:: Buzzwords Archive: June 2020. Click here for the latest posts.

3:AM in Lockdown 70: Heidi James (published 10/06/2020)

Even Nature is Corrupt
By Heidi James.

 

There is no future. Only time’s sinuous doubling between past and present. Under her fingertips the hard chairback, the tabletop, underfoot the chilly linoleum. This place. Now. She stands there, her two feet pressed into the floor, her lips open over her teeth, sucking her breath in and pushing it out, the light on her face filtered through the net curtain.

The flat is untidy. Sunday untidy, with newspapers scattered about the sofa, cups with slops of tea, and plates still crumbed with bacon sandwiches. Once lazy Sundays were a novelty, the idea of lying on the sofa, reading and dozing, talking and laughing together seemed pure and precious. Now, there is only boredom. The long sigh she can’t release, holds in, like a submerged whale, holding an eternity of stale air in her guts. There was a time when discussing the news with Philip was a pleasure, not strident, not argued. Pyjama days, when they would make love before getting up, and he would thump down the stairs to the front door and gather the papers, and she would put bacon in the pan. He poached eggs in that funny way of his, of boiling water in a frying pan and bending low over the rolling boil to gently ease the egg into its soak. There was dancing in the kitchen, barefoot, badly, laughter.

Regardless, it’s impossible to stay at home. She finds herself at her mother’s flat. Standing in the shadowed and cool hallway. There are no windows, and the doors that lead to the bedrooms and living room are closed. A soft mass of coats hang on a rail to the right, including her mother’s raincoat, street smudged and with a small tear at the shoulder. Underneath there’s a rack for shoes. Her mother’s sandals and slippers neatly side by side. Had she been taken out of there with bare feet? She pictures her mother lying in the hospital bed and the objects in the carrier bag handed to the ward Sister. There were no shoes in that bag. Just her clothes — a skirt and blouse, her bra and pants, and her wristwatch — a Christmas present.

She had been barefoot.

The smell, a particular blend of furniture polish, bleach, cigarette smoke, her perfume and something else, something vague and placid, a scent that wasn’t quite anything and yet was somehow the smell of her mother and home. The smell hooking a trail of memories that snap and tongue at the air like bunting. Eight steps past the door to the bathroom to the end of the hall, at which point turn left into the living room or right towards the bedrooms. The hall a secondary space, an intersection. The place between home and elsewhere.

Philip brings her back insisting she take a walk with him. He holds her hand, solidly, as if he’s a parent not husband. He tells her to read, to work, to be productive but she can’t do that, she is following the string through the labyrinth of the past and that takes time. He tells her to stop wallowing, to buck up. They walk through the park, circling the lake and she can’t remember the names of the trees. The bark, the shape of the leaves, the developing seed pods should all point to a name, but she has no idea. She is divided from the world surrounding her, like an amnesiac with only the distant past to recall.

She can’t sleep at night, but she’s not alone in this blank wakefulness. Elsewhere, other wide eyes gawp at the dazzling fizz of the stars. Not sleeping isn’t so bad. Inhabiting another part of the day to everyone else, like being in another room, hearing them murmur and move about, but they aren’t really there. Like the jellyfish that rise to the surface of the sea at night, she is unthinking. Philip lays splayed out under a dream his thick limbs pressed into the bed. She gets up at the invitation of the window, to look out, divided from everything. Passive hands pressed against the glass. Passive nose nuzzling against the night. Trees filter the wind as it pushes towards the house. She always wanted to be free of her family. To be able to totally reinvent herself. Now she is.

The chair is still her mother’s chair, even if unused, without purpose; just an object. Empty, a truth standing silent in the corner. It sags under an absent weight, still faithful to her body, her breath, her old habits. A coffee stain remarks on her nan’s clumsiness; her mother never managed to remove it despite using every miracle product on the market. Standing there, the curtains open it seems that light was avoiding the room, as if in sympathy, not wanting to draw attention to the loss. The chair, captive in a span unhurried by human measure, remains.

Her mother’s cigarettes and lighter on the coffee table, next to the ashtray she made for her in senior school art class. Still decorated in seventies brown swirls on both the wallpaper and the carpet with a brown and orange velveteen three piece suite. Just dimmed by years of cigarette smoke and the bleach of sunlight. Above the TV, the sea — a weft of green and blue wools woven into waves in a cheap frame, a figure stitched in black looked out from the beach.

Everywhere the scuffs and stains of living; the ring of a hot cup branded into the coffee table, a crayon drawing on the wallpaper behind the armchair, a fag burn in the carpet half hidden by the TV cabinet, the white wall revealed beneath the dark paper by grubby little fingers. Afternoons that spread like oil. Family photos on the mantelpiece above the gas fire. Replaced exactly after dusting, her nan and granddad on their wedding day; her mum on holiday in Spain, her legs browning in the sun, smiling at the lens. A school photo, the two kids in matching green V-neck sweaters, big toothed and freckled, her hair in bunches, his too short. Her graduation posed in cap and gown, the prop scroll clutched against her chest; looking strained and uncomfortable, her face oily, not wearing enough make-up. Her mother had sent her to freshen up in the ladies with her make-up bag; but none of her colours worked so she just looked wrong.

Philip says she must exorcise the past, with its daily intrusions into the present. So intrusive she sometimes forgets where she is, who she is, which self. What an odd route to take through life, forwards, back, never entirely just still, in the present. She must work through the past in order to move forwards. Yes, she thinks, I must sift through the past.

 

 

The kitchen’s so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor, always a Jay cloth and bleach in her mother’s hand, rubber gloves protecting her hairdresser’s eczema. The blue check tablecloth pulled taut, like a sail snapped tight in the wind. The condiment set exactly in the middle as if it were the perspective vanishing point in the table’s composition. No dust on the clock, no dust on the rack of herbs she rarely used. Her Cliff Richard calendar turned to the correct page. The cleaning fluids, the bleaches, the powders, the gels to polish, reduce, upbraid, under the sink along with medicines — painkillers, a box of plasters, Grandad’s anti-coagulants, out of date antibiotics and Nan’s crumbling heart pills, as if they all belonged together.

This is the first rain in weeks. Puddles deepen in the clefts between uneven paving stones and discarded crisp and cigarette packets float in them like garish pondweed. Thin rivulets of rainwater running into the drains like sweat. The uneasy skyline presses its domes and columns into the thickening piles of clouds that barricade against the sun. A cool compress, the rain easing the rising heat in the city cooling people in the subdued shelter of their homes.

She walks through the streets of the estate, the roads opening up, widening. Philip is working from home, having a Zoom meeting. She is secure in the cool isolation of the rain. A lone camera man takes footage of the abandoned swings in the fenced-off square of cracked tarmac that operates as a park. There’s no grass, or any other play equipment; just the swings and a bench. The estate flattens itself against the earth, as though trying to be inconspicuous.

At the threshold of her mother’s bedroom, a hand resting on the Perspex door handle, cut to resemble a monstrous gem. A luxury in that flat, in which all the other doors and windows had standard issue council knobs and buttons, levers and switches. The rest of her room has the same embellishment. As children they had helped stick leading to the windows in a haphazard crisscross, unrolling the soft metal and pulling off the paper backing before smoothing it down with their fingers. When finished they laid on her flowery counterpane and pretended they were lying in a cottage in the woods. Her mother hadn’t removed it, despite complaining that it was a bugger to clean. She imagines her mother lying in bed watching the disguised London sky, daydreaming she had woken in a different place.

Philp insists that fresh air and good food will help. Will fix her to the here and now. He reminds her how many people are dead, dying alone, he praises strangers for their stoicism and bravery, which she understands to be a pointed criticism. Over dinner he reminds her she didn’t even like her mother, that they haven’t spoken in years, that all this emotion is misplaced. She doesn’t finish the chicken he has roasted, the white knots in the fibrous flesh suddenly grotesque. He sighs as she closes the knife and fork on her plate. ‘What a waste,’ he says, rubbing his bare chin before clearing the table and emptying the uneaten food into the bin. ‘I hate to see good food wasted.’ She recognised a tree on their walk, an Alder, its shiny round leaves reflecting the light. The world had let her in, sent a message, even if tiny. She said, smiling, ‘Look there’s an Alder, I’ve remembered its name’. Philip replied, ‘Ah yes, an Alder, you know it makes top grade charcoal, they used to use it to make gunpowder, amazing stuff’.

Even nature is corrupt, colluding in the killing.

Her mother’s silver backed hairbrush and matching hand mirror always sit neat on top of the drawers, a few strands of her hair snagged in the bristles. She wonders how long it takes for a person to be totally eradicated, for the fragments containing their DNA to disintegrate, for their presence to fade and no longer loiter in the corners of rooms, the soap dish in a bathroom, a hairbrush. In the top drawer her underwear carefully folded and laid out by colour, white knickers next to white bras followed by just a couple of black pairs and a lone pale blue silk camisole. A small muslin sachet containing dried lavender tucked in amongst the fabrics, its scent long gone, a birthday gift from her children.

In the bottom drawer photo albums, birthday cards, crayon pictures drawn for her, all carefully folded and placed. There’s no surprise at her private sentimentality. Feelings were always best expressed in objects. In a silver case there’s two locks of baby hair, a brown curl tied with a pink ribbon, and the boy’s blonde shaft, a straight little pluck of fine hairs, no kinks or curls, tied with a blue one. Small bundles of blue envelopes tied with cast-off Christmas ribbon are tucked in the corner. On top of each pile a note indicating which tour of duty the letters are from. Germany, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq; she wants to unpick the knot, to read her brother’s letters to her mother. She wants to read what they said to each other, to know the secrets they will always keep.

They work in their tiny garden. Pulling brambles laid like tripwires under the grass. She complains about the thorns ripping her skin. ‘Everything demands its price,’ Philip says, ‘they have to protect the berries or there’d be none left. Simple economics.’ The leaves on the trees are still, reflecting the light like metal shapes. She has turned to stone, a point she could never have reached by herself.

Heidi James is a writer and academic. Her new novel, The Sound Mirror, will be published in August.

3:AM in Lockdown 69: Miranda Gold (published 03/06/2020)

Left Pending
By Miranda Gold.

Yellow ringed, disinterested, but the illusion of eye contact was convincing enough. We were a week into London’s variation on the theme of lockdown by the time I’d realised the blackbirds had gone. Every morning since New Year I’d watched them blandly through glazed eyes till the coffee kicked in, laying down a retrospective appreciation for their supposed loyalty to the tree outside my window, perched long enough to let me think I’d met their quiet, steady gaze. In their place came vanishing flashes of blue and yellow, with a beauty so sudden and starting it felt incongruent — as though the connecting scenes had been cut.

Days later people were saying the birds had the sky back. Birdsong and sirens, sirens and birdsong. And yet the swing between giddy optimism and despair is nothing new: it’s either the end of the world or a new earth.

The quasi-biblical note falls flat round the edges of Burgess Park. Away from the stretches of trimmed grass nettles flower over dried leaves, ivy thrives indifferent — I can escape the joggers here but not the metaphors. Metaphors sprawl but joggers keep to the path — and it turns out the whole of London is jogging. Corona has inspired an urban wide health kick. My walks are too slow and too long to qualify as essential. My walks are, in fact, characterised by the non-essential: I inspect lichen, thistle, an empty packet of paracetamol. But in the few days after dad was admitted to UCH with Covid the non-essential was essential. I stretched out the distance between blossom tree and blossom tree, talking to him in my head. It’s not cherry blossom, I could hear him saying. There’s little he doesn’t hierarchise but I said I’d let him get away with it so long as he breathed. As though I could bargain like that. Alright dad, I’d say to the apple blossom, cherry can’t compete with apple where blossom’s concerned but the deal is… I directed impossible promises skyward, made him unlikely ones too, briefly committing myself, along with my brother, Matt, to learning Hebrew, so long as he —

I’m holding you to that, he told me.

And I could see him standing there, saying what he always says about blossom, a line that became a character’s in my second novel: so sad, they say, so sad it should blow away so soon.

I tell him about the Dionysian frenzy going on up in the Horse Chestnut — it’s spring, he tells me, they’re all at it. Alright dad, I say, just breathe. As though breath is a choice. Miranda, he says, this is not one of those yoga classes.

He’d called that evening and I told him about the chat we had. Is that right? He manages and there’s something almost like a laugh when he hears what I had him say about the yoga. But there’s a scratchy overlay bridging faintly grasped words, each sounding suffocated behind the oxygen mask that’s making his speech possible at all. A coughing fit cuts him off. That’s enough now, he says —

Only I wanted to tell him that cherry is better, tell him that Matt and I will learn Hebrew, say that the field was studded with crows —

The crows, did I tell you, I’d have said, they’ve already taken over the football pitch.

On the trees by the lake they take a branch each, standing sentry, waiting. And we’re waiting too. Seconds stretch with just this line on repeat in my head: not yet, please not yet — I’m not ready for you to die.

It was only a couple of weeks before that the park looked as though it had been set up for a photo shoot: toddlers pointing out a goose’s white behind, swans putting on a show for the party of six leaning over the bridge, a group of teens gathered round a stereo. Picnickers squeezing round tables. Any other Sunday. Except it was a Tuesday and I got back to the drilling and the banging which has been the soundtrack to my weekdays since I moved to Silverthorne. Stopped for two months and the moment it cracked on it seemed impossible it could every have gone quiet. The tables remain cordoned off though, like a crime scene. A sign hangs on the fencing round the barbeque area says Temporarily Suspended. Doubling up on the non-committal. London left pending.

There’s no cure, we were told. It just depends on how his system responds. Soon as I put the phone down I recall a coolly authoritative voice: in Spain they’re turning the ventilators off if you’re over sixty-five.

I wanted to speak to him again but hearing the short tight breaths meant I had to swallow back the fear caught in my chest and keep my tears quiet. His oxygen levels weren’t improving. His lungs were more infected than they’d thought. Two litres of oxygen became four litres of oxygen became six litres of oxygen. One mask replaced with another until they resorted to the cepak which forces oxygen into the lungs. I could hear my brother’s calm, gentle voice saying to dad we were right there with him. Curling up, I had to hold the phone at arm’s length, waiting until I could steady my voice enough to say, yes right there with you, shamed that I couldn’t bear his suffering.

When he called 999 he wasn’t sure it was necessary. Thirteen days in meant he must have been one of the lucky ones. He’d throw it off. A cough, a fever. A mild case. When he got through to 999 the first time he reported that they weren’t too impressed and told him to call 111. The automated message on 111 says to call 999 if you think it’s life threatening. He tried to make a joke out of the fact he’d already tried that and they said — but he couldn’t. For once it had got beyond even our capacity for gallows humour — the one thing that’s always pulled us through. Or maybe it’s why we didn’t always get through. Laughter in the dark rather than switching the damn light on and looking at the mess we were in.

Four days after he’s admitted No Caller ID flashes on my phone and I skid back to the moment when the nurse called me to get to the hospital for mum — and now I’m blurring because I can’t remember if she told me mum had died or to get there as soon as possible — but I think she told me she tried to call me but there was no answer. The only sensation or thought that cut through the numbness the week after her funeral was just don’t let dad die, don’t let Matt die.

***

I’m Dr Charles Raine, I’m looking after your dad

Looking after — present tense, okay —

Yes?

He’s apologetic that no one has called and runs through the numbers that I shouldn’t understand but am all too fluent in. Break and mend a thousand times a day. The fact that none of us is getting out of this alive doesn’t help. People are always there — until they’re not. What does it mean to be eighty-one if there was an interruption that lasted close to thirty years but the clock kept ticking. Matt and I feed each other clichés about hope and strength and couldn’t care less that they’re clichés. He smuggles in bananas and dates via a nurse who agrees to meet him outside at 8.30 and take it up to the ward, slips in a rainbow painted by his daughter. Feels like we’ve got round forbidden contact and made our way up to his bedside. Bananas, dates and a seven-year-old’s rainbow. And then we get a message from dad saying he’d asked a nurse to use the tape from the bananas to stick the rainbow up and for a few hours this has me celebrating the insistence of spring because somehow this will all be okay. Because it has to be. Because I can’t conceive of a world without him in it. Not yet. If I hadn’t lost so many years, if each of the eighty-one years he’s been alive had been his — but I did and they weren’t and this is where we are now, willing him not to give up and willing ourselves to keep hoping.

***

Later I speak to a friend whose neighbour’s treatment has been terminated. He’s got stage four cancer and was meant to stay with relatives only they decided it was safer to wish him well over the phone and leave a couple of loo rolls on his doorstep. He hasn’t got a daughter and a son caring whether he lives or dies, she says, locating him higher up on the tragic scale. But I can’t plot dad on a graph.

When the symptoms started we thought he was one of the lucky ones — just a mild case. Then it seemed he was one of the lucky ones because he had a bed. Lucky that the choice was between which mask rather than which life. He was put on a ward which had only just been converted, staffed by nurses who had only just been trained and drafted in.

The evening he was admitted my first thought was how Matt and I were just two loved ones and dad just one case — but then my tiny world shrunk further and I couldn’t see past the next breath. Breath by breath, Matt kept saying, like a mantra. We’re meant to take it in turns to crumble, Matt and I, but I felt like he was holding up for both of us. The moments he couldn’t I found myself compensating, reverting to a role immediately familiar the minute I assume it again. But it didn’t hold. At that point nothing did. Delay and contain — it sounds like a form of toddler behavioural management. Pure will without consciousness.

***

Another doctor called on day six. The numbers were reassuring. The curve encouraging. His optimism was cautious though, telling me this virus is unpredictable. That he just didn’t know. But the growing energy in dad’s voice told me more than the numbers and hope started to feel less like something we were forcing ourselves to say than something we felt. You’re missing out on some serious material here, he said, providing extensive detail on the characters in the ward. All three of us laughing then until another coughing fit breaks him off. I hear one of mum’s one-woman shows in my head — hooked up to monitors and a blood transfusion, she’d still manage a series of acid sketches of the surgeon; then me, with a heart rate of twenty-eight, hypothermic finding comedy in A and E — and the laughter should have been a warning. This family habit of driving all the will we have into entertaining when we should be preserving it. But maybe it’s our best effort at preservation. Either way there’s little that’s reassuring about the laughter.

The day before he was discharged he watched the clip of Beethoven’s ninth I’d sent on to him. That was eight weeks ago and even now he wants me to understand how remarkable it is that the orchestra managed to coordinate the symphony remotely. How is it even possible? he asks. He describes it to me as though he’s concerned I didn’t watch it carefully enough. Then he switches mode and checks the way my niece used to want to check I understood a story. Yes, dad, I say, remarkable.

@mirandagold999