If this is heaven it’s very disappointing, I’ve the exact same painting and clock. Another not dead day, this one sunny. That’s something.
I hear pottering and smell soup.
Mary the nurse appears from nowhere.
“There are pears on the trees in the garden,” she says, shouting in my ear. She pulls up the sash window as though I’m expected to climb out.
“I’m no longer in the business of climbing trees,” I say, but my voice has got weak and she says nothing. She has a look that says ‘woman, there’s no part of you that I haven’t washed with a cloth.’ You can’t empty your bowels without me,’ if I’m giving her jip. Now that’s an operation I dread. I’ve nearly to get written permission from the Hospice. Other people decide when I do my business. I need two people at least to get the motion passed.
Oh, I’m my own entertainment here.
I close my eyes, for a bit of peace. She talks through every small movement of her morning. Thursday, she fills the holy water font at the door. She keeps the bottle, greening, at the bottom of the press by the stairs. The bump of the bolt, the squeak of the hinge, the door pulled over the carpet.
She’s back in the room now like a woman looking for a job.
“What’s wrong with you, Mary?”
She pauses. “Nothing,” she says, “Your visitors will be here soon.”
“Tell her she’s a week early, I’m not dead.”
“Ah now, isn’t it nice to have visitors?”
Visitors. When I was young and used to wander into a neighbour’s house and stay as long as I wanted, I might play a while on their swing, then head home. I wander in and out like that now, Michael, it’s a great relief to me.
At least ‘til it’s night, and I’ve no more sleep left. Every whole night I’m awake. Light from the street finds every small gap in the curtains. Orangey light means night and I wait for the youngsters outside to move on, bursts of big laughs, ‘til I think they’re at the end of my bed. They might come in at night through a window, ‘though Mary checks each night they are locked. Cars going somewhere all night, their lights flicking up the wall. I close my eyes and the past comes back, like films we used to go to over and over again.
Here she comes, to check the heater isn’t too close to the bed. She thinks the heater walks when I’m asleep.
When I press the morphine pump, my pain eases but then I nod off like I’m drunk. Everyone should have one. Mary anyway.
She smoothes my covers as I am pulled towards sleep. A visitor, she says. I will rouse myself if this visitor is worth it.
Outside a red-bricked house near several good schools, in an area well outside their budget, a young woman pulls up in a mid-range car with a plant in the rear footwell and a man in front of it. Holding the plant, she rings the bell, her man behind her. The nurse lets them in, along with a cat, and they present an orchid in clear plastic wrap, the price label nearly removed. The nurse holds it like a bed pan and darts off. When the door to the kitchen opens, a South facing garden throws light on the hallway. Between the ceiling rose and cornicing, the paint is faded, below it, the wallpaper peeling. In the kitchen, an AGA and mustard coloured cabinets below the sink. The man knocks off a plant with his foot and the woman shakes her face at him. The nurse brings them into a front room with a bay window, a marble fireplace with a carriage clock, over it a painting -a bit of sea, a bit of land, a bit of sky. In the corner of the room sits an armchair with wooden armrests, but taking up most of the room is a hospital bed. The air smells strongly of talcum powder. The nurse fusses with seats, and a small round table is pulled out for tea. An elderly woman lies in bed like a corpse. Though her eyes are closed, her sunken mouth twitches.
I wake to the sound of voices. The doorbell rang. I may have slept. The room is warm and I am pulled from my dream by a woman’s voice filling the hall and the heavy step of a man. They come bearing gifts, these strangers. From her mother, she says, the plant. I wonder what they are doing here. I have not met this pair before. I am not so far gone that I wouldn’t know-my grandniece, no less. Come sniffing.
The voices warm and darken my door as they enter the living room. A ridiculous name for the state I am in. My bed will remain here; it’s a Bedroom. They are looking at me, I can sense it, their voices tight and polite as though they are proud to be meeting a corpse. I feel a strong desire towards mischief at moments like this. I may moan loudly and then stop, just to hear Mary flap about, trying to settle things. An early little haunting. The two seem young and he leaves all the chitchat to her. She will have words with him when they leave. Not from Dublin, but here a long time by the sound of things. Breda’s granddaughter, she says, no less. I’d never have guessed. A grandniece. I remember dragging Breda to school by the arm, my shins bruised from the kicking.
The conversation of course is tedious. Working in Dublin, home the odd weekend, met this young fella and planning to settle down, buy a house when they can get the deposit together. This grandniece can fairly gabble, but her fella says nothing. Men, no longer men. He lost his nerve there earlier after knocking the flower pot. That’s it, get them tea and a proper seat. I don’t want them sitting on my feet.
What Mary doesn’t tell pure strangers, relation or no relation, I’ll never understand. If she doesn’t get the tea quick, she’ll be telling them what I had for my breakfast. Oh he’s hen-pecked by the sound of him, admiring the house, like a duchess. I’m curious now. I may have to chance a peep. His missus is throwing him a look.
“She mainly uses the downstairs now,” Mary says.
“How many rooms are there?”
How many rooms are there? Listen to yer man. Two feet right in. Where did she find him?
“Gosh, I don’t know-”
“How is she getting on, Mary? I’d hate to think of anyone in prolonged pain,” grandniece says.
“We do our best to manage that. She’s not in any pain now.”
“How would you know? Don’t I have to listen to you every day?”
“I imagine she’s not the easiest patient.”
Oh she’s talking her language now alright. Mary fairly laps this up.
She’ll be telling them where I keep the deeds next.
She finally goes to make tea and it goes quiet. A tray is brought in. Then the rattle of tea cups and spoons. They could be glancing at each other plotting to harm me-I should have a knife concealed in my bed-but they start up again, talking over each other.
Mary is kept going entertaining them. She’ll be taking out the photos of the cat next. I’ll have to whip out that gun under my pillow. Oh stop Fidelma, you’ll laugh.
Finally. The silence was killing me. She’s getting them biscuits. I was just about to peep. Go all out Mary. I like these two. Get out the Jaffa Cakes.
What now? The boy’s escaping to the toilet, leaving her on her own with me. Oh Jesus, don’t go now, Mary; she makes me nervous. With her plants and her sudden visits. No one dragged that one to school. A boarder probably, they’re all into that on that side. She sits there still as a chair. It enters my head to sit up and stare at her like a quare hawk, send her running out of the room, back to her Mammy with the spare plants. It would take me a week to sit up straight, but the urge is there all the same, not all these things die at the same time.
She gets up quietly. The heater pings and I smell perfume. The room darkens as she stands blocking light from the window, her nails tampering with the glass. I chance a peep. My eyes are not as they were. A heavy-set girl, tall, well dressed, no curls, like Breda, nothing of her mother. I’m still as a turnip as she works her way round the room. Then it goes quiet.
A dull knock on the wall. I hear rustling beside the bed and can’t move. What is she at there? Mary may not hear me if I shout. My heart starts to flump. The warmth of the bed escapes as this one lifts the the edge of the covers, exposing my ribs. She’s pressing away at the morphine pump. I can feel her jab, getting faster.
“Get away,” I say, my voice weak and slow as though every sound is liquid. I feel myself lift and rise, my feelings empty. There’s no rush on me now. I watch from above as she jabs at the pump. She didn’t learn that in teacher training. No doubt she thinks she will speed me off and doesn’t know it’ll be six long minutes before it works again. Believe me, that’s something I know.
She is seated and decent long before her dozy man returns from the jacks and Mary comes back with the biscuits and her running commentary on the bloody obvious.
“Fidelma used to love afternoon tea,” Mary tells these strangers, as though I’m already gone. She will stay until the end, she tells them. Isn’t she very good? As though the love of God is her only reward. When I peep, future husband is staring at the doorway, clutching his teacup, but Breda’s girl is watching me, smiling, her head tilted. My heart flomps over in my chest and I lie there, quiet, like bread rising. It will soon be night, just me and the orange street light. The night nurse will come, someone different every time.
I will go into the ground in a basket in the burial wood Wexford. A tidy sum will go to the crowd who maintain it. Trees will be planted and grow from my face, my chest underneath like a planter; I’ll feed poppies and bees. There’ll be no headstone, no gravel, no fading plastic wreath.
I hover around the ceiling, drawn towards the light. I scoop myself out through the window and wander off to play on the swing, over and back, over and back, as they slurp their tea, and turn those lovely biscuits into mush.
Image Credit: Egon Schiele “Vier Bäume” (Kastanienallee im Herbst) (1917)
Martina Ryan is a fiction writer and psychiatrist from Dublin. She has been nominated for awards including the Bridport Prize, The Bristol Prize, The Fish Short Story Award, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Short Story Prize and most recently she was shortlisted for the TU Dublin Short Story Prize. Her short stories have been performed on radio and published in The Dublin Review and another is in press in Angle literary magazine. Her medical background has a way of working itself into her fiction and she feels that her fiction is informed by her work as a psychiatrist. She has also used fiction as a form of therapy with patients as part of their treatment plans. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.