*Trigger warning, this story has content that may be unsuitable for those under 18.
*A short-story that I never did get to submit to a Bloomsbury competition. This piece, like everything on LughLana, is protected under Copyright law.
The plasticine ward smelled like oldness and sickness. It inspired that peculiar sense of contempt that one experiences when faced with the reality of human vulnerability. There, in the corner, lies Agnes. She moans at night, cries sometimes, shouts often-she wants someone (presumably) a nurse to hear her, but the nurses have other patients like Paddy and his brother Mick. Agnes howls. Her bed is exactly 14 steps from the bed of John, who I am visiting.
Eventually a nurse will arrive to tend to Agnes, perhaps after having a sweet talk with Paddy and his brother Mick. At that point the sedation of Agnes will begin.
When I leave again (at night) Agnes will howl, and whine like a wolf-cub. Like an injured animal. It strikes me that Agnes is an injured animal.
It is at this moment that I come to bear witness to a special kind of human monstrosity. I realise that I would do anything in my power to stop Agnes. When I am gone, and all the other visitors of all the residents on this long plastic hall are gone, Agnes will begin to scream.
Each resident of this ward, this ward filled with un-natural elements and the stench of human waste, will lie in bed in the dark listening to her screaming. The special kind of monstrosity that I came to witness was a clear, rising image of myself strangling Agnes. Myself kindly giving her a euthanasia pill, while stroking her greasy, grey balding hair. Myself rushing in to stab her, and then myself. Her screaming, whining, moaning, her animal reactions gone. Peace would return. John would be able to – if not sleep, then rest in peace. That’s what will happen in three weeks by the way, none of us know it yet, but right where I place my hand to steady him and myself as I give him his ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ kiss, a tumour grows. At this point, we still think it’s an issue in salt-levels.
It’s difficult not to imagine John’s tumor with a sickly pale, wrinkled and ravished face. Its expressions full of devilish horror would be carved in relief, with pink swathes not unlike the blood that it contaminates. Its eyes would be gleeful, it’s tearing down a giant and it knows it.
Sometimes I wonder had I had the power to heal him, would I? I walked down that green plastic ward, with it’s locked wooden doors and fish-eyed nurses and I wondered if John screamed like Agnes, would I think of placing a pillow over his sleeping face? Would my actions run parallel to memories of him giving me fresh sweet-peas from a rain-soaked garden, on a cold but sunshine filled summers day? Would I, in that moment, remember the scent of freshly baked fruit soda bread that he would bring home from work, still warm from the bakery? Would I remember his laughing smile, his slight awkwardness in the kitchen with everything but the frying of fish? In that moment, in wanting it to stop-
Agnes has began moaning again. I see John’s face flicker. It reminds him, I think, of Ann’s bad days. I hear the rumble of Agnes’ sons’ voices. They try to calm her even knowing she’s in a place far from them.
It’s time for me to go. I touch the back of his head to give him his goodbye kiss, the tumour growing rapidly below my lips. I leave him to die a little more in peace.
I walk down the pink corridors of the main hospital, slip through the steel doors of an elevator. My mother is there, I don’t want her to be. I want to be blissfully unaware, blissfully alone. I want it to stop-the pain, Agnes, John. Pain lives in this plastic waste guarded by dead-eyed angels who ignore the screams of the dying in the night. But right now, even though I want it to stop, I don’t know he’s dying. I leave him, on the 26th night before his death, which will occur in the early hours of August 14th, to die a little more. Listening to the screams of people he doesn’t know. He lies awake in his hospital grade bed, with chipped white paint, and stuffy pillows, listening to Agnes screaming, as I dream fitfully of decaying food.
I found out, later, that it was completely natural to want the pain to stop with any means possible. As I walked out of the hospital that day, the fresh wind hit my face. It carried with it traces of engine oil, coffee, rose perfume and cigarette smoke.
“Fuck,” I said, as I walked away. Quickly tapping out a text to a stranger – I don’t remember what it said. Probably, it was something to do with reminding me that I was still alive, even if everything was crumbling – including my favourite person on earth.
I rocked myself on the way home in the car.
Dialogue, she says. I’ve never been good at dialogue. I talk plenty, of nothing and nothingness. Dialogue, she says. I’ve never been good at dialogue.
I wander down a busy street, gruffly and unconsciously scowling at the fast-moving busy drifters that knock into my shuffling form. I’m thinking ‘I’ve never been good at dialogue’. The editor’s ‘gentle feedback’ has left me reeling. The tarmac of the footpath is cold, barely discernible rises in the path trip my feet. My shoes always end up scuffed. I haven’t been here yet but I know it will happen. I know that just around the corner, on Grafton street, huddled into a hidden alcove I’ll meet a homeless man. He’ll look like all the other homeless men. He’ll have on a cap, and fingerless gloves in the hopes that he can catch some change or food. He’ll be wearing a navy bomber jacket, a jumper or flannel shirt will peep through under a rotting scarf held loosely around his neck. Though there’s frost in the air, it makes no difference to this guy, he knows a worse night’s ahead.
I stop, a cursing woman bangs into me, I have no patience for her laser stare. My dark expression warns her off, and then she’s gone. Another busily shuffling drifter. For some reason the taste of blackberries flashes across my tongue. Blackberries. Blackberries. A vision of a golden haired, blue eyed child briefly appears and disappears, replaced by her own self over and over.
I need to sit down. I need to not think. I need to forget.
We know John has cancer now, and I don’t know how to put one step in front of the other, when he won’t be there to guide them soon.
Hughie, the homeless man, nestled into the doorstep of this hidden alcove is rudely awakened by my tripping feet tripping over him.
In my surprise, I forgot all that needed to be forgotten-blackberries and the blue-eyed child.
I sit beside Hughie. We watch a group of nuns and a friar walk past.
“That’s the problem” says Hughie.
I look at his weathered face and agree, the Church has ruined this country.
“Aye Hughie, it’s a disgrace watching them walk as if they still own the place” I say this as I stare into the drifters who come to life to scowl at this religious ensemble.
For a moment Hughie is silent. He taps a fag down, the ashes scatter on to the ground at my feet. One sticks to the scuffed part of my shoe. Just before he speaks I notice the world in shades of grey, silver, brown and blue.
“Tis not that child, the disrespect to the church now these days, that’s what’s disgraceful. Sure if there’s no God girl, man has only himself to worship. If man have only himself to worship, sure what good is a life of plenty if you’re always trying to catch up to the next bugger?”
“Hughie” says I “What they did is awful, they ruined the place with their hatred and their bigotry”
“And d’ya think the bigotry and hatred would’ve been any diff’rent now without the church? Had we had our grand visions of the Fianna’s Ireland, d’ya think it would’ve been any diff’rent at all girl?”
I react instantly, I shout at him, I say no. Hughie, I say, you’re wrong. I expect him to shout back. He only smiles.
“Lookit, ye wee wagon, I know better n’ most what that bloody church has done to this country. But you don’t be stupid now and go with the crowd and blame it all on them. Those wee babees they kilt, and buried with no more sign than a cross without spirit, were known to their families and their families threw ‘em to those vicious dogs. Those families wanted power girl, status girl-tis a woeful thing to be fair, but at least then they looked at the world and they saw a marvel of nature, a wonder of God.”
I breathe heavily as Hughie’s words begin to filter through, he knows they are too, he has a sparkle in his eye. I begin to feel suspicious of this speech, he’s said it before I think.
“Now, when men look at the world, sure all they see is something to be owned, to be conquered”
“Ara Hughie come on, men have always thought that way!” I slump down beside him as his tarry, cigarette stained fingers continue to impress his body in the words of this conversation.
“You’re right girl, men have always thought that way about women, and our fair Earth is a woman no doubt. But t’was women who ran the laundries, too, girl, and twas mothers, too, who sent their daughters to godforsaken places with godless people.”
“Twas fathers who beat them and named them whores!” I shoot back.
“Twas an awful of those fathers who felt a priests hand where it should not be” Hughie takes a drag, he watches the flower stall across the way, and the tough, hefty bulldog like man who runs it. Despite his gruff demeanor, his bomber jacket and deeply lined face, the flower-man veritably caresses his peonies imported from greenhouses in Amsterdam, probably. I think about what Hughie’s said.
This time he shuffles off, mumbling and cackling. I think I need to go back to the hospital. I think I need to watch my own footsteps, now.
“Do you believe in God?” I want to ask. I’m in the hospital. The sun is setting.
I just watch him. John lays in his bed, lightly snoring. The light comes in from the window to his left. I can’t see the sky properly, or the fields. I wonder how much he misses them, it’s been six-weeks now.
John had told me once that being in a boat on the still water at midnight, when the stars and the moon were out, was like nothing else.
I had a room upstairs in his house. I used to watch the rhythm of black water in a dark night, framed by trees and stars. I wondered, if he was dreaming right now, was he there, was he home? I wanted to ask about God and men, and glean all sorts of wisdom. But I realised, then, that he had already given it to me in the shape of blackberry pies, dark waters, and sweet-peas in summer.
He woke up, glanced at me, and asked if my uncle had been to bring him fish and chips yet.
“Not yet Grandad, he’ll be here soon.”