I think I’ve pretty much decided I won’t be returning to the classroom anytime soon. Which means I had better start developing another new career. I wrote this novel during National Write a Novel in a Month (I think in 2013) and never did much with it except let it sit and stew. Nearly a Saturn square later, I’m having a look. It’s a little wild and crazy. . .
NB You can tell I was teaching Religious Education when I wrote this!
Julie was sleeping peacefully. At eight years old, she was a very pretty girl. Her hair was strawberry blonde and she was petite as Beth had been when she was a child. Beth couldn’t resist brushing the curls from her forehead and then touching her check. In her sleep, Julie turned her head towards her mother’s hand and made sucking noises. The doctors called this the rooting reflexes and had patiently explained this was yet another symptom of Julie’s neurological condition.
Watching her daughter sleep was often enough to convince Beth that Julie was just like any other child. How could Tom be so cruel? Yes, the wheelchair was a pain, yes, changing diapers on a child bigger than an infant was difficult, of course the tests showed problems. These were no reasons to give up. Beth could accept that Julie might face limitations but she would get better and stronger.
As she thought this, Julie suddenly let out a groan and her body stiffened then began the convulsions. Beth looked at her watch and reached for the clipboard beside the bed to record the time and length of seizures. Usually Julie’s seizures lasted less than a minute and passed without incident. It was good that she was in bed and not in her wheelchair. The bed could withstand any amount of her thrashing but the wheelchair was dangerous. To keep her from swallowing her tongue, Beth rolled her on her side and moved her to the centre of the bed. Julie’s eyes had rolled up in her head and her legs bicycled.
“It’s OK, Jules,” Beth said. “Mommy’s here.” Of course, she could never be sure if Julie heard her or not but if it had been her having a seizure, she would have liked to have known her mother was nearby.
Beth checked her watch again. A minute had passed. As suddenly as the seizure started, it stopped. Julie opened her eyes and turned to see her mother. “That’s my girl,” Beth whispered. “Welcome back!” she smiled.
A thin trace of a smile came to Julie’s face as she rolled back. Then, as if a cloud had passed over, another groan escaped from her and the convulsions started again. This time, Julie had clutched the blankets and her head shook unnaturally from side to side. She was groaning loudly so Beth tiptoed to the bedroom door and closed it. She did not want Tom to hear and possibly come in to see what he would see as further evidence that Julie should be taken away from her. Dutifully, Beth looked at her watch to time the length of the seizure.
“C’mon Julie,” Beth said as the minute passed. “Come back to me.” She knocked the television remote to the floor.
The seizure stopped and Julie took a huge gulp of air. It was too much air, too soon and she began choking. Beth rolled her on her side again and patted her back the way the occupational therapist had taught her. Julie continued to cough and then, unbelievably, another seizure started.
Alfie looked on Julie’s television which had changed to the channel with the dots. Not knowing if Beth could see the screen or not, Alfie used his finger to trace where he thought Julie was. A single green dot glowed without a flicker.
“She’ll be all right,” Persephone said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Alfie said.
He was just about to say he thought Beth would kill herself with exhaustion before she would allow Julie to be taken away when a six ton bull elephant entered the room. Alfie looked up at the great beast which was no mean feat in a room so small.
“Hi Maurice,” said Persephone.
Ivan knuckle bumped the elephant’s trunk.
Alfie could only stare.
“Pardon me,” Maurice said to Alfie, “I just got back from a funeral.”
“Ah,” said Alfie, trying to pretend the emergence of a bull elephant on the second day of his existence in the afterlife was completely unsurprising. “It’s all right,”
For a few moments, they all watched Julie: Persephone on the bed, Ivan at the foot of the bed, Alfie next to Beth and Maurice taking a seat on the floor.
Beth had become calmer. Although she would never be able to believe it, the calming presence of her father’s spirit was as reassuring as it was inconspicuous. She was able pat Julie on the back the way she had been trained and soon Julie’s airway cleared.
When the seizure stopped, Beth turned Julie back over on her back and re arranged the covers, tucking them around her daughter’s shoulders.
“Julie?” Beth asked. Her face was red and sweaty from her efforts. She looked at Julie then turned to see what Julie had seen that made her giggle. Maurice stood and gave a little bow with a flamboyant wave of his trunk. Julie squealed with delight.
“Julie?” Beth asked again, looking straight through Maurice.
Maurice reached out with his proboscis and very gently ticked Julie. He caressed her face with such tenderness Alfie felt his eyes well up. After a few seconds Julie lost interest and fell into a deep sleep.
Maurice cocked his great head and sighed. “She’s so sweet,” he said.
The bedroom door opened without a knock and Tom stood in the doorway a little unsteadily. Beth looked at him and then turned her back to him.
“Do you need help?” he asked.
Beth ignored him.
“I am here for you,” Tom persisted. “I don’t want you to do this on your own. Not when I’m here.”
Tears splashed on Julie’s bedspread. “Go away,” Beth told him.
Tom came fully into the room. He put his hands on her shoulders but Beth pulled away.
“Talk to him,” urged Alfie.
“Let’s just get through this one night,” Tom said. “Just one night.”
Beth turned to him, still blinking back tears. “Okay,” she whispered, “One night.” She flicked off Julie’s light and they retreated into another part of the house.
Without any sort of warning, Maurice trumpeted so loudly that if Alfie had been alive, he would have died from heart failure. Persephone jumped straight up, completely off the bed.
“I will never get used to you doing that!” she scolded.
“Well, it’s what I liked to do when I was alive,” Maurice said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“What? Put everyone into an early grave?” Ivan had re-emerged from wherever he had gone. He looked a little pale.
Maurice did what Alfie presumed was a silly elephant dance, which involved a move one might recognise as something resembling a walk like an Egyptian.
There was that strange sucking sound and Alfie felt himself squeezed into his son Nathan’s very small apartment in a very small town in Ohio.
Unlike Beth and Elliot, Nathan was a slob. Alfie wasn’t sure if this was a by-product of his accident, a trait inherited via a rogue gene or just a very bad habit. There was no carpet, just piles and piles of take away containers, old newspapers and magazines and what looked like a very intense cockroach infestation. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Alfie counted at least four cats, big fat toms lazing about on the mountain of rubbish. The only things Alfie could be grateful for was the fact that there was no sign of any beer cans or liquor bottles.
Just as he was about to perch on one of the arms of the very smelly and worn sofa, Nathan came in with a grocery bag full of what Alfie hoped was (but didn’t quite believe could be) fresh fruits and vegetables. Once Nathan put the bag down, Alfie saw the fruit of his loins must have packed on at least 80 pounds since the last time he had seen him. Nathan started unpacking the bag. There was a 2 litre bottle of cola, cakes, chips and a dips, a big bar of chocolate and three large burgers from the local burger joint. Alfie couldn’t believe it. As parents, he and Lucy had always been so careful as to ensure their children knew what healthy eating was. Alfie was no athlete but he certainly was a long way from a junk food junky. Lucy had always seen to that.
Nathan took his food and plunked himself down on the coach next to his father, giving Alfie a front row seat to his sloth. For several minutes, Alfie watched as Nathan stuffed himself with food that could not possibly have any nutritional benefits. To his annoyance, Persephone jumped up next to Alfie and began preening for the tom cats.
“It’s no good,” he said, “They can’t see you.”
“They can smell me,” she said with a purr. Sure enough, the toms began to stir, gingerly sniffing the air.
“That’s revolting,” said Alfie.
“It’s what attracted you to your wife,” Persephone shot back.
“Get out of it. Lucy was always very attentive to hygiene.”
“Even so, it’s the pheromones that do the work.”
The toms began to circle each other. As the feline scene heated up, even more cats emerged. One of the toms chased a young female across the room. She jumped through an open window with the other cat it hot pursuit. Another pair of cats began to hiss at each other and yet another pair were in a full blown, fur flying fight.
“Shut up!” Nathan shouted turning and throwing what seemed to be a partially full fast food cup. The cup hit the target, splashing cola all over the warring cats. Nathan turned his attention back to what Alfie sincerely hoped was his only evening meal. Persephone carried on with her preening.
Alfie got up and decided to have a look around. He went through a door and entered what he guessed was supposed to be his son’s bedroom. He didn’t exactly see a bed but there surely had to be one under the pile of clothes and trash. Wandering back through the door, he entered what was barely recognisable as a kitchen. The only thing that Alfie could see that made it a kitchen was that there was a grimy tap and sink full of dishes. Again, there were cockroaches everywhere. Alfie did not want to see the bathroom.
Walking back into the living room, he again positioned himself so he could see Nathan clearly. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with the boy, although he could still see the scars from the accident. It appeared that Nathan tried to keep his hair short to hide the scars but he clearly needed to run a razor over his scalp again. When he had fully recovered, Alfie had wondered if Nathan had truly escaped serious injury. Seeing him like this made him seriously doubt that his injuries had entirely healed.
The sucking noise came and Alfie was squeezed out of his son’s house and back to his own home where Maurice was waiting for him.
Maurice had managed to just squeeze into Alfie’s kitchen. When Alfie landed, breathless and shaken, he held out his trunk as a token of support.
“Bad trip?” Maurice asked sympathetically.
“Well I guess I’ve struck out as a father.” Alfie slumped into his seat and propped up his chin with his hands.
“Can’t be too bad,” Maurice assured him looking around. “You haven’t done too badly for yourself. I mean I never had my own home or a wife. I had kids though but they weren’t around for long.”
“Kids,” Alfie said sadly, “You only want the best for them and then all you can do is sit back and watch ‘em screw up.” He thought of Beth and poor little Julie. What life would that little mite ever have? He shuddered thinking about how many more seizures she would have to endure. It wasn’t fair to put her through all that. And Elliot? What the hell was he thinking of, letting those kids carry on like that. And Nathan! He put his face in his hands.