“Nine Hours” by Annwen Elizabeth Evans Bates

Amaia adjusts the dark blue blanket around her shoulders and tucks the loose corners under her arms.

“Oh Mannie, thank you for coming at such short notice. And for bringing the sleeping bag. I know it’s going to be cold out and I’d like to at least be comfortable.” She pulls something out of her pocket. “This is for you.” She hands over a bulging DL envelope, folded in half. The broken seal at the top gives away that it has been used. Maybe Amaia had received a bill or doctor’s letter in it. “Sorry it’s so scrappy. It’s the best I had at hand. I’m sure you understand.”

I peer inside.

“Look later, after… We don’t have much time.”

The envelope was crammed with notes. “Amaia, really, this isn’t necessary.”

“I can’t do anything with it and anyway, I passed a cash machine on the way home. Better in your hands than the bank’s. Go and do something nice. Send me a postcard.” She smiles. “Come on, let’s get going.”

#

She says goodbye to her landlady and we make our way down the road and along the back suburban streets. We are laden with blankets and pillows, the sleeping bag. A cooler box jangles from one of my arms. This is the first warm Saturday. The balmy, but swiftly cooling evening is idyllic. It is the long-awaited shift to summer’s warmer temperatures. We turn up a hidden side path that leads to a nearby wood. It is steep and we make our way up it slowly. White dog roses hang low across our heads, ivy is thick on our right and the path reeks of dog piss.

“A dog would be good company for this journey,” notes Amaia pointing, “He could leave his mark here, add his piss to the others’.”

Even in these first forty minutes, she has so much more to say than I do, but then she has had about seven more hours to come to terms with what is to come. At the end of the steep path we reach the gate, which we cover with the blankets and sleeping bag. We use the cooler box as a step and climb over the gate into the wood. I have never been into late-night trespassing, neither has Amaia, but these are unusual times.

“I’m going to have a difficult time explaining all this.”

“That’s what friends are for,” laughs Amaia.

Amaia knows the spot she has in mind. It is an elevated clearing in the wood, which she identifies as “where the bluebells are an abundant sea in spring”. She snuggles into the sleeping bag and sits up against a tree with a pillow propped up behind her. I switch on her portable, insert the network adapter, doubtful that we might access any signal from this spot. It is worth a try, especially for a moment such as this. Amaia is unpacking her backpack. She sets out three bottles of water, rescue remedy, a heap of Ibuprofen and Codeine boxes, three bottles of codeine linctus, a slab of dark chocolate and a grubby, well-loved teddy bear. She also pulls out a bottle of wine.

“So you’ve started drinking?” I say.

“It’s for you, to toast the occasion.” She picks up the boxes of tablets and starts arranging them in a neat tower. “I didn’t think I could get this much shopping done in the time I had. I went to three different pharmacies, so as not to arouse suspicion. Luckily, there’s a glut of pharmacies open on a Saturday afternoon near the Emergency Clinic.”

I don’t want to probe too much, but I should, just in case I have to answer difficult questions tomorrow. I do know that Amaia has called her mum, brother and sister. We also hope to connect with them via the portal in the wood. I will hold her hand. The rest is inevitable. Amaia starts crying.

“Mannie, is this really it? Is this how it ends?”

I step over towards her and take her in my arms.

#

It was 3pm when Amaia walked out of the Emergency Clinic. She collapsed unexpectedly in the morning during a workout. These sudden seizures are not uncommon among our generation. We wonder if they were caused by the devices. It was impossible to live life without these agents. We worked with them, used them to plan and guide our daily lives. Slowly, but most surely, we realised they were also killing us. We noted this, but it was not made official. The expert diagnoses were vague and the conclusions swift. Amaia was lucky because the doctors had recognised she had time: nine hours. She had almost half-a-day to prepare.

On the device she said to me, “I once knew a wise old woman who told me, ‘The gift of knowing is time.’ These last few hours are in some ways a gift.”

When I received Amaia’s news it was already 8pm. I was out drinking with friends and had stepped outside to take the call. I turned out my beer, stomped on the can. How could she have left it so late?

“Listen, Mannie, I called for support. If this is too much, forget it…” She took a breath. “Of all the people I know, with your training, you should have some understanding. This isn’t the time for a fall-out. I’m going through the stages. I’m staggering between anger and acceptance, and I’ve consumed quite a lot rescue remedy. Would you come over?”

#

Years before, when we were at college, a group of us decided to take off the afternoon for a trip to the seaside and we asked Amaia along. I’d teased her, of course her answer would be no; she’d scheduled her tasks for that afternoon weeks before. Tonight I watch her in this dark wood as she unpacks her provisions–ever her impeccable sense of fore-planning. By the calculations, we are now counting down to the last hour.

In her call earlier, she explained, “Mannie, I need you just to make sure I’m not in pain.” She had even researched the codeine to morphine effect beforehand. “When I first heard, I thought I would just climb into my own bed and drift off. I mean, what else was there to do? It’s not as though I was going to change the world or do my great work in nine hours. There isn’t enough time to get back to see my family. So, well, might as well accept things. Then I remembered… I just don’t want to be in that kind of pain and discomfort, please, Mannie, please.”

It was a great deal to process and in my pause her tone turned brusque, “If you’re not able to, say so now. Stop wasting my time. I’ll find someone else.”

But we both knew that in this city we had made our home, neither of us had that many people to turn to. As often in these darkest moments, it could mean turning to a stranger. Amaia knew this. “Mannie, I don’t want to be alone in a bed in an ugly hospital room.”

#

There is no signal and it is already 11pm. We debate whether to stay put or move on and then an almighty thunderstorm strikes. Amaia is already in tears about the lack of signal. With each burst of thunder she lets out a wired wail. Then she starts babbling, “I don’t want to die in this rain. The worms will come, come out of the earth to eat me here. The mud, the mud, will take me, like the men in the trenches. I’ll be stuck here. The flies will come. The maggots. Oh, Mannie, Mannie!”

Amid the thunder, lightening and rain, her own sobs and hiccups, she rattles a whisper, “Not here.”

With new determination Amaia rises. She climbs out of her sleeping bag cocoon, deserts her pile of comforts and starts walking. I pick up my backpack, toss her device inside and run after her. For me the ground is damp and slippery, but she strides ahead sure-footed. Back on a path, she turns towards the gate on the main road, on the opposite side to where we had climbed in. I’m behind, but catch her intoning to herself between coughs that rattle, “I can get out. Get to the gate. I’ll get out. It’s a bad dream. I’ll get out.”

She strides with purpose. At this speed we will be at the gate in a few minutes. And in that moment I am swept along in Amaia’s conviction. She may be right. It is possible that the doctors made an error, or she had misheard. Running around in a storm, in a wood late at night is a little surreal anyway. We just need to get inside, dry off and get some sleep. Aiming for the gate and getting back to reality seems sound strategy to me, too.

I notice the drama of the storm has subsided and although it is still raining, the drops fall lightly. In the distance, a church clock chimes. Once, twice, three times. It has been years since I’ve heard such a clear peal. Four, five, six. I pick up my pace.

“Hey, Amaia. Let me come with you to the gate. I’ll help you climb over.”

Seven, eight, nine. Amaia turns around, sways a little. “See, I made it.”

She is soaked through, her hair is sodden. Her face is grey, but her eyes seem bright and alive to me. Ten, eleven, twelve. I step forward to give her a hug. “You made it.”

Before I reach her, she crumples into the mud and wet leaves. Above us a hovers a helicopter on the lookout for druggies in the wood. They shine a beam down on us and I know, the explaining now begins.


Annwen Bates has penned over 200 poems. Other work includes essays on art, travel articles and short stories, and can be found in Carapace, Party in Your Eye Socket, Culture Trip, and Pambazuka. Her writing has also inspired a choral work by Keith Moss for the Horizons Project Choir. Annwen studied on scholarships at universities in Cape Town, San Diego and Oxford. She currently works in London.

 

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