The Cuckoo Child
© Anna Reith. All rights reserved.
She thought, as she smoothed out the sheet—its pale softness blanketing a landscape of hills, ridges and troughs like fresh-fallen snow—that she heard a bird call. A cuckoo. Not the first of the year, but did that really matter? That some things exist at all is more important than their timing and, in her experience, time didn’t matter that much in any case.
Still, the cuckoo spoke to her. The lilting one, two of its call mirrored, in her mind, that erratic sense of existence under which she had lived for so long. Always waiting, always balanced on the edge of a new precipice, neither resting nor relenting. One. Two. Like her footsteps throughout the day, the way she moved through the pattern of her life, dragging her sanity behind her.
Each night was marked, bruised, with the sound of his leather slipper thrown at the thin wall that parted their rooms. Even before she woke fully, blinking the sleep and the blurriness from her eyes, she would have risen, pulled on her robe, and gone into him. He would be sitting on the edge of his bed, the sunken, mottled skin of his face purple as he gasped for breath, trying to pull the world down into lungs ill-equipped to take it.
The doctors couldn’t understand how he was still alive. No body should be subject to the things his fragile flesh had seen. Years of work in a paper mill, the cigarettes that got him through the war…perhaps even the things he’d done in those six years, which still woke him in the night, and stained his cheeks on Remembrance Day. He’d been left with a little less than an eighth of one lung working, the rest filling slowly with fluid, drowning a little more in every tortured breath. She considered it one of the worst ways to die imaginable, and the inexorable slowness was the most horrific thing about it.
She sniffed, rubbed the back of her hand over her nose, and turned to tidy the rest of the room. His dressing table held few artefacts of the person he had been, too subsumed with the paraphernalia of what he’d become. Two matching porcelain trinket boxes—white, with pink roses—had belonged to his late wife. Her photograph, in the wartime Fire Service uniform she had worn when they first met, stood beside them. A wooden-backed hairbrush and a half-empty pot of Brylcreem spoke of the dandy he had always been, and the vanity which illness had failed to wrest from him. Besides that, everything was pills, inhalers and the neat little case for his nebuliser. The oxygen came in cylinders; large, black-painted things that conjured images of 1950s hospital wards, with heavily starched Matrons and iron bedsteads.
They were heavy, too.
Recently, the cuckoo-call one, two of her footsteps through these faceless, unending days had shown a little more emphasis on the one than usual. She thought the foot might be broken, but he had dismissed her fears as hypochondria and told her, fat and clumsy as she was, she shouldn’t make such a fuss. It reminded her of how, when she turned green at the sight of him eating—sucking air in with each mouthful, food mashed between dentures and gums, the sound of his lapping, wheezing, rattling spittle tearing at her ears—or when he coughed himself sick, as he did with depressing regularity, he remarked that she must be squeamish.
So, she had put her outdoor boots on in the house, laced the left one up tight, and just got on with it.
After all, who else was here to help?
She counted pills in the bottle of Prednisolone. He had an old friend, from his time in the Navy, who had recently moved in down the road. One of those flukes of circumstance that had worked out so well. Len came in a few times a week, talked to him, and truly believed he was helping. He was, really. They were precious hours, when she could dash out to the shops without worrying, safe in the knowledge someone else would be there to call the ambulance if it was needed… which had been happening more frequently over the past few months.
Generally, his attacks could be treated at home. Hot tea. Blitz spirit, almost. Keep calm and carry on.
Where there is tea, there is hope.
She had grown so used to their routine for dealing with it now that the act no longer seemed barbaric, and he drank his tea hot anyway. She spent the better part of her day—when she wasn’t bathing, dressing, trimming, cleaning, or massaging him—making cups of hot, sweet tea. It soothed his chest, he said. And he was so damn terrified of the hospital, of the Big House where men went to die, that he would rather—when the teeth of the thing sank into him and his limited breath disappeared completely, spasms wracking his body and the sputum flying from his choked mouth and nose—have her make tea than call for help.
So she did.
Hot as you can, he’d wheeze, wordshapes that she barely understood mangled as he fought to breathe. And she would help him drink it, scalding his pipes open like the unceremonious clearing of a blocked kitchen sink. It must hurt, she supposed, but then pain is relative. Or relatives. Was that a pun? Even if it wasn’t, it made her chuckle.
She shut the bedroom door behind her and—not looking where she trod, because she knew every single inch of this house like a blind dog knows its basket—she went downstairs and, purely from habit, switched on the kettle.
She had tried to speak to her doctor about it, several times. She had, at first, harboured qualms about pouring boiling water down the old man’s throat. Was it abuse? She hoped not. She’d always tried hard to be a good daughter. Not because she really wanted to be; in her family, complex networks of emotional pummelling, obligation, bribery, and disapproval took the place of simply doing things for people because they deserved it, or from any motivation of love. But she had done it, nonetheless. The doctor had not been much use. He had patted her arm, not really listening, told her not to worry and that she could manage because she was a strong woman, wasn’t she? And then he’d given her a repeat prescription for betablockers, and said she must try to bring her blood pressure down.
She had taken the little green paper, and quietly slipped away.
The kettle boiled. Staring at a fixed point somewhere on the beige uniformity of the kitchen tiles, she made tea. Milk, teabag, water, sugar, stir. A uniquely English ritual, and comforting in a numb sort of way. Golden light streamed in through the kitchen window. Cuckoo song?
Yes. No. Her permanent indecision, her endless waiting. Was she ungrateful? Was she—that thing that is said as if it is the worst that can possibly be—a bad person? She supposed so. What might be frustration and slow suffocation for her was, for him, the final act to a life that, whatever else it had been, had been his own. However much she did, she could not share the burden of that. She could not ease his fears or face in the same way the thing that loomed out of the night at him. Each attack, each agonising paroxysm of breathlessness, could be his last, and yet she had grown so very used to them. The ghastly became banal, the shocking simply dull, and her compassion and patience eroded away like his bones, pitted and crumbling.
There was very little of him left now.
Yet, for such a small man, he cast a long shadow.
She considered the cuckoo, the great and hulking child that wears its foster parents thin, their bodies broken on the back of its incessant needs, its hunger without end or respite. The graceless, ungainly chick that ousts all others from the nest, potential competitors plummeting to their deaths to make way for its ever-expanding body, growing and growing until it fills up every inch of space. She blew on the tea, and watched the little bubbles eddy on its tawny surface.
Then she carried the mug upstairs, went back—one, two—into the bedroom, and placed it on the small table beside the oxygen cylinder, bare but for the leatherette box containing the hearing aid he refused to wear, and the brown glass bottle with plastic spoon. Medication for his oral thrush. Yet another side-effect of his pills, his potions and the poisons that kept him alive. Blisters raged all over his mouth, tongue and throat. He would complain of the pain, and she would pour out spoon by measured spoon. He perched on the edge of his bed, twig-like and hollow, his lipless maw gaping like a hatchling and the dying breaths keening within him.
She would shudder, but never let him see.
Did the cuckoo child disgust its guardians?
She wondered, but wasn’t sure. Perhaps they didn’t even know, blind to its difference and uncaring. The strange is so easy to make normal, ground into powder and blended with the sand of every second, rushing through an unseen glass.
He liked things neat. Out of deference to that, she turned the mug so that the handle pointed perpendicular to the plastic spoon. The gleaming light that had pooled around her feet in the kitchen had followed her, streaming now through his small window. It overlooked the park. Trees, and blue sky.
His body, lifeless beneath the sheet, seemed haloed for a moment through the pale cotton. All hollows and vales, as if he had already sunk away, cadaverous and passive. Her hand slid for a final time across the fabric, turning down the edge, uncovering his face for one more touch of sun.
“Bye, Dad,” she said.
The cuckoo cry echoed her words, and she supposed that now would be a good time to go downstairs. It wouldn’t be long before the police came. She’d called them, after all… but she would not be here when they arrived.
She would slip on her coat and take her purse—with its faint jingle of bus-stop change and few, very few, soft-worn, ragged-edged notes—and she would go. She wasn’t sure where yet. The beach, perhaps. A single ticket to the coast, with the pebble beaches of her childhood: the grey days of seaside guest houses, unenthusiastic sand castles, and wind-blasted shins. It would be nice to look out across the dark-tinged water, capped with long miles of yellow foam, and feel small again.
Her fingers trailed briefly across the pillow that sat on his chest, and she considered propping it behind his head, but decided against it. She might as well make it easy for them. She had always tried to be helpful.
He hadn’t seemed to wake. Barely a struggle when she did it. She wondered if he’d known, or if it had been knowledge lost in the dull, whispered webs of a dream.
The sunlight—yards of thin-washed golden yellow—fell with harsh precision on the room she knew so well. It picked at every detail, and stained every truth.
She moved to the door, her foot dragging—one, two—with the ache of too long standing, and started down the stairs.
Note: This story was previously available as a free read under my pseudonym M. King.