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Paracetomol – 500 micrograms
The lights dim slowly but steadily and the film starts. I pass mum the popcorn without looking at her, hear the rustling of an arthritic hand trying to gather up a wad of it, and return to the fictional frustrations of the characters in capes onscreen.
I do my best to ignore her laboured breathing, the occasional soft moan as she shifts in her seat to stem the flow of pain running up and down her spine, the minute gasps when CGI missiles launch themselves at us through 3D glasses. Behind us, silence stands still, waiting. Before us, life is straightforward.
I turn to look at her briefly and find her slumped in her seat, her head leaning on the back of the chair, the tops of her knees glowing, her legs opened suggestively. She’s passed out.
Earlier, she’d complained of a headache, but she’d brushed it aside, insisting on paying for the tickets because she wanted me to start saving. As if buying two tickets to a film would cripple my ISA. I’d told her to stop worrying ABOUT EVERY LITTLE THING, loud enough for ‘everyone’ to hear. ‘Everyone’ chucked pitying glances her way. I apologised. She said, “It’s fine, baby.”
The headaches are nothing new. I put them down to the years of stress. Leaving my dad and her home of a decade. My grandmother’s funeral and a reception in a dilapidated church hall where I counted the damp markings I found on the walls. My sixteenth birthday where I threw a fit having decided that my parents should get back together, right now. My dismissive grunts versus her loving coos when I lay in a hospital bed having my stomach pumped of cheap wine. Our living together because I couldn’t afford to live on my own, the rent part-paid in her becoming dependent on me. Ageing.
She went to the ladies just before the film started and returned as the opening credits rolled. That annoyed me. I watched her as she’d walked back to her seat, taking her time, an ambling silhouette. She sat down and rubbed her forehead. That annoyed me. I made a huge deal of going through my handbag to look for some Anadin or Panadol. I asked her why the hell she hadn’t carried anything with her, Jesus. She’d said she felt fine. I stopped looking.
Seeing her like this, vulnerable yet indecent, I’m conscious that I have to stay calm. I don’t want to stay calm. I stand up suddenly, toppling the popcorn. I lean down, shake her, shout at her. People behind us watch, like ghosts flickering in and out of focus. Watch me shake this older woman like a rag. I run, kick open the double doors and sprint to the lobby.
Two teenagers dressed in a uniform of orange and black try to ignore me at first. “Call an ambulance,” I shout theatrically. I picture her slumped in that chair and get annoyed all over again.
The doctor puts it down to exhaustion, and I start to carry a box of paracetemol at all times.
I top up the kitchen drawer with two types of paracetemol, store brand and expensive pharmaceutical kind.
Mum apologises over and over. The drawer is soon empty of Anadin.
Doxazosin – 50 micrograms
I always wake up before her on Saturdays. I think the stairs to our flat tire her out. Usually I time it just right. Boil the kettle a second time just as she wakes, and make her a cup of watery tea. I write a shopping list before the debate begins about what we can afford this week. I don’t shower right away. I save that treat for when I’m ready to escape to my boyfriend’s for the rest of the weekend.
There’s the quiet shuffling of her footsteps down the carpeted hallway, the soft sticky Sellotape sound of her bare feet on the kitchen floor. The awkward breathing like Darth Vader just ran a marathon. The click of the top drawer opening, followed by the foraging that comes with sorting her morning medication. The heavy silence when she enters the living room, slightly slumped, her face twisted from lack of sleep and pain, before she sinks into the sofa and plays with the tablets in one hand like dice.
“Thanks, baby.” The slurping of tea, the smacking of lips.
“We need anything else?” I chuck her the list.
She tries not to lean too far over the table. “Milk, I think,”
“I put milk.”
Her face creases as she strains to read it. Why doesn’t she put on her glasses? She puts the cup on the coffee table whilst rubbing her chest. “We don’t need any more onions.”
“We’re out of onions.” There’s an article on the Guardian website that I just have to read, right this minute, mid-conversation.
“Let me give you some money.”
The same discussion, every Saturday.
“No, mum. It’s fine.”
“You should be saving.”
I know that. I’m a civil servant. I’ll be saving until I die.
“Did I tell you your aunty rang?”
“Yes, you did,” I say.
Mum sighs, picks up the cup, slurps her tea, and knocks back the pills like Skittles. “She wants to come up next weekend.”
I’m busy, I swear to God. I’m going out. I’m seeing my man. I’m going to the library. I’m five again and mum chases me round the back yard.
“Will you be around, you think?” She’s a child hoping her parents will say yes. “Your aunt thinks I’ve been avoiding her since December. I tell her, that’s not true. Your aunt says I’m lying. I tell her, there you go again, calling me a liar. You know I’m not feeling my best.”
She keeps talking but the rest is television static. I want to listen, I really do, but it’s too much hard work. I should listen – usually she’s too shattered to talk.
“Anything else we need?” I don’t take my eyes off my laptop. I don’t have a clue what the article’s about.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see her pat her chest.
“No, baby.” She thinks about it. “Let me go check.” She stands. A small yellow oblong-shaped tablet falls from her lap.
“Your aunt.” She bends over, slowly, picks it up, places it on the table and chuckles. “Just the one for my blood pressure.”
I’ve decided it’s time to take a shower.
I flip the laptop screen down, collect her empty cup on my way out, and hear her say thank you into the air I leave behind.
Levothyroxine – 25 micrograms
I remember reading about a recalled drug in a newspaper a few years back. Some doctor was claiming GlaxoSmithKline or Pfizer or some other monolithic pharmaceutical company was spinning a bunch of lies about 40% of the properties of their medications. Levothyroxine, if taken too often, could change the colour of a patient’s skin. It was most prominent in Caucasians. It’s a synthetic form of thyroxine used as a hormone replacement for patients with thyroid problems.
Mum had a milk chocolate complexion. I remember admiring it in one of those photos from the 80s, courtesy of Colorama – soft focus, nostalgic, a long, long time ago.
We were going to my cousin’s for dinner and she’d bought a new dress for the occasion, even though there wasn’t one, really. It was yellow, from Simply Be. Her complexion has become more like Tesco’s own brand honey – cheap and sweet.
Levothyroxine is a preventative medicine, taken to keep that pesky thyroid in check. The thyroid controls pretty much everything in the human body. It’s funny what you don’t know about your anatomy until it’s on the blink.
Mum had lost colossal amounts of weight. When she started to look like an older wiser Noami Campbell – and I was jealous – we paid the doctor a visit. She was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, and the doctor prescribed a blast of radium.
We have to go to a christening. The baby is the size of a small bag of flour. You can’t handle kids under the age of five with radium seeping out of your pores. I don’t hold her in case it set mum off, or something.
After the service, I stand next to her at the end of a small crowd of reluctant photo subjects in front of a patch of sunflowers. They are her favourite. At the reception, she sits talking to one of my cousin’s neighbours whilst the baby is passed around the room like a bomb.
The dress suits her, it really does. It takes me back to those photos, when I was a chick, stretched out all over her lap as if she was a human sofa. My cousin serves up a treat: curry mutton and rice, the way mum taught her to make it. Mum holds the baby in one arm and eats with her free hand. The baby watches her take every bite.
Gliclazide – 50 micrograms
St. Pauls’ shopping centre is a great location for a shopping trip. The bus stop is a two-minute walk from the flat and mum can rejuvenate for the 35-minute ride. The bus station sits directly opposite the shopping centres, both St. Paul’s and St Anne’s, and if needs be, there is a Costa is right beside them for refuelling. Mum’s favourite shops appear in order: Evans, Waterstone’s, Dorothy Perkins, C&A. This means if it gets too much for her, she can hit two out of four for sure.
The only downside is the choice of lunches. The Burger King longed since closed down. Nando’s is always too busy. Somehow, we get lucky with the weather – we sit outside and have paninis and lattes from Cafe Nero. I don’t put any sugar in her latte. The Gliclazide is sugary enough.
Today, we hit all of them, the jackpot. Mum is on a high. She finds some comfortable shoes to counter the swelling of her feet. She finds a new top for work, which fits because the weight has come back like a lover scorned. She tells me stories about what’s going on in the office, and how she’s realised she’s the oldest employee in the company. She insists on paying for lunch.
We get the tube back. Mum feels she’ll make the walk to the station. I have to shake her awake when we reach our stop.
Pioglitazone – 50 micrograms
After work, mum comes home and rains down a blue streak of words on my head. It’s funny at first, before she starts to repeat herself. Then it’s just sad.
She kicks the DVD player, calling me ungrateful, disrespectful, ungrateful again. We’ve not shared a bottle of wine for a while because it goes to war with the hypoglycaemic portions of the pioglitazone and makes her hyper. For some reason, I’m content to ride the storm out. Suddenly, she draws me into a hug. I smell sweat and panic. Her heart races.
I listen to her ramblings. She talks about the colleague who accused her of being lazy. Her voice catches itself, the way it does with shame. She’s been to the doctors recently. I put her tiredness down to the latest prescription.
When she starts crying, I put on the soca CD she loves and we dance around the front room. I keep a bottle of brandy at the back of the kitchen cupboard for emergencies just like this. She is still in her winter coat. Her handbag is slung over one shoulder. She wines her waist like a costumed woman at Notting Hill carnival. There is no pain on her face. There will be in the morning.
Then she takes off all her clothes.
I run a bath while she sits splayed on the sofa and sips a small amount of brandy like a debutante. I lead her by the hand to the bathroom, lower her into the bath, and give her a massage across her shoulders and neck, where the pain is worst. I help her into a South Park nightie I bought years ago. I make sure she falls asleep.
The doctor had written 50mg on her prescription instead of 25. A little more, like 55 or 60, may have killed her. I sent the surgery a fax: if this happens again, I’m going to The News of the World. I educate myself, learn that pioglitazone has been withdrawn in some countries due to adverse affects: tumours on the bladder, and semi-psychotic reactions. There is no point doing anything else about it. She didn’t die, after all.
Top kitchen drawer – 0 micrograms
The drawer sticks out slightly because it’s broken. Inside is a mess. Mum’s things – old lottery slips, empty packets of pills – are all over themselves like broken toys.
I don’t want to clean this up but my hand dives in by itself and comes up with a box. The sticker is faded. A little of the adhesive remains. I rub my hand over the other boxes, all empty and light like feathers, so that they don’t feel left out.
Nothing left but a final check of the entire flat. Her wardrobe’s been emptied. The bed’s been stripped. The drawers smell like Flash. I didn’t realise there was so much space in her wardrobe. Half the clothes didn’t fit her very well any more. The first thing I threw away was that yellow dress.
I’ll take the keys to the estate agent and that will be that. I’ll want to take a walk along the high street one last time, crap hole that it is. I won’t need to pop into the pharmacy at Boots, not this morning. In some ways, it’s a relief. What a lie – it’s a huge relief. The kind that comes after you’ve been sick having drunk so much.
Everything feels like it happened only a couple of weeks ago, when mum was sitting in her chair watching Hollyoaks and talking about what we could have for dinner on Sunday. I’ve replayed that weekend with my boyfriend, what we’d been up to, and coming home and kissing her with that mouth. Thinking: I’m a grownass woman. Knowing that she liked having some time to herself. That she was content to think the prospect of grandkids was growing ever closer.
One last check in the drawer first. So many empty packets. Naproxen for her inflamed joints, Irbestan for her heart. I’ll put them in the bin on my way out. Or, I’ll leave them here.
I hang in the corridor like someone looking for the right flat. I’m thinking I should have been nicer to her at times. I’m thinking she’s going to worry about me. I’m thinking of all that money spent on her prescriptions. I’ll save, now, like she hoped.
Lucky to be published both on online and in print (ABCTales, Ether Books, The Artillery of Words, Raging Aardvark Twisted Tales 2013 winner) and make the Bridport Prize 2012 Short Stories short list. Always aiming to get better at this writing gig.