Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2018 | 10 minutes (2,574 words)
“I didn’t choose. I walked backwards till it came around front.” — Uncle Lee
I sipped my Uncle Lee’s favorite gin martini made bitter with the taste of three pearly onions at The Alley Cantina in Taos, New Mexico. The mother of my long-lost cousin Julianne stepped up to the microphone in front of the gathered crowd and told the story of their brief love affair and how Lee “loved women.” I’ve never been to a funeral like the ones on TV where you go to a cemetery and cry while watching a casket go into the ground. My family does these storytelling gatherings with food and drink, and we bask in the memory of the ones we loved in sharp and detailed pain and glory.
I didn’t know that Julianne existed until I was in my 20s…
Lily was scaling the metal cage while her siblings slept soundly. A man with an East Asian accent smiled and said ‘Ah, she like spider man.’ I laughed and agreed. She was eight weeks old. Lily was petite and kitten like, even as a senior lady. She would have been fifteen years old in May. Three weeks ago the vet said she had a large tumour under her tongue and that she may only have a few days to live.
At nine o’clock on her last living morning, she was lying over my shoulder and purring loudly as I lightly rested my ear on her side to listen to her heartbeat. I sighed as I felt the warmth of her strawberry fur on my cheek. At ten o’clock she was devouring blended prawns. At eleven o’clock she was sitting on the roof of the garden shed, watching a black and white cat skulk across a driveway. At twelve o’clock she was sleeping in her bed by the sofa. At one o’clock she was chattering gaily in the passenger seat next to me as I drove her to the vets. At two o’clock, she was lying on her fluffy blanket, upon a steel table in a windowless room. She purred as the vet injected her front leg. Her body became limp in my hands within ten seconds. Her eyes were large black discs. She cooled quickly and I took my hand away, what I wanted to remember was her warmth. All that remained was her absence.
‘I’m just happy she is at peace.’ said the vet. ‘At peace’ I thought, she does not have the awareness to be at peace. She is dead. When living things die, they simply die and their consciousness goes with them. To be at peace, one must be sentient. There is nothing. And it is this nothingness that fills my mind with a gnawing black hole where Lily once was. When I think of her, there is a hollow, pulling sensation inside me and I long for her trilling mews. In private, I weep at the loss of her. I apologise for my tears, because I am embarrassed to be bereft at the loss of a cat.
She didn’t know she was going to die that day. If Lily could talk, when asked the question, ‘Would you like to be killed today?’, what would she have said? Would she have said ‘Yes please; I am in too much pain and I do not want to live another day.’ Or would she have said: ‘Living hurts. My mouth won’t close. My tongue is agony. I drool because it hurts to swallow. I cannot eat without pain but I am so hungry. I cannot clean myself. I am tired and I do not think I will be here long. But I like to feel the air in my whiskers and the sun on my back. I like the smells of spring and the grass blades on my scent glands. I like the taste of mashed prawns. I like the sounds of the garden and I am excited by the sight of the Dunnocks alighting on the bird table. I like your fingers stroking my head and I still want to sit across the back of your neck, like I did when I was young and I am not ready to let go of life just yet. Let me live a little longer.’
No one knows. No one knows what animals really want at this time. Perhaps, the survival instinct is stronger than the agony. The vets think they know but they can only know the human response to pain and apply that to other species. No one really knows if Lily wanted to live or die on that day. I can only hope that I am wrong about the nothingness beyond.
Grandfather worked down the mines. He was an electrical engineer. During the war he tried to sign up. He wanted to join the Royal Air Force more than owt. But they said no because they needed engineers at home to keep things running. Granddad was very upset. He felt bad about it. Mum says he never got over it, not really.
He rallied his BSA motorcycle. He liked going fast and getting muddy. He met Grandma in Sheffield. She was working as a nurse at a hospital for the war-wounded, doing her bit, you know.
In the 1970s, a power station was built in a village called Drax in Yorkshire. Today, it has a really tall concrete chimney 850 feet high and she is mother. Sunshine stored in black rocks from Africa and Siberia trundles into the power house. Twelve brothers, 374 feet tall and 300 feet wide, wear concrete-grey suits…
Daniel is eyeing the bird feeder. It is suctioned to the kitchen window and contains a single, half-decimated suet ball with hulled sunflower seeds poking out of the top. He leans forward readying for take-off. There is a shadow on the other side of the feeder. It moves.
Gavin spots it first and whistles: ‘Dan, Dan, Dan, Danny, Daniel!’
Daniel stops and looks at Gavin: ‘What is it mate? I’m on my way to lunch.’
The giant shadow is standing at the sink. It has bright pink hands that it plunges into something white and foamy. It walks away.
Daniel grows impatient.
‘Sod this for a game of soldiers. I’m Hank Marvin.’
Daniel stretches indigo wings, leans forward and pushes himself away from the protection of the thicket. A flash of red shoots out from the cotoneaster and charges into Daniel knocking him off course. The red pecks viciously at his sweet-lined eyes. He is spun around and over and upside down before he falls to the patio floor. He lies on his back and blinks only once.
The ticket booth is sepia-coloured. The seller wears a beaked cap. His mouth hides behind a thick moustache. He tells me I can go on the steamboat or the train or even one after the other. As my sleeve brushes the counter, my fingers turn shades of pale grey. The gold pound coin falls from my hand and twenty silver shillings land in the centre of his square palm.
I step onto the platform. I look down and there is a newborn baby in my arms. There are black surgical pen marks tattooed all around his tiny cranium. The bosomy, wide-hipped woman who takes my tea-stained ticket looks at him admiringly. She does not see the oddity of his scars.
I board an open-top train and cling to the infant. Together we ride around the roof of a red-brick wool factory amidst an industrial landscape, over and over again.
Gavin is sitting on a bowed branch of firethorn outside the kitchen window. His hat is gleaming as the sun runs fingers over his plumy skull. He tilts his white cheek up to the right and blinks away the light to see a fresh, pale green shoot on the branch. He stabs his short beak tearing the newness to shreds and inside he finds a sweet, juicy aphid just the colour of lime pulp.
‘Mm…I haven’t had one of these in yonks,’ he mutters through part-masticated flesh with two, fine legs dangling from his beak, before gulping down the succulent bug greedily.