r j dent – suki takes it off (again)
Suki Glass was part-way through her act when she saw Graham, the house manager, signalling her from the wings. He was holding up her phone and waving it urgently. She nodded and moved her wrist. Apollonia looked up at her and rolled her eyes. Without making it obvious she was hurrying, Suki went casually into her self-penned signature call-and-response song, during which only Apollonia sang. Suki finished the number, took a bow and was off the stage in less than two minutes.
“It’s the hospital,” Graham said unnecessarily, as Suki took her phone from him and held it to the side of her head.
“Hello, Suki Glass,” she said into the mouthpiece.
“Miss Glass,” said a tinny female voice in her ear. “It’s about your mother.”
“Can you get here either today or tomorrow?”
“Probably today. Is she bad?”
“Sooner would be better than later.”
“Today then. I’m four hours away.” She looked at her watch. “I’ll be there by seven.”
“Thanks,” she said to Graham. “I’ve got to go. See you on Thursday.”
Graham nodded, but didn’t say anything.
Not waiting for an answer, Suki dashed to her dressing room, zipped Apollonia into her hard-shell travelling case, slung on her coat, grabbed her bag and the case and raced out into the car park.
Within minutes she was driving along the motorway, towards the hospital.
As she drove, Suki sighed, knowing that the time she was about to spend with her mother would be incredibly difficult.
She had always clashed with Polly; Suki and Polly were both very headstrong women. Suki’s dislike of her mother was based on her mother’s scorn regarding the nature of Suki’s success; the fact that Polly refused to acknowledge that Suki was very successful in a highly skilled and highly specialised field of entertainment.
“You play with dolls and you make them talk in stupid voices – and that’s all you do. In fact, it’s all you’ve ever done,” Polly had said one day. “You did it when you were seven years old – and you’re doing it still.”
“I’m a professional ventriloquist,” Suki had said, with justifiable pride. “The most successful ventriloquist of the twenty-first century – so far. And that’s internationally, not nationally.”
“Well, I don’t see that you’re doing anything different to what you did when you were seven. Of course, I could be wrong. If I am, please tell me what’s different.”
“I get paid for it,” Suki said reluctantly. “Paid well too.”
She was usually able to resist her mother’s attempts to belittle and upset her, but on that occasion, her mother’s words had struck her and made her feel that she needed to defend herself.
“People pay large sums of money to be entertained by my skills. You never paid me.”
As soon as she had said it, Suki saw Polly brighten, and she realised her mistake.
“I was never entertained,” Polly said, matter-of-factly.
Suki waited, wondering what cruel follow-up jibe was about to be hurled at her. Polly always had two barbs, one which followed the other rapidly. There was never much of a pause.
It didn’t take long; it never did.
“Perhaps that means you owe me money.”
Suki sighed but made the effort to refrain from retorting.
“Where did I go wrong?” Polly asked, clearly dissatisfied with Suki’s silence. “That’s what I’d like to know – where did I go wrong?”
Suki could not let that one pass unchallenged.
“I think you’ll find that having a daughter who is the most successful ventriloquist in the world is an indication that you’ve done everything right.”
“In your opinion,” Polly said. “Always remember that your evaluation of yourself is only an opinion, not a fact. And a very subjective opinion at that.”
The relationship between mother and daughter had always been fraught to the point of open hostility. Polly was disappointed that Suki had chosen an unconventional form of employment; Suki was upset that her mother held her not insignificant achievements in such contempt.
Suki was in demand; she entertained thousands and thousands of people. She polished her scripts, she included material that made people laugh, and she also included material that contained grit; nuggets of truth that made some of her audience annoyed, and made others think.
And so, as she drove to the hospital, Suki prepared herself for battle. Every time she was with her mother, the two of them ended up arguing.
For her part, Suki thought, not without justification, that Polly was old-fashioned, rigidly set in her ways, headstrong to the point of extreme rudeness, totally lacking in empathy or sympathy for anyone, and tough in a way that always made Suki think that Polly was made out of steel.
There had been a time when a man, Brian, had expressed an interest in Polly. It had been a few years after Suki’s father had died, and Suki realised her mother might be in need of male company. After a few ‘dates’ it had become quite obvious, from Polly’s comments, that Polly did not consider Brian an ideal potential mate.
“He’s a bit of a lame dog,” Polly had said. “And we don’t need lame dogs, do we?”
Suki had shaken her head, but an image of Polly and Brian had involuntarily flashed into her mind. It was an image of Brian as a lame dog with Polly standing over him and pointing a shotgun at him. Bang! Polly shot Brian because she didn’t need lame dogs, did she?
“No, mother,” Suki had said, wincing inwardly.
Polly grinned wolfishly.
Here we go again, thought Suki.
“Oh, I know you don’t really agree with what I’m saying – you don’t care for real men, do you?”
“Real men?” Suki marvelled. “I don’t really care for men at all, mother, as you very well know.”
“I don’t know where you get your contrariness from, I really don’t.”
“I’m not contrary, as you so quaintly put it,” Suki said. “I’m a lesbian.”
Polly looked so aghast at her daughter’s statement that Suki almost laughed aloud.
“Do you really need to say something so awful with such quite so much pride?”
“It’s a fact.”
“It’s not a fact; it’s a choice. A very bad choice too.”
“Yes,” Suki said. “I do.”
“You do what?”
“While there are people like you saying that lesbians are ‘awful’, then there’s a real need for me, you know, the dyke, the carpet-muncher, the lesbo, the strap-a-dick-to-me, or whatever your chosen derogatory term is, to say what I am with a real sense of pride.”
“I don’t talk about my sex life…” Polly said.
“And I don’t talk about mine,” Suki said. “But if you’re going to constantly criticise me for being a lesbian, then I’ll constantly make sure that you know you’re being prejudiced, rude, thoughtless and homophobic.”
Polly did not retort, but Suki knew from experience that her mother was simply biding her time and gathering ammunition for the next time they argued – which would be the next time they met.
Suki arrived at St. Bart’s at twenty-twenty-three, which was fifteen minutes later than the arrival time she’d calculated.
She went straight up to the top floor and made her way along the corridor, following the purple arrow that was marked STROKE WARD. At the door, she looked through the small window that gave her a clear view of the nurse’s station. The duty nurse looked up, saw her, nodded and buzzed her through. Suki went in, turned left and made straight for the door of her mother’s room.
She stopped in the doorway and looked into the room.
Polly was in bed, her head tilted back, her eyes closed. She looked like a baby bird, one that was looking up at the sky, despite the closed eyes. Her mouth was open and Suki could see two or three small blotches of purple discolouration on her mother’s gums. Sometimes she wished she didn’t notice quite so much. Her mother was breathing quietly, but quite regularly.
Suki stood in the doorway for longer than was necessary. She heard a noise behind her and half turned. A petite blonde nurse was standing there. Suki stepped into the room and the nurse followed her in and immediately went to the far side of the bed and started arranging the covers.
“Good afternoon,” the nurse said. “Are you family?”
“Hello,” said Suki, before forcing herself to say the necessary words. “Yes, I’m her daughter.”
The nurse nodded.
“I was advised to come ‘sooner rather than later’, so I assume it’s not good news?”
“No,” the nurse said, straightening up. “It’s not good news. Your mother is no longer responding to light or to sound. She’s had two very serious strokes. The second one caused her brain to bleed – profusely, and that has resulted in her senses shutting down. How you see her now is how she was when she was admitted and how she’s been since. There’s been no change whatsoever. We’re no longer giving her any treatment, other than a standard end-of-life package, which consists of keeping her comfortable and clean.”
“For how long?” Suki asked.
“She’ll most likely decide to let go in a day or so,” the nurse said. “That’s what usually happens.”
The nurse nodded.
“I’ve seen it a lot. It goes with the job. Some say it is the job.”
“A day or so? Is that how long she has left?”
“She’s already gone,” the nurse said gently. “The letting go is just the formality. She’s not been here since she was admitted – not really.”
“A day or so?”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
“Is there any chance it could be longer?”
The nurse shrugged.
“Not in my experience, no. I’m not saying she won’t have a few hours longer, or a few hours less – it’s not precise. Generally, two days is the usual amount of time once a patient shuts down.”
“As I said, we’ll keep her clean and comfortable during that time. There’s not really much more we can do for her other than that. Anyway,” the nurse said, crossing to the washbasin in the corner of the room, “I’m about to brush her teeth, so you can either stay while I do that or you can get yourself a coffee or a tea from the café downstairs and come back when I’ve finished.”
“I’ll get a coffee and come back in a while,” Suki said, moving hastily to the door and leaving the room.
The café was on the ground floor. Once she’d got her coffee, Suki went and sat in a leather chair near the back of the wood-panelled space. As she sedately sipped her drink, she realized how quickly everything had happened; how fast life had moved, or rather, more accurately, moved away. The time from her last argument with her mother to the recent moment of her standing over her mother’s hospital bed knowing that the Polly she knew had ceased to exist had been no more than a matter of days – hours really.
The tenuousness of human life, the frailty of human flesh, and the random nature of death struck Suki like a blow. She felt an abrupt sense of dislocation, of time and space being separated by something vague but real. Suki thought she was probably in shock. She decided to sit where she was for a while and simply wait for the shock, if that’s what it was, to pass. And if it didn’t pass, well, she reasoned, she was in the right place to get treatment for shock. Her mother was dead…
She’s still alive! her inner voice said.
As the words faded away, Suki remembered the nurse’s words: She’s already gone. The letting go is just the formality. She’s not been here since she was admitted – not really.
The nurse’s words were words of truth, Suki realised. Her own inner voice had just been the articulation of her wishful thinking. She took another sip of her coffee and tried to quell her trembling. It took several minutes before she was able to feel calm. Once she felt that a modicum of her emotional equilibrium had been restored, Suki thought about the days ahead and what they held for her. She’d have to arrange her mother’s funeral; she’d have to find a copy of her mother’s will; she’d have to clear her mother’s house; she’d have to sell her mother’s house; she’d have to…
Suki knew only too well what she had to do. She also knew what she needed to do – and they weren’t the same at all.
Not even close, she thought as she finished her drink. She stood up, the chair feet scraping on the polished tile floor. She left the café and made her way back to the stroke ward.
Once back in the room, Suki sat on the plastic chair by the bed. The nurse had completed her tasks and gone; the room looked clean and neat.
Suki looked at her mother; there, but not there; not gone, but gone, and she knew she had to say a few last, truthful, real words to Polly while she had the opportunity to do so.
“Hello, mother,” she said, quietly, tentatively.
“Hello Suki. I was having a nap.”
“Were you? I thought…”
“Thought what? That I was in a coma or something?”
“Yes,” Suki said, keeping the or something inside her head.
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it was just a plain old afternoon nap.”
“Good,” said Suki. “Obviously I’m glad. I’m pleased to see it’s improved your mood too.”
Polly’s laugh always reminded Suki of the Wicked Witch of the West’s cackle in The Wizard of Oz.
“It’s good to see you, Suki.”
“Of course it is. You must know that by now?”
“Oh, don’t be so negative. Let’s try and get on for once, shall we?”
“Very well. Let’s try.”
“So tell me – were you performing today?”
“Yes I was. I had a matinee earlier today and I cancelled my evening performance to come and see you.”
“Well, that’s very thoughtful of you. Where was the matinee?”
“Your father and I stayed in Eastbourne once. About fifteen years ago. It was a very nice place. I’m sure it still is.”
“By the time I’d done my sound check, I only had an hour before curtain, so there wasn’t really time for me to have a look around.”
“That’s a pity. Couldn’t you go back and spend some time looking around the town? I think you’d like it.”
“I’m back there on Thursday, but it’s just an evening show.”
“Is it a sold-out show?”
Suki could hear how the conversation was starting to go wrong; speech patterns were changing; becoming belligerent. She paused the conversation while she marshalled her thoughts.
“I’m going to have your house cleared once… once you’re gone,” she said, after a long silence.
“That’s a very good idea.”
“Is there anything specific you’d like me to have?”
“It’s all yours, dear. I’ve left everything to you. It’s for you to do with as you wish. I won’t be needing any of it where I’m going.”
“No, I don’t suppose you will.”
Suki considered asking about the nature of the destination – and then thought better of it – it was probably best not to go down that particular glass-strewn road.
“You can live in the house, if you want to, although I suppose you’ll want to sell it, won’t you?”
Suki nodded, then realised she needed to speak.
“It’s worth three hundred and four thousand.”
“I know. You told me.”
“I’ve tripled its price since I bought it.”
“I know; you told me that too.”
“Yes, several times.”
“Good. Then at least you’re sure of its value and no one will be able to con you.”
“That’s very true.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“I’m very proud of what you’ve achieved, Suki.”
“Of course. Surely you know that?”
“You never said–”
She broke off abruptly, overwhelmed by the emotional demands of the conversation. She only wanted to take a few moments to collect her thoughts, but it was several minutes before she could continue.
“You never said anything,” she said. “Couldn’t you have said so, just once?”
“It’s not in my nature. That’s not the way I do things. You have the things you do, which you do your way and I have things that I do, which I do mine. That’s probably why we argue.”
“True. Still, it’d have been nice if you’d said something positive to me from time to time.”
“I didn’t want you to get complacent. You’re sitting at the very top of your profession. It’s likely you’d have been usurped if you’d grown complacent and rested on your laurels.”
“So you stayed silent to give my career longevity? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Believe or disbelieve whatever you like.”
“Oh, I believe it… You,” Suki said, tears running down her face. She pulled a tissue from her bag and wiped her eyes.
“I’m going to have to go now,” she said.
She stood up and looked down at her mother, still and silent on the pristine bed.
“Bye, mum,” she said, simply.
She wondered if it was the nature of the situation that demanded simplicity, or whether it was being involved in the situation with its specific nature that simplified everything.
“Bye, Suki. Be careful driving back.”
Suki turned and took a step towards the door.
“I’ve always loved you, Suki.”
Suki exited the room and headed for the exit.
“That I don’t believe,” she muttered under her breath as she breezed past the nurse’s station, veered left and exited the ward.
Outside, as Suki crossed the brightly-lit car park to her car, she felt that her mind had been burned bare like wire. She reached her vehicle, which looked black beneath the orange lights, and put her hand on its roof to steady herself. It took her a while to find her keys and unlock her car. She got in and sat behind the steering wheel. She pulled the door to, but didn’t close it fully. The interior light glowed palely as Suki simply sat there for several minutes.
Eventually, after checking she could see well enough to drive through the prisms that had formed at the corners of her eyes, Suki slammed the door shut and fastened her seatbelt. The interior light faded to nothing as she started the car.
“That’s all, folks,” Suki said softly, in Polly’s voice, and immediately regretted it; they were not words Polly would have said.
Suki reached behind her, feeling for the back seat. She patted the hard-shell case that held Apollonia, and then she tried again.
“I hereby rest my case,” she said, again in Polly’s voice. Slightly more satisfied, Suki smiled grimly, put the vehicle into gear and drove out of the car park.
R J DENT is a poet, novelist, translator, essayist, and short story writer. As a renowned translator of European literature, R J Dent has published modern English translations of The Songs of Maldoror (Le Comte de Lautréamont), Speculations (Alfred Jarry), Poems & Fragments (Alcaeus); The Dead Man (Georges Bataille) and The Flowers of Evil (Charles Baudelaire), as well as works by the Marquis de Sade, Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Paul Éluard, Maurice Heine, Pierre Louÿs, Arthur Rimbaud, Maurice Rollinat and Tarjei Vesaas.
As a poet and novelist, R J Dent is the author of a poetry collection, Moonstone Silhouettes; a novel, Myth, and a short story collection, Gothiques and Fantastiques.
R J Dent’s official website is www.rjdent.com