An exclusive new short story from Alexei Sayle

She was a good girl, was Jade. She loved her family and especially her brother. But not as much as she loved expensive clothes and top-flight haircuts. In 'The Nameless Park Between St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive', Alexei Sayle tells a tale of dark desires and designer labels

Tuesday 01 January 2008 01:00

Like most girls her age, Jade Suvari had many enthusiasms: pop music, stuffed toys, video games, horses, make-up and fashion. Jade and her mum loved to spend the whole afternoon at Cricket in Cavern Walk, which was the smartest shop in Liverpool, the place where all the footballers' girlfriends bought their clothes.

Coleen was always in there, and Alex and Abbey; sometimes they would even look up from chatting on their mobile phones to say hello to her. Jade and her mum would emerge with the famous Cricket shopping bags stuffed with clothes by Chlo and Marc Jacobs and Emilio Pucci, then they would go and get their hair done round the corner at Herbert of Liverpool, and say hello once more to Coleen and Alex and Abbey.

Jade, though, secretly thought of herself as a little bit different to other girls her age superior, more spiritual: the proof of that was that she reserved her greatest enthusiasm for the nameless and neglected park that ran between her home in St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive. She thought it had to be her most favourite place in all the world. As soon as she passed through the battered sandstone gateposts with the weird Celtic-looking cross carved into them, she felt like a young girl in a fairy tale, or possibly a television advert for expensive shampoo. In one of the many gauzy, long Lanvin skirts she'd bought from Cricket, she would drift beneath the beech and chestnut trees that formed a dark and dripping canopy over the muddy path, or, humming a formless tune to herself, she would step gingerly between the florid and sinister Australian and Japanese weeds that hid like highwaymen in the shade of the trees, the weeds the only foreign visitors who had remained behind after the Liverpool Garden Festival on the other side of the park had closed and padlocked its rusty gates.

What she loved about the park was that,because nobody seemed responsible for it, it was free to be what it wanted; unlike other parks, it had no responsibilities. It didn't have to look nice and pretty, it didn't have to have neat tidy flower beds and chatty little signs telling you what each plant was and where it fitted into the ecosystem. The nameless park grew as it liked. High winds blowing in from the Mersey caused trees to crash to the ground, and nobody came along to pick them up: they lay where they were until they rotted.

Most days, Jade's mother would ask her if she would mind taking her older brother Jason out for a walk in his wheelchair.

"Of course not, Mother," Jade would reply, because she always did everything her parents asked of her. She didn't want them to think that she wasn't a good, obedient girl.

Her mother thought that they went down to the Esplanade to look at the river, or along to the shops on the main road, but nearly every day she would push Jason down the ugly special ramp that disfigured the lovely iron porch of their big white Victorian house, then along the lane that ran to the rutted dirt path that began at the gateposts of the nameless park. Once or twice a week, depending on her mood, she would seek out a projecting rock on the path and roll one of the wheels over it so the handles would buck and Jason would be thrown out of the chair to fall face down into the sodden grass, tearing his clothes on the spikes of a Tasmanian snakeweed and receiving red welts on his skin from a Kyoto stinging-devil dandelion. Since she was a 15-year-old girl and he was, though emaciated and feeble, still a tall 18-year-old boy, there was no way she could lift him back into the chair.

After lying on the soggy ground for a while, gathering together tiny shards of strength, Jason would drag his withered body painfully through the mud until he was able to lever himself back into the spindly red metal of the chair. All the time, while gasping with pain and exertion, he would keep a silly, infuriating smile on his face.

"Oh, I'm sorry Jason, I don't know how that keeps happening," Jade would say, and every time she expected that he would finally shout at her, but instead he would just wheeze, "Don't worry about it, Sis".

If it was raining, she liked to wheel Jason through the park and leave him outside the gates of the Garden Festival site and then wander off, sometimes catching a bus into town. There was a big tattooed man who sat all day in a van just beyond the gates of the site, and Jason's presence drove his giant brown dog mad, it would fling itself at the bent and corroded bars snarling and growling at her brother, frothy slobber flying from its furious jaws. Jade hoped that one day the bars would break and the dog would get him, or that some of the Gypsies camped in rust-streaked caravans on nearby waste ground might steal him or his wheelchair, but they never did. When she returned, he was always where she'd left him, wearing his stupid smile. Apparently, not even Gypsies wanted her useless sibling.

"Sorry, I lost track of the time," she'd say when she dragged herself back. "No problem, Sis," he'd gasp.

Even their parents didn't want him. While they weren't the kind of people who would ever speak about such things out loud, from what Jade had pieced together by eavesdropping on conversations between her mother and father and various relatives, she knew without a doubt that she was their favourite. Jason had always been a sickly child, and his continuing illness had come close to breaking her parents' hearts. By contrast to his, even her birth had been a joy, though it had been much harder to achieve than Jason's. After his protracted and bloody delivery, the doctors had told Jade's mother that her having another child would be both difficult and dangerous.

Nevertheless, her parents, against such strong advice, had persisted; that was how much they wanted her and through repeated courses of IVF and her mother lying in bed for the whole nine months, Jade had finally been born. Her obedient nature, her beauty and, most of all, that she enjoyed robust and uncomplicated health was a continuing happiness for them, unlike the unending trouble Jason caused.

Throughout the summer of his 18th year, the boy's health continued to fade, so Jade hoped that by Christmas she might be rid of her brother. The painful swelling around the eyes, feet and hands got worse, and now his abdomen was bloated and distended. Most days there were long spasms of hiccuping, and he tended to bruise easily, so, when they went on their walks, Jade would occasionally refrain from throwing him out of his chair.

By September, Jason was having to be taken twice a week to the private Lourdes hospital on the edge of Sefton Park for dialysis. And all the trouble he caused now spread beyond the need for constant attention. Because he'd been born sickly, her parents had never been able to get health insurance for him, but they weren't the sort of people who would consider their son being treated by the NHS, so in order to cope with the huge expense, Jade's parents were forced to work long hours looking after their chain of tanning salons and the three hand carwashes they owned.

Still there wasn't enough money, so economies had to be made: Jade had to give back her credit card and there were no more trips to Cricket or to Herbert of Liverpool to have their hair done. Jade didn't think she could hate her brother any more than she did, but these new circumstances caused her to uncover new reservoirs of loathing.

One day, Jason had a seizure: they found him in his bedroom jerking about in a tangle of bedclothes, foam flying from his mouth just like the angry man's brown dog. Jade's mother said to her daughter, "Darling, we've got to go to the hospital right now."

Jade's father got the car from the garage and they loaded Jason into the back, but the hospital they drove to wasn't the Lourdes, as she'd expected, but a big Victorian house in the Wirral. It was a place Jade had never been to before but her parents seemed oddly familiar with, her father confidently swinging the wheel of the Mercedes to turn up the long gravel drive lined with trees and crunch to a halt right besides an identical ugly metal ramp to their own, where a pair of male nurses were already waiting. What Jade thought odd was that they had with them not one but two identical wheelchairs.

From the outside, the place gave the impression of being a care home for the elderly, and indeed there were a number of old folk kept there to maintain that illusion. But inside it was a state- of-the-art medical facility equipped with the latest and best apparatus from around the world and staffed, at least part-time, by doctors and nurses who were as good as the gleaming equipment they handled. This exclusive and secret hospital had been set up 20 years ago by Merseyside's increasingly wealthy criminal class (whose money it was that Jade's parents laundered through their carwashes and tanning salons) who'd found out that having the inevitable wounds that they or their associates received in the normal day-to-day practice of their business treated in any normal healthcare facility involved an unacceptable number of questions from the authorities. So this place had been bought and converted. All the rooms had flat-screen TVs, and the food menu was created and supervised by a protg of Gordon Ramsay, there was 24-hour security and just like in the Wild West visitors were required to leave their guns at the front door.

In the wood-panelled family room, Jade's parents sat slumped in the leather armchairs, but stood quickly as the surgeon approached.

"Mr and Mrs Suvari..." he said, "I'm afraid there has been a complication with the operation."

Jade's mother gasped, "With our son?".

"No, not with your son," he said, "that part of the kidney transplant went extremely well. Assuming there is no rejection, which we don't expect, he'll soon be well, fit and healthy healthier than he has ever been in his life. No, I'm afraid it is the kidney donor, your daughter, who has the problem. She's suffered a severe allergic reaction to the anaesthesia and had a series of strokes on the operating table, and there's been extensive nerve damage. I'm afraid there is every chance that your daughter will make only a partial recovery. The most likely prognosis is that she will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life."

"Oh, that's awful..." said Jade's father "...but that was the reason she was born, so that if one day it was needed, she would donate her kidney to her beloved brother."

"If I may ask, did she know that was the plan?" the doctor enquired. "You know, normally children have years of counselling and support before they are allowed to donate an organ. Because it didn't help that we had to sedate her so heavily to get her on to the operating table. What with her putting up such a fight..."

"Ah, that was just temporary panic," Jade's father replied. "At heart, she is a virtuous, obedient girl who loves her brother more than anything in the world, and if she has suffered to help him, she will come to accept her disability in time."

"And anyway," Jade's mother added, "our son is such a good boy, he will certainly dedicate the rest of his life to looking after his sister, just as she looked after him."

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