Ren

Ren swallowed every pill on the tray.

‘Thanks Ms Argent,’ said the doctor. ‘You’ll feel the pain start to ease off in thirty minutes or so. Drink plenty of water.’

‘Thanks doctor, I–’ she began, but the doctor had already made it more than halfway towards the door.

Perhaps there’ll only be one more day of this. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

‘Granny!’ a voice shouted from the door.

‘My little gremlin,’ Ren said, stifling a cough. If she started coughing she might never stop.

Sarah waddled in, followed by Siobhan and Colm. Sarah scrambled onto the bed.

‘Please, doctor! Help!’ Ren cried with as much melodrama as she could muster, ‘A terrible little gremlin is trying to give me hugs and kisses!’

Sarah’s high-pitched giggles were beautiful and she kissed her grandmother’s face. Ren stopped shouting and closed her eyes. She smelled Sarah’s talcy skin and she was young again—a new mother, between acting jobs, holding baby Siobhan in her arms. She was peaceful in that moment—or at least in the memory of it—and she didn’t worry which pub Brian had been in for days or which woman’s bed he was hiding in this time. Ren was sitting in the café near her flat, and she sniffed Siobhan’s downy hair; it had a smell she hadn’t known before and her heart clattered and banged so violently that it hurt. Ren was overwhelmed by her baby’s newness and helplessness. Her sleeping face stirred, her brow stiffened, and her little mouth, always so serious, began to pout as she awoke from whatever dreams a sleeping baby can imagine.

‘Granny? Open your eyes.’

 Ren was back in the hospital room with her family, her little people, and that pain screaming in her lungs and down her back. The pain was almost everywhere now and she couldn’t remember how it felt to be without it.

‘Why are your eyes closed?’ asked Sarah.

‘I was just remembering what it was like when your mummy was a wee thing, younger than you are now. Your hair smells like hers did back then.’

‘What did her hair smell like?’ Sarah’s face was so serious it made Ren smile.

‘Well,’ she paused and made a great show of thinking about it, ‘it smelled like horrible gremlin snot.’

‘Uugh!’ said Sarah, sticking out her tongue.

‘I happen to love little gremlins,’ Ren said, and Sarah hugged her.

That lovely pain was in her chest again.

Colm shuffled around to her left. He sat facing her, his back to the window; the sunlit blinds glowed brightly behind him, hurting her eyes and obscuring his face so that he was just an outline of her son. He held her hand and squeezed it gently. Then he lifted it to his lips and kissed her fingers. It was a natural gesture for him, even though he was almost thirty. She loved how he’d always been unafraid to feel whatever he felt. In this way—in all ways—he was hers and not his father’s. Ren couldn’t see a single feature of Brian in him. It was as though she’d budded him purely from herself, like a gardener cloning her plants. Perhaps that’s why she loved him a little more than Siobhan. And perhaps this was narcissistic, but it was too late to care about that now.

‘You okay?’ asked Colm.

‘Yes. Well, no. I suppose I’m not. But, you know…’

He stared passed her, avoiding her eyes, and although she couldn’t quite see his face she knew that he could see hers, that he could see clearly how sick and emaciated she had become. She rolled over a little in her bed and moved her hand over her eyes. No son should have to see his mother like this.

‘You’re crying, Granny,’ said Sarah, on the other side of her. ‘Why are you crying?’

‘She’s just feeling emotional,’ said Siobhan. She looked at Colm, nodded, then picked up Sarah.

‘Come on. We’ll see if that wee shop down at the entrance has any sweeties, eh?’

Sarah struggled in her mother’s arms. ‘But I want Granny!’

‘I know, but we’ll come right back. Granny’s just going to talk to Uncle Colm for a wee bit. Alright? Come on. We’ll phone Daddy at work and see if he’s coming to visit.’

Sarah looked sullen, but she kept quiet as Siobhan took her away. The room was too still without her. Ren felt the warmth of Colm’s hand in hers. His skin was soft, except for the tough calluses on the tips of his fingers. He must have seen her squinting at the light as she tried to look at him because he stood up and walked around to sit on the chair on the right side of her bed. Such a sweet boy.

She must have winced in pain because Colm grimaced and squeezed her arm, careful not to disturb the needle held in place with tape.

‘How’s Jamie?’ she asked, putting the pain aside, rising above the black exhaustion pulling at her.

‘He’s good. He’s playing at the opera house tonight.’

‘Lovely. What’s the opera?’

‘Parsifal. You know the one about the knight on a quest for the Holy–’

‘–I know about Parsifal, you pup.’ Ren said. ‘I saw it in London back in the noughties, when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I’ve seen it several times since.’

She eyed him and he avoided her gaze.

‘Why aren’t you playing in it?’ she said, completing the question her eyes began.

He ran his hand through his hair.

‘Colm? Why aren’t you playing? Do they not need a principal cello?’

He rubbed his eyes.

‘Colm?’

‘I can’t play at the minute,’ he said. ‘Not with you in here, like this. They’ve given me compassionate leave and Marla’s getting a chance to play first chair. It’s a good opportunity for her.’

Sweet Colm. Feeling everything.

She smiled at him. ‘It’s okay, you know.’

‘It’s not okay,’ he said, his voice cracking a little, his eyes studying the floor.

‘No, I suppose it isn’t, but I know it will be. It’s just one of those things.’

He started to shudder, his grief terrible in its silence, and she had no clue how to help him.

 

A long silence held them both and Ren might have been lulled to sleep by it if she hadn’t been forming a plan in her mind.

 

‘Maybe it is okay,’ said Ren, hesitating before deciding to go on. ‘Maybe it’s okay because I’m going to be a second timer.’

Colm stiffened and sniffed wetly. Ren didn’t understand the expression on his face at first. Then, gradually, she could see happiness there, and fear.

He rushed to the door and closed it.

‘You’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re going to be a second timer,’ he hissed. ‘How’d you get the approval? Surely you don’t have the money—or the points?’

‘That’s a lot of questions, pup,’ she said, ‘and I’ve got five thousand points, if you must know.’

The shock on his face was brilliant; drama had always been Ren’s gift.

‘How the hell did you get five thousand points? You’ve almost got enough for a third time.’

 ‘I got the points from back when I acted in Macbeth,’ she said. ‘Someone must’ve seen me in the play and thought a lot of my performance. It says so on my transcript: five thousand Second Time Points awarded for an outstanding performance as Lady Macbeth in blah de blah blah.’

‘But that was twenty years ago,’ Colm said. ‘Ordinary people’ve only just started getting sent back.’

‘I know, but I guess someone that’s part of the programme—some scientist, probably—must’ve seen me in Macbeth and remembered to save those points for me. It’s mad, but there you have it.’

‘But time travel didn’t even exist then.’

‘You’re normally brighter than this, pup,’ Ren said, considering a new angle. ‘Look. Someone, probably one of the first people to go back in time, will’ve gone back to a point prior to the invention of the technology that makes time travel possible. This person, my mystery benefactor, must have watched me act my socks off back then. They must have been so impressed that they made a note of my name and the number of points they thought I deserved.’

Colm’s face scrunched; the poor boy was so confused he looked like he might go cross-eyed. Then he let out a loud, exasperated breath.

‘But that many points would only usually go towards a scientist or someone useful,’ he said. ‘It’s weird for them to give so much to an actor.’

‘Come now, boy,’ she said, smirking, ‘don’t write off my entire career. It was maybe not saving lives, but it was a good thing. I took people away from themselves for a moment or two. And that can relief can be exquisite.’

‘Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry. But when did you find out about this?’

‘About seven years ago. When this all started, I got a letter from The Second Time Programme. It told me about my points and how far that’d get me back. ‘And it told me the rules. As if we don’t all already know about their damn rules.’

 She stifled a laugh, and it turned into a cough that lasted for over a minute. She buckled forwards with the pain of it; her body only felt strong when she was coughing. Colm rubbed her back until the coughing subsided.

 ‘Why’d you wait until now to use your points?’ he asked, when she was still again.

‘I waited because Siobhan got pregnant and I was going to be a granny for the first time. I had to hang around for that.’ Ren took her glass of water from the bedside table and took a sip. She felt like she might drop the glass, but Colm took it from her before she could.

‘Then,’ she continued. ‘Then you got into the orchestra and met Jamie. I’d never seen you so happy. I had to see what happened next. I had so many people—my little people—I couldn’t just close the book and not read the next chapter.’

Colm smiled. He hadn’t smiled at her like that since she’d been in hospital. Probably even longer. She stroked the dimple on the right side of his face. Neither of them spoke for a while.

‘So,’ Colm said, dispelling the little silence they’d made with their thoughts, ‘when are you going back?’

‘Tomorrow,’ she said, perhaps too quickly.

‘Ah.’ His eyes welled up again.

‘It’s okay,’ she told him.

‘I know it is, but I’m going to miss you.’

‘They’ll tell you that I died in my sleep, but you’ll know better, won’t you?’

He nodded, holding her hand to his face.

‘Don’t you tell anyone about this, you hear?’ said Ren. ‘You could get in big trouble just for knowing about it.’

‘I know,’ he nodded. ‘It’s safe with me. I won’t even tell Jamie.’

‘Good,’ she wiped the tears from his face.

‘When are you going back to?’ he asked.

‘My points get me back to 2012.’

‘That’s far. I know they say that it’s all totally safe, but I’ve heard about second timers making such big mistakes that their children are never born. Aren’t you scared you’ll slip up?’

‘No, dear. It’s complicated.’ Ren stopped and thought about it for a moment. ‘Okay. Well think about it like this: all time travel that will ever happen has happened already, so no one can become unborn and everyone who’s alive today will always be alive today. The man from Second Time explained it to me, but it’s all stuff I’d heard before on the telly. We’re sent back into our own minds, into our younger bodies, and all that jazz… But the Second Time man emphasised how foolproof the failsafes are that stop us ruining our timeline. Whatever I do, whatever I change, it’ll be small.’

‘So you can avoid Dad this time?’ he asked, his voice quiet.

‘Yeah. They’ve already cloned yours and Siobhan’s DNA. They’ve made embryos that will be sent back in time. All I have to do is turn up at the clinic on the days you were conceived and they’ll implant you. It’s incredible how they’ve done it.’

Colm picked at a bit of rough skin on his finger. His right heel jittered on the hard tiles.

‘So he can’t hurt us again?’ he asked, not looking up at her.

‘No. He can’t hurt us. Actually, he’ll never have hurt us—if we’re getting our tenses straight.’ They both laughed.

‘Is it okay that you’ll never meet your Dad? I won’t be able to explain it to you. That much will be changed forever.’

‘Yeah. That’s fine,’ he said. ‘Just be happy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. You won’t get infected this time around?’ He asked. ‘Or should I say that you won’t have got infected this time?’

‘No. I hope not. What’s the point in getting a second chance at things if you have to go through all of the bad stuff again? I know when and where I got it, so I know to just make sure I go to a different hospital or to tell them that I don’t want a blood transfusion after the operation.’

‘But won’t someone else get it, then?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know. But is that really my responsibility?’

He looked sad, and maybe he thought it was her responsibility. Maybe he was right.

 ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘they said they’re going to fix everything sooner or later.’

‘Sooner or later is meaningless now,’ said Colm, tears in his soft eyes. ‘And when you go back we’ll be different, and this conversation will have never happened?’

‘Yes. Perhaps. Or perhaps we get to live this life before it changes. Perhaps we’re here, really here, and then tomorrow, when I’m twenty-five, I’ll change things so that this never happens. But it will have happened. Because it did. We’re here now. We’ve always been here. You know what I mean?’

Ren could tell that he liked that idea. She knew he was right about her disease. She hadn’t thought about that. She’d lived with it for twenty-five years and she couldn’t remember the last time she felt truly clean. When she was first diagnosed, she scrubbed her skin for hours in the bath and she fasted and drank only water for days. She felt purified for a little while. And the drugs brought down her viral load so it was negligible. They told her the virus was actually undetectable in her system. But she knew it was always there. She could feel it.

‘But what about the cancer?’ Colm asked.

‘What about it?’

‘Can they prevent that? Never mind the bloody HIV—it’s just sitting there—it’s the cancer that’s killing you.’

‘I don’t know. They said that there’s a chance I mightn’t get it the next time. But there’s also a chance that I might get it earlier. It’s all guesswork with cancer—even for them. But at least I won’t have the other one hanging over me, eh?’

‘Yeah. I suppose,’ he said and he stared at the floor, looking for his next question.

‘Do you have any requests?’ she asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Is there anything you want me to change for you?’

‘No. I mean, no thanks. I wouldn’t change any of it. Not because there’s nothing I’d like to have gone another way, but because there’re no obvious big things to change.’

They were silent for a moment, neither able to follow an idea so big, so nebulous.

‘Being twenty-five is the only thing I’ve let myself think about,’ Ren said, eventually.

Colm smiled. ‘What were you doing then? Was that when you were in Oz?’ 

She nodded, ‘Yeah. I’d just broken up with Michael Bowe. He cried when I told him I was going to Australia alone. I mistook his tears for weakness and I was embarrassed for him. If only I’d settled down with someone that could cry.’

‘Well I suppose you’ve got me and Siobhan; we’ve been known to shed a tear or two.’

‘Yes. That you have. You’re braver and more sensitive than most.’

‘I wish I’d toughen up a little, though,’ he said. ‘It can be a bit much sometimes.’

‘Yes, wee thing, you feel too much. But then, so do I. Just remember that there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to get distracted sometimes. Just let your mind wander onto something less painful. Maybe, if your brain allows it, lie to yourself now and then: say it’s all going to be okay, even if it probably isn’t. Feeling everything is the best way to be alive, but it hurts.’

Colm nodded. Something in her words felt like an ending and neither of them knew what to say next. The pain flushed through Ren’s back, along her legs, and to the tips of her toes. But this pain was somehow separate from her, hidden away in a different room of her body. They sat together, in silence.

Finally, Siobhan and Sarah came back.

‘Everything okay?’ Siobhan said, looking scared.

‘Yeah,’ said Colm, ‘we’re just a couple of softies having a bit of a cry.’

Siobhan’s posture relaxed and she let go of Sarah’s hand. Sarah walked around to Colm and hugged him.

‘Mummy said to hug you.’ 

‘Thanks, chum. I needed that,’ he said and he kissed her cheek.

‘Mummy also said that you’re the nice one, and that she’s the useful one.’

Colm laughed, and Siobhan’s instant embarrassment was soon replaced with a smile.

They talked for a while. Ren mainly listened as she dipped in and out of consciousness. It was nonsense talk, really, but it was nice. Then Colm took Sarah to the toilet and it was just Ren and Siobhan.

‘So,’ said Siobhan, ‘how are you actually feeling?’

Ren coughed a little, but even her coughing had lost its power now.

‘I can’t lie to you,’ she said. ‘I think I’ve got about one more day in me. Maybe less.’

Siobhan’s eyes filled up.

‘Oh, not you too,’ said Ren. ‘I’ve just had Colm crying his eyes out.’

Siobhan sniffed and looked up. No tears. Siobhan was always strong.

‘No. I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m okay. We knew this was coming.’

‘We did. Now I’m sick of talking about death. It’s boring me. I need some normality. Tell me about work; have they closed that deal yet?’

Siobhan rolled her eyes. ‘Believe me, you don’t want to get me talking about the bloody deal. It’ll be the death of me.’

‘That’s a little insensitive, Siobhan!’

They both laughed.

Colm and Sarah returned and they talked until the nurse came to announce that visiting hours were over. The nurse must have seen the fear in Ren’s face, or perhaps he also suspected that she didn’t have long.

‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘They can stay. Just keep it down and I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ He set a fresh glass of water beside her bed and left. He didn’t even pretend to offer her food.

Sarah fell asleep on Ren, and the September sun began to set. No one bothered to turn the light on and the room darkened with the rest of the world. Ren felt light, almost weightless, as though all that was left of her was a little bit of air floating around in her head. It dawned on her that she might die now, in front of them all and it would undo everything she had said to Colm.

‘Right, little ones,’ she said, her voice as big and confident as she could make it. ‘I need to get some sleep, so I’m chucking you all out.’

Colm and Siobhan looked solemn, but tired, and maybe a little relieved. But Ren saw something else in Colm’s eyes.

They gathered their things and Siobhan kissed Ren before lifting Sarah, limp and sleeping, up into her arms.

Colm hugged Ren tight.

‘Good luck in Australia,’ he said so that only she could hear him.

She winked at him and they left her with waves and smiles.

 

Late into the night, the pain got so bad that they increased her morphine.

‘I’m going back in time tomorrow,’ she said, the room spinning like a vortex. ‘The Second Time people.’

The nurse sighed and looked around for a doctor or another nurse before he spoke.

‘Yes,’ he said, his voice as bright as he could manage. ‘I know all about it, Ms Argent. Second Time has sent me to get you ready for the procedure.’

‘Oh, wonderful. I was so scared for a while there… but I can’t even remember why.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘There’s no need to be scared. Let’s get you back in time, eh?’

‘Yes. Yes. That’s so wonderful. My little people all over again.’

 

 

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