This story is neither fiction, nor non-fiction. It exists, as we all do, in the space between those two absolutes.
There is no panic, which is odd because she thought there would be panic. This is the moment Sally has been least looking forward to, it’s fair to say, and while she may not be a poetic soul, while she didn’t expect a burning hellscape or a hooded figure gondoliering across the Styx, she did expect more than this; this eye-of-a-storm slow-motion collapse into oblivion, where her life is less flashing before her eyes, more presented to her through the possessions that scatter her tiny bedsit like evidence at an inquest, evidence of her life as lived, as if she is the judge of her own story and she must decide whether these objects, the photos of her daughter and grandson, her first pair of ballet shoes, the framed posters of her shows, all perched on display for no one but her, can possibly amount to a life.
It all looks so small, she thinks. Look how small my life has become, and she wonders if it has become so small that it might not even register when it is gone, but she quickly berates herself for this indulgence, for ever imagining that it might be any different. Her Dad was right. David was right. She always did spend too long with her head in the clouds.
When dreams come true they are no longer dreams.
David’s words waft through her consciousness like a piss-soaked alleyway.
They become tethered to reality, he’d said as he dunked a digestive into a cup of tea. They become rooted in the mundane and subject to the laws and obligations of the material world. They can be nothing but a disappointment.
None of which prevented David chasing his own, in the shape of a short-haired brunette called Luna, while leaving Sally to think, firstly, how the fuck did I marry this relentlessly dull-witted man, whose friends, now she thinks about it, were all 20 years older than them – she remembers 50th birthday parties before they were 30 – and secondly, if David’s logic was sound, and when was David’s logic anything but depressingly sound, then the only thing to do was to dream bigger, be more ambitious, with dreams so large and fanciful that they would forever remain unfulfilled, where they could drift freely in the upper reaches of her mind, untainted, pure, perfect, because she was convinced her future held more than it did. She was convinced her big break was just around the corner, and when it wasn’t, she would keep going anyway, refused to accept the odds so obviously stacked against her.
You’ve always been so stubborn, David said in the days before their split, but she knew he meant disobedient, because a stubborn man is strong-willed and independent, principled, and a stubborn woman is insubordinate. He wanted her at home, thinking small thoughts, and now, in a flash, here she is on a grim west London estate, not five miles from where she was born and thinking those small thoughts, when even in her final throes, she feels the well of irritation rise at the kids outside kicking the ball against the garage doors, the noise crashing through her like a cymbal.
Don’t they know I’m dying up here.
She’s not cross really. She admires those kids, remembers she was once one of them, because presumably there is a girl down there, there’s always one, dossing about among the boys, intent only on proving herself as strong as them, as daring as them, as cruel as them. And that was her. That was little Sally Turner; always up for a dare, up for a laugh, up for it, and the boys loved her, gliding those long legs around on roller skates, flicking those messy pigtails. She pushed them all to impress her, made the gang what it was, all of them doing all they could to avoid being at home. It didn’t matter what – smoking, fighting, laughing, dancing, teasing, taunting, stealing, flaunting, flirting, fucking – it was better than being at home, where her parents did their best to pretend they’d never had a child at all, did all they could to ensure she was no more than a bug in their peripheral vision, something to swat at occasionally until they could let it out, since they couldn’t actually kill it, although they found other ways to amuse themselves. Her father pulled her out of ballet class because he was embarrassed by her goofy teeth alongside the other beautiful girls.
You’re too ugly for the stage, so you can forget about that, he said as they walked home past endless identical suburban housing, Sally wondering if he had even watched her dance in that old hall, for she had easily been the best there. She would have her answer years later, because even when she did make that stage, not in ballet shoes but tap, he could not bring himself to see her perform, not once, not even at the Palladium.
We’d get you braces, but then people would just start looking at your nose.
Her mother’s words there, followed by laughter and a hacking cough that would foreshadow her death, both of them eventually succumbing to an undignified emphysemic end, a thought that births a sudden fury in Sally, that she should have allowed herself to so blindly follow them into this disease.
How could I do that?
She says these words out loud as she grips a chest that is clamping shut.
How could I have been so stupid?
A life spent in opposition to them and their language. Wogs, wops, nips, krauts, faggots, benders. A life spent proving she would not be defined by their petty hate, proving she could be what they insisted she couldn’t, separating herself from them, until in the end she was forced to return and watch them shrink and fade, the two of them seeming to enjoy the burden they placed upon her in their final weeks, like one last fuck you to their daughter who dared to dream. And then they were gone, nothing but dust scattered in a forgettable park on a cold February day when she finally tired of their presence on the mantelpiece, and now here she is, after all that work, being pulled back towards them once again.
It’s enough to make her really cross.
Sally never worried about dying when she was younger, never liked the idea of getting old anyway, abhorred the possibility of being a burden to her daughter, insisting she would rather jump off the back of a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean than decay in an old people’s home. She teased April about it many times, telling her that she would know when to worry.
When I book a cruise, you’ll know to come take my jewellery, she’d said, and April had rolled her eyes because she didn’t want to talk about it and certainly wished her mum wouldn’t make jokes about it. But that was all Sally knew. Always the class clown. All she was good for, she was constantly told, so she might as well be good for something. But I never did get that cruise, she thinks. Just another stupid dream, like all the rest of it, a useless failure of reality against imagination.
And now, right now, she wants to get old. She wants nothing more than to get really old, because what she hadn’t counted on in her blase youth was the impact of having her own children and grandchildren, and the fact that she is not going to see beautiful, precious little George grow up. She would cry if she could, she would give anything to cry, but she does not have time, it is too late, and so she casts around the room for something else to cling to in these final moments.
Her roller skates in the corner of the room, tossed under the dining table after the last time she wore them, when she cannot possibly have known that she would never wear them again. All the things we do for the last time that we don’t realise, she thinks. All the people we see for the last time without knowing, that’s the tragedy.
She’d been too ill to skate on her last birthday, the first year she had missed the ritual since receiving her first pair of skates as a four-year-old. She’d skated around Shepherds Bush Green, the stage of an empty Palladium, in Rome, at DisneyWorld, along the seafront in Skegness, down Peckham high street, had never missed a birthday, until this year, her 69th.
Still, I’ll always have the Palladium, she thinks. That was pretty cool. Even if it was only for one night. Not only that, she wet herself on stage that night, the tears of laughter mixing with the urine as she and her best mate whispered obsenities to each other each time the routine brought them into a clinch. She was fired within the hour.
She didn’t tell April that she couldn’t skate on her birthday, pretended that she’d been out earlier that morning and had hurt her ankle, so could not go again now that she was here. George had brought his skates and was ready to go with Grandma.
I’m so sorry Georgie, she said, pulling him into a huge hug. Next time, I promise sweetheart.
I promise. What a stupid thing to say. Why had she said that, and with the thought comes the memory of waking up at the hospital just two weeks ago and discovering that her worst nightmare had leaked into the real world, for there was April, sitting at her bedside, eyes furtively tracking the outline of the bony frame under the thin bedsheet, the swollen purple ankles protruding from the end, and the shakes of her mother’s hands as they tried to wipe the dribble from her face.
April, what are you doing here?
Her voice was stolen, weak.
What do you think, Mum?
April reached for her mother’s hand and squeezed as Sally looked around at the walls confused.
What time is it?
Just after 10pm.
It’s not visiting hours. What are you doing here?
Jude works here, Mum. She’s the one who called to tell me you were here. She let me in. I’m not supposed to be here so we have to talk quietly.
Well, I wasn’t planning on throwing a party, love.
And that was all Sally needed to recover her poise, to prop herself up on pillows and complain about her terrible night’s sleep because of the old bag in the next bed who’d been shouting abuse at the nurses all night. She made April go down to the shop to buy a giant bag of Maltesers, to buy herself some more time, although the idea of being able to eat and swallow was a fantasy. She joked with the nurse as she filled in the form at the end of the bed, said she couldn’t wait to get home, was missing Neighbours and Home and Away. All of which seemed to calm April, and they soon settled into their usual routine of conversation, with Sally making plans for Christmas that she knew she would not be able to keep.
I bought you flowers, said April. But then I realised on the way here that I wouldn’t be allowed to bring them on the ward.
That’s sweet. What did you do with them?
I gave them to a man on the train.
You old romantic.
It’s not like that.
Sally watched as April fiddled with her purse, apparently rearranging something inside.
What photos are those?
April pulled them out and handed them to Sally. There were two photos. The first was taken in a passport photo booth and divided into quarters and featured Sally and George pulling a different stupid face in each image. The last one was the two of them laughing. The second photo was of Sally and George at the seaside, Brighton she thinks, sticking their tongies out at the camera, but all Sally could remember from that moment was April shouting at George to put his tongue away and moaning to Sally that, just for once, could she get nice photo of her.
Stop pulling dumb faces, Mum.
But dumb faces meant you owned the dumbness. No one could say you looked dumb if you were trying to look dumb.
She moaned a lot, did April. It especially upset her that Sally always called him Georgie Porgie, and sometimes added the rhyme about kissing the girls and making them cry. Harmless, but it made April so cross. She was always so serious, and in truth, and she can admit it now she’s seconds from eternity, Sally liked winding her up. It was funny, watching her only child get upset at the most ludicrous things, because April could never know how much love Sally held for her, she could never know how lucky she was to have Sally as a mother. Not that Sally feels she was an especially good mother, no more than competent most likely, but her love for April, and then George, has always been infinite. The only thing in Sally’s life that has truly mattered. No one ever loved another person more. It’s impossible.
So I achieved that, she thinks. If nothing else, I won that.
And what’s more that love came from nothing, she generated it herself, she was not passing down the love given to her by her parents, she had to conjure it herself, had to discover what love was, what it felt like and what it was to give it, all for herself, because she was not shown it, there was nothing for her to cling to from her own childhood, it was all discovered later, in a single year which saw her own parents die shortly before the birth of her own child, and in that period she realised what it meant to lose parents who didn’t like you – nothing – and what it meant to become a parent yourself and to discover what love could do – everything.
But that love comes with regrets too. Because it is that love that led her to hiding all of this from April, and she regrets that now, because her desire to protect her daughter from this illness, her determination to never need help from anyone, to never be weak again, and never become the burden that her own parents had been, means April is not here now, right now, with her, when all she wants in these final few seconds is to see her and hold her hand and tell her everything is going to be okay.
She has but a second remaining now, and she glances in the small mirror that hangs on the wall to the side of the sofa bed. The wraith-like figure that stares back does not shock her, but she feels the anger swell now, that having always been the fittest, healthiest person she knew, the life of the party, the cheeky prankster and foul-mouthed joker, she should end it as such a cliche, a withered old woman, a hag, and she sees, in the final moment, the loneliness of a mother who has hidden her illness from her only child.
And so, after all, it is not her withered lungs that have finally succumbed, but her heart.
Well, I should have seen that coming, she thinks, before releasing herself to the end,