This story appears in my second flash fiction collection
"Alcohol, the paint stripper of civilisation’s veneer. Bottled up rage, uncorked and decanted"
"The trouble with A&E is that it’s full of insensible people. Those off their trolleys and straight on to ours. Out of their minds with alcohol or drugs. Or a Carefree in the Community policy. Simultaneously anaesthetised and adrenalised, oblivious to the pain signals radiating from within their bodies"
Your first night on earth was under my eyes. Swaddled in blankets in your Moses Basket, like a tortilla wrap. Your breath so fragile, I could detect no trace of it, which served only to quicken my own throughout the long hours. Your alabaster lids so transparent, the shadow of your eyes beneath were visible. You were wholly still, save for your flinch startle reflex. What dreams could you have had, less than twenty-four hours old? Ones brought with you from my womb no doubt. Rhythmic dreams.
And somehow you soon migrated from the basket to my bed. For my ease of feeding you as much as your neediness. And how I was too terrified to go to sleep and roll my weight on top of you. So I watched you instead. My eyes accustomed themselves to the scanty light. Your dreams were now attended by little whimpers from your mouth. And I could see your chest rise and fall with your strong heart. Was I yet in your dreams, or was it only my breast? Was I glorious to you, or monstrous?
When finally you were decanted to a bed of your own, I would read you magical stories to convey you into sleep. Always I would linger by the bed and continue to marvel at your seeming contentedness. Finally retired to the bedroom next door, I never once heard you cry out in your sleep. Peaceful, agreeable dreams seemed to be the order of your night. And thereby I contented myself.
Oftentimes I snuck in under cover of night. In the guise of tooth fairy or Santa Claus. Leaving you gifts while you slept on unknowingly, yet expectant. The exchange of tooth or milk and biscuits for bulges in the stocking at the end of the bed or under your pillow. Waiting, suspending my breath until your twisting frame was positioned just right, so as to grant me access to slip the gifts under you. I am not a follower of religion, but in those moments you looked like an angel. And my soul floated up to the ceiling.
Those times when you were struck down by childhood diseases. How I maintained a tender vigil by your side. Mopping your brow with a damp cloth, trying to contain and drive down your inner heat. Catching the blocked cadences of your breath, feeling its release diverted through your mouth. Watching your pinched features as you struggled to overcome the snags and snarls of a body turned against itself in order to garner the necessary restorative sleep.
Once you disappeared off to University, I occasionally visited your room. To be confronted with the crisp lines of the untouched linen and the dry smack of cold, uninhabited air. I cocked my ear for any of the various of your pulses I had matched to my own, but now my breath lacked for its filial echo and filled my head with discordance.
Came that time when I visited you in hospital after you'd been knocked off your bike. When your arm was in plaster and held in a harness. How we joked about your involuntary salute. And that the steel armature holding it together would set off metal detectors in airports sparking shakedown searches. But it hurt you to laugh. Pushing spluttering air through mangled ribs. I could see the soreness etched across your face in spite of the analgesic deadening. In the end the pain would wear you out into an uneasy and throbbing sleep. I watched you and the years fell away as we resumed our mutual stations. Albeit until the nurses asked me to vacate the ward, since visiting time was ended.
And now it is you who sits at my bedside, though I cannot see you. I'm unclear if my eyes are open or not, but they are assuredly unseeing. My breathing too is irregular. Straining not to the pulse of my heart, but to lungs labouring out of synchronicity. Sometimes shallow breath, sometimes deeper. Trying every possible variant patterned after yours. As I try and reach out for the last time, to fall into conjunction with your stout heartbeat here and now. But I can't hear it. Are you even in here with me? I sense that you are. I think you may be holding my hand, may be softly purring words at me, but I can't tell. If you are, it is you who is awake and I am the one asleep.
I can hear one thing however. Deeply recessed in the back of my barely functioning brain. The sound of wings flapping. I always said you were an angel.
People keep passing me with broad beaming smiles and telling me how happy I look. I can't see the smile I flash back in response, but I know the flesh at the corner of my mouth, where the dark hue of the lips gives way to the lighter pigment of the face, crinkles desiccatedly. I have no handbag, so I have neither moisturiser nor salve to hand. I need a drink. But it's champagne only for my wedding reception and I don't think that's going to rehydrate me somehow. Besides I have a sweetly-sick taste coating the membranes at the back of my throat.
And now spun on to the dancefloor. Again those gleaming smiles detonate around us like paparazzi flashbulbs. My husband of ninety minutes takes my hand. We pause frozen in motion, like the two figures atop our tiered wedding cake. Waiting for the band to strike up. The miniatures cresting the cake await the sharp knife. For the spongy ground to be cut away from under them. Of course they don't, they're made from marzipan and have no thoughts at all.
In the stasis he clasps both his hands loosely round the nape of my neck. My lone island of exposed flesh adrift from the copious swell of fabric of the backless dress. (Actually it's not the lone flesh promontory, but he could hardly cup my cleavage in front of so many eyes). I had been rash in discarding my veil, for its train had at least filigreed my nape when pushed back from occluding my face. Another, gossamer membrane. My husband has strangler's hands. Big, clubby appendages that can entirely cincture my neck. Those bulbous fingers impressing their livid rage on my quivering, rasping flesh. The band hit the first chord.
I am whirled through a succession of sheepishly lupine grinning dance partners, as if I am a lot at a benign slave market. Naturally, none dare to embrace my neck. Settling instead for just above my waist with one paw, and either my shoulder, or hand linked in hand outstretched before us like the prow of a ship. Or an antenna. I scan each consort's clasp of me. For some reason I'm reminded of Ingrés' sketches of hands. But none of the mercantiles here possess artistic mitts. None of them are exactly callused either. No horny handed sons of toil in this gathering.
My father-in-law of one hundred and forty minutes cuts in for the next dance. His grip is encased in leather gloves. To conceal or cushion fingers curled by arthritis. Our dance too is emotionally stiff and painful. His leather cracks with each motion as we alter our bearing on the dancefloor. I hear this above the din of the music since his hand cups where my clavicle meets the shoulder close to my ear. Or do I only conceive that I can hear it, because its menacing appearance strikes a resonance that plucks at me like a harp string? I scrutinise the wrinkles in the animal hide and imagine the cracks in the human flesh they house beneath. I wonder if they mirror one another. Like the impression of a death mask. I know arthritis to be a degenerative disease.
My husband of one hundred and fifty minutes has the hands of a strangler. But for how long I wonder?