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Thoughts From A Sickbed
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Helen Henley



I can see the headline in the local paper, ‘Woman with two cats dies alone in apartment’.  My hope is when the undertakers arrive to collect the body they don’t look at the ceiling. The damp stain I have been staring at for the last two days looks just like a map of Afghanistan.  Journalists are always looking for an angle and might suggest terrorist connections with the corpse.

What pisses me off is that unless you can lay claim to one of the fashionable asymptomatic Mexican swine flu viruses nobody is prepared to believe you're really ill.  A heavy cold they say!  Ha, they say!  Had one of those last year.  Overrated.

But my cold is the king emperor of colds - viral pneumonia with somatic complications at the very least – and it quickly blossomed into a phlegm-fest bringing with it a vocabulary of rare beauty: the congestion of catarrh, the music of mucus, the slither of sputum. And is there a more wondrously onomatopoeic word in the language than phlegm? With its cluster of slimy consonants and its brilliant silent g, phlegm sings of ill-health and possibly slow death.  In the unlikely event I am spared and get better I will incorporate it into a poem.  Or set to music as a pop chart topper maybe. Wonder what rhymes with phlegm? Meyhem?

Meantime I can’t get up but on the other hand can’t sleep, just lie here with these thoughts and only Franklin and Robespierre for company, contemplating suicide but without the get-up-and-go to top myself.  The two cats – F and R - though think it is all warm and wonderful, snuggled in each side of me, but if I linger on beyond the weekend the cat food will run out and it will be different story.

The surgery said it's just the virus. As if that helps.  The nurse said the doctor wouldn’t come and see me as this virus might be a relation of the Mexican one and the new rules about pandemics prevent me coming to the surgery as other patients might get it.  The doctor might get it.  The nurse might get it. The current thinking seemingly is that sick people pose a real health risk to a surgery.

The nurse said she would arrange a prescription for some antibiotics, adding cheerfully they are useless against this kind of virus.  So I thought of ringing the Samaritans, but I imagine what they would be like? Awful people in woollen jerseys who Want to Help with your Depression. They might say if I was seriously contemplating suicide I should go to Pakistan where, if I could drive a van, I would welcomed.

I tried a shudder. Five minutes of being understood by one of those Caring People who Really Do Understand and it is more than likely I will be violently angry as well as plunged into an iridescent kind of despair, life as an abattoir, eternity as a sewer, love as a sort of lethal glue, and then I would have to get up.

I do not want to get up.  Getting up might possibly do me the world of good but I am not prepared to do it because of the temperature (which even your average volcano would have trouble matching) and the insomnia and the dizzy spells and the migraine.

Two days now of squelching sadly around my basket, hallucinating lethally and fighting with the sheets and a Thing I bought off the Internet just weeks prior to my being ‘cursed with this contagion’.  (quote from Macbeth, yes?)   A Thing, you know; a muesli and stuffed with goose-down. Years ago we didn't have mueslis, just blankets, and then suddenly they caught on; how odd that there was all that goose-down to meet the demand.  I said this to my sister who called in yesterday, handkerchief to nose, to see if I had any last wishes and to remind me that I had promised she should have the Dresden china figurines.     She told me she had bought a Thing years ago, but no, the cheaper ones are duck.  When you remember the fashion for Chinese food preceded the fashion for Things, so they were chopping up duck from Peking to the Himalayas and saving all the feathers, the clever little buggers.  And, by the by, they are called duvets and not mueslis.  I said I knew that and who had mentioned muesli?  And she said I had and I said never as muesli is a kind of breakfast cereal that looks like the stuff you get when you clean out the birdcage?

But I still can’t sleep. It is sort of comfortable under my muesli but I need to take a couple more aspirins and distract myself with some positive thinking.  Positive thinking about what?  Sex?  ‘There is such an ache to my loins’.  (quote from Othello, yes?)  For this virus seems to have done strange things with my libido.

Hello, that thought about loins and libido was unwise:  I think I’ve stopped breathing.  When I was doing First Aid at school we were taught that this is one of the symptoms of what doctors call 'death'. Not just doctors; locums do, too, when the doctors are on holiday having a bit of a ski, something a bit energetic up Gstaad, bend from the hips, weight on the outside edge, go with the curves, watch the rhythm and make sure she has her orgasm first.

I have never heard such rubbish in my life. How can you tell?  When I had my health I watched that video, When What's-his-name Met What's-her-name, the one where she faked a massive solo orgasm in the delicatessen, and all the men winced and looked sheepish. Not me. I found it utterly unconvincing. Nobody has ever made noises like that in my presence, and if they did I'd throw them out fast. Pure histrionics, if you discount the possibility that the women I know can not even be bothered to fake it properly, which is of course ludicrous. We harpsichordists are known to be the world's best lovers, possessing all the necessary skills: a precise, quick, featherlight touch, a bone-cracking sense of tempo and rhythm, the ability to contract the correct muscles while doing the fingering for Bach’s E flat Partita on his back with the other.  My orgasms are always all beautifully tuneful, creaked in rhythm with my breathing and my gasps and the libretto all in the same key, the shrieks and the sighs modulated into a crescendo. And the coda...

This conjures up a nice mental picture of my amour, the gorgeous Michael who right now is measuring global warming by the thickness of the ice in the Arctic Circle and, since I mustn’t distract him so he falls through a large crack, I have not told him, when he calls up on a crackly phone line, that I am death’s portal.  I did tell my brother though and he sounded sympathetic and he mentioned the Dresden china figurines and I said fine he could have them after the funeral.

I did call up my ex to ask his advice about ordering an iron lung on Internet shopping if the breathing problem comes back?  But he said but you never get ill and I said well now I have and he said you don’t take enough care of yourself and I said well you never bothered much with caring when we were married.  So I got in a bad temper which made my breathing worse.  It was only half the process that went wrong, the breathing out part. I could suck the stuff in but getting rid of it again was impossible, so I lay there thinking this is comfortable but not as comfortable as it was and wondering if an untipped cigarette lightly smoked, would unbung the works, but then I remembered I don’t smoke now so I’m lying here waiting for my life to flash past. I have waited and waited until I finally realised it has flashed past already, over the last 30 plus years. Nobody ever told me it did it in real time, so the only thing to do is to think about something else.

Aspirins. The difference between aspirins and fancy aspirins is that the latter come in bubble packs so, when you come to take the overdose you have decided on , you find it is just too tiring releasing enough to be sure of ending it all.  And why is it every expensive packet of fancy aspirins has a pseudo-scientific name, a monstrous advertising budget and very few pills? A leaflet in tiny print tells you they will soothe the throat, clear the nose, quell the fever, stop the shakes, find you a new lover, pay off the mortgage and solve the political problems in the Middle East.  It also promises not to make you drowsy. I don't know why. When I am suffering like this I like to be drowsy. Ideally I would like to be completely comatose.

Then I would not have to think about my Last Will and Testament.  My cousin Freda has been banging on to me about that, even sent me a form, but I told her, didn’t I, that I had nothing very much to leave except the cats.  She said what about the Dresden china figurines and I said oh, you can have those.

I’m wrong, that stain on the ceiling looks more like a couple copulating.  I’d like to be doing that right now even though it would make me cough.  But damn it, my lover would have to be blindfolded.  I look totally wrecked.   He would have to be wearing one of those antiseptic nose and mouth masks too in case I’m contagious.

His hands would be in my hair, lips brushing my cheek, encapsulating me in a cocoon of comfort. On top of me, under the muesli - sorry, duvet - our legs entwined around each other's locking us together.  His hands gently stroke me through my tastefully embroidered charity shop nightdress, a hint of what is to come.  His tongue softly licks my neck inciting sharp intakes of my breath.  No, hang on, he can’t do that, not wearing a mask.
Dear me, now my coughing, wheezing, sighing and the thrashing about in the bed have frightened the cats. Heard the double clang of the cat flap. Still, my imagination is unimpaired and my pulse has revived to the point were a possible heart attack might achieve my coup de grace.   Perhaps not.  Power of positive thinking.  Feeling so much better.  Might even get up.  Might have something to eat and then see if I can call Michael up and check when he will be back from the Arctic. Mixing only with Eskimo women for months, he’ll be understanding about a raddled, post virus trauma appearance.

Pity about the funeral though as there would have been an exciting small family war afterwards with bits of smashed Dresden china figurines scattered everywhere. But then I would have missed it anyway.

© Helen Henley, 2010

©, 2010