by Angela Hughes
Angela Hughes was shortlisted for the 2019 Berlin Writing Prize with her entry ‘Threshold’, excerpted here in the run-up to the launch of the 2019 Berlin Writing Prize Anthology, The Circus, forthcoming from The Reader Berlin in partnership with KLAK Verlag in 2020.
Exact time eludes me. Darkness has an early morning shallowness; a sense of dissipation. Beside me Paul sleeps, his snoring the bassline to the awakening of the day: rain drums on the van roof and somewhere beyond, the intermittent bark of a dog in a two-four rhythm. I roll on to my back, free my arm and reach to touch the left side of my neck. A morning routine, to check whether my carotid artery is distended. It isn’t. Skin smooth and flat. I slide my hand beneath the sheets, feel the pulse in my left wrist, count the beats until I pass 100; steady and strong. Almost three years post-transplant and still it thrills me: one beat on the heel of another. Paul stirs, mumbles something I don’t quite catch and immediately the snoring resumes. I close my eyes.
Outnumbered three to one: they stand, we sit. An absolute stillness on our side of the room. The two in the middle control the show, the consultant tall with glasses, the surgeon shorter, his shirt a schoolboy blue. We wait. The first to speak is an outlier, welcome to the circus, he says.
Front row tickets: not for the first time.
A dozen years, another room of pastel walls, heart monitors and antiseptic hand-wash. Then my mum’s face pale in the aftermath of a sleepless night, her body a tangle of blanket and creases, slumped in a chair in the corner by the window. The falling away of my stomach upon entering when, for that first instant, expectation and hope glimmered in the rise of her head, before she realised I was yet another question and not the longed for answer.
And so we sat, in a room such as this, same city, different hospital. We sat as the sun rose on Easter Sunday and my sister and her husband joined us with mugs of astringent tea. We sat in the same linear formation. Our family: breath bated. My dad in surgery, my brother and his wife on a flight from Melbourne.
When the surgeon came we looked up but didn’t stand. His proffered hand brought my mum to her feet.
“The operation was a success,” he said and the rest of us rose in ovation.
“What happens now?” my sister asked.
“Now, we wait. The next twenty-four hours are critical.” He turned to address my mum, “Your husband’s in ICU. Someone will take you along when they’ve got him settled.” He smiled then and I noticed the slight gap in his front teeth, a sheen of sweat on his top lip.
After he left the room we remained standing.
My dad waited five months for a new heart. Five months in which he became weaker, oxygen pumped into his defeated body via a portable tank. Unable to articulate how he was feeling, it was left to my mum to interpret his garbled speech and gestures. Towards the end he stopped trying and we learned to read his eyes. To talk was to squander breath and he couldn’t afford it. Lifting his arm to adjust his mask left him gasping. He ate little and moved even less. I remember nothing of how we all managed, how my mum got him to the bathroom, how any of us slept. Waiting for the pager to bleep, the phone to ring. A relentless passing of time.
The full story is featured in the 2019 Berlin Writing Prize Anthology, The Circus, forthcoming from The Reader Berling and KLAK Verlag in 2020.
Angela Hughes enjoys a life of beach walks, writing and yoga in the small town of Monifieth on the east coast of Scotland. In early December her life was put on hold while she waited for a new heart, which she received on Christmas Day. Her memoir about her experience was initially signed to Freight Books and is now looking for a new home. More recently she won a residency to work on a theatre production about heart transplantation and has had stories published in various magazines. She is currently writing her second book about her recovery and transition back to ‘normal’ life.