There is a scream and I know, even as I am running out of the door, that we are on our way to the hospital. He is prostrate, folded over a pink scooter, clutching his wrist. I disentagle him, trying not to move him too much in case it is more serious than I fear, his screams now dissolving into pain-laden sobbing. Can you wiggle your fingers? I urge. He can. Where does it hurt? He points to the top of his wrist. There is nothing jutting out, no swelling. Come on, I say hugging him tight and gently at the same time, let’s get ice and medicine quickly.
Several minutes later he is still crying hard. I take him home and get everyone ready for bed, calling Matthew to come home. Ben is temporarily mollified by the excitement of being allowed to watch Power Rangers when he should be brushing his teeth. While he is distracted by the ridiculous creatures on the screen, I examine his hand again: still no bruising or swelling.The crying has stopped. I get him gingerly ready for bed and he falls asleep within a few minutes. I feel guilty for calling Matthew home early.
But an hour later Matthew is home and with perfect timing I hear Ben cry out in pain. He is sobbing, shaking with pain. I give him more painkillers and load up a bag with drinks, snacks, toys and hospital parking card and we head off into the still-light night. The waiting room is full of the usual suspects: injured footballers, bloodied faces, feverish children and swollen limbs. Lots of swollen limbs. I imagine the queue for X-ray snaking through the hospital corridors but we wait out the A&E queue first and I try not to think about how long we might be here.
There is a nasty blood-stained paper handtowel on the seat opposite and the room smells of alcohol and sweat. The injured footballer’s mother arrives and she and the father argue loudly while the vending machine shakes noisily in the corner. Either she thinks the noise covers her voice or else she doesn’t care. He probably just has an ear infection, she’s insisting shrilly. But he’s knocked his head and it could be concussion, the father retaliates. I’m dizzy, the teenager mumbles to no-one, slumped over and holding his head in his hands.
A teenage girl wearing an Abercrombie top sits in a wheelchair smiling benignly. Her ankle is bruised, swollen and has something, rather sickeningly, sticking out of it. I compare it with Ben’s normal-looking hand and wonder if I have made a mistake coming here. She speaks quietly to her boyfriend who looks like he has stepped out of a Crew catalogue. From nice families, my grandmother would have said approvingly before attempting to match me up with the boy, had I been that age.
An older teenager and his father walk in. We are all just a few feet from the reception desk which means there is no need for reading material in the waiting room because instead we can all listen to the stories of the new arrivals, whether we want to or not. He gives his name, address and other necessary identity-theft details and when asked why he is there he laughs nervously and tells the receptionist that he has sliced his finger ‘well open’. And then suddenly, without warning, he is pulling off the makeshift bandage and showing her, and therefore all of us, the finger and I think that, right there, just at that moment, I am going to be horrifyingly sick. Despite the gaping, bloody sliced wound, the receptionist doesn’t falter for a second and I think, if times get hard I will do any number of jobs, but I will never do hers.
I quickly turn away and instead watch Ben who is half asleep in the stroller still clutching his wrist. Periodically his sleep is disturbed by the nurses who announce names and, as they do so, the relevant people jump up as if they have won the lottery, the wait has been so long. We see people go off hopefully only to come back later, sloping back in to the sweaty little boxroom like prisoners returned for breaching their parole, until mercifully it is our turn. Ben is quiet and smiling shyly at the nurse but now I see his hand is swelling and has a grey hue to it and standing him up to be weighed – so he can have more medicine – is traumatic. The nurse sends us to X-ray and in the long wait we read ‘Ben falls over a scooter and has to have an X-ray’ several times. Isn’t that funny that the little boy is my age and fell over a scooter and hurt his hand and has to have an X-ray, Ben says with wonder, feeling happier that he is not the only little boy in his predicament. I agree and am silently thankful that he cannot read yet.
Finally we are summoned and he sits, bravely trying to keep the red laser beam over his shaking hand. It takes several X-rays but then the radiographer has two images she is happy with and we head reluctantly back to the waiting room. As we pass the treatment cubicles a mother is asking if her boy can sit on his father’s lap to have his procedure. No, we will not PIN DOWN children and do stitches on them here, he WILL need a general anaesthetic, I hear the doctor insisting to her. It has clearly been a long night for him too.
It is late and many of the people have gone. Our wait for the doctor is short. As he takes us round the corner to the treatment room he is questioning me: how did it happen? I explain, but I know he is not interested except to make an assessment on whether my child is being abused. He shows me the X-ray. The break is straight across, will heal quickly, a cast now, another in a week, don’t get it wet. And he is off. We wait for a teenage boy’s arm to be plastered across the room from us and I think about the waiting room and how nearly half of the wounded in A&E were teenage boys and how almost all of the wounded, my son included, were male. In twenty-one boy-years this is only our first trip to A&E but with four boys in the family, this is no doubt the first of many. Then a quick plaster cast on Ben who is starting to look slightly shell-shocked and we head back to Reception. It is empty. I’ll make sure to come later next time, I think.
At home the clock reads 2.30am. His fingers are grey and swollen now. He hugs me tight, burying his face in my hair as I undress him. I tuck him in and kiss his head, my little broken boy.