Short Fiction By M Pope-Weidemann – Runner-up of The Booker Prize at Birkbeck Creative Writing Competition
It had been 717 days since Marissa was last alive. She walked and talked; her heart beat and lungs bellowed at a more or less consistent rate. There were flashes of life, desperate, iridescent, like on that fairground ride with Hattie when she’d plummeted and soared over Winter Wonderland and screamed above startled children that she was the Queen of the Fucking World, and meant it. But they were momentary resuscitations that died like fireworks back into the dark.
Her memories of loving with abandon, taking risks, imagining a kaleidoscope of futures; they seemed like someone else’s memories. Between flashes, she dragged herself from one day to the next, surviving. The nights she slept through, the days she made it to work on time and home without a panic attack, these were her triumphs, as pathetic as they seemed. Marissa had met death before but since this last time, he’d followed wherever she went. She listened so keenly to his continual cautions that she’d become a ghost haunting her own life.
For 717 days, Marissa had replaced the living of her life with the reliving of her sister’s death. Ellie’s laughter ringing in the rain; mermaid hair dancing in the streetlights as she released Marissa’s hand. The smell of screeching tires, the sound of metal breaking bone. The car speeding off over her crumpled body. The blood. The blood she had this mad urge to gather off the road like it was diamonds. The screaming, screaming like some mad, wild animal but that must have been her, because they were all alone and Ellie was so terribly quiet.
The worst thing Marissa ever expected to worry about now was surviving, so when she arrived at the hospital she felt strangely invulnerable. She tried to look past the wheelchairs and mobility scooters as she found a seat. It unsettled her, being back in the hospital where she used to bring her dad. Memories were summoned like spells by the familiar sounds and smells. She reminded herself how she’d fought to get him here. It was the best neurology department in the country, not that it had saved him; not that she needed saving.
As a precaution, Marissa scrambled about her bag’s inner pocket for a beta blocker, finger brushing over the Lorazepam, that sweet little disc of emotional oblivion that was only for emergencies. Today was not an emergency. With a gulp of water, she tossed back the beta blocker to fulfill its destiny: death in glorious combat against the excess cortisol sloshing around her post-traumatic stress disordered system.
Her GP often encouraged her to consider antidepressants. “You’ve endured an immense amount of trauma,” he’d begin, not unkindly but with the lilting tones of someone who had not. She’d reassure him that the pop-a-pill-as-needed approach suited her fine, mostly to avoid questions he wouldn’t comprehend the answers to. It wouldn’t make much sense to him that for Marissa, pharmaceutically induced contentment would be the ultimate betrayal of the dead. No doubt he would be alarmed by the assertion that her grief, or ‘depression’ as he called it, had by establishing itself as the one constant in her life, become her best friend. She could no longer vouch for who she’d be without it.
A voice called her name.
“That’s me,” Marissa managed. The nurse who’d called her had freckles that reminded Marissa of her ex. Ignoring the pang, Marissa thanked her as she was led through double doors. They swung open in opposite directions, as though unsure where they should go.
It was only very recently that Marissa had begun, quite consciously and with great effort, to renew her interest in actually living. Wanting any capacity for joy felt treacherous, like leaving them behind. After her dad died, Marissa had promised to protect her little sister. That he wasn’t there to hear it and had not asked her for it did nothing to desecrate that promise. Yet, she had broken it and for that, she was determined to hate herself forever.
She’d spent the early days staring at nothing, while faded reels from childhood played on repeat behind her eyes: her voice, her little hands, her blue eyes lighting up like skies in the morning when Marissa told her stories. Only practicalities pulled her back: the funeral, the bank stuff, shepherding her shattered mum around the silent house. Ellie had featured at the heart of Marissa’s every conceivable hope for the future. When she died, the future died with her and Marissa placed justice in that part of her heart where hope used to live.
The search for the driver, sporadic at times, methodical at others, replaced whatever other reasons Marissa may once have had for walking or talking or breathing. Flashes of euphoria sprung up around leads which ultimately led nowhere. When Hattie said that she was leaving her, Marissa didn’t even argue. Spartan, she kissed her goodbye and told her to keep their flat and their friends, since she didn’t need them anymore.
Marissa stepped, not into a bustling nurse’s station but a quiet doctor’s office. An entirely nondescript man stood and extended his hand. He wore a pale shirt and jeans: a sure sign of status in a place where most people wear uniforms.
“Hello Marissa, I’m Professor Williams.”
Marissa straightened her body and shook his hand firmly, like she’d walked into a job interview. She reminded herself that this was no big deal and took the seat opposite. The desk spanned wide between them.
“So, you know why you’re here today, this thing in your neck.” He gestured to the general area where a benign, pea-sized tumor nestled inside her spinal cord. She called him Colombus because he’d shown up somewhere he had no right to be. Odds were, he may not even have any colonial designs on her brain stem and if he grew, they’d operate. The four percent chance of paralysis, while throwing up terrible flashbacks of her father’s powerful form slumped helplessly in that wheelchair, was small. The point is, it wasn’t cancer.
“The issue,” continued Professor Williams, as Marissa zoned back in, “is that in your seventies, we wouldn’t think much of it. But a hemangioblastoma at thirty-four, that’s when we become concerned that there’s a genetic component.”
I know this, she thought. Take the blood so I can get out of here.
She remembered the day of her father’s funeral. Drunk at his apartment, she’d made some crack behind Ellie’s back about how knowing her luck, they’d never diagnosed him because it was some obscure genetic thing and she’d end up having it too.
“The other clues we look for,” he drawled on, “are additional tumours. We’ve scanned your brain and I think those came back clear, let’s take a look…”
In the impossibly long pause that followed, Marissa turned her eyes away from him. She gazed up at the wall to her left to focus on the painting that hung there. It showed a lilac river that ran between two rows of shuttered houses. Flowers erupted from window boxes beneath terracotta tiled roofs rolling light on dark, light on dark. Everything was touched with lavender, silver and indigo. An empty rowing boat floated on still water, waiting for her.
Marissa stood up, climbed onto the desk and pulled herself through the frame. Her landing in the boat sent a few startled ducks across the surface in a smattering of rose and gold. Everything glowed, dreamlike, in the warm air. The bend in the river ahead, around a huddle of cypress trees whispering in the breeze; that way seemed to beckon her. She reached for the oars.
“I’m sorry, we have a new computer system, I can’t ever seem to find anything.”
Marissa was back in the chair. Without looking down, she inched back into her bag for her water and that Lorazepam from the inner pocket. “You just do this every time to build suspense, right?”
The professor smiled apologetically and continued the incessant clicking of his mouse. Marissa realised then that she would ask him the question today, here in this room; not that she should, necessarily, but that she would.
“Ok, no more abnormalities so far, which is good,” he continued, eyes on the screen. “But as I say, it’s your age that makes us think…”
“Yes,” Marissa cut in, impatient. How long was he going to draw this out?
“We’ll do some other tests, you see, because we’re looking for Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome, VHL for short, and it can cause problems…tumours…, beyond the nervous system—”
“I did google,” she cut in again. She had; until she’d read that the life expectancy for VHL patients was forty-nine. Then she’d stopped. Her dad made it to fifty-two.
“…it causes problems in your eyes, your abdomen, the pancreas and the liver, so we’ll arrange for an ultrasound, opthamologist and a blood test.”
“Only the blood test is diagnostic?” she asked.
“And we do that today?”
This was starting to feel like one of the conversations she used to have about her dad, pushing and pulling to get the right care. Back when she had fight; when there was something to fight for. Right now, she just wanted to know if she might be dying so she could consider adjusting her priorities and finally have a mandate to go a little mad. She’d always wanted to go a little mad, but there had always been too many other things to do.
On the other hand, the spectrum of everyday things that made her think of imminent death ranged from loud noises to middle aged men in leather jackets; she wasn’t keen to add an actually imminent death to that list, especially not now, at this precious moment when she was finally beginning to inch forwards. What kind of sick joke timing was this?
“Ok, I guess I can spare you some blood,” she Marissa. The faint laughter of someone passing by the window rang strangely against the walls.
Marissa never chose to remember her dad after he got sick. Like her Ellie flashbacks, they happened on their own. That first bus ride to the ward by herself when she was fourteen. Blue skies, white sun and frost. It hurt her feelings when they made her wear a mask to prevent infection. Her heart tried to escape her chest that first time she saw him, from behind, in the wheelchair. She thought they’d brought her to the wrong room but then realised, no, it was him; that was how he looked now, how he sat.
There was only one memory she kept close on purpose; her favourite. She took it out while waiting for the bus, on long walks, in moments of stress and at times she felt lost. She’d turned it over in her mind so many times, it had this glow about it, burnished like one of those famous statues touched for luck by generations of passers-by.
It was what would be their last canoe trip. Marissa was eleven and Ellie was five. The river was an emerald ribbon through the fields, the air above it thick with life that thronged and sang in the hot summer. Rain clouds had rolled in low. Mum had Ellie were in the back and Marissa’s dad sat in front of her, strong arms rowing calmly towards a clearing just beside the bank, dazzling with dandelions.
They approached the reeds, warm rain already splashing their skin. Marissa’s mum worried over the bags as her dad helped her out of the boat, scooping Ellie up next, who was laughing like a little maniac. It was pouring now, the river leapt and danced. Ellie in one arm, bags in the other, Marissa’s mum made a dash for the shelter of the trees. Her dad turned back with a grin and offered Marissa a hand up onto the bank. Rucksack in hand, she started after her mum. She’d expected him to follow, but instead he’d covered everything in tarpaulin and just sat on the riverside. Legs crossed, hands on knees and soaked through, with his eyes closed and his face turned skywards, he was smiling a deep a peaceful smile.
His eldest daughter approached him quietly. She felt she should not speak but was curious about this hallowed air, something sacred unfolding just beyond her child’s understanding. Seemingly without opening his eyes, he took her hand and kissed it. As he lowered it, his eyes were locked on hers and full of such love and gratitude, that they answered the question she’d not asked.
Marissa rarely spoke about him, now. She was an atheist and felt she knew by depth of her own sorrow that death was the end, so it seemed kinder not to go there. Still, sometimes she’d see someone who looked like him, drop what she was doing, make her way calmly home and cry for hours.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?”
Marissa met his gaze square on, like a matador in the bull ring. She took a slow, deliberate breath and gripped her chair with both hands. “Yes. With a hemangioblastoma in the spinal cord of a patient my age, what’s the probability that it’s VHL?”
Nowhere to run now, the bull had her in its sights. Words were ambling aimlessly from the professor’s mouth, meaningless precursors and qualifications. The bull’s breath thundered in Marissa’s ears and its eyes flashed with a mad rage. Great hooves pawed at the dust, or was it the powdered bones of matadors gone before? As the bull began hurtling towards her, Marissa felt the impossible thinness of the cape which was all that stood between them.
“… a little over seventy percent,” he finished.
Back in the waiting room, Marissa’s body tipped over into shock. She sat amidst the time lapse chaos of the waiting room, staring down at her own body as if she’d only just been given it. She put her hand on her abdomen and wondered if there was already something in there, slowly killing her. She’d always hated her body, in a way she considered so normal for women, she’d never thought much of it. Suddenly it seemed like madness.
During the blood test, she stared into the space between things and tried fiercely not to cry. The nurse was kind enough to pretend he didn’t notice. Afterwards, she staggered through the strip light labyrinth and out into the street. It was one of those endlessly grey days that made you hate the city: unidentifiable sludge built up against the roadside, cigarette butts and chewing gum everywhere, glass rising on all sides like rat cage walls.
London had never looked so beautiful.
Marissa crossed the road to find a vacant park bench. The flower beds were overgrown and the paving stones all broken. Beneath her feet, dandelions burst up through every crack and cranny in the path; one was even sprouting from the wall. Rain drummed softly on the sycamore leaves above. Marissa thought about all the time she’d wasted and tried not to lose herself in the rage. She followed the breath bellowing in and out of her lungs. She wiggled her fingers and wiggled her toes. She said ‘hello’ to a passing stranger, just because she could. They smiled vaguely in her direction and as she watched them walk away, she told them in a whisper that she loved them. That she was present and capable of all these things had yesterday seemed so insignificant as to be invisible. Marissa was stunned to discover just how rapturous they were now.
I’m still here, she told herself. There’s still time.
As the rain grew heavier, Marissa felt pulled up and led forward, out beyond the boughs of the tree where she could turn her face up towards the sky. She tried to unclench her fingers from around that night on in the streetlights and reach instead for the day by the river, with Ellie laughing and her dad smiling up at the rain. He’d recovered from his first stroke and his daughters believed with a child’s complete confidence that he was invincible. He’d known better, of course, by the beauty of the rain.
Doctors were still scrambling to diagnose him when the second stroke took out the right side of his body and his capacity for speech. It was just ‘yes’ and ‘no’ after that. The font of eternal wisdom was dry — or so Marissa had thought. He’d fought for a while, to talk, to walk, but then turned his attention to acceptance. Marissa had felt abandoned, like he’d given up too easily when she still needed so much from him and there was so much left to learn. At last, today, she understood that he had still been teaching, by example, the most precious thing he ever came to know. What once seemed like defeat distinguished itself as a surrender that was strong and brave and full of grace. Hands still trembling, still sick with fear, Marissa made herself smile and the smile felt real. She felt alive. Not a flash of life but deeply alive and full, more than fear, of wonder.
A rustling nearby disturbed her. A groundskeeper in a reflective yellow vest was standing just beside her on the path. He’d seen her standing there, face skywards and stopped his work to see if she was ok, or perhaps liable to trash anything. Marissa smiled reassuringly.
“Alright?” Grimacing in the rain, he bent down to pull a dandelion from the paving stones. “Bloody weeds everywhere.”
Before he tossed it in his bag, Marissa reached and he let her take it between two fingers. She looked at the wild gold flower, petals beyond counting, intricate beyond measure. The inexplicable smile returned.
“I think they’re beautiful,” she said, “how they can bloom almost anywhere.”