The Big Impossible

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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.

Falling

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Standing on the 20th floor of a block of flats in Hulme, I could see the broad sweep of Manchester. It was dark and the lights threw enticing patterns across the the city.  Momentarily, I was overcome by an urge to throw myself off.  I was experiencing what psychologists call ‘high-place’ phenomenon.  The building seemed  to sway, pulling me off the edge and I drew myself quickly back inside; that sense of not feeling safe – it’s instinct to pull away.  Otherwise, hundreds of people would throw themselves off buildings every day (now the image of falling bodies is etched into our collective consciousness after 9/11 but this happened pre-2001)  but I interpreted my  experience as a suicidal thought.  A micro end-it-all moment. Then, I imagined drifting gently to the ground, saw myself half flying then falling fast: fast, too fast.  So I drew myself further into the flat, back to its glow and comfort.  This wasn’t me: I’m not that sort, I’m the sort who wobbles but doesn’t fall down.

M and I talked into the dead of night.  Laughed about the last time we’d met and I was waiting outside for my lift home and a woman had walked past with a machete swearing she’d kill the bastard if she found him.  That was Hulme.  Another incident, M said, just the day before: a young man chased by the police had run to the top of edge of one set of flats, and unwilling to hand himself in, had jumped to his death.  His mind wasn’t right, she said. He fell, and never got up again. (Years later I found out this was a boy I’d taught: one of those boys prematurely tall.  He was spoilt, ruined my mother would have said. Difficult to like. His parents, never somehow learning the lesson that less is more, bought him a sporty car – he crashed it and messed up his head.  Wasn’t himself: never really found his way home again.  Lived from hand to mouth until finding himself on that roof with, as he saw it, all his choices gone: the end of the line and his impulse to escape all that was left.  He’d always been the kind of boy who was never in the wrong and all he had was instinct.  There, afraid, tearful, gone.)

The flat smelt reassuringly sweet, incense burning in all rooms.  It was such a cool flat M kept – treasures from all manner of sources carefully and tastefully left about the place. There was a picture of her as a  child on the wall: wearing a pair of dungarees, super cute and other carefully thought through things.  Just things. She laughed madly about this and that.  We talked of partners, hopes, their pain, things we planned to do…the life we meant to lead. She marrying P – maybe – me trying to work my way through.

Our time together was girls’ nights: us two.  But we talked of him: his creativity, the danger of his brilliant mind, his kindness.  His desire to get it right.  His pain.  His perfection and his sadness at never quite managing it. She loved him. P defined her, she said, made her world real, whole.

I only met him once.

I don’t remember how I got the news.  In the world before proper mobile phone use, I don’t know by what means it came to me.  Did we speak on the phone?  Did she walk round?  Did someone else tell me?

The details have gone.

Those were the days when we still wanted to be a separate self – perhaps behaved like singles when we were out.  We drank too much, we smoked in days when smoking was still allowed.  We made each other laugh.

He filled his car with petrol, one afternoon a few days after M and my night out.  He drove at some pace. He drove from his flat in Manchester down the motorway, speeding all the way to his home village.  A journey of 7 hours took 4. Later, they could track his path on the overhead cameras on the motorway.  How he hadn’t crashed and taken someone with him, no-one knew.

She told me all this: wild-eyed – the wonder of it, and the pain like a tooth hole left in the mouth, impossible to leave alone.  Impossible not to worry at it with the tongue but causing instant pain.

He found a field near his parents’ house.  All planned.  He drove right into the heart of it not caring if he’d ever get his car out. He wouldn’t.

He attached a tube from the exhaust to the window and with what remained of the petrol, just enough, started the car engine and fell asleep never to wake again.  Nothing spontaneous about his death.  Nothing instinctive or what Freud called a death wish: all carefully planned.

“He was just a bit down,” she said with all her pain exposed. I saw her soul – her life in the raw. She kept going over all the ground.  Was there something she could do? Should have done? Could she have changed his mind?  Over and over she told her part – how she felt to blame.  Went through all the steps, over and over: sitting on the floor by my back door, smoking, in the pub – in the newly decorated rooms of her flat. All the stages.  If she’d have been in to answer the phone the day before.  If she’d said the right words. If she had not insisted on him going to the doctors…

“And now,” she said, “His parents won’t let me near.” Though they did eventually relent but the damage was done.  Pain on pain. Separated by space – of being close but not close enough.

She blamed the medication: before he’d taken it he was down and, she thought, it gave him just enough motivation to kill himself.

She was wrong.  He was already falling.  Falling.

He would have done it anyway.

His life had everything you might want.  The funniest girl on the block, talent, success.

But it wasn’t enough to save him.

And there were never enough times for me to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault M.  There was nothing you could do?’

In the years that followed she made massive life changes.   Found love.  Got pregnant.  Bought a house. Grew apart from me. Our friendship fell through.

The last time I saw her, she was three cars away.  I took massive risks to reach her.  Over took.  Ran a light.  Beeped.  Followed her into the hospital car park where she was attending ante-natal clinic for her second child. We hugged. Said hello. Said goodbye. That sense of feeling close, and far away: near the edge and the temptation to jump rolled over me. That sense of not feeling safe – we pulled away.  Smiled. Waved.

All our chances gone, I never saw her again.