Old people always seem to spend a long time chewing their food, no matter what it is. It’s like they’re worried each bite may be their last. I don’t know. I guess one time it will be.
My grandmother coughs on something she hasn’t quite swallowed and her face goes from ashen white to tomato red in the space of a few frightening seconds, but I’m not worried. It happens a lot. Narrow gullet, she says. I rub her back to make sure whatever it is, goes down, and it does. I’ve done this many times before.
She smiles up at me. She says thank you in a voice that’s still riddled with phlegm, sits up straight, and her face returns to the same ghostly pallor it had before. She is content once again. As I go to fetch her a glass of water I tell her to be more careful in the future. Next time I may not be here to help her, but I doubt she is listening. She is probably wondering when it became all right for her grandson to give the advice: when the tables had turned in such a manner.
I sit down and wait for her to finish eating, just in case it happens again, and it gets me thinking about my old friend, Bobby Spears, from way back when we were kids. My grandmother’s cough is always thick and groggy; Bobby’s had been dry and short, but – just like grandma’s – it too, was never that far away.
I cast my mind back and try to pinpoint the exact moment Bobby started to fade out, but even with hindsight, it’s impossible to know for sure. I never noticed anything different. He was always just the same Bobby, with that same silly cough that never went away.
That cough, like I did, followed Bobby wherever he went. Some people bite their nails, others play with their hair. With Bobby it was that damn, barking cough. It sounded like a machine gun, spitting bullets. Sometimes, when we were playing soldiers, I couldn’t tell the difference.
There was nothing in it, nothing at all. It was just a part of who he was. Bobby loved being the centre of attention though, and I honestly just thought he was doing it to so the light stayed shining on him. I often wondered if he did it at home, and if he did, whether his parents just told him to shut the hell up and take some medicine.
At least when my grandmother does it, I know it’s real.
Even though we were in the same year at school, Bobby was like my big brother. He’d wail on the other kids when they pushed me around for being smart, and he’d always be there to help me pick up my books when they were knocked out of my hands. After a while I just kind of took those things for granted. That and the cough.
One day Bobby coughed himself right out of a game of hide-and-seek. I found him on his hands and knees, behind a tree, trying to bring something up that was never really there in the first place. The next day the doctor did a few tests, took some blood, and then his parents told him he had cancer. Twelve years old, he was. The doctors said he still had another six months or so – you know, as if it was a bonus – but that cancer ate away at him like he was its first meal, and it only gave him three.
When I sat down in the church and listened to the minister talk about hope and giving thanks for the time he did have, I couldn’t help but feel that Bobby’s funeral was as much mine as his.
An old man coughed in the back row, in that familiar way that I had grown accustomed to – that I missed so much – and I started to cry.
Those tears are as fresh upon my cheeks now as they were that day, and it feels like hardly any time has passed since then. My grandma coughs again – more to bring me back than anything else – and I am reminded that it has been a long while indeed.
Now my grandmother looks at me as if she has something important to say but wants me to ask, so I do. She smiles, toothless and tender, and in that frozen moment of calm it’s easy to forget that she is sick too. She grabs my hand in hers, as if she has been walking with me through my memory, and says:
Although I’ve heard the words before, I’m not sure what they mean, but it’s in the tone of her voice, and it’s in the way she touches my arm. She looks at me the way only grandmothers can, and behind those cloudy grey eyes of hers, I think she knows that I’ve been remembering my time with Bobby.
She says it again, and this time, I think I understand.
Brian G Ross is a thirty-something Australian, based in Scotland. He has over one hundred publications — from humour (Defenestration) to horror (Shadowed Realms), mystery (FMAM) to mainstream (Underground Voices), and everything in between. His work also appears in several paperback anthologies, including the Read by Dawn series, The One That Got Away, and Damnation & Dames. You can follow him at www.briangrantross.com.