The Word for Salt by Cathy Browne

Photo by Anas Alhajj on Unsplash

Helen and I were due to be born on the same day. She was two weeks early, I was two weeks late, and that month was the longest time we ever spent apart until she left for the University of Birmingham. Then we spent six weeks apart. And then she got sick.

We were more like twins than cousins, so when mum made noises about heading home on that last Saturday night, I said, “not yet”. The other girls followed my lead and begged to stay a little longer, and that’s when Nurse Ellis shocked us all and said that we could stay the night. She unlocked the games room for us; a peach curtained lounge packed with tired furniture and frilly table lamps. We were momentarily silenced. Two hours ago, hospital nurses glared at us for cluttering up the corridor, but here, at the hospice, nurses were opening doors to make room for us.

Aunt Janet brushed aside our parents’ niggles; of course Helen would want us there. Whilst our mums ferried back and forth to fetch our things, Sarah and I did a Tesco run for snacks. We transformed the games room into one of our old sleepover nests, a coffee table full of junk food and coke cans, the air liberally scented with deodorant and dry shampoo. With sleeping bags we claimed our beds. Sarah and Gemma moved the quickest and got the two sofas. Nic and I had to make do with the lounge-chairs, pulling the levers and pressing our bodies back to flatten them. We raided the sideboard for games and cards to fill the long hours. We laughed lots, and when one of us cried the rest didn’t comment. We’d cried so often together that tears had become as mundane as coughs; they came and went, and meant little. We took it in turns to sit with Helen.

Helen’s room fuzzed into focus as my eyes adjusted to the painfully bright lights. A water glass on a bedside table, a monitor whirring gently on top of a trolley, Aunt Janet sitting in position; Helen lying in a propped up hospital bed, her breaths ragged and rasping; and an empty chair waiting for the next sentry.

I squeezed her hand, waiting for her fingers to twitch back, but they remained limp. There was one clip on the end of her finger, but no other wires and tubes. They had stopped giving her anything except pain relief. They weren’t even giving her water or liquid food anymore. How could she stand a chance without water? Her lips were chapped. I wanted to dip my finger in the water glass and rub it along them, shake droplets in to her mouth, but Aunt Janet was smiling at me, so I did nothing.

“Hey, sweetie,” I said, “It’s April. I’m right here, okay? I love you very much.”   

I’d chanted this greeting a thousand times before. In the days after surgery, I whispered into her induced sleep; coaxing her to come back, and it worked. First her eyes opened and blinked at my questions, then, when they took the tube out of her throat, she croaked, “Hiya,” with a tired but familiar grin. The Doctors did their work, the physiotherapist strengthened her with daily exercises, and I cast my secret magic. I filled a little notebook with every scripture I could find that promised healing; God is within her, she will not fall – Psalm 46:5. I wrote her name in the margins of my class notes. I bought her Christmas present in May and hid it under my bed. I told God that she must live, and felt that he agreed. 

My prayers were answered slowly. It took weeks for her to be discharged. She came home weak and in a state of placid confusion. The girls and I took her out every Saturday to cafés where there were no steps for her to climb. It became our weekly ritual and with every week we saw how more and more of her was coming back to us. Although, there were set backs.

One lunch, she asked Gemma for a fork and got mad when Gemma handed her one.

“No, a fork!” she kept saying over and over as we piled up every utensil on the table in front of her like a shabby tribute. I finally realised that what she wanted was salt. I passed the little pink sachet and she accepted it, rolling her eyes with exasperated affection. We all laughed and Helen had beamed, but Sarah fretted afterwards saying that it wasn’t right that Helen, who could recite the whole of the periodic table, should forget the word for salt. I had to remind Sarah that this was all a completely normal part of recovery. Helen’s brain just had to reform the broken connections; she’d get there in time.

The next Thursday she collapsed again.  

I sat squeezing her hand, waiting for a reply whilst Aunt Janet talked about King David’s baby, the one that didn’t get better.

“And David said to his servants, ‘can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’ You should add that verse to your promise book. It will help,” she said. I nodded and smiled, but didn’t write it down. Helen’s rasps punctuated the spaces between Aunt Janet’s words.

Nic came for her shift, and before I headed to my lounge-chair bed I kissed Helen’s cheek and checked her scalp for new hair growth. They said that her hair would grow back brown after chemo, but they underestimated her. The soft fuzz growing in was her trademark platinum halo, and it did look a little longer than last week. Come back, I commanded silently. 

In the morning, James arrived in clothes crumpled from the two hour drive from Birmingham. Aunt Janet wrapped him in her arms and he cried. She shushed him and said it was very good of him to come. I didn’t mind James, but I didn’t fawn over him the way everybody else did. Last month, he had broken up with Helen. I couldn’t blame him; they’d only met at Fresher’s week, and Helen couldn’t go back to Uni. She was sad about the break up at first and then forgot it had happened. He was seeing someone else now, but he still replied to her messages and called her weekly. For this he was lauded a saint. Aunt Janet took him to Helen’s room. He lasted less than five minutes before dashing out to the car park and throwing up in the bushes.

More people arrived: our parents, grandparents, half the church, and when the Hospice grew too crowded we slipped away to KFC, taking James with us because Nic said he looked lost. I wasn’t sure that was a good idea because of the whole vomiting thing, but he was eager to come and said that food would do him good. We ordered chicken burgers and sat by the window, staring in dumb wonder at people walking past, enjoying an ordinary Sunday afternoon. I swamped my chips in salt and tasted nothing. My phone rang, it was Mum. Helen died without me.

The hospice was a sweltering press of people. They looked up as we walked in. Did they know that we had been at KFC when she died? The air droned with sympathetic voices. I ducked beneath the outstretched arms of hugging relatives until I found Aunt Janet. She sent us through in groups of three.

James, Gemma and I filed into Helen’s room. Gemma and I sat down, James lingered by the window, his gangly frame casting a shadow on the bed. The trolley, monitor and water glass had disappeared; there was only Helen. 

I scrutinised her face to see what had changed since last night. The rasping breathing had stopped, but otherwise she looked the same. I squeezed her hand; if it was cold, I couldn’t tell. The room was warm. Gemma bowed her head as if she were praying. 

The book of promises dug into my leg through my jeans’ pocket. What if I gently pushed open her eyelids and blew into her eyes? A mad thought, but, with a new sense of certainty, I knew that if I did, Helen would gasp in shock and wake up. I pictured Aunt Janet’s grey face breaking into raptured joy. I glanced at James but he was staring at his feet. I slowly rose and leaned over. Trembling, I reached for Helen’s eyes, but as I did so I saw her lips. They were red-raw canyons of cracks; the slightest friction would burst them open. She’d had nothing to drink for three days and the water glass was gone. I could bring her back, I knew it, but this time she wouldn’t wake with a grin. She’d wake retching, her tongue dried out and her brain starved of oxygen. She’d wake without knowing the word for salt, maybe without knowing any words at all. I could bring her back, but not all the way back, just enough to force her to relive the moment of death all over again, this time without the steady drip of morphine.  

Gemma was staring at me. I’d frozen half-bent over the bed, my hand hovered in mid-air. I forced myself to move. I cupped Helen’s face and kissed her forehead, as if that was what I had meant to do all along.

“We can give you a minute alone with her, if you like?” I said to James, no longer caring if he got special boyfriend privileges. Gemma nodded, already pushing her chair back, the legs scraping across the floor.

He shook his head in mild panic, but good manners left him no choice, “Okay,” he whispered hoarsely, “thanks.”

I closed the door behind us slowly, as if not to disturb his goodbye. James remained pressed to the window, staring at his feet, until I closed the door all the way shut.

About The Author

Cathy Browne grew up under the shadow of Pendle Hill, Witch Country in Lancashire. She worked for 13 years as an administrator at a College. When she was 32, she quit her job to study English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Central Lancashire. She is married to an Irishman and has one daughter. When Cathy is not writing she likes to entice wild animals to make their homes in her garden.

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