The Crash: Chapter Fourteen
In last week's instalment we followed Jason's daughter Jess to a theatre rehearsal in her friend Bethany's new car... and disaster struck. This week it's back to Jason and Terri to see how they will cope with the news.
"I wonder if Jess will get the part she wants," Terri said.
Jason jumped and looked up from the newspaper he'd been staring at for the past five minutes.
"I said, I wonder if Jess will get her part."
"I expect so," Jason said, sounding faintly irritated, and went back to staring at the page.
There was a long silence. Terri thought about putting the TV on, but wasn't in the mood for mindless noise. She picked up a magazine from the coffee table and leafed through it. She'd read it already, earlier that day, but there was some comfort in looking at the familiar pictures and the daft headlines that promised to solve all her problems in three, seven or ten easy steps.
"So what's the news?" Terri asked finally, partly to break the silence and partly to find out whether Jason had even seen the words that were floating in front of his face.
"Hmm?" Once again, he looked startled.
"You were miles away. Penny for them?"
Silence again. Terri was sure they used to talk once. What on earth was up with Jason? Not that there was any point in asking him, because she'd already established that when it came to giving answers, he was currently more enigmatic than the Sphinx.
"Anything interesting in the paper?"
Terri gave up, put the magazine down, and went over to switch on the stereo. The silence was becoming creepy. She purposely picked a Celine Dion CD that she knew Jason hated, just to try and get a reaction.
As the saccharine melody rang through the room, she watched him keenly, but was disappointed. He said nothing. She joined in, singing out of tune, an activity normally guaranteed to rile him. Still nothing.
"Do you want a cup of tea?"
At least that time he seemed to have heard her.
There was a pause. He seemed to be considering the idea with more seriousness than he had any of her previous questions, which for some reason infuriated her.
"No thanks," he said, finally. Then he turned over a page of the paper and began staring at the next page. Now she knew he wasn't reading it, because it was the women's page, and she happened to have looked at it earlier. It contained a review of a new beauty parlour, and an article on how to 'give yourself a face-lift with make-up.' Neither of which was likely to hold his attention as the page in front of him appeared to be doing.
Terri headed for the kitchen and put the kettle on. She'd treat the evening as if she was in the house on her own, because she might as well be.
So when the phone rang, it didn't even occur to her to let Jason answer it. She grabbed the cordless and picked up.
"Terri speaking," she said, just in case the person on the other end couldn't tell her from Jason or, more likely, she supposed, from Jess.
"Ish Na'lee," came an indistinct voice on the other end. It sounded drunk, or distressed, she couldn't tell. And who in the world was Nalee?
"Sorry?" she asked, getting ready to put on her haughtiest, 'do-not-disturb' voice when it turned out to be a crank caller or a drunkenly dialed wrong number.
"Na'lee Heshton. Bethany - sniff - mother."
Bethany's mother. Oh yes. Natalie Heston. The immaculately groomed, perfectly spoken Natalie Heston, who could just as well be made of diamonds, she was so hard and so beautiful. Terri could hardly imagine why she would lower herself to call the resolutely ordinary mother of her daughter's theatre friend, much less why she'd be sniffling indistinctly down the phone at her.
Then, in a moment of sudden clarity, she realised exactly what would cause this reaction, and her conversation with Jason at dinner took on an ironic edge. Would she have responded differently to Jason's uncharacteristic worry about Bethany's driving, if she'd known that later the same evening Natalie Heston would be on the phone, sounding for once very ungroomed and unclear? Of course.
She sat down, weakly, on the kitchen chair. The phone nearly slipped through her fingers.
"What's the matter?" she asked, but she hardly needed to.
"There's been a - sniff - accident. We're at the hospital." There was a pause and Terri could almost hear Natalie swallowing nervously. "I think you'd better come."
"We don't know exactly," a man's voice took over, presumably the elusive Mr Heston. "They hit a lorry at the traffic lights joining the ring road."
"Are they..." Terri couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence, as if whatever injury or death she spoke would be wished into being, just as it almost seemed Jason had wished - or had a premonition of - the accident.
"In theatre. You won't be able to see Jess straight away, but I'm sure she'd want you to be here when she comes out."
"Thank you for letting us know," she said, politely and a shade bizarrely. Then she let the phone drop onto the table, and tried to force her numb legs to carry her into the lounge to tell Jason. It was only when the phone began to howl that she realised she'd never actually cut off the call. She went back to the table and pushed the green button, then walked mechanically to the lounge and set the phone back in its cradle.
“That was Bethany’s mum.”
This time, Jason looked up immediately, his eyes wide.
“They’ve had an accident,” she said. Then she burst into tears.
"Shit." Jason's choice of words may have been limited, but his tone was expressive. An odd mixture of anger and resignation and hurt and fear. "What happened?"
He stared up at her from the depths of the sofa. Her sobs came more deeply as she tried to answer, and eventually it seemed to occur to Jason that she might be in need of comfort. He stood and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.
Terri swallowed hard, and dashed the back of her sleeve across her eyes. A gulp of air turned into another sob, but finally she managed to steady her voice enough to pass on the little she knew.
"Come on," was Jason's immediate response.
Terri followed him to the front door before she realised that, while he was wearing the shoes he'd come home in, she was still in her burgundy slippers. She kicked them into an untidy pile at the bottom of the stairs, ignoring the corner where she usually placed them neatly. Then she shoved her feet into the first pair of shoes she found, which happened to be turquoise and clash ridiculously with her pale peach sweater and patterned trousers. Never mind. Whatever got them there fastest.
"Come on," Jason repeated, leading the way out of the house and opening the garage door. He opened the passenger door, too, and stood tapping his feet until Terri stepped inside. Then he over-revved the car in his hurry to get it out of the garage, and all but stalled it. Finally levelling off, he pulled out onto the drive, paused from force of habit to get out and shut the garage door, then thought better of it and drove off, leaving the door open.
"Are you sure you're safe to drive?" Terri asked, noting the over-revved engine and the squeal of tires as he pulled out of the secluded close on to the main road.
He sounded impatient. Terri was stung by his tone, and responded tartly, "I'm sure Bethany and Jess thought Bethany was perfectly safe to drive, too."
"This car's very safe," Jason responded. Terri was confused, although his tone suggested that his reply made perfect sense.
"But are you?"
"Yes! Jesus, give it a rest will you? Anyone would think you wanted another accident!"
"That's the last thing I want, and you know it."
The tears, only just at bay, won out again and Terri went back to sobbing quietly into her handkerchief, leaving Jason to deal with negotiating the traffic at a barely-legal pace.
The silence gave Terri too much space to think. To wonder what had happened to Jess and her friends, and what kind of state she'd find them in. Natalie's hysteria and her husband's cool detachment hadn't given her a clear picture of what to expect, and by the time they pulled up outside the hospital, her mind was full of images of death and destruction; a mental picture of Jess lying, comatose but perfect, under sterile white sheets warred with another image of her scarred and slathered in bulky, bloody bandages. Terri tried to persuade herself that, more than likely, the girls only had minor injuries, since they'd been in the town centre and couldn't have been driving fast, but that small measure of comfort was denied her by the recollection that Bethany's father had mentioned 'theatre'. Not the hobby the girls loved, but the cool, dangerous environment of the hospital operating theatre.
"Have you got any change for the meter?" Jason asked.
"Here." Terri handed him the two pounds she had in her purse, and together with the contents of Jason's pockets, they scraped together enough to pay for three hours parking.
It seemed like adding insult to injury, to have to find change for the meter and guess how long they might be here. The world had gone crazy, and something as ordinary as parking tickets had no place in this new, disrupted version of life.
Jason put the money in. The last coin stuck, and Terri watched him pound the machine furiously until the coin clunked into place and the meter spat out a ticket in return. Then he took the ticket and looked at his hand, as if surprised that when he'd hit the meter, it had inflicted pain on him.
After a brief, surprised moment, he slapped the ticket onto the windscreen, locked the car and headed at breakneck speed towards the A&E entrance.
The woman on the reception desk could only tell them that Jess was 'stable', whatever that meant, and then point them to where Natalie and Mr Heston were waiting tearfully for the doctors to emerge and pronounce on their daughters' fates.
Terri walked over to them, and tried to find something to say.
"Isn't it terrible?"
Nathalie nodded and sniffed into her handkerchief. Her mascara had run around the corners of her eyes, giving her the expression of a grieving panda.
"Have you heard anything more?" Jason asked. "How they are? What happened?"
Natalie just shook her head in silence, but her husband was more forthcoming. "Somehow, she lost control coming down the hill and smashed into a lorry at the junction with the ring road. They've taken both girls into theatre. The doctor will come and tell us when they know more. Or so he says. It looks to be a busy night."
"Lost control," Jason repeated thoughtfully. "She should have been more careful with a new car."
The other man's head snapped up as if he'd been personally challenged.
"Don't you try and pin the blame on Bethany. Bethany's always careful. More than likely there's a fault with the car."
"Everyone says that," Jason sneered.
"Guys," Terri interjected, seeing that things were going to get heated. "What's done is done. Let's just worry about getting the girls better for now."
"Yeah," Jason agreed sarcastically, "don't worry whose fault it is that my daughter's lying in there in God knows what sort of pain because some idiot child can't control a car."
"Jason!" This time, Terri's interruption was anything but calming. "Don't be ridiculous. You don't know what happened or why, and nor does anyone else."
"Exactly, so why's he trying to pin the blame on the car? Bloody typical. Can't drive, so sue the manufacturers."
"Let it go," Terri hissed.
"I won't. Everybody's trying to pin the blame on me. You'd think he'd been talking to that stupid journalist."
"The one who rang and tried to pin the blame for the M18 pile-up on me, that's who."
Terri stared at him. She remembered his preoccupation over the last few evenings. His nervousness. And his uncharacteristic concern about Jess going out in Bethany's new car. And suddenly a lot of things started making sense.
"You knew," she said, hollowly. "Jesus Christ, Jason. You knew. You knew, and you didn’t stop her."