I never understood why Chloe wanted to join the Girl Guides. She came home every Tuesday evening looking miserable, and she never went on any of the outings or brought friends home. She did, however, enjoy earning the badges. The first one she got was for needlework. I’ve always insisted she mended her own clothes, so she’s very neat and quick with a needle and thread. She put that skill to good use over the next year, sewing badge after badge onto her blue uniform. For cookery, she planned and catered a dinner party, and invited the Lord Mayor to join the Guide leader and the rest of her patrol. He came, as well, with his chain round his neck. She didn’t invite me. I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway, I had a flower-arranging class.
When she’d just turned twelve, the local fire brigade offered to help the girls get their firefighting badges. I’ve never seen her so excited. She said it was the last one she needed for some sort of award. She read all the books about fire that she could find, and wrote long lists of questions for the firemen who came every week to give talks and demonstrations. If her dad had been alive he would have encouraged her, but I’ve never really known how to deal with her odd behaviour.
One Tuesday I saw her going out after tea wearing jeans and t-shirt. I asked why she wasn’t wearing her uniform.
‘We’re going to the fire station today for the final test. I told you about it last week,’ she said.
Later that evening, as I was making my cocoa, I realised she should have been home at least an hour earlier. I initially assumed the tests had taken longer than expected, but by the time I put my empty mug on the draining board I was beginning to get annoyed with her. I didn’t mind her staying out, I generally let her please herself, but she should have let me know.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, the phone rang. It wasn’t Chloe’s voice at the other end of the line though.
‘Hello, Mrs Hunter?’
‘That’s right. Who is this, please?’
‘I’m Nurse Beckett, from the Children’s Ward at Northampton General Hospital. We’ve got your daughter Chloe here.’
For a split second my irritation intensified, then I’m not quite sure what happened. I heard the nurse say, ‘Mrs Hunter? Are you still there?’ as I put the phone down and went into the kitchen to wash up. I’d only just filled the bowl and pulled on my rubber gloves when the phone rang again, so I ignored it. I didn’t want to waste the hot water.
I’d nearly finished drying the pots when there was a loud hammering at the front door. I put the last plate away and went into the hall, unsure whether to answer the door at that time of night. I could see the end of a fingertip holding the letterbox open.
‘Mrs Hunter, are you all right?’ The voice was male, and too loud. ‘I’m PC Ledger. The hospital called the station and asked us to check up on you. Said you’d just had some bad news?’
What was wrong with me? I had a policeman kneeling at the front door, and Chloe was in hospital. And I’d just finished the washing up.
I opened the door. PC Ledger appeared to be about three years older than Chloe. He rose to his feet. ‘I’ve got a car out front, would you like me to take you up to the hospital?’
There are times in one’s life when one has to suffer indignities for the sake of one’s child. Climbing into a police car in full view of several pairs of eyes peeking from neighbouring windows was certainly one of those times. Thankfully the constable didn’t switch on the sirens or lights, or screech his tyres as we left.
He did drive very quickly though. It only took five minutes to get there. I apologised for troubling him as I got out of the car. He awkwardly reached out and touched my arm, and said, ‘I’m sure your daughter will be OK, Mrs Hunter.’ How did he know?
A porter pointed me in the direction of the Children’s Ward, and I was met at the double doors by a brisk woman who introduced herself as Nurse Beckett.
‘Chloe’s sleeping now. She’s had a nasty scare, but she’s going to be OK. We’re just keeping her in for observation.’
‘What happened? Is she badly hurt?’
‘Oh no, she just got very cold and shaken up, a few bruises, nothing worse than that. We had to warm her up a bit, that’s why we want to keep an eye on her.’
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Couldn’t the woman get to the point?
‘I’m sorry, I thought you’d been told…’
‘Of course I haven’t, who would have told me?’
‘Just tell me what happened, for pity’s sake.’
‘According to the Guide leader, some of the other girls dared her to climb on top of a fire engine, and then one of them nipped to the phone box and reported a huge fire. Chloe managed to wedge herself in and hang onto the ladder, but she was still thrown around, and the wind froze her stiff, the poor mite.’
I started walking down the ward. Nurse Beckett darted alongside me, tiptoeing like a nervous burglar. I couldn’t see Chloe, until the nurse took my elbow and steered me towards a bed I’d overlooked on first glance. Her tiny pale face, as white as the pillowcase it was resting on, was that of a girl half her age. At the same time, it was the face of her father lying motionless on the pier at Southend.
‘Tell her I’ll bring some clothes in the morning. No point staying if she’s asleep.’
I turned and walked away.