It’s not a penguin, it’s a chicken. I could see it was a chicken, and I was saying chicken in my head but it was penguin that came out of my mouth, and now John’s angry because I got it wrong. I wanted to explain about the words, and how they jumble themselves up in my head, but visiting hours are over so he’s gone off on his bike and left me with myself. He was always cycling when he was a child, our John, always tearing off somewhere. He had strong legs, like pistons they were, pumping the pedals up and down. It makes me smile.
Doreen-Mary-Janice appears, caring and efficient in her blue uniform, and I’m no longer alone. She straightens the covers on my bed, takes my pulse, checks the monitors and adjusts my drip. She presses the control on my bed to sit me up a little, so I can reach the jigsaw on my table more easily, and arranges the pillows behind my head. I like her, she doesn’t mind that I can’t always remember her name. I want her to help me change my nightie, I’ve been wearing this one for three days and nights. My mother would have called me a dirty slut. I try to tell Mary-Janice-Doreen but the words won’t come. The problem with the words is they either all come at once or not at all.
Janice-Doreen-Mary checks the chart at the foot of my bed then picks up a piece of the jigsaw and deftly slots it into place. It’s one I’ve been trying to find for ages. I don’t think I like her anymore. I like her fingers, though. Long, slender, beautiful fingers. I want those fingers. She picks up another piece, turns it, and pops it home. Now the penguin-chicken’s got an eye. A beady one, watchful and fierce. The fingers flex and bend in front of me, they work their way down the sides of Mary-Doreen’s uniform, straightening it, flattening the folds, and then they’re gone, hiding in her pockets.
Doreen-Mary-Janice turns away but I don’t want her to go. Now my own hand comes into view, puffy lump of useless flesh, with fat white pudding sausage fingers, joints buried deep in calluses and sores, skin covered in brown spots whose name escapes me. I push a few pieces of the puzzle off the table and onto the bed, clumsy of me. Doreen-Janice-Mary comes back. And she brings her fingers with her.
They’re quick, those fingers. They leap and skip around the jigsaw pieces like dancers at a West End show. We took John and Mary once, took them up to London to see… what was it now? Something about an opera. John was only little, he got scared and I had to take him out before the end. He probably doesn’t even remember it now. A solitary piece of puzzle escapes the fingers’ grip, but they circle it, surround it, scoop it up and usher it back into place. Nimble little gymnasts. The things I could do with those fingers… Then my mother really would call me a dirty slut. I giggle at the thought and she looks up but she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even ask me how I am anymore, Mary or Janice or whatever her name is. She used to, but I got that wrong too because I was supposed to lie and say how much better I’m feeling, as if I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘degenerative’.
Doreen-Janice-Mary puts in another couple of pieces for me and the picture’s really starting to take shape.
‘It’s a friendly-looking chicken, isn’t it?’ she says, and I marvel at how easy the words come to her. But I don’t agree, I don’t think it’s friendly at all. It’s a black and white chicken, white body, black tail and neck, a little red thing on its head and a proud face with a … mouth-nose… no, something else, the word is there but it’s hiding from me… a beak. Yes, a beak as sharp as my mother’s tongue. The beak is my favourite part, put your hand too close and it’d snap your fingers clean off.
‘I’ll ask John to get me another one of these things,’ I say to Doreen-Mary, pointing one of my misshapen hoofs at the jigsaw. ‘Not one of those charity shop ones either. A brand new one.’ I’m imagining him peeling off the cellophane, shaking the lid off. They lose their value faster than cars. Twenty quid new, but as soon as you tear off that wrapping they’re worthless. Nobody believes that the pieces are all there, you see. I can relate to that.
The nurse, Doreen-Janice or whatever, tidies up. She rearranges the flowers on my bedside table, then picks up the phone and puts it back in its holder. The flowers were a present from John, so was the phone, it’s a mobile with big buttons. John thought I’d be impressed, but my sister, Janice, got one just like it a few years before she died.
‘Don’t take it away, Doreen might phone later,’ I stretch out my hand to take it back but my fingers stay curled like boiled prawns. I know from the look on her face that I’ve said something wrong again.
‘Doreen passed away, Irene. Do you remember?’ Her voice is soft and low, good thing I’m not deaf or I’d never hear a word she said.
Doreen died, so did Janice. Even Mary, my daughter, went before me. There’s only John left. I should’ve had more kids but once I had one of each I stopped. A pigeon pair, that’s what Doreen called them, why pigeons I don’t know, I’ve never heard it before or since. I remember though. Sometimes I remember nothing, sometimes it all comes at once. Like the words. I wouldn’t mind if my body worked, I wouldn’t care about the words so much.
Mary-Janice is giving me funny looks, pitying ones, and I don’t like it. I never liked her. Have I done something wrong again? I concentrate on the jigsaw. The pigeon-penguin-chicken is almost finished now , she’s strutting about in a farmyard, watching over her … kittens … her chicks, making sure they don’t step out of line. She’s looking stern, like she’s waiting for an excuse to peck someone. It makes me smile.
There’s only three pieces left. Mary-Doreen picks one up, she’s making it dance between her fingers, fondling it gently so it twists to the left, to the right. She’s doing it deliberately. She knows I want those fingers and she’s rubbing my face in it. I use my curled fist to slide the last two pieces off the table and into my other hand, then lift it to my mouth and slip them in.
‘Irene! What are you doing?’
Doreen-Mary-Janice jumps up and puts her hands to my mouth to try to retrieve the jigsaw pieces but I clamp my teeth together. They’re all my own, I brush them twice a day, every day – I never forget – my mother would be proud. She tries again, grabbing at my jaw, and for a second I think she’s going to hit me. I gasp and she reaches into my open mouth. I can feel her fingers tiptoeing around on my tongue. I let them dance, just for a second, but as soon as those beautiful fingers are far enough inside I snap my jaw shut and bite down hard.
I think I’ll keep the fingers under my pillow, save them for special occasions.
And if John asks, I’ll tell him it was the chicken.
© E L Appleby 2012
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