HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
A Reason for Alice
As though there were a choice, she’d agreed to therapy.
I`ll tell you a bit about me and you tell me a bit about you, the therapist said. His lips moved. He told about him. She stared at the ceiling. At the floor. The session finished and she didn’t get around to telling that Steve had moved out. A trial separation, her husband said while picking up another emptied Bushmills bottle from the dust-carpet. She didn’t get around to mentioning the vomiting, bile and an iron, rust of blood seeping from her mouth. Steve had enough of her sour stench.
She didn’t get around to telling about complaints from the mothers. Their precious children deserved better. A summons to the headmaster`s office: Your lessons are unplanned, erratic, unfocused, disjointed, he said. Get yourself sorted.
So, bring on the therapy. Therapy: Look Deep. Discover Reasons. As if.
Therapy. Her Northern Irish Ma would have smacked her across the back of the legs with the back of a hairbrush – who do you think you are, Lady Muck? Therapy, useless talking and bawling and blabbering and blithering and sniffling. We aren’t the type of family that bleats like a stuck record. The past is the past. There can’t always be a reason.
The therapist. Can he read her? Give nothing away. Skim out only a sheen of light replies to his lists of questions. Does it really matter where she was born? Whether she were first or last-born? Can’t we just be finished with this?
She squeezed out tears, smudging black tragic streaks along the two-shades-too-pale foundation to make fragile her face. He scribbled down her stories – beatings with belts, purple welts on her legs so bad she couldn’t go to school for a week. He nodded. She had him fooled.
She, in turn, wrote it all down, couldn’t afford to forget her own bullshit.
How long could he sit there with his self-satisfied absorbing of the myths of the archetypical falling-to-pieces-woman that he, and only he, could save from her own tormented self? How much would she need give before he declared her cured? Her lies spun around tangling with each other, fighting and wrestling until they fell down exhausted, defeated.
The therapist shifted the sag of his shoulders and a dreg of incense hovered from his jacket – Copal-flavoured incense for purification, uplifting spirits, and mostly for attracting love. Copal, a smell of her student-days and earnest conversations about Nicaragua and Colombia and Belfast and South Africa, anywhere in the world that needed fixing could be fixed. Conversations forgotten in next-morning’s hot showers, cold orange juices, tart Paracetamol on a furred tongue and loose too-much-cheap-red-wine-shit splashing up the bowl. She`d had enough of her own voice echoing around emptied out spaces.
I’ve lied, she’d said.
He smiled. A real smile. Not his insipid, Madonna-Blessed-Be-The-Peacemaker- smile.
I know, he said.
Sessions 6, 7 and 8
So much needing to be told. Words trying to surface through stagnated layers: sad, bad, rage, Black, sterile, dirty, disinfectant, steel, silver, sore, swollen, sin, defect, disgrace, worthless, needle, blood, slime, unfair, rage, fucking, fucking bastards…nothing that could be said.
Writing may be easier than speaking, the therapist suggested. Write about something that happened to someone else. She picked up the pen and one word escaped onto paper… Whore.
Try again, said the therapist. Any story needs a beginning.
So, it`s 1991 and I’ve managed to scrape through my degree. What else is there to do but take a year off before going to Teaching College. What else can a girl do to prolong the return to home? South Africa seems to be the place to go. We`d talked about it at our student-parties, solved its problems in nights fueled with the poncy swirls of Gitane smoke, the murky importance of incense, the excess of vodka pints, the hippy-rough-shirts and the messy, fusty dreadlocks. We all knew about Give Me Hope Joanna.
At home, we, kids used to put pennies into the Trócaire box sat on the TV to raise money for the poor, Black children of Africa and now I`ll go to those poor, Black children. A rainbow nation.
I speak to people who`ve just come back from there. Missionaries. They say they miss the stars of Africa. The Southern Cross, Leo, Scorpius, reminding us of how small we are in the might of the great universe. Once I see those stars, they say, I`ll never want to leave. Fuck the stars.
I ask them what I should pack? Where’s the nearest town? They sit with saintly hands clasped and tell me of the locals… The natives…The Blacks… All getting ill, sores that won’t heal, wasting away. God has sent a plague down over the earth. Be careful of them, they warn.
But, I’m twenty-six and they are religious freaks, fuddy-duddy, up-your-own-asses.
You’ll hate it, my Ma says. Why can’t home ever be good enough for you?
I arrive in Zululand and the sun shines. The brutal sun shines. The sky is empty blue, empty, blue. I’m trapped inside a fence that surrounds the village. Can’t go into the forest: Black Mambas, Green Mambas, Mozambique Spitting Cobras, rapists, everything out there watching, waiting. The locals look at the ground with sullen faces. There’s no rainbow in this sun-infested, energy-sucking place.
The stars are beautiful. I sit with my camera on a tripod and those stars trail thousands of white arc-ribbons across the black skied canvas. But the Missionaries were wrong. I have seen the stars of Africa and want to leave.
A child came this morning, put her hand into mine. I pinched my fingers tight against the soft skin until she cried. Hurt others as we are hurt ourselves.
But nothing’s happening in this story, the therapist says. There’s just a complaining complainer. Add a bit of romance? Yes, we need a new character here, a bulging, thrusting, heaving, hunk of a real man. The protagonist can’t, after all, get herself pregnant.
White skin shines out like a beacon.
A white man arrives. I see him looking at the cartons of Juba. No Guinness, no Harp, no Smithwicks here. Only Juba, stale buttermilk-smelling beer.
Would it be too much if he was Irish and brought along a fiddle and played Lonely Round The Fields of Athenry? Sex in his hut after a singalong and bit of craic. Maybe he could even be Catholic so Ma would, for a change, have nothing to complain about.
OK, maybe he’s not Irish. He’s an American, assessing the situation on the volatile Mozambique border. Serious, slow sex, listening to Blowing In The Wind, after a bottle of Johnny Walker.
Then, again, maybe the Romance Interest is a local man. Rough, dusty skin, scratch marks between the webs of his fingers. Scabies? Sex without music and a smell of him, fires burning meat in smoked-up huts without windows.
Was it rape?
Was it a lonely, feeble love?
Or was it nothing but a desperate fuck.
My belly is swollen and the baby begins to stir. The man, whichever one it was, has long gone.
There’s only one word written on the paper. One word going across and across and across. One word… Whore.
I’ll go phone me Ma. She’ll say, it’s alright my love. These things happen to the best of us. Isn’t the fashion now to get pregnant before yer married. We’ll raise the wee one like it’s one of us. Come home now. It’ll all turn out alright.
Ma will be different. She’ll, by hook or by crook, be on my side.
I’ll go and phone me Ma.
Sorry, the line is dead.
Ma never did get to help.
Have you ever seen an anencephalic? she asked the therapist. He shook his head. Google it, she said. Pictures flicked across the computer. She moved to the window, didn’t have to see the images. She already knew.
I am in a room; white walls, white floor, steel-framed bed, men wearing paper gowns, plastic gloves, masks over their noses and mouths, hats covering their hair. A hospital. Am I infectious? Dangerous? Domestos killing all known germs dead, a chlorine smell of pissed-in swimming pools.
Plastic tubing emptying liquid into a silver sore swollen steel needle stuck in the back of my hand. The men in the room are talking: disgraceful, they say. It’s a sin. In this day and age there’s no excuse for not attending for antenatal care. There must be a reason why the poor baby was born like that. Mother smoked too much dagga. Alcohol excess. Syphilis, do a VDRL. Gonorrhea, get a vaginal swab. An oral swab. Maybe it’s that new Gay disease. Can`t be too careful with her type.
Hush, says one of them, she`s awake.
A porter puts me in a wheelchair and tells me I arrived in a bad way, bleeding all over the place. Baby half out and half in. Slime like you can`t believe.
I am taken to the nursery to see my baby.
Wearing a soft wool bonnet, a baby born without a brain looks as deserving of life as any other baby. Despite the soft wool bonnet, despite hiding the brain-remnant bulging out from the open skull, the baby will die. How could a neuron fire up in the pre-frontal cortex, tract down through the cortex, medulla, pons, spinal cord and activate the pursing of a tiny, fragile lips to suck or to smile, if there is no pre-frontal cortex. They all die, but sometimes not immediately. Sometimes, with medical intervention, they breathe for days. The question then becomes not when but why.
A tube at my baby’s neck thrusts chemicalized air into lungs. A tube pushes fake milk into stomach. A tube pumps drugs into blood. Babies feel pain.
Doctors arrive at the nursery: it’s blood pressure stable. Respiratory rate forty.
Is it a boy or a girl? I ask.
Did that doctor just step on dog-shit, the way he looks at me?
It’s a girl.
So, there a chance then that she may live? I ask.
No one says anything.
She’s my baby. I can`t touch her. I can’t sing for her, Show Me The Way To Go Home, that Da used to sing to me so softly when I couldn’t sleep. She`s my baby, dead before she ever lived.
But why? Why torment her? Why not let her die in peace? I scream yet I say nothing.
They continue: it needs a CVP, pulse-oximeter. Refer it for neurological opinion.
Its name is Alice, I say.
Did they ever find a reason for Alice? asked the therapist.
No definitive reason.
She’d phoned Steve. Could they meet for supper? What about that Oil and Olive Restaurant? Are you still drinking? he asked. Yes. Sorry but he’s busy. Maybe, they could meet sometime next week, or maybe the week after. Maybe.
She’d been let go from teaching. All for the best.
She’d phoned her mother. Oh, it’s about time you remembered your oul Ma. Thought you’d forgotten how to use the phone. I’m all right, I suppose. The Big Doctor said it was just my heart. Nothing can be done. You lost your job, well that’s not unexpected. Steve finally moved out. I am surprised he stayed for that long.
The therapy sessions are finished. She`s had her allocated time.
So, what was it all about?
Was there ever a reason for Alice?
There are reasons. They’re endless, relentless. Reasons like hurricanes pivoting mad and wild and drunk around a central axis. Reasons restless like spiral stars fanning out and out from the core. Reasons shifting and changing and beating and blaming.
At the pivot, at the core there is always only one reason.
One reason for Alice: Whore.
LAURA CAMPBELL fits her medical practice around her writing. Although living for many years in South Africa, she was born in Ireland and her reading and writing relects a Celtic heritage. She specilaizes in palliative care and runs workshops “Write to Right” to assit others find healing through writing. Her writing work is mainly around “small-mindness” and injustice. Her roles as a wife, mother, writer and physician never cease to bring her joy.