After the accident, the boy's mother was far too distraught to make a proper statement, but as soon as they got the gist of what had happened, the police called for urgent back-up to hunt for the missing father. Then Madame Drax was sedated and the ambulance crew bore her off, along with the wrecked body of her son. She wouldn't let go of his hand. It was still soft, but extremely cold, like refrigerated dough. He had fallen to the bottom of the ravine, where the fast-flowing water had gulped him down, then regurgitated him on an outcrop of stone a little way downstream. That's where they found his drowned body, soaked through by freezing spray. They went through the motions of reviving him, pumping the water out of his lungs and attempting resuscitation. But it was pointless. He was dead.
* * *
The patient, a nine-year-old male, was pronounced dead on arrival at Vichy Accident and Emergency unit, following a series of catastrophic insults to the cranium and upper body caused by a fall, then drowning. The body was taken to the morgue in preparation for the post-mortem ...
So far, so normal. But then
The same night, at eleven p.m. ...
That's when it stops making sense. It's a simple enough scenario. The boy's stone dead on the slab in the morgue in Vichy General Hospital, the name-tag round his ankle. The thunder's still crashing outside, with sheet lightning illuminating the sky every few minutes. His heavily sedated mother, Natalie Drax, has been settled in a ward on the second floor, and placed under observation; she is judged to be potentially suicidal.
One of the morgue technicians his name's Frédéric Leclerc is cleaning his utensils in a corner; he's about to come off shift. But then he hears a noise. Not thunder, he's sure of that immediately. It's indoors, and it's human; he describes it as 'a hiccup'. So he turns round on his heel, and what does he see but the kid's chest moving. A kind of spasm. Frédéric's only young, hasn't been in the job long. But he knows it's long past the stage where a corpse can have muscle reflexes. To his credit, he doesn't panic even though he must feel he's in some B horror-movie. He rings upstairs straight away, and they mobilise the resuscitation unit.
But when they arrive, the child doesn't even seem to need it. His heart's beating quite normally, and he's breathing, though it's laboured. So they take him back up to Emergency to identify the broken bones and assess the internal damage. They have to take his spleen out. One of the splintered ribs is threatening the left lung, so they have to manage that, while investigating the skull fractures and working out an intervention strategy. It's looking pretty dismal. But he's alive.
* * *
Despite the refunctioning of his lungs and vital organs, the patient did not regain consciousness, though his condition stabilised and improved. He remained in a comatose state in Dr Philippe Meunier's neurological unit in Vichy for three months, until a sudden fit caused his condition to deteriorate considerably. At this point, according to the normal procedure, his transfer to la Clinique de l'Horizon in Provence was approved.
On 10 July, he arrived as my patient in deep coma ...
* * *
It was late morning when the ambulance rolled up the drive. By now the static weather had shifted into something more restless, with the air growing blustery beneath a cobalt sky, making the olive leaves shiver like shoals of fish, dizzy and capricious. There are times when the mistral can drive you mad. Times when it does not fan you, but merely churns the hot air. Today's wind had menace in it, the same menace van Gogh painted over the cornfield the day before he took his life, the kind that starts outside but lodges in your head as soon as you feel its breath. They wheeled him in on a trolley. Age, nine. Condition, very poor. White-clad nurses on either side, one of them carrying a stuffed toy. And in his wake, the mother, who immediately impressed me with the way she held her small, upright body. Something about her carriage and the tilt of her head announced, 'proud victim'. Madame Drax was petite, with pale hair that hovered somewhere between red and blonde. Her features fine and delicately scattered with freckles were too unremarkable to make her striking at first sight, but she had an allure. Something cat-like. As for the child
Excerpted from The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen. © Liz Jensen, 2003. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury USA. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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