"Before. After", by Michelle Brown
I had never considered the difference between before and after, it was only after that before meant anything. After, I yearned for the certainty, the inevitability, even the boredom, of before. Because before and after is not rhetorical like what if, it is solid like now and then, beginning and end; it is physical.
Before the call, I sit. A plate of fat laden carbs, balanced precariously on the tight wriggling bulge that is my stomach. Baby kicks my ribs, a thud dulled by the barrier of amniotic fluid. It fails to curb my appetite. I eat robotically as I stare at the TV, neither smelling nor tasting the food. Joe flicks through the channels, the garish colours of each picture momentarily fill the screen. He changes from trashy game shows to football to dull documentaries about trashy game shows. I eat. Baby kicks. Joe flicks.
The phone rings; the same tone.
Two short bursts.
Two short bursts.
There is no warning in its ring, no ominous shrillness in its wail; just the monotone cry, a demand to be answered. Nobody calls us Saturday night; I’m reluctant to interrupt my boredom to answer it, it must be a sales call.
My movements are slow due to my temporary size. I move the plate to the arm of the chair and shuffle to the seat’s edge. With a deep deliberate breath I launch myself, like a skydiver, up onto my feet, swaying a little as I adjust my balance. Baby is using my bladder as a pillow; any sudden movement can result in the loss of urinal control; but not this time. The phone continues its incessant shout, “hurry, hurry!” Joe leans around my bulk aiming the remote like a gun at the TV.
“Hello?” I sound chipper; not how I feel. I lean back and rub the base of my spine, my stomach thrusts way out in front of me, less like a bun in the oven rather the whole bakery; it’s been a while since I’ve seen my feet from this position.
“Hello?” I hear something, an expel of breath, a snort, inaudible words.
“Marie? Is that you?” my sister, Marie, doesn’t sound like my sister Marie. I rub my tummy as a mild wave of panic shakes me.
That was before.
“I’m at Dad’s.” she says. “He’s dead.”
Joe stops flicking through channels, kills the sound. I hear a howl; it leaves my lungs, reverberates through the room, bounces from ceiling to floor, returns to beat my eardrums.
Is she sure?
“Have the paramedics checked properly? Isn’t there still time to save him, can they try? Are you sure? But he was fine last week, last month, last year. There must be some mistake.”
“No.” says Marie. “No.”
Baby is still, afraid of the crying, the wailing, the distress. A wave of grief sweeps through the umbilical cord like a tsunami. Joe searches my eyes, still unsure of details, who? what? where?
“In his chair.”
Relief. Small solace in a vacuum of despair. What if he’d been out in the street and collapsed in front of everyone? He’d never get over the humiliation. Or in the house standing, then falling and hitting his head, lying on the floor for hours, alone? He was in his chair watching the racing. It’s what he did. No different from any other Saturday.
Up at eight, toast and tea, out to the shop to buy sharp cheddar cheese.
“Nowhere like Wallace Road for sharp cheddar!” crusty bread to go with the cheese. On the way to the bookies he’d see Mrs Daniels, she would sing the praises of The Stroke Club, urge him to join;
“Come along, Mr Sullivan, it’ll do you good.”
“I might.” he’d say, with no intention of ever stepping near.
“Why would I go there and talk about strokes and dying?” he’d say to me later.
“Why do you bother talking to her?” I’d reply.
“She’s lonely. No harm done.” was his answer.
On to the bookies, lay down his odds, banter with blokes. Back home. Dinner, bread, cheese and onion. Good strong cup of tea, strong enough to hold the spoon. He watched the racing. As his horse came in, his number came up.
His chair, next to the window, in front of the TV. No one dared sit there, rather no one wanted to sit there. Always the first seat to wear. The material on the arms took on a grubby sheen, the garish floral pattern faded until it resembled an abandoned flowerbed. Then the headrest, weathered and worn, would give way to the stuffing, yearning to escape. Once, in a fit of madness, I sat in the chair. My backside met the cushion yet kept on falling. The springs, no longer useful, twanged around my bum, my knees drew level with my chin. It took two to haul me out, yet Dad insisted that with a bit of wood beneath the cushion, the chair would be “good as new.” we’d never had new. His chair with his smell. Not the cat’s piss smell, which he carried in his workdays on the bin round. Or the sharp sickly smell of Brut, slavered on every night for the pub. A smell only he had, a Dad smell, unpleasant yet comforting. I’ll never smell it again.
I am powerless and freefalling, unable to stop crying. I press the phone hard against my ear so it hurts and I know that I can still feel. Baby flutters, a hug from the inside. Joe’s face blurs behind my tears.
“Don’t come.” says Marie. “There’s no need.”
I slide the receiver back onto the cradle.
This is after.
I rub Baby beneath my skin. I will do this one day. Die. Leave. Evaporate into a memory. Will Baby feel guilt at not seeing me for weeks, at arguing the last time we met?
Joe cradles me. I cradle Baby.
I think about before.
Highly Commended, While There's Still Time: Writing about putting things right
About the author
I work full-time in Higher Education and my spare time is used for writing. After many years of writing short stories and filing them away, my resolution, 1st January 2014, was to get something published by the end of the year. Before. After. is a story close to my heart based on my experience of losing someone. I found the process of writing it hugely cathartic and I’m overjoyed that it has been highly commended by Dying Matters.