Short Stories 1st Place: Saving Grace by Lynn Bushell
She isn’t talking to me anymore. I miss that. It’s an odd thing, silence. When you haven’t got it, you think you’ll go mad the next time someone speaks, but then if no-one speaks you’re listening for the slightest noise – the tap of footsteps on the pavement, a fly buzzing in the window – anything to break the silence.
We talked non-stop, me and Marsha, when I first came. We went everywhere together. At weekends we’d take a bus into the centre, rattling through the streets of Haringay, her pointing out the art school where she’d been a student, St Ignatius with its Norman columns and The Faltering Fullback pub where they met up on Friday nights. Then there was the Aquarium. My favourite was the ‘red-bellied piranha’ which is actually a very timid fish and only swims in shoals for its protection. I was in my element.
Once, we stayed on the bus until it came back to the terminus. She’d brought a sandwich and we shared a burger with French fries and salad when we got back. I was hungry all the time. We’d creep into the kitchen in the middle of the night to raid the fridge. We liked the same food on the whole, apart from the pork scratchings. Those I couldn’t stand. ‘You’re poisoning yourself,’ I told her. ‘And you’ll end up poisoning me as well.’
I don’t care now. I’ve more important things to think about. We’re going the same way as her and Richard. When I first came on the scene I got bored listening to them going on about how much they loved each other. Marsha raved about him: how considerate he was, how all the writers he liked were the ones she liked as well. But three in a relationship is not the same as two. There’s always going to be someone feeling left out. Richard soon decided it was him. He started finding fault with things: the wall-paper she’d chosen or the clothes she wore, the way she hummed as she went round the flat, the fact that she and I spent so much time together. What did he expect? I never took part in the rows, though I was usually the subject of them. ‘What have I done?’ I’d say. ‘You called me; I didn’t call you. It’s not my fault if you’ve changed your mind.’
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Marsha told me when he said I had to go. ‘He doesn’t mean it.’ But I knew he did. One day we found a message on the kitchen table and all his stuff taken from the flat. That’s when she knew it was for real.
‘Just you and me now, girl,’ I said, but she sat on the carpet in the middle of the bedroom crying, cuddling a shirt he’d left behind because it needed washing. ‘I’m still here,’ I felt like saying; only something told me that might be the problem.
Yesterday, she went into my room. It’s actually a cupboard but that’s London for you. I might have been living in a shoe-box. She had hung a mobile from the ceiling, children riding horses on a carousel. The slightest breeze would make the carousel go round. I liked that.
Yesterday, she took the mobile down and put it back into the box. And then she took the pair of Wellingtons we bought last month and put them in a bin bag. They’re bright red. Size 10. I know what size they are because she hummed and ha-ed before she bought them. ‘It’ll be two years before they fit her,’ she said. But the woman in the shop persuaded her. I might have had a hand in it as well. I never actually told her when I wanted something, but I found that if I concentrated I could sometimes put the thought into her head.
So anyway, she’s taken down the mobile and the Wellingtons are in the bin bag with the jump-suits and the bobble hat. And without saying anything to me, she takes them to the Oxfam shop. That’s when I start to get the heebie-jeebies. ‘Would someone mind telling me what’s going on here?’ I say. But she just pretends she hasn’t heard.
Last night she goes to bed as usual, but she keeps getting up and wandering around the flat. She has a little cry and makes herself a cup of tea, then leaves it to go cold. She piles the blankets on the bed but she’s still shivering. We hardly sleep at all. At six o’clock she gets up, has a shower and goes downstairs in her dressing-gown. She used to sing when she was getting dressed or making breakfast. It’s a long time since she did that.
I had heard her book a taxi on the telephone, but then she cancels it. ‘We’ll take a bus, Grace,’ she says. Not a ‘Would you mind; is that all right with you?’ but it’s the first time in a week that she’s addressed a single word to me, so I don’t make a fuss.
We’re standing at the bus-stop and it starts to rain. I wait for her to put her hood up but she goes on standing there, rain dripping down her face.
‘Are you all right, love?’ the conductor says. He helps her on the bus as if she were an old aged pensioner. ‘You sure you want to go upstairs?’
She says she does. There are two seats free at the front. She sits down, sniffing, and takes out a handkerchief. A woman sitting opposite asks whether it’s her first and she says yes.
The woman bunches up her shoulders. ‘Ahh,’ she says, all sentimentally. ‘How lovely.’ Marsha doesn’t answer so I prod her in the ribs. It doesn’t cost you anything to be polite.
At Gower Street we get off and go through the swing doors of the clinic. We’ve been here before. I know the drill. We’re signed in by the woman at the desk and go into the waiting-room. Two weeks ago we came for an assessment. They gave her a blood test to find how far on she was. I could have told them, if they’d asked. Another blood test was supposed to tell them if she was anaemic. That might be why she’s been acting like a headless chicken recently. They sent her for an ultrasound and when I came up on the screen I tried to catch her eye but she deliberately looked the other way.
We’re sitting in the waiting-room and Marsha is pretending to be looking at a magazine. She’s gnawing at the skin around her nails and scratching at her palms. She does that when she’s nervous. ‘Won’t be long now,’ the receptionist says, brightly.
Finally, the buzzer goes. ‘They’re ready for you,’ says the nurse. She’s carrying a hold-all with a flat base and string sides. ‘Take off your clothes,’ she says. ‘and leave them in the hold-all. Wrap the blue gown round you.’
We make for the nearest cubicle and Marsha draws the curtain. She sits on the narrow ledge, the hold-all on her knees. ‘Well, here we are,’ she says. She sighs and starts to take her clothes off, first the leg-warmers and then the socks. She’s stuffing everything into the hold-all. When she’s finished, she sits with it on her knees again.
‘Is everything all right in there?’ the nurse calls from the other side.
‘Fine thanks.’ She gets up and goes back into the waiting area. There are three other people in there now but no-one speaks. I wouldn’t mind a drink of water but it’s no use asking her for anything when she’s in this mood.
‘You can go in now, Miss Dyer.’ Marsha stands up. ‘First door on the left.’
As she gets up she presses one hand to her stomach. ‘Sorry, Grace,’ she whispers. What is she apologising for? She’s walking down the corridor. I hear a door swing back. The people in the room stop talking.
‘Hop up on the bed, dear,’ says a woman’s voice. There is a man there, too. He’s busy with a tray of instruments. I hear the tinny sound of metal and it puts my teeth on edge. I realise suddenly that if we don’t get out of there, we’re done for.
‘Come along, dear,’ says the nurse. She’s trying to be patient but they’ve probably got half a dozen others on the list before they can go off to lunch.
I can feel Marsha thinking. I stay very still. It’s not the moment to create a scene. My heart is banging so loud, my whole body’s juddering. The doctor clears his throat. I hear the tapping of the nurse’s shoes across the lino.
‘What’s that bucket for?’ says Marsha.
‘That? It’s just for waste, dear. Nothing that you need to be concerned about.’
‘Waste?’ Marsha says. ‘You mean…?’
‘It’ll be gone before you know it,’ says the nurse. ‘All you need do is get up on the bed and leave the rest to us.’ Her voice is hard and bright.
‘I’m not sure,’ Marsha says. One thing I’ve learnt about her in the months we’ve been together – she’s a dead loss when it comes to arguing. She needs someone to fight her corner. Me, I’ll take on anybody. We’d have made a good team. Suddenly I realise I’ve just used the past tense.
‘I thought it would be a woman doctor,’ Marsha says. ‘Somebody who could talk me through it.’
‘Mr Ahmed is our Number One consultant. He’s done hundreds of procedures.’
‘My Grace isn’t a procedure; she’s a baby.’
Good for you, girl, I think. That’s more like it.
‘We are here to help you know. You came to us; a nurse went through the process with you last week. You seemed sure about it then.’
‘It’s just the pail…’
The nurse sighs: ‘It’s Miss….Dyer, isn’t it? Perhaps you’d like to go back to the waiting area. A nurse will come and see you shortly.’
I can hear the door behind us opening. ‘Run for it,’ I feel like shouting. Marsha backs out. Suddenly we’re sprinting back along the corridor again and through the swing doors. She collects the string bag from the locker and goes back into the cubicle. She pulls her clothes on so fast that the socks are inside out. I don’t say anything.
In the reception area, she throws the blue smock on the pile. We walk along the passage to the exit. She comes out onto the concourse and goes past the café. I can smell the food. We haven’t had our breakfast yet. I’m famished.
Once we’re through the main doors she stops so that we can get our breath back. She stands staring at the sky as ambulances screech up to the entrance. I can feel the sun on me. It’s late May and amongst the other smells, my half-formed nostrils catch the scent of apple-blossom. I can hear birds singing in the beech-trees bordering the car-park. I don’t dare breathe. I’m not certain if this is a hiccup or a change of plan, but what I do know is that this time it won’t be a joint decision. Marsha starts to walk towards the bus-stop. I can hear a murmur in the background, like the rumble of an engine. I know what it is. She’s humming.
‘Still there, Grace?’ She pats me. ‘I think we’ll go into town and have an ice-cream and then do a bit of shopping. We can look in at the Oxfam shop and if your Wellingtons are there, we’ll buy them back. And then we’ll find a seat up on the top-deck of the No 88 and go home.’