“Please,” Bracken pleaded, “I don’t know how else to get her home.”
“Get her cleaned up and try another firm, maybe,” she was told. “But I wouldnae hold my breath if I were you. Unless it was to stop myself from smelling the sick, in which case, fire on.”
“Thanks,” Bracken said, “I think.”
“I couldn’t help overhearing,” someone said, and Bracken suppressed a groan as she recognized the dulcet tones of the Good Samaritan.
“As I mentioned earlier, I gave my boyfriend a lift here. Do you two live far away? Maybe I could drive you?”
“It’s only a couple of miles,” Bracken said, “but I don’t want to put you out. And she might be sick in your car.”
“I’m sure she won’t be,” the Samaritan said brightly. “She can’t have very much left, probably.”
“I can just wait till she sobers up a bit and then we can walk,” Bracken said, “it’ll be a good lesson for her in not taking me out to that stupit club.”
The Good Samaritan laughed effervescently.
“Really, it’s OK. I think a little drive would do my boyfriend some good. He’s finding this place a bit oppressive.”
Bracken’s cheeks flushed. A ride in what was no doubt a fancy car, with a guy she fancied and his impossibly attractive and generous girlfriend. And her blootered, sick covered cousin. What a treat.
“Honestly, it’s OK Miss – what is your name, actually?”
“Oh how rude. Esmeralda Francesca MacGregor Di Saatchi Von Rollo.”
She smiled at Bracken’s awed expression.
“It’s an old European name, cobbled together out of lots of bits of families.”
“It’s very nice,” Bracken said. “I’m-”
“Bracken Lee McCracken. I know.”
“But how? Have we met? You do look familiar, somehow, but I thought maybe I’d seen you on television or something…”
“So full of questions, little one,” Esmeralda said in a deeply patronizing manner. “All in good time.”
“Bleurgh,” Nigella said quietly to herself, but no bodily fluids escaped.
“See,” Esmeralda said triumphantly, “she’s sounding better already.”
Bracken looked doubtful.
“Al, tell her won’t you,” Esmeralda said as the stud himself emerged from the hospital.
“Tell who? What?”
“Tell Bracken here that it’s not bother for us to give her a lift.”
Aloysius was bewildered.
“Hello, Miss McCracken,” he managed eventually, “how are you?”
“Oh braw aye,” she said with the automatic sarcasm of the woman scorned, “I love hingin about hospitals in the middle of the night cuz ma idiot cousin got herself attacked and then the nurse gave her medicine withoot considerin’ how it might react wi alcohol.”
It was only then that she remembered his own reasons for being there.
“Sorry,” she said quickly, “it’s been a long night. How’s your mother doing?”
He looked pained. Something in Bracken’s chest plate echoed the sentiment.
“She’s not so good,” he said stiffly. “Well, she’s dead, in fact. Which is about as bad as you can get, I think.”
“Oh my god,” Bracken said, instinctively putting an arm around his shoulders, “I’m so sorry.”
Almost as swiftly as she’d made contact she pulled away to catch Nige’s wheelchair as it slowly rolled away.
“I still think a wee late night drive is what is needed here,” Esmeralda piped up through narrowed eyes. She had seen the look on Aloysius’s face as Bracken tried to comfort him, and she was shaken by it.
“Let us take you and your girlfriend home, Bracken.”
“She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my cousin,” Bracken said, forgetting that Esmeralda had previously alluded to the fact that she already knew this, and therefore not realizing that she was rattled.
“Well, we’re more like pals really. Or sisters, maybe. Anyway, Nigella McCracken, this is Esmeralda Francesca MacGregor Di Saatchi Von Rollo, and… what is your name, library assistant guy?”
“Aloysius Anthony Bertrand Hunkington-Smythe III,” he replied, “but you can call me Al.”
“Oh,” Esmeralda said, “you work in the library too?”
“No, I’m a lollipop lady,” Bracken explained, “but I go in there every day.”
“You must be an avid reader.”
“I am,” she said, “and I’m also just really enthusiastic about trying new books.”
Esmeralda raised an eyebrow.
“That was a joke,” Bracken explained, “because obviously avid means eager, dedicated to or enthusiastic about something.”
Esmeralda laughed unenthusiastically.
“Very good,” she said. “You must have had them rolling in the aisles at lollipop college.”
“Well I tried, but with hindsight that was probably a bad idea. Most of our training involved standing in busy roads, so you don’t want to have people on the floor laughing really. And what is it you do, Esmeralda?”
“Oh, I’m a jack of all trades,” she said evasively.
“But mostly scientific and psychological research for private clients on a freelance basis.”
“It pays the bills.”
“I want a sangwich,” Nigella interjected loudly.
“Right,” Esmeralda decided, “time to get this one home I think.”
They bundled into the car, Bracken taking a moment to fold up the broken wheelchair and lean it against a wheelie bin.
“Are we going to the party,” Nigella asked woozily as Bracked strapped her in.
“No sweetheart,” she said soothingly, “we’re going to go and have a wee sleep. We’ve been to the party already.”
“Was I the prettiest?” Nigella asked hopefully.
“Yes you were, you were the prettiest girl in the whole room. All of the boys there made up their minds to marry you, but you wouldn’t have any of them.”
“Your knees are green,” Nigella informed her. “A really bright, vibrant green. And mine are purple.”
“OK then pal,” Bracken said, patting her hand supportively.
“That’s not usual, is it?” Nigella seemed worried. “Maybe we should go to the doctor?”
“We’ll make an appointment tomorrow hen, OK? The doctor’s in bed just now.”
“OK Bracken,” she said, yawning.
“Alright back there?” Esmeralda asked, barely concealing her disinterest.
“Next left is it?”
“No, second left, where the trees are. Thank you.”
They were driving slowly down one of several roads that appeared identical to Esmeralda. How people ever found their way home whilst under the influence was a mystery. She thought of her own city flat, and the family pad in the country, and the villa in Greece. Those were buildings with character, and class. These ones looked like toy houses.
“Hoi Bracken,” Nigella said, with a giggle in her throat, “who’s that man in the front? He looks like that guy you fancy-“
“-shut it, Nige,” Bracken cut in quickly, but her cousin continued,
“the posh one fae the libray that offended you the other day.”
Aloysius turned around.
“Sorry pal,” Nigella said, “but you do really look like him.”
“I think I am him,” Aloysius said pleasantly. “And it was only today, believe it or not. A lot has happened since then. But listen, Bracken, I want to apologize. I honestly never meant to upset you.”
“What,” Bracken said, not really listening.
This was primarily because she was staring over his shoulder at the place where her block of flats ought to be.
It was still there, or at least part of it was. But the rest of the building was decidedly engulfed by thick orange flames and black swirls of acrid smoke.
“Is that where you stay,” asked Esmeralda.
“Aye,” Bracken said, “or it was…”
“Ooh, pretty,” observed Nigella, “is it bonfire night?”
“So who’s having the random barbeque?”
“Think it might be your maw and Uncle Nicky, actually hen.”
Her voice cracked a little.
“Does that mean we can go?”
“Eh,” Bracken said, bravely fighting the rising urge to be sick, “no sure. I’ll go and find out what’s going on, if you just stay here in the warm for two minutes OK?”
“Ooh, wi the hunky libray guy eh,” Nigella said, attempting a saucy wink in Aloysius’s direction. “Sounds awright.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Aloysius asked Bracken, “For moral support?”
Of course she did, with every fibre of her being, but for some reason said, “Oh no, that’s fine. But thanks though, Al.”
‘Why did I say that,’ she wondered miserably as she hauled herself out of the car and moved in the direction of the team of firefighters who were attempting to douse the flames.
‘She’s still upset with me about before,’ he thought to himself inaccurately as he watched her small frame advance towards the carnage.
“I think she’s got bigger things on her mind than your little spat,” Esmeralda said.
“Was I thinking out loud?” he asked, shocked.
“Fraid so,” she said.
He failed to notice the relief in her voice at having not been caught out. In some ways he really was too self-centred for his own good. But there again his mother had just died so maybe we can forgive him a certain level of introspection.
Meanwhile outside the car in the cold November air, one of the firefighters was shouting at Bracken to get out of the way for gods sake, could she not see how dangerous it was.
“But the people,” she said desperately, “the people inside…”
“There are no people inside, Miss,” he said impatiently, “they’ve all been rescued.”
“So where are they now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you see my aunt and uncle? Did you see my baby?”
“I saw lots of people,” he replied, “but there was no baby though. Youngest kid was a toddler of about three.”
“Charlie Sinclair,” she said, “he’s a wee shite. His mother’s no much better. But what do you mean, no baby? That means my wee boy is still in there! You huv tae to something!”
“Impossible,” he said flatly, “we got everyone out.”
“Is there a chance someone could have found him and you not seen?”
“Not really,” he said, “given I’ve overseen the entire operation.”
Bracken tried to fight back the tears, but this was too much. To lose her hope of true love with a hunky library assistant was bad enough, but to lose her aunt, uncle, flat, and baby in the same evening was just too much.
Wracked with sobs she fell to the ground, paying little heed to the delicate knees of her cat suit, which got all icky and muddy.
“Could someone move this grieving lassie to a safe distance,” the fireman said thoughtfully into his coms device. “I’m worried she’ll get hurt.”
A police officer appeared with a blanket and a cup of sweet tea and gently led Bracken away, but she barely noticed.
‘How am I going to tell Nigella,’ she wondered, knowing that even now her cousin, blissfully unaware, was trying to chat up Aloysius in front of his own girlfriend.
‘Although, maybe if she gets herself in another cat fight I can delay it a bit,’ she thought.
“Feeling better, pet?” The police officer asked kindly. Bracken realized that she had stopped crying and was now rocking silently back and forth.
“No really,” she admitted. “I’ve naewhere tae go, and I’m scared youse’ll make me identify the bodies, and I dinnae ken if I’ve got it in me.”
“Ma uncle n’ aunt n’ the bairn.”
“You must be mistaken, we got everyone out of there before the bomb went off.”
“The what now?”
“The bomb. The terrorists phoned it in in time for us to get everyone out, but not in time for it to be diffused.”
“That fireman said there was nae babies got rescued but,” Bracken said.
“Pfft,” said the police officer, “he says a lot of stuff. Lets just see if I can’t find out what’s gone on.”
As she marched off into the darkness, Bracken turned her attention back to the dying embers of the block of flats she had called home since the age of eight. What would Mary-Doll Mahoney make of this, she wondered. And why did she feel so emotionally detached? It was almost as if she was watching a film that was happening to someone else.
“I’m sorry pet,” the police officer said, “the fireman was right. There’s no record of any babies pulled out of the building tonight.”
“What about my aunt and uncle?”
Bracken pulled the blanket closer round her shoulders, and tried to work out how she felt.
Mostly, she concluded as the last of the flames died out and the crowd of spectators began to disperse, she felt empty. Numb, and cold, and emptier than she had ever felt in her life.
She felt like it was time to write a poem.