Rated: E · Short Story · Drama · #1895728
A short story about what strangers may say when one of them is awfully quiet.
Jackie Bishop’s head hit the windshield at approximately 55 miles per hour. Much later, perhaps she would read the report in the newspapers, and see these words and form some kind of mental picture of her own head – solid enough, she had always thought, but evidently she was wrong – flying forwards at terrifying speed towards a glass pane. But she mustn’t have realised at the time, and so, when the car wrapped itself around the tree, what crashed through her mind could not have been the understanding of the speed she was travelling and the cold hospital days that lay ahead, but rather the crush of glass and the slow, warm trickle of blood.
Privy to the incident had been Norton Grey. He lived nearby and often roamed the countryside, not for enjoyment, but rather because he felt that, living on sixteen acres, he really ought to explore it. So he walked, puffing and panting until the hairs on his chin turned a little greyer and his leather boots became scuffed beneath the toe. Norton’s wife was Swedish, and very quiet, and sat in blondish neutrality as she sewed initials onto things and watched art-house films. She was not disinterested nor discontented, but simply non-aligned, as stars sometimes are to earth. She was younger than he, and sometimes he imagined that they too were stars, and that his clumsily spun in quite a different orbit to hers, where anything he said to her had to pass through inexhaustible light-years until the words finally reached her, crumbly and practically inaudible. Thankfully, whenever he went on his rambling walks, he found – and this pleased him very much – that he missed her face and her hands, and he really hoped she had enjoyed her latest movie, and that he honestly didn’t mind going home at all, so maybe the universe was feeling small tonight.
When his eyes stumbled across the sight of Jackie, wearing a gown of twisted blue metal and crushed in nature’s unforgiving embrace, his blood pressure dropped, as it was wont to do, and his eyes grew foggy and black. He steadied himself, and dialed, trembling, the three numbers he had been taught since he was a little boy, but that he hopefully – childishly, perhaps – assumed he’d never have to use. He dredged them from his memory and they sprang easily and comfortably, as if betraying the optimism on which he prided himself. When an address had been given and an ambulance was despatched, he made his way towards Jackie, whose hand was draped carelessly out of the misshapen window. Everything was very quiet, as if the trees themselves were holding their breath at the sight of something so bent and broken, a toy they had ruined. Jackie’s face was hidden, and Norton couldn’t see if she was breathing, couldn’t hear if her heart was beating or if her blood was rushing or if she was very, very afraid. She lay crushed inside a great and treacherous hand. He sat on the grass, staring and breathing deeply to remind himself that he – and hopefully Jackie – still could.
The ambulance workers were thin, greyish men and women, who all appeared to be pulled taught by invisible fishing lines. They bustled around Jackie with saddening informality, dryly stating medical terminology like binary code. From countless vehicles emerged more and more people, acting and assessing. Some spoke to Norton, calling him ‘Sir’ with a grim immediacy in their voices, pulling him this way and that, but he couldn’t lift his eyes from Jackie. They prised her from the jaws of her vehicle and then they began to remove her, wipe away the stains of her being there, and bundle her into the ambulance. Norton managed to clasp onto the coats of one of the paramedics, and he asked in a wavering voice which hospital she would be at, and if he could see her.
“Do you want to follow behind us?” She gestured with a thumb to the back of the ambulance, where people clambered in and out like termites. She had an American accent, but it somehow didn’t soften her voice. She wore a concrete face.
Norton’s eyes grew wide. “No. No, no, I shouldn’t. I have… I must…”
She shrugged and leapt into the back of the van. The sirens began and, for a second, the peace was shattered as the automated scream reverberated around the quaint English countryside, before the ambulance roared away, and Norton had to sit down before he could make his way home.
The hospital car park had many available spaces. Perhaps the cars of the dead and dying evaporated in their places, leaving a ghostly, yet very convenient, empty lot. Norton had brought flowers, although he didn’t know why. He felt that he erred somewhere in between sincerity and formality, and so flowers – lilies, he had chosen – seemed bizarrely appropriate. It was irrational; he knew that. She was in a coma, hibernating like an animal, and she wasn’t going to wake up for the flowers of a stranger. And yet, something in his English blood implored him, and forced his hand. It’s only polite.
He stood in front of the bed on which Jackie rested, her arms laid out beside her at forty-five degree angles where well-meaning nurses had placed them. He could see her face now, blackened a little, like the singed corners of a page, a nice face, but strange to him, and harbouring wrinkles whose stories he did not understand. She looked around his age – middle, if it needed a name – and her hair was mousey and fine; it floated around her face like a mist. Somehow, he had expected to feel a connection to her, as if, when shards of glass had pierced her skin, he might have felt it too. Yet, looking at her now – even ignoring the bandages that bound her like a gift waiting to be unwrapped – he was forced to recognise that the only thing he shared with the woman before him was unfortunate timing.
He stayed only five minutes. He felt uncomfortable; he disliked the beeping, the whiteness, the sterility – he had always scared easily. He felt miserable, too distant to mourn but too entangled to forget. He wished he’d known Jackie; he wished he’d never taken that walk. He left the flowers on the windowsill.
A few days later, he was watching a film with his wife – Swedish with English subtitles – when he saw the face of an actress who resembled Jackie, something in the nose, he thought. He remembered her hand protruding from the wreckage of her car, and somehow, before he realised what he was doing, he left his gently snoring wife, and drove to the nearest petrol station. Daffodils this time. The automatic doors of the hospital blew air onto his face as he passed through them, and he took it to be a spiritual sign. The great Something in the sky, he liked to think.
He perched the daffodils beside the lilies on the windowsill of Jackie’s room. His gaze lingered on her face, calm and silent. He wished she would blush, blink or sneeze. Any of the ordinary, accidental things would be all right. A cough, a sigh. He wondered how she sneezed: loud or soft? He imagined how she spoke, clearly and cleanly, he thought, like a BBC presenter. He recognised a wrinkle, the deep one beneath her left eye that snaked across her skin, a stream across unchartered land, and he felt pleased.
Every week he came and sat and imagined parts of the person in front of him. He thought up puzzle pieces, yet kept them strewn across the floor of his imagination, so he could never know too much, as if knowing the rules would ruin the game. In the minutes or hours that he was there beside her, he was the only thing in her world. It felt glorious. It felt obscene. He couldn’t help himself.
He thought about her history, as if she were a monument he liked examining. In those strange, twilight visiting hours, he had more faith in his own prophetic imaginings than in anything he could have seen had he peeked inside her patient file. He drew her in his mind; his mouth formed her name; for her he crafted, with his lily-white hands, anecdotes, stories and nicknames. He imagined they’d met elsewhere – a holiday, a charity function, anything apart from on the edge of a vast and precipitous drop, from which she still clung. He couldn’t explain it to anyone, even his wife, who, in his absence, was producing at least one embroidered handkerchief per week. She remained pale, resolute and eternally sombre – comically, Norton thought, more sombre than the woman in a coma. These were the women in his life, and as his love for them drew parallel, he felt his feet float up from the floor. It was surely impossible to love a woman who couldn’t blink or smile or speak, yet, Norton thought, so many things were impossible. Why shouldn’t he float above the earth, hung in perpetual daydream, laughing with someone who hadn’t moved an inch in three months? Why shouldn’t he split his life between wife and petrified mistress? Some nights he would wake in bed and not know which woman lay motionless beside him. Some nights, he would wish to never wake at all, only to drift between living and dying, coddled in handkerchiefs that bore his own red initials and somehow, sickly thankful for the night he had chosen to walk through the country and stumble upon that dreadful and intimate scene.
Jackie’s room had become a floral circus, with vases stocked on every available surface. Roses sprang from every corner, carnations hung in clumps from hooks in the walls, and lilies – he always seemed to return to lilies – seemed to grow directly from the floor. For every dying bouquet the nurses removed, it was replaced with more fragrant and colourful blooms, until Jackie lay sunken in a tomb of petals that rose around her like skyscrapers. The room stank of a million different scents, and gave the hospital staff headaches. Norton submerged himself in the stifling perfume. If he’d not been born into money, he might have been a florist, he thought. He was slouching in the scratchy easy chair in the corner of Jackie’s room, high on the stink of beauty, when a voice cut through the sticky air like how, he pondered, the glass had cut Jackie’s skin all those months ago.
“What are you doing here?”
A woman, thickset, with olive skin and black eyes, watched him with the thin look of a bird of prey. His vision wobbled; perhaps the flowers were getting to him after all.
“What. Are. You. Doing. Here,” she repeated through snarling lips, and through Norton’s mind raced a list of animals she resembled: a puma, a jackal, a wolf…
She moved closer, stepping over the vases on the floor, and he felt his breath quicken in his throat. He couldn’t speak.
“You know, at first I thought it was fine,” she said, her gaze directed at the window. “He’s there again, the nurses kept saying, he’s always there. Everyone told me it was normal, they thought I was cold-hearted to even mention it as strange. Leave the man be, they all said, he’s old, he feels a connection. He’s lonely.”
A step closer. Norton’s breath escaped him in gasps.
“But this… this circus. All the flowers, it’s just… It’s too strange. You didn’t even know her, for God’s sake. I’ve asked everyone she knew: none of them recognise you. Why do you come here, hey?” She raised her voice, turning her head to look into his blue eyes. “What claim do you have to her? She’s my sister! You’ve no idea … you just… ooh, they told me to leave you alone. Harmless, they said. Well, are you harmless? Are you? How dare you.”
He finally found words. They fell from beneath his tongue, clumsy. God, why was he always clumsy?
“You don’t look alike.”
“For sisters. You don’t look alike.”
“She was adopted.” She spat the words bitterly.
They froze in silence for a moment, before she cast herself back, pacing away and running her fingers through her hair, hair that was so different to Jackie’s. She turned back to him, her voice pleading and desperate.
“Just tell me why. Tell me why you come here. You must know how … how wrong… how strange you are. Do you know something I don’t know? Do you know why she won’t wake up?”
Hysteria crept into her voice, and the blackness of her eyes shimmered with crazed tears.
“Do you? You crazy old man! You’re a stranger, you don’t know anything!”
He was standing now, his fists clenched. His voice flung itself out of him, and might have echoed if not for all the petals that soaked it up like bloodied bandages.
“You can’t just come in here and take her away!” he cried. Fat tears stuck in his eyes. “I’m not a stranger, not after all this time. You just wait… if I don’t come, she’ll know. She’ll miss me, she’ll …” A sob escaped him, and suddenly he felt naked, a baby, standing up to a predator that could rip him apart.
His fingers grasped the flesh of his coat and he wrapped it around him as he hurried past the black-eyed woman, the beast. The coat was all that kept him from spilling all over the floor, the mess of a crumbling man. His wife had bought it for him; it was warm enough to keep out the English winter. Maybe it kept out other things, things he wasn’t supposed to want, like friendship or love. Maybe it hung from a sad skeleton, a man who chased shadows in search of the imaginary. The elbows were muddy and there were food stains on the chest. What a coat. What an embarrassment.
“I hope she wakes up. I won’t come again,” he said quietly, and as he walked back to his car, he thought about how ridiculous it was to make a garden out of a hospital. Unsanitary, probably. He thought about this as he drove through the frosty streets, and drew to a stop at a traffic light. Some things were wrong in this world, like a hundred lilies poisoning a hospital bed. Like a car enmeshed in a tree on a winding country road.
The red light flickered a little. He found himself wishing, screwing up his eyes like when he was a boy. “Turn green now, and she’ll wake up. Turn green now, and she’ll wake up.”
He drove on. Reality doesn’t work that way.
The phone rang a raw and grating sound, echoing upwards through the stairwell from where the handset had been left on the bottom-most stair. Norton ambled towards it, his steps heavy, the floorboards creaking with the weight of his years.
“Hello. Is that Mr Grey? Is that Norton?”
Was it Norton? thought Norton. It wasn't any Norton he knew, not the mediocre Norton of Before, whose half-felt feelings had hung like clouds above him. Nowadays, he lived in limbo, somehow brimming with unexpressed passion and with no clue what to do with it. Where had it come from, this feeling of restlessness? He found himself harbouring the desire to crush something between his fingers, feel his own power over something other than what lay in the fridge, or what flickered on TV. How perverse, he thought. How unlike him.
The voice on the line paused and stuttered. It was female, cool but crackly with what could have been age or exhaustion or a dodgy phone connection.
“I’m sorry, can I help you?” he asked, trying to keep the weariness from his voice.
“I don’t know if you can. I might have the wrong number.”
“Would you tell me who you are?”
“I think you might think me awfully strange if I did.”
It's a funny thing, hope. It sneaks into the dirty places of a person, between the thighs, behind the elbow, over the lips and under the eyelids, warming the soul with a sweet and dangerous glow. In this second, such hope pervaded Norton's plump and spoilt body, and his head rang with a name and a face he had forced away.
Suppressing the desperation that bubbled in his veins, he answered in what he hoped was an even voice.
“With all due respect, madam, nothing could surprise me now.”
“I… I can’t hear you very well… there seems to be a lot of clanging.”
“Sorry, it’s the television. Some noisy game show. It must sound like pots and pans. I’ll turn it down.” Eager, eager little boy, he chastised. Hope could poison his mind but he mustn't scare her away, he mustn't presume anything...
“I thought somebody might be cooking," said the voice.
“No. I don’t cook.”
“Doesn’t anybody cook for you?”
“My wife did. She went back to Sweden.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
A distant memory, very far away now. But still it stung.
“Norton this is very strange but … would you mind terribly if I called you again? I have to go out. Would it be too strange if I called again?”
He was warming, his body on fire, his eyes watering, his voice wavering. Stay calm, old boy.
“No, not at all. By all means, call again.”
“I would very much like to know you, Norton.”
“Do I know you?”
“Almost, I think.”
In his heart opened a thousand lillies, sweetening the air he exhaled. Don't let her go, he thought, and inside him clenched a great and powerful fist, a determined miracle that he had not known existed, and then, in a moment unremarkable at the bottom of the stairwell, he knew what to ask.
“Are you driving?”
“When you go out. Are you driving?”
His eyes closed as he clutched the phone to his clammy cheek.
“No. No, I’ll take the bus. I much prefer it; it’s lucky, I think. I always get to where I’m going on time. Traffic’s better on the bus, I find. The traffic lights are always green.”