For the Want of Dying
This morning, Laurie comes downstairs with his gym bag packed. I suspect he’s had it ready for some time.
‘Can’t take the dramatics,’ he says. Words lifted from the daytime soaps he watched at home rather than sit with me in the hospital. ‘It’s hard enough as it is.’
‘No kidding,’ I say. Perhaps he thinks this is another soap and he’s playing his part.
To be fair, I know he’s been staying at his mum’s off and on for a while. He pulls a couple of puckered y-fronts from the drier and lifts his still dirty Kings of Wrath and Black Sabbath tour tees from the mounting laundry basket. The crones, his mum and mine, have camped out in our house for three days and even though I lost it big time, they couldn’t be arsed to flick a duster or do a bit of laundry for me. Too busy preening their own grief.
‘I stayed until it was over, I figured you needed, deserved that much.’
God, he always was a fricking cliché. His big bloody mournful eyes, wet and black and deep in the pale moon of his face, the same ones I’d fallen for, can’t look at me. Thick bastard. It is now, now I need him.
The days, I endure. I have no choice. I am not brave enough to do otherwise. I go to one useless doctor’s appointment after another. Julie, our family doctor offers me a counselling referral. I accept for form’s sake. The appointment arrived in the post yesterday. It’s in eight months. Thanks. That’ll help. Meantime more wine, more sleeping tablets – stronger, better, less addictive Julie tells me. Like I’m worried about addiction? I wish, oh how I wish for something to rewire my brain and burn the memories and replace the addictions I already have – the flesh of my flesh tunnelling in my veins and flaying the chambers of my heart.
Day after day, I scour the house even though no one really lives here anymore. No one to raise fury in the dust motes, trail dirt from the park across terracotta tiles of the kitchen floor or leave smudgy finger-marks on the eau-de-nil walls. Why did I ever think I had to have eau-bloody-de-nil walls? Everyone but me has gone. And most days, I think I too am gone. My existence, my weight in this world is nothing more than the shed skin of a long-gone snake. Still I scrub and bleach and scrape to expunge all the desperate traces I love so much. My nails shred, my cuticles bleed and the skin of my arms burns from the chlorine.
I shop for the few supplies I need to keep going: coffee, milk, bread, cheese, cigarettes; Clorox, Jif, Ajax, Brillo, Flash, Bang, Shout, Vanish. Vanish. I wish. Boxes of wine give way to cut-price whiskey and dodgy vodkas (more kick for your money and not so heavy to carry).
Sometimes I sit at a cafe, one flat white buying me a couple of hours of watching. And as the world goes by I wonder, how is it possible? All those people, all those lives, how do they not see the great gaping hole in me?
After Reuben died, I’d like to say I died too. Because that’s what people say, isn’t it? Because those that love the most, if not always best, they die too. Except I’m not that lucky. I’ve come to life, painfully, acutely. More alive than when I had him, more tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling than even before I had him in that sleepwalking pre-baby, pre-love, pre-, pre- … pre-everything. And it hurts.
Without Laurie’s skinny limbs to cling to in the well of the night, or his distracted ear to suck up my regrets, without his fleeting penetrations to help me forget if only for a few minutes, I roam the house, but it is empty. I am a tick trapped inside a sealed drum, buffeted by reverberations of loss.
Television fills the evenings. I don’t know what I watch. Cooking shows, quiz shows, crappy talent shows. Caged in the house, my flesh and heart can no longer carry the hollowness of the dark hours, so I wait for the real night. The black, post-bedtime hours. The dead hours which are not dead.
I begin to walk the nights.
I walk with the anonymous; the head-down people coming from or going to their shitty-hours jobs, the sleepers and snorers dulled by booze and drugs and cold, sheltering under coats and cardboard, those with nowhere to go or like me somewhere to go but don’t want to, those just lost in the night, and the out-of-their-heads girls stumbling, shoes in hand, mascara smeared, giggling and crying going who-gives-a-fuck where? And always on their periphery, the narrow-eyed men, waiting for the right opportunity, the wrong woman left behind in the wrong shadows at the right time. I offer myself up. I take the smallest alleys, the meanest roads, the darkest lanes but I am not appetising enough. Christ how I wish I was.
I want violence, I want the hammer of another body – hands, feet or cock – I don’t care, to tell me I am worth destroying. But no one is interested. I cannot shake the abandonment echoing at my heels.
To fill the awful achy silences, the sense of being nothing more than a paper cut-out sweeping through the soughing nights, I begin to describe the world, concocting tales about the faces and shadows for a boy, so small, so precious, so once in a lifetime who had the flesh eaten from his bones, his belly blown up like a crass birthday balloon and the light dulled in his acquiescent eyes before he could discover this life for himself.
Sleep cedes to the night. I get by with uncomfortable snatches of oblivion curled in the television chair we once shared to watch Thomas the Tank or bolt upright in my bed, empty now of Laurie and Rueben, my unwashed hair saturating the headboard with grease and despair.
Two, three hours, four if I’m lucky, enough to keep me going. I am greedy for my son’s company. I was right to cling to the medical maybes, the therapeutic box of tricks and radical-but-hopeful regimes down to the last bite of my cuticles. I never gave up hope, no matter how many times the doctors sat across the desk or stood over Reuben’s bed with their hokey soap opera faces and insincerity, spelling it out for me. No matter how often the busy nurses in the wards eked out a few of their precious oversubscribed minutes to bring me a cup of something hot, to hold my hand, to stroke my skin, and say prepare yourself Lucy, I never gave up hope. Never.
Now night after night, I imagine his small voice whispering in my ear, tell me, tell me, tell me, Mummy. Night after night, I make up nonsense rhymes and happy-ever-after stories about those who haunt the streets – the druggies, the homeless, the runaways, the drunks, the all-night cashiers in 24/7 shops and petrol stations because the truth of these lost souls is too depressing for one so small, so untainted.
And when I put on funny voices or make dozy faces to turn the human rags and tatters into fantastical objects of amusement, the palm of my left hand itches in anticipation of the longed-for ripples of laughter in his emaciated body. His giggles drown out the kerbside pleas for money and mercy and the price of a cup of coffee. My skin swoons with the figment of his shivers when I sing We’re going on a bear hunt, and it is his warm tears filling the hollow of my neck when I cry.
I bury the memory that, tiny as he was, Reuben knew. His dull eyes knew. They grew bigger each day with the knowledge. They filled his face as he took the pain and lies for me until they diminished under the burden of taking my load. I should have let him go earlier. I should have ended his suffering. Me. My hands. My hands which should have warded off his pain weren’t brave or unselfish enough.
As an act of contrition, I become his conduit, between knowing and unknowing, between life and death. And because I keep him here, anchored, alive, feeling, smelling, tasting, the pain of my living lessens.
Night after night, we walk from one end of the town to the other. Despite the surgery and radiation and chemo, he is too heavy to carry far and long, so I drag his buggy out from under the stairs. It brings unwelcome attention at two in the morning, but the dispossessed and the cops soon learn to leave me be.
We find an uneasy familiarity with the sounds, scents, and lights until the people and paths we follow take on a patina of expectation laced with adventure and fun. My darling boy is the best company. We become the night. We belong.
I am his cipher – nothing and everything – I show him the world. I hear the night creatures, human and other, their moans and territorial squabbles. He hears them too. I smell their incontinence, their sour breaths laced with beer, and the stink of garbage cans filled with stale curries and fresh vomit saturate our nostrils. We both gag.
At the park, his weight warms my lap as we ride the swing higher and higher while junkies look on and lost children get drunk. Sometimes I sing; songs from my youth before Laurie, before cancers, before death. I sing Bowie, Beatles, Doors, even God help me, Abba, and if the kids and druggies join in, we have a mad, mad party.
Around the periphery of the park, near the river, behind the big houses with sweet rose gardens and too many cars parked on brick forecourts, we play a points game to decipher the mysterious and wondrous sounds of the night: the stalk and screech of cats get a single point, lone dog snuffles a measly two, rat rustles take three and the bully-boy skitters of trashcan foxes earn four fabulous points. Best of all, the flap of an owl earns five points, double for the one who spots the swooping silhouette. Reuben always wins. Where before nights were nothing, mere absences, formless, places of quiet and restoration from the ordinary clamour of ordinary living, with my son they become extraordinary living realisations, fluid and fat, tangible and sensate.
On the expanse of the heath we breathe the perfume of mown grass and pungent hedges, startle the Royal deer and look at the stars, vivid in the absence of streetlamps. To my shitty shame, Orion’s belt and Venus are the only ones I can name. We must go to the library. I have so much to learn. I have so much to teach him. We watch the moon wax and wane over the months. Through his eyes seeing it all for the first time, I see the world anew.
Through the shadow-seas, between the street lamps, we race yahooing and hollering pretending the pools of orange sodium are treasure islands or pirate havens. Along the quiet, everyday folk streets of semis and terraces, we speculate on the soft glows of nightlights from bedroom windows (a wee boy like you, babe, afraid of the dark or maybe a granny no longer sure-footed in the dark), the hunched silhouettes in lamp-lit uncurtained rooms (that’s an owlie for sure, he’ll say after I’d told him some folk are just natural night birds), and the blue flickers leaking from the edges of drawn blinds (oldies who can’t sleep I explain, or mums – always mums never dads – with new babies). Together we suss who is afraid of the dark, who is troubled or those just too tired to dream. Reuben calls to lonely dogs barking behind heavy drapes and locked doors. Occasionally, intimate laughter spills from open windows, or the cry of babes made to wait too long for milk or cuddles. Both make me angry and jealous and anxious, but it is the anger I cannot bear, perhaps because it is anger which is closest to what lives in the locked down deepest part of my heart.
Come back you cunt! The voice cracked the night, rocked us to a standstill. We listened to yelps of pain, worrying by their cut-short nature. I lifted Reuben from his buggy, held him tight.
Why is that lady crying, Mummy? he asked, his sharp fingernails dug into the back of my neck. There now, sweetie, they’re only playing.
Get back here, Lisa or I swear to God…
A crash of broken glass, the wail of a baby. My heart and lungs and guts shrivelled.
Jesus Sam, leave Brandon out of this. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!
After a few minutes the baby stopped. Reuben and I stood grateful for the silence until the hard slam of an interior door was followed by the crunch of a plaster wall having the shit punched out of it.
The baby’s cries again filled the night.
We will not take that road again.
Autumn winds and scimitar-sharp rains masquerading as winter muscle out the lingering summer nights. Rain breeches all defences and Reuben’s translucent skin blooms with bruise-coloured blotches. He looks the way he looked when he…he…after he…
His whimpers eat into my heart. At Asda, I buy a bright red snowsuit and a pale blue fleece patterned with bluebirds. Snug and warm, Reuben begins to sleep on our walks. It’s me who’s cold but I can’t afford a new coat. Extra jumpers help but one night some shit-faced bastard near the bus depot punches me out. The police and a couple of paramedics stand over me when I come to; my wallet and an almost full bottle of Johnny Walker gone. The fucker has also stolen Reuben’s red snowsuit. What kind of animal steals a kid’s snowsuit? That’s when I really lose it. They make me go to the hospital but at least no one calls the Social Services to take Reuben from me.
I learn my lesson.
I give the pills and weed and the last of my booze to the boy under the cardboard by the local curry house. I must take care of Reuben properly. I can’t risk losing him again.
The cold nights have become untenable, but daytime is a whole new world to be discovered. Reuben loves and laughs under the fluorescent buzz of supermarkets and in the bustle of shopping malls.
At the park, Reuben now sees the bright colours and other kids at play, but no mum in her woolly scarf and fur-trimmed puffer jacket shares her kids-where-do-they-get-their-energy smile or huddles next to me to chat. I don’t mind much. It’s enough for me to watch Reuben’s delight in the scurrying clouds racing across the grey skies and if a dribble of sun filtres down he lifts his little face and we both smile.
On the High Street, St Paul’s Anglican church has a board outside welcoming all to their Crèche in the Crypt. That’s what they call it, as if being in an underground burial vault is a bloody great plus in the general scheme of crèches. God and I parted company when the doctors first gave us the diagnosis, Reuben’s death warrant, but the playgroup is free, and it is warmer than the streets. Reuben and I slip in to just sit. The smell of candle wax and the wooden pews smooth and black-grained with human sweat are a bit creepy, but the vicar’s wife who runs the group smiles a lot and plays jaunty hymns and counting songs on the old piano encouraging the kiddies to clap and dance along.
One morning, she wanders over and holds out her hand.
‘Hello. Welcome. My name’s Chris.’
Andrea.’ I’ve loved the name Andrea, ever since I had a crush on a girl at school in high school. Dad always told me I can be whoever I want. For once I can be Andrea. Why the hell not?
‘How old is your little one?’ she asks.
‘He’s three,’ I say.
Chris looks in the pram. She looks at me. Her smile gone.
‘Reuben’s been sick. Really sick. Surgery and chemo. He lost a lot of weight.’ I can’t change Reuben’s name. He could never be anything else. My Reuben. ‘He needs time.’
‘Let me get you a coffee,’ she says. Her smile is pinned back on but wrong, like a skewed tail on the donkey. ‘Milk? Sugar?’
‘Just milk. Thanks.’
‘What about you?’ she asks when she brings the coffee. ‘How are you managing? Do you have a family practitioner?’
‘Oh yes. She’s really good. I see her every couple of weeks, you know?’ I don’t tell her I’ve stopped going. That I no longer need Julie or her pills or her vague promises of other help.
‘That’s good. What about at home?’
I explain about Laurie. She nods and says, ‘You’re having a tough time. I’ll keep you in my prayers.’
She doesn’t press us to join in, but each time we turn up, she hands me a white plastic cup of coffee from the urn and we talk. Well she talks. About God mostly. Pisses me off. Especially when she starts on about love and strength and the burdens we struggle to bear and understand but with God at our backs we will survive.
‘Life will get better, I promise,’ she says. ‘God promises.’
Blah, blah, bloody blah blah.
It’s all I can do not to point to my baby and scream why him? Not to spew her measly coffee in her face, on her God. I just nod and sip and listen. A few fairy tales and hymns are a small price to exchange for warmth, and the craziness of little ones careening around the playmat or building Lego worlds. Reuben likes it. Likes the laughter and the songs. Likes listening at story time. I tell him to join the others sitting cross-legged on the floor, but he shrinks into his buggy and shakes his head.
The other mothers and the sole father keep their distance. Their whispers and sliding looks are obvious but it’s okay. I understand their superstitions. My boy has been ill. It isn’t catching but as a parent you keep your child out of potential harm, that is after all, our purpose. Over the next couple of weeks, while we aren’t exactly friendly, most introduce themselves and sit for a while to chat. None ask about Reuben for which I am grateful but a little sad. I ask about their toddlers all the time. But I like the company, the familiar faces and the soft huddles with Chris. With Reuben to cuddle up to, we both sleep better at night. I feel real and safe and almost normal again.
Then Lisa turns up and Chris gets a new needy best friend. They sit, heads bent, murmuring while Lisa’s baby Brandon crawls with the tiny tots. One morning, Lisa unconsciously worries a circlet of a grown-up Chinese burns on her right wrist. Another morning, she moves in a peculiar way, holding her upper body stiff, a frown etched on her face. It takes me a while, then I remember when Laurie was mugged and left with a couple of cracked ribs. Lisa sits the same way, half hunched as if fearful. She has the same shallow breathing, punctuated every so often with a deeper exploratory breath.
I miss the quiet calm of Chris’s voice. It’s not the same to sit afar and hear her soft murmurs given to another. I had almost begun to believe in her God. That things would get better. That I could do this life. But it turns out she’s another one who walks away.
Two weeks after she arrives, Lisa stands abruptly, kicks through the knot of kids sat singing on the floor and yanks up her son with a roughness no child should suffer.
‘C’mon Brandon, we’re leaving. I’ve had enough sanctimonious la-da-la shit.’ Halfway up the disability ramp, she shouts, ‘Fuck you, and fuck your God.’
November is hard – the dark days, the wind, the cold. The frost lingers unimpressed by bouts of puny sunshine and clouds skitter across the skies, driven by razor-thin winds. The days without rain, I bag up our stale bread and bacon bits and we feed the seagulls down by the fishing boats.
Although Christmas is still way over the horizon, tinsel and cheesy songs fill the shops and malls. After mornings at the church, Reuben wants to be out every day to marvel at the decorations. We walk the supermarket aisles singing along It’s Beginning to Feel A Lot Like Christmas, Silent Night and Little Drummer Boy. By the time the month rolls out, I think if I hear another play of the Chipmunks singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I’ll lose it completely.
And it sure as hell doesn’t feel like Christmas for me. I dread it. I know I won’t be getting anything decent. Mum will buy me her usual, safe underwear or fleecy pyjamas, Gran will recycle her birthday presentation box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray. Nothing from Laurie who disappeared.
What troubles me most though, is what can I buy Reuben? After all he’s been through, after all he’s given me, I want to give him something special. He’s so lonely. I see his little face light up from the side lines as other kiddies dance or sing or play games with a language only they understand. My company is not enough for him, I see that and with the passing weeks I feel his loneliness more and more. He needs confidence. Usually I buy second hand toys from the Heart Foundation charity shop down River Lane but what I really want to buy are the magnetic building blocks, on the display in the Mall, each module well over fifty quid, which stack and cling like magic. When I ask Mum for the money, she starts crying and tells me I’m mad.
‘You need help, love.’
‘I know, Mum. Why do you think I’m asking?’ I slam her door behind me.
I take Reuben on the bus to the dog rescue centre. We sit upstairs in the front seat and sing The Wheels on the Bus, all the way. He loves it. Rueben’s heart and mine get licked to blind adoration by a brindled mongrel, vaguely Alsatian, slightly Husky, found abandoned some weeks back. I ask Martha, a volunteer when can we take him. She gives us a bit of a look over.
‘Hang on,’ she says. ‘I’ll have a word with the vet.’
She comes back and blethers on about home visits, welfare reports, vaccinations and adds that pending approval of all that, a donation, minimum fifty quid, will be expected to help with the rehousing costs.
‘What bloody costs?’ I fume the whole bus ride back to town.
A bloke at the market wants a tenner for a runty puppy but when I tell him it’s for Reuben, he looks in his pram and says, You’re kidding, right? At the cat shelter, a lad takes my details and says he’ll phone tomorrow to arrange a home visit.
When I ring him two days later, he says there are no cats available.
Lo and behold, Laurie calls round early December. Seems he’s done the prodigal son thing and moved back in with his mother. He’s been sent round to ask if I want to spend Christmas day with him and his Mum.
‘Is that your idea or hers?’
‘Hers. Mine. Both.’ His face is the colour of window putty, his eyes red-rimmed and road-mapped. ‘We’re really worried about you,’ he says.
‘No need. We’re fine. I hope you’re going to buy Reuben something nice. I know what he’d really like if you’re interested?’
‘Fuck’s sake, Luce.’ Laurie reaches for me. Pulls me in. Jesus, I’ve missed his arms. ‘I know it’s hard. I miss him too.’
I throw off his hug.
‘Maybe you should go see the doctor. I’ll come with you, if you want.’
‘I’ve seen her a billion bloody times. Maybe you should stop drinking, get a job and pay us some money so we don’t have to live like bloody charity cases.’
He pulls me back and holds me tight. His body quakes with the pain erupting from his throat. That starts me off and before I know it we were on the floor, tearing off our clothes. Between his oh fucks and my oh Christs, for five glorious minutes we are free and happy and untroubled. In love again.
Until he rolls off and says, ‘Oh fuck.’ Not in a good way.
After Laurie’s slinks off, I think, we didn’t use a condom. I stopped taking the pill months ago. But… the idea of a brother for Reuben. Or a sister. A daughter. Fingers crossed. That would be the best present ever. For us both.
The day before Christmas Eve, I get my period. And fucking Lisa, in flip-flops and no coat despite the weather, shows up at the crèche with a swollen lip and a damson eye. Her pilled cardigan and sweat pants reek of cider and vomit. She dumps Brandon with the other kiddies waiting to decorate the tree, and heads for the coffee urn. She trips over a pile of Duplo bricks and slides effing and blinding into a pew, hands over her mouth to stifle the sobs bubbling out. Stupid woman. She’s still with the shit who’s beating her up. I remember her cries and Brandon’s, that night in the summer.
Chris hurries over and shelters Lisa in the sort of embrace I never received and rocks her, stroking her back and holding her hands, soaking up the crying and profanities. Chris’s fingers run over Lisa’s face. As Lisa calms, Chris’s voice drops to an urgent whisper. Lisa nods and shakes her head. Nods again. Chris stands, pulls out her phone, gives Lisa a pat and dials as she walks into the small room off the main part of the crypt where she keeps the hymn books and broken toys.
The other mums, busy helping the toddlers decorate the tree, don’t notice Brandon crawl away between the columns, over the worn memorial plaques and up the push chair ramp by passing the stairs, towards the main doors. The doors which exit onto the busy high street. He reaches the top of the ramp. I look at Lisa slouching, head back, eyes closed in that let-me-get-my-breath sort of way. Brandon crawls under a box pew, caged behind the wooden kneelers. He’s crying. I wait. Until Lisa snores. Jesus Christ. Asleep and drunk. How come Chris’s fucking God is so fucking unfair?
I sling on my coat and wheel the pram up the ramp.
‘Hello wee boy. I’ve missed you.’ His tiny hands are frozen with icy slobber and tears mark his cheeks like snail trails. But his body clings to me with a warmth not forgotten but much missed.
‘Oh, my sweet baby. Let’s go home.’ I tuck him under the bluebird fleece in the buggy and head out into the winter morning bright with Christmas promise.
Shannon Savvas is a New Zealand writer who divides her heart and life between Cyprus, England and New Zealand. Longlisted and shortlisted in various competitions but – Winner of: Reflex Fiction (Winter 2017), Cuirt New Writing Prize (Galway, Ireland) (March 2019), Flash500 flash fiction (Summer 2019). Runner Up: Flash500 Short Story (March 2019), TSS Cambridge Flash Fiction (May 2019).
Published in: Gulf Coast Online and print/online Issue 12 Into the Void, March/April 2019. Published online (Storgy Magazine, Inktears, Reflex Fiction, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed, Headland Journal NZ http://headland.org.nz (Issue 1-2015 & Issue 13-2018 and contributor to Horizons 3, Bath Flash Fiction, Bath Short Story Award, Fish, Reflex Fiction anthologies (2017, 2018).
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.