HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Second 2014

Hell? is uncompromising and very dark, an extraordinarily involving account of someone suffering from clinical depression and the desperation that horrible disconnect from ordinary society can lead the sufferer into.

Jennifer Footman comes originally from India before moving to Edinburgh, where she attended university.
From there, Jennifer went on to Canada in 1979.
Her poetry and fiction have been published in various journals in Canada, the US and UK and she's had four collections of poetry published.
Jennifer has won quite a few competitions - including the Canadian Authors Okanagan Award, the Envoi poetry award, the LNN short fiction award and the Alumnus\Scotia McLeod Award – and is now looking for a publisher for her several novels and further poetry.
HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


She's aware of the ventilator thrusting in and out, forceful and aloof. Is she alive or dead? Not competent at this, not much good at anything; she's nothing, just a slave-built sphinx waiting for Mr Wonderful to build a pyramid.
Do not battle the machine beating out the dust from her dead lungs. Beat, my friend, or are you the enemy? Relax, body, and unwind into the technology that will do the work for you. Done-for, used-up, finished, kaput.
Tomorrow the sad-faced psychiatrist will talk to me and I'll be in the ward with the other idiots who also fail their exams, who don't quite manage to cross the road to find the other side – typical woman, I. Men usually succeed when they do this. Coward. Fool. Idiot. Moron. Not a chicken, no, no, she's an old, pale-yoked egg, scrambled, boiled, fried in hell. What is wrong with this woman of forty, with a lovely life and a lovely husband, three lovely children and a lovely house and lovely matching Doulton and a lovely heavy stainless steel cutlery service and lovely Edinburgh Crystal glasses and a lovely oak dining room floor and a lovely new Honda? The list of lovely possessions locking her in lovely heaven is endless.
They did not give her blood. Just fluids to replace the loss. She had not done a hot job of cutting herself. More mess than function.

Why is it impossible to empty a stomach without having elephants dancing on the patient's chest?

I should have stuck to the blood letting, been a more determined suicide, shouldn't I? The niggling, teeny-weeny cut in my wrist bled so very slowly and then the vein collapsed. These things are not easy, I must tell you, hell, if only one could be hitched up with an IV and the useful blood taken to be used, that would be fine. It pumped, then dripped and then stopped and I just didn't have the guts to redo the cut. Oh, I would love a transfusion: the blood dripping fine and red into my veins. That would be a restorative process. Nice one, Rene. Took the aspirin instead. Leaves me deaf. I will question if it's permanent.

'There are better ways of dealing with problems,' the young man had said when they unhooked her from the machine. Piss right off! She could have strangled him with his nice shiny stethoscope that he wore like a dog's collar round his scrawny neck. The silence of the room makes her think she's in deep water, under oil, in cotton-wool. For days before The Big Event she had not been sure if she was alive or dead. She had not wanted to know, much better not to be quite sure. Then one dull evening the thought came to her: What if this is death and we have to suffer in death as we do in life, what then? Then it would be too much to bear, then there would be no escape. She had to have the comfort blanket of escape. Just thinking about endless life makes her want to thump her head against doors, to throw herself against the windows, slash the faces of the smiling nurses.
Rene is fully aware that she has gone to hell. Her plan succeeded and she died. This is doing her time. Does a soul do time? Ah, sure, time is timeless in hell. Why does she want to know and what does it matter? The idea of this exercise was to get the hell out of hell. Hell was where she was; hell was her life; hell was a thousand pins sticking into her a thousand seconds in the day; hell was when she breathed in and out and hell was when she swallowed a mouthful of food.

Angry-Husband-James sits on a stool beside her bed. 'I don't understand. How could you? The children. Everything. Nothing.' He should be able to find something a bit more original than this. His face is the face of an ancient judge: cruel, hard. He's in a giant snit. Clipped voice. She would've liked him to cover her with his flesh, warm her with his skin, and breathe into her mouth a breath that was alive. She can tell his mood, for she's a clever girl, such a clever girl is Rene. His cheeks are grey/white and his lips are a thin, thin black line. There is a hint of a sulphurous or coal-like smell about him. The gas of hell, of devils, demons, fiends. He must be thinking that his wife is an idiot, that she should have done it properly if she was going to do it at all, that she should have succeeded. Blah! Blah! On and on and on. For her funeral he will be decked in shiny black, holding a small spray of flowers that he throws onto her grave in a blasé, elegant manner; he will brush the dust of the cemetery off his suit and return to his never-ending list of patients in the office. Such an inconvenience. A doctor's wife should know better. She can get help so easily, as simply as rolling off a log, as gracefully as floating off a twenty-floor building. Wah! Wah! Waffle, waffle.
Say nothing. Speechless. Without sound. Deaf and dumb, she has no nerves under a skin that she lost months and months ago. She cannot say, 'My life is useless, it's a slick of oil on a turbulent sea. Everything I've done since I was born has been painful. Every breath has been an effort and sometimes, sometimes the effort is too much. This year it became too much. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Piss off.' Smile, girl, smile.
Fly, bird, fly and leave this place. When birds fly over fire, they singe their wings, they dull their colours, they drop like hail into flames. Why didn't she drop like hail into this hell instead of melting, blending into a horrid liquid, and dissolving cell by cell?

Is this then, hell? Heaven? Life? Death? They are all only proportional: different degrees of the same old thing. Tubes, vomiting, catheter. All of it to test her to see if she deserves hell. That's all. From the time she had been born, she had been told she deserved hell.
For sure, she deserves to be here. Where? Here, of course, right here in this, the true hell. What else can it be?
The catheter is out. It had been placed to monitor kidney-function or something funny along those lines. She hadn't had a shower before THE DEED and knew she stank like week-old fish. Poor nurses. Poor doctors. Poor Rene. For the last two years each breath had been an effort, each second of life a marathon run. She could never, never have asked for help. In her family the sick managed things by themselves, they were strong, they were self-sufficient, they did not believe in drugs and therapy and nuthouses. Her father's favourite expression about someone who is ill or depressed was, 'They need a good kick up the ass.'
What did Plath say? Something along the lines of once in every ten years. Yes. Rene does it once in a lifetime. Such a joke. No humour here. Nothing to laugh at. Sure, there is – one long laugh. Funny.

This white, grey, aseptic room. Three others: two Alzheimer's and one Fascist who keeps saying she's only in for tests, shouldn't be in a ward with these nuts, should be in a private ward with real sick patients, not crazy folks. Bitch, bitch, bitch. Rene has a sign saying she's crazy, mad as a hatter, loony, nuts, fruitcake, tired of life, tired of humans, tired of the damned sun, which shines though she can't enjoy the heat, can't touch the light and all the time she is only able to endure the terrible pain of boredom. Blah! Blah! Goola-goola-blah-blah! She's the raving nutter. Keep awake ... listen to conversations ... see the action. Even if this had been just an exercise in futility, it had been quite a business-like, purposeful exercise and would not have failed, had James not trotted home early to find her. Too dramatic, too silly, too much blood and mess. The living room carpet quite ruined. Never get that mess off. Never. Blah! Blah! What about the sofa? Oh dear! Just recently covered with fine pink velvet. To hell with the fine pink velvet! Damn it blood-coloured!
Where is James? He was here? A total silly dick.
One of the Alzheimer's is Scots. Ellen talks all the time – apparently normal for Alzheimer's – the volunteer woman told another volunteer. Can't make out what she says. Mumble. Mumble. Mumble. Thump. Thump. Rah. Rah. A bit like iambic pentameter, excellent rhythm and some content too. At first, it seemed as if she could be saying something. Sometimes, after five or six words there was some sense, enough sense to give doubts. Is she as crazy as she makes out to be?
The other one is Portuguese. Oh, so strong. Too strong. Six foot of muscle. Eighty, the volunteer said. Eighty and as strong as a horse. Never alone. Always a member of her family there with her. They love their aged, do the Portuguese.
Now in the still, quiet dark, mumblings and flutterings, groans and moans. Busy, busy place. Never dark. She likes to sleep in pitch-blackness where nothing can be seen. The dark of her bedroom at home is like death. If she walked in her room at night, she could be walking on the bottom of the ocean where no light shines.
Rene glances at the next bed. Angela is awake and stands. Takes off her nightdress and diaper.
Fascist says, 'Disgusting!'
Ellen mumbles.
Rene's IV is still in so it's difficult to move much. She gets out of bed and tries to get Angela's nightdress back on. Not easy. Wag a finger at her. Who is she to wag a finger? Loony-Tune Rene knows all the songs. Love me a little, love me tender, love me. Love me.
Angela's nightdress is now wrapped round Rene's wrist with the IV. Can't do anything. Decides to call the nurse. Presses the bell and waits. They sit on the bed. Angela, quiet as death, curls an arm round Rene. Her long naked breast is astonishingly cool against Rene's arm. Rene flushes, ashamed of her own flat, un-woman's chest. Not even a proper woman in this ward of women. Angela pees. What to do? The pee wets Rene's bum, drips onto the floor.
Nursie flurries in, rings for help. Two of them change the bed, give Angela a needle to sedate her, tie her to the bed.
Aspirin can cause brain damage. Must take more precautions next time, must not end up like Angela. Blah! Blah! Must make sure. One absolute, certain way is to jump. She's terrified of heights. How could she jump? If she had enough to drink and a few Valium, she could beat her fear of heights and jump. Float through the air without a worry in the whole, wide world and see a panoramic view of hell as she fell into it. That would be fun. To hell with heights. Next time she will gather courage to fly. The nurse in emergency gave her a schoolmarm telling-off about brain damage and deafness. Aspirin makes victims deaf. Sounds don't connect directly to her. They bobble on the air far away, distant, as if she's hearing them through soap. Wears off most likely, they said.
Damn them all! Quiet again. Quiet.

Hey, it's breakfast. Feeding time at the zoo.

A young trainee feeds Ellen who behaves like a compliant girl, opening her mouth to order. She calls, 'Mummy. Mummy. Mummy.' Licks her chops. Yummy, yummy, goodie, goodie. Feed me and I will grow up to be a strong tall girl like Mummy. The world is made of ironed sheets and the smell of wax and paint and vomit.
Angela is too strong for the women and a large male assistant feeds her. Ladies and Gentlemen, roll along and see the animals. Throw them a fish or two and watch if the seals perform. She grunts and huffs and puffs, evidently emptying her bowels. Stink fumes every inch of the room, while she smiles like a baby who has just filled its diaper. Her face glows a bright red. Why the red? Embarrassed? No, discomfort, most likely.
Rene eats like a perfect girl, stuffing food into her mouth and sliding it out again into a Kleenex.
Fascist is moved out for tests.
Her first morning in this ward. Sometime during the day she must speak to the shrink. How can she speak with no voice? Her teeth clench and her tongue glues onto her palate. Her eyes are balls of green marble rusted into crumbling sockets. Nothing will make her move the parts of her mouth. She must be dead. Cold. Rigour mortis is taking over her body, it's stiffening, cell by cell.

'Now, what a silly thing do. What a stupid thing to do.' Something funny along those lines will be said by the doctor. Does it matter what he or she says? If it matters, to whom, to what, does it matter? Not to Rene. Time served in hell should count against the time of life. It should make the other time spend more comfortable. What does COMFORTABLE mean? She has never been comfortable in her life. Was that a life? Of course not. Her mind is filled, stuffed to exploding with so many questions, buckets of questions. There are some of us who require a large needle, a sharp knife, a tall building. Forgive us our sins, for we don't deserve to live. The best help she can get is a painless and clean death. This will not happen. This cannot happen. She will be treated and pilled and released to suffer again and again and again. Pretend to be grossly stupid and obedient and just a bit mad. Rene is in hell. Be a perfect girl, do all the things perfect girls do: obey orders, smile, be nice, be polite, be considerate, give of herself, be unselfish, etc., etc., etc. Wait, wait, do her time and store her energy to dig a tunnel into freedom. Twenty years of energy wasted in this attempt. It couldn't take twenty years to store it up again. No, never. Could it?