I wrote ‘Going Home’ a couple of years ago. It was awarded Highly Commended by the CJ Dennis Literary Award 2010.
I don’t like it here. I’m on display, wheeled out to amuse. My bed has wheels. I sit here with my fellow patients, inert with eyes glazed over while doctors in white and nurses wearing horrible floral blouses, their thick calves in flat shoes, stoop to pick up the chart at the end of my bed, make a note and move on. I cannot see a window from here, only charts and tubes and drooping flowers in jam jars.
Propped up by many pillows I can see two women in beds opposite mine. One without her teeth, the other without her wits. She thinks she’s given birth and is waiting for a nurse to bring her baby for a feed.
“He’s such a bonny boy.”
And I don’t know whether to feel sorry for her or envy her.
The curtains are drawn around the bed next to me. This one only came in this morning and by the sound of her screams I’d guess she doesn’t want to be here. None of us does, love.
I can’t remember who’s visiting me today. I used to remember everything. I was a woman with a wide net, friends and colleagues, dreams and aspirations. Now look at me, a pile of shrinking flesh in an NHS bed. I’ll never see the man I love in this world again. I’m not sure about the next world, if there is one. It bothers me that there might not be, all that darkness stops my breathing, maybe that’s the point of it. Lights out until eternity, a frightening thought in a Godless world.
Ben was a beautiful man. I’ve seen women with their heads on backwards trying to get a look at him. He didn’t mind that I was plain, except when some girl decided to make a play for him. Ben hated the rudeness, how they would ignore me, elbow me out of the way. All because I wasn’t pretty. It didn’t bother me. I trusted Ben to say the right thing and I knew I was worth ten of them. Beauty and brains, we were, in an unconventional way. That’s not to say I wasn’t without my charms. I had long legs and thick chestnut hair, wore pencil skirts and Blue Grass perfume. Whilst here I lay breathing in the smells of cleaning fluids, over cooked vegetables and the nurses sweat.
The new woman isn’t making any friends, she’s still screaming. Her name is Mrs Richardson. I heard the doctor trying to reason with her.
“Come now, Mrs Richardson. We’re not the enemy.”
No, they’re not the enemy. The enemy doesn’t have arms and legs and pens in its top pocket. The enemy is shapeless and dark and spreads like a stain.
Ten o’clock, visiting time, she’s always on time and wearing a dress two sizes too small.
“Hello, Mum.” She leans forward and kisses me. Gawd, look at her. No one should have a daughter as old as her.
“Hello, Kay. How was the bus trip?”
She gives me a funny look, doesn’t think I saw it but there’s nothing wrong with my eyes.
“I drove, Mum. I haven’t been on a bus since 1972.”
“Of course not. Breeding ground for germs, buses.”
“I see you’ve got a new one.”
“Yes, a screamer this one. I’m not supposed to get stressed but it’s impossible. I haven’t seen her yet, I don’t know if she’s our sort.”
“You don’t know what it’s like here. Her with no teeth…”
“You mean Lillian.” Kay likes to keep up with their names.
“Yes, Lillian, I know what she’s called. Her husband comes in wearing overalls, stinking of oil. Not a tooth between them, they share a packet of digestives, sucking them until they’re soft enough to eat.”
“Hello, Dorothy. How are we today?”
Irene, the tea lady, puts down a cup of tea on my tray. It’s not Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong. She pats Kay’s hand and smiles weakly, thinks I don’t notice. I may be old but I’m not dancing with madness yet.
I used to go dancing with a girl called Rita, Rita Robson. She could dance, such energy, I couldn’t keep up. I learnt a lot from Rita, not just how to dance. She knew a thing or two that girl. Everyone wore white for their weddings in those days. Rita wore a scarlet, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress. Magnificent and five months pregnant.
“Mum, do you need help with your meal plan?”
Kay homes in holding a strip of paper in her rough hands. Her swollen knuckles are too big for that lovely wedding ring. My hands were the most beautiful part of me. Smooth and even now, still white. I might have done hand modeling if it hadn’t been such an absurd job, advertising coral nail polish or white gold wedding bands. I used my hands for my job anyway, doing the books for Ben’s coach business, Newcombe’s Travel. Not a glamorous job but I had my child too. What blessings they are.
“I’ll have the sea bass with a garden salad.”
“Fish cakes with peas?”
“Where’s my baby. He needs a feed.” The woman opposite is agitated. A nurse murmurs something under her breath. I look at Kay.
“Her name is Mary.”
“The immaculate conception?” I suggest.
Kay laughs discreetly, she does discreet very well. An overrated sentiment, indiscretion is more fun.
“How’s Emma getting on?”
My granddaughter, Kay’s daughter, has recently given birth. How depressing to be a great-grandmother. Are we meant to live for so long? Ben’s mum lived to a hundred and two. I couldn’t imagine another 15 years of getting up in the morning and going to bed, hoping to make it through the night. Ben’s mum outlived him. That’s not natural. But there was nothing natural about Mrs Ellis.
A thin woman with a sharp nose, she could sniff out weakness. I don’t have to tell you that Ben got his looks from his father. I thought of his mother as a receptacle, the instrument used to give birth to my Ben. I wish I’d had the guts to tell her this. Even my mother, and she was a lovely woman, couldn’t stand Mrs Ellis. She would walk into a room and the temperature would drop a degree. A dried up witch, she must have had something on Ben’s father. Why else did he stay with her? He was a nice man, Stan Ellis, would forgive anyone anything. Led a dog’s life though. Sometimes it’s better to forget than forgive.
“Mum. You keep dropping off. I’ll leave you to sleep.”
I do feel drowsy. My eyelids are heavy, my head’s slipping this way and that, a line of drool is collecting in the corner of my mouth. I half-open my eyes to see Kay talking to a nurse, she wipes away a tear. Why is she crying? I must ask her when she comes in next.
The sound of a plastic tray being dumped on my side table wakes me up but for a fragment of a second I reach out for Ben. He’s not there of course but I rarely wake these days without feeling his presence.
“Mmm. Fish cakes, Mrs E.” Irene, she’s a joker. I hoist myself to sitting and re-arrange my pillows.
“Did I miss sherry o’clock?”
“Yes, dear. The Queen popped in for a natter too.”
She’s very efficient for a large woman, swiftly delivering trays, albeit noisily. I stare down at my fishcakes and wonder if there is any fish in them.
` A sadness creeps over me. I am in bed, the most intimate place a person can be and I am surrounded by strangers. The curtains next to me have been pulled back. Mrs Richardson has long hair, dyed black, and tied in a plait. Her eyebrows are tinted too and her crimson lips are parted in silence.
“Hello. I’m Dorothy.” I leave it at that for the moment. I don’t want her to start screaming again.
Mary has been given a doll, she’s sleeping, holding onto her baby like a lioness. Her face looks peaceful and is free of the lines that sketch the women in the geriatric ward. If it wasn’t for Mary’s grey hair and the baby’s ghoulish plastic grin, she could be a new mother.
I didn’t sleep at all for the first days of Kay’s life, I didn’t want to miss a moment. The love I felt for her was colossal, it wiped the floor with me. This ridiculously small creature had driven a road through my existence, where before there had been only fields. Now my child has a child of her own and her child is a new mother. We are a daisy chain of only children, all girls. How I envy Emma for what she is feeling now. I loved Kay as much as Kay loved Emma but neither of us wanted another. I couldn’t bear another child pushing in between Kay and I. She’s an old woman herself now. It’s time for me to move on, it’s the nature of life. But I can’t move on, I’ll never be ready, I don’t know how to let go.
My fishcakes have cooled as I contemplate a meatier subject. Mrs Richardson has requested the shepherds pie. She’ll only do it once. She has lipstick on her teeth and a catheter. Her eyes, caked with mascara, meet mine.
“It’s so undignified. I don’t know how you can stand it.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a choice.”
“I was Miss Glamorgan 1952, you know.”
That explains the make-up in bed. I think it’s harder for the pretty ones, at least I didn’t have looks to lose as well.
“How’s your meal?”
“Inedible. Did you say your name was Dorothy? I’m Gloria. Not my real name, I used to do amateur dramatics. I was christened Joan.”
“Didn’t do Joan Plowright any harm.”
“No. But she wasn’t a looker was she?” Gloria’s face froze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“Who are you?” Toothless Lillian barks.
I raise my eyebrows at my new friend and feel a little less wretched. The evenings are the worst. Evenings should be spent with loved ones. Or at least with choices, of books to read, of wine to drink, soap operas on the telly. Here in God’s waiting room we know our stories are ending and as far as I can tell, there is no happily ever after.
Someone is shaking me, I can smell perfume. “Rita, is that you?”
“How did you know?
I open my eyes. “Because you’ve worn Joy since rationing stopped. How are you?”
“More to the point, how are you?”
I pull a face while Rita shoves a bunch of irises messily into a jam jar. “If the cancer doesn’t get me the boredom will. I drifted off after breakfast.”
Rita sits down in the green vinyl chair next to my bed. Age has consumed her too. She is dressed in beiges and creams, I miss those vermilions and scarlets. Rita notices me staring.
“Do you like it? I got it at the Oxfam on Dury Street.”
“Mmm. So what have you been up to? I want all the details.”
“Well not much, Dot, I’m 87 you know. I’m cloistered in home help and meals on wheels. It’s just like here but better decorated.”
“Who’s she?” Lillian pokes a bony finger at Rita.
“The Queen of bloody Sheba, love.”
We laugh until Rita starts coughing. “Have you seen much of the baby?”
“I don’t want Emma bringing her in here, all sorts of germs and super bugs.”
“No, suppose not. What’s she called her?”
“What an old fashioned name, I had an Auntie Pearl. What happened to all those wonderful celebrity names, Betty Kitten and Fifi-Trixibelle?
“I know. We’re surrounded by Ruby’s and Lily’s these days. Dorothy hasn’t made a come back. The old girl next to me, her name is Joan but she’s done a bit of amateur dramatics and goes by the name of Gloria.”
“Is she the one with her face on? I saw her in the television room, holding hands with a dishy looking man. Must be her husband.”
“She doesn’t wear a ring. Perhaps it’s someone else’s husband.”
“That’s more like it.”
I find it hard to keep up as Rita chatters on. Eventually Irene appears with a plate of food as beige as Rita.
“Guess you want to kick me out now, Irene?”
“Absolutely. No guests for lunch. This isn’t the Savoy Grill.”
Rita kisses me on the cheek and wanders off. Even she has slowed down. Irene deftly delivers lunches to Gloria and Lillian. She gets to Mary’s bed and stops. There’s a pause before a cacophony of noises erupt; bells ringing, feet running, the efficient swishing of curtains being pulled. The pause had seemed louder. We listen to the jerking sound of the defibrillator and hold our breath in the hope that silence might help. It doesn’t. More doctors appear and eventually Mary’s body is taken away on a stretcher. Later when the curtains are pulled back, her empty bed serves as a warning to us all. Next to me Gloria cries softly.
“You didn’t even know her, none of us did. We could have made the effort, she might have died among friends.”
“I’m not crying for her.”
“Death is a shadow. Always there even if we can’t see him.” Lillian with her teeth in for a change.
“What happened to all that time?” Gloria wipes the tears furiously.
“I want to go home.” I think of another Dorothy who wanted to go home. Was Kansas a euphemism for the afterlife?
The mood in the ward is tangible, a solid mass of gloom. None of us ate our lunch, or said much.
“Kay? Is it that time already?”
She sits down. “Where’s Mary?”
“That’s sad. Tom’s parking the car, he’ll be up in a minute.”
“I meant to ask you last time, how’s his retirement going?”
Kay smiles with her eyes. “He’s driving me mad. Doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
Tom appears, pushing a wheel chair.
“Who’s that for?” I notice the bag at Kay’s feet.
“We’re taking you home.”
“But… the cancer?”
“The doctor says old age will probably get you first.”
I make a silent prayer to a God I don’t believe in and promise not to make too much of a nuisance of myself. “Was that why you were crying last time?”
Kay kisses me on the forehead. “Let’s get you out of that nightdress, eh, Mum?”
“I hope you brought my blue dress.”