Only in Holywood do people pull open a few drawers, stuff crumpled clothes into a suitcase, and slam out the front door.
In Jackson Heights, it was day two. Carla’s face showed she hadn’t slept on either of them. Without makeup and straggling unbrushed hair, she looked so much older than her thirty-six years.
Adam searched for his shaver charger, a green project file for an upcoming presentation, and the photographs of his parents’ anniversary trip. And, all the while, Carla followed him into each room, pleading with him to stay.
She knew he was choking up when she resorted to mentioning their daughter Jessie. It was callous, but she was desperate. If making him feel guilty was her only remaining weapon, she was going to use it. She begged him.
‘Please, Adam, insist they do the tests again.’
Afraid to look at her, he carried on putting papers into a folder. There was a restriction in his voice.
‘You really think they’d agree to another, do you? You actually believe that? Have you any idea how humiliated I felt the second time they told me?’
Carla’s hand stopped him from moving more papers. Both sets of eyes were moist. She could see from his pained expression and crumpled clothes that he too was at the lowest point in his life.
‘Adam, I don’t understand it. I’ve never been more honest with you in all my life. There has to be something wrong.’
He withdrew his hand, looked away, and shook his head. Carla was running out of ideas to keep him from leaving.
There was no hesitation in offering a kidney to save Jessie. He would donate his heart to his eight-year-old daughter. The sadness of not being a suitable match devastated him. To then learn there was no way he could be her father destroyed him. Two hours in the hospital car park with his head in his hands was the start of his crumbling world.
Jessie’s suffering had worsened over the past year, a large part of it spent in the hospital. Yet, right now, Carla was relieved she was there. This was something she didn’t want her to witness. Adam was certain the hospital had screwed up the first tests. After the second test, their lives fell apart. Carla knew they were mistaken. Adam discovered for the first time he could not trust his wife. Denied the third test to prove her fidelity, she felt betrayed when he finally left.
Carla hugged the coffee cup and fixed her gaze on her friend’s eyes, willing her to see, I’m telling the truth.
‘There has to be some other explanation,’ she said.
‘Well, it wasn’t immaculate conception,’ Liz began, following immediately with, ‘Sorry, that was callous.’
Carla waved away the flippant remark.
‘I swear to you, Liz, since marrying Adam, I’ve not been with any other man. I mean, why would I let him take both tests if I had any doubts?’
Liz inhaled deeply and added her own hands to Carla’s cup.
‘Look, Mike and I were talking last night. Do you remember my twenty-fifth birthday party? You were well oiled when you went into the garden with Mark Brantham.’
Carla pulled away and widened her eyes at her best friend.
‘No way Liz, no. We just talked.’
‘You were talking for almost an hour, as I recall it.’
‘No Liz, he had just broken up with some girl and was finding the party hard going. The music was making my tinnitus hell. That’s how we ended up in your summerhouse. I assure you we only talked, mostly about school days, as he had become a teacher. I think I might have cuddled him when he became upset, but that was all.’
Liz took Carla’s cup and held her at the elbows.
‘Carla, you did have a lot to drink that night. You know, it wasn’t long after you came back into the house that I called a taxi to take you home. You really were over the bay’
She couldn’t be angry with her best friend, as much as the situation demanded it. Liz seemed to offer the only plausible explanation, even if she didn’t want to accept it.
Liz continued. ‘The mind can play tricks on us. I’ve heard it can block out situations we choose not to remember.’
Jokingly referred to as the perfect couple by their friends, made it that much harder to accept there could be any truth in it. Unfortunately, it was the only truth available. But Mark Brantham?
At the hospital, she reminded herself that her own personal problems palled into insignificance compared to her daughter’s challenges. Jessie, that bubbly girl, with a cheeky smile, and long shiny auburn hair that Carla loves brushing, deserved her mother’s full attention. She took the regular dialysis treatment in her stride. Carla was so proud of the way she never let her health challenges stop her from being involved in the local drama group and ice skating club. But her condition had worsened. Finding a kidney donor to ease her suffering had to be Carla’s priority.
Mark Brantham had become the headmaster of Marlton College, an exclusive private school. Married now, with two children, he held a respected position on the Town Council. As much as she was terrified and sickened by the action she must take, looking at the pale, weakened body of Jessie, Carla knew she had no choice.
The first phone conversation with him ended in acrimony when he cut her short mid-stream. He called her back within the hour, and she reasoned he had reflected on the threat to his position if she challenged him publicly. Carla apologised, and he reluctantly agreed to meet her. Over coffee in town, Mark tried to convince her that nothing happened on the night of the party, even though he admitted having drank well too. With the risk that Carla might involve his wife, he agreed to be tested as a potential donor. Carla was pleased but thought he may be stalling for time while he worked out how else to deal with the situation. Mark made it clear it was on the understanding she kept away from his family until such time as he chose to talk to his wife.
The hospital staff were discreet and compassionate when she explained the situation regarding Mark. They were not judgemental; well, not to their faces. Carla had already been told that her high blood pressure would probably preclude her from being a donor. But she was getting so desperate, she demanded to be tested alongside, anyway. As she waited for Mark to give blood and visit the X-ray room, she reasoned that, although the current situation was traumatic for the adults, a suitable kidney match would end Jessie’s suffering. Realising the difference it would make to her young life made any embarrassment insignificant. Like before, she must endure the never-ending days and sleepless nights until the results become available.
On day seven, the hospital number appeared on Carla’s phone. Her heart pounded in anticipation of the results. But the call was only to say that Jessie had a bad night and to suggest she visit earlier than normal as her daughter was calling for her. She hung up and rang the transplant unit to chase the results. They told her there was something holding up the analysis and that it may take a few days longer. Her frustration made her angry with them.
Another week passed before she got a phone call from the unit, asking her to call in with her husband to discuss her results. They would not give the results over the phone. The administrator said she was not privy to the information, and that she would have to attend in person, as there was some problem that needed to be discussed. Carla had no intention of calling Adam. If she had been unfaithful, even if she had blotted it from her memory, there was no way she could face him. So she gave the hospital a plausible excuse for why she would attend alone.
Entering a meeting room, she was surprised to find it full. Three medics in white coats, and a man and woman, obviously administrators of some sort, with ID. lanyards dangling from their necks. The overpowering number of solemn faces seated around the table caused Carla to catch her breath. Enrico Pardoe, Jessie’s consultant, began introducing everyone. In her anxious state, the names drifted over her head. But one name, or rather title, grabbed her attention: John Shelby, hospital CEO. Suddenly, she realised that something serious was happening.
John Shelby began, ‘Mrs. Moore, thank you for coming in. I’m afraid we have something disturbing we have to discuss with -’
‘Is it Jessie? Is she alright?’ Carla almost cried.
The CEO shot Jessie’s consultant a questioning glance.
‘No, there is no change in Jessie’s condition,’ the consultant responded ‘She is as you saw her yesterday.’
‘Mrs. Moore,’ the CEO continued, ‘I’m afraid that a terrible error has occurred here at the hospital, a disastrous mix-up of recording you could call it.’
‘So my husband’s test results were screwed up then?’
‘No, they were reported correctly. It might have been a better situation if they weren’t.’
‘Then is someone going to tell me the results of Mr. Brantham’s tests?’
A white-coated woman introduced herself as the Senior Consultant of the Maternity Department at the hospital.
‘What the hell has the maternity unit got to do with Mr. Brantham’s tests?’ Carla asked.
‘Actually, nothing Mrs. Moore. Mr. Brantham’s blood group confirms that in no way could he be Jessie’s father. I’m afraid this is going to be hard for you to accept. But after extensive testing and days of research, we have to advise you that besides your husband and Mr. Brantham not being Jessie’s father, you are not her biological mother.’
Carla felt a throbbing in her throat and a light headiness. Someone fetched her a paper cup of water before she was reminded that after her difficult ten-hour labour, she had finally given birth by caesarian section on the day of the 9/11 attacks.
The CEO continued the conversation.
‘There were many babies born that day in the unit. Tension, fear and confusion were high here in New York, and we believe the distraction and disruptions caused by that event led to the disastrous error of her baby’s identity being swapped with another.’
He went on to explain the hospital had gone to great lengths in tracking down the other set of parents through blood groups, who had been made aware of the situation. A suited lawyer, Rick Thomson advised the legal situation and said a meeting would have to take place involving the hospital with both sets of parents and their legal advisers. Carla heard words she wasn’t absorbing. Not the biological mother, was still echoing in her head.
It was now Carla’s turn to sit in the car park sobbing, trying to make sense of how for eight years she raised and loved a child she saw at birth and later in the day didn’t recognise she was different. Yes, she was exhausted and heavily sedated, but surely a mother would know her child. Tears flowed for herself, Jessie, whoever the baby was she had somehow abandoned to other parents, and Adam whom she loved but now despised for leaving her.
Discussing the situation with Adam by telephone was traumatic, and when he arrived back at the house seeking forgiveness, Carla found it difficult to show him any affection. She felt numb. The model family group had become broken. Clearly, the clock could not be wound back.
Carla and Adam attended the meeting together at the hospital and met the other set of parents. They lived ten miles away and, even though they too were devastated by the situation, were a surprisingly pleasant and considerate couple. Both sets of parents agreed for the sake of the children’s welfare to continue bringing up the girls they had believed were their own, and to meet regularly, so their daughters could get to know one another as friends, until agreeing on a suitable time to reveal the truth. Jessie’s biological father, upon hearing her plight, agreed to take tests to discover if he was a suitable donor match. From early results, things are looking positive.
Jessie and Rosie have become good friends. The families meet up every fortnight at each other’s homes or at some outdoor location when the weather is fine. Adam is back home again. And for Jessie’s sake, Carla remains civil towards him but finds it hard to accept he couldn’t believe what most other men might also struggle with.
Image by Марина Вельможко from Pixabay