She’s dying. She’s dying and I’m thinking: What if I don’t cry?
“…wonderful thing about orchids is the variety of species, about twenty-eight-thousand. I bought Gareth a Lady Slipper Orchid and he simply adores it…”
My eyes roll so far back they do a full rotation; a morbid one armed bandit where the Reaper always wins. And yet, the voices, the people, the conversations on the trains closer to home will make my gut fold in on itself. The posh wankers are worlds away: politicians, Lords, owners of Chelsea tractors, but the sixteen-year-old mums screeching at their toddlers, the labourers with plaster on their cheeks, drinking tinnies at eight in the morning, that’s the stock I was born of. I burn with shame, shame that I feel ashamed.
I’m on my way to the famed death-bed scene. I wonder if I should be offended by the way that spring is lighting it, far too cheerful. God, or Allah, or who-the-fuck-ever is a terrible director. At her funeral the sun will knock on the lid of her coffin.
As the train slides from Fenchurch to Dagenham and beyond, the South London accents become clipped, the vowels so round you can bahnce ‘em. The Estuary English of my own county. I rarely pronounce the ‘T’ in water or butter, the ‘T’ and the ‘L’ get lost in bottle but the glottal stops in the carriage pop like corn and it makes my heart ache.
Mum gives me a heartfelt squeeze in the station car park, trying to hide her excitement that the child who flew the nest is visiting. She searches my eyes for signs of moisture and maybe she’s worried that there are none. It’s easy to comfort your kid when they’re crying but without tear-streaked outward signs of grief, it becomes more challenging.
She tells me about work while Michael Bolton sings quietly in the back seat next to the elephant in the car and Sal’s emerging ghost. The speakers in the front have always been broken.
We crawl past a group of little boys in tatty blue tracksuits, smoking clumsily. They flip us off.
Mum tuts. “Well, that’s bloody charming.”
Mum tuts again in the hospital car park, quieter this time. The parking machine stares her down, not to be reasoned with. It’s expensive to attend the pre-burial ceremony.
Wasps duck in and out of the bins and everyone is chain smoking, desperate to imbue the burning tobacco with their anxieties, to exhale and watch the smoke join the wisps of cloud above. So many brows pulled together, shoddy dams in bulging rivers. The tenacity of water is fatal and the splintered wood shows in their puffy sockets. I suppress the smile that comes to my lips, the automatic reaction to greeting my blood.
The walk through the hospital corridors feels cinematic and for a second I enjoy the drama of it. We stride through the double doors wide enough for teams of scrubbed up heroes to crash through, talking urgently over trolleys of emergency cases. But right now only we haunted the corridors.
I can almost hear the wheels of the dolly rig, catching a sweeping shot of the ready-to-mourn relatives making their way through cold blue halls. Wind is coming from somewhere and lifting the hair from our faces like we’re in a fucking music video.
To the left a lift door eases open and two grey men wheel a body out. The squeak of their white boots retreats to silence up the hall. Then Dad emerges from a toilet.
“I’d leave it five minutes.” He gestures over his shoulder and his weak smile hardens my throat. “Hello, darlin’.” He comes in for a bear grip and I wonder if he’s washed his hands. Probably not. He nods in Mum’s general direction and shrugs.
“It is what it is.”
I haven’t heard him say anything but that to her for years.
The room’s not really big enough for all of us, for the abundance of life, but we all squeeze in. Someone is lying on the bed but it’s not Sal. I’m surprised by the hot tears on my cheeks. Her chest inflates with every sharp breath she takes. Her eyes are glued shut and Gary dabs at her cracked lips with a wet sponge. Pumping oxygen into a corpse doesn’t make it alive.
The last time I saw Gary he was shouting at footballers on a pub TV. As he so often did.
“Oh get away, you black bastard! Off-SIDE!” he’d protest.
A nurse opens the door and knocks one of our chair legs. Her skin is a deep brown that glows, flawless, like the skin of an aubergine. She steps around us and Gary smiles warmly at her, the sadness of cancer in his eyes. The Dinosaur in the main ward roars and wheezes constantly. The open door amplifies her call. What-you-gonna-do looks bounce between us and we take it in turns to be outraged by the noise.
“Billy’s still not shown his face then.” The upward inflection doesn’t exist in this sentence anymore; decades of absence rendered it useless. I’m staring at Sal’s lip flapping up and down with her breaths and I can barely tell who’s speaking.
“Clarky’s been in touch with him but it don’t look like he’s gonna come and see her.”
Dad donated bone marrow for some kind of stem cell treatment, stepping up for family. Blood comes before all in this clan; a bunch of stoic heroes, shutting away their emotions and bubbling steadily away on the inside.
Billy was first choice to donate because the match was closer, or something, the details always get lost among their cheerful martyrdom. He refused and that was sacrilegious. All the alpha males fighting to give what they can and the one with the piece most likely to fit was slinking away. They resented him for that and began to speculate: “Shagged too many prozzies, probably scared they’ll tell him he’s got AIDs.” “Ruth probably convinced him not to, the evil bitch.” I pitied him for not fitting the family mould.
Two sisters and two brothers. They treated him like a dog, a plaything that would do whatever they asked him to. Jump off the garage roof, Billy. Put your finger in this mousetrap, Billy. Stand on the train tracks, Billy. He set the neighbour’s hamster on fire at seven years old.
The women’s ward is a strange place where no one sleeps because the Dinosaur never stops. Sal has sucked all the sleep from the wing, she’s riding it into the light. The nurse leaves and the Dinosaur pauses for breath. Sal wheezes and we all just look at her.
Dad blows out a teary sigh. “Right, fag time, I reckon.” He helps Gary from his chair, holding out his stick. “Come on Gal, you need a cuppa.” Half a dozen chairs scrape across the floor and suddenly I’m alone. The room is haunted by a shadow.
Rod Stewart sails through the open window from a radio in the next room. She loved Rod Stewart. I feel stupid for thinking this is some sort of profound cosmic event. I’m glad my sister is outside, she would have gasped and said something ridiculous like: It’s a sign.
I study Sal’s face for signs of recognition but her lip just carries on flapping up when she inhales and Gordon Brown pops into my head. I feel strange sitting at the end of the bed so I move to her side and hold her little hand. It’s soft and barely warm. I sing to her, I want her to know she isn’t by herself but I can’t bear the thought of having a conversation with the body on the bed.
Maggie I couldn’t have tried, anymore
I stroke the base of her thumb, the squashy meat of it threaded with blue veins the colour of the sky before a storm.
A man waits in the doorway. I look up into his face. He’s tall and his eyes are downcast, a little pot plant perched on his palms. I don’t know what to say to my estranged uncle. A gentle smile is printed on his face, he walks to his sister’s side and doesn’t acknowledge me.
The last time I saw him I was six years old. Mum and Dad threw a Millennium Party, he spoke softly and we talked about books. I walked around very seriously after that, feeling like a proper adult, because he hadn’t asked me if it wasn’t past my bed time. It was fancy dress and he had come as a solemn middle-aged man.
Dad stops in the doorway and looks at his two eldest siblings.
“Hallo, Bill.” Dad claps his brother’s shoulder and some soil from the plant pot falls onto the bedsheet.
Billy presents the little green plant to the room. “When she opens her eyes, she can enjoy it.” He nods with the proud eyes of a child.
Dad scoffs. “Unbelievable.” Rage seeps from his hot neck and wrist tendons. I prise open the boulder of his fist and slip my hand in, leaning my head on his shoulder. The windows have turned black and Gary starts to snore. It feels like time to leave.
Peggy nudges him and whispers. “Gal.” He snorts awake and pushes himself up, leaning into his stick. He hobbles to his sleeping wife and kisses her forehead.
“Goodnight, Sally Soo.” He strokes her hair and turns to leave.
“Sal. Sal?!” Dad moves urgently to her bedside. He’s kneeling, covering her frail hand with his. She looks around the room at all of us. The air is singing with gasps and quiet sobs, cut with a dash of hope. She lets out a deep sigh and gives us the flicker of a smile. The light in her eyes is gone. She’s staring at a point somewhere above my head. The Dinosaur has quietened down out of respect.
I don’t know if she saw the plant that Billy brought but Dad squeezed his brother tight, hoping his apology would seep in somehow. Billy’s arms stay at his sides, his face a picture of childlike serenity gazing into the corner of the room.
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