by Mark Kelleher
The gunk she’s pumped with daily makes her see stuff that isn’t there. From somewhere deep within, unexplainable forms emerge. Sometimes, it’s just beads and streaks of pale light cascading across the inside of her eyelids, her own personal planetarium. At other times, phantasms reach her, become her, distorted figures that have seeped into her subconscious for reasons she likes to guess at now and then. At fourteen, you’d expect this to petrify her, but something she can’t quite express craves the incoherencies of these delusions. I have my own theories, but I keep them private. I have no rights in what is unfolding, largely silent witness that I am.
Last week, she woke convinced that the night had seen her morph into a dishevelled, beaten horse, its back knees buckled. Around the horse’s neck was a tight and rusted double-chain, the end of which was crudely wrapped around the bed-guard’s middle-rail. Everything else about the ward-room had retained its real features. The night before, she lay rigid and puzzled for hours, sure that her sinking belly had been fed with bullets by a sniper shooting through the window at her from the roof of the city hall. She was targeted, she said, for being Putin’s youngest spy. That evening she had again been drifting in and out of sleep while watching the 24-hour rolling news channel.
Frequently, she dreams of herself in various forms of ascent – in flight, as a soaring rook; in a rocket, spitting fire and space-bound; as a bright yellow balloon intentionally sent skyward by the tiny hand of her even younger self. She seeks no meaning from these minor hallucinations. Their removal is enough. Me, I just listen. Partly because it’s my role, partly because I don’t know what to say, less what to ask.
My official vague title is that of ‘Buddy’. It took me a while, but I now know it means simply being a presence for a child whose friends are too scared or prohibited by parents to visit them. Such a prospect angered me at first, but I understand it now. It is expected of me to humour her by any means possible. Through joke-telling, expletive-free raps, participation in board-games with missing pieces, being a familiar face she’ll see when she hurtles back into scary consciousness after another brief escape into the surreal. Essentially, it is my job to distract her from the fact of her looming death. I did this, or at least tried to, in the beginning, but soon stopped. I have found it impossible to be insincere to someone who no longer has a hand to play. Plus, she is a specialist in transparency. I don’t know whether this is the result of her illness or if she has always been tuned in more than other young teenagers.
Her name is Ella. She prefers its halved version – El - because it sounds cooler. She looks electrocuted and is aware of it. The blue bulb of her vein-webbed head looks always on the verge of rupturing. Her eyes look like they belong to someone else, to someone older and confused by something they see in the distance but can’t make sense of. She is shrinking into herself and is aware of this too. She looks breakable and translucent, spindly beneath the thin fabric of the nightgown she never changes out of. She has both the innate grace of a newborn and the air of someone who has outlived everyone they’ve ever known.
Besides her parents, nurses and the medical consultants who stop by sporadically and futilely try to deceive her into believing she’s indestructible, I am the only one who sees her with any kind of regularity. Her father is a slumped over and exhausted man who works part-time as a postman in the suburbs. He brings her gifts of stuffed animals, a small wooden wind-up music box that plays rhymes encountered in infancy, an electronic etch-a-sketch on which he tells her to draw whatever’s on her mind. After his initial vain attempts to rouse some little life from El, he retreats and speaks little and tends to fix his concentration on the machines that catalogue his daughter’s growing disrepair. He winces at the monitor-beeps, the constant gentle hum of the flashing devices with functions he has no clue about.
Her mother arrives glaucous-eyed, clutching rosary beads and praying in hypnotic whispers for the devil to let loose his cruel grip upon her child. The thing clung to her girl’s brain was put there by some outside penetrable force. She has recently submitted, El has claimed, to The Society of Saint Pius X. She believes the earth is flat and has the astounded face of someone free-falling from one of its edges. Her husband neither shares her faith nor provides an opposition to it.
El exaggerates her deliriousness during the moments when they’re around. She responds to her father’s requests with smiles that look like they hurt to fake. She endures her mother’s desperate bargaining with Christ by lying limply and shut-eyed, discreetly giggling at the references to sin, to future promises of further piety, to the shadow worlds of lives to be lived throughout all eternity. I know she is pretending because she told me she is.
Unlike in the beginning, she is no longer enfeebled by contemplation and the necessity of distraction has disappeared.
I have played my own part in this.
Much has changed from our early days of familiarising ourselves with one another. In the beginning she was, I’m sure, wholly against my presence in her room just as much as I was secretly terrified of being in it with her. Back then, she was aloof in her kinder moments and completely unresponsive most of the time. We watched vintage cartoons on mute, lost ourselves in our own heads during protracted periods of silence, listened to the weeping of parents passing through the hallway outside the room that led to many others.
Over the weeks, the veil came gradually down. Curiosity trumped boredom, I suppose. El wanted to know why I put myself in such a position. Was it not weird to be coming into hospital every day for little pay? Were there others I sat with? Was I not bored? Would I not have been better off leaving Ireland and seeking something new? Like a girlfriend or a job or some other form of meaning. Was I a total loser?
The manner of her questioning struck me as odd. I think she felt a sadness for me. I gave her the answers she sought. I took the job because the Department of Social Welfare had been threatening for weeks to further impoverish me. I had been designated her Buddy and her Buddy exclusively. I had picked her file from a list of twenty because her name stood out as different. The rest I wasn’t sure about. I had issues with overthinking, I told her, to the point where I settled on nothing. I didn’t feel right then that I had enough love to give anyone or enough of an imagination to direct myself someplace new. It, whatever it was, would come, I hoped. When, I wasn’t sure of. She laughed at all my reasons.
My little revelations lent her an unspecifiable power and we both knew it was something she was entitled to abuse. She had asked uncomfortable questions and managed to extract from them answers she seemed content with. From then on we passed away the days by quizzing each other on the stuff that in those moments seemed to matter the most. She knew absolutely the fate that awaited her and was able to navigate it simply because, try as she might, she could not envision herself not ever being alive. Earth without her presence isn’t something that seems possible. She didn’t mean it in a full of herself way, she felt the need to stress. She just literally could not conjure its image.
Could I imagine the world without me in it? I could but didn’t say so.
She knows what’s closing in around her, knows its unavoidable terror, but senses she won’t ever be aware of it before it takes her in. That’s how she said it: Takes her in. She’s placed a permanent ban on the arrival of flowers. Positive outside topics deemed of interest she doesn’t wish to consider or, if it can helped, even hear about. The more she worsens, the more fervent her mother’s prayers become. She has started to feel a hatred for her, a hatred that comes and goes. It happens, I said. We all, at one stage or another, end up hating the people with whom we’ve spent huge chunks of time. Pressed on this statement, she asked if I hated either of my parents. I lied and said yes, both of them, viciously, but that to be best of my knowledge they were completely unaware of it and would remain so. Truth is, I love both the normal amount.
She asked me once if I had ever seen someone die. I told her I’d watched my grandfather perish in a hospital bed that was flanked with vases of tulips in bloom. I felt then that she was looking for a different kind of answer. For me to say that I had once known someone, just like her in fact, that had passed before they’d even come to know what life truly was like. She says the process is like spiralling through a dark and foggy sky with no sight of the ground and when she might hit it. And when she looks up, she can see the past – literally all of it – being rewound out of her life. Her two friends, Imelda and Emily, her hamster, Kuto, still in his cage, flashing images of summers spent in caravans, of her first day in secondary school, her one and only kiss, put on her lips by Simon from number seventeen. Where does it all go, she wants to know. All of that? Clueless, I suggest to her that it goes wherever it needs to go and that we’re all plagued by what’s been lost.
Most days we now spend talking about the multiple ways in which the world is getting worse. We both agree that it is. We talk about global warming and its predicted eventualities. About the final moment the world’s highest peak will become submerged. I mention nuclear war, the threat of mass vaporisation; she refers to overpopulation and the arrival of some new virus created by the animals in revenge for making shit of their home.
Talk like this always turns to what is known that lies beyond. Books borrowed from the inward pop-up library direct the topics we discuss. Currently she’s keen on cosmology. Fold-out images of nebulas and supernovas provide with their alien brightness a chance for her to be momentarily out of herself. She is not interested in photographs framing Earth. The shots snapped by astronauts of dust plumes and salt ponds fail to hold anything of her. I can’t be sure, but it’s possible she’s willing the world away, rendering it into something so compact it will eventually be forgettable or something so banal as to be undesirable. It’s a theory I’ve had for some weeks now. Other things she does have made me further believe in it. The only trips she goes on out of the room now are the ones she’s obligated to take by doctor’s orders. Unlike the other patients here, who still crave the outside air and the swings of the little playground, El prefers confinement. I see this as her winding down the world in response to it doing the same to her, but who knows. It’s possible, of course, that her mind is registering something that she isn’t and will never be aware of.
When her parents arrive, I’m duty-bound to let them have their time with her. In the hallway, her father leads me to the square of seating where visiting families gather themselves before and after seeing their sick. He offers me money I always refuse and asks me to help break down the wall El has built between them. Is she terrified? Are there wishes she has concealed from him? Does she mumble in her sleep and if so who or what does she refer to?
I tell him that I regret deeply the situation they’re all in, that his daughter, poorly though she is, still finds joys in the usual places, that while she may look sick, she expresses no outward signs of obvious physical pain. I don’t tell him of her growing infatuation with global woes – how her eyes widen at the mere mention of catastrophe on the news, how her first comments to me when I see her every morning generally tend to refer to how disappointing humans are. He wouldn’t understand, naturally, and the truth has its own limits.
Like El, he wonders why I put myself through this gauntlet of death. Devoid of any absolute reasoning, I tell him that it’s something I feel morally obligated to do, that I cannot think of anything more worthwhile than being there for El. It placates him, this idea that she’s giving something to the world while it does its best to take her away from him. He constantly apologises for his wife’s coldness, the fact she does not address me. It’s not me personally, it’s just everything really. It would help, he has said, if they had an idea about time, about a timeframe. Rather than urge him on with a reply, I excuse myself in these moments and say I might be needed in another room.
I don’t know much about El’s prognosis beyond the fact that one day soon she’ll be dead. A week, two weeks, a month from now. The treatment was only ever a means of prolongation. The thing is heavy inside her head, she told me once. The image of it becoming so weighty that it would eventually flatten her into a hole it has opened up in the ground came at me then and stays with me still.
There is, I suppose, a strong chance I’ll be there at the moment. I picture it now and then, usually when my time with her is over on a given day. Beyond the main gates, I frequently look up to the window of her unlit room. She always insists I turn her lamp out upon leaving. In some of my visions, her small frame is expelled by the animal heat supplied by the machinery at her bedside and she simply evaporates into the mattress. In others, her head takes on the form of a grenade whose pin has been pulled, or her heart turns kind and quietly gives up on itself without her even noticing. I wonder does she think about this herself when she’s alone and unsleeping or does some benign interior force summon her to different modes of thought.
The fact she looks so favourably on her hallucinations leaves me with the impression that they’re places she’d like to inhabit when time does its thing. We talked about the concept of heaven once. She didn’t think it seemed of much worth. Something in its fundamental promise spooked her, she said. The celestial landscape, the return of dead relatives, the waiting around for those below to be sprung out of life. None of it seemed enticing. The prospect of reincarnation sat better with her. Re-emerging as something sentient wasn’t even a necessity. She’d be happy to come back as a tree among millions of them; a piece of rusted flotsam bobbing forever across the seas; a stone in the middle of a rural field. I didn’t ask her how any of those could be a representation of someone who once lived. I figured that her simply feeling that they somehow could be was enough. I’d like to be able to imagine new places and situations for her to experience, each of them weird and beautifully confounding, but it’s only right she’s guided by whatever lies inside her.
I’d like to be able to remove her from the precipice on which she has been perched for much too long. Or, at the very least, place a gentle hand on her shoulder and nudge her on her way. I think that’s what she’s come to see me as, a sort of unjudging guide who’ll eventually nod at her and tell her it’s time to go. Someone who’ll say that while, sure, life is worth living, it’s still only life and that everything requires an endpoint. Tomorrow, I’ll walk through the gates like I always do with the same thought I always have when my shift is about to start: I’ll get to her bed and it will no longer be hers. The sheets will be newly made, the room will be brightly lit, her smell will be replaced by that of the disinfectant they spray the rooms of the newly dead in. A new set of parents will be there, cowering around a new child, as another nightmare tilts into view. I’ll bow my head in sympathy and within a minute be outside again. The days of her having me searching dumbly will be done and the future will begin to steadily march on without her.