Short Fiction by Stephanie Legge-Davies
Day one … they’re glad we’re here, glad we could make it. It is still dark, but approaching dawn, and we have driven here in response to the call we have been dreading. They believe you only have hours. The nurse with the soft voice is washing you and apparently sharing your distress. You mutter incoherent sentences, your eyes wide with panic as you clutch at her arm, pleading with her to halt the fall that is beginning for you.
I stand helpless straining to catch some sense of what you say. Willing your eyes to turn on me and recognise me. But you seem lost to me already, running blindly down corridors containing what? Doors to life which are one by one closing to you? Or something more dreadful?
The nurse can soothe you with her words and little strokes to your forehead. And I stand here overwhelmed by the terror in your eyes and the knowledge that no matter what I pray for I will be powerless.
She has left us now. Taking her kindness with her. And there is you and me and a grey dawn light creeping through the chinks in the curtains. You are calm now as you drift back to sleep, the breath rasping through what is left of your lungs, mouth open in your skeletal face, eyelids paper thin curtains over the vanishing light in your eyes. They were cobalt mirrors of fun and kindness and intelligence and compassion.
Red fingers tentatively reaching across the sky now to announce another beautiful day. Red reflections of the rage in my head.
The curtains are drawn around the bed next to yours and from behind them I can hear soft tears sometimes. People slip through the curtains to whisper, and I catch a glimpse of the head on the pillow. Black beard. I hear a child’s voice too. My interest is intensified by the need for some relief to my own watch over you. There are no curtains around us yet. Does that mean we have more time than them?
The day starts. Bustle. Laughter. Wan smiles. Determined bravery from the dying and those soon to be bereaved. A priest talks of journeys and being blessed.
The sun is high in the sky when I hear the wail from the curtained bed next to yours. Staff rush to where the woman keens loudly for the years she shared with the man with the black beard and the years she has just been deprived of. Her agony tumbles out of her in a torrent of crashing salt, an ocean of pain. Her child, eyes wide, and her man unable to hold her hand .
And I tear my eyes from the pain of this scene and fix them back on you. There is a fleeting feeling of envy in my heart for the family around the next bed, and I want to tell you harshly to go now and end this black anticipation I have lived with for more than a year. But then the shame almost chokes me, and I have to let go of your hand and shield my face from the goodness in yours, while I fight to get my breath in gulps through the strangling pre-grief.
Someone is beside me. Yes, I’d love a cup of tea.
And the day wears on and I try to wet your lips with water from a swab, but you use your little strength to turn your head away. This is the moment when I should tell you how much I love you and how wonderfully imperfect you have always been but the words freeze in me. We were never much for verbalising, were we? I remember the day I floated down into the hall in white satin and lace and while my future father in law effused from behind his camera you only smiled. They tell me in here that you talk about me all the time and the things I have achieved and I am surprised. Or am I? I saw the tears in your eyes when I was nine and I sang Panis Angelicus solo at the Easter mass. I close my eyes and smile at the man who told me to hang on and took off with a screech of tyres after a drunken driver whose car had bounced off another and I cheer inwardly as you force him back to the scene of the accident with the sheer strength of your personality … and I open them to a shrunken yellow doll in the bed.
If I could look three months from this moment into a future which won’t contain you I would see myself standing by the bandstand in Fairview Park trying to find you. Willing my ears to catch the strains of your voice as a child among the voices of all the other generations who have played here since. I would see myself sitting in the dying light on the bench at Dollymount looking out across the oily waters at the docks far off on the other side and remembering that you told me your father had caught you sitting there with two girls, an arm around each of them thinking yourself a fine thing indeed. And your face amused when you dropped me in your car at that self-same spot many years later for my first date.
I wish I had known we were making memories then.
But for now I can see nothing but this waiting. You are not in pain. They tell me you can have as much diomorphine as you need and that I am to call them if you so much as stir and they will administer another dose even if its only twenty minutes after the last and I say “Wont that kill him? …. Oh !”
It is Day Three now and nothing has changed. We wait on and sometimes we laugh and joke. How can we do that? The family around the next bed have long since dispersed and the blind man in the bed opposite calls for cigarettes and matches at 3.00am. He doesn’t know it’s 3.00am. The cancer took his eyes and is breaking his bones one by one for the fun of it before it takes his life.
You haven’t said a word during our wait but we have been through many crises when the priest has come again, and my mother has woken to wail briefly and cling to him. My eyes are sore and gritty with the need for sleep and for now I have no feeling except a longing for this vigil to be over. I am afraid to sleep in case you leave me. And I am afraid that you won’t leave me soon and I will never sleep again.
Each day it has been beautiful outside. Unseasonably warm for April, and the French doors to the ward have been open. White curtains billowing in a soft breeze. I have looked beyond them to the green fields under the flawless sky. There are lambs, and the new life signified by the Spring seems vicious to me.
How you would love this day.
What am I going to do with all this black and scarlet coursing through every fibre of my being? With all the screams my head or heart try to give birth to but which must be aborted for form’s sake? With the pain filling my chest and threatening to tear out of my throat? What am I going to do with the need I have to run across the field outside the window and pull that man off the tractor he drives on the horizon and tell him that he should have more respect?
Why are you doing this to me? My heart won’t stop with yours. I am your child, you taught me how to argue, and how to reason, and how to cheat at cards. Can’t you see that I am not yet ready to become the senior generation?
Day four …. And the doctor tells us that now is the time. I don’t believe him and I want to laugh. He tells us that he knows because of the little rattling sound that has started coming from your throat. I didn’t hear any such sound. My brother and I look at each other with eyes identical to yours. What does he know?
But they draw the curtains around us. This is ridiculous. I don’t want to spend weeks behind these curtains. A priest is murmuring, and I have a sudden feeling of incomprehension, my eyes searching the faces around the bed. They are all resting their hands on you, so I do the same. I take the hand nearest me. The priest has gone. I listen to your breathing which if anything seems stronger to me. Wild half thoughts fly around my brain. You seem disturbed making tiny movements with your head, your eyes wide open but not looking at me. I listen to your breathing, the music of your life and I am filled with a yearning I have no words for. This orchestra must play on, must play forever to fill my needs and yours.
My own breath stops. Time stops. We will stay frozen in this moment forever, you and I poised in this last second of your life, your hand in mine and our breaths held. And then one last exhalation.
Your eyes look glassily into eternity.
You’ve left me.