Writing: Rosie Barry
Driving home, Michelle was scared. She knew exactly what of- the why’s and the when’s of the moment, but concentrated very hard on everything other than it. Turning the radio up until a cacophony of bass swirled over her empty backseat, and gripping her wheel rigidly, she was able to watch traffic lights with faint interest, and somehow concentrate upon motorway exit queues even as her knuckles turned an off-white colour. When she got home she ignored the house around her. Angrily shouldering her way through, she lay atop her unmade bed, coat and bag and shoes still on, and let herself go. Sitting up, she punched her headboard, four times, and then held onto it like the mast of a ship in a storm as her breathing rolled through her entire body and she swayed, drunk with it.
It had been as she was saying goodbye to him, her old dad, squeezing his shoulder from behind, as he sat at his desk in his rackety old wheelchair, that she had found herself facing the top of his head. The sudden desire to touch it had seized her, and so she had, affectionately, but also because she needed to.
The day before, a fox had engaged in a calamitous and daring run through her hen-house. The remaining girls had taken hours to calm, as had the clearing up of the chicken shit and feathers and half bodies of the dead hens, and also of the eggs broken in the confusion. Picking up the pieces of eggshell from that they were supposed to hold within, she had gone about her day, but was now, as she stroked her father’s head with one hand, reminded of holding eggshell between two fingers, so thin and transparently fragile was the skin.
And that was when it had happened, something she had vowed to never ever let happen again. It had enveloped her, the familiar feeling of being consumed and convinced by care. Coat already zipped up, she wanted to keep her hand upon his head, but this time to rub his soft tufts of hair with johnson’s baby shampoo, and then to carefully dry each strand. Whilst thinking this, she looked down at the whorl of his ear, marked with age spots, and knew if she could see his thin little face she would see his bobbing mouth, where his dentures rubbed as his face fell in on itself again and again.
‘He’s losing too much weight,’ nurses had told her in what now felt like a personal chatishment. No matter that his jumper now hung on him like it would on a coat hanger. She would, from now on, drink vats of double cream for him most days, every morning, and somehow transfer that new softness, a gentle new curve of fat across her whole body to him. She would spoon feed him the soft, brown food of the care home until their industrial vats were depleted and there was no more shepards pie for Gladys in the room next door. She would massage his legs with deep heat and smother his chest with vicks unti lthe whole place woozed with the smell. She would care and clean and perform the daily, hourly, constant upkeep now needed just to maintain his body, with its pacemaker regulated heart and hips derived from some foreign entity.
It needed fixing, and she would fix it, she would appease and adjust and push until it was right. She would stand in her kitchen and wash and fold and iron jumpers, hankies, ties, grey and black trousers, pressure socks. Meanwhile, he would sit in a bath next to her, knees pulled up to his chest like a little boy. She would take up all his correspondence, and buy all his scratchcards and more. She would destroy his model ships in one swoop whilst he wasn’t looking, and then, whilst he slept, rebuild them, only stopping gluing and pressing to check every ten seconds that his chest continued to rise and fall.
She would push him away from the precipice with just the strength and drive of her effort. That, and flannels, gently pressed against his forehead. She would do this with one hand whilst the other pushed his NHS issued wheelchair, and whilst reading to him the shipping forecast, the telegraph newspaper, or Churchill's biography out loud.
Of course, in the lift downstairs, when she let herself look, that was when she became fearful, so much so that she jumped when the doors opened, and half jogged to her car as if someone was after her, slamming the door against all this, wishing to leave it there in the carpark, dumped like an old fridge or a box of kittens, left outside of her. Because she had been through this fallacy before, and her fear, her correct suspicion she was caught in its waters again, that it had pooled around her without her realisation until currents eddied at her neck and pulled her down and round and out scared her almost into stasis, to the point where she could only stare at her car dashboard and blink slowly like a cow in a field.
When Harry had died, at six months, care had become something she scoffed at. Women wiping crumbs off the faces of little girls in cafes made her shred her napkin, carve the prongs of her fork into the table. A man shouting after her in the street that she had lost her glove physically enraged her to the point where she thought she might slap him. Buses stopping for those who ran pathetically after them; shopkeepers allowing those short of change queuing in front of her to walk free- she ground her teeth so much at these displays she had to visit the dentist. She wanted to spoil the endings of books for strangers and kick balls away from kids playing. She wanted to watch dogs without their lead’s on shit, and for their owners to fail to pick it up. She revelled when people found hairs in their salads, and accepted with a self-satisfied interest the gradual unveiling that soon- now- there would be catastrophic, man-made climate change. When oil barons named things like ‘Rock’ or ‘Barnett’ oozed their influence over Washington., their influence treacled over proceedings till they slowed to become unmoving to the human eye, Michelle didn’t go on marches or rail against the authorities or even post on social media. She accepted this growth of division and confusion and fear for the future calmly.
What was the point in these years of sharpening, of developing empathy? She had honed her heart to love like an old blacksmith against a whetstone, and she had been left with a weapon inside her with a sharpness now inhibited, and utilised against her every move. It wasn’t even hers, and even now she was surprised more than anything when she felt it stabbing away. Her heart hadn't been so much as worn on her sleeve as cufflinked to Harry’s baby finger. This discovery hadn’t been a surprise, and was in fact just an accepted factor of their life together, particularly as they walked, as he clutched cucumber sticks and gurgled away to her and passers-by as they strode together, him bouncing against her in his papoose.
She would have carried him in the papoose, or, even better and safer, back inside her till he was an adult and also beyond. Every breath he took she felt the pride of an Oscar winner, and, when he stopped, it seemed implausible that he had ever had the capacity, the mastery, the capability to do so- to take air into his lungs and then, send it back out again. How did he do such a thing? Her unbelievable boy. No such thing as perfect, after all, and after, after it seemed they had all been duped into believing it could have, that he could have existed. Who had tricked her she was yet to uncover, but the lineup of suspects included the nurses who had handed him- hers- back to her after the foolish birth. It included his dad, whose crying was more incessant and infuriating than his had ever been. It also included her friends and family. To watch them hold him made her feel like she had just taken a bite of a crisp green apple, or driven to the ocean.
So, she sat, holding her headboard with both hands in a way she had only done before him, really, in another time when despite what she had thought her heart was the size of a raisin and her capacity to love inhibited, rather than limitless, expansive to the point where it didn’t bear thinking about. She sat and knew that once again, soon, probably as hospital machines beeped and nurses rushed, that her body, her heart would go to war against her once more and fear would push her to places only Harry ever had.