Falling, every moment of time, of space, falling through every moment, a dizzying twirl as all the molecules of the universe float upwards past me. I am sinking into a cosmic pint of lager, with the rising bubbles containing everything that is good and myself….
Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.
It’s cold. Jimmy’s hand is entwined around mine. The frosty December air is fusing our sweaty palms together. The sound of traffic, of the wind in the trees, of Jimmy zipping and un-zipping his blue jacket at lightning-speed fill the air. This is the moment. I am ignorant. The entire universe is apathetic. An old lady shuffles up the other side of the street, her purse clenched to the alcove of her hunched torso. A tall guy walks a mastiff towards us, the dog’s quick, deliberate steps in sync with its owner’s purposeful stride. Life goes on.
My grip on Jimmy’s hand tightens. We are a symbiote. The dog and owner pass, I loosen my grip.
The frost from the night before has petrified the grass choking the paving slabs. The snaking blades crunch beneath our feet. Out of the corner of my eyes, I see the red bobble on Jimmy’s hat shake as his head turns to look up at me. He asks me a question, another in a stream of incessant queries that keep the average 6-year-old entertained. I give him some kind of answer, it’s not important. What is important− what I am trying to stress− is how every moment in time, every slice of life, is unprepared for disaster.
Imagine doing your sums and feeling the wind across your face as the classroom door is kicked open. Imagine tending to your rice paddy and hearing the whistle of a dropped Big Boy.
Imagine showering and coming across a lump.
Imagine standing at an ATM and, as the slot spits cash out, being hurled to the ground.
Imagine shock, horror, the tingling fear that makes your skin prickle with goosebumps.
With my free hand, I pat the pocket of my jeans. Wallet in the back, keys in the front. Good. I pat at my black bomber jacket. Crushed cigarette packet on the inside. Good. Lighter in the breast pocket.
Jimmy asks another question. He asks why Mummy didn’t come. This is important. This is called exposition, so listen. I explain that Mummy isn’t well at the moment, that she’s sickys. He asks what’s up with Mummy. I say vomiting. I say don’t be worried. He repeats ‘vomiting’.
The clock has ticked down, the hands are stopped. The traffic has picked up. Jimmy exclaims. The zip of his jacket flies off. With one hand holding the two rows of zipper teeth together, he stoops, his hand slips from mine. He stumbles forward into the street.
It is quick.
They had had to send out for velvet to line the inside of the dwarf coffin. It had delayed the process and, so, a closed casket was seen as more fitting. Jimmy’s face had turned vampiric from the delay, his skin pale. You could almost hear his skin shrinking.
Nobody even saw the velvet. What a waste.
I didn’t say that, at the wake or the funeral. Or the after-sesh that culminated in Helen weeping and being led to a quiet corner of the pub by her sister.
No, I kept my concerns regarding the wasted velvet to myself. I stood at the bar for most of the convention, holding glasses of whisky until they boiled with the heat of my hand. My shoulder blades tingled with the hands of commiseraters.
The pub suffocated with the sea of charcoal suits and black dresses. The lager pump went up and down. Breathe, I told myself. Don’t forget to breathe.
It had taken longer than normal to arrange a funeral, as Helen had been stuck on the denial end of the grieving process. It had been difficult for the undertaker to ask her even simple questions, as she replied to everything with a shake of her head, sending tears everywhere, like a dog drying itself.
We had stood surrounded by coffins, the smell of planed wood like a fog. I could smell it, even in the pub. It lingered in my nostrils like noxious gas. It occluded the smell of spilt cider and dry-roasted that surrounded me in the pub.
They had all left me be, after seeing a change had come upon me. ‘Not feeling himself,’ they probably whispered amongst themselves, friends and family whose conversation I stared blankly through. ‘No wonder.’
I patted my pockets, making sure my wallet was still in the back of my pants; that my keys were still in place. My keys had been digging hard into the fleshy skin of my thigh. I hadn’t noticed.
Helen got over the denial stage that night, drunk and tear-streaked. I lay in bed, staring at the cream ceiling in a blissful state of not thinking, and she came in from pissing and lay beside me. She spoke a little. Murmured, slurred clouds of white wine that dissipated into nothing before reaching me. I registered a hand on my chest, rising and falling out of my peripheral vision. Denial. I did not feel the prickle of her fingers. Denial. Helen’s head fell on my shoulder. Denial. Tendrils of her hair fanned out over my chest. Denial. I looked up at the ceiling. The sharp corners of the wooden headboard came into view. I concentrated on it. The angle jutting out, covering the gobstopper-red wall with a triangle of knotted mahogany. Denial. Over.
−Can’t I even get a hug? she sighed.
The words registered on my ears, but late. Too late to formulate a response; too late to reply. She went on, cutting over my silence. She sat up. I glanced at her. A blue tit fell from her nightdress, a flopping, milky-white lump of fat dangling from her chest like a tumour. I looked back at the shapes forming on the ceiling.
−Are you just gonna fucking ignore me?
It was effort to speak. I felt as though the act would rip me apart. No, that wasn’t true. That’s what I told her, later. After she had cried and shouted herself hoarse. I just wasn’t interested. Why bother talking? What would it achieve? The same old conversations, again and again and again. Running rhetoric rings around each other. So I stayed quiet while she shouted. I didn’t even move. My chest− slightly sunken from a week of barely eating− rose and fell with my breathing. The only thing to remind me that I was alive.
She barely spoke to me the next morning. Rationally, I understand that she wanted to distract herself from her current predicament. Rationally, I know I should have just gone along with it, let her experience some emotion besides sorrow. But I didn’t care. I just didn’t. The hotel up the street had decided they couldn’t do without their head chef anymore, so Helen was called back in. Her voice was too husky and torn to argue. Lucky her.
I wanted to get back to work. I wanted to feel the claustrophobic opaque-glass cubicle walls trap me at a desk. I wanted the momentary jabs in the base of my spine from the low office chair. I wanted to hear the telephones obnoxiously bringing. I wanted to eat shit food in the canteen and drink filmy coffee. I wanted to discuss the weather and sports. But no. They insisted I take time. Rodgers, the boss, spoke over every one of my toneless refutations. So I was stuck at home, listening to the clocks ticking in every room. Time was winding down as it increased exponentially. Clack. Clack. Clack. The same intonation, counting the seconds passing by, each precious moment dragging on, never to be reclaimed. Clack. Clack. Clack. As I stood in the middle of the kitchen, or by the sitting-room window, or sat on the edge of the bed, or on the toilet. Time was following me. Clacking. Clacking. I was stuck at home.
One good thing came of Jimmy Parks’s death: I was smoking far less. I just had no inclination, no desire to do it. I forgot about them. I would have to carry them around with me, in the pocket of the blue dressing-gown I now lived in. A lighter in the other pocket. Just so I would absent-mindedly put my hand in either pocket while on my 35th or maybe 40th round of the house and break up the constant pacing with a smoke. I would stand outside and stare blankly into the holly wreath pinned to the door of the house across the street. The ticking of the clock in our hallway would follow me as I stared into the eternity of the circle, smoke escaping like snakes out of my nostrils. Time winds down. I am here.
Don’t forget to breathe. I am coming undone.
In the blink of an eye, we were standing in a cemetery. I didn’t know why we were there; I didn’t know why I was striding ahead of Helen with such purpose. It was like one of those dreams you have, where you know what’s going on without having to be told. I knew the rules of this enclosed universe I was in, surrounded by even, marble teeth growing out of the mowed ground. Well, I knew most of the rules. I knew, without looking back, that Helen was wearing black jeans and a black jumper. I knew she was quiet in the car up. I knew that it was overcast without glancing at the grey field of clouds that stretch out, unbroken, as far as the horizon goes. I could guess we were on the way to our son’s grave.
Yes. No headstone yet, just a wooden cross sticking out of the mound of stale earth, fresh grass shoots jutting out of the hillock. No picture, either. Just a pile of wilting flowers from Helen’s sisters, and a fluttering piece of paper held in place by a stone. Jimmy’s grandma’s cursive writing on the damp scrap, the ink running down the page from rain and frost. I stood over it, angling my head to read the words: And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
Helen was touching the top of the wooden cross, her shaking hand making the flimsy ┼ wobble and loosen the earth it was embedded in.
−He’s really gone, she said. She hugged herself, knowing I wouldn’t.
−Don’t forget to breathe, I said, after a moment.
She stooped, smoothing and patting the soil. From her handbag, she took a packet of sweets. She laid the packet on the grave.
−That’ll stop him getting hungry, she said, parroting her words as she left the motorway garage with the sweets in her hand. We stood for ages. It was boring. Standing, staring at this faceless, wooden cross.
Helen turned to leave. She brushed my hand with hers.
−You’re cold. Let’s go, she said.
−Give me a few minutes more.
−I’ll wait with you.
−No, it’s… fine. I want a few minutes by myself. With Jimmy.
She eyed me. I knew then that whatever bond− love, trust, familiarity− there had been between us had well and truly snapped. We were strangers to each other now. Even the way she looked at me, like I was a face she once glimpsed in a dream. That’s what everything felt like now, though. A dream. An impassionate illusion.
Helen left. I didn’t watch her go.
I stepped over the grave, knocking the stone holding down the Bible verse. It rose in the light wind. It was carried away gently. It careened in the air, twirled, danced, giggled, taken away by such a powerful, gentle force. I watched it until it drifted beyond the trees. Gone. I didn’t know where I was. The inherent knowledge speaking to me was gone. I was lost, adrift amongst the cypress trees, staring out at the never-ending expanse of grey clouds, stretching out forever. Grey.
Grey. All around, grey. I am in a dream, a fever dream. I have a choice? I have a choice. Another of those a priori bouts of knowledge. I know what to do. I don’t want to die at 90 or 100, remembered as cold, emotionless, the dwindling mentions of my name recalling toneless, disinterested sentences, and measured, expressionless breathing. I have a choice. I’m going to make it.
I’m back on the sidewalk now, Jimmy’s hand in mine. The world is no longer grey. Everything floods back. Colour, sound, smells. The feel of phlegm rattling around in my chest. The smell of smoke off my clothes. The frost-stricken leaves of the trees across the street. Not cypress, I don’t know what they are. The smell of the dog passing by, the smell of the owner. The sound of Jimmy zipping and unzipping his jacket. The moment is here. I am no longer ignorant. One of two things can happen now. I have outstayed my welcome, my time is up. I can hear the clack, clack, clack, clack. Time is winding down now. Jimmy’s zip flies into the street. I let go of his hand and step forward. Jimmy shouts as the world spins. The street goes from horizontal to vertical. It comes up to meet me, clattering me in the ear. The pain is relief. I can still feel the tingle of Jimmy’s hand, the trace memory of where it had been. I don’t worry about leaving Helen on bad terms, as that world doesn’t exist anymore. I had kissed her goodbye before I left with Jimmy. He had told us to get a room, something he heard on television. His voice replaced the clocks. Clack. Clack. Dlack. Dlack. Dad. Dad. The man with the dog covers Jimmy’s eyes and stops him from running into the street. The pain is intense. Every fibre of my being throbs with sharp pain, dull pain, stabbing pain. It is wonderful, the sensations flooding my body. The driver of the car gets out. I hear him apologise tearfully, explain that I just walked out in front of him, that he didn’t- he wouldn’t do something like this. Jimmy kneels at my side. There is a crowd now. A wall of people murmur amongst themselves. Three or four call ambulances, their words overlapping, a confused dialogue that I can’t keep track of. Jimmy cries. I put my hand in his. I don’t have the strength to say anything, but I don’t really feel the need to. Holding his hand is enough.
I hope that girl reads my name out one day. If she doesn’t, though, I won’t mind. Better to be loved and forgotten, than remembered and hated.
The sirens rip through my brain, the flashing lights blind me. I savour it.
−Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe, the paramedic says, as I slip away.
Falling. Falling. I am falling and I can’t stop. I can’t grab the poolside here, nor can I apply the brakes. I have to fall, tumble, spill out of the tub of existence. Falling. Sinking. Tumbling. Spilling. Gone.
John Higgins is an Irish writer living in Korea. His work has appeared in The Blue Nib.