Great stories, beautifully told
Next of Kin
by Sophie Holland
The woman at number seventy-eight is on her third cigarette. Cream paint flakes from the walls like dead skin. Her stomach grumbles. She hasn’t eaten yet today – her appetite has vanished along with her voice. Most days she leaves the tiny flat, walks quickly in the damp air to the estate agent at the top of the high street where she does filing, data entry and only emergency phone calls, especially now she can only whisper. Today though she is taking the bus to the hospital, in uncharted territory.
* * * *
The woman at number twenty-two is going to get cross.
‘If you don’t put your shoes on, I’m going to get cross.’ But the boy hasn’t finished his puzzle. His mum trips over a stray slipper in the cluttered hallway, curses, rifles through the coats for his mac.
‘Ten, nine, eight, seven...’ The boy gropes under his chair, jams his feet into his shoes and stumbles to the front door.
‘... two, one. You were lucky.’ The boy is always lucky.
* * * *
The woman from number seventy-eight is still amazed by her money, scooping the clutch of coins, like treasure, out of her own pocket and onto the silver tray for the bus driver who will take her where she wants to go. She pulls herself upstairs wishing smoking was allowed on buses, drums her fingers on the cold bar of the seat in front. So many rules within all this freedom.
* * * *
The boy from number twenty-two loves buses. From up here he waves at people on passing double-deckers. It’s like they’re sitting next to him!
* * * *
The hospital waiting room buzzes with anxiety, impatience. The woman sits very still on a plastic chair. Thanks to her good memory she has picked up the language quickly, and now she can understand almost everything; she likes to listen to people. She craves the personal.
* * * *
‘ENT is for Ears, Noses and Throats.’ The boy reads the sign to no one in particular. He switches off his hearing aid and the waiting room is silenced. His eyes zoom in. In zoom-mode he reads people’s faces. He can tell, for example, from their eyes and mouth if a person is happy or sad. Mum can be smiling but not happy. It’s his private superpower. There’s a lady over there from his street! They pass her on the way to school, always looking down. She’s thin, like a tree, and she makes him feel funny. She’s sitting completely still, like a cut-out, maybe it’s her superpower. Suddenly she gets up. Her face makes him reach for Mum – the eyes fixed, sinking back, the mouth slightly open: fear.
* * * *
‘Tania Sabbag.’ The name rings out over the chatter. A nurse leads her into a bright clinic room. She picks up a huge model of an ear and disappears. An energetic doctor with orange hair tells Tania he will put a telescope up her nose and down her throat to check her vocal cords. She is speechless. Has she landed in yet another world? Probing telescopes, enormous ears.
Can she be still? Yes.
But she can’t. The tiny wire scrapes through her nose, down deep inside her neck, she jerks her head away. They do this three times. Then he tells her in an irritated way that she will need to come back for an anaesthetic ‘since you can’t tolerate this’. She says she is sorry. She wants to say more, about what is and what is not tolerable.
‘We see this loss of voice sometimes with stress, trauma, even nasty bugs,’ he says, more gently. ‘Don’t worry.’ He gives her a clipboard with a form to fill, holds out his hand for her to shake.
She wobbles back into the waiting room, slumps into a chair. Stress, trauma, nasty bugs. How old is this bright-headed man? Are his parents alive? His children? What nasty bugs, what trauma do they know?
She looks down at the form.
* * * *
From the other side of the waiting room the boy watches her not writing. He knows a person who can’t answer the question – they’re all over the place in his class. He tugs his mum’s sleeve, pulls her over to the empty chairs next to the lady, who looks up as they sit down. She isn’t afraid now, just very tired, the most tired he has ever seen. Mum is already talking to her – he knew Mum would help. The lady runs her finger along the paper, he leans over and reads the word ‘Next’, switches his hearing aid back on.
* * * *
Tania Sabbag shakes her head. The boy leans over her lap, a faint smell of apples from his hair fills her nostrils.
‘Next of kin,’ the mother says again. ‘A person in your family? A friend?’
A stone sinks down inside her.
‘I don’t have,’ she rasps.
‘You’re a throat. I’m an ear, see?’ The boy tips his head, she sees a tiny oblong tucked in his pink skin. Then he puts his hand on hers – soft warm skin against hers! A tightness gathers in her throat.
‘You can put us,’ the boy says, tapping the clipboard. Tania catches the surprise on his mum’s face. His hand is still on hers. She closes her eyes.
Small warm hands, high voices, singing, the scrape of chairs, dust. She was a teacher once, in another life that still exists in heat and grass, stifled fear, faces in hands; her kin. She is numb to these flashes. If she holds very still she can carry on. She looks into the face of this untouched boy, touching her.
‘You can put us,’ he says again. She bites down on her lip, as though her loss might spill out.
‘I’m Barney,’ he says. ‘I’m in year two.’ She nods and tries to smile. It is in her body she feels the smile – a widening in her chest. She could take him in her arms.
She whispers ‘Hello, Barney.’
Copyright © 2019 Sophie Holland