Next Of Kin
Laura had been a nurse long enough to find the gentle sound of the ventilator quite soothing. Apart from the steady beep from the heart monitor it was the only sound. Old people were rarely noisy. Most of her patients slept for a good proportion of the day. Rounds could be quite peaceful at times, except when you lost one. Those times were like trying to hold back a river with your fingers. Saving a life, if only for another day was also a brutal process.
“You don’t need to tuck me in so hard dear,” said Mrs Cauldwell. “I’m not going to run off on you.”
“Sorry, Mrs Cauldwell,” replied Laura, moving to check the charts next to the bed. “I didn’t mean to wake you. How are you feeling today?”
“Call me Enid girl, and I feel fine for someone without long to go.”
“Oh, you’ve got a while yet Mrs, erm, Enid,” lied Laura, hearing the slight trickle of the liquid in Enid's lungs under her voice.
“You’re a sweet girl,” said Enid as she patted Laura’s hand. They both knew it wouldn’t be much longer.
“I’m 34,” smiled Laura. “Not a girl anymore.”
“Deary, at my age, everyone is a girl.”
Enid giggled a little but something caught in her throat. Her breathing sharpened and a panic slipped across her face as the monitors began beeping insistently. Laura reached up and grabbed the oxygen mask, gently holding it to Enid’s face. They looked into each others eyes as Laura gently talked Enid into taking slower breaths. The moment began to pass, Enid’s breath calmed and Laura took away the mask.
“Maybe you’d better take a little rest,” said Laura as she checked Enid’s pulse once more.
“Maybe so,” replied Enid. “Just for a little while.”
Laura knew she shouldn’t have favourites, but Enid was one nevertheless. But she was very glad Enid had decided to sign a DNR, a ‘do not resuscitate’ form for when she finally passed. While it would have been nice to have more time with her, Laura hated the idea of fighting with Enid’s worn out body and punching at her with machines to delay the inevitable.
“Anything else you need?” asked Laura.
“Well, I’ve not seen Derek for a while.”
“He’s on the form. But he can’t get here on his own. It’d be nice to have a visit.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
It had been a long day for Jason, even though it had barely started. You would think that when you are trying to get a girl suffering from an overdose into an ambulance, that her boyfriend wouldn’t try to start a fight with you. But he was glad to see Laura at the nurses’ station when he passed by. He was going to just give her a wave, but she beckoned him over insistently.
“Can I ask you for a favour Jason? Are you going anywhere near Fullbraid Street today?”
“Possibly,” he said warily.
“I need you to pick someone up if you could. It’s a guy called Derek Cauldwell, he’s on the form as Enid’s next of kin. I think he must be her husband, it’s the same address. He’s probably as old as she is.”
“I suppose that’s why we’ve never seen him. Shouldn’t social services have sorted this out?”
“I know that, and you know that. But you know how overbooked they are and I’d rather not fill in all those request forms just for this.”
“Gottcha. I’ll see what I can do.”
Jason pulled the ambulance up outside 47 Fullbraid Street, his partner Maggie sighing a little as he did.
“Just ask her out Jason,” she said. “Then we’d not be picking up old guys quite so often.”
Letting himself in with the keys from Enid’s personal effects, Jason called out so as not to surprise anyone.
“Mr Cauldwell, Hello. Ambulance service. I’ve come to collect you so you can see your wife.”
There was no reply. But as he came into the living room there was an old tabby cat sitting in the centre of the room. It was staring at him as if waiting. When it did not get the response it was waiting for it lifted its chin to reveal a collar with a tag on it. The cat remained motionless until Jason approached and took a look at the tag. It said ‘Derek’ in clear engraved letters.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Laura echoed those exact words as Jason arrived with the cat in a cardboard box that once held medical supplies. Much to his surprise, Derek had been happy to remain quietly inside, almost as if he knew he was not allowed to be in a hospital under any circumstances.
With a sigh, Laura took the box. They had both broken too many hospital rules already not to break one more. They barely needed to exchange a word, but Jason decided he’d pick another moment to ask Laura out for a drink.
Luckily, Laura was on the long shift, so she could keep things quiet for today at least. Taking the box to Enid’s room she did her best to put on her sternest look. As she stepped into the room Derek popped his head out through the top of the box and Enid’s face lit up.
“It’s only for today,” Laura admonished. “I’m sorry Enid, but he has to go back once my shift’s over.”
Derek slipped out of the box and jumped onto the bed. After checking it was soft enough he settled down near Enid’s hand and licked it encouragingly. She reached out and stroked his head, a look of perfect contentment of her face.
“Just for today,” said Laura, not sure how strict she was going to be able to be.
“Thankyou deary,” said Enid, never taking her eyes off Derek as a small tear slipping down her cheek.
At nine o’clock, it was coming to the end of Laura’s shift. The floor was quiet though as several cuts left only one member of staff on night duty for each floor. Usually this was a nightmare, but tonight it was a blessing when she glanced up from her paperwork to see Derek sitting patiently on the floor in front of the desk.
“I thought I’d locked you both in,” Laura told him, annoyed she was talking to a cat.
Derek just seemed to shrug and cocked his head as if asking her to follow. He led her back to Enid’s room and slipped back onto the bed once Laura opened the door. Enid was fast asleep, but Derek slid his head under her hand and nuzzled her.
All at once the machines began to bleep. Laura glanced at the displays and grabbed the oxygen mask. Holding it over Enid’s face she muttered insistently that she should breathe. Enid managed three small gasps, her eyes remaining closed all the while.
“Come on,” pleaded Laura, trying to will Enid to keep breathing. But then she shuddered, exhaling in one long breath. Derek skipped forward and rubbed his head against Enid’s cheek. She smiled for a moment, but then the monitors went quiet. Laura reflexively glanced at the time. She would need to get a doctor to pronounce her, but all she wanted to do was sit and cry for a while.
Derek jumped down from the bed and crawled onto her lap. He looked at her for a moment as if to say her performance had been acceptable. Then he curled up so she could stroke him. Laura gave herself a moment to surrender to the tears before picking up Derek.
“You are going back to the box while I get a doctor.”
Derek seemed to shrug, and then reached up to lick her face. Laura begun to suspect that, like to or not, she had just become a cat owner. She hoped Enid would have liked that.
Me and Mama. Mama and me. It had always been that way, for as long as I could remember. Maybe I had a father once – or maybe I was created by some divine conception, or carried to Mama’s doorstep between the sharp pincers of a stork’s beak, or left by fairies at the end of the garden. I wouldn’t know. Mama never spoke about my father; it was as if he never existed – and maybe, for her, he didn’t exist. Over the year, I could only guess that it was a bad ending or a non-beginning that caused my mother to never speak his name. Was it a one-night stand? Was he a lothario? Did he break her heart – did she break his? I never asked.
Growing up, I soon learned to sense when things were best left alone. Like the time mama came in with her hair mussed up and her lipstick streaked all around, like an unkempt clown.
I guess I must have been about five. Young enough to be petrified when I woke and found she wasn’t there – old enough to intuit that her absence wasn’t right. I was sitting on the top step, sobbing, when she finally lunged through the door. A smell drifted up to me – one that I remembered from long ago that spelled bad news; fumy and sour. A smell that made Mama act like she was not Mama but someone else entirely. When she finally staggered to a halt and saw me, the voice that came out was not Mama’s voice. “Whaddayadoinup?” she had slurred.
Hearing this not-Mama voice, I had cried harder, clutching the edge of my nightie and bringing it towards my mouth to stifle my sobs.
“One night. Can’t have a night to mesself,” Mama screeched. Then she saw the puddle of urine pooling around me. I remember it now, the hot stream leaving my body, relieving and comforting for a moment but quickly cooling against my skin. And, then, Mama’s face, contorted with anger.
“Oooooh you dirty, naughty girl,” she’d yelled, tripping up the stairs in her haste to chastise me.
The next day, Mama had been extra-special nice to me. She had dabbed away the dried blood around my nose, sobbing into my hair and asking me to forgive her. And of course I had – because who else was there for me other than Mama?
It wasn’t until I was eleven – about to start secondary school – that I realised how co-dependent Mama and I were. She was filling out a school admin form. “Father, n/a,” she had muttered, drawing a diagonal mark through the box – it seemed to be a lot larger than necessary, given the small size of the square. “What is en-ay, Mama?” I asked.
“Not applicable, darling. Not bloody applicable.”
“Next of kin,” she’d then mumbled. “Well, that’s easy. It’s me isn’t it.”
“What’s next of king, Mama?”
“Kin, Ella – K-I-N. From kindred. Kith and kin. It’s your closest blood relative. And that’s me.”
“So who’s your kin?” I had asked.
“You hunny-bunch. We’re all we need.”
“Why don’t I have a daddy like the other children?” I had asked then.
That was a mistake – Mama had clearly thought I’d already interrogated her enough and swiped the back of her hand smartly across my cheek. By this stage, Mama didn’t need what I now knew to be alcohol to fuel her anger towards me. She was like the wind my Mama, drifting this way then that – one day telling me I was the centre of her world, the next chastising me for being a burden and a financial drain.
When I was thirteen, I was finally taken into care. It was one misplaced backhander too many that ended Mama’s game. I had tumbled down the stairs and broken my leg. Once doctors were involved, the rest of the ‘circumstances’, as a social worker delicately described it, soon came out.
Despite everything, I hadn’t wanted to be taken away from Mama. Like she always told me, she was my everything. She wasn’t perfect but neither was I. Neither was our situation. But she had always worked – there had always been food on the table and, when Mama wasn’t in the angry-zone, there were laughs too.
Those years I spent with bland, banal, beatific foster parents were among the worst of my existence. I felt ill prepared for a life so perfect on the surface. The trills of ‘good job’, reward charts, and by-the-book parenting. I even caught one foster mother reading a book called ‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.’ On purpose, I never did open up to her and I spent six months answering her with only ‘yes’ or ‘no’. My mother, for all her faults and occasional misplaced anger was more real than all of them put together. Her passion for our togetherness and her faith in our small unit was what had sustained me all those years. Once I was spewed into the system, I had no proper sense of myself. Yes, Mama was out there somewhere – but untouchable to me. I had never felt so alone in all my life.
It took me eight years to finally get back to Mama. She had disappeared without a trace – and since our links were only to each other, there was nobody else to help me find her.
The first thing I did when I was old enough, probably sixteen or so, was to go back to the house, but it was boarded up; its windows sightless, its front door firmly closed on the once-upon-a-time life I used to have.
When I was eighteen, I went away to university – an opportunity, I was reminded by my last foster family, that I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in my mother’s care. That final family had urged me to stay in touch, but the day I walked out of their house for the last time, I felt a freedom I hadn’t experienced in years.
I pole-danced my way through university – earning enough to come out of my course debt-free. But those book-filled days and tassel-filled nights meant that although I left with a 2:1 in Law, I also left without friends. The acquaintances I had made drifted back into the shadows and I was alone again, with only the memory of Mama.
When I finally found her, it was through chance – as if fate had decided the time had come to put us back together; two missing pieces of the same jigsaw.
I was sitting in the foyer of St Alban’s Magistrate’s Court, waiting for a client who looked like he was in danger of missing his bail return when my attention was caught by a commotion outside Court 3. A woman was shouting at her brief, telling him what a useless piece of shit he was. It was a voice I recognised instantly – and the slight slur told me she was drunk.
Spilling coffee down my white top in my haste to get to her, I pushed through a small cluster of people who had gathered to watch the barrister’s bollocking. And there she was! Looking about twenty years older and fifty times rougher.
“Mama?” I had asked, even though I knew it was her.
Her head had snapped up then, and her eyes, misty with alcohol and confusion, finally found my own. “Ella? Baby?”
Turned out my mother had a list of convictions longer than an octopus’s leg. She kept giggling at the irony that her own child was now a solicitor. Seemed that while I’d spent years training to counsel criminals, my mother had spent just as long becoming one.
It was all petty though – thefts; handling; a bit of prostitution. You know, the general things a gal needs to do to keep herself in fags and booze. The one saving grace was that my Mama never turned to drugs – and a stint in The Priory (paid for by yours truly) and a lifetime membership to AA eventually saw Mama right.
And so it was that Mama and I resumed our life together. She mellowed out – and I toughened up. Financially we were all set – and I bought us a small house. Mama got herself a rescue dog from Battersea – a mad terrier-type thing that occupied her days well enough when I was at work.
Finally, two years after our unusual reunion, I asked Mama once again about my father. I was a grown woman now – I wanted answers. I felt I had a right to know – my mother had had her years of secrecy when I was a child and, later, when we were separated. But there is a time for everything – and now was my time to own my history; to grasp my heritage and truly understand what it meant to be me.
I’d steeled myself for a row the day I asked. I was prepared to cajole, coerce and plead. But it turned out not to be like that at all – it was Mama’s time to speak; and, maybe, just maybe, because of my profession, she had decided that it was okay to confide.
We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table and when I asked, she slipped her hand into mine. “Sometimes, Ella, something so wonderful is preceded by something terrible – storms can flatten and destroy but, afterwards, there can still be a rainbow. You’re my rainbow, honey.”
“I don’t understand. Did my father abuse you? Were you raped?”
“Yes and yes,” my mother replied. “You ever wonder why you never had anybody – no aunts, no uncles, no grandparents?”
“Of course,” I said, and a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that if our conversation finished now, I already had my answer. “Mama, you’re not trying to tell me that . . .”
A tear slid from her eye and crept down her crêpey cheek. “Uh-hu. Your father – your grandfather. Same thing.”
Suddenly I understood – in a flashback to my eleven year old self I saw it anew; and now it all made sense – my mother’s insistence that we had no other next of kin. After all, how could we?
Last night, it was me who tucked my mother in. As I bent to kiss her, I whispered in her ear, “Tomorrow will be better, Mama. Tomorrow will be better. We have each other, and that’s all that matters.”
Because now I know what I am meant to do. I know why Mama was so full of anger for so long. And I also know why we were separated; why I was given this chance to become something I might never have otherwise become. It is to avenge my mother. I will find him. Now that I know, I will track him down and I will drag him through the legal system for what he did to her.
And when I am finally able to stare him down, as he stands trembling in the dock, I will do so safe in the knowledge that he’s no kin of mine.
Jimmy sat at the big oak table in the farmhouse kitchen. He dipped his old fountain pen in the ink and carefully started writing on the large sheet of paper in front of him.
With his yellowing, shrivelled fingers, deeply wrinkled, like the rutted channels by the nearby estuary, diligently, deliberately Jimmy moved his hand across the paper. He marked down numbers in all the boxes next to that day’s date, September 20, 2015. Rainfall, temperature (maximum and minimum), next to the numbers he'd already previously filled out for the whole year – tide times, highs and lows.
He also took the latest chart from his late father’s barograph, lifting the mahogany lid from the instrument delicately as he did so, as he had done every Sunday morning for years, and removed from the brass drum, the curled paper with its jagged line of dark blue ink, slightly smudged, charting the week’s highs and lows of atmosphere, and laid it out on a separate pile. He placed silver paperweights at both ends, both passed down in his father’s will from his ancestors in the cotton mills, to prevent the paper curling.
Jimmy was religious with his weather statistics. Every morning started with the brown Roberts radio blurting out next to his bed.
The Shipping Forecast. Jimmy always got up when it got to Fair Isle.
He flicked off the radio switch, flicked on the bedside lamp, and fumbled for the chain on his late grandfather's silver pocket watch, opened the clasp held it to his ear to check it was still ticking, kissed it, closed it, said a short prayer, and then dragged himself out of bed.
He headed down the steep stairs, turned over the calendar on the dresser to that day's date and said good morning to Billy, his faithful beagle, who, right on cue, dragged himself out of his own bed.
Jimmy opened the kitchen door, his hand turning the old metal key in the lock, letting Billy stagger out onto the stone doorstep.
Jimmy followed Billy outside, stopped and filled his lungs with one deep breath.
He held his breath for a few moments, then let out a deep sigh – exhaling his own ‘smoke’ into the early morning September air, the cold catching in the back of his throat and making him splutter.
His heavy black shoes temporarily made their darkening mark on the glistening, dew-smothered grass, charting his daily path to his battered, wooden weather station over by the stone wall.
There Jimmy held up the tube of water, reached for his small pencil from behind his left ear, made a scribble in his notebook, and took the readings from the thermometers, before closing the box.
Jimmy turned around, looked up to the weather vane on the roof, Old Father Time, he’d had it made for his father by a local blacksmith in honour of his dad’s love of cricket – the lovingly crafted metalwork a replica of the symbol of Lord’s cricket ground.
Today, looking out across the fields, where the morning mist hung heavy, the weather vane hardly moved, just the faintest of creaks audible, as it swung ever so slightly towards the west.
Jimmy turned and called Billy to join him on his way back into the kitchen.
After methodically pouring out Billy’s food, the dry cubes rattling into the silver bowl by the door, Jimmy took his seat at the table and started to complete his weather charts.
A few minutes later, by the time Billy, nose to the floor, scraping his bowl around the tiled floor, finally gave up on finding any more morsels, and wandered slowly over to the kitchen table to sit by his master's feet, Jimmy stood up and placed the completed weather sheet carefully on top of the pile on the table.
As Jimmy looked up he looked at how high the piles of papers had become, now towering over him. The sheer scale was staggering. Mountains of sheets, months, years, decades of weather charts, all meticulously completed. Some piles had become faded brown by the sun. Others were tinged by mould and emitted a musty odour due to the winter damp. All were weathered by time.
Jimmy got out one more piece of paper, another official-looking document, but this time from his late father’s weathered-brown leather briefcase.
“The last will and testament of Jimmy Shuttleworth.”
Jimmy looked down at the “next of kin” section on the form and the aching, gaping blank space next to it.
Then he looked down at Billy and broke his silence.
“Sorry lad, but they won’t let me put your name down on here. Don’t worry, I’ve left it all to the animal charity. They’ll look after you son." And with that he gave Billy a gentle pat.
Jimmy had never married. He’d never had children. No brothers or sisters. No cousins. After centuries this was finally the end of the Shuttleworth family.
Jimmy wasn’t going to wait any longer for the illness to creep over him, to snuff out the last of his life, the last of his line.
Ever since a week earlier the doctors had told him there was nothing more they could do, Jimmy had gone home to die. He wanted to choose his own time.
It had taken him a few days to get his house in order.
Once he knew his beloved Billy would be cared for, he just wanted to see out that final week of weather.
He’d no idea what was waiting for him on the other side, whether raging storm, or tranquil heavens, but he was past anger, past fear. He’d come to accept his fate.
He opened the tub of pills, swigged them all down with a huge glass of whisky – Talisker, his late father’s favourite – put his head on the table and waited for the final reckoning.
Billy snoozed gently at his master’s feet, none the wiser, disturbed briefly only when the grandfather clock’s rhythm changed, it ticked, clicked, whirred, and then started its chime.
Time and tide wait for no man.