2nd Place: ‘When The Mugs Don’t Match’ by Abbie White

There was something extra-terrestrial about the blue in his veins and the unsymmetrical bruising of his hand. As a child it made me squeamish, awaiting his papery skin to pucker above the cobalt seams and sprout an inky blue that would stain our hands. As the years stubbed out the futuristic blue of his blood turned a sickly red and the reality of his illness settled in my bones until I moved with it in every action. He was not a colourful alien but a dying man. Although I no longer felt fearful of his peculiar veins; the dread of his perish was much worse. 

I don’t remember him in his John Player years but the stories of his addiction had settled in the spout of Nan’s teapot and every time she poured a cup they would come to life. They say he lit one off the other and spent his days encapsulated in a murky cloud of tobacco. He was the head chef of a tourist trapping lodge and I suppose cocaine wasn’t a thing or rather wasn’t attainable in a village built from a Christian monastery. So, he chain-smoked, which at the time was as slight an action as riding a bike. He didn’t see the need to stop until he was laid out in the back of Nan’s hatchback gulping dry air to cool his burning lungs. He had ignored bloody mucus and shallow breath for years, never allowing the taste of iron to settle on his tongue before he smothered it in tobacco. 

One pension collection Friday, after coughing up crimson slime, he reached for his usual remedy before crippling to the ground, knocking the pack to the floor where the white stems fell around his head like a crown. Nan grabbed him under each arm and dragged him to the backseat of her lime green hatchback where he clutched at his chest repetitively as if he could grab the pain away from his lungs. When he had secured a breath deep enough to soothe the burn he rifled through his pockets for a cigarette. All I remember next is Nan’s heel boots stepping on the brake pedal while the amber flame of his cigarette singed the headrest in front, branding it a mournful grey. My mother and her mother turned in their seats and began two differing speeches, one rather pleading and the other rather explicit as I watched his chest for movement. 

An hour later and people in colour block clothing were showing us glowing pictures of his lungs which resembled one of the final stages before grapes turned to raisins. They had all these medical terms for him that ended in axia or toid and we nodded in ignorance enjoying the little things lost in translation. Then this tall man with tiny glasses told him if he stopped smoking he had a year to live and he said it in culchie English, littered with like and ya know yerself. There was no room for misunderstandings; he was dying. I asked the x-ray technician did it work like baby scans where we would get a copy of the pictures to announce it to family. She watched us laugh with pity in her eyes and I felt her sorrowful gaze follow me through the corridor. The last time someone looked at me like that was my old school teacher who came to Benny’s wake. Nothing tasted worse than being pitied and I was biting down on my cheek so hard I welcomed the gush of iron that filled my mouth. We followed the beige signs in silence and when we walked past the morgue I could have sworn his leathery fingers brushed mine. I thought it rather barbaric that the tips of his fingers had hardened in subordination to the years of cigarette burns. I bought him a Sindo and a pack of fisherman friends in the gift shop. 

The weirdest part was that we just walked away with all these red stamped outpatient letters. He wasn’t tangled in tubes. He was walking and talking and even managing to objectify the lady on the tills at the gift shop. But he was in descent and every day was no longer a beginning but an ending of sorts. There was no chance for newness. We would live in this space until he could no longer hold up his own and even after we may never escape it. 

What happened after that day was slow and measured as if swift movements may have spooked his dying into completion. We hired a community nurse and read those hospital pamphlets. We collected oxytocin from the chemists like it was Sudocrem and reassured people he was grand in the frozen aisle in Tesco. We didn’t live the same though. There was a fear attached to every morning and an importance placed on every occasion that made everyone feel tense. We took way too many photos, craving proof of the good times. We hung them like bunting around his bed, watching them droop and fall as the stuffy air snuck beneath the blue tac. Nan plucked them from the wall like rotten fruit when the priest added Grandad to his weekly rotation.

 We did have this new way of measuring pain. Like when you step in a dirty puddle in white shoes it didn’t sting as much. All the mundane embarrassment and anxieties buckled under our grief. They don’t tell you that grieving consumes you before their absence. Your days turning tearful and angry as his pain grows stronger and the pharmacy bags grow bigger. Growing up you imagine death to be quick and painless. Your screens alight with traffic accidents and massive heart attacks. The idea of goodbyes was nerve wracking. No one warns you about watching life fizzle out. Like waiting on a tradesman when they quote you for the afternoon or a call back from customer service, it is painstakingly long and anxiety inducing. 

About the Author

Abbie White is a writer from the Wicklow Mountains. Having just completed a creative writing degree in UCD, she is hopeful for more publication in the future. Her poetry has appeared in strukturriss magazine and she is currently working on a novel. 

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Published by sonderlit

New Irish literary magazine reflecting people, our differences and similarities.

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