Pulp.net - Stella Death

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Kath McKay
Yes, that’s a small number, a very small number you’re talking. Her white blood cell levels have risen. I know that’s not good.

‘That’s a small number,’ I say to my wife Stella, and she looks blank, as if I’m speaking a different language. We’re in the clinic of the ear, nose and throat hospital. Numbers everywhere: the swab showing changes, her patient number on the card. I know the results are bad.

‘But important,’ I add. I don’t want to deceive her, give false hope. But it makes no difference—she has a block about numbers, and doesn’t understand.

• • •

‘That’s a small number’ I answered that first time I met Stella in the corridor at work. She had been looking for a meeting room. We study Stellar Death in my department. We spend our time looking for stars and galaxies. That’s when we’re not drinking crap coffee and being harassed by the prof to bring in more money. I knew she didn’t study Physics when she looked puzzled and turned the wrong way as I said 8.217. ‘8.217 is lower than 8.317—you need to go down there.’

• • •

There are pictures of vegetables on the clinic walls. Today I am allowed three portions of no-point vegetables. I decided on this diet if she got worse, and she has got worse. Cucumber and celery and tomatoes, that’s what I’ll eat. My body is becoming lean, with no spare fat. She eats doughnuts and cream cakes, yet still her skin is flaccid. She is shrinking, becoming frail.

• • •

A few months back we joined the anti-war march. Even then she was weak. I wanted to be one of thousands. I’d been so long alone with her. She insisted on coming. I told her she was too ill and would get tired, but she made a placard.

‘The dying against the war,’ it read.

I said that wasn’t very cheerful and she said my problem was I had no sense of humour and that we were all dying anyway.

‘Whatever,’ she added.

She’s taken to saying ‘Whatever.’

‘How about ‘Slimmers against the war?’ She laughed.

I thought she hadn’t noticed. But nothing escapes her, it comes with being ill, some kind of concentration.

‘Or the no-point vegetables group against the war,’ she carried on, skitting me.

I was worried about her on the march, but we managed. At the Curzon cinema, they let us use the toilets, and the manager was charming.

‘The least we can do,’ he said, with grace.

City of God was playing at the cinema. I thought ‘Truly we are a City of God, a City of Light.’

‘Thank you’ I said to the manager. ‘Thank you, thank you.’ I wanted to kiss him, tell him that my wife was dying and we would remember this, but he was onto the next person:

‘Certainly, the toilets are just down there.’

Back on the coach. ‘So many people’ she said, and closed her eyes.

• • •

Today when the consultant informed us that her white blood cell count had risen, I felt guilty for letting her go on the march. She should have slowed down earlier. She says she doesn’t care anymore. She wants to float off when the time comes. Why do I always worry about everything?

‘Life is for living, not storing up,’ she says. ‘You don’t get more if you eke it out. If you do, it’s not worth it.’

Questions they ask her each time—weight, height, date of birth, address? Bowel movements regular? Trouble sleeping? I say that it’s all in her file and they say they’re looking for minute changes. I know that. The trail of dust, the faintest traces of light still burning.

There’s always a TV on in the hospital waiting room. Tricia and Oprah and terrible stories about marrying your brother and finding your sister is your grandmother and other such nonsense.

She turns to me in the middle of Trisha:

‘How do we know if the stars have died? If they keep on glowing, how the fuck are we supposed to know?’

She thinks that because I’m an astronomer I have the answer. I explain to her about light travelling quickly and how you can measure the intensity of it, but her face grows puzzled. I put her in a taxi, go back to work.

There, I scan the galaxies but there seems to be something wrong with my eyes today, as if I cannot make out the stars any more. I tell my boss I might need glasses, I’m booking in for an eye test.

‘Everything is going fuzzy,’ I claim, and he just looks at me as if to say ‘Shit happens’. If I keep messing up, they will take me off this work and then what will happen to me and Stella? We’ll have no money, nothing. We won’t be able to eat.

There are pictures of stellar death on the walls. Physicists can’t spell. We’ve had stella death and steller death. When I first met Stella and she told me her name I thought she was joking but now it seems like fate. Except I don’t believe in fate of course. I’m a scientist. Everything according to principle, rules of the universe.

At lunchtime I do thirty lengths. I think of numbers. They comfort me. The number of the shade of paint we repainted our hall ten years before. After swimming, a number two haircut. The hairdresser says I’m going grey. Will I dye it? Men do nowadays, she says. I don’t answer.

• • •

There was only one of me. I always hoped for a brother or sister to grow up with. My brother left home many moons before. Twenty-two years between us. A giant of a man: long red hair; broad shoulders. My mother had him when she was seventeen. Thirty-nine when she had me. She tried to dress young, but all the children at the schoolgate could see her wrinkles. I rattled round our big house, wondering what to do with myself, with people feeling sorry for me.

So Stella had two miscarriages. After that we gave up. I remember finding her in the kitchen and the floor stained with blood and her crouched over. I sent her to bed, and when the doctor came he looked grave. That night they scraped her. We never bothered after that. I used to look at children in prams but after a while I stopped.

Tonight after our clinic trip she gets her shoes out. She has thirty pairs. ‘It’s the first of June,’ she says. ‘I’m going to wear a different pair every day.’ So she puts on a pair of strappy sandals, beige, with a small pointy heel, totters round the room, collapses into bed.

That was the number of holidays we took each year. Easter, summer and one at Christmas. We went abroad at least twice a year to our little house in Brittany, bought when we were both working. It had no electricity, but the local plumber, who was also an electrician and the mayor, said ‘Grease my palms.’ Voila! the electricity was on. On those holidays I caught her looking at babies lying under parasols. I knew she regretted things, but we never spoke about it. She went swimming a lot, said she found it peaceful underwater. Once we were in a hotel with one of those pools that goes deep in the middle and I was swimming along when I saw her sitting on the bottom of the pool, cross-legged, bubbles coming out of her mouth, hardly breathing. Her eyes were open and she looked at me, no, past me, so for a minute I thought she was dead. When I swam away I was worried. I thought she might kill herself, so I waited, but she came up eventually, all pink faced and clear eyed and with no memory of what she’d done.
It’s always three in fairy tales.

There are four houses on our side of the street. Nice street, quiet — the neighbours sweep their paths and feed your cat if you’re away. This year the immediate neighbour has a stick. He’s shrinking, every day drying up. You only need four colours on a map in order for any colours not to touch each other. She wears wellingtons. It’s not raining.

Number of kittens born to Tigger who we thought was a male. When I opened the drawer I nearly decapitated them.

Number of times a week I walk. Five periods of twenty minutes exercise. I add another. For luck. She wears long black boots. The sun makes my arms prickle. Some people say you can work out your fortune by the numbers that vibrate from the letters in your name. Of course this is rubbish, illogical. How can the letters in your name vibrate? What if you have two names? Which name do you use? But I find myself writing Stella, again and again.

My cousin used to read the Secret Seven books. She was in a gang, and they’d get on the bus and follow people they thought were murderers.

By the time I got to double figures, I smoked, and I knew I wanted to work, earn money. I had charts of numbers on my wall, and pages of calculations. I spent hours doing mental arithmetic. 26 x 3.872, 42 x 178. My father wheeled me out as a party piece. I got a job on the till in a shop, at the weekend and after school.

I put money in my bank account. I never bought anything, except cigarettes. I counted the number I smoked, counted the smoke rings, worked out the years, the minutes, the seconds they were taking off my life. In my bank account I liked to see the figures go up and up. Numbers were good to me.

So it was natural I studied Maths and Physics, natural I did well. Mathematicians and physicists were the people I communicated with. No need for words.

• • •

When Stella came to my work corridor a second time, asking once more for the whereabouts of the meeting room, and she still didn’t seem to understand about smaller and bigger numbers, it shocked me. Numbers, I wanted to say, are the most important thing.

• • •

This is what Stella wore in June.

4. Espadrilles, black

5. Flat walking sandals.

6. Indoor trainers she used to go to aerobics in.

7. Slippers

8. Clogs

9. Waders

10. Brogues

11. Moccasins

12. Rope shoes

13. Ballet pumps

14. Yacht shoes.

15. Ski boots

16. Flip flops, pink

17. Kitten heels

18. Stilettos

19. Slip ons.

20. High heels

21. Wedges

22. Winklepickers

23. Doc Martens

24. Slingbacks

25. Jelly sandals

26 .Walking boots

27. Overshoes

28. Laceups, black

I wanted to believe that wearing a different pair of shoes every day through June would keep her safe. If we could get through June, she said, then July and August were easy, with thirty-one days, and September was a long way away. I wanted to believe her, but I knew shoes were just clothes for your feet, there’s no magic there. But people die less in the summer months and more children are born. We go towards the light. I thought it wouldn’t lower her chances, wouldn’t actively work against her to wear the shoes.

On Day 28 we took the number 30 to the hospital again. This time we sat downstairs. She said she was on her last legs. I said we’ll have none of that, we’ve got a couple more days of the month to get through. Statistically, as she’d got through the first part of June, the chances of her surviving the month were higher. Of course, each day, the possibility of dying comes closer. Besides, I said, my no point vegetable diet was going so well.

‘Look.’ I showed her the gap round my waistband.

She gave me such a strange smile and touched my hair. Then she said she was tired and wanted to doze. Things were happening on the bus at that moment. There was a French woman obstructing people trying to get off, shouting at her mate:

C’est là? C’est là, non?’

Another woman was bellowing ‘Do you want this stop, girl or not?’ and there was the cutest little baby, and even the bus conductor, who looked as tired as Lazarus, was talking to the baby, and the baby was smiling and dimpling at everybody, and so it was a while before I looked at Stella again.

Sixteen breaths, seventy heartbeats a minute. Both stopped, there on the 30 bus, as we rounded the corner away from the Angel, towards Kings Cross. I touched her and she fell against me, warm. I put my arm around her. We went past the hospital stop and after a long while; we’re going down Oxford Street, not far from the Royal Academy. Those Aztecs knew about things. If you died in battle or in childbirth it was classed as a noble death. And it was the manner of your going that mattered, not how you lived. I thought if I could just get her into Hyde Park we could have a nice day, lie on the grass, give me time to decide what to do. I fancied a trip to Derbyshire myself, where once I’d climbed a path up a dale, and seen a death assemblage of fossils. Those fossils, right in the centre of England, as far away from the coast as possible, all that way from the sea. Yet still we feel the tides.

We’re coming up to Marble Arch now. The conductor is approaching me.

‘We finish here,’ he says, kindly enough. I want to talk to him, ask him has he seen everything? Has he seen births and deaths and sex on this bus? Anything to delay, but he repeats that it’s the end of the line. As I get up, she falls onto the seat. I prop her up. He hands me a phone.

The takeaway at lunchtime –number thirty-three. The hairdressers: a number two. The person phoning the wrong number at three every morning. Is that 37? Trente sept? Mil neuf cent? C’est là. Exactement. C’est çà. Having to get the number changed. My fingers on the calculator, working out how I can afford for her to be sick. The number of people in the queue at the doctors. The number of lines on the TV screen. The number on the back of the TV. A pair of gloves. A flock of robins. Number eight. 69. 33. 66. 999.

My hands are shaking. The conductor makes the call for me in the end. Two nurses, one doctor, one ambulance. And what I want to know is ‘How do we know if the stars have died?’ I mean if they keep on glowing, how the fuck are we supposed to know?

© Kath McKay 2007