How to be Brave, a short story by Louise Beech

Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and now developed into a bestselling novel, this is a fiction based on the true story of how a mother teaches her daughter bravery

 

We trade blood for words. This is our currency; her pain for my prose.

I don’t recall who thought of it but I’d like to give Katy credit. I’d like to say she spoke the suggestion through a spoonful of beef casserole, between school stories and Top Gear. Or maybe she grew tired of my terrible singing. A few verses of Phantom of the Opera I mumbled to distract when pen’s tip pierced skin. Stifled laughter from my daughter. Laughter causes hurt. Trembling flesh resists needle. Resisted needle bites harder. She suffered more.

Now, no singing. Now I will talk words.

I asked when we agreed the swap, what if I run out of ideas?

You’ll never run out, Katy said.

Such faith. Easy for one to say who isn’t thinking them up.

You could sing Rihanna instead, she said.

I knew she was freeing me from obligation as she couldn’t be freed from hers, letting me badly sing pre-written lyrics instead of working for my words while she endured finger prick after pierced thigh after finger prick after pierced arm after finger prick after pierced stomach. Are my put-together-on-the-spot words a fair rate of exchange? This I ask of myself. This I privately wonder when she puts damp head to my shoulder, a place she now easily reaches, and her hair tickles my cheek like shampooed spiders and her forehead smells of gravy and she cries as though she isn’t, as though I’m not here, as though I lived many years ago and never met her at all and only whispered across the South Atlantic sea.

On the raft they told stories to pass time. They probably didn’t care if these were fantasies or histories. Do lies bounce best on ocean waves; does pretence give comfort? In the dark we are all the same; no one is more hungry or happy or needy or worthy or injured than the next person. So at night, when lack of moon equalised them, fourteen men shuffled for the best spot in a space designed for half their number and talked until sleep washed whispers away. Talk of home hurt most. Lips cracked and bleeding could not easily voice the existence of that other place beyond a makeshift lifeboat, measuring twelve feet by eight. Soon talk faded. Poetry died. At the end, after fifty nights, two men remained. Two stories. Two, like Katy and me with our box of lancets and insulin, ready to draw blood, to cut, to read and record numbers in a log like that kept at sea. Can stories last seven weeks with one biscuit and four Horlick’s milk tablets and six ounces of water daily? Do they continue over the horizon? I hope so. We make it so. But this is not the story I will tell Katy. No. Not yet.

So let’s start gently. Gentle verses for blood.

Tell me a story about you, says Katy.

She puts the strip in the blood-reading metre with slender red-tipped fingers. I kissed those hands at birth and willed them to be kind, to be gifted, to be brave. To hold mine, her father’s, her brother’s, to hold a pen or guitar or paint brush. Now we cut their tips twice a day.

The story, demands Katy. You’re supposed to be distracting me.

I’m meant to make them up, this was our agreement, but she wants truth now, to know about me and about her and about anyone else who matters.

Let’s start here then; when I was three I almost drowned. I have opened crudely. It’s too late to retract my vulgar hook; huge eyes express interest. While on holiday in Wales I fell in a stream. My mother and father picnicked at the other side of a field and didn’t see. Finger pricked, blood flows. I’m a hopeless storyteller, summarising, giving no background, few specifics. But Katy hasn’t noticed her pain. She asks how I got out of the water (I’m unsure, it was all a blur) and why I got into trouble (because I ruined my new yellow jumper) and what happened next (we had beans on toast for tea). Answers dampen insulin injection’s sting. They last until liquid finishes its fiery course through her body. They follow us until next time, like only the best end-of-episode cliffhanger.

Let me share an amusing story about you and some water.

I’ve got three bruises on my thighs and two on my arms and four on my stomach, Katy says, angry.

This tale hopes to smooth over bumps and ease the constant cycle of changing injection site to cause least damage.

I hurt, she snaps.

Anger is easier than sadness. Anger fights and so submits too.

When you were two you wouldn’t go in the bath.

Well, the bath is a dangerous place, she says.

Her blood glistens thick and warm. You’d only get in if I promised stories and you wore a striped swimming costume and could stand up, like a statue. Imagine trying to wash unruly hair that way? Trying to dry skin over a damp cozzie?

A blood reading of two-point-eight means a glass of coke and dinner before injection. Injection means another story. I talk about the red and green blow-up pool she wee-ed in and the time she ate spaghetti bolognese out of the bin because she was still hungry. Bruises are curious, appearing long after pinprick, staining fleshy expanse like driftwood at sea. So we do not yet know the cost of today’s cut.

I’d like a big story, says Katy now. Not silly short ones. Something I can look forward to each day. Not random. Chapters. Long and detailed and wonderful. And true.

I know such a story.

It started off the coast of Africa, not far from Ascension Island, named so for its discovery on Ascension Day, which celebrates Jesus’ rise forty days after the resurrection.

Ascension, ascension, says Katy. No bible stuff. We do enough at school. It’s rather relevant and poetic in light of the imminent story, but she doesn’t yet know how. So, this story began 19th March 1943 when a ship carrying my grandfather, Colin, was torpedoed by Germans and sank in one and a half minutes while most on board slept.

I began in March too, says Katy.

She cuts her finger and we read the blood - four-point-nine. Blackened by fuel spillage and wearing explosion-torn clothes, fourteen crewmen managed to climb aboard a vessel formed by tying together two life rafts. While the SS Lulworth Hill split in two when she sank, each part likely landing in the seabed miles from the other, salvation required coming together. Katy measures insulin and pumps it into her thigh while I read the roll call of men - like the school register, says Katy - and I describe injuries like broken ribs and feet.

Colin was my great grandfather then, she says.

Yes. Yes, he was. He is. Let us end there for now.

Briefly, before words worked magic, Katy joked that money might lessen her pain. Extra pocket money for her bravery. A quid for each injection. But we are prehistoric; as those before the invention of money traded things, so do we. Such transactions have taken place throughout recorded human history. There’s evidence that obsidian and flint were exchanged during the Stone Age and sea trading routes appeared in the third millennium BC.

What about the men on the boat? asks Katy, already having read her blood, just the anticipation of more story enough to make it endurable.

Okay; the SS Lulworth was a cargo ship. Once all who had escaped her were safely on the raft, sunburnt and salty, First Officer Scown assessed that they fringed a shipping lane but were drifting fast. A trade route meant hope.

What about Colin? asks Katy. I bet he was most hopeful they’d make it home. The first log’s entry, a book that would record twelve deaths, ended with: Expect rescue any time now.

How soon will it come? asks Katy.

Oh, not yet. Many blood tests and injections later. Did they have any clue when? That first night they calculated thirty days travel to the Liberian border - 800 miles from land - and ate no food, knowing they should save what little they had for a long time.

But Katy must eat now. She must eat a meal rich in starch and fibre, now and later and tomorrow, or she will not last fifty days.

Days that follow routine merge like mudslides. A logbook listing numbers, dates and liquid measurements is the dullest of diaries. So we make it interesting. I drop syllables in the endless ocean.

There can’t have been much to look at, says Katy. If they got tired of the sea, the sky wouldn’t have changed much.

The fourteen men must have looked at one another. I set up the blood meter. They must have watched their companions disintegrate and, without mirrors, wondered at their own state. Prick, pain, blood reads eight-point-eight. On the eighth day they woke with tongues fat in their mouths, like black cotton wool. Saltwater boils stung so much it hurt to move. Headaches throbbed from blistering sun and lack of water, tempers frayed easily.

How old were they? asks Katy.

Five men were younger than twenty, and many were not even seamen, coming from farms or factories. Colin was twenty-one. I imagine he felt responsible, having rescued ship-mate Ken from the water when the ship sank, others too. In saving them was he obliged to continue so? You look after me. Six bubbles spoil the smooth span of insulin, like barnacles beneath a boat. Six men at a time could shelter under canvas awning; eight remained in the sun. Food held no appeal with such thirst. Some drank seawater in desperation.

Where’s the harm in that? asks Katy.

Excess salt makes you urinate more than the water gained from drinking it, increasing dehydration.

Like sugar in my blood making me wee so much. How thirsty I was then. Would they have felt like that?

Yes, like that. So softly, yes, like that.

Tell me something happy.

When night fell on the eighth day it began to rain. Desperately they opened mouths like petals to the sun, but it stopped almost as soon as it had begun. Two younger men sobbed. Hungrily, they licked the thin film of moisture off the canvas. I’m sad, says Katy.

But her injection doesn’t hurt.

Is this story too much? Should I return to cheery childhood tales of paddling pools and crazy baths? No. Katy brings her box of needles, eager. She wanted another chapter between pinpricks, promising she could endure pain without words if the tale ended sooner. Let’s wait, I said. Let’s remain true to our trade.

Someone must have died, says Katy, cross-legged as she often sat for bedtime stories once upon a time.

The first death occurred after nineteen days of watching the waves for ship or land, searching one another’s faces for life. First Officer Scown died, having removed his ring to be passed on to his wife. Many more deaths come. Men jump overboard to be eaten by sharks. Some drink seawater until madness takes them, begging for water as they go. Shall I tell Katy these things? Should I assess her bravery each day? Is it fair to exchange pain for pain?

So how long would I live on a raft like that? she asks, eating a sweet, jammy biscuit to prevent further hypo.

There are many answers; in as few as twenty-four hours diabetic ketoacidosis would occur without insulin, and vomiting, dehydration, deep gasping breath, confusion and coma would result. It might take days, even weeks, with so little to eat. But a lack of water would be most dangerous. I will not sing these lines though. It’s time to put the box away and watch some TV.

You’re a coward.

I suppose I am.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry; you’re not cowardly at all.

I suppose I’m not.

Animals have featured in written literature for thousands of years. Bible stories had animals signify various human and godly traits, like the snake, the swine, and the lamb. Superstition has it that while sharks follow a vessel where death will soon visit, dolphins lead such a boat to safety. Rain hits the patio doors as though to break through. Katy covers her ears. I need her fingers, take them in my hands. She resists. A dolphin saved them for a while. Katy submits. They harpooned one on the twentieth day and ate its flesh and blubber, and drained all blood into a tin cup and drank of it.

Poor dolphin, whispers Katy.

Perhaps he surrendered too. It isn’t easy to catch one. And Ken, who managed it, was weak. Must the dolphin have swum close enough to be caught? What about the sharks? They’re mean and would make a better tea.

Ah, the men wished to catch such a beast. Sharks were a constant threat, swimming often on all sides, waiting. They named a large brute Scarface, because a ragged slash scored his head. Scarface swam with them until the end.

Can we say goodnight now, says Katy. Let the poor men sleep. Would they sleep? Would they dream?

Each day they watched the sun set, desperate for escape from its heat. By morning, after coldness and nothing but hard surface to rest on, they longed again for its warmth.

Tell me about Colin. Just him. Did you know him?

No, we never met. He passed before I existed.

You seem to know him like you know me or dad or Conor.

I think memories are part of our make-up, passed on genetically, reliving somehow in our DNA. I’ve only read about him but I smelt his presence between black printed paragraphs. Like blood, blood that flows now onto a strip. Blood we read as three-point-five. By the thirty-fifth day just two men remained - Colin and Kenneth. The story is theirs now. On the twenty-ninth day, unknown to them, a letter got sent from the owners of the Lulworth Hill to family members, advising that all onboard were likely dead. The thirtieth day was when their First officer, now gone, had predicted they’d reach the Liberian border. Instead it was a horrible day. No land. No ship. No rescue. Three men jumped into the sea and were eaten by sharks. No one tried to save them. No one had the strength. So came day thirty-five, and Colin and Ken clasped hands in their grief. Katy sucks her finger. Blood is sweet. Salt is sour. And so the raft drifted on an unchanging sea and two men lapsed in and out of coma and rain never fell and Katy doesn’t cover her ears.

Some days blood won’t flow, no matter how we pierce skin. Today is such a time. My Little Pin Cushion bears it well. She does not cry. But I do.

Let me distract you, mum, says Katy.

But I’m the storyteller.

I didn’t bring blood today, so let me do the words. It’s only fair. Listen to this - I went on the raft last night. Snuggling between the two sleepy men I stroked Great Grandad Colin’s hair and whispered right in his ear how proud I am of him. I did. I knew which one he was. He smelt right. Even though he looked like a scarecrow, all hairy and ragged, he still looked like us. I said I’d tell him a story to distract from his nightmares and the wooden floor. It really was uncomfortable, Mum. Not even a sheet. I said I bet he missed spider webs in rain. And butterflies. And birds. He used to go bird-spotting with his dad. There a bird means land and safety. I said, if you don’t live I’ll disappear, Grandad. I won’t be able to come back and stroke your hair. I’ll just dissolve like a salty ghost. So I ripped a page out of the logbook and drew us all in there; you and me and Conor and dad. I wrote above that you have to know how to be happy to know how to be sad, and if you know both of those things you’ll know how to be brave. He woke up after I’d gone and found the page and thought he was going crazy. He was sure he’d written the words because the handwriting was a bit like his. But my picture made him smile. He woke Ken and they had their tiny portion of water and horrid dry biscuit and milk tablet and they looked out at the sea for sharks and dolphins and birds. It’s okay to be sad, mum. It means you’re brave. We’ll have to just guess my number today. You always get it right. You always know. What do you think?

I think we’ll have ice-cream after tea - a really big portion.

Remember the first Christmas after you’d been diagnosed? Remember how I replaced sugar with a substitute in cakes, used horrible diabetic chocolate bars, trying to make everything the same as Christmases before.

I remember.

It only highlighted that this one was different. But today is not Christmas. It’s a day like any other. Katy bleeds; insulin resuscitates. It’s hard to make stories out of such sameness. Suffering has a sameness too.

I’ve loved the boat story, says Katy. I know it’s going to end soon and I so don’t want it to, but I guess we’ll talk about the scratchy carpet in my first bedroom and the yellow bunny wallpaper in case I turned out to be a boy.

Her memory surprises me as much as the prediction that I’ll soon recall it during our trade. But let’s talk now about rescue. What do you think signalled it?

A dream?

Perhaps.

No, a bird.

Yes. Seagulls. On the forty-second day a group of them circled the raft, birds that rarely venture far from land. In the log Ken wrote, many birds around, can’t stand up now, we will stick it to the end. Katy’s blood reads eighteen-point-one. High. Could be excitement or illness or too much food or too little insulin. High in the sky, on the forty-third day, they spotted a plane. Colin set off a smoke-float, filling the air with dense red vapours. Had they been seen? More hours passed, hours longer than the days preceding. Hope dwindled with supplies. On the forty-fifth day another flew over and dropped packages, like gifts from Santa’s sleigh. A gas cylinder and a dinghy and a rocket pistol and a kite, but like the Christmas when we endured sugar substitute and craved sweetness, they only wanted water. Eventually it came. Day forty-eight brought tins of water from the sky, and cigarettes and barley sugar and real chocolate.

Excited, Katy says, I know how they felt. When I’m low and eat it feels like someone injected me with happiness.

Let us end, for now, on that high.

The best stories end openly.

No, neatly, insists Katy. All tidy with everything sorted out.

Her injection box is almost empty; our dwindling supplies are easily replaced, ordered from the doctor. I shall try and give her the ending she wants. Scarface knew an end loomed. On the fiftieth day he charged at the raft, perhaps sensing the men were hours from death, perhaps smelling a day of rescue. Neither had strength to fight, and the faithful shark gave up when the heavy raft wouldn’t relinquish its cargo. Colin spotted a ship, just as he had seen Ken in the water fifty days earlier. A ship, a ship, a ship, a ship. They said the words over.

A ship, whispers Katy.

Neither remembered much of those first days on the HMS Rapid. Fed warm milk regularly from a baby’s bottle, they slept in beds deliciously comfortable. Then, in Freetown they recuperated at the Disabled British Seamen’s Rest. Here Colin was said to ahev suffered his first epileptic fit. What’s one of those? asks Katy. Her injection is done without complaint. Story time is over. But we cannot leave such a question alone. Epilepsy is a neurological condition where the sufferer has seizures that start in the brain. Many things cause it, from genetics to injury of the brain. Triggers like stress or tiredness can bring on a fit. Let’s save one more chapter now.

We’re almost there.

Like the SS Lulworth Hill’s two halves pulled by currents to land far away from each other, Ken and Colin separated. Once home, once medals had been received for bravery, once children came, life resumed and they untied the ropes and cast adrift.

But why? Surely they’d be friends forever now?

Doctors asked Ken to stay away from Colin, thinking his presence reminded of their ordeal and brought on the many violent seizures. Colin never knew of these orders and died, years after, thinking his friend had abandoned him.

No, whispers Katy. He’ll know now. He must know now.

We have not yet read her blood. Our exchange is off balance. I’ve given lines too easily and now there are none left to dampen her pain. She winces at the cut but nods to show she’s fine. Time doesn’t heal. Time lets wounds fester and blister in hot sun, it bruises legs and arms and tummy with pinpricks. Really, time separates.

Are these your words? They sound too not you, Mum.

Maybe they’re mine, maybe they’re his, maybe they’re yours. I’m not sure. But I think the dark heals. Don’t you? So do stories. Here we’re all equal. All characters have a part to play. So what now? Colin is home. He’s in whatever place we go when we’ve earned a rest.

You’ll have to sing again now, says Katy. Sing Music of the Night. Or that Lady Gaga one with the German bit. Or just tell me about when Dad was little and did a karate chop through the kitchen wall.

So we do.

We trade blood for words.

How To be Brave, the novel version of this story by Louise Beech, is published by Orenda Books, £8.99