© Claire Whatley
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I Know What It Is
© Claire Whatley
A SHORT STORY
I detest the walls of this corridor. It’s not the shade of creamy-yellow – that’s harmless enough. It’s that revolting sheen to the paint. As though I’m walking down a tunnel of rancid butter: greasy, sticky, unclean. Rancid butter studded with a job lot of cheap modern art.
I push my way through the green fire doors. My nose is assaulted by the ward’s familiar bouquet: a top note of disinfectant masking the lingering undertones of bodily emissions. I often wonder whether the latter varies according to the previous day’s menu, or just reflects changes in the patients’ medication.
And there’s that other smell – exclusive to this ward – weaving its fingers through all the rest.
There is my brother in the usual place, first bed on the right. His eyes are closed. I know he probably isn’t asleep, but, like a commuter on a train, he’s avoiding unwelcome eye-contact.
I like to come in for the start of lunch because Peter can’t bear the nurses feeding him. And Becky can’t come in at this time. She has to collect Emily from pre-school and give her lunch, then collect Katie from school at three-thirty, maintaining some norms in the children’s lives. Her neighbour sits for her every evening and puts the two girls to bed so she can come into hospital then.
Becky will need to think about making some other arrangements for the girls later. But not yet.
The array of tubing that snakes around Peter looks the same as the day before; the monitor on the other side of the bed flashes up its series of numbers, as unintelligible to me today as they were yesterday. I know every chip and crack in the plaster behind Pete’s bed. Today, like all the other days, I try to avert my eyes from the insult of that peeling wall, and as on all the other days, my eyes are drawn to it, compelled by the same guilty fascination that makes us snatch glances at human deformity. I sit on the usual battered red plastic chair next to his bed. There’s a tattered smiley sticker on the corner of the seat. Every day I think of removing it, but don’t.
His eyelids flicker and I think for a moment some part of him is present in the room, but mostly he is luxuriating, while he can, in that exclusive morphine-induced netherworld that only the dying are privileged to visit. I hope it’s nice.
“Pete? It’s Debs.”
The eyelids flicker again and the eyeballs roll down to focus cautiously as though he had been looking at reality and now he’s been coerced into an unpleasant dream. He moves his head to the minimal extent needed to look at me. The effort makes him grimace but then from his deep well of manners he dredges up a smile, “Hello, darling. How are you?”
I wish he wouldn’t say that.
“I’m fine.” I rest my hand on his. “How are you today?”
That ‘today’ makes the question acceptable, I hope.
“Oh, you know. Crap.”
The bed opposite is curtained off and a strident voice assails our ears, “Come on, Albert, that’s right. Roll over for me now. That’s it, my love.”
We both hear the pitiful moan and I need to drown it.
“How are the nurses today? Who's on duty? Is it Melanie? Or Annabel?”
The names ignite a tiny spark of the old Peter for a moment before it dies and he manages, “No. Bloody Dumbo…Dork…whatsisname.”
His look confirms it and I give him a sympathetic smirk, “Bad luck.”
Pete never did suffer fools and he’s not going to turn into Mother Teresa just because he’s dying.
His eyes close again for a moment. This is all too much effort for him but I want him to be awake to have some lunch, though the reasons I feel he needs to ‘eat up’ have no basis in logic or common sense. What else is there to do?
“Is he giving you a bad time?”
He mutters something like ‘prat’ or maybe, ‘twat’, I can’t tell, but I nod anyway.
Another moan issues from behind that curtain.
Peter and I are saved further attempts at conversation by the rhythmic squeaking of the lunch trolley, like a mouse being squashed over and over. I smell the meat and institutional gravy, the baked fish, and something sweet, like sticky toffee pudding. I salivate at the memory of childhood comforts and turn to watch the trolley’s arrival, as though it’s a special event. I turn back to Pete, whose face re-arranges itself by the smallest degree, just sufficient to express disgust. The auxiliary nurse wheels in the enormous metal box. Darren bustles in behind her, all efficiency and self-importance, which strikes me as a fragile disguise for sheer terror.
I know Peter’s glad to have me here but he’s too tired to speak. He looks defeated. He won’t manage any lunch today. Was yesterday’s lunch his last? I stroke his hand and I have the impression we’re an audience of two watching a hospital drama. The trolley rumbles and whines and Darren scurries. The curtain concealing Albert in the bed opposite is whisked back. The stout, tightly uniformed nurse whom I haven’t seen before pulls the curtain back fully with a briskness and efficiency I consider a ham piece of acting. She plumps Albert’s pillows with a loud “There we go, my love”, and as she leans over him I observe those folds of middle-aged flesh bulging above and below her bra-line. Pete looks at me and I smile because he’s still able to perform that trick of raising just one eyebrow, and his look says, “Thank Christ she’s not looking after me.”
On the other side of his bed, a tiny cabinet has to accommodate the kind thoughts of the few brave and well-meaning friends who have sent cards – thankfully not of the ‘Get Well Soon’ variety, but the ‘blank for your personal message’ style: landscapes, flowers, abstract art, containing neutral, equivocal or even amusing words, sensitively chosen.
Three-year-old Emily's card, made of flimsy pre-school paper flops against the water jug, dwarfing all the rest. On the front a big, happy face with asymmetrical eyes beams down on us; its crescent moon mouth grins, encouragingly. Katie's smaller card stands before Emily's, supporting it. The crayonning of a vase of flowers has been painstakingly executed. Katie still has trouble with her lower case 'd's so the message above the flowers reads, 'I loVe you, Dabby'. I turn my gaze away from the children's cards because there is the potential in me if I look for too long to become a craven, snot-nosed mass of tears. I won't allow myself to be that person. Pete wouldn't want it.
The rest of the space on the cabinet is taken up with Pete’s stack of dog-eared Penguin Shakespeares. Well, his favourites, anyway. Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Measure for Measure.
He had been reading them for himself, but he’s too weak to do it now, so every day, I’ve been reading from them for him. I had no idea Shakespeare had so much to say about death. Peter used to ask me to read his favourite speeches from parts he had played: Claudio, Gloucester, Duncan – reliving his glory days I suppose - but in the last two days he has just asked for those lines from the Scottish play, ‘She should have died hereafter...’ and the only way I can read it is by somehow packaging up my emotions and placing them, tied with string and securely sealed, to one side. I never was an actor. Those lines, that to me seem so dreadful to read to a dying man, seem helpful to him, so who am I to deny him? Nevertheless, when it comes to:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more’
I have to don an iron mask and the only way I can force the verse from my mouth is by making the words sound bland, uncaring, as though I don’t understand the meaning. Reading to him anyway is preferable to a conversation on mortality. Paralysed by manners and habit, we can’t talk about it. A family rule used to be that we never talk about sex, politics or religion in polite company. Pete and I took no notice of that, of course. But skulking behind those three, with a cadaverous grin, is the real taboo. That word so terrible that to name it would be in the worst possible taste.
Suddenly Pete’s eyes widen and – are his pupils dilating? Annabel has come into the ward. Her uniformed body has the gazelle grace of a twenty-something female who has inherited all the best genes from her family’s pool. Her facial features are so symmetrical it’s hard to believe nature could have got it so right. Her hair is scraped tightly off her face, allowing the viewer’s gaze full access to her wide, clear eyes and divine cheekbones. I’m astounded that, in spite of his frailty, Pete can still muster a glimmer of desire. Is that much testosterone still being pumped around his body by his slowing, struggling heart? Or is it just a tired, old electrical impulse treading a well-worn neural pathway?
She’s heading our way.
I twist round to watch Annabel’s progress towards us, assuming Pete’s eyes are focussed in the same direction, when he produces a groan of such despair; I turn to him, my heart pounding. Is this it? He has sunk back deep into the cumulus fluff of his pillows and his face is racked. Annabel is there in an instant, and so is Darren. I find myself standing and the two nurses are leaning over him, Annabel holding his hand.
“It’s all right, Peter, it’s all right. We’re going to give you some more morphine now, darling, don’t worry.” Annabel’s soothing tones.
But I thought his morphine was in regulated amounts through the IV. What do I know? Just stop it hurting.
Peter tries to speak. He’s pained and confused and I want them to take his pain away – now. I’m holding my breath. I lean forward, too, straining for his least whisper.
And now Annabel is giving him an injection. As the needle slides out from my brother’s scrawny, purpled arm, Darren says, “What is it, Pete? Tell us. What is it?”
Inwardly I curse Darren for calling him Pete. He hates it - only the family is allowed to call him Pete. In pungent eagerness, Darren is breathing garlic over him and I see his nostrils recoil. He opens his mouth and we wait.
“I know what it is.”
“What is it, Pete?” Darren again.
“I know what it is.” Less distinct this time. “I’m dead.”
The silence following this remark is an eternity of pure embarrassment. The three of us squirm in horrified confusion. Did he really say that? Darren’s face is scarlet. Such a response is entirely outside the pages of his palliative care training manual. Annabel is appalled, mystified. Having known Pete for forty-seven years, I suspect this is either a morphine-fuelled joke, gone horribly wrong, or he simply didn’t know what he was saying, or, perhaps, in his intense pain and irritation he wanted to cause maximum discomposure to poor Darren. Peter’s face has taken on a rapt expression of serenity and innocence now and I am thinking, yes, it’s possibly Pete’s last joke.
Darren begins to burble, “No, Pete, no, you’re not dead…” The word ‘yet’ is hovering on his lips. He looks at me. I harden my face and he manages to choke it back. No matter because Pete’s not listening. Annabel recovers quickly and is smiling fondly, once again holding my brother’s hand. Pete’s not dead yet but he is in heaven.
* * *
I parked on one of the side streets about ten minutes from the hospital. Coming here daily for the last two weeks, I can’t afford the parking charges. It wasn’t the usual street and I’m not lost exactly, but this is not the right road. It’s a bit seedy round here. As I stride along the pavement, sidestepping some takeaway debris, a boy racer hurtles down the road in a seventies car, all points and angles, between the double parked vehicles.
This hospital routine has become the heart of my quotidian life. The only way I could arrange the time off work each day was to take the cumulated hours as unpaid leave, but I don’t mind. It’s as though I’m doing something worthwhile for the first time ever. Just sitting and holding a hand. When I kissed him goodbye, I told him Becky would be there soon, and I’d see him tomorrow. I always say that.
Becky’s ten years younger than Pete. And gorgeous. She’ll meet someone else. She will. I wonder if Pete thinks about that, and I wonder if he cares. The kids are so young that they’ll forget him and their new dad will soon become their only dad. I might even lose touch with them, too – who knows? When Pete goes, I’ll be the last of our nuclear family. Don’t want to think about that. Ah, I think this left turn ahead is the one. I pull my phone out of my bag to check for messages. Christ, I’ve been ambling round these streets for twenty minutes.
I can see my car on the other side of the road, about fifty metres down. Just as I’m about to cross, the phone rings. Becky.
“Debs?” She’s tearful. “The hospital just phoned. Where are you? They think we need to be there.” She can’t say any more.
Not yet. Surely.
“I’ve only just left. Don’t worry - I’ll be there. Quarter of an hour.”
I put the phone away and do an about-turn, but then, as I’m this close to the car, it might be quicker to drive back. I make a dash across the road.
Lights flash. A horn blares. I turn and the white van can’t avoid me. For the single second before impact, I see the driver’s face in high definition, freeze-framed within the windscreen. A downward curving mouth agape; threaded, middle-aged skin, shock-pale; dark eyes protruding, glaring with fear.
I can’t hear, I can’t see, I can’t feel but I’m holding on to my thoughts.
“Pete? Are you there?”
“Pete. I know what it is.”