St Jude’s Clinic has the customary smells: cleaning products, antiseptic, vomit and sweat, with a nicotine pulse when the doors slide open. It’s a pungent mix. At the beginning I thought it would overwhelm me, but it’s as familiar now as Bastie’s sweet baby scent. Even after all the chemicals they’ve pumped into him, he still has it. If I nuzzle my nose against his scalp I can catch a trace. In that instant I see him as he was three years ago – tiny and new. Now he lies limp across Mark’s lap, eyes blinking up at the ceiling, waiting his turn.
A couple rushes in, causing a brief stir in the ash-faced waiting room. The father cradles a rag-doll girl against his chest, while the mother pounds the reception glass, her wedding band slicing the air with a sharp ting. “Please…please…our daughter needs to be seen now. It’s leukaemia. Her fever spiked. Please!” The receptionist is calm and efficient. Her well-practiced banter soothes. Moments later the couple takes seats like the rest of us, agitation indicating they’ve just started their journey.
I can’t watch. Rubbing Bastie’s matchstick arm, I whisper sugary nothings in his shell ear, touch his static cheek. I turn to Mark. “I’m going out for some air. Call me?” He nods. I wish away his weary smile and the purple half moons beneath his blue eyes. They used to sparkle when he laughed, but are cool, distant, controlled. A torso taut from his strict fitness regimen, Mark’s muscle mass increased as Bastie’s withered.
Standing up, I kiss the top of Mark’s head before shuffling towards the sliding glass doors. I walk out into the haze, joining the group pacing the footpath; a disconnected community of languid pulls and slow exhales. Cancer sticks glinting in the murky gloom. I take deep breaths, sucking it in before lighting up my own torch, drawing the warmth into my lungs. Lengthening the now, shortening the someday. I hadn’t touched them for years. Finding me smoking outside a few months ago Mark said, “Why?” I laughed and said, “Why not?” My phone dings. Mark texts, it’s Bastie’s turn. Time to leave the cloud.
The oncologist is kind, each word a domino, enunciated before it topples. “I’m afraid Sebastian has not responded to treatment and is moving into his final phase.” “We can make him comfortable.” “Many families find hospice care a good option, but home support is available.” Mark and I nod dry-eyed, more empty than stoic. The doctor caresses Bastie’s billiard ball head. “You’re a tough little guy aren’t you Sebastian?” Bastie’s eyelids flutter before he retreats, returning to lands only he explores.
I stuff the pamphlets into a pocket, clutching the pain relief prescriptions. They crumple in my grip. While Mark is in the chemist, I watch Bastie sleeping in his car seat. His small chest rises and falls – a clock’s second hand ticking away. My throat tightens and I wipe my eyes, regaining control before Mark returns. A glance and he knows. Squeezing my hand, he starts the engine and pulls out into the desolate street. As we near a petrol station, Mark veers and turns in, striding into the shop without a word. He gets back into the driver’s seat, tossing a pack onto the dash. “That’s not my brand,” I say. He stares straight ahead. “I know, it’s mine.”
Marie Gethins’ work has/will feature in anthology Foreign Flavours, literary journals Vintage Script, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Boyne Berries 13 and won first in Tethered by Letters spring 2013 flash, second at Dromineer 2012. She lives in Cork.
Killing Time came second in the 2012 Dromineer Literary Competition and is published on their website – www.dromineerliteraryfestival.ie
Photograph courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net