While visiting your loved one, we encourage you to remain calm and supportive to the patient. Make eye contact and provide encouragement. Don’t be afraid to touch the patient.
Coming out of the anaesthetic was like coming out of the sea. I bobbed to the surface and wanted a drink. I could have slept a whole lot more but my parents were there and they wanted me to float. My mother was the colour of salt fish. My father’s lips stuck together when he talked, like he hadn’t opened his mouth in a while. I closed my eyes but I could feel them still there, leaning towards me like stalking herons. When I opened my eyes again my mother put her hand on my wrist.
At home I unpeeled myself and looked at the incision in the mirror. Horsehair stitches from the base of my throat to the dip under my ribs, like one long black sea urchin.
‘You mustn’t go taking your dressing off,’ warned my mother, as she brought up a tray of out-of-season melon. She popped a thermometer in my mouth.
‘You let the doctor worry about it. Don’t go touching it, will you?’ she said, like she’d been watching.
She looked at me and I shook my head a little.
‘I’m tired,’ I said.
‘Well then, darling, you must go to sleep.’
I nodded, like the idea hadn’t occurred to me. My room was cold, but I kept the window open. From not that far away I could hear the sea, rustling like leaves.
* * *
In a traditional type of incision, strong sternal wires are used to close the breastbone. The chest is then closed with special internal or traditional external stitches.
From my window I could see the beach stretching away around the northernmost point of the island. I pulled my blankets around me and sat up in bed, to learn to draw. I tried drawing the sea first, but there was no way of starting. I couldn’t fit it all in, and when I looked hard, there seemed to be nothing there to draw. I filled a page with grey, and it looked like a grey page.
I drew my own fingers for a while, and then my feet – tried to do a drawing of my feet a day, but I got bored. My incision grew tight if I thought too hard about other parts of my body. I swallowed the pills my mother brought me and sometimes dozed with my eyes half open. A few weeks passed and I got out of bed and then walked up and down the stairs. Soon enough I was back in school: first half a day then a whole one. On what was supposed to be my first full week back, I put my head on the desk and held my shirt front, as if I was holding my skin together. The teacher sent me home in case my heart exploded out of me. I went to the beach and looked for cowrie shells, giving up after a thimble’s worth. I left them in a small mound by the water’s edge and took my shoes off. I stood in my blue woollen school tights that lumped over my pressure bandages. Standing in the wet sand, my feet and then my legs felt like nothing, just a trunk that attached me to the ground. One seagull flew above me, against the wind, not moving forward or backward, or making any noise. The seagull pointed out to sea and I looked too. The horizon was a flat, endless line, and the ribbons on my school hat flapped in the wind. I felt a thing in my chest throb like it wanted to come out.
If your sternum feels like it moves, pops or cracks when you move around, call your doctor.
On an afternoon when the sky was thick with brown clouds, I left school again and went to the beach. There was no one else there, no birds, just the muffle of snow falling on sand. The wind skimmed pale yellow scum onto the new white of the shore. I wrote my name with a stick, punctuated it with a dead gannet that was frozen into the shape of a zigzag. I could feel the pinch on my chest where my skin was tight from the stitches. I moved my shoulders from side to side just to feel everything pull.
When I saw him for the first time I thought Roderick was a seal. The dark shine of his wetsuit tumbling in the white horses. He stopped at the shoreline and unhooked his flippers, doing a little dance to show how cold it was. It made me smile. I stood by my oily gannet and watched him approach. He came towards me, drawing his mask up so it sat on top of his head and showed a small pink face and the top of a large beard. He spat and then wiped his mouth neatly with the back of his wrist.
‘Afternoon,’ he called, still approaching.
I nodded and waited until he was close enough that I didn’t have to raise my voice.
‘What were you doing? It must be freezing in there.’
‘Having a little swim,’ he said. He pulled the beard free of his suit.
He looked at my name and gannet.
‘Is that your gannet?’ he asked.
‘Not particularly,’ I said.
‘Mind if I…?’ He pointed at it and I shrugged my shoulders, not sure what he meant. He picked up the bird and shook the new snow off it.
‘Great,’ he said.
I said, ‘Aren’t your feet cold?’
He said, ‘Yes. How about you? Funny weather to be out in a shirt.’
* * *
It became my routine: sitting through registration and then leaving to go and breathe in the sea wind. Often I would see Roderick and we would talk for a while about what had washed up that day. I looked forward to seeing him. He never mentioned that I should have been at school.
I was pawing through the lunch my mother had packed me, a mixture of millet, grated carrot and leaf greens, and Roderick was collecting things out on the rocks, putting smelly urchins and bleached-out plastic bottles into a string bag. I left the food in the sand and used my lunch box to help him collect things. He held out a hand with a small white crab shell on it. It nearly blew away, and he shut his hand suddenly to keep it there.
‘Ghost crab,’ he said. ‘Every time you think you see something out the corner of your eye, it turns out to be a ghost crab.’ He opened his palm and this time let the shell be carried away on the wind.
I emptied my box of ring pulls and fishing line into his bag.
‘Excellent.’ He shook them to the bottom of the sack. He bent down to wiggle an old glove free from where it was lodged in a crack, and as he came back up he made a noise like the glove was heavy, a breathy hack in his throat.
‘How long have you lived here?’ I asked him.
‘A while.’ Sea spray dampened the hem of my skirt. An oystercatcher landed not far from us and watched beadily.
‘I never saw you before.’
‘I only tend to come out in winter or after dark – beachgoers.’
‘I don’t often come to the beach. I’m not much of a one for it.’
‘I’d say you were a one for it.’
I pressed my lips together, picked up a blue plastic bottle and handed it to him.
‘Beauty,’ he said.
His shack was behind the dunes, a beach hut really, not meant for living in, especially not in the winter. There was just one room. A coffin freezer with a small fridge attached, a zed-bed, a small electric heater with a battery, and a one-ring gas cooker. These were in the middle of the room, so that the walls could be free – and all over the walls, a collection of rubbish, seaweed and shells, fish bones, animal bones and feathers. The smell was not as bad as I would have thought. It was gas and drying gumboots, the small impression of tar and orange peel.
‘You live like a mermaid,’ I said, not sure if it was a polite thing to say. He didn’t answer, but smiled as he offered me an orange from a box on top of the fridge. I took one and sat in the space he had cleared on the bed.
‘Helps sweeten the air in here,’ he explained as I began to peel. He took another and made a small dent in the skin with his front teeth, then gouged a hole with his thumb. He sucked noisily from the hole and then, clearing his throat, explained: ‘I never have long enough fingernails to peel oranges, so…’ He shrugged and I shrugged back and he carried on sucking.
‘You live alone?’ I asked, and he looked around at the walls of his shack and I felt stupid for asking.
‘Ha!’ was his answer.
I kept up a steady rhythm of putting orange pigs in my mouth and chewing six times. I was scared to choke. I pushed my chest forward to feel the tight skin there.
‘What is it you do down here?’
He got up and crossed the room to the box freezer and motioned for me to come and look. It was full of dead birds, each with a tag around its leg, oiled and pointed.
‘Every six months a guy from the mainland comes and collects them. Look, there’s yours.’ He picked up the zed-necked bird and showed me. The tag on its leg was blank.
‘To see how many are dying, and what from. Our beach is like a full stop for lots of important currents. It’s an important beach. Lots of interesting things wash up.’
* * *
It is okay to sleep on your back, side or stomach – you will not hurt your incisions. Make yourself as comfortable as possible while waiting for the night sweats to go away.
That night I dreamt that the sea was gone. That I went down and it had just dried up, and all that was left were fish and sharks all drowning in mud, armless corpses. I walked way out, looking at the horizon for a tidal wave. I stepped over great whites, tuber fish, jelly blubber. Against the horizon I saw Roderick. When I reached him, he was sitting in the sand cross-legged and he didn’t speak to me. Crabs nestled in his beard, an eel took refuge in the crook of his arm.
I woke up and the room was hot and there was no sound of the ocean. Sweat made me itch. I got up to find that my mother had turned on my radiator and shut my window, but even with the window open and the cold sea air in my room, sleep stayed away until morning.
A letter was sent home concerning my continual non-attendance at school. I had to sit at the table in the dining room with my parents and they asked me why I hadn’t been going in.
‘I don’t feel quite better,’ I told them.
They didn’t raise their voices, but my father patted my fist and bobbed his head down to look me in the eye.
‘You must go to school, darling,’ he said. ‘You must get past this. You don’t want to be held back another year.’
But there was still the cracking of my ribs at night, there was still the thing that plucked at me from inside like it was undoing buttons.
* * *
You may notice a swelling or lump at the top of your chest incision which could take several months to disappear.
‘See this?’ Roderick said, standing by the fridge door, holding a white and blue striped bowl with a tea towel over the top. He took off the cloth and handed me the bowl.
‘What do you reckon this is?’
It was full to the brim with some kind of dark paste.
‘Ambergris.’ He looked at me for any kind of recognition, but got none. ‘This is worth something. Really worth something.’
‘What is it?’
‘Like a whale pellet.’ He came and squatted between my knees and pointed his little finger at the stuff. I could smell the kerosene smell of his skin.
‘See these little shrapnel bits? Squid beaks.’
‘Well, who would want to eat that?’
‘You don’t eat it – you make perfume, is what you do with it. The expensive stuff.’ I sniffed at the bowl, but not much of a smell came out.
‘I could sell this and retire. If I wasn’t already retired.’
‘So, it’s whale sick?’
‘Try some – rub it on your hands. Just a fingertipful.’
It felt like cold boot polish. I put down the bowl and rubbed it between my palms.
‘It smells like the sea,’ I said, breathing in my hand, uncertain of the right response.
‘Well, it would do. This stuff’s been floating out there for probably ten years. That’s how come it’s really good and black.’
‘I see.’ But I didn’t see. I don’t think I believed him.
I went home, all the time smelling my palm, thinking there was no way someone was going to buy a perfume that smelt like Roderick’s hut. But I checked in the encyclopedia and it turned out it was true. I thought about all that money. I thought about the whale all that time ago, sicking up and the sick bobbing to the surface while the whale went back down deep under. I tried to smell the money in it, tried to smell the whale in it. It smelt like a stone rubbed smooth in the sea. I thought about what my mother would say if she saw me rubbing whale puke into my hands. There was some left under my fingernails; I imagined maybe a grand’s worth. I picked it all out with a retractable pencil nib, and scraped it onto an old bus ticket, then I unbuttoned my shirt. In the places where my scar was still pink, I anointed myself with grease, and then I smoothed it all over. It shone like a snake in the dark.
You need immediate help if you experience the following: a new irregular heartbeat, coughing up bright red blood, bright red blood in bowel movement.
Late one evening, when it had gotten a little warmer, but not so warm that we weren’t done up tight with hats and windbreakers, Roderick poured two mugs of treacly rum. We sat at the base of a dune and watched the last traces of colour leave the sky and the sea. We swapped jokes, bad ones.
Roderick asked, ‘How d’you get a fat woman into bed?’
‘I don’t know,’ even though I did.
‘Give her a piece of cake.’
‘It’s a piece of cake.’
Somewhere distant a car passed over a hill, and its headlights shone dimly on the back of Roderick’s head and then faded.
And then from nowhere: ‘I lived in another country. Different sea. I had a wife.’ He sounded as if he was reading aloud.
‘Oh?’ The had is dead, I thought.
‘We were rich. I hardly knew how to swim, truth be told.’
He refilled his mug, offered the bottle to me, but mine was still full.
‘How were you rich?’
‘I sold the patent for those air-travel socks – you know, the ones that stop you getting DVT? Sold at the right time – someone had just died from it.’
‘So what happened to the money? How did you lose it?’
‘I didn’t. I suppose when you put it like that I’m still rich. A million-aire.’
I stayed quiet, waiting for the joke, but there was none. I had the feeling he was winding me up, like I’d missed something.
‘Then why do you live down here?’
‘I like to be close to the sea.’
‘What’s so good about the sea? In your opinion?’ I did not want to get back onto the subject of Roderick’s dead wife, but I felt her sitting in the dark around us, waiting to reappear.
‘In my opinion? In my opinion, it’s what’s in the water.’
‘And the rest.’
‘Like whales and sharks?’
‘Whales are pretty good. But mainly just the water. It just moves everything about, like it’s got this job which is just moving everything about.’
‘Right.’ I looked out past Roderick to where the shadows were too deep to see.
‘You throw out a beer can – just out there, from our beach – you throw it out tonight, and in a couple of weeks she could be over the other side of the world, washing up in a place they don’t speak the language or they don’t have beer or something. All that stuff in the shack, all that’s been brought to me for a reason. The tides, the currents, the wind. And what’s in the water? Everything. There’s rain in there, all the run-off from the earth. All the dead in the water.’ He said it like it was obvious, and his words bled into each other.
He refilled my drink and I traced the outline of the pattern on the mug with my thumb until it was hot. With the other hand I fingered the topmost scratch of my scar, the sternum, it was called. It pulsed. He tapped the side of his mug with the back of his fingernail.
‘We had our son. I moved us near the sea. He would have been nine by now.’
All the dead in the water. Roderick talked as if I wasn’t there, like he was sitting talking to himself in a mirror. I tried to think of what I was supposed to say.
‘We’d only lived there a few months. By the sea. I bought this boat. Speedboat. No idea how to drive the thing, of course. There aren’t the same laws and licences in some places.’
I thought of Roderick done up in a smart suit. I couldn’t imagine him shaved because I had never seen underneath his beard. In my mind he wore dark glasses and a white single-breasted jacket. A gold watch and a glass of champagne.
‘It was a beautiful boat. Made me think I was a man of great import.’
An owl went ooo-hoo somewhere nearby and we both laughed, like it understood the beauty of the boat, envied feeling important.
In the dark I heard Roderick refill his mug. I had an image of his wife yellowed with illness, the boy flung up into the air by a car, drowned in a swimming pool within sight of the sea. One after the other they changed: murder, disease, blood, bone, hair and skin.
‘We met these people who lived over the water some. Really rich, old money. Like that’s important.’ He grunted, more to himself than to me. ‘I thought I was King Bum. Rich friends. Imagine that. Seems like a strange thing to hanker after, rich friends. But there you go.’
The owl sounded again but this time got no response from us.
‘My wife. She was…very very good.’
A soft summer dress, long legs, dark hair. A wide smile and teeth. A wedding ring. My face felt hot from the rum, my throat thick and sticky inside.
‘I don’t know. She always wore her hair up. She had these blue lines on the backs of her hands.
‘She was always.
‘She smelt of, and long fingers.
‘Soft cotton. Hot and soft.
‘Turned earth. Our son was the same, so much of her in those long fingers. Funny little bugger. Collected feathers and threw them out of high buildings.’
Fell out of a window, was pushed, fell into a hole, choked.
‘We were coming back one night, late, the three of us, from our new friends across the water. The boy was asleep in my wife’s lap.’
Both at the same time then, the dead in the water.
‘I was drunk. I was happy. There was a chain that attached lobster pots to this buoy, and the tide must’ve… Something like that.’
A smell of diesel oil, a fire on top of the sea, the dead in the water.
‘Anyhow. I didn’t see the. So anyway. I washed up.
‘But not the other two. No.
‘Not the other two.’
Ooo-hwoo, said the owl, ooo-hwoo.
* * *
I went to school and in school I recited the planets in sequence. I examined the growth of a bean sprout. I showed the math master where to find x and I conversed in French about a sandwich. And all the time my front was fixed to split.
I went down to the beach after dark, with no intention of finding Roderick. I walked out to the rocks and saw that water lay like ink spots in the rock pools. I knelt, feeling the pricks of barnacles on my knees and shins, and my face grew sticky with salt.
I unbuttoned my shirt, let the wet night air onto my skin. The moon caught in a pool of water and I guarded it until my legs fell asleep. When I walked towards home along the sand, I could feel eyes on me, I could hear the heavy silence of a person standing in the dunes, and I let him watch as if I didn’t know he was there.
When you are upset, your heart works harder. It is best to anticipate and avoid situations, people or topics of conversation that make you tense or angry.
I went to the beach three days in a row, and Roderick was not there. On the third day I went to the shack. The place was torn apart. I could smell vomit, and something worse that meant the freezer had defrosted. The walls were bare, everything flung onto the floor and the bed. There was a dark bloodstain on Roderick’s pillow, which was stuffed into the gap where a window had been broken. An ache in my chest reached a hand up my throat and held the start of my tongue.
My breath whistled through my teeth.
Something moved underneath the threadbare rug, amongst the seaweed and driftwood, the crab shells and beer cans. Roderick’s face twisted from the mouth upwards and there was a deal of blood on his lips. My chest creaked with the sound of a night frog. Roderick choked a little, his eyes closed, and I stepped over to him, pulled the rug up, to find him dressed only in his underwear. He smelt like overripe meat. Sandflies rose in a squad to resettle on his legs.
‘Roderick,’ I said.
‘Is it time?’ He spoke but his mouth was slack, his eyes glassy.
‘You should get up. Should I get help?’
His eyes narrowed as he looked at me. I smelt through the meat smell of him, something like port. He looked at me, and leant on his elbow to reach at a can of beer. I kicked it from his hand.
‘You’re drunk,’ I said, redundantly. He still reached for the space where the can had been.
‘I thought you’d had a fit or got beaten up.’
He pulled his outstretched arm back with difficulty and put his thumb and fingers on his eyebrows.
‘It’s that flaming kid again,’ he said and a red bubble burst at his lips.
I kicked him in the hip and went outside.
Then I turned around and went straight back in, took up one of Roderick’s old net bags and collected all the half-filled cans I could find. I went to his fridge and pulled out a box of wine, a small tin of brandy. Most of the cans were pretty empty – he hadn’t left much behind. The port had mainly spilled between the cracks of the floorboards. He watched me as I did it; I could feel his eyes on me, could hear his laboured breathing. Just like an old man, I thought, but I didn’t look at him, and neither of us spoke. I left the hut and dragged the bag up and down the beach with me, making tracks in the sand. Then I went home, dumping the bag in the public garbage on the way. I said hello to my parents, and they were so surprised, they didn’t say hello back. I went up to my bedroom and started a project for school, called ‘Earthquakes in Colombia’. I coloured in tectonic plates and read about the demographic. I jotted down numbers in a notebook. My mother looked in just before she went to bed.
‘Sweet dreams, darling,’ she said.
‘Sleep well,’ I said. She stayed in the doorway before leaving.
The next day I went to school and a boy whose name I didn’t know waved a hand for me in ‘hello’. He looked away then, so that when I raised my hand he didn’t see it, and I left it floating there like I had a question. I noticed for the first time that the hallways at school had been painted green.
At morning break I took myself to the bakery and bought a loaf of warm bread and a cinnamon swirl. I got a pint of milk and some honey and then I walked down to the beach. I went the long way, eating the cinnamon swirl and drinking milk out of the carton. The milk went cold down my throat, and I looked to see if it would reappear out of a hole in my chest. But it stayed put.
A bad smell whipped up from the sea and, looking down to the shore, I could see a heap of dead birds defrosting on the sand. Seagulls eyed them, unsure of how to begin. There was a deal of old stuff outside Roderick’s hut.
I knocked and Roderick came to the door. His face was swollen under his beard, but he stepped aside and let me in. The freezer was open, letting go a breath of bleach. The bed was stripped, the mattress turned, the walls bare.
I passed Roderick the bread, milk and honey.
‘Oh,’ he said. He turned to his stove and lit the ring, put the kettle on top. I sat on the bed, waiting for something, but Roderick didn’t speak. He busied himself making tea, fumbling with the tea leaves, putting too much in and then taking too much out again. I watched as he dissolved a teaspoon of honey into one mug and emptied a small bottle of brandy into the other.
‘Hair of the dog, mind,’ he said, glancing at me as he poured. He handed me my sweet one and we both took a long swallow.
‘I lost a tooth somewhere along the way,’ he said finally. He bared his teeth at me, showed me the front left missing. ‘Sorry if it looked bad.’
‘Sorry I kicked you.’
‘You kicked me?’
‘In the hip.’
He rolled down the side of his trousers and showed me the sick yellowing of his skin there. ‘I was wondering about that.’
‘What will you do now?’
‘Start again. Collect new birds.’
‘Will you lose a lot of money?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘When the government man comes to get his birds.’
Roderick touched his lip where it was cracked and swollen.
‘The government man never comes. I just said that so I didn’t look bonkers.’
‘Oh. What do you do with them then?’
‘I suppose I haven’t figured that out yet.’
When I got home I did the washing-up that was in the sink. I took a shower and blew my nose. I dried my hair and parted it in the middle. I sat in my dressing gown and old rabbit slippers, and I coloured in my school timetable, a different colour for each lesson. When my mother came home I kissed her cheek. She gripped my shoulders and then watched me pad upstairs. I put myself to bed in an oversized T-shirt with a cartoon of a sad dog on it. I read part of a novel for school and then I turned out the light and snuggled down in the duvet.
It quivered inside me like a fish.
* * *
It is okay to let warm water run down over your incisions; however, do not put the soap directly onto the incisions.
In the very early spring there were more people. They left their imprints on the beach, their sandcastles, their ice-cream sticks and orange peel. Roderick took me to a sandbar way out and taught me to snorkel. I wore a T-shirt and the cold salt felt good against my healed chest. Now it looked more like a line drawn in the sand. Going under the water was like having someone put their hands over my ears. I felt the anaesthetist holding my arm and I heard myself counting backwards from twenty.
I saw an eel, a thin one, and a mass of thumb-sized silver fish that you could see through when they swam in the light. I saw that Roderick changed underwater. His skin was blue, he glowed and his beard caught silver baubles of air. We held our breath and swam down to look at a rusted anchor that had broken off from its chain. Roderick picked up a handful of sand and let it fall through his fingers. A butterfish whipped around him, kissing the churned-up sand. A big air bubble sat underneath his armpit. I ran out of breath. I popped to the surface and trod water, but Roderick stayed and stayed until I thought something was wrong. I spat in my mask and held it over my face to look down at him. He was in the same place, watching the breeze of the currents spin the sand away from his closed hand.
When he came up I said, ‘I thought you’d drowned.’
He laughed and shot water at me through a gap in his teeth.
‘Don’t worry about me,’ he said. ‘I’ve got whales’ lungs.’
* * *
I didn’t realise that Roderick knew where I lived. I picture him in his wetsuit padding up through the suburbs like some living thing from a lagoon, and leaving the box on the doorstep.
How else could he have said goodbye? Knocked on the door? Explained to my parents who he was? I can’t picture it.
‘The fruit man’s been,’ my mother told me with a small frown. ‘I’m not sure it makes sense getting these boxes – I mean, all we got this week is oranges. I don’t really know what to do with an orange.’
She emptied half the box into the fruit bowl, picking them over with a careful hand.
‘They don’t seem all that fresh either,’ she said more to herself, the frown deepening. ‘And what’s this? Some kind of black butter?’
She held up a jam jar, wrinkled her nose and put the jar and the rest of the fruit on the floor by the bin.