The Big Impossible

FullSizeRender

Michaela Tobin was my best friend.  She sat beside me at school and a week or so before I fell through the greenhouse, she disappeared.  She never came to see me.

It would be a lie to say she didn’t come to the hospital.  She was right there all the time.  Not that anyone ever told me. Even when I was in the very next ward, and a bit sad about her absence, no one thought to mention it.  No one thought to say anything at all.

That was the way it was in the 70s. 

For years, I fantasised that I could shift across time and space and change that outcome, that I could see her and tell her everything I needed to, but it’s the big impossible: you are either in the moment or you are nowhere at all. You exist neither in the past nor the future. But still I imagined I could go back and change it: not the falling through a greenhouse bit, I never sought that but over and over again I imagined ways to connect with Michaela, to speak to her, to say all that I’d meant to.

The fantasy often went like this: somehow I’d get wind of her illness or her dying.  Someone let it slip. And I’d make the trip to see her: alone or with Dawn, my other friend.  Somehow I’d be magicked to Michaela’s side.  It was improbable, a falsehood, but over and over I worked the story so that sometimes I even believed it was true.

Here it is:

The air was crowded with noise, pipping, buzzing and electronic sounds, and it was white, pure, pure white – a bit how I imagined heaven. I checked I was still breathing. Down the corridor there were a number of doors leading to rooms, some open to reveal patients attached by wires to machines, not moving. No flowers, no animated conversations just people looking sad at other people in beds. All patients looked the same: nearly dead or so fast asleep an earthquake wouldn’t shift them.   There were machines with accordion like actions, others with screens with information that must mean something to someone. I felt my breathing adjust to the rhythm of the place.

“Can I help you?” A tall, thin nurse looked down on us. She looked like she’d inhaled sherbet.

To be fair we must have looked a sight – two girls, one on crutches, and the other in big framed glassed wearing a ruck sack that she could have been folded into.

It was a good question though. Could she help us? Would she help us?

“You might be able to.” I said.

Was that cheeky? Dawn grinned.

The nurse crossed her arms. They were like snakes as they curled one over the other against her non-existent belly. She had fine white skin, a lot of freckles and ginger hair. “Well?” she said, finally.

“We’ve come to see our friend, Miss.” I said.

“Have you now? And who is your friend exactly?”

I wondered if there were so many children tied up to machines in this place that the nurse couldn’t guess who we belonged to.   How sad, I thought. How very, very sad. I looked round again. We were quite far onto the ward but wherever Michaela was she wasn’t visible. She’d been in my head so powerfully, but now I couldn’t hear her.

“That would be Michaela is it?” The nurse said. Green eyes – staring into us as though the neat sides of our real lives weren’t there. There would be no secrets in my life from now on, I thought, no secrets at all. Ever. I would always tell the truth, even if it wasn’t the smartest move.

“Yes,” Dawn said, “And Mary’s walked all the way on crutches and her leg hurts. And we’ve no sandwiches left. But we’ve got chocolate.”

“Are you hands sore, Mary?” The nurse asked.

“They’re okay.”

It’s not about me, I thought.

It was just Dawn and me in the corridor, just us and the nurse. I looked up and straight into those green eyes. Feel bad for me, I thought. I could have died. I could have been in these rooms. It could have been me you were looking after. I could have been Michaela. But for those two millimetres…that meant I avoided the main artery.

“Michaela can’t do visitors really.”

“We only want to see her, that’s all. We know she can’t talk.”

Should I cry? That sort of thing usually worked with grown ups.

The nurse looked behind us – did they have security? Was she about to call them?

“Are you sure that her mam said you could come?”

We did not speak.

“Because so far only her family have been and then really only her mam and dad.”

“I never asked,” I said.

“The thing is,” Dawn was saying, “We’re already in a lot of trouble and it would be a shame if we were grounded for the rest of our lives and we didn’t even see her.”

“Thank you,” the nurse said, “Thank you for telling the truth.”

“We’re her school friends. Mary sat next to her because they’re both clever but not quite as clever as Tracey though and I’m not that clever at all.”

“We are as clever as Tracey – just not suck ups like her. And you are clever Dawn Geraldine Matthews.”

“Not as clever as you.”

The door opened behind them.

“What in God’s name are you two doing here?”

The girls turned slowly as if to face a firing squad.

“We came to see Michaela.” Just the truth.  From now on, only that.

I thought for a minute that Mrs Tobin would cry. She looked so tied.

“She’s…not here.”

“I’ve been thinking about her all the time – because she didn’t come when I hurt my leg and then no one would say anything. And if I’d known she was here, I could have popped in. I had loads of spare time on the ward. I just had some rubbish colouring in and a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit on my table.”

“Say anything?” Mrs Tobin frowned. She was so beautiful – lovely black hair cascading down her back, her skin so pale it was almost see-through, light blue eyes.

“No one would talk about her.” I said then ran out of words.

“How did you know?” Mrs Tobin trailed off. She looked at the nurse, smiled weakly – then she stepped properly into the corridor. She knelt in front of me.

“How is your leg?” She asked.

“Getting better now.”

“I hear you were lucky.”

I didn’t feel it.

Mrs Tobin looked down. She shrugged, then with another smile she said,

“Michaela isn’t the same. She’s heavily sedated – she’s sleeping really. She might be able to hear us but we don’t know.”

“Sleeping all the time?”

“Yes…she’s…she’s…she’s got something called a brain tumour which means that something’s gone wrong in her head, and that it’s growing inside her and she’s not really with us now.”

“Where is she then?” It was Dawn.

“It’s a good question…I hope she’s making a path to another life.”

I looked at Mrs Tobin, “You mean she’s going to die?”

“Yes love, she is.”

I fought back the tears then, “When?”

“I don’t know love. All her body is still quite well.”

It was quiet now, apart from the beep and swoosh of machines – all four of us a tableaux of concentration.

“Please can we see her?” I asked. “There’s stuff we need to tell her.”

Mrs Tobin looked to the ceiling.

“Okay then,” she said.

Mrs Tobin swept past the nurse – and we followed on.

The room was clinical although she’d tried to make it look more like Michaela’s bedroom, with limited success. I recognised a teddy, and some other things: knick-knacks.

Michaela was totally still – is that what sedated meant? There were tubes going every which way, and the gentle pulse of the machines: it was a complex mix of things, none of which I understood. I imagined that Mrs Tobin would hear the noises forever, late at night when the world slept her mind would be invaded by a buzz and a pop and a whoosh.

I looked directly at Michaela.

Dawn stood beside me, all her challenge and bravery had stalled – she looked at her shoes, which were scuffed along the toes. She stayed beside the door, as I moved into the room, afraid to come closer in case she broke anything. She carried on wearing her rucksack.

“Will she wake up?” I asked Mrs Tobin.

“No love.” She looked away and I was sorry I’d asked a stupid question.

“Do they switch the lights off at night, Mrs Tobin?” I said aloud.

“No love. There isn’t really a night here. There’s just one time. All time. Just time, ticking through.” She paused.

“You can hold her hand love – she seems to like that. Perhaps you could tell her about school?”

“We’re not at school yet. There’s another week or so to go.”

Up close, Michaela seemed a bit fatter in the face than she had done – how was that? But her body was tiny, like a little bird curled up in its nest.

I picked up her hand and not knowing what to do, stroked it slowly. There was no sign that Michaela noticed, but I carried on.

I’m going to get in such mighty trouble for you, I thought and who knew that that was even possible? Michaela, the best-behaved girl ever, causing all this fuss.

“I’ve been talking to you – in my head. I’ve been hearing you, listening to you, waiting for you and now I don’t know what to say. Can you hear me? Can you?”

I closed my eyes. The skin of my friend’s hand was cool, but not cold. I remembered when we started school – reception class, waiting for dinners that we’d both  hated, hand in hand.

There were so many words.

“Mary and Dawn have come to see you,” Mrs Tobin said.

I took a deep breath and dived in.

“I’ve missed you mate,” I said, “although we haven’t done much because of my leg. I fell through a greenhouse. And Mrs Sweeney came to see me – after school – and she was wearing a lime green polo neck, you wouldn’t have liked it. Everyone’s been very nice though – even though I’ve been rubbish to them – even K. We had a whole conversation once. He does say I’ve got men’s blood though, because of the blood transfusion and that one day I’ll turn into a werewolf or something. But that’s his weird way of showing he loves me – at least I think that’s what that is. KM’s just been moody but that’s her age, me mam says.”

I stopped. Mrs Tobin smiled. So I started again.

“I’ve had to do all this physiotherapy with a woman called Julie and I think she quite likes causing pain. She says, “No pain, no going on the rowing machine.” I’m not that bothered by the machines but I do want to walk again. I have to go every other Wednesday now. I’m going to be the only girl who wears trousers in school – and that’s good innit? I’ll be able to climb.”

Mrs Tobin was wide-eyed.

“Well, maybe not climb – that might not be the best idea – right not….” I dried up then.

“It’s fine to say whatever you want Mary. I say all sorts. I tell her what we have for tea, stuff off the telly… all sorts. Mr Tobin thinks I’m mad. Yesterday I even told her the contents of my shopping list.”

So I started again, talking ten to the dozen about nothing very much – I talked until my mouth ran dry.

“She’s probably saying ‘for God’s sake Mary shut up!’ in her head! Won’t she think it’s a bit boring? ”

“Who knows love? I don’t know if she can hear – but if she can, hearing friendly voices has got to be better than this.” She gestured to the room.

The beeps kept coming whether we spoke a lot or a little, the machines kept working.

“How long will she be here, Mrs Tobin?”

“They can’t say. May be a day. May be a week. May be a month.”

“A month?”   It was the first thing Dawn had said. “You have to come every day?”

“I don’t have to love.”

“I don’t like it much,” Dawn said.

“Neither do I!”

“Sorry.” Dawn opened the door and stepped outside. There was a silence then.

“Should I say goodbye?”

“You could. Or you could do what the French do… They say au revoir. It means until we see each other again, goodbye for now.”

“I’ll say that then. Can I come another time and see her?”

“I don’t know love, may be. But if you say au revoir then it’s always possible, in this life or another one.”

“Do you believe in another one?”

“Sometimes.” Mrs Tobin said.

I moved closer to Michaela again. I looked at my friend but it was not my friend really. She was bloated in the head, like her skin was stretched, and she couldn’t smile. Her eyes were shut, she was still.

She wasn’t dead but I knew then that the essence of Michaela had already gone.

War Effort

fullsizerender

So cast your mind back.  It’s Hull, sometime in 1940s war time Britain.   Much of the city was tormented by bombs.  More than 1,000 hours were spent under alert during raids across the war period with at least 1,200 people killed. So it was normal for the air raid sirens to swear into the night, and families to pour into shelters and hope, against hope, that all would still be standing when they flicked into day time hours.  The air was thick with smoke from the falling masonry and debris.

Out of this, emerged a man I never met but who has cast a regular shadow over who I am and what I’ve become.  My paternal grandfather.  I have never even seen a picture of him, although I imagine him like my father: tall and willowy with film-star, slicked back hair dark but not black. A sort of Lincolnshire Rhett Butler.  A man with swagger and swash-buckling style (although the reality might have been somewhat different.) I am shaped by his absence because when folk die young they leave a kind of residue, a sort of promise of what they might have done: instead of fading away, or being subject to a shocking reduction as age weighs down even the most brilliant of souls. It seems you become what you’re not anymore unless you’re lucky and you’ve money and even then, even then, you cannot defeat aging’s relentless march – you cannot persuade fragility to bi-pass.   If you die young, you die with what you could have become still open to speculation, as though life continues in some alternative universe.

My grandfather Arthur then, a yellow belly*, was a man destined not to go to the war – something he struggled to live with.  I imagine him taking unnecessary risks: staying above ground longer than he should have done, skipping between strikes his face lit up by the bomber’s lights, or buying that extra pale ale in the pub.  He wanted, I suppose to be like most men of that generation, to ‘fight for his country.’ (Even in my generation when the Falklands war began, all the boys in the sixth form common room at Sydney Smith High School said they’d go to war in a heart beat.  Every single boy.  And all the girls were shocked, looked at them aghast saying, “What for?  You’d fight in a completely pointless war for Thatcher?” A row of ardent female pacifist against a battalion of Adidas Samba trainered boys with arms folded petulantly as if we’d somehow questioned the size of their manhood. Who were these boys we’d thought we knew?  Who were they?)

So Arthur was no different. He wore a different uniform, one of overalls: marginally above the reserves but only just,  and nowhere near the heights of the soldier.  He was ashamed at having to stay behind in a reserved occupation, he did not want to be rigging ships. It didn’t seem like much when he’d wanted to fight like all his mates.

Fast-forward 90 plus years and I’m sitting in my neighbour’s house and he’s telling me how he’s built six boats in his time, one taking six whole years, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six years to build and rig: an echo of my grandfather Arthur, a man  who influenced the main things (over-working, for example, over-working until it killed him, so they said) and I’m drinking my fifth pint of home brew worrying that I might regret it in the morning.

When I was 10 I realised what the lack of a father had done to my dad (he was 6 when Arthur died).  My mother had threatened us with dad on his return from work: my sister had been caught shop-lifting and my mother was smart enough to know that if she had been up to no good, the chances were I had too. So began one of the longest days of my life – off school ill with a mother refusing to speak to me for company except to warn me at hourly intervals of the pain that my father would inflict with his belt, on his return.  My sister arrived home at 4, all her cockiness gone (my mother had rung her at school knowing as a prefect my sister would answer the phone, and told her much the same as she’d told me: his belt would mark us for life and we would never be sticky-fingered again.)

My sister and I re-distributed food on our plates at tea time then went up to the bedroom to await our fate.  When dad came home, he came upstairs.  Then, the three of us entered into a kind of secret pact.  He tried, he really did, to raise his belt, his hand, his temper but he really couldn’t so without any words spoken we, all three of us crying, pretended that he had done the deed.  Somehow, in losing his father young, he didn’t know how to be that kind of dad and he became the kind who made it up as he went along. And the brutal but perfectly normal kind of working class man of that time who beat his kids for bad stuff didn’t exist inside my dad, who’d been brought up (and spoiled) by women.

And Arthur – for years I just knew that he died in the war.  I imagined torpedoes, or bombs, heroism, laying his life down for another man.  Instead, somehow or other, it emerged he’d died of untreated stomach ulcers, popped and bleeding: the pain of his non-combat role made manifest.  And that legacy breathes fire into us all too: the tension held in the stomach, the never stopping, the driving onwards when the sensible option is to stop, take a breather and survive.  Not Arthur and not his antecedents.

My replacement grandfather, Ernie came much later when my dad was in his teens.  Ernie was something of a catch it seems.  Or so my Guide Captain told me, when he’d rocked up at my Queen’s Guide celebrations in his late 70s and she’d taken me to one side and said, “Do you know that man?” her eyes strangely wide with something close to wonder. “I know him,” I said, “He’s my granddad.”

And then, in a sort of girlish breath (she was almost 60) she said, “He used to chase all the girls over the beds” which sounded more suggestive than it was, but still bad enough – Ernie had spent his working life as floor manager at Hammond’s departmental store.  “No-one would get in a lift with him,” she said, darkly and then laughed – the kind of laugh I knew meant it was only half true and though Ernie was a Lothario, he was fun if you wanted flirtation (odd he ended up with my grandmother, who was oddly buttoned down.)

The old bugger always had a twinkle in his eye, and mischief on his mind. “Aye,” he said, one time when I asked him about Arthur, “That fella was a pirate on the wild seas.  That’s where you get your name from.”

And every single part of me wanted to believe it was true.

*a yellow-belly is someone from Lincolnshire