Peter waits by his two-year-old son’s hospital bedside for the return of his wife Marta, returning from a conference in Rome.
Peter watched his son’s tiny chest gently rising and falling. Despite the bleakness of the situation, he felt a certain sense of serenity. He listened to the bleeping machinery and frantic exchanges between the doctors and nurses. He couldn’t understand the Czech they spoke but he knew here, in this towering, old, soviet hospital, the experts had taken control. They were responsible for Kuba now. He’d quite enjoyed being in hospitals since he was a child, everyone working to help people in their hour of need. He stroked the scar above his left eyebrow which he’d sustained when he was eight years old and felt almost nostalgic.
For those like Peter, for whom anxiety is a constant and exhausting state, a genuine crisis can bring a periodic sense of relief and energy. He knew support and sympathy would be forthcoming and most routines and commitments could be paused; coming so close to such a tragedy again. Soon Marta would arrive and he would hug her, show his love for her and they would get through this together.
Peter checked his watch. It was 8.20 AM: her flight would be landing In Vienna. Now Kuba’s condition had stabilised, it would be a much easier conversation. Had she not been at a conference in Rome, Marta would have been there for the frightening hours during the night. She’d have been furious with the doctors for insisting they stay in the waiting room while he was critical. In moments of panic, when one is uncertain of what will happen, blame is often apportioned more flippantly. This was on his watch. He couldn’t bear her anger, her disapproval or the distance he feared had been growing between them. But now? He’d acted quickly and would be a hero. Any moment now she’d read his message, phone him and he could give her the news and hear the relief wash over her.
‘Would you like a candy?’
Marta stared at the hand of the man sitting next to her, struggling to process his simple offer. As was often the case with flights this early, she hadn’t slept or eaten. It had taken what felt like a lot of concentration and energy to get through the relatively simple interactions necessary to get her flight. She’d managed to drink a coffee but on her empty stomach only added to the relentless churning.
‘For your ears popping? For take off?’ He felt the need to clarify as she stared blankly at his hand. ‘I apologise, you speak English, no?’
Marta only managed to nod as she took a piece. His friendly offer was jolting and she felt herself losing control over her chin as a tear ran down her cheek.
‘Oh my dear, you mustn’t be afraid, flying is the safest way to travel per kilometre, you know?’
She nodded again, unable to prevent more tears. There was something in the concern and kindness of this elderly, Italian man that put her at ease. He handed her his handkerchief.
‘Grazie,’ Marta sobbed, managing a grateful smile.
‘Ahhh, your Italian is very good. But you are Austrian no? Such fine yellow hair.’
‘Actually, I am Czech. From Brno.’
‘Wonderful, I have business in Brno during this weekend. The most tasty beer but your wine, it’s a little sweet, no?’ he chuckled.
‘I think we like it. Italian wine is very nice I think also. And your food of course.’ Marta would never normally speak to someone if she could avoid it but today she was enjoying the distraction.
‘I’m not so sure in honesty. My grandmother’s carbonara… e bellissima. We are all supposed to say our food is the best but everywhere has its beauty. Now your fried cheese with the ham, genius.’
Marta burst into laughter. ‘This is so funny. I never met a foreigner who likes that. My husband is a British and he says Czech Republic is land food forgot.’
‘So Britain is a country food remembered?’
‘Well he is good chef but he doesn’t think Britain is much more better. By the way, I am Marta,’ she said, holding out a hand.
‘Gianni,’ he replied, shaking her hand. ‘Těší mě.’
‘Your Czech is emm… bene.’
‘Děkuju my dear,’ he whispered as the safety announcement had begun.
The conversation had not completely taken her mind off Kuba, fighting for his life in the Bohunice emergency unit, but she appreciated the company. Once they had taken off they discussed each other’s countries, food some more and their work. Marta had been in Rome for a multi-level marketing conference, coincidentally held in Gianni‘s old university facaulty. He was visiting Brno as a consultant for public transport, as he did often. Marta’s uncle Ondřej worked as an accountant for České Dráhy; although for Gianni the name didn’t ring a bell, he decided they must have met on previous visit.
‘You see now we are in the sky, it is not so scary, no?’ Gianni reassured her. ‘And then you can see here, this is my favourite part of this journey. You can see from here, both the Mediterranean coast and the Adriatic coast. Beautiful.’
Marta leaned over him to peer out the window; mountains, lakes, fields, forests and distant seas glowing pink in the early morning sunrise. She felt as though she’d seen this exact view before, as if she’d climbed inside her childhood atlas.
‘I am not scared of flying. I was upset because…’
How could she say what was upsetting her? A short simple sentence, that her son had had an allergic reaction and may not survive, would describe the situation. But it wouldn’t describe what was really happening; the surreal horror of Peter’s first phone call, trying to hold her composure to buy a plane ticket, letting her colleagues know she was leaving the conference early, the terrifying taxi journey and the seemingly endless wait in the airport. And yet she was sure, in his own way, he would know.
‘My son, he is two. He has allergic reactions to nuts, eggs, milk and… I don’t know what he ate this time. We must be careful. My husband Peter gave him pancakes made from eh… chickpea flour. He hasn’t tried it before so we think maybe that…’ She felt her breaths were getting shorter and shallower. The familiar tingling sensation returned. She felt as though she was being blown up like a balloon. While the cheerful Gianni had helped keep her mind steady for a time, all along the panic was still brewing below. She couldn’t tell if she’d noticed some turbulence or not. ‘I can’t believe we talked for long time and I didn’t even say about this. You must think I am terrible mother. Oh Ježíši. I need air. Maybe water.’
He went to put a reassuring hand on her shoulder but only brushed it as she stood up to catch the attention of a hostess. No sooner had she left her seat than the seat belt signs turned red. A sudden jolt sent her sprawling across the aisle and into the lap of a startled child.
‘I’m sorry,’ she managed to say between gasps.
Gianni reached out to offer her a hand and pulled her back into her seat. She put her seatbelt on and gripped his hand tightly.
He was awake but trying to open his eyes was painful. Perhaps it was the bright hospital lights, the bruising on his cheek or the fresh stitches just above his left eyebrow. Having been drifting in and out of consciousness for several hours, the fair-haired eight-year-old was not yet aware of where he was or why. Peter managed to open his right eye enough to see his mother looking over him. She placed his plastic model Chewbacca in his hand and gently squeezed it. He couldn’t find the strength to reciprocate.
‘Oh my poor baby, you’re awake.’ She was smiling through her tears. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.’
‘Wh…’ he could barely manage more than to purse his lips. ‘Is he…’
Peter couldn’t picture the events of that morning, or remember what had caused his father’s rage this time. But he could remember the fear. Had it been his school uniform was too scruffy? Had he not done his homework? Maybe he’d been caught skipping PE?
‘He won’t touch you again, my beautiful boy.’ She gently stroked the side of his face which had been spared. ‘The police have him now and the doctors have you. They’ll put you back together they will.’
‘The P… Po…?’
‘It’ll be just us from now on, no one else,’ she said nodding, her eyes red and shimmering. She kissed his hand, the bottom of her perm gently brushing his arm.
Peter could feel his body aching but he felt calm and content. The fear was just a memory now. He looked over and saw a doctor speaking to another child in the bed next to his. When she’d finished speaking she came over to his bedside. Her face was serious and yet kind. Here he was safe.
Gianni checked his watch; it was just after 10AM. Excellent; another three hours before his meeting. Time for a shower and maybe grab a coffee. Well this had been an eventful journey. He made a sport out of trying to engage strangers on flights or long train journeys, particularly pretty, young women like Marta. He was happily married but always thought enjoying a couple of hours of their company was perfectly acceptable. With Czechs and Austrians he found this particularly fun as typically they’d avoid eye contact and conversation if at all possible. Today had been quite different. He felt some pride in helping this poor young mother in her hour of need. Since she’d found out the boy had survived his most recent brush with death, she’d been in better spirits.
‘Thank you again for doing this. You didn’t have to,’ Marta thanked Gianni.
‘It is not any problem my dear. Anything I can do to help. It’s a difficult day.’
As Gianni had a driver booked he insisted Marta came with him, although she needed little persuading. He’d calmly talked her through her panic attack and they’d both talked each other through the stomach-churning, windy landing. Peter had called her as soon as they’d landed. The initial flood of relief had given way to irritation with him. She was the one who had had to endure this from afar, unable to comfort Kuba through his horrendous ordeal. Instead she felt it was him who needed supporting through this. She’d always thought he would make an amazing Dad, more sensitive and caring than her Czech, male contemporaries. And in his own way he was, however, managing him took as much effort as raising their son. If she ever lost her temper with Kuba, after ten minutes he was usually as good as gold again. Shouting at Peter would have to be followed by hours or sometimes days of reassuring him she didn’t really mean it. She was able to keep the conversation shorter with the excuse it was rude to Gianni to spend the whole journey on the phone, although of course he wouldn’t have minded.
‘I will be just five minutes. I will put my bag inside and get his Krteček.’
They pulled up outside their house in Modřice.
‘Ah yes, this is the little mole from the TV, no?’
‘‘no jo,’ Marta confirmed in Czech and gave him grateful smile as she hopped out the taxi with her suitcase.
Before leaving the house she stopped by the kitchen door, pausing to look at the high chair where he must have eaten the pancakes. She sighed with annoyance; did he really need to experiment with new food when she wasn’t there? She knew Peter thought it was important to expose Kuba to new things or his allergies might get more severe. She dreaded to think what other dangers may be lurking around the corner for him. A game of Russian roulette but with how many guns? Four and counting so far. She thought it seemed strange the kitchen was quite tidy, Kuba’s favourite Thomas the Tank Engine plate stood in the drying rack. If Peter had cleared up, it must have taken some time after eating before the anaphylactic shock started. On the previous occasions it had happened with chilling speed but she remembered reading that in some cases it could take longer.
Marta went to put her shoes back on and noticed a bin liner by the door, only two thirds full at most. She smirked. Peter almost always left her to do these kinds of tasks. This was only the second time she’d been away for business; perhaps being left as the only adult had inspired him to be more productive. But how long had he left it here and not taken it outside? Why had he emptied the kitchen bin before it was full? Curious at her husband’s behaviour she returned to the kitchen to check. The bag had been replaced but was empty. He must have been in the process of taking it out when Kuba’s reaction began. He seemed keen to throw something away before she returned. He was often trying to throw away food he’d decided was off. Perhaps? She looked at the fruit bowl and saw he’d chucked some bananas she’d bought just before leaving. She decided she would salvage them and make banana bread. She couldn’t stand waste. She’d often done this before; it was simply easier than telling him off and risking conflict. Fortunately, he never seemed to notice.
Part of her knew she was procrastinating now, even after rushing back to Brno. She tried to open the bin bag but it was tied too tightly. She only succeeded in ripping it; spilling its contents all over the porch and in some of the slippers and shoes.
‘Do prdele!’ she shouted at herself in frustration. She then noticed a small packet in the middle of the mess. She stared in horror.
For what seemed like an age she squatted, frozen in position, trying to think of any reasonable explanation. They’d agreed they would never bring them into the house just in case, not even for themselves. She picked up the opened packet and looked inside, there can only have been a small number of peanuts taken out as it was nearly full.
Gianni, concerned at the length of her absence, decided to check if she needed any help. He eased himself out of the car, stretching and letting out a deep sigh. He walked slowly and stiffly up to the house, knocked tentatively on the front door she’d left ajar and peered round the corner.
‘Marta? Do you need…’
Marta looked up, momentarily making eye contact, before vomiting over the rubbish in front of her.
Panting, she managed a deep breath, enough to compose herself to speak.
‘We need to call Police.’