Writing by Hattie Atkins. Illustration from Unsplash.
I mourn the mornings: body folded like
pastry, unfurling in the autumn sun,
cocooned world like an unsheathed conker that
could fit, squeezed, into the small of my palm.
I grieve the lunches, the love language of
a careful father, speaking strength into
soft stomachs: blood transfusions of red soup,
heart monitor like radio static.
I lament the evenings, passed now with
nightingale’s song; how a mother could stretch
late night chat into elasticities,
spoken lullabies for the floating home.
I miss the nights, and the mattress beneath
that opens its mouth and swallows me whole.
'When This Shall Be in Bloom'
She bares her teeth and the pain exposes itself. It is there, in the grind of tooth against tooth, the pads of her fingers pressing smooth craters into the arms of her chair. Pain and discomfort, like the pull and flow of the sea, appear and recede instinctively. In a moment of composure, she swallows the pain down again, licking it away with rose-pink tongue. Blink and you’ll miss it: soft waves spitting forth, then reeling themselves quietly back into the ocean of the body. My grandmother has an ability to hold and control pain like it is innate, as if it is the tide on its daily rounds.
I stop watching her from behind my book. She doesn’t like to be watched, though she is forever watching me from beyond her own thin spectacles.
“You look exhausted,” she would declare, brandishing an arthritic hand towards me. Her knuckles jutted beneath her skin like pale rocks piercing the ocean, even then.
“I’m on my period,” I would shrug: an acceptable dismissal for the most congenital form of pain.
My mother – like me, and like my grandmother before us – would fold with menstruation’s gnawing weight when she thought I wasn’t looking. She would go abdomen over knees on the tiles of the bathroom floor, in the tool shed with the door just ajar, knelt before the trowels and spades strung up like relics of worship.
“Nothing to worry about,” she would assure me, her face suddenly wan like the reflection of the moon on the water’s surface. “It’s only natural.”
Later, when I was eleven, I understood the truth of this hereditary pain; the kind passed from mother to daughter through inherited blood. It felt like a concession.
I rise from my armchair. My grandmother, after looking up briefly, turns away again.
“Do you want anything? A cup of tea?” I ask.
“Yes, thanks, dear.” Her voice sings pink still, rosy blooming on a warm day.
Outside, the wintry sun breaks weakly through the clouds. Across the way, the sea licks the sand clean. I go through to the kitchen, pour boiling water over a mug of lemon, honey and ginger and empty her pills on to a small accompanying dish. She takes them in silence. Afterwards, cradling the mug in her lap, she refuses to catch my gaze, instead peering sideways through the high window. Eventually, she says, “my rambling roses are very unhappy.”
I perch on the arm of her chair, her roses now in view. “They look fine to me.”
“I’m not looking after them properly.”
“That’s allowed, given the circumstances.”
“Look at the leaves. It’s black spot. That’s a fungal disease.”
I lean closer to the glass, inspecting the leaves on the other side, now adorned in patchwork yellow and brown pockmarks: small, the size of the cysts that had appeared on her ovaries in the final months of last year. Black spot, like the patches that had infiltrated her reproductive system, is par for the course; “all normal,” the doctor, with a hand hidden under my grandmother’s silken shirt, cold against the lower abdomen and pelvic bone, had told her. “Benign cysts are present in a lot of women. Come back in a couple of weeks if you’re still uncomfortable.” He pressed down absent-mindedly, post-invasion.
“There are probably bigger things to worry about than your rose bush, nan,” I tell her now.
“Oh, hush.” She doesn’t turn from the sight of her diseased, beloved plant. Slow gusts of wind muffle against the window. “I’m fine.”
In the bathroom upstairs, I drown out the sound of the breeze with the running bath tap. I think of tubes and flesh and mechanisms grinding to a halt, rubbed with salted rust. In the bath I run a finger across the worm-like scar just below my stomach, the rose-pink proof of a cesarean birth that ruptured me from the inside-out. When my son was born, an old friend gave me a pocket book of patron saints: the front cover boasted an illustration of a busy garden of pink tourmaline, and the final chapter followed the story of St Lidwina, a chronically unwell, gangrenous woman gifted with visions. On the eve of her death, she hallucinated the image of a rose bush. She heard, or perhaps saw, the words, when this shall be in bloom, your suffering will be at an end. The words return to me now, incantatory.
I dry myself off, looking out from the window above the sink; a ribbon of ocean blinks absently, just visible beyond the housetops.
Downstairs, my grandmother is out in the front garden, spraying the rambling roses from a plastic bottle. Osteoporosis stoops her. With the rest of her pain, she conceals it beneath her skin, in her mouth, bubbling under her tongue like Alka-Seltzer. I watch as the pain becomes her momentarily, topping over like the tide, then receding, expertly managed.