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'Killing Time' by Lucy Caldwell

Posted on 10/07/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Belfast, 1992
I try to kill myself on the first of March, a Sunday. I haven’t planned it. I somehow just find myself standing in the bathroom, my heart beating fast, watching the watery light through the rippled windowpanes, knowing I’m going to, and suddenly it all makes sense. I kneel to reach right to the back of the cabinet under the sink where the medicines are kept, rooting through plasters and sanitary towels and sticky bottles of herbal cough syrup, and next thing I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed pushing the paracetamol tablets from the blister-pack, shaking out what there is of baby aspirin, until there is a little heap that I line up on the duvet.
I have no idea about the dosage. My mum, a keep-fit addict and health-freak, doesn’t believe in painkillers except in the direst of emergencies. My brother and I have grown up on clove oil for toothaches, arnica for bruises and camomile tea for upset stomachs. She buys the camomile flowers in dusty bags from Nature’s Way on the Upper Newtownards Road, along with dried feverfew leaves for her headaches, and the Chinese tea that is meant to be an appetite suppressant. I tried it, once: it is thin and bitter and brown-tasting, and makes your tongue feel dry in your mouth.
My mouth is dry now. Time is catching and skipping, and yet I’ve been methodical enough to fill the toothbrush mug with water and bring it back into my bedroom with me. I lift it and take a sip. The lip is thick and the water inside is slimy and mint-edged. But I don’t trust myself to go downstairs and get a proper glass, or even to go to the bathroom to rinse out the toothmug and refill it. I swallow and try to read the instructions on the paracetamol packet. Children below the age of twelve, it says, should have no more than four tablets in 24 hours. Adults can have up to eight. There are eight tablets left, and I have only just turned thirteen. Taking them all at once must surely make a difference, too. I study the baby aspirin packaging. It is cherry-flavoured, chewable and years out of date. The most it can do, I decide, is nothing. I straighten one of the tablets on the duvet, aligning it with its partner. There is a sort of ringing in my ears. I take another sip of the swampy water. Then I begin to swallow down the paracetamol, a pair at a time. A song starts playing in my head: part of a song, a silly nursery rhyme from years ago. The animals went in two-by-two hurrah hurrah. I swallow the final pair of paracetamol. The elephant and the kangaroo. The baby aspirin are sharp and taste nothing like cherries. I have to stop myself from spitting them back out. I sit for a moment. The song and its animals are parading around my head, over and over, their thumping insistent feet. The unicorn got there just too late for to get out of the rain. I brush the trail of white dust from the duvet and get up. I look at my face in the mirror. My fringe needs cutting. I take the toothmug back to the bathroom and carefully replace the toothbrushes in it, bright and stiff on their plastic stalks. Then I brush my teeth to get rid of the synthetic taste and return to my bedroom and lie down on the bed.

*

This autumn, we studied The Crucible in English. For months I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the scene where Giles Corey refuses to answer ay or nay and so is pressed to death. Peine forte et dure, it was called, where they laid you down and stone after stone was put on your chest until you could no longer breathe under the weight of it. Sometimes it took minutes, but sometimes it took days. Giles Corey, the real Giles Corey, was an actual person. He was the only person in the whole of the United States to die by pressing, but they used to do it in the UK and France, all the time. I looked it up in an encyclopaedia in the library after school. The first day, you were allowed bread; the second and subsequent days, foul water. There was a difference, Miss Gibson said, between saying that someone died and someone was killed. Saying that someone died was a way of reneging on your responsibility if in fact they had been killed, or murdered. She wrote it on the blackboard: To renege on, and underlined it. Then she wrote beside it a ladder of words, from Murdered at the top to Passed Away at the bottom. We were to be alert to the strength words had, and most of all to their shadows; the ways you could use them to mean or to not mean something, or to wriggle out of having to say something directly. We should listen to the news with our eyes closed, she said, so that we could hear more clearly. A few girls giggled when she said that. She pretended she didn’t notice, but a web of colour inched across her face. Ashleigh McAuley said that when she turned away to put the books back in the store cupboard she was crying. Peine forte et dure. You could feel the weight of the stones as you said it, each of them.     An hour or so later, my father calls me down for dinner and I sit up, straighten my fringe with my fingers, tighten my ponytail, and go downstairs. We sit there, the four of us, forking potatoes and nut-roast, the scrape of knives on china, asking and answering questions about school, friends, neighbours. Afterwards I go back up to my room and get into bed again, still fully-clothed. I close my eyes and try to breathe. I can’t tell if my liver hurts: or even, when I think about it, where it is supposed to be hurting. I read the back of the packaging again, and all of the small print in the leaflet inside. I assumed an overdose would make you drift off into a marshmallowy sleep but paracetamol isn’t designed to send you to sleep so it must be your liver. Or maybe your kidneys. I’m not sure of the difference: all we’ve done in science so far this year is food chains and plant reproduction. Carpels and anthers and stamens. I got good marks because my drawings were so neat, and I’d colour-coordinated them. I lie there. I listen to the sounds of the TV, shrunken and muffled through the ceiling and carpet. I listen to my dad taking Sheba out to the back garden. My bedroom is right above them so I hear him talking to her, calling her Sheebs and Shub-Shub and Old Girl, teasing her about next door’s cat, who Sheba’s terrified of. I hear her bark, as if they’re having a conversation, and the sound of the door slamming as they go back inside. I know that two hours have passed when ‘Boogie Nights’ starts playing: my mum does her Rosemary Conley video every morning and evening but you have to wait at least two hours after meals. Sometimes I do it with her. One two three four five six seven eight. And out. The video finishes and then it’s Sheba to the garden one last time and doors being locked and footsteps on stairs and calls of Goodnight! The taps running, the toilet flushing. Goodnight! My little brother’s piping voice. Goodnight!
I lie awake for a long, long while. Eventually, I somehow sleep.

And, to my surprise, I wake up and things go on as usual: school, viola practice, homework. I tidy my room and learn my French vocab. The weird thing is, I feel better than I have in ages. It’s like a safety valve has been released: and for the first time I can breathe again. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. The week passes. It’s sort of as if things matter less now: and because they matter less, they are more bearable.

On Saturday my parents have a wedding reception to go to, a late lunch at the Park Avenue; a friend of theirs who got divorced and is now remarrying. They’ve decided we’re old enough, for the first time ever, to be left home alone: it’s during the daytime, after all, and only down the road. They leave just after two. I watch the taxi pull away from the kerb and turn onto the main road and give them five minutes in case they’ve forgotten something. Then I yell out to Niall to stay in his room and not to move until I get back.
It’s a wet, blustery day, not a day to be outside. But it’s been burning my mind all week: and I might not get another chance.
I walk fast, through the residential streets, my collar pulled up for warmth – and to hide my face. It is only a ten-minute walk to the main road and the shops, but I’ve never felt so visible: so naked. Cars whoosh past, some with their headlights on already, spraying dirty puddled water up onto the pavement. Every time a car sounds its horn or backfires in the distance I nearly jump out of my skin. Our parents laid down the law before they left: No fighting, no answering the door, and absolutely no going out, under any circumstances. My mum panics about us when she doesn’t know where we are. It’s a relief to reach the newsagent’s, push open the door to the sound of the bell and the babble of voices and the warm steamy fug.
‘What can I do you for?’ the newsagent says when my turn comes. He is a nice man: Mick, and his wife is Alanna. I suddenly think that despite everything I should have gone elsewhere, somewhere up in Ballyhackamore, further afield.
I take a breath. I hope he can’t see the weird guilt I feel written on my face. As soon as the painkillers are back in the cupboard, I tell myself, it will be like nothing ever happened.
‘I need a packet of paracetamol,’ I say.
‘Well you’re out of luck,’ he says, winking over my head at the old man shuffling up behind me. ‘And do you know why that is?’
I blink at him.
‘Because the parrots in the jungle have them all eaten. Parrots-eat-em-all: d’you get me?’ The old man behind me hacks out a phlegmy laugh. Mick looks disappointed that I haven’t laughed. I force a smile. He reaches behind him and takes a box from the shelf. They’re a different kind than the ones we had, but I hope that by the time they come to need them, my parents won’t notice.
‘Anything else?’ Mick says.
‘A bottle of baby aspirin?’
‘No can do. Don’t stock it, only the normal stuff.’
I’ll have to do without the baby aspirin. But that’s OK: they can’t have used it since Niall was wee; they’ve probably forgotten it was even there. The paracetamol’s the main thing. I hand over 50p and he rings up my change.
‘How many’ – I hear myself saying, and the words come out of nowhere. ‘How many can you take at once?’
Mick frowns, and picks up the packet. ‘Says here no more than four doses in 24 hours.’
‘And four doses is eight tablets?’
‘That’s what it says. These for yourself, love?’
‘They’re – for my mum. Her headache. She gets these headaches.’
The old man leans forward and taps my shoulder. ‘You’d want to be careful, but,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry?’ I say.
‘I said, you’d want to be careful, but.’
I turn to look at him. His face is thin and lined and his eyes are milky and there are plugs of yellowish-white hair in his ears. He puts his face right up to me, and I can feel his warm, wet breath.
‘Woman the wife knew,’ he says, leaning in even closer, ‘got this terrible headache. Kept popping the pills, every couple of hours. Headache passes, she thinks no more of it, goes about her business. Few days later, the vomiting starts, and her skin turns yellow. Then she swells up like your Michelin man. By the time they got her to hospital it was too late.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I say. I try to take a step back, only my back’s right against the counter, and there’s nowhere to go. ‘What do you mean?’
‘She’d OD’d, you see,’ he says, flecking me with spittle. ‘She’d overdosed. It had her liver and whatnot destroyed, and her organs were packing it in one after the other. Oh, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, what that poor woman went through. It’s the most painful way to go, they say, for they can’t give you anything to help with the pain once your liver’s packed in. And the tragedy is she done it without realising. Her family was in pieces. In pieces. A Telegraph, Mick, and a packet of B&H, if you please.’
I stare at the old man. He looks like – what’s the word. A harbinger.
‘Is that true?’ I say.
‘Sorry, dear?’
‘Is it true – what you said? About the woman.’
‘God rest her soul. It was a terrible tragedy. Terrible.’
‘And it was definitely the painkillers, it wasn’t anything else?’
‘Oh aye, it was the headache pills for sure. They should come with more warnings, if you ask me. The cruellest part is she thought she was fine. The headache lifted and she was right as rain for days. Or so she thought. When all the while the damage was being done. God rest her soul.’
His milky eyes glide over my face again, searching to meet mine. A great rush of heat and then cold goes through my body.
‘Don’t be scaremongering there, Eddie,’ says Mick. ‘You’ve put the heart cross-ways in the wee girl, look at her face.’
‘I wish it was only scaremongering,’ the old man says. ‘They say it happens oftener than you’d think. They should put warnings on the packets. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.’
‘Come on, Eddie. I’m sure her mum knows what she’s doing. Don’t mind him, love. Now then.’ Mick rings up the till. The old man is still peering at me. He knows, I think. I don’t know how: but he knows. I squeeze past him and manage to get out of the shop and into the dank fag-end of an alleyway around the corner.
I try to tell myself the old man was mad, or lying. I scrabble to recall what we did in Home Economics, when we studied First Aid. Don’t touch someone you suspect has been electrocuted. Never use butter to treat a burn. ABC stands for Airways Breathing Circulation. The rules ping, neat and useless, around my head. We didn’t mention painkiller overdose. The closest we came was when Mrs McAneary was talking about tying a tourniquet and Kelly Clark put up her hand and asked was it true that cutting your wrists across didn’t work, you had to cut them down. Mrs McAneary told her not to be so morbid and if there was any more of that sort of talk she’d be in detention.
I feel a kind of numbness come over my body. I put a hand on one of the dustbin lids to steady myself. I try to think logically. I try to think Miss Gibson-style. A few days later, the old man said. How many is a few? Three, four? Surely no more than five? A couple is two or three, and several might be longer, but a few days, surely, has to be less than a week: has to be fewer than – what has it been – six days.
Slowly, I calm myself down. It is raining more heavily now and I’m getting soaked, but I stay there in the vomit-spattered alleyway until my legs feel strong enough to take me back home.
I go up the Holywood Road this time. As I pass the Park Avenue I suddenly think about going inside, up the driveway and into the lobby and through to the restaurant, finding my parents. But what would I say? There’s nothing, whatever I say, that my parents can do. I stand across the road looking at the gates of the hotel, my hands clenched into fists so tight that blood wells up in half-moons under the skin where my nails dig in. When I wrench myself away it feels as if years might have passed.

*

When I make it home, Niall is in his room, the door shut, a skull-and-crossboned NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign blu-tacked up. In smaller letters he’s written, AND THAT MEANS YOU!!! I tap on the door.
‘Go away,’ he says. ‘I’m busy.’
‘Niall,’ I say, nudging the door open a crack. He’s hunched over, gluing something.
‘I thought you were meant to be good at English,’ he says. ‘Can you not read?’
‘Niall,’ I say, but the words won’t come out.
‘What?’ he says.
‘Niall,’ I try again.
What?’ he says, and when I don’t reply, he rolls his eyes and goes back to his gluing: ‘Give my head peace.’
‘Do you want to play Lego?’ I blurt out.
He stares at me. ‘Do I what?’
‘Do you want to play Lego? We could build the Pirate Ship and the Space Rocket, have a battle.’
Niall shifts in his chair and looks at me.
‘It’ll be epic,’ I say. ‘It’ll be huge. It’ll be like – carnage.’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I don’t really play with Lego these days?’
‘Since when?’ I say. ‘Not even the Pirate Ship?’ It was his Christmas present the year before last and even I was jealous of it.
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I just don’t. Sheba ate some of the pieces anyway, I think.’
‘Oh,’ I say.
‘Not that I care anyway,’ he says, turning back to his gluing. ‘But if I tell Mum and Dad you went out, you’re in such big trouble.’
‘Niall?’ I say, and I hear my voice crack a little. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
He frowns at me. ‘Do you mean, like, now?’
‘Now – for the rest of the day – please Niall – can I sit in here with you?’ I say, and my voice is barely a whisper now. ‘I won’t get in your way, I promise.’
‘Wise up,’ he says. Then he sighs. ‘Look,’ he says, pushing his cardboard to one side. ‘You can watch me play Paperboy if you want. I almost got a Perfect Delivery the other day on Middle Road.’
When I try to thank him he looks at me like I’ve gone mad, so I shut up and just follow him downstairs.

We boot up the Amstrad and sit side by side while he fires the newspapers at the doors and crashes into flowerpots and dodges the stray rolling tyres and remote-controlled cars and tornadoes. It’s banal and repetitive and weirdly hypnotic. Gradually, I feel my breathing lengthen and my heartbeat slow. I stop watching the computer screen after a while and watch Niall instead; his pale, creased forehead, his flicking thumbs. We sit there for hours. By the time he gives up on the elusive Perfect Delivery it’s almost teatime, so I microwave the jacket potatoes Mum has left cling-filmed in the fridge, three minutes each plate, and grate cheese carefully over. Niall eats his and most of mine. After we’ve finished, I do the washing up, drying each knife and fork individually, eking them out. So long as you keep moving, I say to myself. It’s like in the game: you can speed up or slow down but you have to keep moving, because as soon as you stop, it’s over. I line up the last knife in its compartment and close the cutlery drawer. Niall is back up in his room by now, at work on whatever he’s cutting and gluing. I wet the dishcloth and wipe the table, then wring it out and drape it over the tap. I am more tired than I can ever remember being; more tired than I even knew was possible. I want to go to bed but I don’t dare: in case I don’t wake up this time. As I wonder what to do next, I hear Sheba whine by the back door and I realise we haven’t let her out all afternoon. ‘Come on then,’ I say, and she gives a little thump of her tail, or tries to. I unlock the door and she hauls herself up and pads outside. The rain still hasn’t let up. She makes it across the yard and to the edge of the garden and squats: to make her puddle, I suddenly think, that’s what we always used to call it when we were little. I don’t remember a time without Sheba. I don’t remember when she was a puppy, except in photographs. She’s just always been there. She shambles back to the house and I let her in and kneel down on the floor beside her. She was really blonde once, platinum-bright, but now she’s kind of an ashy colour, and her muzzle is grey. She’s getting on: that’s what my parents say. Poor old Sheba’s getting on. I stroke her and see how knotted her undercoat is. So I tease her soft drifts of tummy-fur until they untangle, and brush through her damp topcoat with my fingers. It isn’t dirty, exactly, because she doesn’t go outside much anymore, but it doesn’t feel clean. She’s too stiff and cumbersome to climb into the bath, and it seems cruel to blast her with a cold hose in the middle of winter, so she hasn’t been properly bathed for weeks. My dad wipes her down with a facecloth and soapy water from time to time, but she needs a proper shampoo. Maybe we could make a sort of hammock, I suddenly think, out of a sheet, and all four of us could lift her into the bath and out. I could blow-dry her coat afterwards, on the lowest gentle setting, so she doesn’t get a chill. Maybe we could do it tomorrow afternoon: maybe that’s what we could do. And by then a whole week would have passed, seven whole days, and that was surely more than a few, and then I’d know I’d made it safely through. Surely a week was enough: surely?
I curl up with Sheba, there on the linoleum tiles of the utility-room floor, and close my eyes and breathe in her warm, sour, biscuit smell, exhausted suddenly with something almost like relief.

The rest of March passes. March turns into April, and in the middle of April Easter comes, and on Easter Monday Sheba dies. Mum bought her doggy chocolates from Supermac but she didn’t eat them, only licked at them and wagged the tip of her tail, and the next morning she’s stiff and cold against the utility room door. We all cry, even Dad. Later that night I hear my parents talking on the landing. Niall has been inconsolable all day and Mum’s had to sit with him until he’s sobbed himself to sleep.
‘It’s good for them,’ she says. ‘That’s what they say. It teaches them about mortality.’ But she’s crying as she says it: I can hear. Then she says, ‘That’s a joke. Isn’t that a fucking joke.’ Mum never swears. I have never in my life, ever, heard Mum say anything stronger than sugar or flipping or fudge. I hear Dad shush and soothe her, as if he’s the only parent and she is a child. I think of the things they said to each other and to us when we found Sheba this morning. She’s gone to sleep, She’s passed away, She’s gone to a better place. They are all gentle, cloudy phrases. Right at the other end of the scale from Murdered, Killed, or even Died. And somewhere off the scale entirely is the poisonous word for what I tried to do. I try to make myself whisper it aloud, but I can’t: the word just sits on my tongue, too terrible to say. Miss Gibson didn’t so much as mention it when she wrote out her ladder of death-words.

As I lie in bed I listen to them on the landing and wonder. I try not to, but I still can’t stop wondering, how many more tablets it would have taken; another whole strip of eight, or maybe four, or maybe only two or even one. For a sudden long moment I can’t seem to breathe. And then I breathe: and then I concentrate only on breathing.

Want to hear more from the writer? You can visit her website www.lucycaldwell.com or follow her on twitter (@beingvarious)

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