…and we missed you
By Gillian Bowman
The phone. It was ringing, somewhere.
The water was rising, and Michael knew it was rising, even when he could not see the sun reflecting off the rippled surface or feel the cold on his ankles. He knew it was coming and he had to get out. And yet, he couldn’t escape. As soon as he finally got his things together, climbed out the window, the scene always shifted. He was somewhere new, disorientated, and the water was still rising.
Michael woke up, it was 3 am. His phone was ringing. It was his sister, April.
So early, he thought but as he reached for it, it stopped. He immediately fell back asleep.
A few hours later, as he got up and watched the sunrise bask the spires of Edinburgh, he thought of her. Then the deadlines took over.
A news story had just arrived, there was a demonstration about lecturers pay in colleges outside Parliament.
“Will you get along to that?” demanded his editor-in-chief, John, his eyebrows raised.
“Sure,” said Michael. “I’ll be back in 30.”
He left the office and marched down the cobbles towards the parliament offices. It had been raining and the grey and blue cobbles created an iridescent path towards the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. As always, he spared a moment to admire the brightly coloured clocks and 16th-century architecture, and the modern businesses which had folded themselves inside. He could hear the crowd before he reached the walls of the leafy gardens which marked the end of the royal mile.
Then he noticed his phone ringing. He looked at it quickly, expecting it to be his boss. It was his sister.
“Hi April,” he said, impatiently.
“Hi,” she said, her voice very small, “I’ve not been feeling too well, so I’m going to go into hospital again this afternoon.”
Michael felt his chest tighten, “What happened?” he asked, his voice quickly softening.
“The doctor is worried about my oxygen levels, so thinks it would be worth going back into the hospital. I’ve been feeling tired and not really able to think clearly.”
“Has the doctor said anything else?”
“No, no. They think it might be a side-effect of my medication, so it’s just a check-up.”
“Okay, well, fingers crossed,” said Michael, relieved. “I’ll call again tonight okay? Are you able to take a few more days off work?”
“Okay, yes, yes they’ve said it’s okay,” she said. “There is so much going on.” There was something in her voice, he thought, that made him imagine her with his back to him, looking away into the distance, as she often did.
Michael got his story, but with the deadline looming, the office became a place of hushed silence as the other journalists furiously tapped on their keyboards. The day went on, and Michael ordered a pizza to the office – there was another breaking story about a fire outside of Waverly Station – if his name was on the front-page article…
Finally, at 10 pm, he was out into the cold air and exhausted.
He walked down the long dark avenue, with the looming spires of Gordon’s School for Girls in the background. He noticed as he walked that there was a mischief of magpies on the trees lining the pavement. Screeching and clawing. It reminded Michael of the small island where he used to live. He looked at his phone and noticed that his sister had tried to call. It was late, and he was tired. He would call her tomorrow.
Michael couldn’t sleep that night.
At 3 am, his phone was buzzing on the nightstand to his right, casting an artificial glow around the room.
It was his mum.
His chest tightened.
Back in the days when they lived on the Isle of Oda, there was a natural haven that they always used for school trips. Although the island worshipped them, there weren’t any magpies. Instead, it had gannets, puffins, arctic skuas and arctic terns, buzzards and white-tailed eagles. April studied birds and could name them instantly. She had been given a pair of binoculars for her 12th birthday, much to the amusement of her fellow classmates. Bird-watching wasn’t cool.
They were going to Saorla, the smaller island joined to Oda by a causeway. There was a place on the island which was a seabird colony. It was inaccessible by foot, due to the jagged cliffs and protruding erosions.
It was nesting season in early June. The noise from the birds was overwhelming and filled the air as the boat approached the cliffs.
Michael remembered so clearly, as he had leaned over the side and felt the swell beneath him, April taking her binoculars, and holding them in one hand, while her eyes darted towards her drawing pad, and the delicate outline of a creature took shape. Nearby there was a seal lying on a rock. One of their classmates screamed with laughter. April stopped drawing and shot her an angry glance.
They can hear you, even when it seems like they are sleeping.
After her initial visit, April didn’t leave the hospital. She was in a bed, at the centre of attention. Despite their best efforts, her body had suddenly rejected all help and she was sedated and yet so well hidden no one could find the way to reach her.
After that, the long days continued. Even so, Michael stopped sleeping, and he stopped showing up to work. Instead, every day, he sat outside hospital doors, feeling like every moment was torture.
He developed a sharp pain down his back. His muscles were raw and seizing up his spine. The pain in his chest had gotten worse.
He went back to the last messages he and April had sent each other.
I cannie wait. See you on Tuesday! Byeee
His mum phoned. Despite not seeing her for months, they met up every day.
He was already used to driving endlessly round the hospital car park, trying to find a space. He was already used to fuming at the cost of the parking, before finding his mum standing nervously at the stairwell leading to the hospital foyer.
“I brought that Neil Gaiman book she was wanting to read,” said Michael.
His mum nodded, not meeting his eye. He noticed that she had dressed nicely, with a scarf and a smart navy jacket.
Michael wasn’t used to hospitals – the last time he had been in once was for physio on his foot. As he walked down the long sterile corridors, aware of the clinical smell, he felt a nervous sensation in his stomach, the kind of sensation he hadn’t felt since he had taken his university exams.
He saw the doors and the shapes flickering past the windows beyond.
It was a beautiful spring day outside. In here, the days and nights, the light and the smells were all uniform, all the same.
There was no water, and there was no air.
Michael had been trying sea-fishing, watching the line descend into the deep black, feeling the sun on his neck. After a while, he went over to where April was watching the coast.
“Look!” she said and handed him the binoculars.
He followed where she was pointing and saw on the cliff-side a funny little blackbird, with webbed feet and a brightly patterned beak. April was sketching it in her notepad and was proud of the slightly lopsided creature that as forming on the page.
The winds began to change. It was time they headed back to shore. He remembered April didn’t want to come back.
Michael held his mother’s hand as they sat in the hospital canteen. He still held the Neil Gaiman book in his hands. They had a cup of horrible coffee.
“The doctors can’t agree on anything,” said his mum.
Michael’s back felt unbearable, it was almost impossible to sit down. The sicker she was, the worse the pain became.
They used to windsurf on the loch on Oda, near an old campsite. He didn’t like sports very much back then, and generally avoided it when he could. He remembered his sister immediately got the hang of it. But he couldn’t turn – he was swept by the wind to the far side of the loch, and he saw her effortlessly glide up to him.
As he tried to reach her, he slipped on the board and fell into the water. He remembered how thick and boggy the long reeds were, how it tangled in his hands and feet. It was like they were trying to yank at him and pull him down. He remembered squealing and grabbing onto the board so his sister kept holding her sides laughing. She took him back to shore on her board.
Gillian Bowman lives in Edinburgh and is currently writing her first novel. Her short story ‘Yu the Great’ (Issue 24) and poems ‘The Silver Nest’ and ‘The Dark Bird Migrates’ (Issue 32) were published in From Glasgow to Saturn, and short story ‘Surfing in St Ives’ was published on the SurfGirl Magazine website.