Today we have an exclusive short story from our #WriterWednesday Susan Newham-Blake. In "The Dying Woman" a premonition causes Amy to turn over her life, inspecting its worth and her decisions.
It started off as a vague sensation as she was drifting off to sleep – the feeling that she was dying. She ignored it at first, she’d had odd thoughts before. But the sensation grew stronger, a sense of disconnection, as though her spirit was separating from her body, as if her very essence wished to escape. And then one morning she awoke early stricken by dread. She knew she was not going to be around much longer. She was certain she would be dead within a few months.
She was too young , there was still so much to do. The children were barely in school. She worried about Justin. He never wanted kids in the first place. He’d be furious if she left. What would he do with them? She wondered if he’d simply give them away. Palm them off to her mother who was too old and too grumpy to give them any appropriate level of care. She’d stick them in front of Nickelodeon all day. Send them to school with jam sandwiches on white bread and a packet of Smarties. No, he’d have to step up. They needed him. She was sure he’d figure out how to cope. But still, she felt she better check.
She nudged her husband gently against his back. “Justin,” she whispered. “Justin, wake up.” He rolled over onto his back and began to snore. She elbowed him sharply in the side. The snoring stopped. He turned to look at her, his eyes battling to focus. He frowned.
“Sorry to wake you,” she said, “But I’ve got really bad news. I’m pretty convinced I’m dying.” He sat up, the frown deepening, his eyes searching her face.
“What do you mean? Have you been to the doctor?” His voice was thick with sleep.
“No, it’s a premonition. A feeling I’ve been sitting with for some time.”
Justin rolled over turning his back on her. “Oh, for god’s sake Amy. You are not dying.”
She was annoyed. It was not like she’d ever made such a declaration before. She never even got headaches. It was probably bad timing but she couldn’t leave it now. Down the passage the children’s toilet flushed. They would be coming through soon, asking for breakfast.
“Justin. Justin.” She nudged him again, but he groaned and pulled the duvet over his head.
The eggs spat in the pan. The microwave beeped, the milk for their coffee was ready. She could hear Timothy’s electric toothbrush whirring from the bathroom.
She handed Justin a cup of coffee. “I need you to promise me that when I die you are not to give the children away under any circumstances.”
He sipped his coffee, the steam momentarily misting up his glasses.
She had another horrifying thought. What if he separated them? Gave the difficult one to mom and kept sweet compliant Julie.
“Not even Timothy, Justin, I’m serious. You can’t send Timothy away, he can’t always help that he’s so boisterous. Please, this is important. They’re going to need you. You must stick together after I’m gone. Promise me.” He placed a slice of brown toast on his plate and buttered it. She lifted a fried egg carefully onto his toast.
“Who can I give them to?” he said.
“No. No. No. You are not to give them to anyone. You’ve got to keep them. They’re yours! It’s going to be bad enough growing up without a mother. You have to be there for them.”
“So, were you thinking more along the lines of me giving them to your mom or giving them up for adoption?” He paused and then added, “Or just sending them away to boarding school?”
It wasn’t funny. It was stupid of her to think he’d believe her. But there were plans to be made. Memory books for the kids to compile. It was distressing.
Justin stopped chewing. He hated it when she cried. “Calm down Amy. You’re fine. You’ve been exhausted with work and the kids. It’s just that.” She leant against his shoulder feeling momentarily comforted. His warm skin, the familiarity of his scent, this was what marriage was about. She would savour these small moments while she still could.
She decided not to mention it to him again. At least not for now. She would go about her life doing what she needed to do, setting things in place, getting her house in order as they say. She wondered how it would happen, what it would feel like. Would it be a protracted illness spent lying in a darkened room battling to acknowledge the stream of well-wishers who’d invariably come to say their goodbyes or would she simply drop dead from a massive heart attack in the middle of Pick n’ Pay. She imagined the final moments, that split second of recognising that this is it, Game Over. Would she be terrified, or would she be at peace? Would it feel like slipping into a deep sleep? That’s what she’d told Julie when she had found her sobbing into her pillow after the cat died. “I don’t want to die, mommy. I’m scared,” Julie had cried. The thought that death was like falling into a deep peaceful sleep had calmed Julie. She loved her sleep. For months afterwards if she heard of someone dying she’d look wistful.
Amy opened her laptop to finish off the presentation for today’s big pitch. It seemed futile now, though, and so she shut it instead. She’d call in sick. They’d have to cope without her. Anyway she’d grown to loathe advertising. She’d never meant to land up in it, she was an artist at heart. She wanted to touch people’s lives through beautiful images. Make them think differently. At one point she’d toyed with being a photographer. Instead she’d spent the last seven years helping big corporations sell more stuff. She was not going to spend another minute doing it. Instead she decided she’d take a long walk through The Company's Gardens while the kids were at school and fetch them early instead of leaving them in aftercare. She might even take her camera along and see what pictures she could capture. They could go towards the kids’ memory book.
The entrance to the Gardens was in a narrow street dotted with cars parked too closely together. Car guards in orange jackets wandered between them. There was nowhere for her to park. She turned up a side road and spotted a loading bay. Ordinarily she would have circled until a legitimate parking became free, perhaps even give the trip a miss altogether. But today she maneuvered her car between yellow lines. What did it matter if she got a ticket now?
She walked down the main road of the Company's Gardens, noticing the small purple and blue buds that were starting to blossom. Squirrels ran out hopeful for nuts. She’d stopped buying nuts after Timothy was born, after he’d been rushed to hospital because of an allergic reaction. Today she would buy peanuts. She loved them. She and the squirrels would share them. A vendor was selling brown packets of raw peanuts, their brown husks still in tact, at the end of the long road. She ordered two packets but before she could pay, a large man came up behind her, talking over her.
“How much?” he asked the vendor.
“Twenty rand, sir.”
“Twenty rand? That’s ridiculous! It’s a rip-off. I can buy salted roasted nuts from the supermarket for less than that.”
Amy rolled her eyes. It seemed there were more and more people like this these days. She started to move aside but stopped. Actually, she was sick of it. Who did he think he was?
“Excuse me,” she said. “There is no reason to speak like that. It’s his livelihood. If you don’t like the price buy them from somewhere else.”
“I’ll take the nuts,” he said, ignoring her.
“I can and I will. Give me the nuts,” he talked loudly over Amy’s head.
“You can’t because I have bought all the nuts already.” She pulled out five hundred rand from her purse meant for her car license renewal, handed it to the vendor and gathered up the small brown packets.
“You can’t do that,” the man said.
“I just did.”
She found a bench in the rose garden and scattered nuts across the broad path. She smiled as the squirrels scampered towards her, picking up the nuts in their tiny paws. They would finish a nut and then come back for more. Pigeons flew down pecking the ground. The fresh smell of vegetation filled the air. She removed her cardigan and allowed the sun to warm her skin. An old lady wearing worn clothes and carrying stuffed plastic bags sat down next to her, muttering to herself. The smell of old urine made Amy shift in her seat. She started to stand and then changed her mind. Instead she looked down at the cardigan, the one she’d bought at Woolies last week. She’d liked its neutral tone. “Here,” she said, handing the cardigan to the woman. The woman held it in her hands. Amy emptied her purse and handed her the rest of her money. The woman started to cry, “Thank you, thank you,” she said and instead of moving away, Amy stayed and comforted her.
There was a pink ticket on Amy’s car window when she got back to her car. She ripped it off, crumpled it up and threw it in her handbag. There was still an hour before she had to picked up the kids and so she drove to The Gardens Centre. There was a shop in there she’d always wanted to visit but never had. The shop was empty and she glanced behind her as she entered it. She touched the silky bras and underwear. She’d secretly imagined herself in one of their slips, perhaps even a lace one. She gasped at the price of a red slip trimmed with lace, but it felt so soft against her skin.
She arrived early outside the school gates. Julie noticed her first. “Mommy,” she squealed. Timothy always took a little longer than his sister but when he saw her he grinned, a dimple appearing on his left cheek. She hugged each child, kissing their small faces, until they both pulled away.
“I thought we could do something fun today,” she said. “Do you want to go for pizza at Dunes?”
“Pizza, Dunes, pizza, Dunes,” they chanted and for a second she felt guilty for all the times she did not allow them a simple slice of pizza.
The kids were in the car when she spotted Liz Mackintosh, one of those mothers who was overly involved in the school leaving all other mothers feeling inadequate. She was also a snob and had recently been inciting parents against allowing a bad element into the school, which were the poorer kids from the community that had been given bursaries. With the kids safely in the car, Amy approached Liz.
“Liz,” she called. Liz stopped, her signature air of smugness hung over her like a bad smell.
“Liz, I’ve been meaning to say that I think you’ve really brought a bad element into the school. Your negative racist views have been hugely damaging to this school which has always been inclusive. Everyone is welcome here regardless of their background and perhaps it is you who should think of leaving.”
Liz looked surprised, gave a small laugh, and then went bright red in the face.
Amy turned and climbed into her car. Without looking back, she drove off. She put on the kids favourite CD and they sang loudly together all the way to Hout Bay.
At Dunes she ordered chocolate milkshakes.
“Why are you being so nice to us, mom?” Timothy asked.
“I love you,” she said and looked away before they saw her eyes fill with tears.
She listened to them chatting about their day at school. She asked about their teachers, their friends, their favourite subjects. Long after they’d stopped talking she sat watching them until Julie said,“Why are you staring at me like that, mom?”
That evening with the kids in front of the television, Justin poured a glass of wine and handed it to her.
“Is Margaret coming to watch the kids this weekend?” For a moment, Amy went blank.
“My work function? Saturday night?” Amy went cold. The last thing she wanted was to spend her time sitting with his colleagues in an overpriced restaurant. Amy hated the way Pieter Swanepoel had the ability to make her feel stupid.
“I’m not going,” she said. “You can go, but I’m not going with you.”
Justin frowned, looking at her.
“I don’t feel like spending my time with your colleagues. I don’t know them and Pieter is a misogynist.”
“Oh, he’s hardly a misogynist.”
“Well he makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m not spending anymore time doing things I don’t want to do. And that goes for your mother too, Justin. It’s time you told her that it’s not helpful to make snide comments about me not spending enough time with the kids. Just because she didn’t have a career…”
“Is this about this morning?”
She stared at him then looked away, taking a sip of her wine. She listened for the kids. They were running the bathwater again.
She yelled down the passage. “Don’t use all the hot water.”
“This is ridiculous, Amy. You are not dying. If you’re so convinced, why don’t you go and see a doctor?”
“I am,” Amy shouted. “I’m going tomorrow.”
She had not, in fact, made an appointment yet. There was a part of her that didn’t want to hear it. Didn’t want it to be final. But Justin was right. It was unfair on him. She needed proof. Then they could deal with this together.
It was her favourite time of day. The kids were asleep, the house quiet. Amy climbed out of the bath and put on the red silk slip.
“What’s this?” Justin looked up from the bed.
“Shut up, Justin.”
“Geez, you should be dying more often.”
Amy could feel Justin’s hands running over the silk of the slip. She giggled.
“Shut up, Justin,” she said again but she was excited. This felt different to the usual quickie they’d settled on over time. Amy turned and kissed him, then pushed him onto the bed.
Afterwards they lay side by side, flushed and out of breath. Justin pulled her closer. She looked at the contour of his face, his perfect mouth, the stubble just beginning to show, his floppy hair, now damp with sweat. Oh, how she loved him.
The doctor’s waiting room was full. People sniffing from seasonal allergies. Coughs that wouldn’t go away. She’d arrived for her appointment on time but would now spend the next obligatory thirty minutes flipping through dated magazines. She did not have a regular doctor. She never got sick. She usually saw whoever was on duty. Today it was Dr Winterson. She had a moment of panic as she heard her name being called. What if he thought she was a hypochondriac? She’d tell him she was having inexplicable aches and pains that wouldn’t go away. Get him to screen her properly, send her for tests. She sat on the doctor’s table feeling like a young girl again. He took her blood pressure, listened to her heartbeat. He looked in her ears, down her throat. He checked her eyes. He made her lie on the table and pressed against the glands in her neck, under her arms, her groin. He pushed on her stomach, looking for pain, for swelling.
He asked questions, the usual medical routine, and jotted down notes on a piece of paper. When he was finished, he tore the paper off a notepad.
“Right, Amy,” he said. “I’m not sure where these aches and pains are coming from. You appear to be in 100% good health. However, I don’t want to miss anything so I’m sending you for a series of blood tests.”
She thanked him, feeling momentarily relieved, and then walked down the long passage to the pathology unit. She was sent home to wait for the results.
The house was quiet in the middle of the morning when Amy got back from the doctor’s. She sat on her living room couch staring into the garden. The recent rain had made the grass bright green. She spotted a dandelion, completely intact, and remembered how much she’d loved them as a child. A tiny sunbird hopped onto the red bottle brush tree. The tree was so much fuller than she had remembered it. Everything was so beautiful. She would fetch the kids mid morning from school, claiming an important family function. She would take them to the beach. Why waste time sitting in a classroom? A squawk made her look up. It was Johnny the pet cockatiel. His cage was a mess. The kids had begged her for a bird but the novelty had long since worn off. She really should clean his cage, take better care of him. She walked towards the kitchen to fetch fresh newspaper, a wad of paper towel, but she stopped and turned around instead. She slid open the cage door. Johnny hopped towards her.
“Here boy.” He climbed onto her finger and she rubbed the top of his head. He nibbled her with his beak. She opened the sliding door and stepped outside.
“Off you go boy,” she shook her finger willing him to fly off. He jumped onto the ground instead, squawking.
“Shoo, shoo,” she urged. Johnny flapped his wings and hopped onto the grass. She ran at him and he took off, flying over the fence. Inside Timothy’s bedroom she found the box of silkworms. She hated the things. She hated having them in the house. She’d been patient, waiting for Timothy’s obsession to fade, but it had intensified instead. She took the box outside. She lifted the lid ready to tip them into the garden but the thought of them squirming around the ground disgusted her and instead she went to the kitchen and got the Doom. She aimed it at the open box, closed her eyes and sprayed.
Over the next few days while Amy waited for the results she busied herself with small but important tasks. There were the kids memory books to make. A final farewell letter to her family needed to be written reassuring them that she’d lived a happy and fulfilled life, that she loved them and knew they loved her. She wanted no regrets. It was while she was scrolling through the years of photographs she’d taken of the children that she broke down. She was not ready to leave them, they still needed their mother. She’d spent too much time worrying and not enough time playing with them. She’d been too impatient. There were so many plans and dreams she and Justin had made that they’d never gotten around to. Now it was too late. She lay weeping, curled on the couch.
It was later, while she was throwing old clothes to donate into large black bags, that her cellphone rang. It was the doctors’ rooms.
“Hello?” her voice broke as she spoke.
“Doctor told me to call. The results are in.”
Amy sat down on a dining room chair. The cuckoo clock she’d inherited from her father ticked loudly on the wall. She noticed the sunbird was gone. For a second she felt quite mad, like she was in a dream. Nothing felt real.
“All clear, Mrs Taylor. Everything has come back clear. You are in excellent health. Mrs Taylor?”
Amy battled to understand what she was hearing. She thanked the nurse and hung up. How could she have been so wrong? Had she really been under that much stress? She walked into her bedroom and noticed the red slip lying crumpled on the bed. What a fool she’d been. She picked up the slip and threw it in the bin. She needed to get back to work.
At the bedroom door she stopped. She turned and walked back to the dustbin. The red silk lay crumpled in a heap on top of a discarded tissue box. She lifted it up and placed the soft material against her face before folding it and putting it under her pillow.
Susan Newham-Blake was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has an English degree from UCT and has worked in magazine publishing as a writer, editor and publisher for 18 years. She is the author of Making Finn (Penguin) published in 2013. She lives in Cape Town with her wife and three children.