This is one of the short stories I wrote for the Open University Creative Writing course.
When Dad first wakes me, I don’t recognise him. And then when I come round a bit, I know something’s wrong. He’s in my room for a start.
‘It’s your mum,’ he says slowly, as if he’s talking to a child, ‘She’s in hospital. They think it’s a stroke.’ The words aren’t really sinking in, as he’s standing there next to the bed. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw him. I mean properly, not just his back going down the stairs, or a figure passing the door. It is years. He has more wrinkles and his hair is thinner and greyer. The whole of him is thinner and greyer. He still looks angry though. I suddenly realise he is waiting for me to speak.
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ My voice, unaccustomed to use, sounds rusty at the edges.
‘I said, do you want to go to visit her? She won’t be coming home for a long time. I didn’t know if you would want…’ His voice tails off into, what? Confusion? Frustration? I try to concentrate as the reality of his words register.
‘I don’t know, I don’t think I can. I want to see her, but I don’t know if I can.’
His face tightens and closes, and he turns away, just as before. He paces to the door, half turns as if to speak, but then he is gone. I sit up in bed trying to make sense of what is happening. Mum. She is all. She is gone.
I don’t know how things have come to be the way they are. Incrementally I guess. It was a slow drip of silence on silence, stillness on stillness and pain on pain. I can’t remember when I started sleeping through the day. Again, it was gradual. I had difficulty falling asleep at night, listening to Mum crying in the next room and the blare of the TV and smell of Dad’s cigarettes drifting upstairs. So in the mornings, I was exhausted. I just started sleeping in and gradually my whole day shifted itself until I was going to bed in the early morning and getting up at night. Mum would clean and tidy all the time, more than was good for any of us. But when I woke in the evening, she would bring me a meal and sit and talk with me for a while before she went to bed. And then I would watch TV or read the books Mum had got me from the library. I never saw Dad. He never came in to see me and I never went to find him. It felt like he was angry with me and so I just avoided him, and he likewise. For ten years! Imagine! When I write this it seems incredible, but all of it is true. Time is a very strange thing when you live in my twilight world between days. It stretches out; the days all merging into one another and then the weeks and months, and suddenly, years have gone.
It’s difficult to know when I realised all this was a serious problem. Maybe I didn’t until this morning when Dad woke me. I didn’t decide one day that I was never going out again, it just kind of happened that way. For a while I would say to myself, ‘This can’t go on.’ And I would plan to go to bed early and set my alarm to get up and go for a walk. But I never did. I had three hundred and sixty-five excuses, at least, for why I could not go out that day. It was so much easier to sink back into my dreams for a while longer. Although logically I could see that I was not living what you might call a normal life, all kinds of justifications and answers came to my aid. And although you will be reading this and saying, ‘Good God, she hasn’t been out of her house for ten years!’, it wasn’t ten years all in one go. It was ten years of something going wrong every day.
I guess Mum and Dad could have done things differently too. Mum never encouraged me to make a life. She was happy when I left school and was at home all the time. I think she is the same as me really, but not so bad. At least she goes out. If only to the supermarket and library every week. The rest of the time she’s at home. Cleaning mostly and vacuuming. I’m surprised the carpets have any pile left in them, the amount of hoovering they’ve had.
Dad just wasn’t there. I mean he was physically present, but he wasn’t really there. He went to work and came back and ate and watched TV and smoked and did the same the day after. When I think of our family I think of those weather dolls that come out of their little houses, circle around one another and go back through their little doors. They never touch.
You are reading this and you are wondering, ‘What is going on here? This woman clearly has some insight and understanding, so what is she doing in this bizarre situation?’ And well you might! You see, I can wake up and feel fine and decide I am going out. And then my good feeling starts to slip away as I sabotage my own plans. My fears start to take me over. Even if I get to the front door, if I see another person or a car in the street, my hands sweat, my head spins, the panic rises up and I have to get back in to safety. It is terrifying out there to me. I know it isn’t, logically speaking, but to me it simply is. And I don’t know how to change that, so while you might think I seem quite normal, I clearly am not.
So, after Dad has been in to tell me about Mum, I sit for a while and think. For a few hours probably; I find it difficult to concentrate and have to keep starting again. I am panicking. I need to do something. I can’t manage without her. I can’t go out and I can’t stay here alone. Mum did everything for me. I have never cooked a meal for myself. What will I do? I get up and walk round and round the tiny bedroom trying to calm myself. Then I feel ashamed when I think of Mum lying in the hospital. The door opens. It is Dad with a tray. There is a cup of tea and a plate of beans on toast on it. He puts the tray down awkwardly on the little dressing table.
‘I’m going to see her tonight and so are you,’ he mutters. I make some sort of inadvertent fluttering gestures with my hands and then they fly up to my throat.
‘Things are going to change.’ His mouth is a thin white line, the words barely getting past his teeth. ‘We can’t go on like this. I know you want to see her. So I am going to help you.’
Suddenly I am filled with such rage against him. And against Mum. I shout at him.
‘I can’t do this. Why can’t you just leave it? You don’t understand.’
He flares up at that.
‘Oh yes I do. Don’t you dare say that. I can’t just leave it. This is all my fault. You’re wasting your life. Just like she is. And she’s helping you to do it.’ He moves around the room involuntarily, as though looking for something to grab hold of. ‘I can’t stand by any more. Get ready. You are going out of this house tonight.’ He walks out, leaving me reeling as if from a punch to the head.
Mechanically I sit down at the little dressing table and drink my cup of tea and eat my beans on toast. I look blindly out of the window at the afternoon sun and down on the untidy garden and I catch my reflection in the mirror and don’t recognise the person looking back. It is a long time since I have really examined myself. I lean closer to correct the blurred image. My eyes are weak and I am terribly short-sighted from too much reading in the dark I think. A very pale woman with small red-rimmed eyes looks back. My dark hair has grown very long and is brushed back from my forehead to reveal a pasty, soft skin, like putty. There is not a hint of colour in my face. I stay motionless and wonder if this is what I would look like if I were dead.
I used to think about being dead a lot, even when I was at school. Because of my brother Adam, I suppose. He was knocked down by a car and killed. I remember him, but not so well. Sounds and smells sometimes trigger memories, a feeling of happiness. But then they’re gone. But I remember Mum’s screaming when they told her Adam was dead. And when she stopped screaming she was different. Almost gone from herself. She either couldn’t look at me, or she held me so tightly it hurt. I remember my confusion, not so much my grief. She just kept going into his room and going through his clothes, smelling them and folding them all. And she wouldn’t let me touch anything. It was just as he had left it.
Anyway, as time went on, she came back a little, but everything was different. I never went anywhere alone. And a lot of the time I just didn’t go. Mum would suggest a game or a television programme and time would run on and suddenly it would be too late to go wherever it was we were meant to be going. It was good in some ways; Mum and I were close, so close. As I grew older and started wanting to go out alone, she would cry and tell me to be careful over and over. She would shake with anxiety when I returned, and so eventually I became as worried as she was, and just started to avoid going out. It was easier once I had left school as no-one expected me to be anywhere, and then it was just Mum and me again.
Where was Dad in all this? I suppose at first he tried to help, but he was caught up in his own grief in a different way, and he became hard and distant and angry. He never spoke about it, and neither did she. They never spoke about very much at all. It was a silent household for a long time.
I start to dress. I have no idea what to wear. It is spring, but I don’t know how cold it is outside. I err on the side of caution and put a jumper over my trousers and shirt. I scrabble in the bottom of the wardrobe for shoes. They feel strange and hard against my feet. I know they are going to rub; I haven’t worn shoes in years. I walk out of my room and down the stairs. Dad takes my arm and we cross the threshold of the front door. I am in the front garden. My pounding heart is almost choking me. It is so bright. The light is hurting my eyes. I am rooted to the spot. The pavement is hard under my shoes. And the noise! Cars roar past, the birds sing and the people talking in the street sound amplified. I am terrified. Dad has hold of my elbow and he almost drags me to the car and opens the passenger door. The tears are squeezing out from behind my tightly closed eyes, but I get in. I feel a little better once inside the car. It is smaller and quieter. Dad leans across me and fastens my seatbelt gently. The drive to the hospital is short but it seems to take forever. I am counting my breaths. At the traffic lights we have to stop and people surge in front of the car. I am pressing my back into the seat but they don’t notice. They are walking and talking to each other and seem completely unafraid.
We arrive at the hospital. I don’t remember it having so many buildings. The main entrance is bustling with people and by now I am sobbing. I think I am going to die right then and there, but Dad virtually carries me through the doors and up the stairs to Mum’s ward. And I don’t die. I don’t die because I am still breathing by the time I get to the side of Mum’s bed. She is sleeping; the eyelid and mouth on right side of her face are drawn down.
Dad pulls up two plastic chairs and we sit on either side of the bed waiting for Mum to wake up. The past weighs heavy between us, unspoken. We can’t look at each other, and then Mum’s eyelids flicker. She sees Dad and tries to smile and then she sees me and her eyes open wide with surprise. She struggles to speak and then starts to cry. I can’t make out what she is trying to say, but then I realise. She’s saying sorry. I look directly at Dad, and our eyes meet for the first time in years.
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
This is one of the short stories I wrote for the Open University Creative Writing course.
Posted by claires inner world at 23:51