Olivia is recovering from a traumatic event five years earlier, when she is summoned to the bedside of her dying aunt, Dorothy. Shortly afterwards, she learns that her aunt has left her a large sum of money. She also receives a letter with a startling revelation. From Morocco to London to the south of France, this is the story of one woman’s journey to make her life whole again.
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What reviewers are saying about Chergui’s Child:
Heart wrenching international story
Emotionally engrossing story
Excellent storytelling – captivating
This one is a winner
This is my memory of the beginning: shivering passengers, a leaden sky, shrivelled leaves cavorting in the wind. A rainbow striped woollen scarf, a dropped crimson glove – welcome darts of colour amongst the monochrome. Resigned passivity from people who’d done this journey too often. A scene easily envisaged as an Impressionist painting, gracing the walls of London’s National Gallery, a scene entitled: Wintry Afternoon at St Alban’s Station.
When my phone rang, I ignored it, assuming it would be James apologising for his behaviour of the night before. An edgy conversation with my on/off boyfriend would have drained my limited energy. When the phone trilled a second time, I scanned the screen. Despite the crackly line, I could make out Dad’s voice, the urgency of his message.
Ninety minutes later, I hesitated at the door of room twelve of the Medical Assessment Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital. Through the glass panel, diminished as if a magician had shrunk her body, lay my aunt, her hair, nightdress, everything, colourless, like the bleached hospital bedding. Except for the intravenous drip, there was no equipment, and the pale grey bed and bare locker top gave off a detached vibe, as if awaiting their next occupant. I pictured the ward orderlies cleaning and disinfecting the room for another patient, wished I’d stopped for freesias, red and yellow ones, those with the strongest and sweetest scent.
My throat tightened as I recalled Dorothy’s gravelly smoker’s voice, ‘We bought a fondue set at Sainsbury’s. Half price. William’s preparing the Gruyère and a Riesling is chilling in the fridge. Taxi’s on its way to your flat. No arguments…’
Dad rose as I tiptoed to the bedside. ‘Olivia!’
‘How is she?’
He shook his head as if he’d been asked the same question innumerable times. ‘It was a massive stroke.’
I went round to the other side of the bed and hugged William, before inspecting the notes on a clipboard at the end of the bed. ‘Morphine – nothing else?’
‘No point, darling,’ Dad said, his face impassive, the way it often was in stressful situations.
‘There’s t-PA. It’s a drug which-‘
‘Dottie is dying,’ William said through tight lips. ‘I don’t want them giving her drugs.’
We stared at him, grasping his wife’s hand, mottled cheeks twitching.
‘Your mother’s fetching Dorothy’s things, don’t know why,’ Dad added.
William’s face contorted. ‘I don’t want Nora here.’
Dad frowned at him. ‘They are sisters.’
William tightened his grip on Dorothy’s hand. ‘It’s our anniversary next week. Five years.’
I sat beside the bed, studied my aunt’s other hand, its sunspots and prominent veins, its flaking burgundy nail varnish. ‘It’s me, Olivia.’
Her white/brown hair clung in wisps to her face and the skin on her left cheek was distorted, as if yanked by invisible string. I didn’t want to, but I recognised the odour. Nurses call it “the smell of death”. Involuntarily I pulled back, imagining freesias, as if able to exchange the smells in my mind. I glanced at William, wondering if he’d fully accepted that his beloved Dottie was leaving him, us.
The door opened, revealing Mum, holdall in one hand, yellow carnations in the other.
William stood, wobbled. ‘You have no place here, Nora.’
Lips pursed, she transferred two brushed cotton nighties, a pair of slippers and a box of paper hankies to the locker. ‘I had to call in at Marks and Spencer. Dorothy had nothing suitable at home.’
‘Go away,’ he said, his higher tone barely concealing emotion.
Mum shut the locker door. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
As William lurched forward, Dad and I caught him.
‘I don’t want you here,’ William said to Mum, with renewed energy, pulling himself free of our impeding arms.
She straightened. ‘Find a vase for the flowers please, Olivia. Don’t make a scene, please, William.’
‘This is your fault,’ he moaned.
‘I think you should leave, Nora,’ Dad said as William pointed his finger at her.
William hobbled over to her. ‘It’s your fault Dorothy is like this. Your fault.’
‘Nora, please,’ Dad said, taking her arm.
Before they reached the door, she turned to stare at William, as if appealing to him. His eyes were watery but bright with determination. As a nurse appeared, Mum started to speak, reconsidered and left.
He scratched the eczema on his arm. ‘You know your mother and Dorothy… A squabble, I expect.’
William stroked his wife’s hair, his expression reflective. ‘We’ve been married five years. I should have bought her a wooden carving. A Barbary ape, maybe. She liked those when we were in Gib.’
‘It’s the thought that counts,’ the nurse said, adjusting the morphine drip.
In the adjoining bathroom, I splashed water over my face. My hair had escaped its combs, and my eyes – green like pistachio nuts, my aunt always described them – were dull.
The bathroom contained no crumpled towels, no splodges of shampoo or toothpaste. Only a wooden hairbrush, and a plastic container with her false teeth. Strange, all those hospital placements as a medical student, and never once had I been in a patient’s bathroom. As I removed strands of hair from the brush, their auburn tint almost grown out, the scent of her homemade peach hair spray filled my nostrils. I knelt, rested my elbows on the chair and buried my head in my hands.
While daylight succumbed to darkness and lights emerged in surrounding buildings, I willed her to regain consciousness. Even briefly, so she knew of my presence. It was impossible to imagine an end to our impromptu evenings watching Bridget Jones DVDs, an end to the last minute phone calls requesting I meet her in Oxford Street to advise if a dress made her look too old.
My throat burned with unshed tears.
Staff checked her pulse. Shifted pillows. Changed her catheter. Sometimes they watched us, wondering, perhaps, if we were aware of how little time remained. Once or twice, a young nurse hovered, maybe fresh from training on communicating with relatives, yet unsure of what to say. The wail of ambulances and police cars occasionally punctured the silence. A doctor appeared, asked if we wanted to discuss anything and, interpreting our silence to mean that we didn’t, left immediately.
Before dawn, my aunt’s cheeks quivered, then she opened her eyes. I glanced at William, asleep in an easy chair, a blanket draped over him. ‘Letter,’ she rasped, as I bent my head to her. Again came the hoarse word, ‘letter’. I squeezed her cold hand, aware now of a shadowy figure in a white coat waiting in the corner. As I stood, intending to wake William, Dorothy’s face relaxed and she closed her eyes for the final time.
Two days later as I handed a £20 note to the taxi driver, I could still visualise my aunt’s pallid, dying face.
‘Hey – your change,’ he called after me.
I took the money, scrambled up the steps and pressed heavily on the brass doorbell of the lawyer’s office. In reception, I removed my jacket and perched on a leather armchair, wondering again why I’d been summoned. What was so important it couldn’t be discussed over the phone?
The paintings on the drab green walls did nothing to lift my spirits: cherubs hovering round a tormented loin-clothed man; mountains tumbling into a murky lake. My fingers drummed the armrests as my thoughts reverted to the evening before. James had arrived late, and from the window of my third floor flat, I’d watched him adjust the metal coat hanger that served as an aerial for his Citröen. His perfunctory peck on my cheek irritated me. When he left early, claiming a headache – from my incense, of course, not his smoking (nothing that happened to James was ever his fault) – I’d been relieved.
Exhaustion permeated me: no Dorothy, and the funeral to endure tomorrow. Ten fifteen. Where was the lawyer? I flicked through a National Geographic article about Iceland, closed the magazine. The door opposite opened, two men shook hands and one of them left, smiling at me as he passed.
‘Miss Bowden, I’m Charles Minto. Apologies for summoning you at such short notice and for keeping you waiting.’
I followed him into a large, sparsely furnished room, sat down and surveyed my surroundings, wondering if their soothing cream colours eased the stress of divorce, financial worries and problems with neighbours. Outside, the wind buffeted leafless trees and the sky showed no inkling of sunshine.
‘I am sorry about your aunt’s death,’ he said, smoothing back his white forelock. The glare from his specs reminded me of my former headmaster, but the lawyer’s aura was calmer.
‘I didn’t manage to talk to her. I was in St Albans when she had her stroke.’
‘Your father told me. I contacted you to tell you about Dorothy’s will.’
How much more caring he sounded, using Dorothy’s name. ‘Her will?’
He nodded, studying me with sudden intensity as if I were a specimen in a lab. I wanted to parachute myself home, to work, anywhere.
‘She changed it the day before she had her stroke. You are the main beneficiary.’
My pulse raced. ‘But… this isn’t… What about William, what about my mother? Does she know? Will I have to tell her?’
His eyes softened. ‘Your aunt was adamant you have the money. She has provided well for William but the rest has been left to you. The figure is about £700,000.’
I imagined Mum’s outrage. £700,000!
‘There’s something else. Dorothy dictated a letter to you on the day before she died. This was when she changed her will.’
He handed me the envelope. ‘Take your time – the contents are… unusual.’
My heart clamoured for escape. I wanted Dorothy, not her money. I didn’t want to read a letter, I didn’t want to discuss finances. All I yearned for, in fact, was my cosy duvet and sleep.
After peering at my name on the envelope, I opened it and scanned the letter. Then I reread it, the letters dancing like pixies. When finally I glanced up, the green and maroon circles on the lawyer’s tie swirled. Struggling to breathe, I reached into my bag for my inhaler.
Mr Minto waited for a moment, then handed me a glass of water. ‘Drink this, please. You’re in shock.’