I have always been captivated by books and reading. It would tug on me – an exquisite pull moving me away from wherever I was, which was for the most part, a place where I did not want to be.
Two books that have lingered are ones that Ineka recommended to me – Colin Theile’s ‘The Undercover Secret’ and Louise Fitzhugh’s classic ‘Harriet the Spy’. Reading was better than prescription medicine; better than physio, anti-biotics, being tipped on a bed until you were all but hanging like a bat with your feet hooked under the mattress so as not to smash your skull on the headboard.
I became Harriet.
So much so, I created my own spy route. I found myself a reporter style notebook and a magnifying glass, wore a long olive green vinyl coat and a Fedora tipped on its side. With my long coat, my awkwardly tipped hat and my notebook, I’d loiter around the neighbourhood, my feet idling above the asphalt, writing down everything I saw.
And yes, everything was suspicious.
Reviving thoughts of Ineka is something I do well because we spent so much time in hospital together. After the lights had been switched off, almost savagely and not leaving any of us with a chance to settle after what could have been a traumatic day or night of missed cannulations, being held down on that plank of a table in the treatment room or a run in with the matron. Or if a friend had died behind closed curtains while relatives were ushered in and out in their disoriented grief. A grief they had nowhere to place.
Long after we had been told to scramble into our beds, Ineka would bide her time until all the beds in E cube were silent. Then she would wait to hear the gaggle of nurses up the other end of Turner Ward, gossiping and writing in charts at the front desk.
You wouldn’t hear Ine rise from her bed because there was nothing of her. But you could always hear the breath rattling in her chest – her signature sound. Sleep has never come to me easily and so I would see Ine. She would read by the window, her only light being thrown down by the moon and the lights from the park that always seemed within reach. Everyone would be asleep and I would watch Ine read.
I wouldn’t have been older than seven or eight, yet I still hold her silhouette in my mind – a little girl with a curved back, cradling the spine of a book in her hands, her massively clubbed fingers like matchsticks shaking from Ventolin, trying to stifle her coughing so she could just keep reading. Ineka’s coughing fits were more akin to marathons and were never easy to listen to or watch, except that you would because you knew that her suffering was so immense, you felt compelled to listen. She would turn equal shades of red and blue and there were times we thought she was going to breathe her last crackling breath. Many times I watched as she bled from her lungs and out of her sweet mouth.
But in that muted light, the shape of her face, that curve in her back bones, her thick dark blonde bob, her purpose was authentic. Ineka knew she didn’t have long on this earth. As did we all – patients, nurses, doctors. I like to believe that Ineka sees me write, and that she would read my work if she were still of this earth, or simply that she does read my work. Even as a little girl, I remember saying that it was like she was dying all her life. And it’s here where it hurts to be alive.
So why couldn’t they just let her read?