“Teddy.” She burst into hysterical tears.
“Now, now.” Teddy wrapped comforting, paternal arms around her. “Don’t cry. It’s all right.”
“All right? It’s not all right,” Summer wailed. “He’s dead!”
Teddy looked perplexed. “No, he isn’t.”
Hope rose up in Summer’s throat like vomit. “Michael’s not dead?”
“No, my dear. Who told you that?”
“The receptionist. Downstairs.”
She felt her knees start to give way. Teddy helped her into a chair.
“She must have been confused. He was pronounced dead by the ambulance team initially. But when they got him here, the doctors were able to restart his heart.”
“So, he’s okay?”
It was too much to take in. The roller coaster of hope and despair had left Summer’s head reeling.
“I wouldn’t say that. He’s in a coma. That’s all we know. They operated for three hours and what can be done has been done.”
“But he’s going to be okay.”
Teddy rubbed his eyes with exhaustion. “I honestly don’t know, Summer. Alexia’s been talking to the doctors. You’d best talk to her. She’s with Michael now.”
A nurse showed Summer in. Michael’s room looked more like the deck of the starship Enterprise than a hospital room. Machines and wires and lights were everywhere—against the walls, on stands next to Michael’s bed, even suspended from the ceiling.
Then, there was Michael himself.
As soon as she saw him, Summer’s hand flew to her mouth in shock. There was no blood. But he’d been cleaned up so thoroughly, and he lay so utterly still, he barely seemed real. His body was covered with a white sheet, and the upper part of his face was swathed in bandages. Only his chin and mouth were visible, and those were half obscured with bulky tubes and a breathing apparatus that attached to a respirator behind the headboard. The wheezy wheesh, whoosh of the machine as it pumped air in and out of his lungs gave the otherwise high-tech room a distinctly old-fashioned feel. Summer half expected a dwarf to jump out from behind the bed with a pair of bellows or an accordion. Instead, Alexia stood up to greet her.
“Summer. How are you?” Alexia extended a perfectly manicured hand for Summer to shake. Her fingers were ice cold. “So sweet of you to come.”
Summer looked at her blankly. Sweet of me? Alexia was greeting as her as if this were a cocktail party she’d been kind enough to attend. Did she not realize how serious the situation was?
“What’s happening, Alexia? What are all these machines? Teddy said you spoke with the doctor.”
“The surgeon, yes, Dr. Crickdale. Terribly nice man.”
Summer waited. And . . . ?
“We’ve met before, as it happens,” Alexia rambled on. “I know him from the local constituency party. His wife’s done stalwart work as a fund-raiser.”
Summer wanted to shake her. I don’t give a fuck about the constituency party and neither should you. Your son may be dying! Instead, fighting to keep her voice steady, she asked, “What did Dr. Crickdale say about Michael?”
“Ah yes, well. Michael’s in a coma, which was medically induced.”
Summer looked horrified. “You mean the doctors did this to him?”
“They had to. There was no way they could have operated on his brain without it.”
“They operated on his brain?” Summer’s insides began to liquefy with fear. For the second time in as many minutes she found she needed to sit down.
Alexia said, “Yes. They think he was going over eighty when he hit the lorry. It was a side impact, but at that speed it’s a miracle he survived at all. Both legs and arms are broken, and there’s some internal bleeding, but the main concern is the head trauma. Dr. Crickdale removed sixteen separate shards of bone from his right ventricle.”
It was like listening to a weather report. Alexia sounded so calm, so chillingly controlled.
“There’s been considerable swelling and bleeding in the brain. Unfortunately the first scans showed a very poor level of activity. We’re waiting on the later ones, but Dr. Crickdale doesn’t hold out much hope.”
“Will he live?” Summer whispered.
“They can’t say at this stage. He may. But that may not be the best outcome.”
Summer looked at Alexia incredulously. Michael’s mother had always intimidated her. Summer had long thought of Alexia as a cold fish, but she’d never imagined her capable of such callousness toward her own son. Roxie, maybe. But Michael had always been the apple of her eye.
“What do you mean it ‘may not be the best outcome’? You don’t want him to live?”
“Not as a vegetable, no. I’ll stay with him tonight.” Alexia turned regally away, resting her diamond-encrusted hand on Michael’s limp one. “You can come back in the morning.”
It was a dismissal, an empress shooing away her ladies’ maid. Summer’s shock at Alexia’s detachment turned to anger.
“I want to stay. Michael would want me here.”
“No.” The steel in Alexia’s tone left no room for negotiation.
Summer opened her mouth to protest but Teddy wisely put a hand on her arm. “Not now,” he whispered. Outside in the corridor, he spoke more openly.
“You mustn’t judge her too harshly, my dear. She’s in shock. We all are.”
“But she’s so cold, Teddy!”
She hadn’t meant to speak so bluntly, but the words just came out.
“I know it seems that way,” Teddy said kindly. “But that boy means everything to her.”
He means everything to me, Summer thought desperately.
“Can’t you convince her to let me stay? What if . . .” She started to cry. “What if he dies in the night?”
Teddy gave her a look of infinite kindness.
“If he dies in the night, he won’t need either of you. Will he?”
The next morning’s Sunday papers were full of pictures of the Kingsmere party-that-wasn’t, and lurid accounts of Alexia De Vere’s son’s near-fatal motorcycle accident. The Sun on Sunday was the first to coin the expression that was to haunt Alexia over the coming months, with its questioning headline: THE CURSE OF THE DE VERES? With this latest juicy tragedy to chew on, the tabloids delighted in dredging up all the old rumors about Roxie, and the “real story” behind the home secretary’s daughter and her mysterious three-story fall. Pictures of a wheelchair-bound Roxie were run alongside images of the John Radcliffe, where Michael De Vere remained “critical but stable.” Even the old, infamous shots of Sanjay Patel, taken before his imprisonment and subsequent suicide, were given a fresh airing. Instead of sympathy, the fickle British public seemed to react angrily towards Alexia, interpreting her stoicism (about Michael’s accident) as cold-heartedness, a reverting to type. Overnight, it seemed, the positive image that Alexia had worked so hard to build with voters all year began to unravel. She was more alone than ever.
At home in East London, Gilbert Drake devoured the coverage with gleeful relish.
Just as in Exodus, when the Pharaoh refused to release God’s people and the Lord killed every firstborn, both man and animal, in retribution, so Alexia De Vere had been punished for keeping poor Sanjay behind bars.
“She will sacrifice the first male offspring of her womb to the Lord.”
I must guard against the sin of pride, Gil warned himself. Vengeance is the Lord’s, not mine. I am but his instrument.
Gilbert Drake prayed for guidance. Show me your will, O Lord. Show me the way from here.
Retribution had begun at last. But it was far from finished.
Two weeks after Michael’s accident, Alexia met with the prime minister.
“You are entitled to compassionate leave, you know,” Henry Whitman told her. “No one would blame you if you felt you needed to step down for a while, to be with your family.”
Alexia’s eyes narrowed distrustfully. Senior cabinet ministers did not step down “for a while.” They clung to their jobs or they lost them. Henry Whitman knew this as well as she did.
“Trying to get rid of me, Henry?”
“Of course not,” Whitman blustered. “I wouldn’t dare!”
“Good,” Alexia said, not returning the prime minister’s smile. “Michael hasn’t regained consciousness since it happened. According to his doctors, he’s highly unlikely ever to do so.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Please, spare me the sympathy.” Alexia sounded almost angry. Henry Whitman hoped it was grief talking, but it was hard to tell. “If it were up to me, we’d turn off the damn machines tomorrow. It’s Teddy who insists on keeping them going. But I’ve no intention of wasting my life in a hospital room holding my son’s utterly unresponsive hand when I could be here, being useful, simply because it makes some judgmental hag at the Daily Mail feel better.”
“No one’s suggesting that, Alexia.”
“Aren’t they? I’ll bet Kevin and Charles have been helpfully pointing out how negative my press has been since this happened.”
“Not at all,” Henry Whitman lied. Alexia’s enemies in cabinet had indeed wasted no time renewing their attacks. But Henry hardly needed his cabinet to tell him that which he could read for himself. Whatever her true feelings, Alexia De Vere had come across as cold and heartless in the extreme in the wake of her son’s accident, insisting on “business as usual.” The effect on her image had been catastrophic, and the bad press was rubbing off on the entire Conservative Party.