Saturday, 23 October 2010

Strange News From Another Star

“Have you seen my library card?” Liam asked. It was barely a month before exams and he still didn't understand integration by parts. “Where you left it.” his mother replied, sardonically. He stared at her in mock disgust. “Try the middle drawer.” she smiled, forcing his grin wide with her own.

It took a few moments to prise the drawer open, jammed as it was with the jumble of bank statements and back issues of Nature. The card had fallen down one side of the clutter; white moulded plastic, barcoded, with his details printed in blue ink. He slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans and made across the room. “Drawer.” his mother commanded. Paper spilled from the open wound.

Compartment closed, the student retrieved an emerald green top from the leather sofa, a thickly stitched weave, heavy and loose fitting. He pulled his head through the neck, swept the hood back from his crown and adjusted the turned up cuffs. Then he removed a pair of headphones from the front pouch, placed one in each ear and slung a backpack over his left shoulder. “Won’t be long.” Liam called. “Okay, see you later.” came the reply from the kitchen. He stepped into the hallway and pressed play. Distorted piano chords filled his ears as he twisted the lock on the front door. Voices were heard. Liam cast an eye over the naval plaques which lined the walls up the stairs. An acoustic guitar sounded in his left ear. He made to step out the door. In the distance, a phone was ringing. He stopped. Instinct told him revision would have to wait.

“Mum, put you seatbelt on.” She was struggling to shift gears, she was freaking out so much. He repeated the command. “Oh it doesn’t matter.” she snapped back. Of course she was right. Funny the things you fixate on to stay focussed. The Peugeot jerked and spluttered its way to the junction.

She made a right and, having regained some composure, took the hill smoothly. Ten minutes later they were pulling into a car park.

Liam had never seen his mother move so quick. Her short legs were a blur, he had almost to break into a jog to keep up with her. He gazed over the buildings of concrete grey and pebbledash, portacabins left askew, as if dropped there by the gods. Signs of blue and yellow littered the walls, road signs hung together in steel bunches. Weeds invaded the tarmac from every crack and crevice. His mother accelerated away from him and let the door shut behind her. The integral of u times dv over dx is equal to u times v, minus the integral of v times du over dx.

Pandemonium. “Geoffrey can you hear me?” Figures huddle about a bed. “Geoffrey. Geoff, can you hear me?” The man’s body jerks, mouth spluttering, skeletal limbs flailing, his distended stomach arching into the air. An oxygen mask is clumsily fitted to his face, a light shines on his pupils. The sickly sweet smell invades the senses. The heat is stifling. A shape emerges out of the gloom, illuminated by a single shaft of light. They are ushered out of the room.

“We’re losing him.” the Macmillan Nurse told them as she entered the waiting room. She was clearly shocked by the man’s decline. A diagnosis had finally been made only eight days before and his deterioration since had been rapid. Liam guessed his father was too world weary to fight the disease. The thought saddened him more than anything else.

His mother was distraught. His arm was around her shoulders in an effort to console her as she sobbed her heart out. One tissue after another pressed to her face in a vain effort to stem the flow which poured from her eyes and nose, her body convulsing as she hyperventilated, like a child sent to his room.

Liam was calm. His grandmother, his mum’s mum, had died five months before and he’d been calm then too. He could remain impassive to the outside world when it encroached too far. But he felt guilt. He’d seen the effect terminal disease had on the family forced to cope and he’d hoped for a quick end. Having reached that destination posthaste, the remorse was overwhelming.

After a time, they were allowed back into the room. The prone figure now lay alone. No oxygen mask remained. He continued to breathe, but it was a shallow, noiseless breath. All previous physical activity had ceased.

The curtains had been drawn. A jaundiced light filled the room. Little was visible of the man beneath the covers, save the swell of his stomach. His once full jowls hung loose, the whiskers grown long where he’d been unable to gain purchase to shave. His arms had wasted to skin and bones, the tattoos there, souvenirs of his days at sea, withered. To Liam, they resembled the remains of a burst balloon; the print shrunken and shrivelled.

It was all too much for him. He used every excuse to escape the room while his mother kept vigil. He made calls to family, used the toilet, smoked one fat roll up after another, each time hoping that the end had been and gone before his return. But every time he re-entered, his father lingered on and he despised himself for running out on his mum. It was an enormous relief when his aunt arrived.

Mostly, he made repeated calls to his brother. Matt was already at university, but it was still mid-morning and he was in lectures. His mobile was off and he wasn’t expected back at halls 'til the afternoon. His flatmates were trying to get a message through to him.

Matt would feel this most acutely, he thought. They’d always got on, whereas Liam’s relationship with his father had often been stilted. He thought of the days spent visiting his dad these last few weeks, while the hospital ran tests. Sitting on the ward, desperately trying to think of something to say and hearing only silence. They were too alike his mother said. He guessed she was right.

It was on one of his many flights that Liam ran into the junior doctor that had been running tests. A leggy, South African blonde, there was something about the way she carried herself that Liam found intimidating, made all the more intense by the soporific lilt of her accent. He asked what was happening. She explained that it can happen in cancer that fluid leaks into the lungs. Liam contemplated the irony of an ex-naval serviceman, ten years retired, drowning in his own body.

“It shouldn’t be long now.” She seemed rather blasé, but he supposed you needed to be in this job. Not remaining detached and desensitised could quickly drive one insane. He returned to the sickroom and chose not to share what he’d learned.

A calm settled and Liam found it easier to remain. He stood over the seated sisters, but his feet hurt and he took to leaning against a peeling beige wall, limbs crossed.

There was a knock at the door and a sallow face appeared in the crack. "Paper.” Liam slipped out into the corridor. A woman in a yellow and white checked tabard stood besides a metal trolley. It had been left, aslant, in the middle of the corridor and was for the most part stacked with banded rolls of newspaper. A petty cash box sat at the edge. The woman, Rose, had delivered his dad's copy of the Daily Mirror almost continuously during his admittance. Liam explained the situation. “Oh no.” she replied, in a singsong tone. “He seemed so right in himself yesterday. We had a right good natter.” It wasn’t the first time he'd heard this. Both the Macmillan Nurse and the gorgeous doctor had told Liam that his father had been having a laugh and a joke with staff half an hour before he went into fit.

Rose pushed her trolley off down the corridor, whistling to herself. Liam frowned after her and shook his head. He let a snort escape through his nose.

Yesterday the hospital had run out of copies of the Mirror and his father had sent him out to get one. As he was leaving, his dad had snapped at his mother and Liam had caught the look of anguish in her face, tears welling up in her eyes. He’d hated him at that moment. Yes, he was dying, but he wasn’t the only one suffering. Liam returned with the paper, but couldn’t stand to remain in the same room. He made his excuses and headed home on the pretext of studying. “Bye son. See you tomorrow.”

There was some confusion when he re-entered the room. His father’s breathing had become so shallow that it was no longer visible and there was a discussion as to whether he had already passed. Liam fetched the nurse. She checked his vitals. “He’s not quite gone.” She asked if they would like her to stay and it was agreed that she should.

Liam thought back to that night last November when his gran had collapsed halfway up the stairs. As a family they’d laid her down on the landing, covered her with a blanket and called an ambulance. The estate on which she lived became a perilous place at night, the bins were set alight at least once a month. The paramedics asked him to stand guard over their ambulance while they worked inside.

As they’d wheeled her out, the mark of death on his gran's face was unmistakable. Officially, she’d died on the way to hospital, but Liam knew that the woman who used to take him to bingo, taught him to play cards, had already ceased to be. And it was the same here. No matter how long his death rattle went on for, the man he knew was gone.

His mother’s upturned face had the same look of anguish as before. “His hands are cold.” she said. “He always had such lovely warm hands.” Liam nodded. The last stanza of the poem they’d been studying at college came to mind:

And you my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

He closed his eyes.

When he opened them, the room was gone. He stood above a crescent shaped cove. The cliff swept out an arc to his left. Mountainous terrain dominated the skyline to the east. To the west, the sea stretched beyond the horizon. The surf crashed against the rocks below. The wind tore at his face, sending his hair in eight different directions. An eerie silence dominated the scene. Liam tried to speak, then to shout and finally to scream, but aside from the pounding in his ears there was no sound whatsoever.

A figure stood on the sands below. My father, methinks I see my father. He looked for another way down, but the promontory he stood upon was a sheer drop.

A well-worn path climbed a slope ahead of him. He ran to its summit and looked for another way down. The trail split in two. One continued along the rim of the cliff, flanked by heather and jagged rock. He rejected this as it seemed a dead end. The other descended behind the cove. Liam half jumped, half scrambled down, heels digging into the turf, palms spread out behind him. Stone fragments rolled down with him, threatening to send him flying. He reached the bottom with a bump and found himself immersed in thick forest.

Keeping the rock face at all times in view, Liam pushed through the pines that blocked his way. His shoes squelched in the mud, but what concerned him more than the numbing in his toes was the sky. It was getting darker. At first the change had barely been discernible, gradually dimming. Now the level of illumination fell in blocks, as if someone was boarding up the sun. He could hardly see the hand in front of his face.

The tree line came to an abrupt end and he found himself at the bank of a wide, shallow stream. It flowed off the foothills at pace and travelled a short distance to be swallowed by the entrance to a cave. Excellent!
From the cliff face, Liam had seen a channel of water flowing into the sea. It poured out of an opening in the rock. He knew if he followed the stream to its destination, it would eventually lead him to the beach. He hadn’t counted on navigating it in total darkness however.

Within seconds, the pitch black engulfed him. Being also rendered deaf, it was only the icy pain in his extremities that told him he was still alive. The current was strong, having coursed off the mountains, and he had to struggle to stay on his feet. He could feel the roof lowering above him. It touched the back of his neck, the slime there only adding to his discomfort. Every inch of his being shivered with each agonising step he took.

The shelf went still lower, forcing him to crouch. And as the space grew smaller, so the water climbed higher. The current was now so strong that it was only by clinging to the walls closing in around him that he was prevented from being dragged under.

Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a point of light, but reasoned it to be a hallucination. He didn’t think he could take another step, the cold and fear were so overwhelming. But some instinct spurred him on and he kept hauling himself forward, one frozen step at a time. Another point of light appeared and this time there could be no mistake. A second came into view. He felt a sea breeze at his face.

The stars were out as he emerged. He managed to clamber down one side of the spewing channel, jumping the last few feet. His legs gave way under him and he collapsed on the sand, wheezing, as the feeling slowly returned to his legs. He tore off the heavy top, sodden with water, then laid on his back and inhaled deeply, the pain in his ribs and lungs excruciating. With a Herculean effort, he dragged himself to his feet.

He ran. Sprinted across the sand, his legs twice buckling underneath him. Small eruptions kicked up with each stride he took. The figure grew larger in his field of vision.

"     " he shouted. "           " The man’s gaze remained fixed on the horizon. Liam covered the last few feet and collapsed to his knees in front of him. Still his father started out to sea. He pushed himself up and waved his hands about in front of him. Nothing. He grabbed his arm. His dad blinked, broke the stare and a warm smile greeted his son. "A candle won't burn at the bottom of the ocean." Liam's expression changed to one of puzzlement.

There was a sound, like a voice playing backwards, that built into a wave of feedback. It screeched at his ears, causing to him to cry out in pain, falling to the floor, hands at his ears. His dad walked off towards the turbulent sea. Liam raised a hand to his retreating father, but the noise was horrendous and he curled, foetal, on the sand. The wave reached crescendo, exploded, and he heard a voice, like the entire world announcing in unison: “Oh Geoff.”

With a flash, the vision faded and he found himself back in the sickroom. “He’s gone.” the nurse said. His mother kissed his father's lifeless hand, was inconsolable as her sister helped her out of the room. Liam felt a chill run through him. Nothing would ever be the same again.

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