Angela Italiano (University of Western Australia, Australia)
The infant’s cries keep Luca awake. Slumped in a chair under flickering fluorescent light, he watches a nurse down the hospital corridor swing the infant gently. Usually he can drift to sleep easily, even in public places. Yet today, with the violent shrieks echoing ceaselessly down the hall, it is impossible.
The door across the hall opens, and a doctor signals to Luca.
“You can come in now,” she says.
Luca walks in and sees Evelyn sitting in bed.
“I told them not to call you,” she says, shaking her head.
“What’s going on; what’s the matter?” asks Luca.
“Oh, it’s a lot of fuss for nothing. I’m fine,” insists Evelyn.
The doctor stares at them and clears her throat.
“I’ll give you a moment,” she says and leaves the room.
Luca sits in one of the chairs beside the bed. He’s always remembered his mother’s hair the way it used to be when he was little – a rich, vibrant auburn. Today, it’s noticeable how much it has changed – it’s now grey and mottled, hanging like a worn sweater beside her face.
He crosses his arms. “Come on, what’s going on?”
“I’m fine. It’s all routine – nothing major, trust me.”
“What kind of routine?”
Fear had shot through Luca’s body when he received the phone call from the hospital. He’d assumed the cancer had performed a magic trick on them all – vanishing temporarily, only to sprout rapidly and unexpectedly somewhere new.
“Just a whole lot of scans, waiting around, poking and prodding.” His mother smiles. “Nothing new.”
Luca feels somewhat relieved. Yet he notices there is something different about his mother that he can’t exactly describe. They’ve always censored themselves, and he knows this familiar dance of avoidance between them.
“Where’s Grace?” Evelyn asks.
“Oh, she couldn’t make it this time.”
“Well I can’t remember the last time I saw my own daughter in law. It’s got to be months.”
Luca shrugs. “She’s busy.”
Evelyn’s eyes follow him carefully, combing his appearance for clues.
“No, just tired.”
“Mmm, I don’t believe you.”
“I’m not the one to worry about. You’re the one in the hospital bed.”
“Well, I’m jealous. I can’t get a bloody drop in here!”
Luca shakes his head. “Did they call anybody else?”
Evelyn has plenty of friends, yet their appearances are always brief.
“No, no.” Evelyn turns to look out the window. “I didn’t want to bother anybody.”
Luca is used to his mother denying his help, but he always comes as fast as he can, regardless.
“You’re not bothering anybody,” insists Luca.
He remembers the years before he left home, and the time when he first got his licence. He would spend nights alone, waiting for his mother. When she never arrived home, he would go to find her, drunk at the football club. He would help Evelyn into his little Corolla and drive home carefully with her passed out on the back seat. As they stumbled into the house, he would search the walls for the light switch with one arm and hold Evelyn in the other. She would knock over chairs, glasses, plates. It was always the same.
They never spoke about it. They would never remember together the vomit or the way she howled on the floor. When they talked of those winters, they would only remember how wild the winds were, how unexpectedly heavy the rains had been.
“Well you came all this way so we might as well make the most of it. Are you hungry? We can go to the cafeteria. It’s awful, but it’s all we’ve got.”
He follows his mother out of the room and down the corridor.
In the cafeteria, Evelyn stares at the bayonet and rolls her eyes.
“Mmm, egg sandwiches,” she says. “You hungry?”
Luca is distracted by a familiar wailing and turns to see a different nurse holding what appears to be the same infant as before. The sound makes the splitting sensation in his head worse. He stares at the child, wondering if it’s hungry.
He remembers standing in the kitchen when he was a boy. His mother had been sleeping, sick. The shopping hadn’t been done for a while. Maggots were wriggling in the sink, under the dishes. Ants were crawling across a spill of liquid, something sweet yet acidic, on the tiles leading to his mother’s bedroom. In the cupboard, he found bread. The mould was only on the very edges, so he cut a small square out of the centre of two pieces. He searched for condiments, but all he found was an old packet of tomato sauce. Without looking at the expiry date, he squeezed it onto his small squares of bread, and it provided him with some small relief from the empty crunch of his stomach.
“Luca?” asks his mother, waving her hand in front of his face.
They buy sandwiches and curry and take them to a plastic table outside.
“I’ll stay for a few days to make sure you’re okay,” Luca says.
“Surely you’re busy. You’ve got to get back to Grace.”
“She’s fine, don’t worry about her.”
Sitting across from her in the natural light, Luca notices his mother’s skin – it’s yellowed, anaemic, and speckled with new spots. She is still watching him carefully, and now she stares at his hand.
“Where’s your wedding ring?” she asks.
“Oh.” He looks down, searching for words. “I’m just getting it polished.”
There are things he wants to tell her, but he knows he can never find the words. The way they speak is stiff, stunted.
“You never took yours off,” he says, pointing at the ring on Evelyn’s finger.
Luca is surprised that he said it – in all their years of avoiding the topic, he is alarmed at what came from his own mouth. He watches his mother’s face deflate.
“I suppose not,” she says finally. “I suppose I just forgot.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s easier to forget.” Luca takes a bite of his sandwich.
“I suppose.” Evelyn looks down at her food.
Luca stares at his mother now, eating watered-down cafeteria curry, picking at it like she is pulling apart bits of her life for the first time.
Just as he thinks she is about to say something, she reaches discretely into her bag and pushes what she takes out towards him under the table.
“Go on, go get us some ginger ale and we’ll have some,” she whispers, smiling again.
Luca peers under the table and sees what she has kept hidden in her bag. It’s a bottle of Jameson’s. Luca shakes his head and gives a wry smile.
“Mum, this is a hospital.”
She winks. “And I need my medicine.”
Luca pushes the bottle away and reaches for his wallet instead. “Look I’ll go get you a milkshake or a coffee or something.”
She pouts. “You’re no fun anymore.”
Luca gets up and walks inside, but then he turns back and stares at his mother. She’s lost in her own thoughts, gazing out at nothing.
He remembers being seven years old. He had gone with his mother to get fish and chips. They never went to get dinner this late, but he was glad they were going. As they sat out the front of the shop, he had watched his mother’s eyes. They were fat with fluid and she was staring off into the distance. He had asked if she was crying, and she had looked so angry. Nonsense, she’d said. I’m fine. He had then asked if they were going to see his dad again soon, and she had said he didn’t need to worry about that. He remembered feeling a tightness in his chest. He’d begun to cry. No crying, she had said.
Then his mother reached into her bag and got out a bottle of Jameson’s. She poured a small amount of it into his ginger ale. He swallowed it, along with all the rest, all the tightness and confusion and hurt. He kept swallowing and he never let her see him cry. They never mentioned his father’s name again.
Luca turns to the cafeteria again and bumps into the doctor from earlier.
“Oh, Luca. How’s your mother doing?”
“She’s alright thanks. I’m grateful for you checking up on her.”
“So, is there more family coming?”
“No, no just me.”
“Right. So, did you want to come back in perhaps in an hour or so, and talk about palliative care options together? I thought it would be best to do that kind of paperwork when you’ve had some time.”
There is a moment of silence.
“I … I assumed you and your mother talked about her situation?”
“She told me it was just a routine check-up.” Luca watches the doctor’s forehead crease, and he feels his chest tighten.
The doctor takes a deep breath.
“I’m so sorry, that’s not the case at all. Your mother’s condition is quite dire. The cancer has spread to her brain and ….”
Luca tries to listen, but the sentences lose their meaning and all he can hear are key words like tumour, unravelling, terminal.
“I’m so sorry Luca. I understand it’s hard to hear.” The doctor’s face is full of pity, and Luca has to look away.
“Thank you for telling me.”
“Did you want me to come and discuss options with you now?”
“No, no. Not yet.” Luca’s voice is soft.
“Of course. I can go and speak to her myself if you like?”
Luca looks back over at his mother, who is still gazing across the grass.
“Please don’t tell her I know,” he says to the doctor.
The doctor nods, then squeezes Luca’s shoulder gently and turns away.
The sun is going down outside the hospital. Luca feels something – that tight feeling in his chest, it’s coming back. A place inside him is swelling up with something, a place that’s been arid and dried up for a very long time. Now, it is full of feeling, flowing uncontrollably like a flash flood.
He pictures himself walking over to his mother, and he imagines telling her that he is sorry, that they will face this together, that he knows her mind is unravelling, and that his marriage and his heart have been unravelling too. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, as tears fill his eyes.
He walks to the cafeteria counter.
“Two ginger ales, please.”
He pulls out his wallet and stares at a photo of Grace. He remembers the last day they spent together, only a few months ago. They went to the supermarket, and it was a Tuesday. Neither of them had spoken, but when they got home, she told him that she loved him still, but that she was sorry. He went to get the shopping from the car, and when he came back, she was gone.
Luca hears the baby crying again. He takes the drinks, and instead of returning to his mother, he follows the sound of its cries down the hospital corridor. He reaches a row of seats at the end of a long hallway, empty except for the child, in the arms of a different nurse once more. It’s screaming and wailing just as loudly.
“That baby,” he says to the nurse, shaking his head. “It doesn’t stop crying, does it?”
“Her mother is withdrawing, and won’t be feeding it while she gets herself sorted – we’ve been taking turns. Shifts, I suppose,” says the nurse.
He looks at the child and thinks about how it keeps moving around, from one spot to another, just roaming the hallways in the arms of different strangers.
Luca has spent the few months since Grace left trying to forget her. His nights have passed with different strangers whose lives he occupied for a moment, just long enough to feel something, anything. All these strangers, their mouths like methadone. There would be only silence, his mind floating on a river of liquid salve, full of questions with no answers.
“What about the father?” asks Luca.
“We don’t know,” says the nurse.
He tries to think of the last time he saw his father, but it’s difficult – perhaps he saw him smoking cigarettes on the front porch. He had been very young, maybe five. Perhaps his father never even smoked cigarettes. He barely even remembers the house they had before they left, or his room. Some teddies, and blue walls. He has a few memories of a man smiling, a man he likes to think was his father.
Luca decides he will sit down for a little bit before he takes the ginger ale back to his mother.
“May I?” he asks the nurse, reaching out his arms.
Luca takes the child and looks down at it closely. Its face is scrunched up in pain, cheeks red and swollen. He swings it back and forth, and its eyes start to close.
As he rocks the infant gently, he remembers the last time they left the house they had with his dad. He remembers leaving at night, and not understanding why his teddy and clothes were bundled up in the back seat. His mother was swerving a lot as she drove, and muttering something under her breath. He remembers rolling around in the back seat, surrounded by everything he had ever owned. His legs had felt like jelly, and he had cried as he watched the town he grew up in flash past the window.
“Shhhhh,” he whispers to the baby as he starts to hum.
Angela Italiano is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on early childhood trauma and mental health outcomes in fiction. This is her first piece of published work.