Photo by Ian Turk via Flickr
Short nonfiction from Danielle Peet:
She started as a whisper in a symphony. One of nine; the fifth. As the third girl she screams in the shadow of the other two. A further four survive after her. Twins are lost to diptheria; an ailment seeming to come from within to steal their breath. She carries a bloodied bedpan out from the bedroom during the delivery of the seventh. She thinks her mother is dying. She resents the seventh for her whole life for the massacre of her arrival.
School is a disappointment. The array of tasks expected of her do not suit her natural flairs and talents. Instead she learns to smoke – a skill she perfects by age twelve. One day she finds her compassion whilst nursing an injured stray cat. The cat has kittens which she raises in a shoe box stuffed with straw.
She drifts, unexpected and unwatched, into womanhood. No rites of passage or glitzy coming of age rituals for her. She meets Mr Raffety clocking out of the mill canteen where she works. He says: “will you be mine”. She says: “What’s in it for me?”
She expects little from marriage and gets less. A boozer and a gambler, her Roy. She knows nothing of carnal matters. In the marriage bed, with stale ale and sweat, Roy gives her eight children. The bloodied bedpans are routine as she labours alone in a cold kitchen; Roy in the pub, her older children sheltered by reality by next door. They return to a baby clean, wrapped and warm, and a mother pale and weak. The eighth delivery causes her womb to prolapse.
She learns to watch things grow: her children, her grandchildren, her cats, her garden. She grieves deeply as her elderly cats die and she buries them amongst the delphiniums.
She turns sixty. Roy’s collapse at the races following an avalanche of cholesterol into a hard, narrow coronary artery doesn’t break her heart like it does his. She shrugs, gives his clothes to the Salvation army and sits by the window.
She develops shingles on the right side of her face. A mass of sores and crust makes her reclusive. She asks for the doctor to visit. The nerve pain keeps her awake and she encourages the cats to breed so she has something to do in the small hours of the night.
Her youngest son visits and is so shocked by her appearance he never comes back. She hears news, second- or third- hand that her eldest granddaughter is pregnant. Mrs Raffety knits her lack of aspiration into mittens and hats. She knits an unspoken acknowledgement that the next generation will be born into more poverty.
Her shingles wounds heal but the pain persists – and aging nerves trouble her. I adjust her pain killers and offer to call her children. She glares at me through her good eye and says nothing. I comment on her deep blue delphiniums as they nod in the summer breeze. I ask her if she has any gardening wisdom to impart.
She glares some more, and says, “fancy shoes and fancy ideas does a girl no good. Do you have children”.
I ask her if she would recommend it.
She says: “Have cats. And garden. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as whatever it is grows. Where I’m from we do us best with what God gave you”.
I don’t tell her that, although worlds apart, we are from the same town.
She develops a cough, loses weight. She asks, “is it my age, doctor?” I tell her age is not a diagnosis, and we search for something. And we find It.
When she starts dying from the cancer her children come en masse. They wish for haste, saying the vets wouldn’t have kept their mother’s cats alive if they were in the same state.
She lies with her face to the wall. The nurses give her morphine when they turn her to stop her skin from breaking. I stop all her medication save the nerve pain killers. She agrees to stay on these; more for my benefit than her own, I imagine. She tolerates her children; their visits saturated with unspoken guilt and anger. I try and shield her diminishing body from the guilt and expectation of an already grieving family.
After they all leave I sit on the edge of the bed. She turns, tired and says “you shouldn’t sit like that with your legs crossed. A doctor should know that”. We don’t talk about death. We talk about what will happen to her cats. Her eldest daughter will take some; the ones which have not disappeared as she is disappearing, slowly, into her bones.
She asks permission for brandy in her evening cup of tea. I decant a large measure into the tepid cup. Then she closes her eyes and retreats further.
She eventually leaves this world as quietly as she came in.
Weeks after her death I meet Mrs Raffety’s granddaughter and great grandson covered extensively in chicken pox. Hot, tired and utterly miserable he eyes me warily holding a fistful of his mother’s hair. The granddaughter listens to me wide eyed as I explain his fever away. I feel her commit all I say to memory. She has no frame of reference for motherhood; not enough said, not enough seen by all those who went before her. We play with the toddler and I ask her to watch him closely through the night. She holds him close, kisses his head and says “don’t worry we’ll do us best”.
But I do worry, and unlike a fever, the unease doesn’t break.
Danielle Peet was born in Stockport and escaped in adolescence to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to learn how to be a doctor. She spent ten years there, met her husband and qualified as a GP. Keeping her honorary Geordie title she came back to the north west and now lives in Manchester.
She says: “I’ve always written. My parents still have short stories, poems, journal entries from my childhood. Being in the job I see all sorts of life experiences from cradle to grave. As a result I have a compulsion to write it down – to document it and to try and make sense of it. It was my husband who persuaded me to share it, which I did (and do) at the First Draft Cabaret Nights. Because I seem to spend most of my time in the surgery at the moment most of my writing is non-fiction. I often change facts and merge stories together into one narrative to preserve the anonymity of my patients. But it’s all based in reality and true to life.”