I'm throwing this up very quickly because I have to go out somewhere unexpectedly, but I seem to have gotten back into the flow with this story and writing in general, I promise you won't have to wait so long next time!
Reviews would be absolutely wonderful, please let me know if you're still reading this! Any preferences for the next flashback chapter also welcome- either on here on chloeggodard on instagram.
"Oh, she's still got these!" Peigi remarks happily as Nicky pushes open Chloe's bedroom door. "I had no idea she still had these, never mind she still likes them enough to have them up. Those," she explains, gestures to the paintings hanging above Chloe's bed; woodland fox, portrait-style, anthropomorphised deer dressed as though it's stepped straight out of another century, colourful dodo strangely reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. "I painted her those."
"You did?" Dom watches her curiously, strangely transfixed.
"Umm hmm. I did those when she was a baby," Peigi muses. "She needed something on her bedroom walls that wasn't Angel's god-awful hip hop posters. And then Chlo drew those herself when…" she trails off, and all of a sudden, her expression changes, clouds, as though she's afraid she's said too much, heading into dangerous territory. "When she was about sixteen, I think," she finishes at last, points to the ink sketches hung beside the nearest window. "Art therapy. And then Angel did the hare skipping through the field or whatever it's supposed to be for her when she was away doing her F2 rotation on Lewis."
"Cam's always called that one the lopsided hare that looks like a child did it," Nicky comments apologetically. "I mean, it definitely looks like an older child did it, not a…"
"Oh, I think that's a pretty perfect description. Art has never exactly been Angel's strong point. I never quite worked out whether Chlo insisted we frame it and put it on their bedroom wall because she wanted to make Angel happy, or she just missed her that terribly. I had no idea she still had these up, though."
"I think it's adorable." The words tumble out of Dom's mouth before he's quite had time to realise what he's just said. "That… that you did them for her, I mean. That's obviously why she's still got them up. They're special."
"I painted some for you, too," his birth grandmother tells him. "I'm sure I've still got them at home somewhere, or Angel will have, if I don't. We won't have thrown them out. You can have them. Only if you want them, of course, you don't have to…"
"No, I'd…" All of a sudden, he feels thoroughly overcome with emotion, chokes a little as he tries to force the words out, touched. "I'd like that. I'd like that a lot, it'd… That would be nice," he manages, self-conscious, now, doesn't quite dare show in front of his grandmother and his sister's flatmate just how overwhelmed he feels at such a simple offer.
Except it's not simple.
On the surface, maybe, but deep down, there's so much more to it than that.
It's the first time.
The first time that he's truly felt as though once upon a time, he was part of this family.
That once his grandmother, at least, maybe even his mother, looked at him, cared about him, the way she cares about Chloe.
That once their world might have revolved around him the way it so clearly revolves around Chloe now, that once he was one of them, part of their family unit, loved, wanted.
"Alright. I'll have a look when I get home, then," Peigi promises him gently. "I mean, I'm not sure when that's going to be, exactly." Her expression clouds now, pensive, troubled. "I'm not leaving Chlo like this. Or Angel, come to that. I don't think leaving either of them all the while Chlo's like this is a good idea, you've seen how badly Angel's is coping with it all. But I'll have a look for them when I do get home, okay? I think they must be in the attic somewhere. Shall we pack your sister some things, then?" she asks casually now, suddenly changing the subject as she glances around Chloe's bedroom apprehensively. "I'm half tempted to tidy up a bit for her, it's a tip in here, isn't it?"
"It's… a bit of a mess," Dom agrees quietly, awkward.
Peigi isn't wrong.
The bed is unmade, multiple blankets piled up in a jumbled mess around the duvet, pillows scattered, clothes strewn all over the floor haphazardly. The bedside table on one side is a mess of empty paracetamol blister packs, multivitamins, empty water glasses, the other of discarded tissues, precariously stacked books, lip balm, eye drops, plasters, lemsip, god only knows what else Dom can't identify. His sister appears to have forgotten the existence of the laundry basket behind her bedroom door completely, floor strewn with discarded clothes, messy piles, not entirely clear what's clean and what isn't, desk covered in random sheets of paper, medical journals, pens, abandoned mugs, utter chaos.
"I thought she stopped being this messy years ago," Peigi ponders absentmindedly. "I thought we managed to stamp it out of her… I don't know. Either Angel and I managed to stamp it out of her right before she started to struggle with her anxiety, or it was the anxiety that did it, I'm not sure. But I haven't seen her room like this since she was a teenager."
"She would have been feeling awful for days, though," Dom points out quietly, suddenly overcome with an undeniable urge to defend his little sister. "She would have… the cuts, from her… the self-harming," he finally manages to force out. "They would have been infected for a while, it would have built up to septic shock slowly. She would have collapsed earlier because of her blood pressure, most likely, it was so low when she collapsed she couldn't have kept herself conscious any longer. I'm amazed she managed to keep going as long as she did, to be honest. She would have been feeling ill for days, she must have felt horrendous when she came into work this morning…"
"It's a wonder she's managed to keep going for as long as she has," Peigi finishes for him. "God, it's only Tuesday, isn't it? She drove back down here from Aberdeen by herself on Sunday, I don't even want to think about what might have happened…her wounds would have been septic since long before Sunday?" She shudders now. "Thank god this didn't happen then. I don't even want to think about that. But no, I get what you mean. I think she's probably been feeling so ill and exhausted since she got back here, she hasn't had the energy. I don't think she's even unpacked, by the looks of things." She gestures to the suitcase left open on the floor beside the desk, half-emptied, a mess of unfolded clothes and caramel wafers, revolting-looking haggis crisps. "Oh well. She clearly didn't want all the food I sent her back with, did she? It looks like she went for the cereal bars and the rowies though."
"I don't think she did," Nicky confesses apologetically. "Rowies are the things that look like bread rolls but taste like croissants, right? She offloaded those on Cam and me for breakfast yesterday. She did have a couple of mouthfuls of hers, I think, but the rest of it went in the bin. I haven't seen the cereal bars, though, she might have eaten those."
"Oh well. Cereal bars are better than nothing," Peigi sighs. "Not that any of that's important now, is it? There's no point worrying about that until she comes round."
"Do you think…" Nicky trails off, glances down at the floor, expression a mixture of guilt and distress now. "Only… Cam and I were starting to wonder… we don't think she's been eating properly for weeks but it's hard to tell, she's been… kind of… shifty, about food. I mean… like I said, Cam and I thought something was wrong, we realised it wasn't just Evan's influence when she ended it with him. Do you think… she doesn't have a history of… only we wondered, all the signs of some kind of eating disorder seemed to be there…"
Peigi closes her eyes for a moment, contemplates. "She's done this before," she admits quietly. "She doesn't eat when she's anxious, it could be as simple as that. You don't… you didn't know about her mental health until all this came out today, did you?" she begins slowly, addresses Nicky now. "I know Angel wanted to tell you when Chlo moved in with you and Cameron, but I think she decided that might just be the final straw that won her the overbearing mother of the year award."
"We had no idea she'd self-harmed in the past," Nicky confirms. "If we'd known, if only we'd known… we would have looked out for her, we would have…"
"I know," Peigi tells her quietly. "I know you would have. You can't blame yourself. It's… I think it's probably something for Chloe to tell you when this is over, when she's ready. But she… she's always struggled when she's anxious. But she did go through a phase of it being more than that, when she was a teenager. It's probably not my place to say, I… I'm aware that Chlo's not been speaking to Angel because she's upset that she…" she trails off, glances between Dom and Nicky now, clearly unsure as to how much Chloe's flatmates know. "Anyway. I don't want to make the same mistake. This kind of thing should be for Chloe to tell you, not me. But yes. There was a point when there was more to it than she wouldn't eat because she was so anxious, let's just put it like that."
They fall into silence again.
"Would Evan have known that?" Nicky asks suddenly. "Would he have… he knew about her self-harming, I know that. But would he have known… only he had her on his health foods regime from the moment he moved in…"
They fall into silence again, simply taking it in.
"I don't know," Peigi admits at last. "I don't know. But she seems to have poured her heart out to him, from what I've been able to gather. It wouldn't surprise me if he did. But we're dealing with him," she says firmly now, almost as though she's trying to convince herself as much as she is Dom and Nicky. "We're dealing with him. Angel's in the process of getting the restraining order sorted, isn't she? And he's certainly not coming anywhere near her all the time she's on ITU, not with the hospital taking security as seriously as they are. We'll get it all sorted. He's not coming anywhere near her again."
"It's not going to be as simple as that though, is it?" Dom points out, tries to buy into her optimism but he just can't quite seem to manage it. "We can make sure he never comes near her again, but it's not as simple as that. He's clearly been filling her head with all kinds of bullshit about me, and Ange, and how Ange feels about her, and that's just the things we're definite about. It's not going to be that simple to undo all the damage he's done to her psychologically…"
"But she's got us, Dominic." Peigi reaches for his hand now, squeezes gently. "She's got us, and we're going to help her through this. She's going to be fine. Right, I'm trying to work out where we start." She glances around Chloe's room again, expression just a little overwhelmed. "I mean, normally I'd be hesitant, I wouldn't want her to think I was interfering, or anything. She's not been all that impressed when I've tidied up her room for her without asking in the past. But she's probably not even going to remember the state she left it in, is she, by the time she gets back here. And she's certainly not going to have the energy to do something about it straight away when we get her out of hospital, I wouldn't have thought. I might try and tidy it up for her a bit as we go along. Do you know where she might have a bag we can throw some things in for her, Nicky? And maybe you could go and clear anything she might want when she wakes up out the bathroom for her, too? I know, I know we're a long way off that," she agrees, seems to notice Nicky's expression now; the same mix of anxiety and sombre, pensive apology Dom adopts himself when having to prepare a patient's family for the worst. "I know. But Angel's adamant. I'm sure she knows too, she's not stupid. She must have seen this before with her own patients. But I think we're just going to have to humour her for now, if that helps her cope with it all. Dominic, do you want to just go around, gather up anything that needs binning and get rid of it?"
"I don't understand how you're still so calm," Dom admits, obliges, leaves Peigi to opening and closing Chloe's drawers, throwing clothes into the bag Nicky leaves out on the now-made bed, tidying away as much of the rest as she can find a home for, bundling discarded piles of clothes off the floor into the laundry basket, fussing parent mode. "After… after everything Serena said when she talked us through Chloe's results…"
"One of us needs to be," his grandmother tells him simply, finally locates Chloe's hairbrush in the chaos. "One of us needs to be calm, for Chlo's sake, and you've seen how Angel's coping with it all. Or isn't. She's always been like this, with Chloe," his grandmother confesses now. "I've never seen her fall apart like this in front of Chloe, admittedly, she'll usually hold it all together for Chloe, sort her out first, and then she'll fall to pieces when she's not around to witness it. But she's always been rubbish at coping with a crisis when it comes to Chloe. She did manage to hold herself together pretty well when Chloe was born, actually, but I think that was just because of… you know. How it all happened with Chloe, everything she went through with you. I think she thought we were all waiting for her to fail, with Chloe, I don't think she dared show any signs of weakness."
"But it wasn't like that with me?"
He needs to stop doing this, Dom curses himself, only after he's already asked and it's too late to take it back.
He needs to stop making everything about him.
"How do you mean?"
"Just… Ange said it was different with me. She said… I don't know. I can't articulate it."
"Try?" Peigi frowns, rearranges the pillows on Chloe's bed, pulls out a rather squashed, well-loved looking white fluffy… somethingfrom under the covers, contemplates for a moment, packs it into Chloe's bag before Dom can work out what it's supposed to be.
"Just… Ange said Chloe had a NICU stay, after she was born," Dom forces out at last, suddenly remembers Nicky as she reappears, lurking awkwardly in the doorway, cringes at just how much of a spoilt brat, how selfish, he's going to make himself appear in front of his sister's best friend but it's already too late to turn back, flood gates opened. "She said everything was different with Chloe to how it was with me, and believe me, I know NICU intervention is nothing to be jealous of, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. What you said earlier, about Chloe… I'm glad Ange didn't have to go through that twice. But she… I don't know. That's not what I mean. I just… every time we talk about it, it always seems like Chloe was the one she worried about, Chloe was the one she put all her energy into and… I don't know… I know that sounds awful… I'm not jealous," he adds quickly, guilt almost overwhelming now, feels like the worst person in the world. "I'm really not. Of course I'm not, that would be ridiculous. Not of Chloe for needing NICU intervention, anyway. It just… it hurts," he tells her shakily, flushes, ashamed. "It hurts that Ange keeps telling me that I was the easy baby, I wasn't a worry like Chloe was, I'm not the one she messed up with, she told me earlier. Whatever that means. But I was still the one she gave away. Not Chloe, me. And I know it's pathetic, but that really, really hurts."
Silently, Nicky slips out into the hallway, pulls the door to behind her.
Peigi watches him with sad, pensive eyes.
"Angel loved you," she says at last. "I promise you, Dominic. She loved you from the moment you were born, from beforeyou were born. From the moment she knew about you, she loved you. She wanted to be your mum. You mustn't ever doubt that. She really did. We… we gave her all the options, with you," she admits, can't quite meet Dom's eyes now. "I know how that sounds- believe me, I'm not telling you this to upset you, alright? Bear with me. We made sure she understood there were options, when we realised she was pregnant with you, your granddad and me, and I did exactly the same when she had Chloe. We didn't want to influence her either way, we wanted it to be her decision. Angel was adamant that she wanted to be your mum, right from the start. She wanted you. She desperately wanted it to work out, she tried so, so hard. It broke her heart having to give you up, it wasn't a decision she made lightly. But she was just so, so young when she had you, Dominic. She'd only just turned fourteen, she couldn't even look after herself, let alone a baby. She tried so hard to make it work with you, it was just far too much for her. And that's not to say she neglected you- she absolutely didn't, I don't ever want you to think she did. That's not what happened, nothing bad like that. She just couldn't cope. There wasn't the support available for teen mothers back then that there is now, it was just a case of leaving school and getting on with it. She was either… this is a conversation you need to have with Angel, really, I'm not sure it's really my place to tell you this..."
"Please?" Dom begs her, because all of a sudden, this conversation, this glimpse into a part of his life he knows almost nothing about, that's been so, so hard to deal with, means more to him than he can even articulate, more than makes any rational sense. 'Please? I won't tell Ange you said anything…"
Peigi sighs. "Alright. She was just far, far too young to cope,' she confesses. "She loved you, she wanted it to work, but she was completely out of her depth. She'd want me to step in and do things with you if she wasn't confident, but I was working, then, I wasn't around during the day. I couldn't help her as much as she needed me to. And it… it was hard on her, Dominic. She was barely fourteen and all of a sudden, she was stuck in the house all day with you, she couldn't be a normal teenager. She took good care of you, but she'd always want me or your granddad to give you a bath, cut your nails, stuff like that, you know? I don't think she ever felt like she knew what she was doing with you, she was scared of hurting you with anything beyond the basics. But she was really struggling mentally, towards the end. She needed time to be with her friends, really, she needed to be in school, she needed some kind of structure beyond being stuck in the house looking after you, and we couldn't facilitate any of that. We tried, with school, we really did, but we couldn't have put you in childcare back then, you were too young. It wasn't like it is now. She was trying to keep up with schoolwork she had sent home while we came up with a better solution, but that only made it worse, I think. It was too much on top of looking after you, and I think she started to realise she was never going to get her standards, if things carried on the way they were, she was going to be stuck with no qualifications, no prospects, nothing. I think that scared her. It wasn't even about her, really, it scared her thinking about the life she was going to be able to give you. She was probably depressed, really. If we could have just got her back into school a couple of days a week, been able to give her more time with her friends, that might have made a difference, but there was just no support. And none of that would have changed the fact that she was far, far too young to take on a mothering role with you…"
"You made it work with Chloe." He's behaving like a sulky child now and he knows it, calling her out, but he just can't help himself. Earlier. Back at the hospital, you said you started your degree when Chloe was born so you could be Ange's childcare and she could go back to school…"
"Yes. Yes, I did," Peigi agrees gently. "Because things were completely different then. Your granddad wasn't around anymore… did you know that? Your granddad died about a year after you were born. I had his pension, I had more flexibility. I could move us up to Aberdeen and survive on your granddad's pensions, my student loan, what I could make working evenings and the child benefit, that was an option by the time Chloe came along. It wasn't, with you. And Angel was that bit more grown up, she was ready to be a mum, by the time she had Chloe. I could make working evenings and getting through university work because I was handing Chlo straight back over to Angel as soon as she got back in from school, she didn't need the level of involvement from me that she did with you. And there probably was an element of I needed to find a way to make it work with Chloe because I'd seen what giving you up did to Angel," she admits. "I won't lie to you about that. You mustn't think that Angel wanted to give you up, Dominic. Believe me, she didn't. It was a last resort, it was a decision she made because there just wasn't the support she needed to be able to be your mum at fourteen. Not back then. She couldn't… Your life changes overnight when you have a baby. She wanted to be old enough and mature enough to cope with that, but she just wasn't. She wasn't ready. She was stuck between doing the right thing for you and doing what she needed for her own mental state, really. That's what it came down to, she could cope with looking after you. Just not full time. She needed to be able to stay in school, get to be a normal teenager there, at least, get some qualifications andbe a mum, and we couldn't make that happen with you like we could with Chloe. And I feel awful about that. Whether it would have been enough to make a difference, I don't know, maybe Angel still wouldn't have been able to cope. But I am sorry," she tells him sincerely now. "I really am. I wish we could have made it work, for you and for Angel. I wish we could have spared you both all that pain. But believe me. She didn't keep Chloe because she loved her more than she loved you. She really didn't. She kept Chloe and not you because she was ready to be a mum at seventeen. Just not at fourteen. Fourteen was just far, far too young."
"So… it was just the timing with Chloe?" Dom asks tentatively.
He almost can't allow himself to fully believe it.
"Just the timing," Peigi confirms. "She loves you just as much as she loves Chloe, Dominic. I promise. She always has. But she couldn't have been a mum at fourteen… I mean, she tried. But it wouldn't have done either of you any good to keep trying any longer than she did. She wasn't in a good place, by the end. You needed parents who were ready to be parents, Dominic, you needed stability. You needed parents who were old enough and mature enough to look after themselvesandyou at the same time, Angel was three years off of being ready for that."
"Chloe came along at literally the perfect time, then." Dom can't quite keep the bitter resentment out of his tone.
"Well, Chloe was probably the catalyst," Peigi tries to reason with him. "With Chloe… look, it really isn't my place to tell you any of that, okay? I shouldn't have said anything to you at all, really, you're going to have to talk to Angel about anything else. But I think Chloe… Angel wouldn't have been ready to be a mum at seventeen if she hadn't had to be, I don't think," she settles on at last. "She stepped up because she had to, for Chloe's sake- she did exactly the same with you. But she was ready to do it with Chlo. She was just that bit older… that was what made the difference. Listen… I know how it must look from your perspective," she sighs. "I totally get that. I know how Angel can be with Chloe, I'd understand if you… but that's no reflection on how much she loves each of you. I promise it isn't. I think she's always felt she had to compensate, with Chloe; for how she had her, I mean, for how difficult Chlo found it all to deal with when she told her. I think she's always felt that being hugely protective of her, going all out to try and show how much she loves her, all of that, she might be able to compensate for it all, you know? Make it easier for Chlo to cope with."
"I don't think it's worked," Dom ponders, doesn't realised he's uttered those words out loud until it's far too late. "Sorry. Sorry, I didn't mean to…"
"It's alright. It's alright, I think you've got a point, actually. We'll get there, Dominic," Peigi tells him sincerely. "You'll see. We'll get there eventually, we'll get through this together. All of us. It's just going to take time. Shall we go and thank Nicky for letting us in, then, and get back to your sister?"
Dom nods. "Thank you."
"You've got nothing to thank me for," Peigi insists, throws the washbag Nicky left behind into Chloe's bag, slings it onto her shoulder. "Nothing. You've had a lot to cope with, these last few months."
"Can I ask a question?"
"Of course you can. I can't promise I'm not going to tell you it's something you need to talk to Angel about, but you can ask, by all means."
"What on earth was that weird white thing you packed for her? The thing that looks like it's seen better days."
"Sheep," says Peigi simply, waves an unidentifiable fluffy body part at him out the top of her granddaughter's bag. "Your great grandparents are sheep farmers, did you know that? No? On the Isle of Skye. I'll take you up there one day."