6pm. Visiting hour. The hospital smelled like disinfectant and Bovril. A nurse asked who I was there to see, and my relation to the patient.
“Sister, I guess.”
She gestured me through to a ward. There were 8 beds all in a row, three had the curtains drawn around them. In the bed nearest to the window was a fat woman with thinning hair playing a game on her laptop with the volume turned all the way up. I could hear the pewing and bleeping of her gameplay, alongside retro arcade music that I recognised from pinball. I’d spent countless hours of my childhood playing it on my dad’s desktop, weeks, probably.
The woman in the bed I was directed to looked like me, but pallid, and bald. Her breathing was so shallow it seemed almost like she was made of wax.
She stared at me for a second, wet her thin lips, “Hello, Amanda.”
I sat down in the armchair next to her. It was coffee stained and uncomfortable, but better than standing. The nurse unplugged Jeanie from an empty IV bag, and swapped it out for a full one. Jeanie didn’t move. I shifted in my seat, and looked at the weird pink flowers that sat on the bedside table, surrounded by cards offering sympathies and hoping for a swift recovery.
“They’re plastic. They don’t let us have real flowers in here anymore. They spray perfume on them so they smell nice, but they all smell the same.”
“They didn’t have mince pies in the shop, out of season I guess, so I got you apple, is that okay?” I pulled it from my bag, the box is squished, I hoped the pie inside is still intact.
She laughed, like paper tearing. “You’d think they’d stock mince pies year-round, just for people like me to have one last treat.” I laughed too.
“They said if they’d caught it earlier it wouldn’t be this bad, but by the time they did, it’d moved to my kidneys. I took the test when I found out I might be able to get a donor kidney, then they could just cut out my ovaries and my kidneys, y’know, all the shit, and maybe I could have a new one. But then they found a tumour in my brain too, and I guess that was that.”
“I know, the nurse told me. They said it was genetic, that I should get checked too.”
We sat in silence for a while. Jeanie opened and ate her pie, slowly, pastry crumbs fell down her chin, and piled into a tiny mountain in a fold of her hospital gown.
“We’ve got a brother too, you know.”
She looked at me. “I didn’t.”
“Yeah. When the results came back there were two matches: you, and a man. He’s called Stuart. Lives in Alaska. He hasn’t replied to my email yet.”
“Wonder if I’ll meet him.” I doubted it, the nurse had said she’d be lucky to last the week. “Could you get me some water?”
The woman in the bed across from us was now playing solitaire, I could hear the cards flipping across her screen as I walked to the nurses’ desk.
“Could I get a glass of water please?”
“Dispenser’s down the hall,” she said, passing me a beige plastic cup.
The dispenser she directed me to was empty. There was a full barrel of water next to it, but I didn’t know how to swap them, I doubted I could even lift the full one. An elderly woman on a Zimmer frame passed me.
“There’s another back down that way, darling. It’s full, I’ve just been,” she said, waving her crumpled cup at me.
I watched the bubbles rise in the water barrel. When I got back to the ward the curtains were closed around my sister’s bed.
“Sorry, darling,” the nurse said, “There’s a doctor in with her now, best come back tomorrow.”
“Tell her I said goodbye?”
“Sure will.” She gave me a pity smile. “Exit’s that way.”
There was a man in a wheelchair smoking by the main entrance. His knees were covered by a thin green blanket. He saluted a passing magpie, dropped his cigarette butt into the hedge, and lit another. I walked through the crowded car park to my car, to the familiar clutter of soda bottles and sweet wrappers. I turned the keys in the ignition and felt the engine sputter to life.
I was sat in the back booth of a western saloon-themed speakeasy, sipping a corpse reviver no.2, and half paying attention to the drunken ramblings of Ewan, the Man-I-Am-Currently-Fucking. We’d met in an Asda car park after he’d bumped my car opening his door, and left a shallow silver gash where the metals had collided. I hadn’t cared much, but Ewan had insisted on paying for it to be fixed. After a couple of calls sorting out the details he’d texted asking to go out for a drink.
I interrupted Ewan’s drawling story about a dog that pissed on his favourite rug and how its owner, a customer at the grooming parlour he runs from his shed, had refused to pay for it to be dry cleaned.
“I went to see my sister today.”
His brow furrowed, he took a sip of his old fashioned, “I thought you were an only child?”
“How does that work?”
“DNA test. Found out I was adopted. I have a brother and a sister. That I know of anyway.”
“That you know of? You mean you could have other family and you just don’t know?”
“Yeah. I called the adoption agency. They lost all their old files in a fire. Only found the other two because they’d both done the test.”
A waitress in a denim apron approached our table, holding a tiny flip notebook and a flamingo shaped pen.
“Can I get anything else for you guys?”
“You want another drink?”
“Sure.” I said, staring at the strip of lemon peel marooned at the bottom of my glass.
“Same again.” He said, and the waitress nodded and scribbled on her notepad, walking away.
I glanced at my phone, the screen glowed back at me, empty save for the faces of my dead parents. We sat in silence until the waitress came back holding a tray, with two drinks and two napkins. She took our old glasses, which contain only ice and lemon peel, and replaced them with the fresh drinks. I thanked her, Ewan sighed, the waitress smiled and returned to the bar.
“So your sister. What’s she like?”
“Me.” I said, “She’s like me, only miserable and dying of cancer.”
“Oh. Fuck. How long’s she got?”
“Not long. A week, tops. I’m going to see her again tomorrow.”
We sat in silence for a while, nursing our drinks. Ewan told me a story about a friend of his whose bitch recently had a litter of puppies, and they’re trying to find them good homes, because their landlord wouldn’t let them keep them for longer than a couple of weeks. He couldn’t take them in because his dog Clover was a tiny but very aggressively territorial cockapoo, and would – he suspected – kill a puppy if it got more attention than her. He had tested this theory with a stuffed toy, which Clover had promptly destroyed. I said I could take them in temporarily, if they were really desperate.
When we finished our drinks he paid the bill, left eight pounds in coins on the table as a tip, and we went back to his place.
We were woken up by barking, and the sound of Clover thundering up and down the little landing outside the bedroom. The clock blinked 04:23. Ewan rolled out of bed, rubbed his eyes and stood up with a sigh. I watched, sleepily, from the comfort of the bed as he went to calm Clover down, then felt the weight of sleep evaporate in a second when he turned and said “She’s got a mouse”.
Ewan shut Clover in the bathroom, grabbed a torch, and lay on the floor shining the thin beam of light underneath the chest of drawers at the top of the stairs.
“I can see it, it’s under here.” He said, pushing himself up onto his knees and turning to look at me. “There’s wrapping paper by the wardrobe, we could use that to make a tunnel for it, maybe it’ll go in if its dark enough, mice like small spaces, right?”
“I mean, it’s probably terrified, I doubt it wants to go anywhere.” But I got the wrapping paper anyway. We spent about half an hour trying to coax the tiny animal out from under the chest of drawers, with a roll of wrapping paper and a spoonful of peanut butter.
“Maybe we should just move this and try to grab it?” Ewan said, finally.
“I guess we have to try.” By now the adrenaline had worn off, the exhaustion had returned.
I stationed myself by the wall as Ewan dragged the heavy wood across the floor. The mouse made a run for it, and I pounced.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it.”
Ewan pushed the chest back into place. The mouse stared at me with bulging eyes, ears back, whiskers shivering. We put it in an empty Amazon box with a bottle cap of water, some shredded toilet paper, and the unused spoonful of peanut butter. Ewan let Clover out of the bathroom, and she prowled the landing, sniffing at every corner. I put the mouse in its box on top of the dresser, and went back to bed.
“We should check its gender.”
“Hm?” Ewan grunted, propping his head up to look at me.
“We should check its gender, if it’s a girl mouse it could have babies somewhere waiting for her to come home.”
“Tomorrow.” He replied.
I found Ewan already in the kitchen when I woke up in the morning, holding a squirming and terrified mouse upside down in his hand, looking at it, then at a diagram on his phone.
“I think,” he said, putting the mouse carefully back in the box, “it’s a girl.”
“Should let it go soon then. Is it hurt at all?”
“Doesn’t look it, just very shaken.”
I filled the kettle, and rinsed a thin layer of dust from the bottom of two mugs I took from the cupboard. Behind the jar of tea bags I found a box of mince pies, unopened.
“When are these from?” I asked, pulling them out,
“My dad always brings them over when he comes. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t like them anymore. Too sweet.”
“If you aren’t going to use them, can I?”
“Go for it”
We drank our tea, ate our toast, let the mouse go in the back garden. At half 5 I set off for the hospital.
The carpark was full, I drove in loops through the rain, until a silver Ford left and I claimed their parking space. In the shop I bought a fresh bouquet of plastic flowers, yellow this time, and headed up to the ward.
When I told the nurse who I was here to see her face filled with pity. She sat me down in a chair in the waiting room.
“I’m so sorry.” She said, “She passed this morning, we called the number you left, but there was no answer.”
For a while I sat, numb, staring at the box of mince pies in my lap. Then I left. The man in the wheelchair was smoking by the entrance again, he nodded at me as I walked by, then threw his cigarette butt into the hedge with the others, and rolled himself back inside. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. A notification lit up the screen:
RE: you’re my brother.