Laughter in a Vacuum (excerpt)

Imagine Rebecca as she imagines herself: Start with her hair. She was only forty-five when it turned grey. Rather than colour it brown, she adopted a fierce gunmetal bob, and this became her defining act. She wore flattering glasses and went to book clubs, where she talked more than anyone, especially if she didn’t like the book. She was a primary school English teacher, but actively fought against what she termed the ‘frump epidemic’ of her profession. She played tennis, had friends, drank wine, stayed cool. At least, until. 

What became of her hair, with that perfect line? It was likely a crow’s nest between her head and the pillow. Her body, was it looked after? She had no way of knowing. 

What had landed her here? She had no way of knowing that, either. No one bothered to tell her because they thought she wasn’t there.

 In fairness, Rebecca might not have been there for quite a while. She sensed that time had passed. The nurses and residents were overly comfortable in her room. They sang to themselves, farted, rehearsed arguments with people who were not present. Used her name, if ever, in the third person. 

From fragments of passing conversations, she learned that she had damage to her ventral pons. She had no idea what a pons was but her rudimentary knowledge of French told her than pons sounded much like the French word for bridge. She had burned her bridge. That’s all she knew. 

She could see and hear perfectly well. All day she heard polite inflections from the nurses’ station outside, warbling phones, soft-sneakered footsteps, gentle cl-cl-clacking of wheeled IV poles, the buzz of fluros, mechanical beeps and sighs, all layered and loud and tunelessly harmonious as a jungle at twilight.

She could see only where her eyes were pointed, so mostly she saw: the ceiling. The pattern of holes in the porous fibre board or whatever-the-hell those ceilings are made of. Everything else was peripheral, just the shapes of people passing through, the brief dimming of light as they blocked the door or moved across the window. 

On the rare and short-lived occasions of being propped up and wheeled around, she filled in the other visual details. The hospital’s colours were aggressively soft. Watery pinks, greens, and blues of wallpaper, blanket trims, nursing scrubs. Eggshell whites and brownish greys of monitors, railings, vinyl upholstery. She once read a story of a woman who fixated on a wallpaper pattern, went mad and got lost inside it. She wished she could do the same, but there was no such opportunity in the ceiling.

So why bother? She went inside.