I’m lying here in a bed, my head full of regret, with only a little bird flitting through a tree to comfort me. Friends want to visit, but I refuse them. So my carer, Sheila, has given me a task to keep me occupied. An A to Z list. Think of a part of my body for each letter. Tell a little tale about it. When I reach H for heart, what will I say? How we loved to string crocheted hearts in trees? How our hearts steadily unravelled?
So I begin with A. Adam’s apple. Will you be there to catch me when I fall?
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James Hannah has an MA in Samuel Beckett studies and The A to Z of You and Me is his debut novel. He also sings and plays guitar and drums in various bands with friends. He lives in Shropshire with his family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Adam's apple means the Reverend Cecil Alexander.
Adam's apple means me coming out of church, down the stone steps trailing in the wake of my mum. We leave the chapel every Sunday and take our turn in line to bid thankses and good-byes and see-you-next-Sundays to the Reverend Alexander. I'm a kid. Short trousers, short legs. I'm actually scared by his enormous Adam's apple. It's the biggest I've ever seen. It leaps and bounces around, like an angular elbow fighting to free itself from his throat. It makes me feel sick even looking at it. I just think, how doesn't the man choke? What if he got punched right in it?
I know it might not be the right thing to do, to point it out. But you know me.
"What's that in your throat?"
The kind of questions a minister must have to deal with on the hoof.
If there's a God, why must he allow the suffering of children?
Got your shirt on back-to-front then, eh?
So, what about the dinosaurs, then, mate? Explain that. See, you can't, can you?
Frank says you said he could do the flowers next week, but you told me last week I could do them. Did you say that to Frank?
"What's that in your throat?"
He must have been asked this question a lot. Despite the embarrassed gasp and laughter of my mum, and a censorious hand swashed about my face, he is quick with his answer.
"Oh, that's a piece of apple." I frown at it very hard.
"Why don't you swallow it?"
He's a great one for thinking on his feet. Part of the job description.
"I can't. Do you remember the story of the Garden of Eden? Well, it's put there as a reminder of the moment that Adam was discovered eating the apple that Eve had given him. It stuck in his throat, see?"
"My dad's got one of them."
"Well, yes, of course. All men have them."
"Ah, no. No, no. Not yet."
He smiles as he says this, with the air of a chess player good-naturedly checkmating an opponent.
I'm very fond of Adam's apples for that reason. I was totally satisfied with it as an explanation. And it didn't put me off apples. But it was years before I understood all the repercussions that were echoing around his head as he said those words.
"Ah, no. No, no. Not yet."
You'll fall, he was saying.
It's Jef. Jef the chef.
"Any ideas what you fancy for breakfast this morning?"
Jefrey with a single f. Since school he must have had one career in mind. Except in the end they called him a catering manager.
"Can I get you some eggs? Scrambled eggs? A bit of toast?"
They make him wear the black-and-white-checkered trousers and everything. Is that health and safety? In case his trousers fall in the soup, so he can ladle them out more easily?
"You didn't have any of your porridge yesterday, so I'm guessing you don't want porridge today?"
He's hiding behind his clipboard a little bit, lingering respectfully in my doorway. Half in, half out. He should have a black leather notepad, like a proper waiter.
I have never been less hungry. Not full, just not-
"Hallo, Jef." It's Sheila.
"All right, Sheila, you still here?"
"Yeah, I've got another hour and a half yet. You just got in?"
"I've been in about twenty minutes. I thought I'd get these breakfasts sorted before the electricians arrive. Do you know what they're doing?"
"It's nothing major, is it?"
"I don't know."
"I thought it was only going to be looking at the security lights outside. They can only get to them from the inside or something. Are they still on?"
Jef ducks to look out of the window.
"No," he says, "they've gone off."
"God, isn't that always the way, that it fixes itself before the electricians arrive?"
Sheila looks down at me. "How are you supposed to sleep with a big security light on the whole time?"
I shrug inside, but I don't know if it reaches my limbs.
"I reckon it's the hedgehogs on the lawn," says Jef. "These sensors are really oversensitive."
"Safety from attack by hedgehog. That's worth three thousand pounds of anyone's money, isn't it?"
"Three grand, eh?" Jef tuts and raps his clipboard with his pen.
"Well, I suppose you'd better get a move on anyway, hadn't you?"
"That's what I'm trying to do here, but we can't make our mind up." He turns to me. "Scrambled eggs? Toast? I'll do you some porridge, if you want it. Whatever you want. Try me."
I don't want anything. I shake my head.
"I tell you what," says Sheila to me, "how about if we get you something simple, and you can see how you feel when it gets here? I'd like you to eat something this morning, even if it's only a couple of bites. How about something soft and easy, like scrambled eggs?"
I can't answer. I don't want anything.
"Yeah? Scrambled eggs?" Jef is looking at me brightly.
"How about that?" says Sheila. "Or poached? Or fried?"
"I don't do fried," says Jef.
"Oh no, course! Well, scrambled then? Or poached?"
I can't answer this.
"I'd like you to have something. It'll get your strength up, and maybe everything won't look so gloomy, will it?"
"Right you are, poached." Jef notes it down. He stabs an overzealous period onto his clipboard and sighs. "You have to choose the one that's hardest to get right, don't you?" Not without humor. He disappears through my doorway, and his footsteps drop down the corridor, cut off by the suck of the big double doors.
He could so easily have said, "That wasn't hard, was it?" That would have made me angry.
Sheila stays behind, gazing thoughtfully at the space in the doorway Jef has just vacated. She half blinks as she comes to, straightens the bedsheets, looking at me and squeezing out an eye smile as she does so.
I like Sheila. Everyone does. She's got that way about her-bright and sparky. But I like her hardness. She's a bit brusque, not fluffy. Mischievous, I'd say, when she wants to be. And it's as if she's got twenty-six hours in the day. Always unhurried in her conversations with me or Jef or Jackie the relief nurse. And I've seen it: people light up when they see her.
She checks my drinking water's fresh, making contact with everything, fully and firmly-one palm now flat against the reeded side of the water jug, the other patting the white plastic lid, her chunky gold rings rapping out her reassurance that it's secure.
There's something more deliberate about her as she carries out her ritual hardware-bothering this morning. I can sense it. She seems to want to stick around. Is she sizing me up? She thinks there's something the matter.
I'm having none of it. I fix my eyes on the wall opposite. I could look out of the window. I could look at the magnolia tree; the robin has returned. But I'll look at the wall. The wall that has seen it all. I'm staring it out. It's staring me back.
It pretty much always wins.
Sheila's moved on to the towels, using the entire front of her body to assist in the folding of a new clean one, stroking it liberally with her hands, before dropping it in half and bringing it around into a quarter. She gives it a final stroke and pat for good measure as she slips it neatly into the space beneath my bedside cabinet.
I wonder when this hospice was opened. It looks like the 1990s, going by the precision brickwork with forty-five-degree corners, bricks looking less like stone, more like solidified porridge, every course the exact same color, laid as if by a computer, not a bricklayer. And green plasticky-looking metal girders with friendly curves.
So that's a quarter of a century this wall has watched people on their deathbeds. A quarter of a century of hysteria and tears and pain and misery.
I shouldn't be here.
I don't want to be here.
I've been here almost a week and-nothing. No better, no worse. Are they disappointed or something? Such an effort to get here in the first place.
What was it-Dr. Sood said they'd sort out my symptoms, and then maybe they'd let me go home for a bit if things got better. But he could say that whenever, couldn't he? Even if I found myself coffined up and rolling along the conveyor belt to the furnace, old Dr. Sood could say, "We'll let you out if you start to show signs of improvement."
I'm not ill enough for this. I don't feel like I should be waited on by these people, using up their time when they should be tending to properly dying patients. Mopping up all these charity donations by the old biddies and the shattered and bereaved.
"Are you comfortable there?" asks Sheila, finally bringing her fussing to a conclusion. I nod automatically. "Well, you let me know if there's anything you need, OK? Or let Jackie know when she comes in."
"You all right?"
She weighs me up with a look, her jet-black eyes just as intent and penetrating as my mum's used to be, but with many more smile lines sunnying them up at the edges. "Don't you want the TV on?"
"You sure? You won't get bored?"
I do a smile. "I'll look at the wall."
"Oh yeah? Look you in the eye, does it?"
I nod. "It's seen a lot of us."
"Oh, I daresay it'd have a tale or two to tell."
"But there's a lot of wrong things people would presume about these walls. They've seen a lot of love and pleasure, you know." She gives me a gentle smile. "How are you doing upstairs?" She taps her temple. "Staying sane? I'm still a bit worried about you, you know. I don't want you going bananas on me, all right?"
"I'm not going bananas."
"How's your game going?"
Of course I know what game she means. I just want to pretend I don't know what she's talking about. "You remember I told you about that game the other day? The A to Z? Keep the old brain cells ticking over a bit. So what you could do is try to think of a part of your body, all right? A part of your body for each letter of the alphabet-"
I nod-yes, yes-I want her to know I remember now.
"-and what you do-"
"-is tell a little story about each part."
"I've done one. I started doing it, actually. Today."
"Oh yeah? See, well, that's trying, isn't it? How far have you gotten?"
She laughs. "Well, it's good to take your time over it."
"Oh, great. I've had a few people say Adam's apple when I get them to have a go at this."
"Do women have Adam's apples?"
"Yeah! Yeah, I think so."
"I thought they didn't."
"It's the larynx, isn't it? They don't have the sticking-out bit so much, because they're smaller than men's. It's why they have the high voices."
"Yeah." She lifts her chin thoughtfully and circles her forefinger on her throat. "Larynx. Anyway, you're not a woman, are you, so don't be so picky."
"The vicar when I was little said it was the apple sticking in Adam's throat. Adam out of Adam and Eve."
"D'you know, I've never once thought of it like that, but it makes sense, doesn't it? How funny. Well, that means you've already got a story then, haven't you? Sometimes I think we should collect everyone's little stories about their Adam's apples. We could put them up on the wall in the day room."
"What do you do when you get to X? Or Q?"
"Well, that's where you've got to get your thinking cap on, isn't it? You've got to be a bit creative."
What would I do for Q?
Oh, there it is. It's my sister Laura, isn't it, mocking me, just to look good in front of her new best friend Becca.
Doesn't he know what a quim is? Aw, bless-
Becca's tongue pushing between her pristine white teeth, hissing with laughter, leaning in to Laura and bonding against me.
We aren't born with all the information we're supposed to magically know.
Becca's hissing laugh echoes down the years.
I'm Queen Quim!
Nope. Enough. Snuff it out.
I look up at Sheila.
"You could end up with an alphabet of all the rude bits," I say.
"Well, you have to have rules. You've got to use the right name for a body part, or near enough, like. No slang. No rude words."
"Yes, but ‘larynx' never would have turned up the story about ‘Adam's apple,' would it?"
"No, true," she says thoughtfully. "But rules are there to be bent, aren't they? It's only a game."
Anus, I write.
I straighten the photocopied handout on the school desk in front of me and adjust my grip on my fountain pen. A potent blob of black ink spreads across my knuckle, working into the tiny lines and creases of my skin and cuticle. I wipe it on my trousers.
Black trousers, black ink, no worries.
There are two outlines of human bodies on the class handout, with straight lines pointing to various parts.
"And I'll stop you after ten minutes," says Mr. Miller, perching his wiry frame on the stool at the front of the lab, making the crotch of his musty trousers wrinkle up in a cat's whisker shape. "And use the proper names, please."
I draw my own connecting line from the word anus to the relevant area of the male silhouette. I don't know what's made me do it. There's no undoing it. It's in pen. But a real, slightly frightening sense of freedom is swelling in my belly. Maybe now is the time to say it: Mr. Miller, you, me, and biology, we were never meant to be. Let's call it quits, eh?
Kelvin and the new kid look at what I've written, and Kelvin laughs a silent and heartening laugh. The new kid doesn't laugh. His face smiles without his mouth smiling-maybe it's in the brow-and he watches on with a cool detachment.
Balls (hairy), I add, and then underline the A and B, before quickly coming up with C, D, and E, all from the same source. Cock, dong, erection. We both tense up with silent laughter.
Fanny, counters Kelvin, arcing a line out to the female. Gonads.
I frown at him. "Incest isn't a part of the body," I mutter.
"No, but when it happens, it makes a dysfunctional human. It's genetic." He connects it to a line to the male's midriff, and then the female's for good measure. "They're brother and sister."
I look at the new kid, and the new kid arches an eyebrow at me. We're not convinced. Still: Jugs.
"Doesn't that begin with n?"
We're silent-laughing in that way that makes me kind of queasy. The mash-it-all-up childishness you can only get in a hot afternoon of triple science.
Queer. A connecting line to the wrist.
Kelvin chews his pen while he mulls over the crowded diagram for what to put for X.
In the meantime I add yum-yums, Zeppelins, and draw lines to the boobs with a grand flourish.
Suddenly and with detached confidence, the new kid picks up his own pen, plucks off the lid, and writes X chromosome. He draws a line to the midriff. I look up at him, and he looks at me, and I don't get it. But he smiles, and I smile back, and I look at Kelvin. Kelvin doesn't get it either.
"I'll take that, thank you." The paper is whipped from beneath my pen, and Mr. Miller leans on the new kid's desk. "Malachy, I see it was a mistake to put you with these two. I'll see a...
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Book Description Doubleday, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: Brand New. 272 pages. 8.40x6.00x1.00 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # __0857522655