The plastic table-cloth hung so far down that I could see only their feet. But I could hear the noise and some of the talk, although I was so crunched up inside that I could make out very little of what they were saying. Besides, Smoky was whimpering as he cuddled up on my stomach and I could feel his body quivering every so often under his fur; every quiver made me deaf to their words and alert to their noise.

He had found me under the table when the room filled with feet, standing at all angles, and he sloped through them and came to huddle himself on me. He felt the dread too. She was going to die after they took her to the hospital. I could hear the clumping of the feet of the ambulance men as they tried to manoeuvre her on a stretcher down the stairs. They would have to lift it high over the banister; the turn was too narrow. The stretcher had red handles. I had seen them when the shiny shoes of the ambulance men appeared in the centre of the room. One had been holding it, folded up, perpendicular, with the handles on the ground beside his shiny black shoes which had a tiny redness in one toe-cap when he put the stretcher handles on to the linoleum. The lino itself was so shiny that there was a redness in it too, at an angle, buried in it like a warmth just under the surface. Una was so hot this morning that, pale and sweaty as she was, she made me think of redness too. It came off her, like heat from a griddle. Her eyes shone with pain and pressure, inflated from the inside.

This was a new illness. I loved the names of the others– diphtheria, scarlet fever or scarletina, rubella, polio, influenza; they almost always ended in an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ and made me think of Italian football-players or racing drivers or chess-players. Besides, each had its own smell, especially diphtheria, because of the disinfected sheets that were hung over the bedroom doors and billowed out their acrid fragrances in the draughts that chilled your ankles on the stairs. Even the mumps, which came after the diphtheria, was a sickness that did not frighten, because the word was as funny as the shape of everybody’s face, all swollen, as if there had been a terrific fight. But this was a new sickness. This was called meningitis. It was a word you had to bite on to say it. It had a fright and a hiss in it. It didn’t make me think of anything except Una’s eyes widening all the time and getting lighter, as if helium were pumping into them from her brain. They would burst, I thought, unless they could find a way of getting all that pure helium pain out. I wondered if they could.


Essex
Orion