Death was accompanied by the patter of nurses’ rubber-soled shoes marching briskly along linoleum floors. The smell of antiseptic solution. A gurney wheel, in need of oil, squeaking rhythmically as another patient was rushed past. Starchy white sheets, and the sharp and angular shapes of nurses headdresses.
My body revolted against the crisp order in violent expulsions of browns, greens, and yellows against the bleached hospital whites. Veins stood out on my small, pale neck and spittle flew from my mouth as I screamed. The cool bed sheets, tucked with neat and stern hospital corners, were twisted into angry, damp knots against my writhing body. I am ordinarily a neat and demure person, so you can imagine my cringing in horror at this loud, violent, and messy departure. I shudder when my mind, invariably, drifts to remember it. I am happily brought back to the present by the distant iron clang of the cemetery gate.
There’s a reassuring and settled sameness about death. A contentment. Cool, mossy, and stone strewn. Calm and painless. Life was harder – stressful. My father worked long days in crumbling mining tunnels cut deep into the earth. He would return with his face etched deeply with coal dust, collapsing into wheezy snores on the small, hard bed. I remember, too, my mother’s mouth, tight lipped with constant worry, and concealing two chipped front teeth. I remember my baby brother screaming with hunger and cold. The frigid earth was chipped open by large-shouldered men with axes and spades when that brother died before the spring melt.
Of course there were some joyous moments; things I recollect with nostalgia. There is one thing I remember with a thrill of excitement: Alice Alderidge and I on that summer morning. The air was already thick, humid, and buzzing with crickets as we ran to the creek. It was our favourite place in summer, this particular spot, where water gathered – cool and shaded – in a gurgling pool of deep stone. That day, for the first time, we swam naked. Our girlish squeals were loud, we were exhilarated with the naughtiness of it – with the thrilling and mortifying possibility that someone might appear suddenly and see us.
When we got out to dress on the warm rocks, I turned to watch as she emerged, serpentine and lithe, from the water. Beautiful, was the thought that arrived – unbidden but suddenly completely obvious – into my mind. We were no longer squealing or giggling. Droplets slid over her small, round breasts. Her nipples were nut brown, and bunched tightly and sharply from the cold water. For a terrifying and intoxicating moment, I imagined licking off the sliding droplets which rolled over her honey-coloured skin. She watched me watching her. Her wet, dark eyelashes framed bold and knowing green eyes, like a a bewitching goddess.
It’s difficult, now, to ascertain to what extent Alice Alderidge knew about my sudden and sincere desire to lick her beautiful young breasts, because we both contracted cholera in the following days. She lived, but I died.