This short story was highly commended by the Writers’ Forum in November 2012 and recently made the Longlist for the Fish Short Memoir Prize 2013. Although I entered it into a memoir competition, this is fact mixed with fiction as the competition states:
A memoir gives licence – to interpret, to create, to fabricate, to make sense of a life, or part of that life.
A revised version will also form Chapter H of my novel, ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.
Hug1 v (hugged, hugging) 1. to hold or embrace tightly in one’s arms 2. to move parallel and in close proximity to. >>huggable adj.
Hug2 n a tight clasp or embrace.
Hug3 an ornament that looks like a piece of shit >>shit-hug
Hug4 the type that kills, a love you to death. >>death-hug
Hug1 and Hug2 (official definitions from The Penguin English Dictionary)
Hug3 and Hug4 (additions from Gina Ellis)
I didn’t get the bus the night it happened. Dad drove. There was no rain, no melodramatic weather. It was just cold.
We were in the hospital earlier that week when I said, ‘That ornament looks like a piece of shit.’
Mum laughed but it hurt her. I could tell. We were starting to get each other’s humour, but it was already too late. The ornament, a get-well gift from a friend, sat on the hospital bedside table, a brown goblin-type-thing that someone had stuck the word ‘hug’ under and framed in a small cardboard gift box. As though you could stick hug on anything to hand and sell it. A shit-hug. That ward would have provided other marketing inspirations that day of dried-up vomit on the sheets of the next bed, blood-phlegm in a paper bucket opposite us or malignant tumours hidden in the bodies of the patients.
The smokers-with-the-drips came back into the ward, slippered feet lugging their failing bodies and trailing medical equipment feeding their last days. They brought the smoke from outside the hospital back in with them. I could almost taste it, feel those last desperate ‘fuck it’ drags on my tongue. All the women-smokers mainly looked the same to me; thin, fat, whatever, but they were all raspy and craggy in some form. But I remember one with shoulder length; fudge coloured hair in a hospital bed-head style. I can’t remember her name though. She’s certainly dead now. None expected to live. Surrounded by the dying and I was still being class-conscious.
The nurses walked the ward, ‘angels’ with stern faces. They brought the tea-time trolleys behind the smokers. We slipped in and out all the time, us relatives of the dying. The nurses rattled the plates and one brought over a mass of Spaghetti Bolognese that looked and smelt as though it had suffered during the cooking. She put it onto the tray that stretched across the bed in front of where Mum lay and cleared away a dirty cup. Another nurse moved to the side of one of the end beds and pulled the blinds closed. The view of the city of Liverpool, that glimpse of Paddy’s wigwam, closed into white blinds. This daily routine was like a version of the game show Bullseye, when they reel the main prize out to the losers and then take it away again. Patients, there’s a life out there you could have had, watch it leave.
‘Ye alright Marie.’ The smokers said as they moved back to their beds. Mum just nodded. I don’t know if she was jealous they could still walk. Her legs were the size of balloons. So was her stomach.
‘You look pregnant.’
Why did I say that? She just smiled and said. ‘I wish I was.’
Sometime I can’t even think about it.
I was in hospital ten years before what happened to Mum. I must have about seven, and I should have learned something from what she said and did, always comforting and reassuring me. Mum had nursed me through a two-week hospital stay, a stint in a wheelchair and a long course of antibiotics that turned my teeth yellow like the smokers. When it was her turn in a hospital bed I made accidental insults like the shit-hug comment or over-polite conversation.
‘You got your place in the hospice then?’
‘Yes. I’ve got a place in the hospice.’
Dad observed every traffic light rule, every roundabout pause, although the roads were quiet. We pulled into the car park and Dad parked between the lines. I ran ahead, across the car park. Everything except me went into slow motion. The wind was cold and whipped against my cheek but there was fire beneath my feet. I heard a couple more cars parking up and somebody shouted me. ‘Gina.’ I didn’t stop.
I don’t know what I expected. But it wasn’t what I saw. Mum drowning. Her eyes were closed and she was struggling to breathe. Her head moving from side to side as she lay in the bed. Her eyes were closed.
Nobody knew what to do. Dad came in behind me. I remember him standing there in his Liverpool shirt as I turned around. You’ll never walk alone. He certainly didn’t in the years that followed with his new wife Janet as they hiked the hills, watched views of towns and cities, gazed out of hotel windows. And nobody shut the blinds.
‘She insisted I went,’ he says, ‘I should have spent all day and night with her. But she insisted I went.’ It was the match. Mum had told him to go, said we all needed a break and to come back the next morning. But at that moment when more people came into the room, we all felt that we shouldn’t have left. Mum’s best friend Anna Harrison came and moved me forward with a gentle nudge, towards the bed. In the blank-wash of faces behind I saw Dad start to take steps forward too, letting me lead. Anna and her husband Tim stepped back. The room smelt of the lilies crawling out over the vase on the table.
I remembered being told that the last thing that goes is the hearing.
That night with Mum seemed like a series of badly edited film scenes. One minute some of us were the hospice. Then without warning, we all appeared a pub car park watching a limousine pull up.
It hadn’t been able to fit into the hospice parking area. A few people were leaving the pub, eyes drinking us in with drunken confusion. A girl in a miniskirt fell on the pavement. A pink thong. Taxis hailed. Smells of beer and burgers, grilled gammon, chunky chips, cheap two-for-one meals blasted out hours earlier and still lingering.
Charlie and Frankie got out of the limousine, picked up from a neighbour’s with young, confused faces. Aunty Lesley and Uncle Malcolm always travelled in one for their scaffolding company’s annual charity dinner.
Charlie and Frankie in pyjamas and coats. Uncle Malcolm dressed in a full dinner suit. Aunty Lesley in a glittering dress with matching bag, and a fur coat over her arm.
‘Why did you make me go to that dinner you shit? We should have been there!’
That fur coat. She’d had it for years. When I was a child I thought she had slaughtered a hundred and one Dalmatians for it. She never reassured me, in fact the opposite.
‘Where did you get that?’ I would ask.
‘There was a litter of puppies no one wanted.’ She would reply. There was a cruel bastard quality to her and there still is. I was so good when she babysat us.
We sat in the children’s play area for a bit. The three monkeys of grief together. Charlie with her hands over her eyes crying; Frankie with his hands over his mouth in-between being sick and me, might as well have had my hands over my ears, not hearing anything properly and understanding little. I remember sweets being offered around, chewy fruit bursts that seemed too cheery in our mouths.
Frankie has never been interested in food anyway. He prefers structured activities to eating. When he was little he created concentration camp for worms and ants in the garden. He tried to make them concentrate and work together to find a way out, not yet realising that he had got the notion of those camps wrong. Frankie is concentrating himself now, within four walls. He has grown into a scruffy, duffel coat-wearing, shaggy-haired and pale socialist, constantly fighting causes. Dad said he was just going where the fights were. But even Frankie doesn’t know why he left Comet with a plasma TV during the riots last summer.
These days Charlie is unshakeable. She’s built a lot better than me, mentally and physically. Her brown hair with copper streaks is shaped well around her pale face, splashes of freckles soften her. After university she came back here like a homing pigeon that felt obliged to an owner who had looked after it. But I never really looked after Charlie, even after Mum. None of us could. I don’t know why she came back. She’ll fly off again soon when her job in retail management gets boring and she remembers that she’s a tortured artist. She’s not scared to ask when she wants something.
It was Charlie who asked if they could go in and see Mum.
The priest who turned up asked if mum was a pensioner. Aunty Lesley hit him with her jewel bag. A piece of glitter went in his eye and the nurses had to come over and help him. And all the time there was a dead body in the bed surrounded by people dressed for a dinner party, some kids in pyjamas accidentally posing like monkeys and a priest everyone wanted to kill. At least she’d gone before all that arguing kicked off. I thought about what to do next, who to tell about what had happened, what I had done. Others had been there, but it was only me who was close enough to know.
There was no Facebook back then and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t leave a status. But who knows? I could have joined the countless ‘There’s a star in heaven shining for new angels’ ‘RIPs to Mums and Dads, Nans and Grandads’. Bereavement shout-outs.
I would have posted something like that (but not that night). What I wouldn’t have done was update everyone on the whole process. One girl, Debbie Matthews, took Facebook through her Granddad’s first night in hospital (she checked in at the Royal on every visit). The finale was the uploading of a photo album featuring all the flowers at the grave. Shout-out for my popular dead Granddad.
I did call Jennifer. When you’ve lived through so much with an old friend, you think they should also be there for all your deaths in some way.
She text me a few hours later.
me and me mum have been so upset for you.
She never thought about her choice of words. But I was wrong to expect her to. Of course other people still had Mums.
Before all this, I did what I did.
Afterwards I went straight outside and found it was still Saturday night. No one came after me. It was freezing. There were people sitting on a bench, one of those for people who have paid to be remembered. The light from the children’s room reflected off the plating. Matthew Hunter reduced to a gold brass plate on a hospice courtyard bench since 1997. I’ve been back and sat on the bench since.
Two men and a woman stood by that bench. The woman looked exactly the same as one of the hospital smokers. Her face was worn down, with a mouth sunken back and pocket holes for eyes. She spoke like she was only allowed a limited number of words a day, wheezy, cracked and harsh tones that seemed forced out. It was like being back on the ward. I had to wonder if they produced these women like Stepford Wives for council estates.
The craggy woman was in my face.
‘Here love, have a drop of whiskey,’ she said then turned to the first man. ‘She’s still shaking. Give her your coat.’ I stood for a moment shivering.
‘She’s blue. Give her your coat too Kelvin. I said now!’ she said to the second man.
‘Here love have mine, I’ve got a cardie underneath.’ When we’d finished It felt like one of those attempts to get on a Ryanair flight when your baggage is too heavy.
I woke up the next day back at home with them all on the floor by my bed. There must have been some people who left that hospice, tainted by grief but also freezing and furious at giving their coat to me. Even back at home I could smell lilies as though the stems had crept in through my nostrils in the night and were growing from my stomach, each breath from me a victory for them. The smell of death on a Sunday morning. My hospice hangover.
I’d never taken on the word death before. I was seventeen years old. Great aunties and uncles who died were hard to feel anything about as a child. Once upon a time death had nothing to do with me and then it was personified, became a person I knew, and then became people I knew.
I don’t even know what the word ‘Mum’ means anymore. I’ve lived a third of my life without it, feeling like a fraud if I say it. I can’t have that word. It isn’t mine.
Anna Harrison’s gentle nudge. That was when I moved forward to Mum and did what I did. I hugged her. Told her nice things, that I’d want to hear if I was scared and dying and nobody could do anything about it. I told her she could go.
It could have been the words but it was like the hug I gave made her colder, stopped her breath, made her leave. I felt the last ten seconds of life in that hug, stilled her weak but thrashing movements. The scent of bed baths and final cleansings mixed with the lilies in my lungs. Then those last few breaths, against my face. When she finally stopped, I moved with her, placing her head back onto the pillows that had held her up for the eight days of her hospice stay. My arms fell to their sides. A one-way hug. I took everything. A death-hug.
I stepped back onto the shit-hug which had survived the journey from hospital to hospice and it shattered across the carpet next to Mum’s rosary beads.
Ten years later the heaviness, that ball and chain from my throat to the stomach which started with the hug was still with me. It went up and down like a see-saw in my stomach.
I watched someone die from cancer sitting in a pub on Coronation Street once like it was nothing. In reality it takes time to heave out the last signs of life, a gurgling from the lungs building into a sound like a soul being ripped from a body, which can be helped with a hug, a Love you to death.