall. then she beckoned them through another door.

“Adam will be monitored while the treatment is in progress – and we can also speak to him via a microphone,” she said. “He’ll be able to hear your voice every step of the way, Marie, so if he’s the slightest bit anxious…”

Jenna didn’t hear any more. All she could think about was that Mum had let go of the ribbon. That even though she had told Adam she would be on the end of it, she wouldn’t be.

It was their father who saw her face and who came back.

He hunkered down beside her in the corridor and took both her hands in his.

“Jenna, sweetheart,” he began, his eyes very soft. “I need you to promise something. I need you to promise me that you won’t tell Adam that Mum isn’t on the other end of the ribbon. Can you do that for me?”

“But it’s a lie,” she said, and the hotness of her words stuck in her throat. “Isn’t it bad to tell lies?”

“Some lies are OK to tell,” he went on. “Some lies are good lies. Because they help people.” Suddenly she was aware of how tired he looked. How his eyes were all crinkled and sad, his skin tighter and paler than usual. “Can you do that for me, sweetheart?”

She nodded uncertainly.

“I want you to promise,” he repeated. “You won’t tell him today. In fact, you won’t tell him ever.”

“I promise,” she said.

“Good girl.” He let go of her hands, and then they followed everyone else through the other door.

Even though she didn’t know why she was promising – not then – Jenna kept her word and she didn’t tell Adam.

Not even when his treatment was finished and the cancer was pronounced beaten. Not even when they had both grown up and had children of their own.

Well, at least Jenna had children of her own – she started early. She married at twenty and had two children by the time she was twenty-four.

Adam took things more slowly, as boys often do. He grew up and joined the army – he was forever flying off to far-flung places and worrying Jenna and his parents silly.

“I’ll be fine,” he reassured them every time he was back for a visit. “It’s nowhere near as bad as the media make it out to be. Besides…” he would punch their father’s arm in playful animosity, “I’m invincible, me. So stop worrying.”

Adam being invincible was one of those family stories – the kind that start out because of some truth, usually one that everyone has forgotten, and then take hold and become a universally accepted fact.

Except in Adam’s case no one had forgotten the original story. Adam had beaten the odds when he’d beaten his cancer.

After that, every other childhood trauma – whether it be the mumps, the measles, or even a broken arm he’d got from a fall at rock climbing – was shrugged off with the same devil-may-care attitude and the words, “I’m invincible, me. So stop worrying.”

“You’re not invincible,” Mum would say, shaking her head, worry inscribed in her dark eyes. “You make sure you look after yourself, Number One Son.”

“Yes, make sure you do. Mum’s got enough to worry about what with Dad on the oil rigs,” Jenna would add.

Most times Adam would laugh. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”

“When my kids grow up I shall make sure they get nice safe jobs close to home,” Jenna told her mum one day when they were watching a school play, which both Adam and her father had wanted to come to – but which neither of them had been able to get back for.

“Good luck with that,” her mother said, smiling at Rob on Jenna’s left.

“A nice safe office job like my Rob.” Jenna winked at her husband. “It must be hard, having Dad away so much.”

“Sometimes it is.” Her mother sighed and for a moment she looked terribly sad. “But he’s doing the job he loves. I can’t deny him that. Now hush, they’re just about to start.”

It was four days later that the accident happened. Jenna had just got back from dropping off the children at school when she got the call.

“Could I speak to Jenna McBride?”


“I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”

The next few hours were surreal.

The day wasn’t blurred, as she’d always imagined it might be if you were in shock. Instead it was comprised of very sharp moments. Each one bright and clear, interlocking with and yet separate from the next.

The phone call to Rob to tell him she was on her way to the hospital; the nurse at the ICU talking to her in hushed tones.

“I’m afraid that your mum is badly injured. Her condition is critical.”

“Can I see her?”

“Of course you can.” The nurse put a hand on Jenna’s arm. “Her appearance may be a shock.”

She was right. It was a shock. Mum had a bald patch on the side of her head where they had shaved away her hair around an injury. The only colour in her face was her lips.

She was wearing her favourite cinnamon blush lipstick – she never went anywhere without make-up.

She’d been on her way to the shops when the accident had happened. A car coming out of a side road too fast. Surely, Jenna thought, it wasn’t possible to die on your way to the shops.

She kept this thought close. Held it tight in her hands like hope.

As she approached the bed, her mother’s eyes flickered open.


“It’s OK, I’m right here beside you. Everything’s going to be fine.”

But it might not be fine. The lie stood between them in the hospital white air. Her mother’s lips twitched.

“There are things… I need to say…”

“There’s no rush,” Jenna said. “No rush at all. When you’re feeling better. You don’t need to say them now.”

“Yes.” Mum’s voice was as faint and shallow as her breath. “I do…”

Jenna swallowed the ache in her throat and took hold of her mother’s cool fingers. She noticed for the first time the drip coming out of her mother’s other hand – the drip giving her blood.

The nurse hovered at the door, then went away when Jenna didn’t look at her.

When Jenna finally went back out, the nurse said, “How long do you think it will be before your father gets here?”

“When I phoned he said the rig would organise a launch – or possibly a helicopter – whichever was quicker. Then he has to drive from the port.” Jenna looked at her watch. “Not much before seven, I don’t think.”

She blinked several times as the nurse touched her arm. “Is Mum going to…?”

She didn’t need to add the word “die”. It floated around in the air between them in a little bubble of shock.

Neither Dad nor Adam arrived at the hospital that evening. Dad had a problem getting off the rig; Adam was in the Middle East and it was not a simple matter to get away.

But Jenna stayed by her mother’s side, holding her hand while she drifted in and out of consciousness. While she rambled about people and things from the past that Jenna wished she had never mentioned. And when she lapsed back into unconsciousness, Jenna wondered if it was a fact of life that women were the strong ones.

Because women carried babies in their bellies for nine months… and they carried secrets in their hearts forever.

In the morning Mum was quieter, Jenna was gritty-eyed and exhausted and the doctor was hopeful.

“It’s early days, but all the indications are that she’ll make a full recovery. She is very, very lucky.”

He smiled. He looked as exhausted as Jenna felt. She wanted to hug him.

By the time Dad arrived Mum was coherent again. She looked like a pale and frailer version of her usual self.

Her eyes were clear – the angst of the previous day all gone. Jenna could almost believe that she’d imagined the jumbled conversations of the night.

“Jim’s not Adam’s father. I had a fling. I had…” Her mother’s voice had been slurred, such pain on her face.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jenna had said. “It doesn’t matter now. Hush now. Tell me tomorrow.”

“You have… different… fathers.”

Maybe Mum had been rambling. The doctors had said she might be confused – not know what she was saying. That her injuries may affect her like that.

Or maybe she had been telling her the truth.

But it was not Jenna’s truth. It would not be Adam’s either – or her dad’s.

It was another lie to which she would give her blessing.

Another secret she would keep until the grave.

And at long last Jenna understood about ribbons – and about good lies and bad lies. And about love.

Sarah Proctor

I've worked on a variety of regional newspapers and national magazines. My Weekly and Your Best Ever Christmas are fantastic, warm-hearted brands with an amazing, talented team. I'm a sub-editor and particularly love working on cookery, fiction and advice pages - I feel I should know all the secrets of eternal life, health and happiness by now, but hey, we all need that regular reminder!