For a hideous, elongated moment, she thought one of the estate kids had broken in and cut off his face. He wore a dry mask of blood and his white pillows were drenched in sticky red. It was only when he moaned and his sealed eyelids began to undulate like boiling pasta parcels, that she screamed with relief and ran to his bedside.
He began to scream too. “Mum, I can’t see!”
She sobbed at the volume of his voice – it was a loud, healthy voice.
“It’s okay, darling. I’m going for a flannel. It’s okay, don’t panic, I’ll be two seconds. Just lie still.”
So, this was autopilot. This was what people meant when they talked about running on adrenalin. Her boy covered in blood, and she was suddenly able to cope, doing what needed to be done.
Even with his face clean and pink from rubbing, she couldn’t find the cause of the bleeding. There was a lot of dried blood up his nose. That must be it, a bad nose bleed. But so much blood from that? Ralph seemed fine, shaken, but not injured or sick. She laughed as she stroked his damp hair, holding his head to her chest. They hadn’t been this close in ages – now that he was 13, hugs with his mother were a rarity.
“What’s funny?” he asked.
“I thought you’d been attacked by kids from the estate when I first saw all the blood. I remembered that boy on the news that had his face cut off in a gang attack – he’d stolen the girlfriend of one of the gang members. Awful.”
“This is Hillingdon, mum, and the estate isn’t rough, it’s just a few council houses – plus I haven’t stolen anyone’s girlfriend and I don’t belong to any gangs – unless you count the school choir. We don’t really go in for revenge ritualism.”
Impressive. Sara pulled in her chin so that she was looking at the top of Ralph’s head.
Ralph yanked himself free, staring in horror at the back of his hand, which he’d just wiped across his face.
They were streaming down each cheek – tears of blood. He looked like a poster for a horror film about possession.
She stared. Swore. Watched as red tears continued to flow, then flew for the phone, somehow dragging Ralph with her. He was screaming again.
The Boy Who Weeps Blood, the first headline had read. Simple but effective. Effective enough to catch the attention of the world press and bring hordes of journalists to their semi-detached house in Middlesex, clamouring for a peak at the miracle boy.
It also brought the neighbours – people who Sara has barely said two words to before came to see if they could help. None of them had offered to help after Ray, her husband, had died. They’d done everything they could to avoid her then.
And finally, the pilgrims had started to come. At first they had arrived in ones and twos, knocking at the door, asking to see the chosen one, begging Sara to go and ask him to lay his healing hands on them to cure their cancer, palsy, rheumatism – the list was endless – but Sara never relented. She turned them down like she did the beggars who asked for money on the Underground – a caring but negative response, and then a closed door.
“The woman with the sick baby’s here again.” Sara let the net curtain drop back into place, blurring the scene outside – crowds of pilgrims gathered in Windsor Avenue, clogging the tree-lined pavement - many of them ill or disabled. Some of the desperately hopeful, clutched treasured iconography – crucifixes, statues of saints, pictures of real people with stigmata or tears of blood like those Ralph kept producing about three times a day for around 15 minutes. Enough to soak through t-shirt after t-shirt, towel after towel. There were bin liners in the kitchen stuffed full of clotted cloth – she just couldn’t keep up with the washing. The sooner they found a cure the better.
They’d given it a name at least, haemolacria, which literally meant ‘bloody tears’. But that, the helpful specialist number six, had told her, was just the name of the symptom, not the cause, which didn’t help her.
“Do they really think he can heal them?” asked Mrs Ripley from next door. She was sitting in the comfy chair opposite the window, craning her short, fat neck to view the throng of desperate people.
“Apparently.” Sara perched on the matching floral sofa, body bristling with agitation. Mrs Ripley had been sipping the same mug of tea for two hours, occasionally checking her quaffed white hair in the mirror above the fireplace, just in case a member of the press should ask for her opinion on the way back to her house. She was also wearing an overpowering perfume, which combined with the air freshener Sara had sprayed just before she arrived, had created a sickly sweet concoction that was turning Sara’s stomach – God only knew what it would do for Ralph’s condition – if he ever left his bedroom.
“Do you think he can?” Mrs Ripley leaned towards Sara, balancing her mug on a plump knee, as if she’d just enquired after some tit-bit of gossip.
“No, of course not. It’s a medical problem, not a miracle.”
“He was always a caring boy. I remember when I fell and broke my hip that time, he was round every day after I got home from the hospital to keep me company.”
“He didn’t heal you though, did he.”
“He hadn’t done the blood crying trick then though. My hip still gives me trouble. I don’t suppose...”
“I’d better go and speak to the policeman on the doorstep, make sure he doesn’t need anything,” said Sara, standing. “It’s like living at number ten having him stood there all day.”
“There haven’t been crowds like this at number ten for a long time,” said Mrs Ripley. “Not since Blaire got in.”
“I wish they’d get the message and go away. One woman screamed ‘bless you, my saviour’ the other day when he put the empty milk bottles out. I thought it’d be good for him to do something normal. Instead, he came back thinking he was the Messiah.”
“Better than calling him Carrie, I suppose,” said Mrs Ripley.
The same crowd gathered outside the hospital where Ralph went for tests with a specialist eye doctor – an ophthalmologist. Doctor Jasper was younger than Sara had expected, quite attractive. Sometimes she found it hard to focus on what he was saying because she’d become a little waylaid by his warm brown eyes or his tongue, which was slightly too big for his mouth, but in a sensual way that she liked.
She heard clearly enough when he said the word ‘tumour’ though.
So did Ralph. His plate-white face registered alarm and fear. He looked at her for some kind of comfort.
“What kind of tumour?” Her voice was shrill, uncontrolled.
“It’s a tumour of the lacrimal apparatus – the system that controls tear production. It's positioned in such a way that it’s creating the bloody tears Ralph’s been experiencing. It’s very rare, and it's not life-threatening – not in its early stages.”
Sara looked at her son, smiling stupidly. His t-shirt was soaked with blood. A nurse was dabbing his face with a white pad, saying something soothing – something maybe a mother should be saying.
Doctor Jaspers cleared his throat, glanced at Ralph, then looked back at Sara. “An operation could risk Ralph’s sight, but I would advise it and as soon as possible.”
“He could go blind?” asked Sara, whispering, even though Ralph was a few feet away and could clearly hear her.
“It’s a risk, but we have the best experts in the world here.”
Sara remembered with a pang of anxiety, that she would have to deliver on the promised interview with the Daily Mirror – a pro-quo agreement in return for first-class treatment at a private specialist. She looked at Ralph – thirteen years old, dark circles under his eyes, being petted by the overly-friendly nurse. How could they expect him to talk after news like this? How could she expect it? She could have remortgaged the house and paid the fees that way, instead of selling her son to the highest bidder.
“I need to get him home,” she said. “Is there a less public way out of here? I don’t want him to have to deal with that lot.”
Judging from the noise, the number of pilgrims and the curious gathered in the car park was steadily growing.
“I’ll deal with them,” said the doctor. The nurse will take you to the back entrance. There’ll be a car waiting for you.”
Sara thought the doctor looked rather excited at the prospect of addressing the crowds, of announcing he had diagnosed the cause of the miracle boy’s bloody tears. It wasn’t news she’d want to deliver.
She was ushering Ralph into the taxi when they heard the cries from the front of the hospital. It was like the communal wailing of grief following a terrible disaster. She pictured Doctor Jasper, his proud expression faltering as he backed uncertainly into the hospital waiting area. She wondered how long they had before the news reached the pilgrims camped outside the house. In some ways, it would be a relief to have them gone. The neighbours certainly wouldn’t miss them – apart from Mr Baggott from next door but one, who’d been charging them £1 a time to use his toilet. Greedy old bastard.
She rang the journalist from The Mirror as soon as she got home – once she’d sent Ralph upstairs to shower and change out of his blood-sodden clothes. The journalist was called Kevin Wilson, and he greeted her as if they were great friends.
“Hello Sara. How are you – how’s Ralph?”
She told him about the diagnosis. There was no point lying. It was better to be honest and try and negotiate.
“That’s great news, Sara,” said Kevin. “Not so great for the story – I wanted supernatural,’ he released a fake chuckle, “But great for Ralph.”
“He’s been given a month to live,” screamed Sara, surprising herself. “How’s that for a story?” And she hung up. She swooned and sat heavily on a chair next to the telephone table. Upstairs a door slammed shut. She hadn’t intended to lie, just convince him there was still a story, even without the spiritual healer-come-diety angle. She took a deep breath, waited for the feeling of faintness to pass and then stood, clearing her throat as if preparing to make a speech. She’d make a cup of tea, ignore his calls for a while – she was convinced Kevin would call. It was still a good story. She was halfway down the passage to the kitchen when the phone started ringing. She smiled and kept walking.
The phone was ringing for the third time as she carried the mug of tea upstairs to Ralph’s room. She’d thought she’d better check on him. It had been a tough day for him too, after all. The theme tune from The Exorcist began playing in the pocket of her jeans. She stopped half-way up the stairs and pulled out her mobile phone. It was Kevin. She tutted and pressed the call receive button. “Yes?” she asked, continuing up the stairs.
“Sara, I’m sorry if I upset you, and I’m really sorry to hear about Ralph. If we can do anything to help...”
“You’re paying the medical bills, aren’t you? Or was that only if he turned out not to have a medical condition?”
“No, no, that’s still part of the deal.”
“Thank God for that, because I certainly can’t afford to pay for him to go private. I’m a single parent – my husband died.”
“Yes, I remember you saying.”
“Well, as long as you’re not going back on your word.” Sara pushed open her son’s bedroom door, which he’d left slightly ajar.
He was floating, levitating, looming over her, hands reaching for her throat. She gasped, slopping tea onto the beige carpet.
“Sara?” Kevin’s voice barely reached her through the bubble of disbelief.
She saw the wire hooked around a wooden beam – he’d pulled down part of the ceiling to expose it. How had she not heard that? Lumps of plaster lay on the floor under his feet, which swung pendulum-like from side to side. The wire bit into his white neck, blood seeping around it. His face was twisted and awash with blood, which poured from his glaring eyes.
“Ralph?” she whined his name as if he’d done something annoying, like spill a drink or bring mud into the house.
“Sara, what’s wrong?”
Sara dropped the phone and ran to him, grabbing his legs to take the weight. The dead weight of her son.
There were still a few desperate stragglers hanging around the end of the drive – only half a dozen at any one time, all with obvious afflictions of some kind. One woman seemed to have an extra head growing out of her right shoulder. She wore a large caftan dress, but the second “head” rose up like an ant hill. Sara let the bedroom curtain fall back into place. What were they waiting for? Did they seriously think Ralph was going to rise from the dead like an actual Christ? Didn’t they know he’d been cremated? Sara had made that decision without any knowledge if it was what her son had wanted. It wasn’t the kind of conversation you had with a teenage boy. A few journalists had turned up for the funeral, not Kevin from The Mirror Sara had noted through her grief. There had been no offers of payments for exclusive rights to pictures from the service. Unless Ralph did undergo a resurrection he was now old news.
Sara sat heavily on the edge of her bed, releasing a musty smell from the sheets which she hadn’t changed for weeks. Apart from a few cards of condolence, the neighbours were doing their best to ignore her again. Speaking to her following one tragedy had been hard enough, but finding something to say to a woman who had lost her husband and son in the space of two years was too much for them to bear. She was utterly alone now that Ralph had deserted her.
She stood with a groan and wandered to the bathroom. She needed to go out for some food and other basics. She studied herself in the mirror above the sink. She looked about sixty years old. She even had extra grey in her hair. She leaned over the sink, running the hot tap and splashing water onto her face. She felt the first tears of the day brim and trickle down her cheeks. And then she saw blood. It swirled around the plughole, diluted by the water. She gasped and stood straight staring at her red-smeared face in the mirror. Her tears kept falling and they were tears of blood.
“Oh my God!”
Panicked, she splashed more water onto her face and when she straightened to check her face again. She saw Ralph standing behind her, staring at her reflection with a sombre expression. Red tears ran down his cheeks too.
Sara screamed, twirling around, gripping the edge of the sink to stop herself from falling. Ralph wasn’t there, but he had left three droplets of blood on the bathroom floor. They looked like gems, lying on the lino amongst the dust bunnies.
Sara hardly remembered putting on her shoes and coat and running from the house. She needed to get out, away from that accusing face. What did he blame her for? She’d done everything a mother could be expected to do. Put him first with every decision.
In her frenzy, she had almost forgotten about the pilgrims, but they were there clustered by the front gate, bringing Sara to an involuntary halt. She stood glaring at them, one hand resting on the brick gatepost. For a moment they just stared back at her mutely. And then Sara saw their expressions change, from blank to elated. She felt tears spring from her eyes and wiped them away with the back of her hand. Blood.
The pilgrims shuffled forward as one unit. The woman with the extra head reached out a shaking hand. Sara released a scream of disgust and pushed the hand away before it could reach her face. She forced her way through a gap between the gatepost and the overgrown hedge and ran ignoring the startled faces of those she passed until she saw one she couldn’t dismiss. Ralph’s. He was standing on the corner of Windsor Avenue and Burliegh Road, his blood rimmed eyes fixed on her. Sara fell, gasping for breath, against a lamppost staring across the road at the impossible figure of her son.
“What do you want?” she hissed. She heard the clatter of running feet behind her and without looking back she ran again, clutching her side which already throbbed with pain. A car sloped past and Sara saw Ralph staring at her from the rear windscreen, he was poking his tongue out, his face was a mask of red.
“Please!” she screamed, and then she fell, landing heavily against the pavement, lying winded and terrified. Soon the pilgrims surrounded her, crouching around her like police around a crime scene. A man with a face disfigured by a massive, mauve tumour leaned down to scrutinise her eyes.
“Get away from me!” screamed Sara, as the man reached out with a quivering finger to scoop a tear from her cheek, examining his bloodied fingertip like a child discovering his first worm. And then he wiped it across his ruined face, smiling gleefully. Sara closed her eyes as if she could shut out the delirious faces as they crowded above her, and the stroking, clutching hands that fought for access to her tears.
If you enjoyed this story, I think you also like my short novels WHen the Devil Moved Next Door and The Talented Blackwoods. Here are some links to where you can buy them.