At first, I thought that old devil of a back problem had returned to haunt me. I assumed the position – lay down, knees up, feet flat on the floor. Unlike Martha, I’m not one for the dramatic, but I did text her to come back ASAP. My no-longer-little niece, Alex, was sat beside me pulling threads from the fringe of the old family rug Martha and I would pretend was magical and imagine ourselves floating off to cloudy realms in the sky. I don’t know why Martha hangs onto these things. It’s like she’s stuck in the past.

It wasn’t entirely Alex’s fault, what happened, she was just so excited and insistent that Uncle Ben give her a swing like he used to do. It had been a long time since I would pick her up and throw her around like she was made of air. I had given in, to distract from the awkwardness that had crept between us – grown up through cracks of absence. As we relived happier times, went whooshing around while singing some silly song we’d apparently made up once – pop! Something went.

On the floor, inch-by-inch, I rolled over onto my side, then rose, with great care, so as not to wake the beast in my back. Standing, a long, thin, sword of pain thrust upwards, under my right shoulder. That was when I first admitted to worry; stood frozen, afraid to move. I waited in this limbo staring at where I had lain, the shape of me vaguely there on the scrunched-up rug like a shroud.

Alex got bored of me standing there and went to read a book on the sofa. I hoped whatever was going on would right itself by the time Martha returned from shopping, otherwise, I’d have to endure the performance; where she’d make it all about her. I was only passing through, really, on my way back to London. She’d managed to lure me by nagging about us having drifted apart and saying Alex and I were all she had left, now the nightmare ex had scarpered. I could hear loneliness was taking over and I didn’t want her hitting the bottle again. She can be a bit of a burden.

I snapped to when Martha arrived. Things must have looked pretty bad as, when our eyes locked, her face drained white as a ghost. She ordered Alex off the sofa, hurried her into a puffy red coat then led me gently by the arm.

I wondered if this was it. Would I go quickly, like Mum?

As soon as the front door closed behind us, time sped up, so fast, I missed some things completely. I don’t remember the journey to the hospital. I do remember a preliminary once-over where I first heard ‘collapsed lung’. I remember Martha leaving to drop Alex to a friend’s for the night and returned stinking of smoke while I struggled to breathe. I was furious with her for being so insensitive. She was lucky I couldn’t speak.

I remember the consultancy room where the doctor told me I needed a pump inserted into my body.

I don’t remember how it felt when he cut me open, right there, at A&E. Not the actual slice just above my shoulder blade. I do remember the nausea. My insides wanted out of me.

I’ll never forget the tube. Its hardness. Nor its seemingly endless journey down through my body. It got stuck on the way and had to be shoved past whatever resistance my body was presenting. I shouted in agony and blacked out, the pain too much to bear, and then with another thrust, the pain woke me to howl and retch. I was told later that my reaction was because the A&E doctor hadn’t waited long enough for the anaesthetic to kick in.

After the procedure I never felt quite myself again. It all started with that cut. I was convinced some of the air of me got lost out of the puncture he made. But the pain, the trauma, distracted me from what was really going on, you see. I’m sure if it hadn’t been for that, I would have noticed something else at the time.

Reinald Kirchner/Wikimedia Commons

I would have felt you.

After that, I was permanently light-headed. It was like, with some air gone out, there was less of me inside and more room for what was left in there to rattle around. I felt detached and distant from the world, from myself. Or at least that’s what I felt, inside. You wouldn’t have known it from the way I was getting on with Martha.

She was spending every spare minute with me. I think I gave her a fright. Maybe it reminded her of our parents, both left us from this very hospital. Grief wasn’t the glue I imagined it to be. For us, it was quicksand that swallowed us both whole. Her crazy ideas about alternative therapies drove us apart; crystals and flower remedies and people making themselves sick. To be fair, she didn’t talk any of that nonsense with me. Not once. And she couldn’t have been more devoted. I think if they’d allowed, she would have moved in right beside me. She brought books, chocolate and proper coffee and insisted on bringing home-cooked dinners every day because I had lost so much weight. It got so I didn’t look like myself never mind feel like myself.

Alex came often too. She loved to sit on the edge of the bed which was against the rules but when I’d go to tell her off, my mouth would close shut instead, and my fingers would go up to her ear and give it a little rub. This would make the both of us giggle for a reason I still don’t understand. Ridiculous, really.

I found myself letting go of the bad feeling, it just evaporated, which took me by surprise, frankly. Something like this would usually have caused a massive rift between us.”

The first time I got up to walk around, to begin the exercise regime that would re-inflate my lung, Martha was there, helping me stand. I felt this odd moving sensation in my lower ribcage on the right side, heavy, like a large rock rolled to settle. Martha joked that maybe I was pregnant. Maybe I was, I clapped back. And we shared our first laugh in many years. I was behaving so out of character I thought it must have been the medication.

The doctor said the odd sensation was an after-effect of the procedure, but, as the days went on and it didn’t abate, he blamed the medication, then – bizarrely – ‘some patients get depressed after surgery,’ which spurred Martha to tell him that grief had hit me hard and I hadn’t been the old Ben for a long time. The doctor never quite listened to me the same way after.

I was furious with her but when I went to give her what for, I just didn’t have it in me. Deep down, beneath my anger, a voice inside told me she hadn’t meant any harm and reminded me how devoted she’d been. I found myself letting go of the bad feeling, it just evaporated, which took me by surprise, frankly. Something like this would usually have caused a massive rift between us, especially in the last few years.

Martha said she liked this new side to me. This more forgiving, and more affectionate me. Like the old me, she said, but… better. We laughed – it was becoming a habit. I didn’t know where it was coming from myself. And even more surprising, at times, I found my hand reaching across the bed and resting in hers, found my arms outstretched waiting for farewell.

The good news was, within a few days, the pump, along with the exercise regime, had re-inflated the lung. High with relief, I called Martha with the good news.

I knew removing the tube was going to be easier than forging a way into my body, but I couldn’t have imagined what would happen on its way out. That I was on my way out.

Once anaesthetised, the doctor pulled the tube out in one swift wrench. It was such a shock. I realised this alien thing that had been housed inside me had become part of me. It was as though the doctor had dragged a vital organ out of my body, leaving behind the open exit in my shoulder and the road the tube had dug deep into me.

I had that feeling of being beside myself. Like part of me had followed the tube out. There I was, half still inside me watching the doctor, and half outside myself, watching the scene. I was two. Both.

I could see the cut on my shoulder moving like a mouth, breathing. With each of its breaths I felt more present outside until I couldn’t feel inside me at all. Couldn’t see with those eyes.

The doctor was talking to my body, which sat on the edge of the hospital bed where I’d left it, its back to us, shoulders slumped. The doctor laughed. Not at something I’d said, surely, I thought, because I wasn’t in there.

If I concentrated, I could hear the doctor. I was fixed, good as new, he said. I could do everything I had before. Live like nothing had happened and go back to work in the next couple of weeks. But he’d be more inclined to release me if I agreed to stay with Martha for a while, let her look after me, until I was myself again.

I felt free of pain as I passed through air above them, I was no longer that wounded body. I wasn’t visible to anyone but when I stared hard, I could see an elongated, smoky wisp of me.

With each stitch I felt lighter. I panicked and flew to the cut as the last stitch was sewn. The last remaining connection to me was broken. I tried to barge in but was stopped by the barrier of my skin.”

‘Now, let’s get you sewn up,’ I heard the doctor say, approaching my body with a needle.

I remembered thinking, if all of me was outside, what was left in there? I had wondered what I’d lost of me, leaked out when I was opened up, but I hadn’t once considered that something else had gotten in.

I watched the doctor sew the wound. With each stitch I felt lighter. I panicked and flew to the cut as the last stitch was sewn. The last remaining connection to me was broken. I tried to barge in but was stopped by the barrier of my skin. The doctor covered the wound with a dressing.

I swam in the air around my body. I entered through the nostrils but was expelled. I went in through the mouth and was ejected the same way. I was locked out.

I watched it get up and heard it thank the doctor. Martha and Alex came in. I watched it place a hand on Alex’s head and rub the tip of her ear while she giggled. I watched Alex throw her arms around its waist. Watched it embrace Martha with a tear in its eye. From the outside I could see so clearly how different I had become. A tear? How could they not know this wasn’t me?

It.

You.

I followed, as Martha drove you to hers and, in her car park, I watched them help you inside the house. Before the back door closed, I saw you look away from them and straight at me. You saw me. This new me. The old me. Floating there. Didn’t you? Was it just the once?

You were given Alex’s room, while she shared with Martha. Alex comes to cuddle with you in bed and you watch movies together on my laptop. Mine. Movies we used to watch. Getting back what we had. And more. I see her relaxed with you in a way she never was with me.

I watch you recovering, getting stronger, no longer wasting away. While the real me is… I’m getting… lesser. I can no longer see myself, no matter how hard I look. The effort seems to lessen me further so I’ve given up.

Here you are on one knee running your fingers over the rug where I lay that day. Like you lost something there? Can you really not hear me? Or are you ignoring me?

Martha comes in but you are somewhere else. I watch her watching what she thinks is me. She backs out of the room without talking to you, closing the door gently, so as not to alert you to her presence.

I follow her to the kitchen. She opens the lower sash window, lights a cigarette, takes a drag and rests her wrist on the ledge outside – the smoke plumes full of promise and I wait for some genie released from captivity to form, like in the movies we watched together lying on our magic carpet.

I want to say ‘get out of this old house’. I want to tell her to stop smoking. I want to tell her to close the window she’ll catch her death.

I fly into her mouth as she inhales, swim in her smoky lungs and am expelled with force out of her mouth. I fight through the smoke and back into her mouth as she takes another drag but it’s useless. I don’t have the strength to keep it up. I don’t even know what I’m trying to do.

I give up and fly with the smoke out the open window. I see Martha rub goose bumps on her arms. I like to think that was me.

Up with the smoke I go, watch Martha until I’m past the window and she is out of sight. I look to the cloudy realms above. Follow the smoke. Watch it disappear around me. Like magic.

I wonder, where does it go?

From the anthology Same Same but Different (Everything With Words, £16.99)

 

Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son won The Polari First Novel Prize and The McCrea Literary Award. He began his writing career as a playwright and comedy writer. His short stories have been in numerous anthologies, journals and newspapers, as well as on BBC Radio and Sky Arts. He co-founded the London Short Story Festival, co-edited Belfast Stories and edited Queer Love and The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices. Same Same but Different is published by Everything With Words.
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Author portrait © Roelof Bakker

Mikka Haugaard, publisher at Everything With Words, introduces Same Same but Different

 

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