Wednesday 16 September 2020

Tread the Air Softly

by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

instant coffee

It’s a gentle sound; a whirring sound; a slowly building humming sound.
It’s a loud sound; a drilling sound; a can’t-go-to-sleep annoying sound.
            And it won’t leave.
I’m the only one who can hear it.

I still go through the morning ritual though; like fumbling with the Christmas tree of leads behind the telly, unplugging the stereo, lowering my head flat to the table so I’m cheek to cheek with your broken laptop. I see the world sideways: the room, the spine of your book, the pile of postcards.
            As I flick the kettle on, I picture the fella in the blue overalls, the one who came last summer when it started. He shook his head, clicked air like there was a polo mint stuck on the end of his tongue. “Electrics are fine,” he said. He didn’t even know me but he was standing there in my kitchen in muddy boots slurping cold tea saying, “Must be in your ’ead.”
“Sod off,” I said.
            But it’s what they all think.  

I spoon coffee granules into a chipped Sesame Street mug, your chipped Sesame Street mug. You said Elmo was your favourite. I said you were far too old for Elmo. You said lots of students like Elmo. What even Anthropology and American Studies students? Especially Anthropology and American Studies students. Sesame Street is American history.
 Sod off I said.
            I prefer Jemima Puddle Duck. She is definitely more English Lit with Social Studies. When I said that you told me to sod off.
            I don’t wait for the kettle. I push open the back door and a bolt of cold air rushes at me, like an over-zealous ice sculpture with puckered lips and outstretched arms. Or Aunty Mish (God rest her soul) staying give us a kiss Twinkle.
            Why did Mum have to name me after a verb? To twinkle? It’s not a verb Mum said, it’s a name, a noun. It’s a verb I said. Then she added it’s what she was gonna call her guinea pig when she was five, until her mum changed her mind and they got a new toaster instead.
I suppose it could’ve been worse. You said your rabbit was called Engelbert Humpalot.
 But thing is, as I stand here in nothing but me jim-jams and Big Foot Slippers (your Big Foot slippers) I pretend it’s you. You with puckered lips and outstretched arms and I don’t even mind if you call me Twinkle. Or Twink. Or my little bird (your favourite). I don’t even mind if you call me Engelbert Humpalot.
But it’s not you, is it? And it can never be you, can it?
I wish this humming would stop.

I try to picture your face. I look for you in the clouds. I used to spend hours lying on the hard concrete of the backyard because of something you said. About how you saw your nan’s face in the clouds after she died.
All I could see was what might’ve been Santa if you looked at it upside down (with a squint).
You said something about stars once. Remember? Lying drunk on Brighton beach on your twenty-first birthday. You said it was weird to think so many of the stars weren’t really there. Of course you then started philosophising, Native American folklore, some astrophysics thrown in for good measure. You lost me at light years. But it’s what you said next that stuck in my head, like this sound. You said: “No matter what happens, even when we’re gone, you’ll still see where we were.”
It was lovely, deep, insightful, until you started singing, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  
I hear the phone ringing. It’ll be Mum. Or him. I bet it’s him.
I don’t go in. I throw my head back and start twirling circles until I feel dizzy; until the phone stops ringing.
Your face is smudged; like a watercolour melted into itself.
Now all I can picture is him.
Not you. Him: Gary James.
 The one who looks like Ewan McGregor; which isn’t so bad. My mum knew his mum, remember? Gary not Ewan (shame). Remember how I always told you Ewan McGregor was my idea of heaven and you said yours was Beyoncé. I told you her ass was too big. You said I was jealous. Then you asked me why I gave Gary my number. I said it was for a lit project; we had to pair up. Oh you said.
I liked it when you got jealous.  
He keeps phoning. I don’t mean Ewan McGregor (pity). I mean Gary. He saw us once outside the doctors, me and Mum. Can he take me to the pictures he said. Said the same thing on my answer machine three days later. Can I take you for coffee? the week after that. And that last time: can I take you to that fancy Italian on the High Street?  
But that’s our place. You and me. Mum says he wasn’t to know.
I pressed delete.
I don’t want you to be deleted.
The only way I know you were here, isn’t from clouds or star-gazing but from the clothes in the wardrobe that don’t smell of you anymore. And from your socks in the drawer. You used to leave them all over the flat – remember? Same with your books; hundreds of bloody books on Native American Symbolism. Your obsession.
Mine is the sound. It never stops.
And you.
There’s a gaping hole the size of North America and I wish I could fall into it and disappear.
 I want your face.

I hear the kettle switch off. I stop spinning. As I shuffle I leave a trail in the snow. My feet are wet but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything. It’s like I float from day to day. That’s what Mum says. You’re drifting, Twink. You need to go back to work, Twink. People don’t live this way, Twink.
And last week she said: why don’t you have that drink with Gary? What can it hurt? Twink.
But everything hurts.
Sometimes the sound is the only thing that drowns it out.

Mum says I should take all your books to the Red Cross shop. But who wants to read about Shamanism? Would they even know what it was? You’ve seen the types that go in there. Maybe the types that would wear second-hand socks?
Nutters go into that shop: nutters like me. Or I did: when I went further than the doctors at the end of the road.
            There goes that nutter who lost her fella.
            But I didn’t lose you. You’re not wandering around Tescos looking for the toilet or down the back of the seat on the number 78 like my missing iPod. You’re not lost in a crowd at a Take That concert looking for me... are you?
            Am I lost?

I’m still in my jim-jams. The ones you bought me that last Christmas. The ones with ducks on.
You’ll catch your death, my little bird, you’d say if you could see me. But you can’t see me, can you? Or catch death and God knows I’ve tried. It sneaks up on you, like Aunt Mish eating her fish and chips in front of Corrie. Never even finished and they were from that posh chippy with the crispy batter.  
Just like that.
Just like you.
But I don’t want to think about what happened to you. Not wanting to think about something is the same as thinking about it though. Like the sound.
Sometimes I think it’s my own thoughts as they whir in smaller and smaller circles.
Make them stop.
It’s part of grief they say.
It’s a reaction they say.
What after eighteen months? they say.
But it’s not a reaction.
 Wishing I could get to the end of our road without feeling like the word is closing in on my head: that’s a reaction. Wishing I could go to sleep and never wake up. That’s a reaction.
And blaming myself for what happened; that’s a reaction.
Why did I let you go?
“It’s a once in a lifetime trip,” you said. “Live on a reservation with real Cherokee Indians. I’ll only be gone a year.”
But a year became forever.
Your last postcard’s still on the fridge, next to your photo. Ten little words scribbled on the back. Ten little words on a rainy Wednesday morning but biggest ten little words I ever read. I was getting ready to go to the Co-op. Lousy job for a graduate you’d said. But what else was I supposed to do with English Lit and Social Studies? And what were you supposed to do with Anthropology and American Studies?
Exactly what you did do, I suppose.
I think of the postcard now.
It’s started to snow.
When I get home let’s get married, my little bird.
Did you get my reply? I put it in a card. Not a cheap one. A posh one from Clintons. One little word.
I didn’t see it; the card, in the plastic bag with the things they sent back.
What were you thinking riding a motorbike? How could you forget they drive on the other side? Was I your last thought?
Maybe it’s the earth that’s humming. You told me the earth hummed; on another postcard. You said it hummed at F sharp, or was it B flat? You said the Native Americans often lay with their head on the ground. Nutters – I thought, but now when I think about that all I can see is you. On some highway, under the stars. And a big shiny American truck.
The phone’s ringing again.
That’s when it happens.
Is it an angel?
A bird. The smallest bird I’ve ever seen; small as a butterfly and it’s hovering along the fence.
The phone stops ringing.
A trail of purples, pinks and yellows hang in the cold air; like a rainbow. You told me the Indians said the rainbow is the symbol of hope. See – I was listening.
I shuffle closer. And that’s when I realise the humming is coming from the bird.
It’s the same little bird on the postcard; the one pinned to the fridge next to your photo; the one I put there so I couldn’t forget your face.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry Twinkle.
The wings move so fast; like it’s walking on air.
I don’t move, can’t move, won’t move.
The snow is falling faster, settling on my hair and my nose and the cold is seeping into your slippers, burning my toes. But I still stare. I stare until I have to blink.
Until it’s gone.

The red light flashes on the answer machine. I’m sipping coffee from your chipped Sesame Street mug. Your slippers are soaked.
Gary’s voice: “Can I come and see you? Your mum says you find it hard to go out. Sorry. I didn’t know.”
He does look like Ewan McGregor, doesn’t he? Don’t be jealous, eh?
This time I don’t press delete. I’m still thinking about that bird and somehow I press to return the call.
I say one word, “Yes,” then my throat closes.
One little word that hangs there like that little bird. It’s what I wrote in that Clintons card.

Your book, the one by your laptop, says the hummingbird is a bridge between worlds. I’ve read that part twice. It says it’s a message from the departed:  open your eyes and start to live again. You’ve ringed it in red. Like you knew. But you couldn’t – could you?
            I look out at the yard. It’s snowing harder. Soon I won’t see the trail I made in the snow in your Big Foot slippers. But I will see the colours. Every time I close my eyes I’ll see them. And that little bird that wasn’t really there – was it?
            But now there’s no sound, only peace.

About the author

Winner Bath Short Story Award 2013
Shortlisted in Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013
Debut Novel While No One Was Watching published by Parthian Books @DebzHobbsWyatt 
Writing Blog 

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