After my father committed suicide, my mother claimed the life insurance and moved us into one of those streets that served as the council estates of the middle classes. Each house as large, white and identical as the last.
I was fourteen and bored shitless.
In an attempt to alleviate the boredom I’d taken to mildly terrorizing the neighbours, developing a series of ritualistic habits designed to irritate rather than traumatize. Each morning I’d move the gnome from number 45, steal the milk from 50 and place the daily paper in 48’s birdbath. Each evening I’d flash Ms. Jenkins in 52, place an empty can on the car outside 46 and drop three empty crisp packets outside 54. They all knew I was responsible but had the good grace to avoid telling my mother.
The days normally passed without event. Then one Tuesday while returning home from flashing Ms. Jenkins I noticed 54 sitting outside in her car. She was early; I hadn’t even had time to drop the crisp packets.
I watched for a bit and was about to leave when the door opened followed by a rush of vomit. She stepped out, swaying slightly before hitting the ground. I buttoned my shirt, trying to make a plan, reasoning that if I left now no one would be any the wiser but then I’d probably go to hell.
I was still undecided when she sat up, ridding me of plan A. I helped her inside and into a chair and was about to leave when for some reason I couldn’t.
“Maybe I should stay. You know, just for a bit. Because you banged your head and sometimes that means you get concussion and if you don’t know and fall asleep, then — well, it’s not great. Sometimes you die. I should stay.”
She agreed. I stayed. She told me she had cancer and that I was the first person to be told. I suggested maybe she tell someone else, cautious that her admission might lead to me having to clean up the sick outside. Go home, she said. I’ll be fine. I’m always fine. Fine is what I do.
I should have gone but I waited and when I did finally leave I asked to return. She was surprised but agreed. There was no one else around.
I was intrigued, I’d never seen anything die before except a fly and they don’t really do much, just buzz around then drop. Our cat died and our goldfish but I never saw it. Dad took them to the animal graveyard, roughly translated as a cardboard box out the back garden for the cat and a trip down the toilet for the goldfish. I started visiting on the way home from school. I’d pretty much given up my morning rituals, along with the can and the crisp packets, but I couldn’t resist continuing to flash Ms Jenkins, although gradually even that came to an end.
I thought she should go to hospital. They give you more drugs if you move there. My Nan did that, gave her six extra months. But she said it wasn’t for her. Later they gave her a nurse. A girl who came twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. The girl was okay, boring and quite fat but she wasn’t nasty or anything. She hated her though. She’d say I don’t want to die with some stranger. I’d rather die alone than have to pay someone for their pity — but I don’t think it was true. No one wants to die alone, except maybe gerbils or cats.
She wasn’t great. Not really. But then I’m never really sure if anyone ever is. She didn’t change the world, broker a peace deal, save lives or even feed the hungry. She didn’t paint a masterpiece or publish some groundbreaking academic thesis. She wanted to but she didn’t. She was just normal, I suppose, but she was dying and she did answer my questions so I stuck around.
We didn’t really do emotion. She didn’t really do emotion as a rule. Die on the inside, smile on the outside. But we talked. We talked a lot. Well she talked, I just asked the questions. No one ever answered my questions before. She was posh. Well maybe not posh. Americans can’t really be posh, can they? Although she wasn’t really American, I mean she was but she wasn’t. She was born there, upstate New York to two high-flying academics. She was privileged but hell someone had to be, she’d say. She moved to England at the age of seven to attend some boarding school. The same school her family had attended for generations. The expectations were high, the praise scant. Through time she flourished, over-achieved, did what was expected but then her parents died and suddenly there was no one expecting any longer.
I suppose she was lonely but isn’t everyone, she’d say. She didn’t really like to be touched. She liked to know you were there but she’d sort of flinch when you touched her. But then when she did hug you, she’d sort cling to you in an uncomfortable sort of way. A bit like a baby monkey. Desperate. There wasn’t really much middle ground. It was all or nothing. I suppose it was better with the nothing.
Six months later she was dead. I held a pillow over her head. It wasn’t murder or anything like that, she asked me to do it. My first real dead thing, only this time there was no dad to take it to the animal graveyard. So I left.
I think number 46 were a little relieved to find the can back on the car roof, Ms. Jenkins had certainly missed discussing the various colours of my underwear and I always suspected that so long as it wasn’t raining Mr. Josephs in 48 always appreciated those extra few minutes alone whilst scooping out the newspaper.
Lynsey Miller writes short stories and makes short films in the hope of one-day supersizing both. Her stories can be found on websites such as this and her films can be found doing the rounds on the international festival circuit. One day soon she’ll make a website.