This month's shortlisted story for The Strictly Writing Award is Firstborn by Celia Andrew

I visited my father in the Intensive Care Unit. He didn’t know I was there: he was on life-support, pain free and unconscious.

‘How’s he doing?’ I smiled at the Sister.

‘He’s stable.’ She adjusted his covering sheet. ‘Can’t be more positive than that.’

I looked down again at my father’s inert body. 'Any other visitors?’

The Sister counted them off on her fingers. ‘Son Jeffrey, from marriage number one, daughters from three and four and a very old lady who was extremely rude to all of them.’

‘That would be Granny Hemlock.’ The family’s name for the cantankerous old dowager was world famous, quoted in almost every glossy magazine article ever written about her.

I looked down at her son, the man who had given me life and yet been ignorant of my existence for forty years. He was my father, but as his firstborn, I didn’t really care whether he lived or died.

In her late teens, my mother had had a brief affair with this English aristocrat. When her condition had become obvious, he’d rejected her and she’d fled back to family in her native Lebanon, where I had been born and brought up. The later civil war there had driven my mother and me on to Paris, where my education had been completed. She died young. She was very much in my thoughts, these days.

Lord Carlington’s yellowing features barely resembled the many images of his earlier life that I had obsessively collected of him, on computer files at home. He’d been one of the so-called ‘Beautiful People’, lived a life careless of others, and his abuse of alcohol and drugs had finally brought him to this. I reached out to touch his cool hand, wondering if such contact would give my filial emotions a kick-start.


'Goodnight, Sarah.’ I turned away. ‘Thank you.’ The staff here now knew many of the family by sight and had quickly learned which ones to keep apart. All four of the ex-wives had been conspicuous by their absence, but the offspring carried their mothers’ grudges even to the bedside and there had been some heated moments.

‘Goodnight, Mina.’ The Sister saw me out.

I found my car in the car park and drove home to Zaph, my husband, whose choice it had been to come over to Britain for a few years. We’d applied to this area because of the choice of senior posts on offer. He had held me close when I told him how near we were to my father’s estates. ‘Whatever you decide to do about him, I’ll be with you,’ he’d said.

It was an irony of fate that Zaph was the senior duty doctor in A and E on the night Lord Carlington had been brought in. He had referred my father straight to the cardiac team for emergency surgery.

‘Bit of a family affair, that business,’ the consultant on A and E joked afterwards. I’d stared at him in shock for a second and then realised what he meant and that he was not referring to my father: he had not guessed my secret at all.

I drove slowly, thinking about the dysfunctional family and my father in particular. I didn’t love him – how could I? Did I hate him? No. Did I forgive him for abandoning my mother? No: that wasn’t for me to forgive. Time had proved him to be a serial offender, but at least he had married his other women – and given his name to their children. So far as I knew, I was the only one born out of wedlock, the only one denied his name, the only one with a dark skin. My half-brothers and sisters, drug-using socialites moving on the outer reaches of the British aristocracy and the inner pages of ‘Hello!’ both fascinated and repulsed me: I had a 5GB computer memory stick assigned to the Carlington family. I knew all about them, Zaph also knew all about them! They knew nothing of me.

After supper, Zaph and I settled down to make the most of our time together. In the semi-darkness, in the quiet, calm of his arms, I wanted to tell him something new I’d discovered that afternoon but the sudden shriek of the on-call bleep broke through our intimacy. Zaph groaned. ‘I didn’t know you were on-call.’

‘John Rawlings went off sick, I said I’d cover. I was hoping things’d stay quiet.’

The call was from Saul Goldman in the Intensive Care Unit. Something had blown in Lord Carlington’s heart and he needed emergency surgery. The technicians were on their way in, the theatre suite was open and ready. All they needed were the cardiac surgeons. Tonight, those surgeons were Saul Goldman and me, Mina Al Hussein.

‘I’ll drive you in.’ Zaph grabbed his coat as I headed for the door.

We made the hospital in under five minutes. Zaph dropped me off by A and E and I raced up the slope and through the automatic doors into the bedlam that was pre-Christmas Friday midnight. Avoiding a couple of screaming drunks and a very bloody group of party revellers, I raced for the lifts.

And so for a second time, the patient who would die without my intervention was my father. He was my patient. As his surgeon, I cared what became of him. Ethically I was on dodgy ground, but since nobody else knew the truth except Zaph...

Unprofessional thoughts and questions started circling again, vultures in my mind. I’d heard them all before and they were still unresolved.

If my father lived, would I reveal my true identity to him and to the family? Would it be malicious to do so? Might it one day backfire on me and on those I loved? Did I want to be associated with a family whom my husband described as worthless despite its millions?

If I went public, was I then prepared to stand in the media spotlight as it turned inevitably on me?

If he died, would it be my fault for not trying hard enough to save him again?

‘Hi, Mina.’ The lift doors opened onto the theatre level and the man rushing past slowed down and waited for me. ‘Same patient, same time, same place,’ he smiled.

‘Only tonight it’s the Sabbath,’ I pointed out and Saul Goldman nodded, unruffled.

‘God understands.’

‘Does he, I wonder?’ But I wasn’t thinking of the Sabbath.

‘Mine does.’ Saul was a deeply spiritual man, very like my husband – indeed in the months we had been at the hospital, despite their different faiths, they had become good friends.

‘God always understands, Mina.’ Saul put his hand on my shoulder and his quiet, confident presence was a comfort to me. I put aside my turmoil as we checked the patient, the team, and prepared once again for emergency surgery.

Once the chest was open and the patient’s heart lay under my hands, I was on familiar ground and dealt with everything I found with cool professionalism. The anatomy I understood, and everything else physical - clamps and suction, arteries, bleeding and sutures.

We fought for our patient’s life for nearly an hour, but in the end we lost him, and my father went to meet whatever God he called his Maker.

I walked through to wash in the soulless descrub area and promptly threw up into the basin. Tears came unbidden, unexpected, unwanted and flowed and flowed. The Theatre Sister found me there a few minutes later. Wordlessly kind, she came and put her arms around me.

‘He died.’

‘You did all you could, Mina,’ she murmured. ’He was just too far gone to start with.’

At that vulnerable moment, exhausted, half-dressed and stinking of acid bile, I nearly told Sister Annie about my connection with our dead patient. The words were right there behind my teeth, on the edge of my tongue, ready to jump out and change my life forever...and they slipped into my throat and followed the acid back into my stomach.

‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ Annie stroked the hair away from my sweaty forehead and her grey eyes met mine. I nodded, and burst into tears again. A man, my patient, had died and inside me, his grandchild’s life was just beginning to make its presence known.

‘I won’t tell anyone until you say I can. Your secret’s safe with me.’ Annie straightened my top. ‘Zaph’s outside. Mina - does he know?’

‘Not yet. I only tested this afternoon. I was waiting for the right moment...’

‘Yeah. I was like that with my first.’

She hugged me and made me rinse my mouth out. A nurse popped her head round the door.

‘The family’s here. They want to speak to Mina.’

‘No. Get Saul to do it.’ Annie waved the girl away, but I called her back.

‘It’s OK, I’ll talk to them.’ I took a deep breath heaved it out again.

‘Splash your face over, then, pop these clean scrubs on.’ Sister Annie helped me into the blue pyjama-like outfit and came out with me to the relatives’ room where five of my half-siblings hovered. Through the glass I assessed them: the one I knew to be a cocaine-sniffing twenty-four year old called Lara was red-eyed and sniffly and seemed genuinely upset. Maybe there was hope for her yet. Jeffrey, from the first marriage, the one who would inherit the title, had his hands behind his back and was silent and stony-faced. The other two, daughters from marriages three and four, were gesticulating and clearly bitching at each other and there was another man in his thirties whom I hadn’t seen at the bedside in ICU before. I knew him to be David, second son of the second wife. Altogether, there should’ve been twelve of them and I would have liked, for completion and closure, to have met them all before I washed my hands of them forever.

Feeling as though a huge weight were being lifted from my shoulders, I went into the anteroom, my right hand extended. I was in charge of this situation. My unwanted family moved to greet me and the moment would pass when I could tell them who I really was. There would be no lurid headlines in the papers tomorrow or ever in the future, no public ethical discussions, no lawyers’ letters. A lifetime’s bitterness, pain and indignation for my mother’s plight was over and I could at last move on, leaving all the ghosts behind me. I hoped my mother’s soul approved. Later I’d tell Zaph he was going to be a father and I’d chuck into the garbage the Carlington memory-stick.

I stood with Zaph and Saul and Sister Annie in the small side room where my father was laid out. I swallowed, unsure of my emotions, and my husband’s arm moved round my shoulders in secret acknowledgement of the truth.

‘Go with God,’ I said quietly to the dead man. I lifted the sheet and gently drew it up so that it covered his familiar-unfamiliar face.

Saul and Annie were puzzled. They didn’t understand why I was so moved and I could never tell them. But they were there because they were friends and colleagues and they knew that I needed them. With friends like these, who needed a family like the one I had just finally turned my back on? I moved away from the body and smiled at them.

‘Thanks, Saul. Thanks Annie.’ I looked up at my husband. ‘Zaph – let’s go home.’


Gillian McDade said...

Thanks to all our entrants and keep those stories coming in! It was a tough decision but we had to choose one. Well done to Celia and we hope you enjoy this short story.

Fidelity said...

Good story. Really enjoyed reading it. Not a nit to pick anywhere,, no, nothing at all.

Congratulations Celia, a well plotted and delivered piece of work.

Helen Black said...

This one hot the spot for me.
I really do admire those of you wh have the skills to do this so well.
HB x

Caroline Green said...

Yes, me too. This was so skilful it hid all the workings, as the best fiction always does. Well done, Celia.

Roderic Vincent said...

Great story, Celia. Told with assurance too.

joseph said...

Well done, very well executed.
loved the plot line.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Celia, well done! Beautiful and compelling.

Debs Riccio said...

Loved it Celia - just ate it up. Well done.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Celia, this really drew me in. I loved all the twists and turns. A really skillful story - congratulations!

Mary said...

Well done Celia. Like Suzy I enjoyed the twists and turns. A great story and a well deserved win.

Antonia Woodville said...

brilliant! Saying so much more than is actually there, too, a story to think on. Loved it.

Jennifer said...

Good story, Celia! I especially liked the imagery and precision, for instance in the phrase "they slipped into my throat and followed the acid back into my stomach."

Lee Hughes said...

That was a great piece Celia, very well done.

Claudia said...

This story mesmerised me. Beautifully written, Celia - good luck in the competition.

Ellie Garratt said...

Congratulations, Celia. This was a beautifully written story. Loved it.

bill said...

Great story, Celia. It implies so much more than is written, which is a great skill. Loved it/
[talkbacker bill]

Celia said...

Thank you, everyone, for such lovely feedback! I am so pleased to have been shortlisted and keep huffing a happy little huff. No matter what happens next, I got this far, so thank you, Organisers for setting the competition up in the first place!

Dwight said...

An enjoyable read, Celia. Liked the ending you chose. Good luck.

Ellen Brickley said...

The line 'God always understands' was an especially poignant one for me.

Really beautiful story. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Karen said...

Absorbing story, well-executed - I really enjoyed reading it :o)