Sick as a Dog, Sad as an Angel

Pin it

A knot of something was lodged beneath her skin, the skin of her stomach. In trying to work out what it felt like, she ran her closed eyes over bumpy things and decided eventually that it felt like she had swallowed an elbow.
     "Out," she mumbled, rubbing it with her fingers. "Get out."
     "What?" Pip rolled in the sheets, coughed, slid his arm over her thighs. He was low down in the bed, warm in the crisp light, gorgeous. His shoulders, arms. He laid his head on her, flicked his tongue at her navel. She shifted so that he would not feel the bump.
     "It’s a mystery to me," said Pip. "How this happens."
     They had slept well, drunk, she had a headache, she could smell his breath from half a bed away. He was pasty in the face. He talked, then snailed his tongue over her hip, then talked again.
     "Sleep, I mean. It is, if you think about it, the weirdest fucking thing. It’s like, you just shut down for eight hours or whatever it is, you just stop working. Every day. It’s a major design drawback. You couldn’t sell something that had to spend half of every day recharging. You just couldn’t. It’s a bad design, back to the lab, God, back to R & D, be real, this is not what people put up with anymore."
     "Don’t tickle."
     He coughed louder, pulled away, sat up.
     "Christ. And this input output thing is really inefficient."
     He pushed to the edge of the bed and up, holding his head. She could hear the sound of him pissing, running the tap, taking a drink. He came back with a glass in his hand, stood at the side of the bed and watched her, waiting so that he could take back the glass. She looked at his cock and it looked back at her.
     "Yeah. Head."
     He nodded, rolled her over, massaged her shoulders and her back. She lay on the knobbly growth inside her, pretended that it was just a matchbox fallen in the bed, that it didn’t matter.

Pip dressed really quickly, went out and bought a newspaper. He didn’t wear socks, felt the breeze about his ankles. When he got back she was throwing up in the bathroom with the door locked. He turned on the television and sifted though a cereal packet for the toy. It was a puzzle, a rectangle of squares that moved around, one place empty, and you had to try and make a picture. It was a picture of a puppet. A puppet of a dog. He winced every time Lill retched. On the television there was mass, language programs, Sunday politics. He felt horny. Lill was quiet for a few minutes. Then she opened the door and crept back to bed.

He paid the taxi driver and thought she might have died.

     The next day he took her to the doctor and waited on a plastic chair that reminded him of school. Lill came out and told him that she had to go to the hospital. That she had to go straight there. Then the doctor appeared and asked Pip to go home and get some things for her, a nightie, a cardigan, slippers. She didn’t have any of those things.
     The doctor called a taxi and she kissed Pip and he squeezed her hand and off she went. At the flat he sat for a moment. He stared at the blank television. He drank a glass of water. He kept on talking out loud, asking the space beside him questions as if there was someone there.
     "I don’t believe it," he said, and his hand kept on opening as if to receive.
     He put three pairs of Lill’s knickers in a bag, and two T-shirts that she sometimes wore to bed. He put her toothbrush and the toothpaste in a sandwich bag. Her deodorant. A box of tampons and a box of sanitary towels. Moisturizer. He thought about make-up but was unsure. He threw in a lipstick. Socks. A pair of tights. A jumper. Another T-shirt.
     The taxi driver took him to the shopping center first and waited while Pip bought a nightie. The woman in the shop was helpful. Lill was smaller than her, said Pip. Thinner he said, and she blushed, and he felt guilty. He bought two nighties, one pale pink, one pale blue. Couldn’t believe the price of them.
     He paid the taxi driver and thought she might have died. She might have started to bleed internally. On the inside. In the taxi. On the way there. Internally in the taxi she might have started to bleed. And bled to death on the inside before she’d even got through the door. He made noises in his throat that no one could hear. Found himself checking his pocket for the receipt for the nighties.
     He walked inside. Asked the nurse at reception. She sent him down a corridor to casualty. The first thing he saw when he got there was a small boy with blood on his face being wheeled through curtains. He asked another nurse. She asked who he was. Was he family?
     "We live together. I have her things. Nighties."
     "She’s gone to X-ray. Have a seat. She’ll be back in a minute."
     He waited. He sat beside a man who sniffed. A little girl stared at him. He wanted to go to the toilet. Through the doors he caught glimpses of doctors. As young as him they were — some of them.

Lill was dreamy. She was quiet like she was scared, and the nurses kept reassuring her, bus she was not scared. She was dreamy. She liked the pillows and the clean white sheets. She liked the warmth and the hum of voices. She liked the technology — the dials and buttons and the tubes and trays. She winced at the clack of the X-ray, was sure she felt the radiation in her, passing through her like minor lightning. She could not look at her stomach. When the doctor put his fingers there, she felt them like additions to the thing inside her. As if it had grown fingers of its own and poked at her from within, trying to find a way out. For a while she pretended she was Sigourney Weaver but it made her feel a little sick and she stopped.
     She pushed words out of her mind. Or covered them, hid them. She didn’t want to trawl through the mess of them, the way they pointed towards particulars. She flushed them out and filled herself with pictures. Pip in swimming trunks. The carpet in the bathroom. The side of her mother’s face. The pointed church. The sky. The sea. Pip in his swimming trunks.
     A nurse told him he could see her.
     "Is she all right?"
     The nurse nodded, grunted something.
     She was flat on her back. There was a thin pillow under her head and the bed clothes were straight and neat and her arms lay outside them. She looked like a letter in an envelope, pale as paper. There was a drip beside her, attached to the back of her left hand.
     "Are you okay?"
     "Yeah. Sorry."
     "For what?"
     "Scaring you."
     "You’re forgiven."

He smoked cigarettes and worried that he had done it to her with his way of having sex.

     He went to her, kissed her on the forehead, put a hand on her hair. Kissed her again. He asked her what the doctor had said but she told him that the doctor hadn’t said anything, that he was coming to see her soon, that she would tell him then.
     At home he made phone calls. Called Lill’s place, sighed relief when her father answered. Her father listened, made small panic noises, but was efficient, sensible, asked good questions, thanked Pip. Told him they’d see him at the hospital.
     He called some friends, and was reassured and offered company and help and so forth. He called work and they obviously had some kind of procedure for this kind of thing, some contingency plan for non-direct sudden illness necessitating presence of staff at hospital bedsides. They told him it was covered, catered for, it was all in hand.
     He smoked cigarettes and worried that he had done it to her with his way of having sex, or that he had mistreated her somehow and she had been too scared to tell him to stop, or that he was the carrier of some disease and had infected her. He was watching a sentimental advert for life insurance or telecommunications or something like that when he burst into tears, and he was very shocked by the thickness of snot and the wetness of cheeks and the whole messy suddenness of it, and it made him think that he must be guilty of something somewhere along the line. And he decided that feeling guilty was a selfish thing, and that he should not admit those thoughts.
     He set up the video to tape Brookside for her. He tidied the bathroom, scrubbed the sink and the shower and cried again when he couldn’t get the dirt out from between the tiles, which made him hugely angry at how pathetic he was, and he was frightened by how pathetic he was, as well as angry, and all of this internal crap mixed itself into a general selfishness which ran down he face, which he slapped sharply, a brutal little reminder, which as soon as he’d done it seemed entirely indulgent and self-pitying.
     He wondered if they would let him stay in the hospital overnight, if they would let him get into bed beside her, if they would allow him to be like that.

When he got to the hospital, carrying flowers that he thought might be too big, too colorful, might look too expensive, he was told that she had been moved to a private room, and on his way up in the elevator he debated whether that meant she was dying already. Her parents were there, outside the door, her father talking to a doctor, her mother squinting, counting her fingers, and Pip thought it odd that they were standing outside — odd and bad — a bad sign. They didn’t see him until he stood amongst them.
     "Pip, hi."
     "Oh Pip love are you all right?"
     "How is she?"
     He said this to the doctor and then thought he shouldn’t have, so he half smiled at the parents, and then regretted that too, and looked again at the doctor, and thought it was ridiculous that everything should be so slow so suddenly.
    "She is going to need surgery, I’m afraid," said her father, the doctor’s lips not even moving.
    "What is the prog, di, the prog-diag, the nosis. What is that?"
    "The diagnosis," said her mother.
    "The surgery is exploratory," said the doctor, confusing Pip with a Scottish accent.
    "Lill has a growth, or an obstruction, of some kind. It could be one of many things. We feel that surgery is appropriate, as whatever it is will need to be removed in any case."
    Pip nodded.
    "So rather than keyhole," he said, "rather than biopting, biopsy, you might as well…"
    "When?" whispered her mother.
    "First thing in the morning. So please allow her to get a good night’s sleep."
    He nodded and walked away and Pip looked at him go, and watched him pause to say something to a nurse, who smiled, and took a tiny notebook from her pocket and wrote something there and smiled again, the doctor walking off again, down the corridor and through swing doors. Lill’s father explained that they had arrived just a moment before Pip, that they had met the doctor as he had left her room, that they had not yet seen her. Pip wanted them to go away. He wanted to see her on his own. He would not be able to kiss her, touch her. He would have to let them do the talking. She wouldn’t be able to talk to him, ask him the important questions, be reassured by him. He felt remarkably annoyed — irritated — and he could not bring himself to look at her mother or return her father’s watery, worried smile as he held the door for his wife and then for Pip. The room was warm.
    She was sitting up, chewing a fingernail, the television remote control in her lap.
    She smiled at all of them.
    "No more bikinis for me," she said.

He went into a long incoherent speech about how he loved having sex with her and that it was the best sex, and she told him to shut up.

    They each kissed her cheek, and she sniffed the flowers and gave him a second kiss for them, and her mother disappeared into a bathroom with a vase and there was noise of water and wrapping paper and little exclamations of delight and mild consternation that she could find nothing with which to cut the stems. With flowers placed on the radiator (where Pip was sure they would dry up and die in no time), looking alarmingly too big for their container, all three of them sat around her, and her parents were so cheerful, so casual, so determined to be relaxed that Pip wanted to scream. They drove him mad with hospital stories of this neighbor or that neighbor, about whose son was a doctor where, who used to be a nurse, how the room was drab but it was good to have a bit of privacy, and Lill peered at Pip and he could say nothing, could not get close to her, could not make it known to her that he knew, he understood, and it would be all right. He went to the bathroom and inhaled his reflection violently and was cross with himself. Then he thought that maybe they were waiting for him to leave so they could be with their daughter, and he thought of things he might say that would politely get the message across to them that it was they who should leave, that they were distressing her with all of this, that they should allow her time to herself, time with him, that it was only right that they should be given some privacy, some solitude, at a time like this. This was important.
    He went back out and took his seat and Lill smiled at him, and he shook his head and tried to smile to show that he knew what she was thinking, but his smile was not working, and he didn’t know what kind of face it was he made, but she gave him an odd look.

They gave her a sleeping tablet and as she drifted off she thought of how nice she felt, how safe and warm and painless, and she wanted to bring everyone with her, her mother and Pip and even her father, bring them along for the sleep.
    In the morning she was hungry and mostly thirsty but they wouldn’t let her take anything and she was frightened for a while, not feeling cold exactly, but knowing that it was cold outside her bed, and knowing somehow what cold felt like. Pip had been sweet. In a way. She looked at the flowers, tottering on the windowsill, so bright that they dazzled her. For a while she listened to his Walkman but was afraid that she would miss some real noise relating to herself, and switched it off, but left the earphones in so that she looked relaxed. He had stayed too late — the nurse had asked him to leave. It would have been nice if he had made some joke and kissed her, but he had been so serious and teary eyed and had hugged her too long, and he had rushed off then like he was trying to be brave, which annoyed her because it was no help to her to have him freaked out. Her parents had been better, pretending to be casual, leaving her with gentle kisses and a nod and a quiet promise that everything would be all right. Once they had gone, Pip stuttered through strange declarations of things she already knew, not making sense, rambling, confusing her with a faulty memory of how they had met, getting the place wrong, and being so apologetic when she corrected him that she was annoyed at him for being stupid. Not stupid for his mistake but for his horror at having made it. He was daft and serious. When she tried to break into him with a suggestion that they have a quick and quiet shag, he went pale and seemed to take her seriously, and when he realized that she was joking, he went into a long incoherent speech about how much he loved having sex with her and that it was the best sex, and that it would always mean everything to him, although it was not, of course, the main thing, the most important thing, that he loved her for everything, for absolutely everything about her, and that would not stop. She told him to shut up.
    A nurse came and got her to change into a smock thing that tied up in the back and she could feel the cold through it as the nurse crouched to inject her with something and gave her tablets and a sip of water, "just a sip now," and put her back into the bed and tucked her in and told her she would relax and probably doze. Which she did. She dreamed of swimming with Pip, and the air was as blue as the water and Pip’s skin was warm and they were perfect swimmers, perfect.
    They woke her with their underwater voices and hands piled her onto some kind of trolley and she was heavier than she’d ever been and she didn’t care about anything, even thought that the porter sneaking a look at the naked back of her was kind of cute. They went up in a lift and wheeled her trolley to a bed and they asked her to lift herself and they helped her across, giggling, amazingly heavy. A face looked into hers. They did something with her arm, they said hello. It was bright. There were many people. The face smiled at her.
    "I’m going to count backwards, Lillian, okay? From ten."
    "What’s that?"
    "I’m Lill."
    "Lill. Sorry. Ten, nine, eight . . . "
    As she went she thought of a joke. I’m Lill. I’m Lill and I’m ill and I need a pill.
    Pip threw up while he was waiting. He threw up twice. The second time someone heard and asked through the door whether he was all right. He thought it was because he hadn’t been able to eat the night before so that he was starving when he woke and comfortably ate more than he should have and then as soon as he had left the flat the nerves had kicked in and he was in trouble. Mr. and Mrs. were in the worst of moods for him, for his own state of mind. She sat and counted her fingers and he paced, both of them occasionally staring at each other for brief little desperate moments. But he was more desperate than them. He found himself thinking that they had had her for the whole of her life and he had only just found her and it wasn’t fair. Every footstep had one of them panicked, so that there was always one looking up, huge-eyed, while the other took turns at head in hands of moving lips. They hardly talked. Pip went to get coffees and had trouble carrying one, never mind three, so he ended up doing a trip for each of them, which passed ten minutes, him hurrying down corridors burning his fingers, convinced he was missing something. They drove him mad. He thought that this was maybe a good thing. He even thought that maybe they weren’t driving him mad at all but that he had decided they were to distract himself from thinking about Lill. It was when his thoughts formed this particular argument that his stomach heaved for the first time, the coffee not helping, and he trotted to the bathroom with his mouth full of acid and gases. He felt terrible, which of course made him wonder at how sick Lill must be and made him feel guilty, which he experienced as a nausea slightly beside the one he already had, and a clicking in his head as if his ears had been on a flight.

He went home with them, staying for a while, drinking a gin and tonic with Lill’s father, talking about Lill.

    Lill had once hit him. She had slapped him across the face because he had slagged off a band she liked. It had happened in the Olympia, in the dress circle where the mirrors repeat the crowd. It happened when the lights came up and she asked him what he had thought of them, and he had shrugged and said something he couldn’t remember and she had smacked him once, hard, loud, and everyone had looked and he had tried to laugh it off, as if it was nothing, nothing at all, and she had laughed too, as if she had done it because she was happy and it was a physical thing she could do to him without admitting anything, and the two of them had shuffled out of their seats, stared at, his cheek burning, smiling those awful embarrassed smiles of people who don’t quite get their own jokes. What he found most startling was his lack of anger. You can be angry with her and not lose her. That is allowed. But he was never angry with her.
    All those mirrors, so that everyone saw that smack a thousand times, from a thousand different angles, hung in the red and gold like puppetry.
    When the doctor came it struck Pip that everything was following a very predictable pattern, that this was soap opera formula, that he’d seen it on the TV a hundred times, and so had Lill. And it was just like they’d watched it. Which made him wonder, as the doctor talked, whether the people who wrote these television dramas had done really good research, or whether people who worked in hospitals now knew what was expected of them. Everyone, thought Pip, is comfortable with this.
    "Lill is in the recovery room where we’ll keep an eye on her for a while and then she’ll be going back to her room. You can see her then. We found a growth in the wall of her stomach which we have removed. Obviously this will have to be tested, but I think it’s fair to say at this stage that it looks most likely that it’s benign and isolated.
    "Oh thank God," said Lill’s mother, and her father held his wife and nodded and nodded and continued to nod.
    "How can you say that?" Pip asked him.
    "Well, I’m saying it based on what I saw, and the kinds of things I’ve seen before. There was no evidence of other tumors, or of spreading. The lymphatic system is clear. Obviously I’d caution you all that we have to wait for the results of the biopsy. But I think there’s cause for optimism.
    "You can’t say that, though."
    Lill’s father took his elbow.
    "We’ll wait, Pip, for the results, it’s okay."
    "Yeah, but he shouldn’t say that. You shouldn’t be allowed to say that kind of thing. It’s not helpful you know? To be raising hopes like that and then a few days later apologizing to us when you get the results and it’s not what you’d told us at all. It’s not professional."
    "I wanted to ease your worries a little, that’s all."
    "Well, it’s not helpful."
    The doctor looked at Pip, a little strangely, fixing him for a moment. Then he nodded to Lill’s parents.
    "Well, please get in touch with my office if you want to go over the results with me when I get them. I’ll be seeing Lill in the morning. Bye bye."
    And he walked down the corridor.
    "I’ll make a complaint."
    The doctor paused briefly but did not turn.
    "Oh Pip, for God’s sake," said Lill’s father. "The man is trying to be helpful. Most doctors wouldn’t tell you a thing."
    "Which is as it should be."
    He went home with them, staying for a while, drinking a gin and tonic with Lill’s father, talking about Lill. About how she had been as a child, about the things she had liked.
    "You should take her on a little holiday Pip," said her mother. "When she’s better. Take her off to Cliffden maybe, she liked that before, let her do some swimming maybe if she’s up to it. She’ll need to relax for a bit."
    Pip thought about her sitting on the rocks, about the two of them walking the road out to the headland, chasing midges away, gasping at the ocean, making love in a field and having to stop because of the laughter, and the noises in the hedges, and the snapping in the air.
    "Well," he said. "One step at a time."

They called the hospital twice before they heard that Lill was back in her room. Her father drove, and although Pip thought he shouldn’t, after two G & Ts. Which had his own head slightly numbed, he said nothing.
    She was white. A tube disappeared into her nose, another one went up under the sheets and the blankets halfway down the bed. A device with a huge syringe set into it sat on her bedside table. Her eyes opened when they came in, but she closed them then and did not open them again.
    Her mother took her hand and kissed her forehead and whispered things to her that Pip could not hear. Her father stood at the other side of the bed, put a hand on her shoulder, took it away, sat down.
    Pip stood at the door. He looked at the tubes and the syringe. He looked at the flowers he had sent, and the bottle of orange her mother had brought in, and at the half dozen or so cards which lined the windowsill. Only he had sent flowers. Why had her father not gotten flowers for his daughter? Why had nobody else done that? There was a flower shop at the hospital entrance. Why had nobody else come to visit her? What were they thinking?
    He looked lastly at Lill. There was no color in her — even her hair seemed thinned and diluted and not her own. Her closed eyes were ringed and shocking, as if she was dead or painted dead, and the rise and fall of her chest seemed to him to be irregular and sharp and wrong.
    "Jesus," he hissed.
    "Pip, come and sit here, Lill, Pip is here too."

"God knows she has enough to worry about without you behaving like someone’s broken your favorite toy."

    Nothing in her moved except her heart up and down, pushing to get out, and her hand seemed to tremble, but when he looked at it, it stopped, and his eye caught that of her mother, who looked at him open mouthed, and her father too, staring at him, openly, fixing him as the doctor had done, and he knew that he was doing this all wrong, that he was incorrectly placed, out of position, and he could not decide whether it was his right to be awkward. It was not clear to him what his role was, whether he was central or sidelined, whether this was hers only or hers and his both, whether he was equal to the parents of allowed only to watch, a friend of the family, not expected to have any investment in this.
    "Come and sit down, Pip."
    "I’m going to find the doctor. I want to know what’s going on."
    Her father stood suddenly, and moved towards him, and nodded, and took his arm, and opened the door and led him gently, firmly, out into the corridor.
    "What is your problem?"
    "Why are you making this so difficult? It’s nobody’s fault. The doctor has been excellent. He’s the best there is. You think I didn’t make sure of that? You think I haven’t been through everything in my mind, over and over? Do you think I haven’t terrified myself with thoughts of what could be going on? But I’m not going to let her down. I’m not going to scare her mother. God knows she has enough to worry about without you behaving like someone’s broken your favorite toy."
    "So get it together or leave. You’re useless here the way you are. You’re being neurotic and selfish."
    He turned to go back in, then turned again.
    "She is loved by all of us. You don’t have exclusive rights here Pip. So stop behaving like you’re the only one who cares. It’s the stupidest thing I ever saw."
    He glanced towards the nurses’ station and then looked at Pip’s shoes. Looked at his shoes, pushed the door open with his shoulder and went back into he daughter’s room.

Lill dreamed of drowning, over and over again, without being able to wake, and each time she drowned she saw her body being laid out naked in the grass beside some fast river in the cold of winter, and she saw Pip crouch over her and stare into her face and hang over her, then supported on his arms, and she could feel, dead as she was, the water of him fall on her, tears and spit and come, all of it washing her, Pip raining on her as if to confirm that she was gone and he was left after, and he was useless in the face of her alteration.
    She knew.
    When she woke properly, eventually, to a numbness in her belly that she imagined had turned in her dreams into the presence of Pip’s body, and to a blurred vision of her parents, and saw that he was not there, she knew.     She could not talk very well, and in any case, after trying once, found she did not want to talk, that it would be a very dull thing to do. She listened to her mother, and later, to the doctor, who, from what she could gather, was happy with her, and she sipped cold water and heard her father say eventually that Pip would be in later, and she knew.
    When he did come, she was beginning to feel the nausea, of which she vaguely remembered having been warned. He was sullen, kissed her, but sat away then, did not pull the chair close.
    "How do you feel?"
    "Sick as a dog."
    He nodded.
    "Can I get you anything?"
    He looked terrified of her. She shook her head, which was a mistake, and reached to the bedside for the metal bowl they had given her.

He cried at what he was doing, at the trick in his mind that allowed him to do it.

    "I’m meant to throw up in this, apparently."
    He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, coughed.
    "I’m no good at this."
    "At what?"
    She nodded, and this time the movement, which he hadn’t even seen, caused her to throw up a spoonful of pale yellow liquid, and she retched painfully and worried for the first time about the dressing and the stitches. Pip stood, placed a light hand on the top of her head.
    "Will I call a nurse?"
    She couldn’t hear him for a moment, and in that time he moved away from her towards the door. She looked up to see him in the middle of the floor, undecided, an arm outstretched towards the door handle, but his upper body turned back to her. A look on his face that was half disgusted and half confusion. For a horrible moment she hated him. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply and wiped her mouth with a tissue.
    "It’s all right."
    He sat down again.
    "I want to sleep."
    "Do you want me to go?"
    He waited for a minute, then stood.
    "I’ll be back in the morning."
    "Go to work."
    "Lunchtime. I’ll come at lunchtime."
    He leant down and kissed her forehead.
    "I love you," he said.
    When he closed the door she threw up again. After a few minutes of it she pressed the button to call the nurse.

Pip went home and drank some water, and he looked at the things they owned. He sat by the telephone and made a list of his friends. In his mind he made another list. He could not balance the two.
    He touched her clothes in the wardrobe, looked for marks of her, found himself forgetting that she was still in the hospital. He kept on thinking she was further. He waited until it was properly dark and then he made calls, ticking off everyone on his list one by one. In a steady voice he told them all that Lill was not well, that the doctors were not happy, that she was in intensive care, that she had not yet regained consciousness, that if they were praying people they might usefully pray. Sometimes he cried at what he was doing, at the trick in his mind that allowed him to do it, and the people on the list tried to comfort him, cried with him sometime, offered to come over. He declined. He declined it all.
    Pip wondered what names could be given him. He thought deeply for hours about descriptions of himself and he could find none. He waited to wake, he waited all night to wake up, but the sun came and he was still sleeping and he could not shake it off.  

"Sick as a Dog, Sad as an Angel," a short story from Standard Time by Keith Ridgway, has been reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press, LLC. © 2003 by the author. Standard Time will be published by St. Martin’s Press in Winter 2005.

©2003 Keith Ridgway and


Keith Ridgway was born in Dublin. His first novel, The Long Falling, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Standard Time, from which "Sick as a Dog, Sad as an Angel" was taken, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in Winter 2005.