I wrote the following monologue in response to a writing prompt from my friend, Natalie. She asked me to write from the perspective of someone who can’t get out of bed.
The prompt reminded me of my nana, who spent a month in hospital this summer after fracturing her leg. While she was in there, I visited her a few times a week. On some of those occasions, she had been given codeine to help her with her pain. Codeine and my nana’s imagination make an interesting combination…
The story went on to win first place in a contest run by domestic violence charity Equation, and I got to perform it at Waterstones, Nottingham. It’s being published in an anthology with Global Wordsmiths, coming out in January 2017!
Hello, my name is Lily Thompson and I am ‘Bed Ridden’. Have you ever thought about that phrase? ‘Bed Ridden’? What does it mean? I’m riding the bed? The world’s got rid of me at last: sent me to bed? I’ve heard the phrase all my life, bet you have too, but I’ve never really sat down and thought about it for long, realised how silly it is. I’ve plenty of time to sit down now. Maybe there’s another meaning of ‘ridden’ that I don’t know. Probably. There’s lots of meanings I don’t know: I left school at fourteen. Didn’t want to wear glasses to read the board, see. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses. Worked though, didn’t it? Married before my twentieth birthday. For what that’s worth, now. Now that I’m bedridden, no husband left to visit. And the NHS would have given me a bed anyway, whether Derek had been able to afford it or not.
My daughter Elaine was an English teacher, before she retired. She’ll know what bed ridden means. Or my granddaughter: she’s an English teacher too. Makes me wonder if being stupid isn’t in my bones after all, as me mother was fond of saying. I did a test for dementia once, with one of the carers. My score came up as ‘mild something impairment’. Can’t remember the middle word. Typical. Elaine told them about me leaving school at fourteen and they noted it down, said it was a handicap, gave me an extra point. Didn’t matter, I was still mildly impaired. Not impaired enough for a diagnosis, too impaired to rule it out. None the wiser then, on the stupidity front. I said to them – what’s the point in all of this, anyway? To embarrass me? Isn’t Parkinson’s and a missing breast and a dead husband handicap enough? The only handicap Derek had was a ten in golf. That bloody man breezed through life. I’ll always look after you, Lily love, he told me. Stick with me, duck, I were born lucky. Well where are you now, ey, my lucky duck?
Bed ridden. Chair ridden. Same blummin’ difference. I’ve been ridden one way or another for years, since Parkinson’s lost me my licence. Well, the two crashes lost me my licence, but it was Parkinson’s fault. I’ve been doddering on me zimmer from bed to armchair for three years. Carers to make breakfast, carers to make tea, carers to wash my blummin’ privates. One cup of tea I wanted to make myself, tripped over me own feet. That’s what’s landed me here. But the bloody joke of it is that now that I’ve got a fractured leg, now that I’m bed-ridden, I’m on my feet more than ever. Blummin’ physiotherapy. Blummin’ nurse, barely out of nappies, telling me to think positive, think myself well. I lived through the war, duck! Ration books! I tell her all this, tell her to shove her positive mental attitude. She walks off, mutters what a sweet old lady. She says it so as I’ll hear, so I let her hear what I’ve got to say, too. I shout it. ‘If you want sweet old ladies, go to a W.I. meeting, duck, not a hospital ward! Old age is serious business, you cheeky cow!’ Sweet old lady, indeed. I was never a sweet young lady, why should I start being sweet now? I’m a human being, not a Werther’s Original! What was that poem Elaine was always going on about, for her O Levels? Rage against the dying of the light! No one told Dylan Thomas to keep his bloody chin up, I doubt.
The think positive nurse comes back. Gives me some pills, ‘for the pain sweetheart‘. ‘Thanks, love’. Even under all these wrinkles, even with the blue of my eyes dimmed to grey, my evil eye’s better than hers. Still got it, old girl, Derek would say.
I only realise its Codeine once it’s too late. They’ve been warned not to give it to me. On my little wall chart it says: ‘Lily, milk no sugar, no opiates (hallucinations)’. Too late. She’ll get away with it. Overworked NHS. Ah well. How much worse can it be? What was that advice mother gave me about my wedding night? Lie back and think of England? Poor mother. Who knows what she’d have made of the sixties. My wedding night was a blummin’ riot. Wouldn’t mind being that kind of bed ridden again.
Anyway, I don’t think of England. Not this time. In fact, I think of Kilimanjaro. That’s in Africa! My grandson went on an trip with his university a few weeks ago – he says he doesn’t mind doing it again if I fancy it, he wants to show me the view. We have fruit trifle in the cafe at the top. He has to leave for a cricket match, so I ask him to drop me off at the theatre on the way. Barbara and I tour London together. She looks amazing – best she’s looked since we were at school – her blonde hair in a bob, polka dot dress like she’s Marilyn. You don’t look bad for eighty-six Barb, I laugh, and she says we’re only young once, Lil, you’re looking pretty grand yourself, and she’s hoisting me up on to the stage. The actors don’t seem to mind, they’re clapping. Really, I ask her, you don’t think this is too much? I’m pointing down at my bush, which is as blonde as Barbara’s bob. Too much? She laughs. Do you see anyone complaining? If you’ve got it, Lil, flaunt it! So I do, firing rainbow lasers from my nipples which I don’t remember getting pierced but I tell you what, it looks blummin’ good: I should never have kicked up such a fuss when Elaine got her ears pierced, I should never have kicked up any fusses, I should have spent more time tap dancing naked under the spotlight. I will from now on.
I’ll wipe the ‘no’ off my little board, when I get back to the hospital. And the bit about hallucinations. I’ll add an exclamation mark, add three, I reckon I can get out of bed for that. Lily! Milk no sugar! Opiates! My granddaughter’ll complain, no doubt. ‘Come on, Nana’, she’ll say, in her concerned teacher voice. Bless her, she means well. ‘Come on Nana’, she’ll say, ‘we want you to walk again’, and I’ll say ‘listen ducky, I don’t need to walk, why walk when you can fly?’
This is a quick piece of flash fiction I wrote yesterday. The jumping off point was a prompt about a cliff and a lily, but the finished product ended up nowhere near that.The word count, this time, was 500 words. I did 498. Flash Fiction – I am learning – is a real challenge. There’s really only room to introduce one character, one scene, one idea, and doing so with any kind of depth is prettttty tricky.
Keep Calm and Carry On
I’ve a pad of inspirational quotes – one for each day – stuck to my fridge. My sis gave ‘em last Christmas. ‘Big ideas for yer little head, Neil, maybe you’ll be inspired and like, leave the house?’ Princess Angelica, I think, I see your idea and raise it. I’ll live that pad, 365 days of inspirationeil. I say that, laughing, but she walks out shaking her head. Probably to give our parents the pity report. Bide your time, Neily, I think. Christmas 2017, show ‘em all then, just bide it.
Jan’s great. I dance like no-one’s watching and it’s easy: no-one is. I twat around to Queen, get my hooverin’ done too. Next, I live, laugh and love – bit more abstract but fully doable: Terry and I watch Fools and Horses on G.O.L.D and laugh our arses off. Terry’s my hamster: I love that furry bastard. I give him double treats as a random act of kindness, no stress. Terry’s over the bloody moon.
Feb I have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Metaphor, I know, but I’m leaning in 100%. I pick Patrick – homeless fella on the high street round the corner. Never knew his name before, he takes some persuading but eventually he takes my Doc Martens as a holding deposit and I march his bashed up Cons along the canal. I have a good think about Patrick the whole way, really empathising. I’m practically in tears when I get back, but the bastard’s done a runner. Unlucky for him, he picks the shop doorway below my flat to hide in. Lucky for him, I’m still down about his parents lettin’ him sleep outside Debenhams, so I say keep the shoes, come for tea.
I do us waffles and beans. Pat wants sausages but I’m veggie, I say. Since I got Terry, I tell him, not got the heart. Pat just eats. I point out the pad on the fridge, explain all, how it inspired today’s events. He shrugs, asks what’s tomorrow. It’s not protocol, but he’s a guest so I check. When you get knocked down, roll over and look at the stars. It’s a clear night, I say, let’s go on the roof. I been knocked down and looked at stars enough, Pat says. A tinny convinces him.
Roof’s quiet, Orion’s Belt’s out, inspiration feels like it’s working. Friends AND hobbies, I think, next Christmas Neil, you’ll show ‘em. You feel any calmer, I ask, more inspired? Calmer than what, says Patrick, I need a piss. I give him a key to get out and back in. When he slams the door it’s the only sound on the street.
Thirty minutes, no return. Don’t be hurt Neil, I think, he doesn’t know it’s the only key. I stay lying down in the peaceful silence, wondering whether today is a day when good things come to those who wait or a day to take a leap and trust I’ll land on my feet.
Here is a list of twenty random words. Don’t read them too closely – but cut and paste onto a fresh document, save and close. When you have twenty minutes to spare, make a cuppa or something stronger, and get ready to write. Only when you are ready, open the document, glance at that first word, and start writing, immediately. No planning in advance. And every few sentences, pick up the next word, incorporating that into the flow. Make it happen – make those words fit – it will feel absolutely nuts, but it is only a bit of fun – and you will end up with unplanned, surprising twists and turns, strange connections.
I didn’t like what I produced with that first list but I found the exercise really productive, so tried it again with another random list of 20 words from a word generator website. The result was as follows. As with the last post about building on weaknesses, any feedback on endings, dialogue and avoiding SHLOCK will be received warmly. Apologies for inconsistent formatting: things seem to happen in the transition from Microsoft Word to WordPress and I don’t have the wherewithal to solve them.
Jodie and the Great, Flashing Countdown Timer
When Jodie and Doug were on their first date, Doug noticed that Jodie had a great, flashing countdown timer floating above her head, independent of her body, counting down minutes. Everything else about Jodie though had been completely normal. Breathtakingly beautiful, in fact. On that fateful first day, the number on the countdown was well over four million, and Doug was renowned for his courteous demeanor. And so it was that the couple had been married for five years and had a one year old son by the time Doug happened to bring the timer up in conversation.
“Have you ever wondered what it’s counting down to? I mean, what’s going to happen when the timer runs out?” Doug gently tapped the side of his boiled egg with his knife and watched with great satisfaction, as the crown of its as yet undipped yolk wobbled. “This is a perfect boiled egg by the way, Jodie. It’s got wobble but not too much wobble. Know what I mean?”
Jodie didn’t answer. Doug looked at his wife and found that she wasn’t listening: her glance was shifting instead between her phone screen and the cryptic crossword on the back page of The Times.
“Maybe it’s quicker to just ask you Doug. Is a ‘lipa’ a type of pulse?”
“No. ‘Lima’ is though. Did you hear my question?”
“It’d be better if lipa was, because I’m sure 6 down is epilate. What was your question?”
“Could it be emulate?”
“Oh. Yes! But it’s not really a very good clue. That’s annoying, I’ve already written in epilate now. What was your question?”
The sleeve of Jodie’s jacket trailed in her coffee as she attempted to turn the ‘p’ of ‘epilate’ into the ‘m’ of ‘emulate’. Doug asked the question again and caught his wife’s attention at last. She looked at him with the expression of someone who very much does not consider herself to have a great, flashing countdown timer floating above her head, independent of her body.
“What the hell are you talking about, Douglas?” The question had stopped Jodie in her tracks; she held a slice of marmite on toast in limbo between plate and mouth, staring at Doug as though his face were a particularly difficult ‘magic eye’ puzzle.
“There’s no need to Douglas me, Jo. If it’s a private reason that’s fine, you know me, it’s your timer, after all.”
“No Doug, it’s not my timer, the timer is completely new to me.” Jodie furrowed her brow. “I think the timer must be your timer.”
“Well sorry Jo, that seems pretty unlikely to me. It’s on your head and it’s always on your head, I’m almost 100% sure it’s your timer.”
“Ok. I’ll call your bluff. If you genuinely can see a great, flashing, countdown timer over my head, why wouldn’t you have mentioned it on our first date?”
“Well I didn’t want to make you feel embarrassed about it, or make myself look uncool by not knowing what it was for.”
“What did you decide it was for, then? My timer?”
“I didn’t know! I thought Maths might be one of your hobbies, and it might be like… a Maths tattoo. But floating above your head, independent of your body.”
Doug definitely wanted to start dipping his soldiers into his egg yolk, but it would be rude to turn from Jodie’s gaze at a moment like this. He could spy the egg out of the corner of his eye, slowly congealing. In a few more moments it’d have solidified, and he’d have to spread it onto the soldiers instead. A complete waste of an egg. A premium egg, perfectly soft boiled. Frankly, he regretted mentioning the great, flashing countdown timer at all.
“So, let me get this straight. You met a girl with a flashing countdown timer above her head, came to the conclusion that it was a sort of modern tattoo, accepted that as normal and then kept your mouth shut for over a year of courtship and five years of marriage. Then one day you just thought, I know, I’ll ask Jo about that countdown timer, while she’s eating her breakfast and about to go to work?” Jodie had intended to project a calm demeanor, gently leading her husband to recognize his delusions himself, instead of accusing him directly: a trick of the trade she used on some of her patients. But – perhaps because it was not yet 7.30am or perhaps because it was her own husband that was deluded – the trick was not working. She could feel her throat tightening; her voice becoming more shrill.
“Well yes… because whatever you’ve been counting down to is imminent! It’s exciting really! I wondered if it might be a baby countdown, but then obviously the numbers didn’t work out with Theo and n-”
“So what was the time on the timer when we met, exactly?” Her voice was calmer now: her mellifluously reassuring doctor’s voice. You are a consummate professional, Jodie, a consummate professional, she intoned inwardly.
“Well I can’t remember exactly. But it was well over four million for the first while.”
“Aaaand what does the timer say now?”
“Now that I can tell you, babe! Nine thousand, four hundred and seventy two minutes, thirty two seconds. Well, thirty now. Twenty nine actually. Tw-”
“Ok, ok. So to clarify: on our first date, the first time we had sex, when you proposed to me, when we got married, as I was giving birth to Theo, every day when I come home from work, every morning when I wake up, right now. On all of those occasions you’ve been able to see a great, flashing countdown timer floating over my head, independent of my body, and you’ve kept it a secret until now, and only because it’s going to run out soon?”
“It wasn’t a secret Jo, I don’t keep secrets from you. It’s not like I was lying about it or anything. I thought it was just one of those things, you know? An unspoken thing. You’ve never mentioned all the moles on my balls but I’m sure you’ve noticed them.”
“Doug, of course I’ve noticed them. It’s hardly the same though, is it? The moles on your balls aren’t as noticeable or as big a deal as a flashing countdown timer.”
“Yes they are, there are eight of them. I’m probably really susceptible to skin cancer.”
“Right. Well. I’ve never counted. And as far as I’m concerned there’s no timer, it’s not about to run out, and if it is I don’t know why. And that’ll have to be the end of it for now, because if I don’t get off soon I’ll end up hitting the bad traffic.”
“Time’s up in just under a week, actually. Next Tuesday evening.”
“Doug, I love you. But you’re starting to sound a teeny bit like one of my patients.”
“Which one? The one that thinks sweetcorn kernels are sea creatures and keeps trying to release them into the wild?”
“No. A new, even wackier one. One that I’d be telling you all about, if it wasn’t you that was coming out with it. Look, I’ll be late if I don’t leave within sixty seconds. Give Theo a kiss for me when he wakes up. We can talk about this later, ok?”
Jodie popped the final morsel of toast into her mouth and raced out of the front door before Doug could protest, the great timer flashing 9468:27! 9468:26! as the door slammed behind her.
Jodie decided not to bring the timer up that evening, after work. Theo had gone to sleep quickly and without complaint, and Doug had made a curry. Though the light was almost completely gone, it was warm enough to be outside. They ate from steaming bowls and rocked lazily on their garden swing, Doug’s head in Jodie’s lap. Why bother bringing it up, thought Jodie, if he doesn’t? Why ruin one of the only evenings of the year where it’s warm enough to be in the garden? Be peaceful like Doug.
“I love being in the garden at night time,” Doug said, “particularly when it’s a clear night. If we stay out long enough we might see some stars.”
“Yes, can you see the timer in the dark?” It was out before she had chance to think about it.
“The countdown timer! The great, flashing countdown timer floating above my head, independent of my body!” As difficult as it was to be angry at someone as gentle as Doug, it was extremely easy to become frustrated by his resolute passivity.
“Oh, I didn’t think we were going to discuss that anymore.”
“What?! Why not?”
“Because I didn’t think you believed me!”
“Does that matter!?”
“Well, I thought we just had divergent opinions. You’re entitled to your opinion, babe! What kind of monster would I be if I didn’t respect that? But yes, since you asked, it’s glow in the dark.”
It took four days for Doug to convince Jodie that the timer existed. It was not that he had tried in any way to convince her: in fact, he’d attempted to steer the conversation onto different topics whenever she brought it up. But every time he did, she managed to steer it back. And every time she steered it back, his stoic insistence that the timer existed remained. Jodie tried being grumpy, then angry, then weepy. Doug’s responses were sympathetic, apologetic, unwavering. She cross referenced his theory with Theo who – being barely a year old – responded with a mixture of garbled non-sequiturs and nondescript gurgles. Doug politely asked his wife to drop it, even suggesting that he might have imagined the great, flashing countdown timer, but Jodie had a tenacious nature. The seed had been planted. Eventually she tested him, making Doug read out at random intervals and comparing them with the clock on the kitchen wall behind his head. After the forty-eighth correct response in a row, Jodie burst into tears. Doug scooped her into his arms and began stroking her hair, his fingers grazing the bottom of the number two every time he raised his palm.
“I’m going to die aren’t I, it has to be that,” she whimpered into his shoulder.
“Jodie Albright! In six years of knowing about this timer, that idea has never crossed my mind once. Don’t be silly. I’m almost cross that you suggested it.”
“What else could it possibly be, Doug?!”
Doug was silent. He didn’t want to admit that he had never really interrogated the possibilities of what the timer might represent. The first time his curiosity had been piqued enough to actually mull on it had been at the breakfast table, four days earlier.
“It’s probably to do with your income! You’re probably going to get a promotion on Tuesday! Some kind of huge, exciting pay rise!”
“Why would I get a promotion and a pay rise at eight o’clock in the evening, numpty?”
“You could do anything, Jodie! You’re wonderful!”
“For God’s sake, Doug, that’s not what I mean. I mean if it was about a promotion it would be during my work hours. And I haven’t even applied for a promotion!” A pang of affection made her reach for her husband and wrap her arms around him. “I’m sorry I called you a numpty, I feel guilty now. Calling you a numpty feels like punching a puppy in the face.”
“How did you find out what it feels like to punch a puppy in the face?” Doug grinned as his wife laughed and shook her head, despairingly. “Come on Jo, we can figure this out.”
They discussed it all night, until Sunday had become Monday and dark had become light. They bullet pointed reasons for the timer on A3 paper, then systematically ruled each one out in turn. They discussed the possibility of Jodie’s impending death; of conceiving a second child; of conceiving a second child and that child heralding the second coming of Christ, or the first coming of another holy being, a girl this time, perhaps. They talked about why Doug might be the only one able to see the timer: whether it might be indicative of a specific task he had been set by a higher power, in order to teach him or Jodie some kind of life lesson. So they bullet pointed higher powers and possible life lessons too, but the later it got, the more the ideas seemed to blur. By 5am, every bullet point on the list seemed both absurd and possible.
“We can’t really be contemplating whether God brought me into your life with a countdown timer so that I could teach you a five year long lesson about recycling and reducing your carbon footprint. We can’t, Jodie. We need sleep. And there’s no way you’re going to work tomorrow, either. I’ll call Charlie in an hour or so and say you’ve got a vomiting bug. But let’s try and sleep a bit first.”
Jodie looked at Doug forlornly, wanting to argue. Deciding that she hadn’t the energy to resist, she flopped onto the bed instead. Doug closed the bedroom curtains and coiled himself around her, their sleeping arrangement as familiar and cosy as a favourite pair of jeans.
“I wish you’d told me when we first met,” Jodie said quietly, before they slept.
“Why? Would you have decided not to marry me?”
“Of course not, that’s not what I mean, silly. I love you.” Jodie took Doug’s hand and kissed it by way of demonstration. “I believe you. But if you’d told me back then, we would’ve had bags of time to discuss it. We could have told people. Figured it out. Two days isn’t long enough.”
Doug soothed his wife with reassuring words and soporific tones, until her responses became shorter and her breathing steadier. For over an hour he watched the timer, until it ticked below the two thousand three hundred mark. It was Monday morning. The countdown would finish at 8:30pm on Tuesday night.
It was almost midday before Jodie emerged from bed, already dressed in a black trouser suit and red lipstick. Doug was sat in the kitchen with Theo, feeding him chunks of banana and singing along to Queen on the radio.
“Femme Fatale!” Doug announced, rubbing his eyes in mock disbelief.
“Toothsome”, Jodie replied, smiling.
“Tussum!” Theo interjected, gurgling happily.
“Toothsome,” Jodie repeated. “It’s the answer to two down in yesterday’s crossword. ‘Difficult Maths problem Northerner says is tempting.’ I think I must have been solving it in my sleep. Such an ugly word for delicious, isn’t it?”
Doug smiled and stood up to make some breakfast for his wife, hoisting Theo up onto his hip.
“Impressive stuff, Jo,” he said, spreading peanut butter onto a bagel with one hand and bouncing Theo with the other. “You look like a new woman! The power of sleep, ay! I think we got a bit silly about it last night. We were tired and started taking it too seriously.”
Jodie smiled and tossed the newspaper down onto the kitchen table. She kissed Doug’s and Theo’s foreheads in turn, so that the former smiled and the latter gurgled with satisfaction.
“I agree. Definitely silly! Listen, Doug, I’m feeling a load better after that sleep. If I get off now I’ll still be able to make all my afternoon appointments. Do you mind if I take my bagel with me?” With cheerful efficiency and without waiting for a response, Jodie wrapped her bagel in foil, planted two more kisses on the foreheads of Doug and Theo, plucked her car keys from her bag and left. The final bars of Bohemian Rhapsody were still playing as her car pulled off the drive. Doug watched her from the window, the number 1948 becoming smaller and smaller until she was gone from the street.
It caught Doug’s eye as soon as he returned to the kitchen: an envelope emblazoned with ‘DOUG & THEO’ in bold, red, felt tip. As though he’d been expecting to see it. As though Jodie had asked it to keep quiet until she’d left and, now that she had, it was announcing itself with alacrity.
“There’s a letter, Theo,” Doug murmured, as though Theo might be capable of offering some kind of reassurance or advice about the letter’s contents.
“Ledaaa, fee-o! Ledaaa!” Theo suggested, amiably.
“It’s obvious what it says, isn’t it?” A note of panic had crept into Doug’s voice. Maybe I should check to see if her passport has gone, he thought. Or if she’s packed a bag. Maybe I should just drive to the clinic. That might be easier than reading the note. “Maybe I should just check to see if her passport has gone? Or drive to the clinic?” He asked Theo.
“Pahpuhhh! Pah! Go!” Theo countered, lifting his arms and waving them at his father, clenching and unclenching his chubby fingers into fists the size of apricots.
“Sorry littlun, I’m worried if I lift you at this precise moment I might faint and drop you.” Doug fumbled behind him for his chair and sat down heavily, his chest tightening, his thoughts whirling, feeling unsure as to whether he might pass out or throw up.
“Numma! Numma! Ma!” Theo squealed, giggling, clapping his pudgy palms together in apparent glee. Doug turned his attention to his son: the joyful innocence of the boy, his happy obliviousness to everything besides bananas and the music of Queen and strawberry jam. Something about it made him burst into tears.
“Whatever this is, little man, whatever this timer thing is, and this note here, and this thing with your mum, we’ll sort it okay? We’ll figure out a solution together, you and me, team Albright, the Dougstinator and Theopotamus, we’ll get through it. Okay tiny?” Doug sniffed a little and wiped his eyes, his son’s face comforting him, calming him, reassuring him that nothing had changed.
But Theo was silent now. His hands were still raised in the air towards Doug, his round eyes rapt by the empty air above his father’s head.
While working on my MA this year, I’ve really tried to focus on identifying and combating my weaknesses as a writer. It turns out it’s very easy to identify weaknesses. Here are some I’ve identified myself, by looking at the habits and strengths of successful writers:
the boundary between emotive and shlocky
working without tangible evidence of progress or success
writing comedy that is actually funny
writing romance that isn’t cheesy/cliche
writing convincing dialogue
And, for fun, here are some I’ve had pointed out to me:
your main character is too superficial and self absorbed to be likable (damn lady, that character is me)
you rely too much on rhyme in your poems
your dialogue is unrealistic
this has been done before so many times that I think if you’re going to do it, you need to do it WELL
I don’t like sci-fi so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
I don’t like fantasy so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
I don’t really write short stories so it’s hard for me to critique it (can I have some of my seven grand back please, teacher)
please stop rhyming all of your poems
‘People carrier’ is not convincing sci-fi language, I don’t think people would say that in real life
FFS do you literally only know words that rhyme
Ok, I’ve gone off on a tangent now. But the point is: I am trying to focus on setting myself challenges which target my weaknesses. This flash fiction piece was an attempt to target the following:
I tried to find a picture on the topic of heaven but couldn’t find anything particularly relevant. Instead, here’s a picture of Pete and me on the ‘Heaven and Earth’ bicycle tour of Hoi An in 2014, and at the Danang Intercontinental resort the next day (the closest I’ve come to heaven on earth so far).
Seeing as this is a challenge to target my weaknesses – PLEASE feel welcome to offer some critique/criticism (particularly relating to dialogue, comedy and the effectiveness of the piece as a whole) in the comment section.
Checking In, Checking Out
The pearly gates are furry, not pearly. Imagine that! I read the information plaque just after I joined the queue: a misprint that got out of hand, apparently. And it’s leopard print! Going by what I’ve seen of the lobby, leopard print and gingham are the height of fashion here in heaven.
Angel bouncers are a misconception too – those decisions are all made electronically nowadays. Well – there is an angel, but he’s more ‘fancy spa receptionist’ than ‘shit nightclub doorman’, vibe-wise. I reach the front desk after two hours. Angel gives me a glass of watermelon juice, a glowing smile and a sing-song greeting.
“Hello and a very warm welcome to Earth Heaven, may I take a surname for yourself please, sir?”
In case you’re wondering: yes, it was unexpected.
“Fabulous Mr Trent sir, thank you. Okay, bear with me, bear with me… George is it?”
Angel swallowed a guffaw before apologising stoically. Turns out George is slang in Earth Heaven for a fluorescent pubic wig. Pretty rich considering his name-tag read ‘Colostomy Southampton’ and I hadn’t said a bloody thing.
“Fabulous! Okay, Mr Trent sir, bear with me… okay. First and foremost: you bashed your head on an outcropping of rock while bouldering with your girlfriend in the Dordogne, correct?”
“Well, she’s my wife actually, but- ”
“Oops, terribly sorry, it was your honeymoon, bear with me… Okay that’s sorted for you… Can I just confirm with yourself that this collision caused a large intracranial haemorrhage which increased intracranial pressure, prevented blood supply to your brain and subsequently resulted in death for yourself?”
“Sorry Mr Trent, I know it seems like stating the obvious, it’s just a little formality we have to run through with yourself sir for legal reasons, terribly sorry sir.”
It was only at this point that I mustered the wherewithal to ask if my wife was ok. My blood ran cold as Colostomy’s brow furrowed sympathetically. Well it might have done, had my blood not ceased to circulate my body as a direct consequence of my recent death.
“Unfortunately not, Mr Trent, sir.” Colostomy patted my forearm reassuringly. “According to these records she’s gutted, actually sir.”
“So she’s alive?!”
“Oh! Sorry, yes, alive. Definitely alive! Misunderstood your question there. DOIYNNNG!” Colostomy mimed a slapstick halo tug. “I honestly think, Mr Trent, I’d lose my own halo if it wasn’t an integral component of my immortal, celestial form! On that topic though, Mr Trent sir, I can actually at this juncture offer you a free upgrade to our couples package for no additional cost, is that something you’d be interested in at all today, Mr Trent?”
“It’s something we offer all new arrivals sir, although I should point out that whatever decision you make for yourself and Mrs Trent is final, sir; once it’s in the system I can’t undo it under any circumstances.”
“Hang on. Are you asking if I want you to kill Jenny?” Colostomy giggled uncomfortably, shifting in his ergonomic gingham cloud chair.
“Well, in a word, sir, yes. Though many customers prefer to think of it as offering their spouse the chance to get to heaven early and remain with their loved one. Yourself, in this case! Unfortunately I will need to press you for a quick decision on this one.”
“That’s horrific! Jenny’s only 28! She deserves to live a long and prosperous life! To know what it feels like to look into the eyes of her-”
“Okay, I’ve popped you down as a no for that one Mr Trent, since we are pressed for time – may I remind you that Mrs Trent will almost definitely die anyway within the next fifty to sixty years, and she is currently operating on a 78% likelihood of coming to heaven, at which point we’ll be back in touch with yourself, Mr Trent. So no worries, it’s – what’s that Earth phrase – six and two threes really, isn’t it sir? Oh no, not that one… Much of a muchness!” He laughed, muttering the phrase under his breath a few times. “Does that all sound okay to you, Mr Trent, sir?”
Now, in a moment I’ll give you your welcome pack and my colleague will be along to show you to your room. There’s an orientation presentation which screens hourly in the recreation room. Any questions you have will hopefully be answered then. Does that all sound alright for yourself, Mr Trent, sir?”
“Ah! Here’s Pam: she’ll show you to your room and answer any other questions you have along the way, okay?” Colostomy hauled a gingham holdall onto his desk and smiled at me with finality. “Here’s Mr Trent’s welcome pack, Pam. He’s on the 532nd floor. Oh, and double room please, he opted IN to the couples package-”
“No, I opted OUT of-”
“Of course, haha! Pam, I’m as useful as a lead halo today! I’ll just call my manager and get that sorted, okay, best of luck to yourself there sir, Mr Trent, sir, bye bye!”
Before I had chance to respond, Colostomy had disappeared and I found myself struggling to keep up with Pam through a labyrinth of corridors.
“Pam is it?” I called after her, hoping to slow her down. “Lovely, a good traditional English name, reminds me of an aunt I used to-”
Pam turned to me and beamed.
“French, actually! Short for Pamplemousse! Pamplemousse Apartheid. And I know what you’re going to ask next so before you do: no, you can’t meet him, 33 years old and yes but they rotate the menu weekly. Hang on, my phone’s ringing.”
Pam coughed, vomiting a cloud of pixels from her throat which formed into the shape of Colostomy’s face in the air in front of us.
“Hiya Pam, could you just pop Mr Trent back to reception for me for a moment, love? Just an extra admin thing to sort, you’re both going to laugh when you hear it!”
Here’s the first draft of a short story I wrote yesterday for my Fiction class, based on ideas from a class I’m auditing: ‘The Medical Mind and Literature’. This week, we talked about palliative care, ageing and dying. We looked at Beckett’s morbid approach to those things in his short plays Footfalls and Rockabyand discussed more positive approaches to dying, as in this interview with a palliative care assistant Kathryn Mannyx. I’m finding Beckett’s short plays pretty terrifying, but I like his ambiguity. I wrote the following story with that ambiguity in mind, but with slightly less morbidity. Quite a tricky topic to avoid though, when writing about death. The characters are loosely based on my grandparents.
“They’ll be here today, I’ve got a feeling today was the day they said. The nineteenth.” Olive pressed her toes down into her slippers a little, tried to use the grip to push herself up a little more in her armchair. But the Parkinson’s made it hard to feel her toes nowadays. When did sitting become so uncomfortable? No matter how many cushions and blankets she had, no matter how she rearranged herself, Olive couldn’t escape her jabbing bones. It was like trying to sleep on a bag of tent pegs.
“Well I won’t contradict you. You’re the one that heard them say. I didn’t hear anything.” Alfie didn’t take his eyes off the television as he answered his wife. It was always on, lately. He couldn’t remember the last time it’d been off. Quiz shows, mainly. Sometimes it was the overexcited man telling people to open boxes. Sometimes it was the suave man with the false laugh, the one that Olive liked, who wanted you to guess the most unusual answer. Alfie didn’t understand the point in either of them. Yet another thing that made him feel he’d lost touch with things.
“I don’t know how you didn’t hear. It was commotion everywhere. Honestly Alfred, trust you. Trust you to miss the end of the world.”
“I hardly think it can have been the end of the world, Liv. We’re still here aren’t we? If it’s the end of the world I think I’d have noticed, I think I’d have got out of my chair Olive, don’t you? I’ve spent half my bloody life sat in a chair talking to you. If this is what the end of the world looks like I think I’ll bloody kill myself.”
“Still swearing at your wife, at least that hasn’t changed. Make me a cup of tea Alfie, I’m sick of having this conversation. Your memory, honestly. Anyway, if it’s the end of the world then you can’t kill yourself can you, you’re already dead. Stupid man.” Alfie looked affronted but, really, he liked to be teased by his wife. Slowly, he rose from his seat and doddered into the kitchen. Less than thirty seconds later, he was back.
“What am I doing in here, Olive?”
“For goodness sake Alfie, you’re making us a cup of tea! Honestly, your mind, my body, what a pair. Anyone would think we were getting old.”
The bungalow hadn’t helped Alfie. He’d been a lot grumpier, a lot more confused, since the downsizing. At least before, he could get to the corner-shop or the bookies on auto-drive. He’d been anchored by the old house. The carpets their kids had learned to crawl on; the dining table where they’d had the grandchildren round for Sunday lunch. Memories bound up in everything. Signposts. This new bungalow – with its too shiny granite worktops and its garish ‘feature walls’ – had irritated him from the start. Olive resented their daughter for pushing the move. For insisting they’d be happier. For not visiting once it was all sorted. Not that that mattered now.
“I don’t like Fenny Bentley. I’ve never liked Fenny Bentley, Alfred. Why did we let Christine convince us this was a good idea? We’re city people. I miss Duffield. And it’s a ridiculous name for a place! It’s embarrassing to tell people our address.”
“Who do we tell? I don’t tell anyone. Olive, before I put the kettle on, remind me what they said. Remind me what they said about the end of the world. You’ve got me worried.”
“It wasn’t just what they said Alfie, it was everywhere, you could hear it, you could see it for goodness sake! You said you could see it! And why don’t you put the kettle on first, put the kettle on before you make me explain it again. You’ve been making me explain it for two weeks, I need a cup of tea.”
“I’ll put the kettle on when you’ve reminded me. Remind me what happened, I think I’d remember it, don’t you? The end of the world?”
“Like a dog with a bone, Alfred, honestly. I’d sooner tell you over tea.”
Slowly, Alfie walked back to his armchair and lowered himself into it, as though it were a bathtub of scalding water.
“How can you think of tea when you’re saying it’s the end of the world?”
“Because Alfred, I’ve had time to make peace with the idea. It’s not new information for me like it is for you, I’ve known it was the end of the world for two bloody weeks! Look, you’ve got me cursing now!”
“Tell me what they said about the end of the world, for God’s sake woman!”
Olive sighed. The kettle was only a few steps away. It might as well have been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“Alfred, it’s really quite simple. I wish you’d write it down so that I didn’t have to keep reminding you. Our daughter called. It was the middle of the night. Four o’clock, I think-”
“Which daughter? What do you mean, which daughter? It was Christine, we’ve only got one daughter.”
“Yes, I know we’ve only got one daughter! I’m not an imbecile, Olive, I thought you might have meant Chloe or Charlotte.”
“Alfred, Chloe and Charlotte are our granddaughters, why would I say daughter if I meant Chloe or Charlotte?”
“I don’t know Olive, because you’re mad. Carry on with your story would you?”
Olive closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She thought about the teabags in the next room, wondered if she could make the few steps to the kettle. The kettle was too heavy anyway, once it was full. The little things we take for granted. Once she’d dreamed of a face with no wrinkles. Now she’d just settle for being able to lift the kettle. What was coming next to make that dream seem too big?
“Don’t interrupt me this time then, Alfred. Just listen. Christine, our daughter, called in the night. It was four o’clock and she called, still dark, it was two weeks ago now, November fifth or sixth, I think. You were already awake, you’d heard banging. Christine said to me ‘mother, I’ve got terrible news, it’s the end of the world; the end of the world has come!’ Well I was half asleep, I’d been dreaming about a dog, a Yorkshire terrier; I’d been running with it. I was still half in my dream and I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of what she was saying. I said ‘the end of the world, Christine, you mean the four horsemen of the apocalypse?’ I asked her if her door was locked, you know how she is with leaving the front door unlocked. She said ‘no mother, don’t be silly, that’s the bible, it’s the end of the world. The environment, you know, we can’t live here anymore, haven’t you heard the explosions?’ Well at this time, you hadn’t told me about the explosions that you’d heard, and I’d been dreaming, you know, the Yorkshire terrier, so I didn’t know about any explosions. I said ‘You and the girls can’t live here anymore?’ And she said ‘no, not just us, all of us, humans, they’re evacuating, it starts tonight, that’s why I’m calling.’ Well it sounded like nonsense to me, so I said ‘that sounds like nonsense to me, Christine, I’m sorry to say, someone’s probably having you on.’ She said ‘no mother, look outside if you don’t believe me, anyway I’ve got to go, they’re taking us now!’
“Who’s taking them now?”
“Well quite, that’s what I said, and she said ‘they’re evacuating, there’s a space station and we’re going there! They’re starting with the women and children and they’ll be sending for the rest of you within the week.’ The moon, she said! Well blow me, I thought, barely fifty years ago, we thought it was made of cheese and now here they are, moving us out there! I said to her ‘hang on a minute Christine, if that’s the case, you’ll need to come and get me, if they’re taking the women.’ ‘No, no’ she says. ‘No no, women counts as under sixty, they’ve put you in the O.A.P. category. They’ll be back for O.A.Ps within the week.’ Well blow me, I thought, not a woman! ‘Not a woman indeed!’ I said to her, but she was talking to someone else in the background and she said to me: ‘listen mother, I’ve got to go, I’ll see you within the week!’ And that was that! Two weeks ago and not a peep!”
Alfred was quiet for a moment, staring glassily at Olive.
“I’m sorry to tell you Olive but it sounds like a load of bollocks to me.”
“It doesn’t matter what it sounds like Alfred, at the time you said you could see it out the window.”
“The end of the world!”
“Well what the bloody hell does the end of the world look like?!”
“For goodness sake, Alfred, I don’t know, I wasn’t the one looking out the bloody window! Lord, give me strength-“
“Well, what about the men? When are they coming for the men?”
“I’m not sure Alfred, but I assume that you’ll be lumped in the O.A.P. category with me.”
“What about the cat? Is there a cat category?”
“Alfred, we’ve not had a cat since nineteen seventy-five.”
“It was a bloody joke, Olive.”
Silence resumed. The well-spoken man on the television was discussing the big cash prize. It seemed like a lot of hassle for a thousand pounds.
“So if she said the end of the week, why did you say she’d be here today, if it’s been a fortnight?”
“You said they’d be back for the O.A.P.s within a week, but you said before they’d be back today, and it’s been a fortnight.”
“Well, yes. It’s quite a big operation, I imagine. I imagine it’s taking longer than they anticipated. They always underestimate how long these things take.”
“These things? What category of things exactly are you referring to, Olive dear?”
“Oh hush Alfred, you know what I mean.”
“Well if it’s the end of the world, has there been anything on the news?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You never stop watching the damned television!”
“Yes but it’s the recordings thing that Christine set up. I don’t know how to get it back onto the main channels.”
“Let me have a-”
“You tried yesterday Alfie and the day before. It’s no good, you’re as useless as me. Just a different kind of useless.”
“Right. Well. Well! What about the phone? Have you tried calling anyone? Our daughter, or anyone else? Surely you could call someone to find out when we’re getting picked up. Or if it is bollocks after all.”
“Well that’s another problem! The phone’s one of those battery powered thingies with no wires. I tried calling Christine back the next morning but it wouldn’t connect. Didn’t even ring out, and now the battery’s gone and I don’t know how to fix it. Christine normally does it.”
“Jesus Christ Olive, we’re prisoners in our own home!”
“Alfred, how many times do I have to ask you not to blaspheme in this house?! And you’re overreacting. I told you, they’ll be here today to pick us up, or Christine’ll be back. Then we can fix the phone and the TV and get to the bottom of this end of the world business. There’s no use us two going over and over it, there’s nothing left to say.”
More silence. On the final round of the quiz show, the contestants guess was unsuccessful. Polite hugs, commiserations, theme music. Olive muted the television. As though on cue, the clock on the mantelpiece rose to fill the void of sound, chiming six o’clock.
“That’s dinner time, that is. Six o’clock. What are we having, Liv?” Alfie was cheered by the idea of food; the routine, the comfort. Perhaps there would be a beer. When all else failed, the effects of beer gave texture to a day. He pulled himself up, energised by this thought, and helped his wife to her feet. She wobbled a moment before finding her balance, and letting him lead her slowly into the kitchen, sitting her at the dining table. Alfie did the cooking now but old habits die hard. He liked Olive to tell him what to do.
“What am I making?” He opened the fridge door and scanned the contents expectantly. Two eggs; a tub of butter; some milk dregs; two shrivelled carrots; no beer.
For Olive, this daily refreshment of Alfie’s disappointment was the hardest thing.
“Love, we’re down to tins. And there’s some bread in the freezer. How about beans on toast? And tinned peaches for pudding? There might be a bit of custard powder left but we’ll have to mix it with water.”
“Why on earth are we down to tins? I’m not having that Liv, I’ll go to the shops. Where’s my coat?”
“I’m not letting you go roaming out there, it’s dark. And late. And it’s the end of the world. Christine will be here any minute, with food, or they’ll be coming to get us-”
“Oh bloody hell Liv! I’m not living off of tins because of some stupid idea you’ve got in your head, give me my coat, I’m going to the shop, and if you try and stop me I’ll give you a clip round the ear!”
“Alfred Johnson. Do not threaten me like a child! You are not going to the shop. Even if it wasn’t the end of the world, you don’t know where the shop is and you’d get lost. And who’s going to come and find you? Me?” Olive gestured down to her legs, pale and veined with blue. As useless as having slinkies for legs. This softened Alfie. Sighing, he turned to the cupboard and started preparing the meal.
They ate at the dining table, slowly and silently. Alfie wanted to ask questions about the end of the world, about who was coming, about what the end of the world meant. But it was hard to remember which questions he’d already asked, and the bickering was starting to weary him. Olive wanted to discuss it too, wanting desperately for Alfie to remember the bangs, to describe what he’d seen out of the window, to reassure her. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and she didn’t want to bicker either.
Another quiz show and a soap took them to seven thirty. They’d watched the same few episodes a few times now. Olive didn’t really mind though, so she didn’t remind Alfie. It was probably too late now for anyone to come and get them, probably a little too early to go to bed. When they were younger, the evenings had been too short. They had always ended up accidentally staying up too late. When did that stop?
“Alfie, be a love. Unhook my bra for me so I can get into my nightie. I can do the rest myself.”
“Ey, it’s my lucky night!”
“Come off it, you make the same joke every night you batty old thing. Unhook it.”
“What about them getting here? Look well if they get here and you’re sat there in your nightie, with no bra on. They might not take us, if you’ve got no bra on.”
“Alfie love, I doubt they’re coming tonight. With it being this dark, and seven thirty already. I think it was tomorrow they said anyway. Today or tomorrow it was, it’ll probably be tomorrow now.”
“Oh, it was today or tomorrow?”
“Yes. Nineteenth or twentieth, I’m certain it was the twentieth, now I think of it. They’ll be here in the morning I expect, when it’s light. We’ll watch one more soap shall we, then we’ll go to bed ey? Then in the morning, when it’s light, we’ll be nice and refreshed, ready for them to collect us.”
“Well if you think it’s tomorrow.”
“It’s definitely tomorrow.”
“Well, either way, I’m checking what’s going on outside tomorrow, in the morning, when it’s light. Sort this out once and for all.”
“That’s fine love. You check it when it’s light. But they’re definitely coming tomorrow.”
Here’s a horrible short story I’ve been working on for the past couple of days based on an idea I came up with on a run: what would happen if Shakespeare’s tragedies hadn’t ended as they did? It’s said that “comedy = tragedy + time” but I’m not sure I agree; my idea with this story is more along the lines of “tragedy = romance + time”. I’m sure this kind of ‘fan fiction’ has been done online a hundred times but here is my spin, anyway.
If The Letter Had Arrived
One bare foot pressed against the chill stone floor, Juliet kicked back and forth listlessly in her rocking chair and gazed out over the scorched, barren landscape of her Mantua. Though she’d often dreamed of moving closer to the city as the years had passed, her husband had never been convinced that it was safe; they had stayed out here in the dusty outskirts, existing on the little funds that they had been able to sequester on that final night. On evenings like this, sat alone as dusk settled and drew in the horizon, the bareness scared her. Juliet pulled a woollen blanket around her cold shoulders and waited. Romeo was late home again.
This time he was drinking and gambling. Most nights were much the same. Although he didn’t like to talk about the details, Juliet knew that her husband supplemented their humble ‘nest egg’ with what he called “satisfying the whims of the fringes of polite society”. Romeo had not lost his penchant for poetry, though Juliet knew that she had long since ceased to be his muse. Drinking and gambling were part of the territory of his work, he had told her. Whether the women that she smelled on his clothes were as fundamental, she was less sure. Romeo’s passions were insatiable and in the end, he had deemed Juliet finite.
She should have known. She often tortured herself with these words, knowing how he had pined for other women before her. Knowing how fantastical and insubstantial his love for her had seemed. The moon, indeed! But love is blind and youth is hasty, she reminded herself. Some days, as she sat on the cool stone of their kitchen floor and washed his shirts, she imagined how he spent his days and nights in the city: his head buried in the nape of some young girl’s neck, chasing some impossible satisfaction in the scent of her hair. Other days she dreamed about her nurse. She cursed herself for not taking her advice and marrying Paris. How childish she felt now for dismissing him as boring. The real mistake had been relying on a man alone to stem boredom. Sometimes at night it was Paris’ face that she saw as she drifted into sleep. More often though it was the city itself: the world that he would have allowed her to live in. She remembered the Juliet that she had been then and winced: that fierce Juliet had not seemed destined to be some drunken crook’s wife.
She missed the buzz of Verona. The night-time heat of the narrow streets and the pungency of the aromas that floated up from the Adige River; the sordid stories that they allowed her to imagine about the lives of her neighbours. She missed the red hot anger of the rows that she had had with her father, the coolness of the stone floor as she had fled from him and the sweet, soapy scent of her pillow as she flung herself upon it. She missed walking veiled through crowds, anonymous, listening to the cat calls of the market vendors. And she missed the hushed murmurs of the guests at her father’s parties as she descended the grand staircase like royalty, swathed in the finest silks and velvets of the Veneto. “Look at Juliet”, she had heard them whisper. “What a fine woman she is becoming”. Life in Verona had been all about beginnings. Juliet was not sure when her world had ceased to be fresh and new. Now her world was the long, slow suicide of waking and sleeping in Mantua.
She awoke, disoriented and still in her chair, to the familiar laughter, chatter and loud crashing of drunken Romeo. He had brought someone back, some other lonely bar fly she supposed. She saw her husband, backlit by the struggling candle she had left burning in the kitchen, fumbling with tankards and a keg. She sighed and half rose from her chair to complain but he was already stumbling towards her, beaming, ready to silence her protestations.
“The inn-keeper sold it to me at a very good price Jules and I had good reason: we’re celebrating!” He kissed her forehead roughly and flung a tankard into her hand, ale slopping onto her dress in his fervour. His shaggy beard was glistening with the memory of several pints already drunk. Romeo gestured at the other man and beckoned him towards her. He lit a second lamp and the little living room filled with warm light, revealing the guest’s shy smile.
“Juliet”, Benvolio breathed her name reverently, as though in the presence of a spectre. “I said I wouldn’t believe him until I saw for myself.” He stepped closer and took her by both hands, guiding her to stand. In fifteen years, his face had become more lined but his warm eyes and the gentleness of his smile had not faded. Juliet became suddenly bashful of her thin, worn nightdress. He held a hand to her cheek, as Romeo stood grinning, evidently thrilled by the high drama. “You look a little fuller and a little more tired but I still see you in there when I look closely, the beautiful girl that stole our Romeo’s heart.” His voice was warm but his words cut her; Romeo had become inconspicuous through his facial hair and his humble clothes. Time itself had taken care of Juliet’s anonymity.
They drank long into the night, until the keg ran out. They had found each other in a bar, it turned out. Benvolio was visiting on business. Romeo repeatedly chastised Benvolio for not visiting sooner; Benvolio laughed uncomfortably and reiterated his fear of punishment. They shared stories of the fifteen years past. Juliet looked for jealously in Romeo’s eyes when Benvolio revealed that he had married Rosaline. “Five beautiful children! The first true union of the Montagues and Capulets!” Juliet felt a pang of jealousy in herself then. Sometimes Romeo would still talk about Rosaline fondly, but it was the children that she had not given him that she knew he pined for the most.
Eventually Romeo fell asleep slumped at the table, tankard still in hand. Juliet guided him to bed and returned to the little sitting room, dropping lightly into her rocking chair again. Benvolio’s smile gleamed in the candlelight. “This little room, the candles, the stone walls. It reminds me of the last time I saw you, how we all thought it would be the last time. To look at you then, no one could have convinced me that you’d ever wake up.” She cast her mind back to that long ago night in the tombs; the relief that the plan had worked; the glittering excitement in Romeo’s eyes; Lawrence ushering them nervously through corridors and dark alleys in the dead of night; the only time she had ever ridden astride a horse. It had once been a gilded memory, worn thin by overuse. She found it too painful to dwell on now.
“He’s the same but you’ve changed. You look tired Juliet.” He was standing over her and swaying a little, his hand outstretched. She took it and he pulled her to her feet clumsily, landing himself in the rocking chair with her on his lap. Men took to alcohol differently: Romeo was the type to become excited quickly and then slump into lethargy or depression. For other men it was a slow burn to misguided passions. The light of the latter burned in Benvolio’s eyes now, searching for some equivalent light in hers that she felt powerless to offer him. He pulled her towards him and kissed her firmly on the mouth. “What happened to you Benvolio?” She asked, tired. “You used to really care about him. All you wanted was for your friends to be happy.” Her voice was flat, mournful. He looked at her without really looking at her. “What happened to you Juliet? All you used to care about was him.” He kissed her again and she let him, not so much out of desire but out of apathy. The old rocking chair creaked loudly to the rhythms of their bland love making, and Juliet found herself more irritated by the sound than distressed that it might wake Romeo.
Benvolio left as the sun began to crack over the horizon, while Romeo lay snoring deeply in the next room. She watched him walk away from her – hurriedly and without turning to wave – and knew that it would be the last she saw of him. Rocking again in her chair, she waited patiently for the sun to rise enough to begin warming the house from the chill that the night had set into its stones. She thought about all the sunrises and all the sunsets and wondered what it would take to make her feel something again as she had done when she was thirteen.
Below is a piece of writing I submitted in the second year of my BA at the University of East Anglia.
For a few years around that time I worked at a hospital during the holidays, serving tea and coffee to patients and plating up their dinners. I wrote the following based on my experiences with the patients on those wards. At the time, I was fascinated by the realisation that at the end of life, we all start looking and acting the same. We come in to the world as identikit yowling babies and we go out of it as identikit OAPs in hospital gowns. More or less. It was a pretty tragic realisation.
Even worse: I realised that as identity appears to fade with age, so does everybody else’s memory that we were ever anything other than grey, wrinkled and probably a little confused. When my granddad developed Alzheimer’s and his personality changed quite drastically, we all found it hard to remember what a hero he had been to the whole family for all those years previous. When he died, all of those memories came back. But imagine how much harder that must be for a nurse working 12 hour shifts, never having known the younger versions of their patients. But life must go on.
I haven’t edited the story at all after re-reading it just now, so although the recollections still seem interesting to me I think the construction of it is a bit lacking. I’d like to clarify that I’ve since learned to use a semi-colon and start less of my sentences with pronouns. Thanks, 90’s Labour government for your grammar-sparse curriculum which resulted in me learning these things as a teacher in my twenties.
P.S. I got a first for this. Bitches.
It was a Monday evening in August that I first met Sarah. The sticky warmth of the day lingered in the cramped hospital air so that my pinstripe bib and waist high work trousers clung uncomfortably. It was a race as usual to find my clock-in card as the little dial flickered from 16:59 to 17:00, but I stamped it in time, absentmindedly pulling a green mop head from the bucket marked ‘clean’ in the corner of the office. “Ward Nine, ‘Elderly Medicine’!” My supervisor barked at me, ticking my name off on her clipboard.
Six shifts this week. I emptied sachets of custard powder, gravy powder and soup mix into plastic jugs. I’d perfected the technique a long time ago; an inch or so of cold water, whisk out the lumps, top it up with boiling water, whisk until it’s a little too thin. The custard especially seems to thicken and clog in the serving jug as it sits on the cold trolley, being poured in school dinner lumps over strawberry whips and slabs of jelly. Six shifts. One hundred and eighty patients. One hundred and eighty dinners and puddings. One hundred and eighty lots of “would you like a cup of tea Basil/Ivy/Edna/Joseph?” That’s one funny thing about the hospital; it’s populated by a different generation, a testament to a pocket of fashion that’s long expired, when Jeans and Marys were the height of vogue. Another thing is the food. ‘Liver and onions’ is probably the most popular meal on the menu but ‘lamb balti’ always goes untouched, left to be furtively prodded at by hungry nurses as they complain about it threatening their bikini diets.
I wheeled my cold trolley into the corridor and an auxiliary nurse came to help, belting on a plastic green apron. “What’s the first pudding then love? I’ll plate it up for you.” I read the name on the menu, ‘Jean Patterson’, neatly printed in block capitals. I asked the nurse for a yoghurt as I ladled soggy cauliflower cheese onto a heated plate, a spoonful of greying peas, a scoop of mashed potato. I piled it onto a plastic tray with a menu and a cutlery set.
“Mrs Patterson?” I called, and stepped into the bay. Four women were lying in portable beds, all wearing the same thin white nightdress, ‘PROPERTY OF GOOD HOPE HOSPITAL’ printed at the neckline. They all lay tucked to their necks under matching blue blankets, silent and milky eyed. They stared into space, out of the window, at their blankets. I looked at the white boards strapped to the foot of each bed. Sylvia, Bertha, Hilda, Joan. “Hi Joan I’ve got your dinner for you here!” I chimed brightly. The visitor at her side looked up and reached for the tray with a conservative smile. “Thank you nurse.” She had the prim tone of a private school headmistress. I might have corrected her on my job title but she carried on. “Nurse, do you think that you could get us an extra side plate please? We’ll have a go with this hot meal but she is ever so stubborn with her eating and I’m hoping to try her on some tomato sandwiches, we seem to have more luck with those.” I didn’t think people like Sarah existed, I’d always presumed that they were a fictional construct reserved for 1950’s piano teachers and horse breeders. It made me wonder what Joan had been like as a mother, if she’d been as stern and proper as Sarah before she’d become the meekly mute, confused little woman that lay in bed four, bay twelve.
Sarah’s olive skirt was heavy tweed that reached her ankles when she stood to take the plate that I’d fetched. She was as grey as her mother, assuming Joan was her mother. But while Sarah’s hair was coarse and neatly trimmed into a bob, Joan’s formed sparse cotton wool like tufts that seemed to cushion her fragile head on the stiff hospital pillow. Sarah never actually told me her name. I only know now because I saw a note on Joan’s bedside table one day, a brief line on crisp letter writing paper in the same tidy print as on Joan’s menus. ‘I’ve a dentist’s appointment this evening so I shan’t be in until around seven. See you then, Sarah.’ I listened to her as I plated up meals for the other three women in the bay, stiffly recounting everything she’d done that day while unwrapping the cling film bound sandwiches, cutting them diagonally into quarters. “Come on now” I heard her say as I pushed my trolley back down the corridor, “let’s see if we can have some tomato sandwiches. It’s the bread you used to use so you should like them. Come on then, hey?”
Tuesday, and I was on ward nine again. In the kitchen I listened to music through headphones to drown out the erratic bleeping of machinery, trundling through the same routine. Apron, hair net, custard, gravy, soup. Set up the cold trolley, set up the hot trolley, check temperatures, check menus. I started on wing one and took Peter a beef and horseradish sandwich on white bread with a bowl of strawberry jelly and blancmange. He’d been sheepish the day before following a bed wetting incident but that day he winked at me and grinned as I set down his tray. “If you were my girl, I’d tell the whole world I had the prettiest doll in town!” He announced, smoothing down the starchy sleeves of his cyan hospital pyjamas. I grinned back and called him a charmer.
On the other end of the ward I heard Sarah before I saw her, that same firm tone spilling out into the corridor, forming a familiarly one sided conversation with Joan. “I got up this morning and did a little gardening to sort out those marigolds that the slugs had been at and then I had to pop down to the Co-op to fetch some flour so I could make a crumble with those blackberries Alice gave me from her garden. I cleaned the upstairs bathroom and put a wash on and then Susan called me – she’s going to Cornwall next week so I’m going to pop over and see her tomorrow afternoon on the way here and lend her a couple of Eric’s walking guides. So then I made you some tomato sandwiches and drove over here. You can have them in a minute when the lady makes you your tea, now let’s see if we can get some of this cooked dinner down you. Shepherd’s pie today, now let’s have a few mouthfuls, hey? Come on now don’t be silly, you’ll have one more mouthful. Here we go then let’s try you on a tomato sandwich. It’s your favourite isn’t it? Come on then, good girl, well done.” For some reason I wanted to impress Sarah, with her smart blazer and bossy tone, so I made Joan a milky tea in a lidless beaker and without sugar, hoping that Sarah would appreciate my remembering. “Thank you nurse.” She said, with a measured tone. I didn’t like to correct her by then.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Ward Nine had become my regular ward. I started to look forward to hearing Irene talk about something she’d seen on the news, and to seeing Walter in bay three. He’d struggled to pronounce words since his second stroke, but always clapped me, wild eyed and wide grinned, when I brought him his sugary black coffee in a beaker. In bay one the stench of urine flamed in my nostrils, and I tried to breathe through my mouth as I stood by Roy’s bed. One spoonful of thickener Roy?” I asked him brightly as I stirred his tea to the consistency of custard. He didn’t answer, but I hadn’t expected him to. I’d never heard Roy speak. He stared at me, expressionless, hand outstretched. On his arm I saw a tapestry of tattoo’s, indecipherable beneath his wrinkled flesh. I tried to imagine Roy as a young man, having tattoos inked across taut young arms, having passion enough to want something indelibly marked on his person. I wished Roy could remember it, as he mechanically sucked the thickened tea through a straw.
I signed myself up for seven shifts the next week. A few patients had gone home. Hilda in bay twelve with the permanently wan smile and a German lilt to her accent that reminded me of a grandmother from a Roald Dahl story. Jasper in bay three, who couldn’t bear to be clothed. He’d moved to another ward. Joan was still there though, still quiet and confused, murmuring shy questions about where she was and what she’d done wrong. When she asked me and the nurses we awkwardly pretended not to hear, but Sarah would answer her like a primary school teacher, patronising but patient. “Now you know that, you’re here to get better. None of this silliness about doing something wrong, it’s just the way, hey?”
I went and spoke to Matilda in bay five, who was excited about some teabags her husband had left her. She read out the labels, seemingly amused by the exotic flavours. “Look at this then, lemon and ginger! Can I try that?” I dispensed hot water into a cup while she giggled, lifting each box in turn. “Peppermint! Well that’s not so bad. Would you look at this nurse? Blackcurrant Zinger! Well now I’ve heard it all.” I’d got on well with Matilda at first. Her extensive vocabulary and newsreader diction had reminded me of my favourite teacher at school. It had also led me to assume that Matilda’s ailment was physical, but the week before she’d surprised me. As I took her her tea she’d beckoned me down and muttered, “nurse, are you aware of this conspiracy?” I’d laughed at first but she stared at me stonily, waiting for my response. “I know most of the nurses are in on it but I’m not sure about you, what do you make of it?” I laughed again nervously, and told her I was sure she’d got it wrong. As I pushed the trolley out, she called to me “just give it some thought, nurse!” One of the auxiliaries pulled me aside later and told me that Matilda had dementia, and was deteriorating rapidly. “She’s a little upset today chick, best to just humour her”. She’d been her normal self ever since, perfectly lucid. But I could never bring myself to talk to her properly again.
That Thursday I brushed past Sarah as I walked onto the ward. She gave me a flustered nod as we passed, stuffing cling filmed tomato sandwiches into a heavy looking linen bag on her shoulder. It was maybe half an hour later that I reached Joan’s menu, but before I could check it the auxiliary took it from my hands. “She’s gone love.” She said, stuffing it into the bin. My mind went blank for a moment. “Gone?” “Yeah sorry love I should have gone through and checked. Oh and Elsie’s nil-by-mouth now so chuck hers while I’m thinking about it.” I peered into the bay and there it was. Joan’s bed, empty and remade. Her name board had been wiped clean and the usual pile of empty tablet cups and unused swabs had been tidied from her bedside table. “Oh.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask what ‘gone’ meant, and I couldn’t detect anything in the nurse’s voice. I heard myself making an excuse about having forgotten Bertha’s soup beaker – she wouldn’t eat it out of a bowl – and ran to the kitchen.
As I pushed through the heavy double doors a dry sob escaped from my throat and my face started to burn. Gone. Had Sarah looked sad? She’d been flustered but maybe she was just hurrying to another ward, or helping Joan to get her things home. But Joan wasn’t ready to go home. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to recall the image of Sarah walking past me. Was there a tear in her eye? Had they been glistening a little more than usual? I was sure her cheeks had been a little redder but perhaps not. What about the tomato sandwiches? Why was she holding them? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. After a minute or so I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. I picked up a beaker from the tea trolley and walked back into the corridor. With my most cheerful sing-song voice and my hospital smile, I said “right then! Here’s Bertha’s soup, shall we see if she’ll have a bit of jelly too?” And we carried on.