Stol's Laid Out . . .
Stol's laid out on this strange bed-trolley thing. He might as well be waiting for his funeral. There's no blood in his face. No twitching or rolling. He's just a slab of dead meat on a hospital bed. I'm pretending I can't see the tube going in and the tube coming out. Or hear the pumping noises, and the occasional shlup!, like the sheep getting squashed by the hay bales in Farm Freak!
Mum hurries in. "So where's his dad?"
"On his way. One of his junior barristers phoned to say he was just going through to the judge, to explain."
Mum took a look at Stol, just lying there. Flat out. Not even breathing, so far as I could see. You could tell what she was thinking.
Not everyone would say it, though.
"Well, his dad's the last person we need."
She'll not forget the time that Mr. Oliver showed up in Casualty so furious at being called out of court, he practically started dishing out malpractice suits to all the doctors who'd spent the last two hours saving his son's life. And then he'd turned on me, as if it were my fault for suggesting we play Pirate Attack! in the first place. How was I supposed to know Stol would get so overexcited he'd start yo-ho-ho-ing and swigging that stuff with the skull and the crossbones? Good thing I hadn't said a word about the pathetic knots he'd used to truss me up for the gangplank. If I hadn't moved so fast, he'd have been in the mortuary.
"No, probably best off without Franklin."
Mum grabbed the phone she'd left me earlier and took off down the ward. I didn't bother following to try to listen. No one gets straight through to Mr. Oliver anyway. He's far too important. But even in emergencies Mum prefers things the way they are. If she can leave her message with Jeanine, his secretary, quickly enough, she can get off the phone before Franklin snatches it and starts all his arguing.
The nurse was bending over Stol when Mum came back.
"I told Jeanine to stop him canceling. After all, nothing's happening." Suddenly superstitious, she went pale and crossed her fingers. So did I, in my pocket, and together we stared at Stolly till the nurse moved off and Mum went on, "I told her to tell Franklin we'll stay here till he's out of court."
We know what "out of court" means. Back to chambers for discussions that might go on till midnight, or even later if the case isn't going well. But maybe this time, what with Stol having done for himself so comprehensively brilliantly, his dad will make the effort to get away sooner.
"What about . . . ?"
What with the nurse still being well within earshot, Mum didn't finish, as she does usually, ". . . his daffy mum." So I just answered.
"On a shoot. In the jungle."
"I'm not sure Nicaragua's jungle." But clearly even Mum had grasped this was no time for elementary geography. To tell the truth, though, she did not look sorry. Esme Oliver is a menace in a sickroom. She is the sort of person who would unthinkingly lift off your sterile dressing to wipe off her nail polish. Or fetch out her hair spray in a ward of asthmatics.
"But is she on her way back?"
"No, not yet. They can't find her."
"Can't find her? Is she lost?"
"No," I explain. "It's just that her assistant can't raise a signal. You see, she and the photographer have taken the models where there are no land lines in order to get that absolutely authentic sense of lost-in-the-rain-forest chic to launch her new range of three-tiered mock-python and marabou waterproo--"
Normally Mum adores this sort of stuff. She says my bulletins from the World of Esme have been one of the principal compensations for feeding Stolly pretty well every sensible meal he's ever eaten, checking his hair for nits whenever she does mine, and having him sleep over practically every other night, while trying to make sure he keeps up with his homework.
But this time, Stol's too white, too still. She cuts me off.
"Right," she says. "You keep him going till I get back from seeing the doctor."
What does she mean, "keep him going"? But I don't argue. I just trail her to the door. "The doctors won't talk to you," I warn her. "I asked a nurse, and she said if I wasn't family, she couldn't tell me anything."
"So I'll say that I'm family."
I panicked. "But what if they ask you to make a decision?"
"Well," she said. "If they ask me which ice cream he's going to want for his supper, I'll tell them toffee pecan. And if they want a decision about how late he ought to be allowed to stay up watching telly, I'm going to be quite tough and insist it's before ten."
Brave stab. But Stol has sailed too close to death and I can't smile.
We both turn back to look at him. "For pity's sake!" says Mum. "I'll just find out what's what. And if there are any decisions to be made, I'll get back to Franklin. The man's supposed to be one of the cleverest barristers in Britain, isn't he? He can surely read a note pushed under his nose in the middle of a court case. Should we switch off your dear son's life support? Tick Yes or No."
But simply joking about it has unnerved her worse. She has to come back to lay her hand against his cheek. "Oh, Stolly! Stolly! What a little fool you are!"
Back at the door, she tells me sharply, "You look after him!"
This time, I have to ask. "What does that mean?"
"You know. Sit close. And concentrate. Will him back."
Now I'm unnerved as well, because it sounds so much like something from the World of Esme.
"That's right. Stay close. Don't let them send you off to the coffee shop or anything. I'll bring you back something to eat. Just sit here and remember he's your friend. Stick with him."
Strange. (For my mum.)
And she has slid away, round next door's curtain.
I know her. I sat very quietly, and, sure enough, I heard the nose-blow and the little sniffle. And the deep tranquillizing breaths she had to take before she could set her face and go and ask whoever she could find what might be happening in Stol's flat silence.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Up on Cloud Nine by Anne Fine. Copyright © 2002 by Anne Fine. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.