Author: Lydia Mischkulnig
Translator: Caroline Summers
Translator’s Preface: This story is taken from a 2009 collection entitled Macht euch keine Sorgen: Neun Heimsuchungen, which brings together nine stories: humorous and thought-provoking narratives in which the absurd and the morbid disrupt the everyday. In this story, the narrator is shocked to find her elderly room-mate on a hospital ward has died in the night, seemingly without giving any indication that she was about to do so. She is unsettled by the way in which the woman sharing her room seemed to somehow become younger as she approached death. The story invites us to reflect on our assumptions about others and their bodies, and on the ways in which we perform and interact with illness.
The folding screen obscures the bed. All I can see is the nurses. They’ve brought a fresh bedsheet: holding it at the corners, they flick it sharply upwards and it flies into the air. The white fabric billows out from their tight grip, stretching above the bed like a baldacchino. Then they let the sheet fall. Behind the screen is the old lady. The nurses glance kindly towards me. They push the screen to one side as they need space to manoeuvre the bed out of the room. Only the very ends of her dark hair peek out from under the sheet. Sunlight falls on the dead woman: the tips of her hair cast a short shadow, like eyelashes. The dead woman is wheeled away from the harsh light and over to the lockers. The nurses open the double doors. The doctor speaks to me, but I have no explanation for the old woman’s death. I didn’t notice her dying; the first I knew of it was when I was woken by the commotion.
I was satisfied with my roommate. As soon as she arrived, the old woman had insisted that I not be too polite to wake her if she snored. And I pricked up my ears like a bobcat, but I didn’t hear a peep from her.[…]
I try to stay calm. Death is not something that frightens me. It’s part of my daily life, so for me it has substance. It’s intangible, but I spend my time handling it. I create fresh prisons for its vanitas. I free it from rust. I restore coffins. I fight off tin disease. My workshop is next to the Kaisergruft. I had to stop work for my operation. The chemicals I use to remove rust are harsh and contain poisons that attack the body’s lymphatic system. I’d like to see the dead woman, but I daren’t ask the nurse to pull back the bedsheet. I’m not a family member, and would probably come across as a voyeur. Death has crept into my neighbour’s body and taken her away, secretly and from within. I thought death was more familiar to me, like an old acquaintance wandering around at large in the world. But death has no fixed form, it can’t be warded off, it can find a home in any of us.
The old lady had been admitted to hospital for some infusions. She asked me if I lived alone. I said no, and out of pure politeness returned the question.
She wasn’t alone either. She had a dog at home. A sweet little animal, apart from one thing: the dog wouldn’t set foot in a lift.
You have to force him, she said. Since the dog was no bigger than her handbag over there on the nightstand, it was easy enough to simply grab him and stuff him inside it.
The same handbag is now on the bed with the dead woman, being wheeled out of the room.
The old woman flipped open her small suitcase and took out a few pieces of clothing. Before opening the locker, she asked which half was mine.
She’d tried it, the trick with the handbag. But there was no calming the dog once they were in the lift. She could hardly keep him in the bag. Another time, she had pulled a hat over his head. She showed me the hat, since she had brought it to hospital as a keepsake. It’s her son’s old bobble hat, and belonged to each of her two daughters before him. She’d pulled this forty-something-year-old bobble hat down over the dog’s head, covering up his face and muzzle, even his ears, so that he couldn’t see or hear anything, or smell anything unfamiliar. But nothing escapes a dog’s sense of smell, she said, and no sooner were they in the lift than his whole body began to tremble, the pitiful thing.
And so now, twice a day, she had to walk down the stairs and back up again. Four floors, or five including the mezzanine. And all that even though there was a new lift in the building, only installed two years ago. But never mind, she was used to climbing stairs. In the course of family life she’d hauled three children and countless bags of groceries up them, and bags of rubbish back down them. She’d always wanted a lift. Now the luxury was there but she couldn’t take advantage of it. But it was a sacrifice worth making for the dog.
[…] That’s just life, she said, and looked over at me from inside the washroom, asking whether I used the right-hand sink or the left.
The old lady was friendly, considerate and discreet. She didn’t overstep any boundaries. She didn’t undress in front of me. She performed her personal toilette out of my line of vision. And wherever I might look – at her checked suitcase, for example, or at the bobble hat – I had no idea that she would simply lie down and die, and probably neither did she.
She returned from the washroom with her dressing-gown over her arm. She was wearing a white hospital gown, even though she’d brought her own nightdresses and unpacked them into the locker. She folded her clothes into a pile, tidying them onto the shelf. She placed her shoes under her gabardine overcoat. Only minutes previously, wearing those shoes, she had crossed the room briskly and with a spring in her step; now, in slippers, she shuffled towards the bed. Her hair had been nicely arranged when she arrived: it was still dark, with streaks of grey like the fine, faint cracks that form in painted enamel when it cools too quickly. In the washroom she had combed her hair back, slicked it down and covered it with a net. She was preparing herself. She was transforming into an invalid.
She sat on the bed and kicked off her slippers.
Well, and as long as I’m able, I’ll just keep taking him down those stairs, she said, looking at her feet.
He’s a doddery old thing, after all, she said, and lay down with a sigh, lifting her legs to tuck them under the covers. For a while she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Then she told me I really must say if I found her chatter irritating.
I didn’t find her chatter irritating. It was just that I couldn’t really join in, having just had my tonsils removed. I asked where the little dog was now.
He’s being looked after, said the woman.
At an animal shelter?
At the kennels, just for a few days, I’d no other option. But they’ll look after him, she said. There’s a yard with enclosures and they give them a run-around a few times a day. And of course there’s no lift there. Otherwise she’d have left him the hat. It’s in a sort of yard, and each dog has its own kennel. Of course, her dog was used to being talked to. But that just meant he’d appreciate her own conversation even more when they were reunited.
The woman was receiving vitamins directly through a drip, and was taking pain relief for her rheumatism. I started to nod off while she was talking. Her descriptions were clear and detailed enough for me to imagine the dog and the kennels. Her voice was controlled and steady – after all, she wasn’t telling me anything upsetting. I found her presence relaxing. She was warming into her role as a patient, and she was enjoying bed-rest as much as I was.
She has a son-in-law who works here in the hospital, as a medical negligence solicitor. When he comes to visit me, I’ll introduce you, she said.
I felt well looked-after and safe. My operation had been successful, with no complications. I was no longer at risk.
I’m sure it doesn’t do any harm to have a medical negligence solicitor in the family, I said.
The old lady stared at the ceiling and didn’t reply.
Later on, she had several phone calls from various people. She told each one that she was set up in a lovely room and so far the doctors seemed to be prodding her in all the right places. That her dog was being looked after, at the kennels, with a space to run around and his own enclosure and so on, and that he would be looking forward to enjoying her conversation again. She told the story almost exactly the same way each time.
I noticed that she called her daughters ‘dear darling’. Once or twice she addressed a caller as ‘old girl’. Of course, she was far too old to have many friends more senior than herself, but there were her sisters, and the two of them phoned to ask after her.[…]
One of the daughters phoned again. Old Babs, dear darling, and Old Christa, dear darling, they’re going to share a taxi. When she told the dog story, she added that her friend, Roswitha von something-or-other (the name sounded somehow familiar) was to check on the dog.
The old lady’s first visitors arrived before lunch. They were women of advanced years, with false nails: neighbours who were watering her flowers and collecting her post. They’d brought her bills along, so she could have them straight away. They didn’t live far away. They stood at the window, looking for their building. They tapped their fingernails against the glass, disagreed about which direction to look in. The neighbours noted that the old lady was well accommodated here and that she would never rest enough at home, so she had been right to come to hospital. And especially to a private clinic like this.[…]
At lunchtime she was uncoupled from her drip tube to enable her to manhandle a knife and fork more effectively. I was served crackerbread. Dry, crumbly foods are best, to avoid clogging up the large wound at the back of my throat where my tonsils used to be. Before we had finished our lunch, the medical negligence solicitor appeared, and to my surprise he asked only whether the food was alright. The old lady had enjoyed the food and said she must have someone find out from Roswitha whether the dog was being fed what she had left for him at the kennels. She didn’t introduce us. She had forgotten, was thinking only of her dog.
He’ll be fine, said the medical negligence solicitor, promising to come back later.
She said, oh, but only if you have time, dear darling.
Not long after that, the first of the daughters appeared. I was a little shocked to see that she looked like an old woman herself. Her husband came too: a short, stout man with rather dirty hands. He hardly spoke, and when he did, it was only about his garage business. The daughter looked exhausted, and I thought I saw her crying when she turned to look out of the window. The old woman had been reconnected to her drip and was talking about Roswitha and the dog, and asked if the daughter might be able to get in touch with Roswitha.
The daughter said, don’t worry about that. Has Peter been yet?
Peter? He’s so busy.
Has he been?
Maybe Peter could phone Roswitha for me.
I’ll see to it.
My loves, I feel as if I’m in a luxury hotel.
That afternoon she had a phone call from her other dear darling. The other daughter is a solicitor, but not for hospital patients, for normal people, she said. Then she had calls from the old girls.
At five o’clock, in came her son: an alarmingly tall man who had to duck to avoid banging his head on the doorframe. No sooner had he entered the room than the dimensions of his surroundings seemed to shift. The furniture looked as though it belonged in a dolls’ house. He, too, was really quite old when you considered how vivid the old lady’s memory was of him as a frail child. She had always wrapped her son up warm to prevent his throat and delicate ears from catching infections: he was a dear darling, who hadn’t really grown until the age of fourteen but by then was already studying singing. Now he was hoping for a position in the chorus at the Staatsoper. I had imagined a chubby, pompous tenor, nothing like the leptosome giant who now stood between our beds, making efforts to soften his bass baritone and yet still thundering ‘Grüß Gott’ as though his ribs housed the acoustic space of a church dome instead of a normal chest cavity. I looked at the floor, in order to avoid staring at him. He strode on long, spidery legs across the criss-crossing lines of the parquet floor and pulled up a chair next to the old woman’s bed. Bending, his knees strained against the creases of his trousers. He had almost reached a crouching position before his flat backside touched the chair. Then he stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. He was wearing custom-made shoes. I recognised the signs of splayed feet: heels worn down on the outside, just like my own favourite shoes.
He’s too tall for the chorus, I thought, he needn’t get his hopes up. He’d destroy the uniformity of the group, standing head and shoulders above the rest. He’ll never get a job at the Staatsoper.
The old lady behaved like a young child, as if her son were the parent. She began talking about the dog, and he cut her off: think about your own needs. She talked about Roswitha, her best friend in the world, and he interrupted her: I know, mother, I know, you’ve already told me a thousand times.
I thought his tone too sharp, considering his mother’s age and dignified manner. A touch ungrateful. After all, she had nurtured and encouraged him, not just raised him. The daughter had perhaps let herself go a little, I’d say, didn’t look after herself, but was considerably more affectionate towards her mother. […]
Do you need anything to eat?
No, thanks, he said.
She still had her afternoon cake on the tray in front of her, if he wanted it? No. I never eat anything, you know that, he said. But surely his height meant he had to eat like a horse just to keep himself upright.
Has Peter been? he asked.
He has so much to do.
Has he been?
Why are you so cross?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him run a hand irritably through his hair. I imagined him rolling his eyes. He gesticulated with one large hand, but by the time he let it drop his bad temper had passed. He had an attractive face, when it was untroubled. Naturally wide eyes, almost dreamy. The old woman fell silent and watched him. They sat across from one another like this for a few seconds, and then he suddenly glanced over at me.
I lay unobtrusively in my bed and looked at my book about the Habsburgs, casually turning the page.
Roswitha, said the old woman.
And the dog, he said.
Why are you… ? she hissed, quietly.
As he left, he stooped. It made him look a little shorter, but his shoulder blades hunched together to form hump that his jacket did nothing to hide. Nonetheless, he managed to exit the room without bending any further, passing neatly through the doorframe with only a slight incline of the head.
The old woman telephoned her sisters. They were not due to visit until the following day, in other words today, and would bring her a little hamper and some sparkling Sekt.
I’m watching my figure, you know, said the old woman. She laughed and held the receiver away from her face, pointing towards me. I could hear the outraged shrieks of the sisters.
Once she had hung up, the old lady sat back in bed and smiled to herself. Suddenly, with her eyes fixed on the white ceiling, she said, those old girls are such witches.
I nodded along, feigning confusion and looking abruptly up at her from my book as though my concentration had been broken. Her gaze was fixed on the triangular hanger for her drip. She gave it a prod and hummed a march in time to the swinging.
In the evening, there was another visit from Peter, the medical negligence solicitor. I greeted him like an old friend, and he wished me a good night’s sleep.[…] The old lady got out of bed and headed for the washroom, but chose the wrong door. A nurse brought her straight back and said, here’s your washroom, right here in the room.
The nurse stayed to help her, then brought her back to bed, leaving the room with the old lady’s thermometer as well as my own.
I swallowed my painkillers.
The old woman got out of bed again and stood in the middle of the room, looking aimless and confused.
I asked what she needed, whether I could help her. I was beginning to form a picture of her illness: a nebulous cloud of memory loss and disorientation, maybe due to a stroke, a metabolic disorder, maybe the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. […] It didn’t frighten me. I was moved by the old woman, but I wanted to be neither moved nor affected, I wanted to recover in peace and leave the hospital today.
She answered me, firm and determined, no, no, please don’t trouble yourself, I can manage.
She marched into the washroom, and I pricked up my ears to see if she would stay there. I turned my thoughts to practical things, away from her and her life story. At that moment, my only concern was that she might attempt to brush her teeth again and might mistakenly use my toothbrush. I didn’t hear any running water. I heard brushing, the crackling of hair, the scraping of a comb, electrostatic discharge. Silence. Rummaging. Who knows where.
Do you have a hand mirror? she asked me.
I reminded her that there was a mirror on the wall.
Undeterred, she rummaged on.
Ok then, I said, there’s a hand mirror in my washbag.
She seemed to have found it already. I heard a satisfied AHA! and AHA! and AHA!. Then a long hissing sound. The tacky smell of hairspray began to pollute the room. Feeling increasingly irritated by her nonsense, I consoled myself with the thought that I could open the window once she was asleep.
As she exited the washroom, her fragile frame shimmered through the light blue nightdress she was now wearing. The old lady had changed and prepared herself for bed. Her hair was backcombed and piled up high, sparkling with the last dusting of spray. She seemed confused: she stood and winked at me expectantly, as though I were her knight in shining armour. The artificial light flattered her white face, smoothing the complexion of her aged skin. I began to observe details of this woman’s appearance, becoming conscious of changes that I would rather have left unnoticed. A few hours before her death, she seemed to lose years off her age. As though she had simply rubbed away her wrinkles. Had her daughter been standing next to her, they could have been mistaken for sisters. Or me. My hair is dark, but it’s dyed – my natural colour would probably be even greyer than the old woman’s hair. She smiled at me with warm, pale eyes. Wished me a lovely night in this lovely room. Her voice was as solemn as if she were opening a ball. Her nightdress was magical and childlike. Unbelievable to think that this frail person had given birth to a giant. The old woman was younger and slimmer than Bette Davis in Baby Jane. She pirouetted and swayed in her billowing dress. That made her dizzy, of course, and she lay down, her hair still resplendently styled. I wanted to tell her that her hair would be damaged if she went to sleep with it sprayed so stiff and then rubbed it to and fro on the pillow. I resisted the urge. It was none of my business what she did with her hair. It was her hair, not mine.
The old woman fell asleep immediately and lay there like a doll. Her stillness made me look over to her again and again, watching her chest rise and fall. Her silence did not unnerve me. I welcomed it. I simply wanted to take a good look at the sleeping figure in the ballgown. She had not pulled up the covers. The room was warm enough. I did not open the window. Maybe she had not wanted to crease her nightdress and that was why she was lying so stiffly, like one of the life-size figures on the majestic sarcophagi in the Kaisergruft.
I turned on the television, used my headphones to watch the news and Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. Around halfway through the film, I became aware of a gentle rasping coming through my headphones. I looked across. The old woman was asleep. I concentrated on The Silence. The rasping in my ears continued. It must have gone on for around a quarter of an hour. I tried to ignore the sound. Then I changed channels, but the rasping did not stop. I cleared my throat and coughed and moved noisily around in my bed. I turned up the volume, the rasping increased. I took off my headphones, the sound was now really stuck in my head. It seemed to fill the room. The old woman slept on, undisturbed. I wanted to wake her. The rasping did not go away. I wanted to ask her if she could hear it too. I waited. Considered whether or not to wake her up. Since I like to avoid physical contact with anything unfamiliar, I tried to shout her awake, cawing like a raven. I strained my poor scratched-out throat. I propped myself up and turned towards her, calling as loud as I could. I did not even know her name. Still don’t. Several times, I shouted MRS. Had she woken up, I would have said she was snoring and then asked her about the rasping in the room. She didn’t make a sound, didn’t move a muscle, maybe she was already dead. Maybe the doctor was right. The rasping still did not stop. I tried DEAR DARLING. Saying dear darling to a stranger is odd. I was making a fool of myself. She didn’t react. I practised the word in my head, bellowed it against the rasping in my ears. I probably managed no more than a hiss at death, a drop of defiance, and if death is an ocean then I know why I began to flounder.
Neither a sigh nor a moan, I tell the doctor, I didn’t hear anything. I keep the rasping to myself. There are people who lie down and die without needing to gasp for air or undergo any kind of struggle.
Enviable, says the doctor, when you think about how violent death can be.
The dead don’t frighten me. I have looked dead Kaisers in the face, although it’s not often I open a tin coffin. A coffin has to be quite badly corroded, threatening to fall apart, before it’s worth going through the rigmarole of reburial. Even the sight of a decomposed face doesn’t frighten me, as long as I’m prepared for it. But a quiet, pleasant death upsets my composure. The panic that begins to rise up in me feeds on the heat of my own body. I slept badly, but I am determined. I ask for help with my packing. I want to get back to my life quickly, don’t want to stay and watch them clearing away the old lady’s things. The nurse understands, she helps me and asks carefully which half of the locker is mine.
Excerpted from Lydia Mischkulnig, Macht euch keine Sorgen. Neun Heimsuchungen, Haymon Verlag, Wien, 2009.