Elske Rahill

Cords


´╗┐While Diane stands in line she thinks about her feet and the floor beneath them. She tries to keep herself planted steadily on the squeaky lino, to fix herself there, in focus, long enough for the lady to get all the details she needs. The registration booth is beside the pedestrian entrance and there must be a fault with the doors, because they keep snapping open unprompted and sliding slowly closed, admitting the night air every time; a gust of frost to relieve the frowzy vacuum of bleach and instant coffee and tired, unwashed bodies. 

The lady sits behind a yellowed plastic screen that has scratches and smears on it, and a little cluster of round holes for her to talk and hear through. She leans back, twirling a pen between her fingers, pulls her chin into her neck and peers at Diane over small glasses, ‘Right what’s the patient’s name?’ As Diane tries to speak the lady squints, turns her head to the side and pushes her ear closer to the screen: 

‘Sorry you’ll have to speak up. He’s how old?’ 

A blurring feeling is starting in Diane’s hands. She touches the tips of her thumb and forefinger together. She thinks about the border of her body Ð the outline of her hair, the scuffed toe of her trainers Ð the points where she ends and the space around her begins. She has to repeat the things Ð his name, the spelling of their surname... and she stumbles over his date of birth, never very good with remembering numbers. There is a couple standing behind her with a limp, pink-faced child in the father’s arms. Instead of her own words, Diane can hear only the man saying ‘Ridiculous. There’s people here with kids. Ridiculous standing here.’

When the lady is finished with her, Diane turns to go. As she passes the couple, the mother rolls her eyes at her, and the father shakes his head.
It is only then that Diane realises it is she who is ridiculous. It is she who was standing there.

The doctor’s smooth, clean hands are younger than his eyes.
A single frown line cleaves his forehead; ‘You don’t have the name
for what he took?’

‘Sleeping tablets I think, but -’

‘- but you don’t know which ones, and you don’t know what else. Yes?’

Diane nods but she has missed a beat, the response coming too late; a ridiculous nod to no one. The doctor has already turned to her brother. Words come loud and distinct from his sturdy chest: 

‘What did you do here?’ 

When there is no response the doctor leans over him: ‘We are going to clean your stomach okay?’ Her brother closes his eyes and Diane wonders at his eyelids; a metallic mauve sheen on them Ð were they always that colour? And the skin so thin. She remembers a punctured butterfly dropped from the cat’s mouth, the way the wings had dulled to dusty flakes, the ugly rind of its centre, black blister eyes. She wonders at how bodies keep so well intact; how eyelids don’t tear with wear, how all the liquid and heat of insides stay ordered and contained beneath the skin. 

‘What is his name?’ asks the doctor. ‘Kyle’

‘Kyle, we are going to give you a blood test to see how much damage you have done. We are going to put some charcoal into your stomach now to clean it and you will feel sick. Okay? Kyle would you like us to do that? You will feel sick and then you will feel better.’Kyle rolls his head.

‘Say yes Kyle,’ Diane says. She talks loudly, as though speaking on the telephone, trying to communicate over a long distance call with a crackle in the line.

‘He has to accept treatment,’ says the doctor, ‘Otherwise I can’t.’

‘Say yes, Kyle. The doctor has other people to see.’

Sore sounds strain through from far back in his throat: ‘Fuck you,’ then, his lips barely moving, ‘slut.’

He turns his head on its stiff neck, in the doctor’s direction, his voice easing out ‘Yep – he opens his eyes, ‘– I’ll have the black stuff.’

The doctor asks Diane to leave them. She leans to kiss her brother but there is the nausea again, burning up into her throat, so she has to stand up straight and exhale. She goes into the corridor and pulls the curtain behind her. 

 

This is a makeshift ward because the hospital is full up tonight.
There are three other beds in the corridor, separated by sheets of green plastic hung from rails on wheels. Strips of milky light run vertical along the ceiling. There is no traffic outside, only the occasional whine of an ambulance. 

Diane rubs the small of her back and walks up and down and the rhythm of it soothes the urge to vomit. There is a woman in an oversized jacket pacing outside the curtain opposite. She is talking quietly into her phone, hand cupping her mouth. When the call ends Diane makes eye contact.
She needs the lady to smile but her eyes slide away. 

It is the force of the vomit that knocks her down, or the force of suppressing it; a thud from the base of her spine, filling her throat, stopping her breath and she can hear, past the drumming of her pulse, the lady’s irritation, her posh accent ‘do you need a nurse? Here have some water... oh for Jesus’ sake... hello can you fetch me a nurse please for this girl?’ 

When she can speak again Diane says sorry, ‘Sorry. I just need to get sick. I’m a bit pregnant.’ She didn’t mean to say that.

The woman is kneeling beside her. She has kinked hair held up in a scrunchie, and a down-turned mouth. 

‘Put your head between your knees. Will I get a nurse for you?’

‘I’ll go to the toilet. I’ll be fine once I’ve been sick.’

‘Do you want a ginger biscuit?’

‘No no. Thank you.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Eighteen.’

‘You look younger. You with that boy?’

‘My brother. I’m alright now. Thanks.’

‘Well. Congratulations.’

 

The doctor is still there, his hands sheathed in a thin white sheen, holding a bucket to Kyle’s chin. Kyle wretches weakly, and tongues out the last strings of charcoal. 

‘He has done this before?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know why?’

‘I’m going to London. I was supposed to leave today. My granddad’s not well and stuff so, you know... it’s only me and Kyle and my grandma really and he doesn’t think I should go.’

‘He has had help?’

‘He was in Pat’s for six months last year.’

‘Maybe you should call them. Let them know anyway. It would be good, I think. They may have advice for you.’ He peels the gloves off, revealing hands the colour of milky tea, pink nails. The latex fingers hang shrivelled in his grip.

Her brother has collapsed back down on the bed. There is a thick silicone tube coming from one of the machines beside him. It is draped over his face and disappears under the blue blanket. There are other, smaller wires tangled about the sheets and stuck at his wrists.

‘We will get the results in an hour or so,’ says the doctor, ‘you should go home now. You are no use to him here.’

 

There is no chair. After the doctor has left, Diane squats beside the hospital bed, hands gripping the metal frame, cheeks pressed on her arms.

‘I’ll go soÉ Will I go Kyle?’

When he doesn’t reply she stands over him.

‘Answer me. Will I go? Is that okay? I’ve missed the flight now so...
I’ll go home.’ 

‘Fuck you,’ he says.

Her brother’s mouth twists into a wry sneer. She has been a fool. There was no need to panic the way she did. There never is. There is no need for their grandmother’s lips to wash livid, for her old hands to tremble, and her face drop into palms full of breath and tears. Kyle has never been as close to death as he would like. Their mother did it quietly and efficiently and only once; she did not feel the tug of life’s cord, anchoring her here beyond purpose. Kyle is not made the same way. Like Diane, he is compelled to follow each breath with another; like her he is wired with alarms and trip switches and can never make the leap to meet their mother where she left them. Diane is the only one who knows it. She can see how shallow his wrist scars are, and in the wrong direction. 

‘Do you have any money?’ says Diane, ‘I left everything at home.’

Kyle closes his eyes. 

‘Kyle answer me. Do you have a phone?

Her cousin Ailbhe will be on her way to the airport to pick her up already. She will watch everyone filing in from the Dublin flight and when there is no one left she will think Diane has backed out of the abortion, remembering the placards of dead babies they saw that time on Grafton Street; mangled corpses with putty limbs. There was one she would remember often; a human shape with a red pit for a mouth, belly purple and veined and a jelly tube winding out into a meaty blossom. It was a woman her Grandma’s age who held that picture, mouth closed, cheeks puckered as though dissolving holy wafer, one hand gripping a splintered stick while rosary beads worked like ants through the fingers of the other.

‘It’s not what they made us think,’ said Ailbhe, ‘It’s fine Diane.
It’s really fine. It’s like a heavy period Ð not even. And the ladies are so nice. They understand...’

Kyle’s hand twitches. The tube that was across his face has caught in his mouth and he opens and closes his lips slowly, trying to make them meet. He frowns through the drowse and his taut cheeks crinkle, as though
he might cry. Diane leaves him struggling weakly. 

She can feel how blank her face is. She puts her hand to her belly;
a hard swell like something inflamed. With the same dumb compulsion that makes her brother breathe in and out, makes his heart suck and spew; somewhere in the dark of her insides, her body is throbbing
at a little capsule of fluid and tissue, bringing it blood and protein
and whatever else is keeping it growing. If she stays here, her body will keep chugging steadily along its track until it has filled another being into life, and the thought of that secret mutiny, tucked away with something like pleasure in her womb, makes a laugh bubble up into her throat, but then no sound comes. 

Her brother puffs, indignant at this small discomfort. She watches him snorting, his head swaying slowly, hand lying still now under the glare of small wires thatched with the miraculous intimacy of veins over the wool blanket. He is unable to identify the thing that is bothering him and his head rocks from side to side with increasing distress. She stands over him and checks herself for any sympathy. Nothing. Only the backache, the weary ankles. Then she moves the drip away from his mouth. 

The gesture takes effort.

Diane rests by the bed on her haunches, her head on her arms and the bars of the bed cold in her grip. She has missed it now; the kindness of an adult woman with a dainty voice, the gentle efficiency of painkillers like her cousin described; one tablet each end and a nice room to wait in while it happens. Ailbhe paid for the flight and booked the appointment. She might refuse to pay for another one. She wants Diane to stay in London. ‘Granddad wouldn’t want you to throw your life away now,’ she said ‘We’ll find you a job. Don’t stay in Dublin for Granddad.
It’s not what he’d want.’ But there was the time Granddad talked about the British throwing their half-baked children into buckets, there was the lady at the crisis pregnancy centre, whose voice sounded so wobbly with hurt. She said that if her granny threw her out they’d sort something out Ð she could stay in a special house on Pearse Street until the baby was six months old. 

Grandma wouldn’t throw her out. She would just heave more burden onto her shrinking frame, the same way she had carried Diane and Kyle even after her hips were too old to be resting children on them and her lungs too wet with grief. ‘Don’t do something you won’t be able to live with,’ said the lady on the help line, ‘Not unless you are one hundred percent sure...’ A silly thing to say; when time is moving only towards one outcome. Every moment she is becoming more pregnant.
She can already feel it washing in; a current steady and mesmerising and powerful as the sea. She knows how easily it could loosen her grip on herself; the relief of surrender, the way it could wash through her and take her with it into a world of its own making.

Her brother makes a spluttering sound and Diane pulls herself up on heavy legs. His face is expressionless. It’s his eye sockets and his lips, when they’re sapped of everything like that and the skin eerily bright. That’s what’s reminding her of granddad. 

For years their grandfather has been hooked up to machines the way Kyle is now, his legs shrinking from disuse into the skinny pegs of a boy.
He can’t eat so they have unstopped his belly button and pegged a tube to it, pumping food into him all day long. Every few hours a nurse comes in and pours grey liquid into a bag that hangs from a hook at the top of a three-legged metal bar. The liquid sloshes into the plastic and it heaves about like an old cow’s udder. For two years all he has tasted is his own mouth. The gums must be hollow where the teeth used to be.
If he ever puts his tongue in them he will feel little caves of scarred flesh; little hollows of stone-hard blood.

When Kyle was little Grandma sometimes wondered quietly who his father was, because of the alien cut of him, all cheekbones and warm skin and the large blank eyes, and because he was so tall compared to the rest of the family. Granddad didn’t let her talk like that Ð it was only alone with Diane that Grandma said, ‘You know I wonder, sometimes... was it that boy with the tattoos...’ as though there might be clues written on his father’s biceps to could help them with the riddle of Kyle.
But now, his lips stiff and drooling, his body limp, surrounded by metal and flashing lights, Kyle looks like their grandfather. It’s the shape of the bones with the skin scraped back, the muscles lax, the terrible mixture of submission and concentration along the crinkle of the brows and, pumping him alive, the ugly cord like the broken umbilical twist on that holy lady’s placard on Grafton Street. 

Because of the stroke he couldn’t move at all for months.
Then he learned to control his left hand, lifting his puffed fingers slowly, one by one, like a heavy fan. These days he can hold them up for a moment, pointing his forefinger, poised as though about to land one of his reassuring philosophical points, opening his mouth, taking a breath, gagging to speak. Then he looks disappointed, and sighs, and his hand drops. In the jaundice of his eyes death makes its undignified appeal.

Whatever Diane should feel for her grandfather has dissolved now into an abstraction of love; a duty. But her Grandma is in love still.
She spends her days sitting, massaging his arms, talking. Every morning he is dressed in a crisp white shirt that she has washed and ironed.
Every evening he wears matching cotton pyjamas. She irons those too. At the end of her visits she packs his soiled clothes into a pillow case, plucks out the dead flowers from the vase, and puts his favourite album on repeat.

 

Diane waits until day, crouched outside the curtain, rubbing her ankles. The morning light washes in through the plate glass like a hospice watercolour; weak pink and pastel purple. 

The woman comes out from behind one of the curtains, still wrapped in the large grey sports jacket. It reaches her knees and is folded over itself at the front, pinned to her body by tightly crossed arms. Her face is stern, her lips straight. Tiny red veins cover her face like filigree.
She nods at Diane’s belly.

‘When are you due?’

‘Oh. No. I’m only thirteen weeks...’

‘That’s my son in there. He took an overdose.’

‘Oh. Same. My brother.’

‘It’s the third time. ’

‘Fifth time,’ says Diane, ‘He never takes enoughÉ’

‘I remember being pregnant,’ she says, ‘you getting lots of kicks now?’

‘I don’t know. I think sometimes, maybe. Maybe I am imagining it.’

‘Enjoy it. You never forget your first pregnancy. I’ll never forget the first flutter. They’re so tiny aren’t they? They sort of tumble in your tummy.
I remember thinking it was like having a little fairy fluttering around in there.’

‘I saw the scan and it was curled up, scratching its head. The doctor said it was only that big.’

Diane shows her how big, making a two inch gap between thumb and forefinger. 

‘I don’t love him,’ says the mother.

‘Your son?’ 

The lady nods; ‘Isn’t that terrible?

‘Yeah.’

‘I did though. Just not now.’

‘That’s okay,’ says Diane.

‘You don’t have to stay here. You should go home,’ she says, ‘It’s not good for your baby.’

‘Oh. No, well. I left my purse and phone at home. I panicked. I didn’t want my granny to wake up. The ambulance men were really nice. They kept the sirens off and everything. My granny is asleep. She’ll be up at seven.
I’ll find a phone and she’ll come and get me when she’s up.

‘Oh. My phone has died,’ says the lady, ‘or you could use that.’ She roots in the pockets of the big jacket. Diane can hear keys and hard things bumping each other, and bits of paper crackling. The lady produces a fifty euro note, and folds it in half over one finger, as though this might make the gesture more discreet. She passes it to Diane silently, at hip level, and disappears behind the green plastic curtain. Diane can hear a chair squeak, and wet sighs as she shifts about.

Diane crouches on her heels and closes her eyes. She cannot go back behind the curtain to where her brother’s face pulls her blood to watered milk.

There is a rustle as the mother opens a packet of something; crisps or crackers, Diane thinks, or ginger biscuits. 

With her knuckles squished into her eyes, Diane sees yellow splotches and the veins in her eyelids like red tubes winding into dancing shapes.
She sees papery wings with bright holes like stars, and the crimson shadows of a fairy child tumbling about the pink glow of somebody’s heart. She sees her grandfather lift his finger and open his mouth, the big breath in and the toothless cavern, tongue heavy like a grey oyster: her grandfather about to make his last point.