Over the last three years, I have written a series of interconnected short stories, that I planned to compile into a novella. But instead I’m deciding to share them. I have already shared two, the first being Porcelain, which you can read here and What The Water Gave Me which you can read here.
You can try to forget but I won’t let you easy
You can try to forget but I won’t let you easy
I’m flooding out and more I’m too washed out to see
Drifting away this time you’ll regret you’ve conceived it
Clean up the dead you leave behind
Just like insects
Lifeforms – Daughter.
No one can tell you how hard it is, at least no one who hasn’t gone through loss before. Until it happens to someone you love, you never quite understand.
One day she’s there, flawed but solid, her presence taken for granted and you, filled with a louche security that she’ll be there forever. The next, the call will come, formal and impersonal, the words will be spoken and she’ll cease to exist to everyone but you. Until that moment, you never realise how frail human skin is, the wafer thin sheath that holds your insides together. You’ll laugh bitterly at how easily your own life would end if one of the little tubes carrying blood to your brain were to burst. You’ll notice how wicked the world is, the blackness everyone carries inside them, the sadness like a cloud over each head of hair. You’ll sit head between your legs, fighting the urge to retch as your mind gleefully conjures a grotesque scenario of her, dying alone, her body floating on the surface of the water, one leg missing its shoe. You sit and chew listlessly, food bland in spite of the rich spices that have been imbued in the curry and the sugary coke tasteless like distilled water. All you’ll seem to remember is her laugh that echoed in this same booth where you both sat and made happy memories. The calls from the hospital, you listed as next of kin. You’ll stay quiet for a few minutes, tongue-tied that she trusted you enough to place her life in your hands. She’d never told you, and you’d never thought far enough to put anyone as yours. And your eyes will water; your cheeks will always be flooded.
Shadows settle on the place, that you left
Our minds are troubled by the emptiness
Destroy the middle, it’s a waste of time
From the perfect start to the finish line
Youth – Daughter.
It was just seven days ago when the call came. I remember it well, that one minute, one hundred and sixty hours ago when all I loved was taken away from me. I’d been smoking all day, each stick inhaled to still the nervousness that seemed to cripple me that morning. I’d woken with a sort of foreboding, a sureness that something terrible was going to happen, and the routine of dragging on the filter and holding in the smoke, helped to keep me in the present, mellow my wandering thoughts. It was a slow night and I walked in the darkness, a half smoked cigarette between my lips and my converse sneakers in the crook of my arm. I passed over recently watered lawns and let the wet, stubbly grass tickle my toes, a habit I’d been unable to stop since childhood even though it left me vulnerable to athlete’s foot. Johns are drawn to innocence, like bats to twilight. The phone vibrated in my front pocket, a small Motorola shaped like a bar of soap. I put it to my ear, slid the cigarette to the other side of my face and mumbled a hello.
The voice on the other side was slow and deliberate but it didn’t hide the surprise at how young I sounded. The voice softened as he spoke but not enough to prepare me. Police… Lake… Drowning… Hospital… Resuscitation… failure. Words he spoke with a detachment as he took Ella away from me.
“Are you there?”
I tried to reply but my larynx swelled shut and my tongue felt dry and itchy.
“Say something if you can hear me?”
“Stay on the line, someone’ll come pick you up.”
Sleep is a godsend. It silences the murmurs in your head, switches off your raging emotions and allows you a sort of stasis. I have no idea when I slept. It was probably 3am. The morgue attendant was already gone when the police car dropped me off and a medical intern showed me to the waiting lounge. It wasn’t cosy like those I saw at hospitals when the sexual health officer made me take STD tests. No cushions or felt on the rows of seats bolted to the pastel green walls on either side of the corridor, just contraptions of steel and plastic. If you were here you didn’t want to be comfortable.
“Go home.” A passing janitor said two hours later as he passed with his mop bucket sloshing with murky brown water. “Whoever’s on the slab will be there in the morning.”
He murmured an apology and hurried away when he realised how inconsiderate he must have sounded. I was too tired to care; I had nowhere else to go.
“I hope she isn’t yours.” The coroner said as he opened the swivel door and held it for me the next morning. I stopped just shy of table. It was her, laid out on the table like a specimen. The skin on her hands was wrinkled and there was a line of circular black bruises around her waist. She looked uncomfortable; her face had none of that peace that they say comes with death. The attendant called it rigor mortis. I immediately wished I hadn’t come. I’d never seen Ella naked. This wasn’t how I wanted to remember her. The older man turned me away and put an arm around my heaving shoulders. I hadn’t even realised I was crying.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Now I understand why comedies never win at the Oscars. Anyone can pretend to be happy when they’re not. People always want to be cheered up and quick jab at a funny situation is all you need. But leaving your happy private life and wearing someone else’s grief is a daunting task. Happiness is like a fleeting gust of wind, melancholy a persistent heavy cloud.
Javier lets me into Ella’s room. Or rather, her old room now that she isn’t here anymore. I walk in, tiptoeing around the things that used to define her life, circumventing the mementoes she’d collected over the years because they conjured the few memories she didn’t want to forget. He doesn’t wait to see what I want to do. He leaves his key dangling in the lock and shuffles back to his house, dragging his feet on the uneven floor.
I shut the door behind him and crawl into her bed. It still holds her scent, the bottle of vintage Miss Sixty perfume I’d gotten her on her last birthday. Patchouli, with ylang-ylang and rose. Only it isn’t her scent anymore, none of this is hers anymore. I boot up her laptop. The password is still Lakshmi, after her god-daughter. She’d hibernated and a media player is still up, the recently played list on the side bar filled with the videos we made during our road trip. The cursor hovers over the play icon I can’t bring myself to click it. I switch the computer off and push it away. And I notice the blue book underneath. It is the diary I got her after we found out Cynthia died giving birth to Lumiere. It hurt her more than it hurt me, or she couldn’t hide her pain, the way I always could. A flicker of hope ignites. Maybe she wrote something about it. I open the first few pages till I see the comforting scrawl.
“I know I should write in this,
Say how I feel. It would probably help.
But I’m not so sure I can be helped.
Or even if I want to anymore
I’ve been a bad friend
And an even shittier person
Well someone said,
Good people keep diaries,
Bad people are too afraid to write it out.”
I flip through the remaining pages. Blank. In a fit, I hurl the book away, pages fluttering as it hits the far wall. Just two days ago she slept in this bed and planned how she was going to end her life. Why didn’t she talk to me? Was she afraid I’d talk her out of it? Did she hope that she’d sink to the bottom and we’d all think she moved away again? Maybe she’s happy now? Did it hurt? Did she know that I was lying in her unmade bed, taking in her scent, missing her? Did it matter that I loved her, that she was the sister I never had?
I can’t breathe. There is heaviness in my chest, pressing down on my diaphragm, choking me. I have questions, so many. But there’s no one to answer. So I scream, into the pillow she used to lay her head on, though she can’t hear. I need to hit something or someone. So I punch the pastel blue wall, over and over, not stopping till I heard the satisfying pop of bones dislocating and the pain washing over me, reminding me I can still feel.
Pews. Half empty. Morning mass. The comforting lilt of chanting, sing-song Latin. The routine of kneeling, sitting and standing while lips murmur words that have been said so many times they lose meaning. It had been so long since I did this. I even switched off my phone. The priest says the prayers. Prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead and the words flow back with the memories. Memories from the orphanage lifetimes ago when Ella, Cynthia and I were still innocent. Halfway I remember I haven’t showered or changed clothes in two days and nothing has passed between my lips in almost eighteen hours. I chuckle; Cynthia would have never let me go that long without bullying me into eating something. The mass ends too soon, and ordered pews become a blur of people. The priest walks out behind the altar boys and people began to gather in small groups, exchanging pleasantries and catching up on each other’s lives. I hurry out in search of the priest and almost bump into him. He says he remembers my face, one of the children who were confirmed in his first year of ordination. There were ten of us, he memorised every face
“Something is troubling you.” He says as he leads me to one of the back pews.
I pulled out a pristine white candle and placed it in his hands.
“Father, please pray for the soul of my recently departed friend. Pray to the Virgin to intercede on her behalf. I have tried, but my prayers aren’t worth much these days.”
Graciously he accepts and promises to intercede on my behalf as well. I leave a little less despondent. Everyone deserves a prayer said in their honour, I don’t think it should matter that Ella took her own life. Why do we find solace in faith when everything else is gone?
The trill of my phone wakes me up. I turn groggily, Diazepam still running in my bloodstream. For a minute, I forget where I am then I remember rose and patchouli, Ella. The morgue is on the other end of the line. They confirm I was the one who identified her, they wanted to ask if I wanted her cremated or buried.
“Iono.” I reply, my thoughts still a little muddled by sleep. “Shouldn’t her family decide or something?”
“In her records, you are listed as next of kin, you and a Ms. Cynthia…” comes the irritated reply.
The haze clears instantly.
“I don’t want her cremated.” I say, “She was catholic. But I can’t afford to bury her.”
“She was a sex worker, right?”
“Times were hard; she did what she had to survive.” I reply, I mean it as a protest but it comes out like an apology.
“I am unconcerned with the motivation behind her lifestyle; please just answer the question, sir.”
“Excellent, I have a list of NGO’s who will be eager to help. Do you have a pen…”
I make the second call, one of the NGO’s the morgue recommended on the other end of the line. They have some questions. They’d prefer I came in. No, I am not in any trouble. I slide on the jacket she’d worn almost every day even though it’s hot and humid outside. It’s a non-descript bungalow, moonlighting as office space. Four women, huddled in the hallway greet me. They lead me to one of the bedroom offices and give me a sheaf of documents to fill. Seemingly basic questions about who Ella was and how she lived, and as I struggle to answer question after question, it strikes me how little I know about this person I’m trying to give a decent funeral. Little things like her mother’s maiden name and if she was ever got shots against all the ‘childhood killers’. If she’d ever contracted an STD, if she’d struggled with depression? In the end, there are more blank spaces than there are lines with words scribbled in.
One of the women comes in. She’s surprisingly pretty, even with the crow’s feet in the corners of her eyes, I guess from perpetual smiles. She takes the papers from me and leafs through them and thankfully says nothing. She puts them in a cabinet, takes out a book from within it, and scribbles something on the first page. She leads me out the door after explaining the procedure for funerals but not before pressing the book into my hands. ‘How To Live With Death’ is the pun curlicued on the cover across a sky at sunset above a single silhouetted figure looking out to sea. I open the cover as I get on the bus that takes me back downtown and my eyes settle on the cursive that perched on the top right corner of the first page.
‘Thank you, for being her friend,
When there’s no one else left.
Ask for Joey, he’ll help you find a suit that fits.
For the funeral
Tell him Thelma sent you.’
Ella’s bed no longer holds her scent. Instead, it smells of musk and unwashed armpits. It smells of anguished tears and a frantic night spent tossing and turning, trying for sleep that never came. I lie on the bed in my clothes, hands crossed underneath my head, eyes riveted on the black suit hung on the unused light fixture opposite the bed. I used to have daydreams, that one day I would eventually wear one, a robe and a mortarboard as accessories, celebrating something positive, like getting my GSCE’s or graduating from a university. Cynthia used to be in them, Ella too. They were in the crowd, hollering and taking pictures when my name got called, cheering me on. To me, a suit was a reason to celebrate.
That dream is dead, like the many other dreams life has taken away from me. But this special dream, my most important one was the one Ella took from me. The one in which she’d wear a white dress and I’d walk her down the aisle to meet the person she’d eventually marry. It was a promise she made me pinkie-swear to, when we were still children playing in the rain. The only promise she constantly held me to, when times were rough and seemed to give it all up.
“You know you owe me at least one walk down the aisle.” she’d say with a laugh in her voice. “It could be worse; it could have been you waiting at the altar.” And I’d laugh and promise to be there for her no matter what.
But she didn’t let me be there for her, she didn’t let me save her. She forgot that a promise goes both ways, you can’t hold someone to a promise if you won’t let them fulfil it. You can’t leave the people you love behind, burdened with promises they can’t fulfil, with memories they can’t relive, with pain that’ll never go away. If you love them, you don’t do that to them. There’s only one promise I can fulfil, I can ensure someone’s at her funeral, someone who knew her and loved her, someone who’ll look beyond how she lived and died and remember who she was. I can wear my suit tomorrow, and celebrate her.
The black loam of the upturned soil is two shades lighter than the black fabric of my cashmere suit. It cost me all my ‘savings’ but I don’t really mind. I want to look presentable today, at least for Ella.
The yawning hole in the earth mocks me as it waits; taunting me to snatch away this person I love as she is lowered into its depths. Each foot takes her further and further away from me. The priest from last Sunday is here, he works with the NGO and he offered to hold a small service. He reads a few verses from the bible and tells anecdotes about Mary Magdalene and Rahab to me and the five other people standing around the grave.
Lucinda, Ella’s old friend is here. She’s distracted and the black dress she has on is rumpled and ill-fitting but that doesn’t matter, at least not me and not to Ella. The important thing is that she came and she is sober. I pick a handful of the gravelly earth and pour slowly, listening to each clump knock against the lacquered wood, a little part of me hoping naively that Ella will hear them and knock back. The last one drops with a final thud and I turn away, the priest’s arm around my shoulder as the sound of swinging shovels and sand cracking against wood fill the air. I am grateful for her life, and that I got to meet her and make her smile, that I was able to protect her when she was too little to do so herself and that she was there when I needed help myself.
I notice them before they see me, the old couple huddled together beside a black town car, the woman holding a swaddled bundle. Lumiere, her son.