AUTUMN VOICES SHORT MEMOIR COMPETITON
THE WINNER: IRENE CUNNINGHAM
Many congratulations to Irene on winning the competition.
About Irene (age 64)
Irene Cunningham left school at 15 with a passion for fashion and a job in a Glasgow boutique. At the age of thirty-five she realised that further education might be a good idea. GCSEs, HEFCs, A-Levels, Highers and a BA in Performing Arts in Tyne & Wear followed. Her obsessive personality dragged her onto an HND in Ceramics when she returned to Glasgow. She went a-wandering in Devon, added TEFL in Barcelona...taught English in Poland and Spain, and is astounded that 2004 was such a long time ago. Creative writing arrived in her life during the GCSEs, and her publishing trail in literary magazines began in 1989...includes London Review of Books (writing as Maggie York), New Welsh Review, New Writing Scotland, Stand, Iron, Writing Women, Northwords Now, Envoi, Poetry Scotland and many others. She moved back to Scotland in 2007, is now living at Loch Lomond, revelling in a mad passion for art and photography and is a constant digital doodler. Recent publications: Picaroon, South Bank Poetry, Riggwelter, The Lake, Laldy!, Multiverse, Blue Nib, VisualVerse, Strix, Firth and Three Drops from a Cauldron. Hedgehog Press published a poetry conversation between her and Diana Devlin, SANDMEN: A Space Odyssey, December 2018. She is also a nominee for The Pushcart Prize 2019. She is planning a new poetry collection this year. Her website: http://ireneintheworld.wixsite.com/writer
FOR AW THAT
‘There is a bleed,’ he said.
Not, Your daughter has had a cerebral haemorrhage. No. I get the dumbed-down version. Her brain is bleeding into the nape of her neck, where it will disperse. Well that’s nice and tidy, isn’t it? I’m sitting in a tiny room being diagnosed as thick. I want to be bombarded with enormous words and unintelligible language. She’s only been here a couple of hours and has already had two brain scans; they wouldn’t spend that kind of money and attention on nothing. I’m choking here, trying to be passive and not in the least dangerous.
I’d been incommunicado all day, working. When I turned on my phone messages pinged one after another. Claire had fallen unconscious and called her brother when she woke up but she couldn’t talk properly. ‘Hang up now,’ he said. ‘I’m calling an ambulance.’ Later she told us that at one stage her fingers wouldn’t work properly and she couldn’t press the buttons on the phone. What must she have looked like for the ambulance service to insist on taking her to hospital and for the triage to send her for a scan there and then?
A new doctor, Mr Surgeon, throws an assortment of choices on the table, all of which include the possibility of death. She’s an adult; it’s her decision.
‘I’m only nineteen!’ she screams.
‘With the operation there’s a fifty-per-cent chance of death.’ His face never moves.
‘I can’t…’ she says, and looks to me. I know she wants me to be the bitch-mother here but I’m frozen and there’s no signpost directing me down the right path. All I can do is hold her hand and wait until she digs out the words, Just do it.
Mr Surgeon goes on to describe the risks of complications during and after the operation, then in the recuperation period. All we hear is the percentages of death. She’s all I can see and hear. Her whole life is inside me; I’m pregnant with this beautiful young woman, this busy, loving and sparkling entity. Suddenly she’ll need me again. I’ll be her Rottweiler. My head fills with memories of other hospital trips: sons with broken bones, blood and gore; handsome doctors with sexy arms holding x-rays up to light boxes, long muscled thighs stealing my attention. This is different – I can’t be that woman any more. Death has stalked me all my life and now I need to stand up and fight. I’m consumed.
On the day she was born I was surrounded by the kind of neighbours who were part of normal life then, the knock-and-walk-in, gossip or begging bowl, founts of local knowledge. Meg from next door and Maggie-along-the-street had kept an eye on me ‘cause I’d been in labour all day – if you could call it that...a little pain in the morning, regular enough to make me believe. My father-in-law came up to collect the boys for a birthday party. When I told him that I was in labour he brushed it off.
‘You’re not in labour. I should know, I’ve had fourteen kids.’
It was a Saturday. Husband had gone off to do his thing but I’d warned him to keep calling for updates.
‘We should’ve paid the phone bill,’ I said.
I couldn’t sit but there was no pain. Where I went Meg followed. Flo downstairs ferried messages up to us from Husband until they stopped. My waters broke and we sent her down to call an ambulance. When the urge to push came I held onto the bunk-beds, crossing my legs, trying to keep the baby in, terrified of everything that could go wrong, afraid the lack of pain was a bad sign.
‘Where’s the bloody ambulance?’
We sent Flo back down to find out what was happening.
Eddie forgot to give the address,’ she said, panting from running up the two flights.
‘Oh God I can’t hold it any longer. Flo, roll your sleeves up. You’ll have to do it.’
Meg hung out of the bedroom window watching for the ambulance. I ranted about germs, shouting at her to close it.
‘It’s here,’ she ducked her head back in, and then out again. ‘Hurry up, she’s delivering,’ she called down to the crew.
The head was out and still no pain. Flo’s face froze. I was so glad to see the two uniformed men walk into my bedroom and take over – so was she. She moved up to my side and took my hand. Meg did the same on the other side.
‘I’ve got no contractions,’ I said.
‘So just take a deep breath and push when you’re ready,’ the tall one said.
She came out in a rush. I didn’t ask what sex, assumed another boy. Meg threw the window up and leaned out.
‘It’s a girl,’ she shouted to the street.
Another ambulance arrived, bringing the midwife, who delivered the afterbirth and took care of my daughter. Maggie was making tea. My bedroom had never been so full – tea for seven.
They packed me onto a stretcher and took us downstairs. That was scary. The midwife carried Claire behind me. When we got outside, the whole neighbourhood was lined up applauding, wishing us well. Headlines might’ve been: A Girl is Born in Govan! I pulled the blanket over my face, wanting to kill Meg because she’d whipped them up, embarrassing me. And stupid Husband had missed it all...missed most of her life.
He’s been told, will be here tomorrow. Even after all this time I want to pan his face in with a hot skillet, gouge his brains out with a blunt spoon. But I will be calm, won’t let acid drip from my tongue. Claire will be proud of me. I'll wear my super-hero face.
Brain surgery takes a long time. We trail through the hospital to Theatre, like the day my mother-in-law was taken to the nursing home; the whole family followed her wheelchair, two-by-two, down the road to help settle her in, all of us hiding tears from the children. My mind flashes clips of film while I walk beside the bed, holding Claire’s hand, shushing her, telling her it’ll be okay even though her voice and face bore holes in my heart. I was stunned how quickly they took her from me. Her boyfriend, Ron, doesn’t know how to act. My sons clasp me in their arms and I’m dwarfed.
My brother-in-law died ten years earlier after constant nose-bleeds, sent home from three hospitals – nine visits in two days, to die in his armchair at the age of thirty-two. Claire had a history of nose-bleeds, and during the first one at seven or eight, she’d cried that she was dying like Uncle Donald.
How do you spend five hours while surgeons are cutting into your child’s head? You imagine anything but the razor that will shave off her long blonde hair, the saw that will split open her skull. You call all your contacts, ask them to send up prayers; you allow yourself to be held, soothed by an enormous extended family outside the building, where they keep arriving, and you attempt to drink awful coffee, watching your six-foot nephew stand and drip tears onto the café table. Then you want to be on your own, a quick walk around the block...not long enough for them to worry.
The traffic flows past me on its way to the Clyde tunnel, belching pollution. I take deep breaths; it doesn’t matter what goes into my lungs. The noise is distracting – it’s an ugly place to go for a walk but not a popular or busy pavement. I lift my head and I’m caught in the glare of a huge sunflower painted on the side of a building – a sign. I need to pay attention to signs.
‘I won’t lose my daughter. I know this.’
When I come into sight of the family I see them relax, pretend they weren’t planning a search party. We move upstairs into a waiting area opposite the lifts. Of course there are arguing factions not talking to each other, all of us ignoring it. I’m the peace-keeper, even now they need me but my mind is occupied. This machinery, that keeps a family’s cogs turning, arguments at bay needs delicate handling – yes, there was a moment when I blew up.
Eventually, a lift opens and Mr Surgeon’s standing at the back. I’m flying at him, aware that he wasn’t going to come out and talk to me. He leans across and presses the button to stop the door closing and walks towards me, still with the calm face.
‘Is she all right?’
‘Fine. No problems. She’s in intensive care. You can go down there now.’
He gives me this good news without emotion, no smile. I want to wrap my arms around him. Maybe I just did. Only a handful of us stay. My two sons and Ron gather ourselves and move to intensive care, take turns to be with her, standing beside the high bed, holding her hand through the bars and drowning in the noise.
This is my daughter, complaining about tubes collecting around her neck, hanging down from her head; her hand tries to swat them away. It’s proof of her personality, her repaired brain.
‘Mum, my head. Tell Ron not to eat the oranges.’
They’ve cut her from widow’s peak to behind her ear inside the hairline; the scar won’t be visible…and she isn’t bald but it is terrifying to see her in a serious room full of machines and no furniture, no chairs.
If this had happened a couple of months ago she’d be dead. She and Ron have just come back from working the season in a tiny Devon resort where the bank only opens three half-days a week. The hospital is three minutes away from where we live here. She’s lucky the ambulance crew recognised the symptoms and took her to hospital despite her telling them she felt better after falling unconscious and vomiting...and don’t forget the instant brain scans.
I’d only ever known two people who survived this – it’s such a shocking thing to land in your life that you will immediately imagine the worst. In the week she spent in hospital we watched as the woman across the ward from her died and another just wouldn’t wake up. Almost every newspaper had some story about misdiagnosis and careless medical practitioners sending people home to die; we’d been thrown into a different world.
But my daughter survived...became a mother and a wonderful wild woman who uses the life she was given. She even survived a fire in the empty shop underneath her flat by the skin of her teeth in the middle of the night. As a result of that there was a hole burnt in the floor beneath her bed. I’m thinking I should have named her Cat, short for Catlin, Catherine or some such.