24 hours. One day. One lifetime.
The walls are grubby, in desperate need of redecoration, faded to a bland grey yellow. Outside the late autumnal sun struggles to break through the windows, encased as they are in city grime. Sunbeams tiptoe round the outskirts of the ward lifting dullness like a light fingered thief. Hers is a window corner but this delicate radiance cannot touch her. She hasn’t pulled up the blind. She knows she must face it soon, prosaic city life.
Her friends said: “Life will never be the same again.” How true.
It is 8.30 am and the doctor has finished his round. Dismissing professional advice she discharges herself and leaves her overnight bag under the bed, snuggling down with dirt and disease. The lobby is quiet; a security guard nods at her. She shuffles towards the automatic doors and is assaulted by a blast of hot air. It blows her dishevelled hair upwards and slaps her shiny face with its man-made warmth. She lunges forward and a cold breeze whips her cheeks, unstockinged knees and forearms. An insignificant flurry of wind, a natural force, kisses her body and wakes her from her pain-induced slumber. Downy hair stands to attention and she realises with sadness and shame that she can still feel.
It takes her by surprise, this feeling. The sun has set and risen only once since she staggered into the hospital, eyes glazed and screaming. She walks, head down, towards the pavement, off NHS property. The ground is spongy beneath her, trampoline-like. She is weightless, moon-walking her way to back to reality.
Outside the breeze blocks, central heating, plastic bed covers and acrylic curtains, she is once again a sentient being. Her battered, aching body is pulsating with life. She swears she can feel it healing. Denmark Hill lies before her, the small station in the middle distance, the road, damp black with residual dew and fog, the slow moving cars, the buses groaning as they struggle up the rise. Beige flats and red brick houses.
Her mouth still tastes of metal.
There is no sign of a cab amongst the swarm of morning commuters. Suzette waits a while, peering down the hill, searching for the amber glow of the ‘For Hire’ sign. If she squints, the cars look like beetles, jostling towards an unseen treasure, a pile of dung perhaps or rotting, leftover food. Then she remembers. She has no money, no identification, nothing. She has the clothes she wears and what should have been. Her purse sits in the side pocket of her bag and she will not re-enter the grey tower. Herne Hill and a flat that until now she would have called home is only a mile away.
“I will walk,” she resolves.
Clenching her teeth Suzette turns right and faces the hill head on. She is heading south on the eastern, shady side of the street. She will not cross over to the light and warmth. The paving stones are cracked. Moss and other plant life grow randomly in the grooves between the slabs. She marvels at nature’s instinct to survive.
Turreted Victorian houses line the route, sentries standing to attention, marking her path. Over the brow of the hill she catches a glimpse of the park, the wet grass winking at her in the sunlight. In her mind’s eye she sees the lido, the walled garden and the children’s playground. Like a butterfly round buddlia she hovers over the playground. Iron tubes in primary colours curling their way into children’s hearts. Swings creaking to and fro, shrieks of laughter, obstinate rages, querulous prattling, chasing games and babble deafen her. She can smell the children, pungent little creatures, all sugar and sticky farts. She wants to hug them tight.
Gloomier shadows still creep up on her as she approaches the railway bridge, dark and low and dirty, pigeons hiding in the eaves, chattering to each other, cooing, carelessly spilling their waste.
A flower stall trickles onto the pavement. Silver buckets of white lilies, carnations, roses and chrysanthemums illuminate the scene like a lone peacock in a sea of hens. Red knuckles and chapped fingers huddle round a polystyrene cup of tea the colour of wet sand. Its steam dances towards the sky. The flower seller’s brittle, yellowed nails are filthy. His fingers are engrained with soil; it is part of him, just as oil is elemental to a mechanic’s hands, regardless of how much Swarfegar he uses at the end of each day. He isn’t old, 50 maybe, but he is a man who has worked outside most of his life. His skin is parched, broken veins thread their way across his cheeks, open pores roam freely and a dew drop of colourless snot dangles at the end of his nose.
He is frozen, but living and breathing.
The scent of the lilies burns the inside of Suzette’s nose as she moves slowly by. She inhales deeply, taking in their perfume, drawing the rich powdery scent up into her brain. She feels dizzy, intoxicated by the aroma and then quite sick. She tries to quicken her pace to escape the pungent fumes but her legs are granite and the ground cut glass. Stones slice through the soles of her suede boots, shards of tarmac are ripping her feet. Senses intact, she is still alive. The hum of the traffic turns from white noise to a scarlet howl, scorching her eardrums.
Wind tears sting her eyes and through the cacophony of noise she hears a tiny mewling. In a tower, falling away from the light, the stars are gathering, huddling together, glittering, obscuring her vision. She is going to faint.
The earth should feel hard against her vulnerable flesh but it is a bed of feathers, a lake of down, caressing her bruised body, stroking her from the inside out and she weeps for the love of it. Suzette wants to stay here forever, in this tender embrace.
“Are you all right love?”
It is the flower seller, looking concerned and kind. Like a father, or a mother. She cannot open her eyes for she knows that if she does the true tears will come and may never stop. She clutches the towelling babysuit against her empty, bleeding womb. She feels its softness and her despair.
by Laura Wilkinson, editor of hagsharlotsheroines.com