The first one was Billie Whitelaw in The Omen. Not the scene where she tries to fight off Gregory Peck and ends up with a fork in her head, but the one where she meets Damien and tells him she’s been sent to protect him … fear not little one, I am here to protect thee. She was right there standing over my bed speaking those same soft words that sounded like bubbles rising in a stream. It must have played through my mind a dozen times and I couldn’t tell if it was real or a dream or hallucination, except that it seemed like all three at the same time. Nothing I experienced made sense the day they moved me to a recovery ward.
I didn’t feel that sick, just tired and sore as if I’d been rolled in a carpet and kicked repeatedly.
‘You’re a lucky man,’ said a doctor from behind layers of blue scrubs and masks and stuff that made him look like a cross between an astronaut and one of those people who clean up toxic spills.
‘It was touch and go for a while.’
I wanted to speak but my throat felt like a porcupine had been pulled backwards through it.
‘Don’t do that,’ said the doctor, ‘rest and be thankful.’
Thankful I thought, it didn’t seem like the right word. It seemed like a word that occupied someone else’s world.
The doctor wandered off and I followed him as far as I could with my eyes. I tried to sit up when immediately a nurse dressed in the same kind of hazmat gear as the doctor put her hand gently on my chest and I sank back down obediently.
‘Nod if the answer is yes, shake your head if it’s no,’ she said.
I waited for her questions.
‘Does it hurt to breathe?’
‘Is the pain in your chest?’
I paused and, after a moment, shook my head.
‘Is there a discomfort in your chest?’
‘Is your throat sore?’
I nodded, twice.
‘That’s good. It means your lungs are recovering.’
She placed a handheld machine that looked like a small price gun on my forehead. There was a click followed shortly with a beep.
‘You’re still feverish, but that’s normal. It could be a couple of weeks before you’re better, but for now you’re out of the woods.’
The woods are lovely, dark and deep … moved through my mind like a light somewhere far off.
Billie Whitelaw came by shortly afterwards. I must have slept or passed out. When I came to the long urgent beep of someone in cardiac arrest punctuated the space. I saw blue-clothed bodies move around me like skaters on a rink and then just as quickly, they were gone, the world was quiet. Billie Whitelaw’s bubbling words descended and I felt a sudden heaviness before losing consciousness.
In the time between rising into and falling out of wakefulness I was on the Orca as it bobbed along the blue sea looking for the great white. Quint’s voice was coming from somewhere below … cage goes in the water. You go in the water. Shark is in the water, our shark.
I remembered then, how it felt like drowning. I was six and caught in a riptide at Portmarnock Beach. I was under and over and rolling and there was nothing but bubbles and water and fear. Even in the untethered naivety of my childhood I had a sense that this was it, I was going and I wouldn’t be back. I relaxed into the moment until a hand grabbed me and lifted me and I took air and I coughed until my soul was behind my teeth. That was last week and forty years ago at the same time. I shook as the fever prodded me as if to say the woods were not far away and I’d better not think differently.
Farewell and adieu you fair Spanish ladies …
There were other dreams interwoven with threads of feverish delirium. I ran through a tracklist of movies and music and faces and places. Things both marvellous and mundane. There was a swell of noise as if everything was a television set on full volume and in the second to last dream I was outside looking up at the night sky. The cool air which I’d not felt in over a month was like another person’s skin. My uncle was stargazing. He told me to come over and look into the telescope he’d pointed at the sky above the low moon.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you used to like this stuff when you were a kid.’
I recalled a hilltop a long time ago when he told me about things I couldn’t comprehend and still can’t. Unfathomably massive things that existed in a time and place beyond distances as we knew them and beyond thought as we understood it.
‘We’re supposed to stay two metres apart from one another.’
‘Get over here, don’t mind that nonsense. You’re not contagious anymore and I’m dead so let’s just look at the stars for a minute.’
I moved towards him. He was in his middle years before his breakdown. He was exactly as I remembered him and I was grateful.
Rest and be thankful.
He stood back and I bent down and looked through the eyepiece.
‘What am I looking at?’
‘What do you see?’
‘A big sky full of stars and blurry red blob.’
‘Twiddle the knob at your left hand until the red blob becomes focused.’
I did as told.
‘Ok, big red star is clear as crystal.’
‘Betelgeuse,’ he said, ‘it’s about to explode.’
‘When?’ I said.
‘About fifty thousand years.’
‘That’s not exactly soon,’ I said mockingly.
‘It is for me,’ he said.
I watched as the star pulsed in rhythm with my breathing. I knew it from before. Betelgeuse was the right shoulder of Orion. I ran through the other stars in the constellation Bellatrix, Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak Rigel…
The final dream took me to the source. The party a month before where I’d been outside with a pretty woman who wasn’t my wife. We were sharing a cigarette and my head was light with booze and excitement. I wasn’t supposed to be there. A colleague had suggested it and on a whim I decided to go so that now I was in a stranger’s back garden with a strange woman sitting on my lap. My wife had been trying to call me, but apart from a cursory text telling her I was at a work thing, I’d ignored her. The woman on my lap was laughing at something I’d said.
She told me she’d just arrived home a week ago from Singapore and she’d felt a bit strange for a few days but was fine now.
‘This is my first night out in a while,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said reflexively.
She put the cigarette in my mouth and I pulled on it.
As I took the cool smoke into my lungs and felt the satisfying click in my throat as it went down I realised that I was never a smoker and yet here I was, smoking. In the mix of the cold March night and the unknown woman’s weight pressing me to my chair my head began to swim and I began to cough. As I forced whatever was in my lungs into the air the woman jumped up and stepped back as if she’d been grabbed from behind. A half light pushing into the space from inside the house split my face and the woman screamed. There were wires coming from my mouth and they were moving towards her. She turned to run but they coiled around her.
‘Try not to sit up.’
It was the same nurse in the hazmat suit. I could only see her eyes magnified through the screen of her mask.
‘I’m going to turn you on your side, it might hurt your chest when I do.’
I felt a smooth, firm movement as she turned me which was quickly followed by an involuntary cough that made a sound like gravel falling into a bucket. Another cough rattled through my lungs and shook my body. I felt like I was drowning. The nurse began to push a tube into my mouth.
Billie Whitelaw came to me later that night and said she was there to protect me. I closed my eyes and waited for the light of dawn to push through the blinds, but it never came.
Robert McDermott is an teacher living and working in Dublin and finding distance learning a real challenge. He has published a few short stories and recently won the iNOTE short story competition. He can’t wait to go on holidays again, it doesn’t really matter where. His wife, son and two cats agree.