If there was one thing that Nell hated more than anything, more than taxes, more than bridge tolls, more than wet socks and rain-sloshed shoes, morethan garbage skips on a hot day and lumped milk and vegans who can't go anywhere to eat without customising everything on the menu... more than spineless parents and people who talk through films and eat too loudly and Facebook, more than snobbery... if there was one thing, above all things, that she could not bear it was this. This place, and everything it brought back with it. Dragging memories back the way a fishing net scrapes the skin of the sea and brings back with it only seaweed and plastic bottles. Now, she felt tangled in it. She hated this place, hated it. The white window, shadows passing over, fleeting. The hospital.
They'd called in morning, and the third time it woke her up. Nell slid out of bed and onto the carpet, taking a minute to gather her strength up in her knees, and rock her weight back onto the bed. She walked like a drunk into the kitchen and answered the phone. It was Esther.
“ Mum, you've got to come down,” she gushed. Her voice a shrill, wavering thing. “To the hospital.”
“ Are you all right?” Nell asked, suddenly awake.
“ I'm fine!” Esther shrieked. “I am so fine. You've just got to come down. It's indescribable, it's-”
“ It's a miracle,” Nell heard Ryan say in the background.
She knew what had happened. And a wound was spreading through her, from her heart down into her stomach, reaching up into her throat and head. She wanted to tell her, tell her daughter, that she was wrong. So wrong. There were no such things as miracles, especially in that place. Anything happy was simply heartache in a shiny yellow wrapper.
But Esther had started to cry, and Ryan picked up the phone.
“ Just come down, Nell, please,” he said in that overly smooth, placating voice of his. The voice of a doctor or a charity caller. She wanted to uppercut him through the receiver. “Your daughter really wants to see you.”
“ Don't you tell me about what my daughter wants,” Nell whispered, “or what she needs.”
“ She needs her mother.”
“ She needs a fresh start.”
“ You're being really selfish, you know, and I don't care what's going on. You want to push everyone away, then fine. You'll die a sad, lonely old woman,” Ryan said, his voice still as flat and smooth as bitumen.
Nell was about to hang up.
“ Tell her I won't ask her to come ever again,” said Esther, her voice straining louder. “Tell her... that I won't bother her, all right? But she has to come down, just this once, and see. She can leave after two seconds and I won't try to follow her.”
“ Did you hear that?” Ryan asked.
Nell hung up the phone.
The second Nell stepped in the ward she was steeped in it. Immediately her skin was bristling, her nostrils searing with a cold burn. The antiseptic, and the detergent, and the trapped air cooling inside the building. Everywhere around, the sterile stench of death. That was what it was like here – subdued, suppressed, swept under the rug. Nell knew enough of the place to see the way they acclimatised death. Dressed him in a three piece suit and ushered him in quietly. Don't bother to close the door on your way out. Grieving families shunted into back rooms with coffee and magazines and pamphlets about coping and funerals and expenses management. The dead wrapped in a sharp white sheet and wheeled, through disused corridors and access-only lifts, down to the morgue downstairs, to be probed, prosected, shucked like an oyster. The leftover husk returned to the family as if it were a library book. And all of this removed, sterilised from the public eye. Death, in fact, was robbed of its reality in places like these. And she didn't think it fair – all those people, with their lives spent out, didn't they deserve a little drama?
Something cold was nudging at her shins, and she stepped aside to let the moaning woman in the wheelchair through to the hallway. The man pushing her wasn't wearing shoes, and his feet were closed in dirt. It was a matter of minutes, Nell knew, before he would be asked to leave the ward. A memory burgeoned, of Esther standing in the doorway of her kitchen, clods of dirt falling off her gardening gloves and falling onto the freshly mopped linoleum. It was a hot day, and Esther's chest and cheeks were bright with blood. She licked her cracked lips and was staring at her mother.
“ What are you trying to say, Mum?” She was saying.
“ I'm saying,” said Nell, with an ease that flowed through her, “that I think I should go away for a while. Leave you and Ryan to your lives and get out of your hair.” She touched her own head instictively, but did not find anything to grab onto.
“ Is this your way, then?” In an instant, Esther's face was as red as her hair. “Are you really going to push everyone away?”
“ There are a lot of things I wanted to do on my own before you arrived, miss,” said Nell coolly, squaring her shoulders. “And now I have the opportunity to do them.”
“ Well, I won't stop you, Mum,” said Esther loudly, and she walked back outside to shake the soil off her fingers.
She walked silently to Room 237, the number she scratched in blue pen onto the loose, papery skin of her hand. She had wondered if it would bleed. As she neared the door, she saw the windows were shuttered, layered in white stratus like a certain sky, and stooped lower, ducking under the glass. Perhaps if she couldn't see them, they would see her – those kinds of shutters that provided a one-way privacy. She sunk into a plastic chair and concentrated on being invisible.
On the drive here, she'd come to a crossroads. There was a teenager, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a particularly low-riding pair of pants. His hair immaculately coiffed, and running down his back like a blond river. He was sucking on a cigarette as he crossed the road, slowly, in defiance. When he saw Nell through the window of her car, he spat the cigarette onto the bitumen and walked swiftly onto side of the road.
Then, there was the learner driver. Through the back of the car, Nell could see hair the colour of radishes... and warm brown skin. She was screaming across the road, in short, stuttered bursts, trying to overtake Nell and push her way through to the roundabout. There was no space to overtake – Nell was completely hemmed in – and the girl was breaking a slew of road rules. She unleashed her car horn on her, too – a shrill, laughable toot.
Nell was sitting at the red light and forcing herself out of a rhythm of thoughts playing out in her head like a song she was trying to forget. She was thinking about what would happen if she veered the nose of her car into the learner driver's hulking SUV as the girl tried to inch in front of her. The stout head of the SUV would hardly scratch, but the old Corolla, with its dusted tan hood and fifteen years of servitude would crumble like a biscuit. Nell would be surely be dead, before the paramedics arrived, even. And that girl, the girl with hair the colour of radishes – she'd have her entire life run through her hands like sediment. She'd drift in school, hate her family, fall to pieces at the mention of a certain word. She'd lose the warmth in her skin and stop dying her hair. Everything that ever happened to her would seem like something that happened to somebody else. Even her own face would be unrecognisable. Her whole life from that point onwards would simply be a refraction of the fact that she killed somebody. And that person's face – scooped-out, glazed and glassy – would be everything she remembered. Over the years, the memory would evolve – mutate, rather – into something truly ghastly, a pantomime – and it would still be the most important thing, one thing among her days which both seemed like an extravagant, ridiculous dream and yet the realest thing that ever happened – that could ever happen. The memory of an anonymous – it would never leave her.
Esther would never remember her so. Nor would her ex-husband, who'd loaded up the car with his suits and non-perishables, never to be heard from again, largely because Nell never looked. Nobody would remember her like that learner driver would; she would haunt a single heart. Who would receive her heirlooms – who would want them? She was gripping the wheel to turn, miming her last goodbyes, when the blaring of a car horn shook her out of her reverie.
The learner driver had already made her traffic offence, hoisting her wheels over the curb, and now there was another car behind her. In the rear view mirror, he was bald and impatient. The light had gone green, and as she turned onto the adjoining road, her heart felt as if it had fallen straight through her. Her hands dropped to her sides and she watched the road and the people scroll past as the car slid forward in a controlled coast. Biting down on the urge to become hysterical.
Now, as she remembered it, the tears started to cloud in her chest, so she put her head down and dug her mobile phone out of her pocket. For a while, she simply busied herself with it, to look busy – there were only four contacts on the phone and she'd hardly ever used it. By the time she'd worked out how to play Snake, she was being rapped on the shoulder. Her eyes shifted blankly around the waiting room before they fell and fixed upon the woman – on the dark eyes staring back at her, the children, the adult, even infants. Her heart squeezed when she noticed them. Fixed on her, her face as smooth and colourless as cement, her violent yellow and magenta headscarf. The stark contrast between he blanked-out eyebrows and the deep yellowing shadows around her eyes. They probably thought she looked unnatural. She thought they were positively alien.
“ Excuse me,” the nurse was prodding, a face full of real smile. Nell knew the difference. She glanced away from one of her spectators – a hollow-eyed girl with crisp gold locks enclosing her shoulders like an ornate picture frame. Eyes as unblinking as a shark's.
“ Are you Eleanor?” The nurse asked. She was wearing green scrubs and her name-tag read Jennie.
“ It's wonderful to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you.” She grinned so wide her compressed cheeks looked like two peaches about to burst, full of their own juices.
Nell felt as if she'd swallowed a pouch of stones. “You have?”
“ Of course!” Jennie giggled. “Oh, do you need help getting up?”
“ No,” said Nell gruffly, and she lifted fast off the chair. The head-rush following soon afterwards. Jennie placed her hand on Nell's arm and showed her to the door. Room 237.
I don't think I can do this, Nell wanted to say. Jennie had her hand on the matte metal handle of the door. She flustered through excuses in her mind.
“ I think I left my car unlocked,” she said, taking the set of keys from her pocket and jangling them in the direction of the elevator. “I should go check.”
But Jennie hooked her elbow around Nell's forearm and pushed the door open. All of a sudden, more light. More streams of antiseptic.
“ Come on,” Jennie said cheerfully, and she pulled Nell right into the room. And then, there she was, standing in front of them, of the three of them. All but one looked at her with the same stunned, foolish grimace.
“ Oh, my God. Mum,” Esther breathed. She used her free hand to brush the hair out of her face, which looked tired but red with health. She looked full of heart.
“ Glad you could make it,” said Ryan primly, but Nell ignored him. Instead she found herself slipping blindly towards her daughter, making her way along the bed by pressing the crisp waffle blanket with her palms.
“ Now, there were some minor complications,” said Jennie, “but they're both making great progress.”
Esther was holding the thing, which was wrapped up in two layers of blankets. It's head was almost covered by them, but when Esther shifted her body towards Nell she could see the delicate eyes fused shut, the two pink nostrils perfectly round in the middle of its face. It made a small sigh.
“ Her name is Eleanor Carys,” said Esther, and without warning, the warm bundle of blankets was sitting in Nell's arms. It made another little sigh. It's skin, still bruised from birth, was nearly transparent so that you could see the rosy streams of blood coursing around the body. So healthy and full of promise.
The baby also had a tag around its wrist, which was poking from the blankets. It made her think of the dozens of catheters she had had threaded through the same spot on her skin. Fluids and morphine and chemotherapy. A pressure was building inside Nell's head, like a held breath, and when she let it go, so did the tears. An out-pour washed down her cheeks and her chin and onto the wad of warm blankets.
“ Mum,” Esther gasped, and she reached out for the baby but did not take her.
“ You can't call her her Eleanor,” she said, wrapping her arms more thoroughly around the baby. “It's a horrible name.”
“ Nothing's final. We can still change it,” said Ryan from the corner.
“ Shut up, Ryan.”
She, of course, hadn't meant a word of it. This was the heirloom she'd leave behind. A namesake – that filled her up and emptied and filled her up again. She was standing, miraculously, in a hospital - but not with tubes and wires and plastic bags of medicine hanging from her - with a baby in her arms. A baby she would love, a baby, with which, she could begin again. Perhaps it was going to be a short chapter in her story; her end was coming. And yet, the ache was lifting. She was beginning to see.
No matter how pressing the end was, there was always time for this. She wished it would stretch on, like a dream, until she was done. To sink into it, permeate in it, swallow it up and breathe it with every inch of her being. Something inside her was stretching outside the barriers of her skin, and she wanted to snatch at the air, to claim this moment for herself and hold it there, silent and unmoving. Familiar anger suddenly heated behind her ribs. She wanted it to last forever.
Then the little girl yawned, and opened her eyes - great grey milky things the shape of lemons. She blinked at the withered face staring down at her, full of panic and rage.
And then, Nell breathed. She remembered to relax.
This was enough, Nell thought. Life wasn't over yet.