This story is by AS Nabmann and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She watched him struggle with a shaking hand to direct a spoonful of cereal into his mouth, feeling little compassion. The cereal stuck to his chin and lips. She could hear his laboured breathing as he grappled with the task of eating. He frowned, his tongue attempting to rescue cereal from his chin. She looked away, her foot twitching and her stomach twisting, suppressing an involuntary shudder, trying not to remember those hands, those lips, the breathing.
Most of the cereal was on his shirt, with some traces of a cup of tea, and his eyes were filling with tears of what she assumed was frustration.
As she adjusted her expression into one suggesting daughterly concern, she scanned the room with its framed photos of a life she had had no part of. She hadn’t been in this room, this house, since she was eighteen, the day she left for university, when she drew a line under that previous existence. She pushed away the unwanted images, angry at him for making her play that carefully buried film reel. Peering more closely at the photos to distract her from the welling memories, the faded smiling faces reminded her of how little she knew who this man used to be. She had never asked him why he ended up as a carpenter when he left school at fifteen, which gave him asbestosis, unfortunately not serious enough for compensation. The consultant had said he would die with it, not of it. She had seen he didn’t hear anything after the word “asbestosis” exploded in his ears, so she had concentrated harder on remembering what the doctor said, and on checking her face looked upset. She wasn’t there to see his expression, or check that her own conveyed some appropriate emotion, when he was told he had this latest affliction. She had stayed away for years, kept that line drawn. She had worked hard to stop her childhood polluting her adult life. Only her mother’s stroke had forced her home to “help”.
He suddenly started to cough and splutter as he inhaled some of the cereal he had managed to spoon into his mouth, and his legs and arms were flailing weakly, his eyes now filling with panic as he looked towards her with a silent plea for help. She wandered into the kitchen for a cloth, wondering if he would have choked to death by the time she got back to him. In the hallway, she saw a battered old Monopoly box under a pile of old magazines and she stopped, staring down at it, the forgotten cloth dangling from her hand….
The Left Wall was made of abandoned board games: chess, Mork and Mindy, Life, Monopoly. A rolled-up brown dressing-gown and the Lord of the Rings filled the gap to the bed leg. The few chinks of light between the bricks were useful as an early warning system, flicking off to alert her to someone stepping softly into the room. The Right Wall was more fluid as it had to be rebuilt every time she wriggled into the cave. That new Trivial Pursuit game was by her legs, with Scrabble and Operation. They often made their way downstairs for a “family evening”. Monopoly never made it down to one of those now, there’d been a lot of shouting, fights and the latest game had ended with the board and all the pieces flying through the air like a tiny Armageddon. It was a safe Left Wall brick now, having been banned after that. Sometimes there was an End Wall, if her school bag was under the bed.
Her face was about ten inches from the cave ceiling of bed springs, with a clear, but not strong aroma of dusty mattress.
They hadn’t found her diary yet, it was a five year one, hidden in the Monopoly box. She had started it when she was nine, and was into the fourth year. Looking at those daily few sentences written in a slowly changing hand, it amazed her how much her life hadn’t changed from year to year. School, homework, food, books, the other thing, only the houses and schools changed. After a history project where the class had to design an alphabet, she had started to write her diary in her own alphabet. At least they couldn’t read it any more, even if they forced the lock again.
He walked into the room. She knew his big soft steps. When he crept, rather than walked in a normal Dad style, she knew what he wanted. She knew he knew she was in the cave. They all knew about it. But if she was in her cave, it was harder for him to start anything, to touch her leg, make eye-contact with her, lift her school skirt, tell her to be quiet without saying anything. He had to really need it if he made the effort to get her out of the cave. The steps had stopped. The chinks of light switching off told her where he was standing. She held her breath, her fingers gripped, keeping her place in Steppenwolf. Harry was about to go in the theatre he had been looking for, and she was a bit worried it wouldn’t be what he wanted. She wondered if Hermann had written her life story too. His breathing was faster than usual, making her heart beat faster almost in time. Her foot twitched nervously as the breathing seemed to get lower, closer, faster. Trivial Pursuit moved. Her stomach twisted as she waited for the eyes to appear. She noted the page number. She didn’t want to lose her place for later.
Why does it always seem better if one gets the “bed by the window” in hospital? You have terminal cancer, but you do have the bed by the window. You have a degenerative neurological condition that is incurable and you will probably die from choking on your pureed chicken and ham pie, but you do have the bed by the window. He was in the bed by the window looking out over the rainswept carpark, dotted with cars illuminated by street lamps. He wasn’t looking out of the window, he was lying on his back in a carefully constructed world of pillows to minimise pressure sores, head lolling to one side, in crisp clean pyjamas, like a landed fish ready for his photo. Except there was no point throwing this one back. His urinary catheter bag was discretely placed between the bed and the window. A sipcup with some pale room-temperature liquid sat on the bed-table, waiting for someone to pick it up. His breathing was uneven, shallow, unsettling, alien. One pale, veined hand lay useless and flaccid on the bed clothes, the fingers of the other clutching sporadically at the sheets. This time, she was relieved to feel some sense of sadness at the sight of him. Her mother, too ill to visit, had pleaded with her to see him, before it was “too late”.
Vividly blue eyes, that she had forgotten, or never noticed before, probably because he always made her lie on her front, blue eyes that she hadn’t inherited, looked straight at her from the sagging, slack-jawed grey face. Those eyes were staring, or glaring, straight at her, so pointedly that she had an increasing sense that he was trying to tell her something. But he couldn’t. Speech was a long-forgotten luxury. Well, real speech, that involved constructing a sentence and being able to deliver it before the listener got bored and moved on. He could still sort of say “yes” or “no”, in a slurred resemblance of a voice. When was the last time he spoke a sentence? And did he know at the time that this was an event to be remembered? What about the last time he ate unaided? Walked unaided? Used the bathroom unaided? Drove his van unaided? Used his phone unaided? Chose how he spent his day? Stroked the soft fur of his dog? And in any of those times did he realise? Realise it was the last time? Savour that last experience, cry and mourn over it, fight and rail against it? Should she ask him, how does it feel to be so helpless? She knew. There had been no get-out-of-jail-free card for her, either.
All he had left now was breathing, staring at her and gripping her hand with an unsettlingly strong and urgent grasp, a faint echo of earlier times. She felt no revulsion, just … nothing. He held onto her hand for an hour, intermittently squeezing more tightly when her occasional attempts to break the silence faltered. When she stood to leave at the end of the visiting hour, that grasp became even tighter, more urgent, compelling her not to leave. She prised her hand free, and then his fell back, hopeless, wasted, onto the bed. She walked away. There was no victory here, no podium moment.