Raising Hope




Friday, March 2, 2001

Except for the ticking of the old railway clock the room is silent. It pushes time on despite it seeming to stand still. Outside the kitchen window, the grey skies that have marked this bleakest of autumn days are changing, growing darker, more mournful—a reminder of what has been and an omen of what is yet to come.

There is no-one about.

When did they go?

How long have I been sitting here, alone and broken, crumpled over this old and battered timber table? It bears the big and the small scars delivered by the years, etched into its very grain, yet it stands. I wonder at that—its strength a contrary mirror to my own frailty. It holds me up, restrains me from falling. My hand slides over its rough surface reminding me that it is real. Everything around me looks the same and I can tell that it too, is real. Only everything is wrong, a throng of contradictions. A numbness has taken hold, yet the emptiness of the air is crushing. I see the approaching night but don’t feel the bite of its frosty breath. The world is irrelevant now. My senses are monopolized by the raging war inside. This is a pain I have never known. There is no respite from the enemy within. The ache inside me is all-consuming, surging, swelling, filling me.

It must be hours. Forever really. There are cups and saucers and glasses and bottles and cartons and food. Lots of food. They each came bearing something that could be consumed, as though it might replace the sustenance that has been denied me. They brought sandwiches and cake and biscuits and slice. They brought lemonade and milk and wine and beer. Their conversations seemed so far away, as if coming to me across a vast canyon. Muffled voices whispering their concerns to one another. Others making cautious pleas in my direction.

“Have a cup of tea, Bridie.”

“You’ve got to eat something, Bridie.”

“Please talk to me, Bridie.”

“Come and lie down, Bridie.”

“Can I get you anything, Bridie.”

It hardly registered. Only background noise. I do not want to drink. I do not want to eat. I do not want to talk. I do not want to lie down. I do not want anyone to get me anything, save the one thing I cannot have.

“I know just how you feel, Bridie.”

No-one knows how I feel! I want to scream it to the world. But I don’t. I only scream it into the cavernous hole inside myself. The echoes reverberate ever more loudly against my bones and inside my skull. My head is pulsing. My rambling thoughts float helplessly from one pathetic scene to another. The storm in my stomach creates waves of nausea, each more angry than the last. I feel sick. A sick that will never leave me.

No-one knows how I feel. They can feel righteous at their smug kindnesses to me. Then they can be absolved of any guilt that this has happened to me instead of them. But they can never know how I feel. And now they have gone—home to put their children to bed, tuck them in, kiss them goodnight, then wake up tomorrow with their lives intact, lives that have gone back to normal. But for me normal no longer exists. For this is the day I put my baby in the ground.

What normal can there be after that?




Chapter 1


Sunday, June 21, 1998

I wake earlier than usual. The sky outside is a whirlpool of grey and violet. There is the soft rise and fall of Ant’s body next to mine. As quietly as possible, so as not to disturb him, I roll over to face the wall away from the window, away from Ant. But I have long since learned that there is a deeper connection between two people who share their lives this intimately. I cannot roll over without it being noticed, even unconsciously. His sleeping frame is in tune with mine. Instinctively his arm creeps around my waist in a gentle but choking embrace. I lay there for the longest time, wondering about the life I have carved out for myself. A life that began so full of hope and promise, but one that is increasingly filled with despair.

I’m not feeling so good. Did I eat something disagreeable last night? Now I remember. I hardly ate a thing. A bit of salad and half a bread roll. Lots of water. No wine. The undercurrent of nausea was already there then.

Then there was Lucia, as full on as ever.

“Bridie, where you appetite? This is birthday feast for you husband. You not insult him by not eat.”

Really what she means is that I am insulting her by not eating the meal that she is paying for. She means my appetite isn’t big enough. She means the food she offers is never good enough. She means that because I am Irish instead of Italian I am not good enough. I will never be good enough.

Ant begins to stir. His soft fingers begin their gentle caress, tracing invisible patterns over my stomach. His warm hand slides downwards. I am not even aware of the reflex action of my own hand catching his. “Ant, I can’t. Not now. I don’t feel too good.”

I hear the familiar groan. “Come on, Bridie. What’s wrong? For God’s sake, it’s my birthday.”

“Happy birthday,” I hear myself say. “I just feel a bit sick, that’s all. Can you get me a glass of water and a couple of Aspirin?”

There is a tired, heavy sigh as Ant rolls out of the other side of our bed to oblige me. His bare feet are heavy on the cold, gapped floor boards, which creak beneath his weight. As soon as he is gone I roll halfway out too. I reach under our bed to find his gifts, meticulously wrapped, carefully placed, so that I can reach them easily, without getting too far out of the bed, without getting cold, when morning comes.

When Ant returns to the room a few minutes later he has brought the Aspirin as well as hot coffee for both of us. I am slouched against the extra pillows I’ve retrieved from the floor. Spread across the worn and faded Amish quilt are his gifts, wrapped and bowed and waiting.

“Happy birthday,” I offer again. “And thanks.” I take the water glass with the Aspirin as he sets down the coffee. Then he lumbers back into bed next to me. His big, clumsy hand cups my neck. Then he gently kisses me.

“Thanks,” he says. His face is lit up with the flushed excitement of a child after the long wait for Santa. He takes the first gift in his muscular hands and shakes it—a game. He makes a couple of feeble attempts at guessing what’s hidden beneath the wrap. But the quirky romance that this once echoed has long since lost its shine. Just a silly habit now. He pulls the ribbon free and begins to rip away at the wrapping. I take a sip of my coffee, hot and fresh and aromatic. No sooner have I raised it to my lips than I am out of bed and on the floor. The nausea has escalated to heaving. Instantly Ant is by my side.

“What’s the matter?” he asks, with genuine concern. Even after everything, he’s still there to pick up the pieces. Why then, do I feel so disillusioned with our relationship, with him, with my life? God knows, I’m sure I wouldn’t survive without him. But with him I feel so stifled, so inadequate, so misplaced. I can hardly see where I’m going anymore—where we’re going.

“Is it something you ate last night? I told you we should have eaten at home.” There is a mixed tone of sympathy and guarded accusation. I’m supposed to know better by now. Especially after the allergist identified a small group of food additives as the culprits. Artificial preservatives. Eating out is always a risk. A reaction can really knock me about. The vomiting is furious and relentless and I can be non-functional for days. The headaches progress to migraines so I can’t get up or even have the light on. Really, it’s easier not to eat out. I’ve learned to cope with it, but never could figure how these chemicals, that don’t count as food items in the first place, ever got approval to be tipped into the foodstuffs of the nation. Whatever happened to the good old fashioned preserving techniques of our parents and grandparents? Food that was wholesome and only contained food. But we have managed, sourcing preservative-free foods, meticulously reading the labels of everything we buy, regularly purchasing fresh produce, and even growing some of our own. Then there’s Ant’s dad, Carlo. Of course he has his own orchard planted out in the back garden and a vegetable patch that takes up the length and breadth of the disused laneway behind their property. He is a great source of fresh fruit and vegetables. He often brings us a load of produce in an old cardboard box filled to overflowing. He does this in spite of the sharp disapproval of Lucia, who at worst, thinks I’m faking it, and at best, that I’m just a weak, miserable Irish lass without a proper constitution.

But the reliable signs of the dreaded reaction are not there. “No,” I say. “I don’t think so. This is different. I feel sick, a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. And I do have a headache, but it’s not the typical chemical headache. It’s different. Milder. I just need the bathroom. Can you help me?”

He helps me up from the floor, my weight supported against his braced forearm, his other arm gently wrapped around me. He leaves me alone in our large, cavernous bathroom where I retch briefly before sitting back against the tiled wall, arms wrapped around my drawn up knees, head resting on shaking kneecaps. I’m grateful for the privacy. A few minutes later he returns with a bucket and cool, wet washer.

“You okay now?” he asks. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed. I’ll call and make you a doctor’s appointment.”

“No,” I say. “I don’t want the doctor. Besides, it’s Sunday. I just want to lie down for a while. I actually feel a bit better already.” Always the knight, Ant helps me back to our bedroom where I crawl back under the covers. I’m shivering but I’m not cold.

“Not sure what that was all about,” I say. “That was different to the usual reaction. Maybe it was something I haven’t had before. But really, I didn’t eat much. Anyhow, I do feel a bit better. Would you be a love and get me a cup of tea?” A cup of tea, I hear myself say. I don’t drink tea. But the coffee. The very smell of it made be baulk.

Ant returns with the tea. Black and weak. Just how it seems to me I need it. Then he crawls back into bed beside me and opens his birthday gifts. We lay, curled up together to watch the Sunday morning news. We stay there most of the morning, until a sharp rap at the door signals the arrival of Lucia and Carlo and the end of our short-lived but private peace.


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