The Great Blue Open, a short story by Ethel Rohan
The latest instalment in the Out of Ireland summer fiction series
A crowd cheers for Amelia Earhart in 1937. Photograph: AP Photo/File
Inside Tolka Park my five-year-old, Sorcha, pleads with me to push her higher on the swing. Maeve, older than her sister by two years, sits nearby on the riverbank, stringing daisies together. The park’s two resident swans watch Maeve from a sheet of algae, as if admiring her floral necklace. The male swan is black and the female white, two faithful lovebirds my daughters long ago crowned the King and Queen of Tolka Kingdom.
“Higher,” Sorcha begs. I put everything I have into my next push and right as my arms extend I am gripped by pelvic cramps and spurt blood. Sorcha complains that I’ve stopped pushing her, but then realises something is wrong. She jumps from the swing, calling to her older sister.
Maeve runs toward me, her little face creased with panic. Despite being the eldest, she is our nervous child, afraid of monsters in her pillow, bacteria eating her flesh, her bellybutton popping open, and everything else her imagination serves up to terrorise her. My uterus contracts again and a large, warm clot leaves me. The gelatinous blood streaks down my bare calves in much the same red as the king swan’s beak. I feel like I’m emptying. Feel like it won’t stop.
The heavy bleeding persists over the next several days. I grasp at benign explanations – early menopause or harmless fibroids – anything to defer an invasive exam and possibly sinister results. My husband, Damien, insists I go to the doctor and get myself sorted. My friends say I should demand a hysterectomy. “Have them whip it out. You don’t need it any more.” I don’t know how to explain to them that I don’t want a part of me cut away. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be any less.
Even sitting, I can feel the blood drain from me. Not that my two o’clock client, Mr Reid, could care, too busy bucking inside the chair opposite my desk. Last year, he lent €25,000 to his sister, to allow her to open her own bakery. During the boom the business thrived, but with the economy’s collapse, his sister went broke right along with most of the rest of the country. He wants to sue her and recover his loan.
I insist there’s little he can do. He has nothing in writing regarding the debt and his sister hasn’t any assets of note that he can go after. Mr Reid punctuates his rant with repeated slaps of his hand on my desk. Another warm burst escapes me, growing the heaviness of my doubled-up sanitary pads. I clench my pelvic muscles, trying to hold on to the syrupy fluid. I can’t leak again in public, and not in front of this irate Mr Reid. My mortified walk home from Tolka Park returns in all its goriness.
“Do you hear me?” Mr Reid asks, his puffy face squashed with temper. I wonder about his sister, if she feels crushed by this bully and her failed bakery. In my head, I urge her to go on, to go bigger. I feel like I know her. Once upon a time, my mam wanted to open her own restaurant but she never found the money, luck or courage. It didn’t help that whenever she mentioned the ambition, Dad would douse her dream.
“Have you a small fortune hidden away someplace?”
“No bank’s going to lend that kind of money to a housewife.”
“And who’s going to keep house and home while you’re off chasing fool’s gold?”
The closest Mam ever got to restaurateur was cooking countless scrumptious meals over five decades for Dad and her seven children. Growing up, whenever I mentioned her restaurant, trying to get her to go after it, she’d laugh and say it was all nonsense, but I heard the catch in her voice.
Like Mam, I’d somehow let go of my own big dream. As a girl, I was obsessed with Amelia Earhart and wanted to become a pilot. Even to the death, like her. Nights, I’d lie on my makeshift bed in the upstairs landing and look through the window at the sad face of the moon, thinking about how much that cratered round of silvery-white must hate its solitary existence. Must feel lonely for its own kind. I ached to be up there amidst the sparkle and vastness, and far away from the tininess of our house, where I hadn’t as much as a real bed or a room to call my own.
“You haven’t a clue,” Mr Reid says, giving my desk another wallop with the side of his fist. “I’m off to get myself a right solicitor, someone who knows what the hell he’s doing.” As he leaves I notice the sharp slope of his shoulders and wonder what has chipped away at him over the years.
Another gush of fibrous blood. I’m sure I can smell myself rotting.
Every Halloween the local pet shop, Woof, Meow Etc., hosts an annual hamster derby and costume contest. “Do we have to?” Damien asks for the third year in a row. The big event falls on the last Saturday in October. Usually the girls and I visit with my parents on Saturdays while Damien goes golfing, but on this one day every year the derby wins out above all else. Maeve and Sorcha wouldn’t have it any other way, even though our hamster, McFurry, always does dismally.
For the first time, Mam agrees to come along to the pet shop to witness the antics that are now famous in our family folklore. She curled her blond-gray hair and is dressed in a powder-blue skirt suit that hugs her curves, an outfit more suited to Ladies Day at the Grand National. I watch the other women watch her, smiling to myself. She’s raised the bar.
To my surprise, Dad also joins us. He’s in his signature grey wool cardigan with bulging brown buttons and black polyester trousers, the thighs streaked with grey cigarette ash. His brown, jellied eyes dart about the pet shop as if checking for all available exits. It strikes me that he always has a bit of that air about him, a man trapped.
In the minutes leading up to the race, Dad feeds McFurry honey-coated treats and talks to him like he’s a dog. He tells the girls he’s dipped the treats in petrol, guaranteeing that a fuelled-up McFurry will scamper like an Olympian over the finish line. The girls laugh. I like to watch them and Dad together. Maybe he was sometimes this kind and funny when I was young and I can’t remember.
Dad places McFurry inside the mandated transparent, plastic ball. The girls clap and rock back and forth on their feet. Right as the starting gun goes off, Dad’s finger glances the neon-green ball, giving McFurry a head start. Somehow, no one notices. McFurry holds his lead for several electric seconds, until he turns around and rolls back toward the starting line. Our entire family makes frantic hand gestures and jumps up and down, shouting at McFurry to change direction.
“Hamsters’ teeth might never stop growing,” Damien mutters out of the side of his thin mouth. “But their brains certainly do.”
I smile, but the voice in my head won’t shut up. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.
McFurry rolls himself and his ball off the racetrack and on to the shop floor. Dad and the girls chase him down, but by the time they return the derby is over. All is not lost, though. We still have the costume contest. Last year, McFurry took third place for his Ronald McDonald rigout and we have high hopes again. Sorcha struggles to squeeze McFurry inside her doll’s colourful satin dress. She eventually succeeds and our hamster is transformed into a plump and pelted, if bursting at the seams, Snow White.
“I thought he was a boy?” Dad says.
“He is,” Maeve and Sorcha chorus, laughing.
Dad’s face twists and the broken capillaries in his nose and cheeks rise to a purple-red. “That’s not right, putting a boy in that get-up.”
“He’s a hamster, Dad,” I say.
“I know what he is,” Dad snaps. This sharp version of him is the one who raised me.
McFurry is denied a first, second and third place blue ribbon by, respectively, Count Dracula, Shane MacGowan – a tweed cap tied to his head, a metal chain around his neck, and black crepe paper stuck to his teeth – and a leprechaun with a tiny wooden pipe taped to his green felt chinstrap.
A boy appears next to Maeve, his face cut with a sneer and the furry, pipe-toting leprechaun under his arm. “Your hamster’s costume is shite.”
Just as Maeve seems to have readied enough spit to fire at him, Dad steps in. He bends down, his pink hands on his arthritic knees, and pushes his florid face close to the boy’s. “Why don’t you go home and wash your mouth out with shite.” He lifts Sorcha into one arm and Maeve into his other and carries them out of the pet shop on high. Mam hurries after him, warning him to mind his heart.
I swallow hard. I don’t ever remember Dad playing the hero for me.
On Monday, I undergo a uterine biopsy. Moments after my tissue is extracted, Doctor Murray leaves me alone inside the examination room to rest and recover. The grey, dimpled ceiling is ugly and needs a skylight. My eyes slide to the counter, where Doctor Murray has left the pale sliver of my uterus floating inside clear solution in a jar, surrounded by tendrils of my blood doing pirouettes.
Chemicals will keep that snip of me sterile until it gets to the pathologist who will or will not declare my cells normal. I’m queasy, but I can’t pull my eyes from that wounded slice of me. The biopsied meat is shaped like a fetus and the skinless sliver seems to glare, outraged and accusing. It wants to get back inside me, to reattach and live.
I try to sit up. Lightheaded, I flop back down. The cramping in my pelvis is so severe it feels like someone is standing above my pubic bone, my middle rising and falling beneath him like a miniature trampoline.
Doctor Murray returns. With her large frame and broad face, Dad would call her horsey. She hands me two white painkillers and a paper cup of cold water. “I’m sorry you feel so bad. Most women don’t have this reaction.” Her eyes are small and dull.
She leaves me alone again with that slimy specimen of my uterus still floating, animated, in the bloodied solution. It’s like she’s trapping it and me together on purpose. “Most women don’t have this reaction.” I stare at her stethoscope, curled next to the snip of my uterus. I slide off the exam table, struggle across the room, and secrete her stethoscope into my handbag.
At home, Damien asks again why Doctor Murray would do a biopsy. He says biopsy like the word is so huge he can barely hold it in his mouth. He goes on about the biopsy as he paces round the kitchen table. “They can’t think . . . they don’t think. Do they?” There’s something behind his alarm, a note of near excitement that suggests he’s almost gladdened by the possibility of crisis.
I try to make a joke. “When I’m gone, you’ll have another woman in here in no time.”
“Don’t say that,” he says, but I suddenly know it’s true. He’s no swan.
“How could you say that?” he says. His theatrics and the pain in my pelvis and lower back force me upstairs.
In bed, I cling to the hot water bottle, holding it to my middle with both arms. The entire area below my navel feels laced with acid. At last the painkiller kicks in and I start to drift. I’m almost asleep when Maeve and Sorcha climb on to my bed, their full lips turned down and their foreheads pleated.
“Daddy said you’re sick,” Sorcha says. “And that we have to be good and quiet and leave you alone.”
“You’re not going to die, are you?” Maeve asks.
“You,” I say, smiling. “Little Miss Worry.”
I remember Doctor Murray’s stethoscope and send them back downstairs. They return, their mood lifted. We listen to each other’s hearts. Next, we listen to our own hearts. Maeve and Sorcha marvel at how they’d never before heard a heartbeat, not like this, so clear and loud and strong. The only other time I have heard a heartbeat with such clarity was when I was pregnant with each of them. The girls continue to listen to their own hearts, grinning hard and showing off tiny teeth and pink fleshy gums, like boiled ham. I can’t stop seeing the sliver of my uterus inside Doctor Murray’s office.
If the hospital phones tomorrow, it won’t be good. I’ve heard enough horror stories to know that results that soon can mean only one thing. I imagine the call comes early the following afternoon and that the phone doesn’t ring, but bleats. When I answer, I grip the receiver and hold my breath. Those first few seconds, I allow myself to believe Doctor Murray only wants to ask if I have any idea where her stethoscope could have gotten to. Then she speaks, and tells me the worst.
The girls and I keep passing around the stethoscope and listening to our hearts beat, our eyes shiny. It’s like we can’t stop, like nothing else has ever brought such wonder.
“Tell me about your dreams?” I ask.
“I have bad dreams,” Maeve begins.
“Not like that,” I say, gently. “What do you both want to be when you grow up?”
They rush to tell me. Actor. Ballerina. Ice cream server. Singer. Make-up artist.
“Don’t ever stop dreaming,” I say. “Don’t ever stop believing that dreams can come true. Promise me.”
The next morning drags. I try to work, but I can’t concentrate. The minutes tick past and still Doctor Murray doesn’t phone. I tell myself that’s good news. By noon, Damien has already called twice, wanting to know if I’ve heard anything. He calls again a half hour later and insists I contact Doctor Murray’s office. I phone, but my results aren’t ready.
I can’t focus on the files on my desk or emails in my inbox. I’ve no meetings on today’s calendar and I won’t be needed in court until tomorrow. I make a call, but the recipient isn’t available. I don’t phone my friends or my mother. The only person I’ve told about my biopsy is Damien. I imagine this somehow makes me brave and heroic. I try online shopping, but can’t stop myself from consulting Doctor Google and yet again self-diagnosing my impending demise. Outside, a plane flies low over our office building. Long after the aircraft passes, it’s still screeching in my head.
I take my lunch break and drive to the airport. There, I watch the planes land and take off. When I was a girl, Dad sometimes took Mam and my six brothers and me to this same parking spot. Weather permitting, we’d sit on top of our car and train our eyes on the planes. During bad weather – rain, gales and even freeze – we’d remain inside the car and repeatedly wipe the condensation from the windows. Always, we made up stories about the passengers overhead, imagining where they were going to and coming from.
I reserved my best stories for the pilots, all women, all superheroes. One female captain was transporting her passengers to another planet far, far away in the galaxy. The portal to this perfect world lay inside a certain cloud that needed to be entered at a certain time, and angle, and speed. Another woman captain was carrying the greatest minds in the world to a secret island where they would solve every ill known to humankind and save us all. I never told anyone these stories. They would dismiss them just like they dismissed my dream. People said I’d never be a pilot. Said I wasn’t being realistic and that I needed to grow up. I don’t remember when I started to believe them.
* * *
After a search of the Internet on my phone, I don’t return to work, but call in sick. I drive out of the city and to the National Flight Centre, the radio on full blast so I can’t hear my nerves and doubts.
I push myself toward the reception desk, hoping the pretty young black woman can’t tell I’m shaking. I enquire about lessons and getting my pilot’s licence, so nervous I can’t look straight at her large, liquid brown eyes. To my surprise, and fright, she tells me visibility and weather conditions are good and that I can take my first lesson right here and now. It hurts to peel my tongue from the roof of my mouth to respond.
I fill out a form and wait in the reception area, fighting a mounting panic. Several times I almost leave, but this might be my one and only chance. My swansong. It seems impossible that they’re allowing me to do this today. That I’ll get to go up into the sky. It has to be fate. I’m meant to do this.
I leaf through a glossy magazine, trying to calm myself. Pale, vacant supermodels stare up from the smooth pages. They look like sculptures with too much carved away – little between their vital organs and the outside world but skin and skeleton. I return the magazine to the side table and pull my jacket tighter over my front, wrapping myself.
At last, my instructor appears. He looks to be in his mid-fifties and wears a brown leather pilot jacket, distressed jeans, and scuffed green combat boots. His gray-brown ponytail sits on his back like frayed rope. Tom’s accent is English. “Croydon,” he says. As we walk, he also tells me that he likes fast machines – planes, boats, vehicles. “The Triumph,” he says, “now that’s a car.”
Inside the simulated cockpit, Tom introduces flight dynamics and acquaints me with the plane’s various dials and controls. He quizzes me afterwards and I duly point to the yoke, pitch, yaw, and more.
“You’re a natural,” he says, grinning. He asks me why I want to fly.
I try to laugh off the question. “I think I was a bird in a former life.” I continue, suddenly serious. “I wish I’d started 20 years ago, instead of doing something else.” I’d become a solicitor because I’d wanted to make things right in the world. I’d also wanted to show people I could be someone. Only I wasn’t the someone I most wanted to be.
“You’re here now, that’s all that matters,” Tom says.
I try not to think that I may never be here again. Instead, I think of my mother and her restaurant that never was. I’m doing this for her, too, and for Mr Reid’s sister. For everyone with dead dreams.
Tom escorts me out to the waiting plane. We board the tiny aircraft and I still can’t quite believe this is all happening. Once our headphones are on and the engine is started, the tinny craft shakes like an old, battered elevator. Tom has full control of the takeoff, but once we’re in the air, amidst the clouds, I’m at long last the pilot.
To my further amazement, Tom tells me I can fly wherever I want. “Within reason,” he adds, laughing. “We only have an hour.” I’m too intent on flying, and entranced by the heavens, to look at him but I imagine us kissing. It’s not that I’m attracted to him, it’s that I want to build on this mad risk I’ve taken. I feel so exhilarated – a swell in my chest and full, fizzy feeling at the back of my throat – I almost can’t bear it.
We fly over my old street and right above the redbrick house where I grew up. I picture my parents below, Mam getting the dinner ready and Dad doing the crossword puzzle while soaking his feet in a basin of steaming, salted water. I want to shout down to them. “Look up! Look at me!”
Next, I fly over my golden-yellow house and even though I know the girls are at school and Damien is at work, I imagine the three of them standing inside our front garden, at the edge of our small rectangle of grass. They look up, waving and cheering. I’m grinning so hard my cheeks hurt. I have never felt so happy. So free. I push away the thought that this is what it would be like in the next life, me looking down at my husband and daughters, at everyone and everything I’ve left behind.
Late the next morning, after hours of containing myself, I again phone Doctor Murray’s office. I’m told she’s with a patient, but that my results are available. The receptionist transfers me to a nurse. My hand sweats on to the phone receiver, making it slippery. The nurse delivers my biopsy results deadpan, her nasally accent from the depths of the west coast. She’s the older nurse, I believe, the one with the white streaks in her hair like swirls of cream in coffee. “Negative,” she repeats. She schedules me for a follow-up appointment, to insert an IUD with hormones that will thin out the lining of my uterus. “That should sort you.”
That night, I lie in bed next to Damien while he sleeps, my negative biopsy result still a secret. I will tell him in the morning, first thing. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything earlier, knowing we will both feel somehow bereft once the news is shared and the sense of urgency dissipated. I also didn’t tell him or anyone else about my flying lesson because then that, too, would be diminished.
Years ago, I told Damien I was an Amelia Earhart fanatic. I also told him the tall tales I’d made up as a girl about superhero women pilots, and about my own burning desire. “You were a kid,” he said. “Sure we all thought up stupid stuff back then.” He reached for my breast and nuzzled at my neck. I never did tell him it was the worst thing he could have said and done.
I close my eyes and put myself back inside the rattling airplane. I fly over the city, and my parents’ house, and my family in our front garden. Then the return flight to the Centre, so much lush green, glittering water, and the rows of white houses with dark roofs like filled teeth. I can’t get back, though, to how fantastic it all felt, a God’s-eye view.
When I come back to my room, my gaze lands on Doctor Murray’s stethoscope on my nightstand. I place its headset inside my ears and hold the cool chest piece to my heart, all four chambers drumming into the dark-faster, louder, their power building.
Ethel Rohan’s debut novel, The Weight of Him, was published by Atlantic Books in June. She is from Dublin and now lives in San Francisco