The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 3

Lucy lay in the grass, in the shade of the bright white wall towering above her. She looked up at the sun spilling just over its top and glinting like a haze in her half-closed eyes, and she smiled to herself. She was finally back in that bright place that never ended, where the sun was always rising, setting, or just hanging in the flawless blue sky for days at a time. She hadn't seen this place for a long time, not since the pain had started, and she took a long, deep breath of summer air.

She got up, one hand shading her eyes from the glare, and felt like crying with joy. I'm finally back, she thought to herself, then she shouted it out loud and laughed, listening to the childish glee in her own voice. She stood with her back to the smooth, white concrete wall that still stretched impossibly high above her and looked out over the endless long grass. It felt cool beneath her feet, and tickled her calves. She had always felt well here, no longer weak but filled with the sun's energy, running and running through the fields of swaying grass and wheat and clouds of floating dandelion seeds. At last, she was back.

She looked down at the simple summer dress she was wearing, blue like the sky and made without seams from some material that was as light as the air. More laughter of pure joy bubbled up from inside, and when she looked up there was a distant city on the horizon, lifted above the rest of the grass and glistening in the sun. She ran toward it, breaking out of the wall's shadow, feeling the heat of the sunlight on her skin and a gentle tug of warm air on her hair. She ran and ran until she was so out of breath that she could close her eyes and feel like there was nothing but air inside her body, her dress carrying her like a parachute, as delicate as a dragonfly's wings. She imagined being a huge balloon, filled with the wind and simply floating, and the blur of her feet against the ground pounded softer and softer until she was barely touching the grass at all.

Soon she felt the soft green underfoot turn suddenly into something flat and solid, and when she opened her eyes and came back down to earth she heard and felt the stinging hard slap of running on the hot black tarmac of an empty expanse of unmarked road. Lucy slowed down and stopped running, and stood in the middle of the road, looking up in breathless amazement at the buildings. They marched into the distance all around her in regimented rows, grey and bright and as perfectly smooth as the wall she had left, but they were oddly blank, like solid outlines that had not yet been properly filled in.

The heat of the hard ground was prickly and uncomfortable, so she moved toward the shadows, running into their darkness and through them, closing her eyes and laughing. She felt the sudden strobing of pink on her eyelids from the flashes of sun in between the buildings as she ran along the deserted streets.

When she opened them she saw a single car, alone and in the middle of the road. Its unassuming shade of maroon was the only colour in the surrounding black and grey, and as she got closer she could just make out the shape of a bedraggled man curled in the reclined driver's seat, sleeping. He wore a smart black coat but had untidily long and dark hair, and a long and unkempt beard to match. It stirred something in her memory from long ago, and as she ran past the car she banged joyously on its body. The metal was already warm in the low sun that was only just starting to peer over the tops of the buildings around her, and the palms of her hands stung satisfyingly with resounding thuds all along the car's length.

She turned to see who the man inside was, but just then something changed, and the bubbles of laughter in her throat sank away.

With a sudden feeling of panic Lucy looked to the sky. For a timeless second she was the sky, and in that moment was the terror of impossibility as the whole endless world folded inside out and coursed through her, disappearing and leaving her small and frail in her bed.

She opened her eyes sluggishly, fighting her tired eyelids, and winced against another sharp pulse of pure pain that engulfed her as wholly as if she were bathing in it, before it retreated back to a lurking distance. In the corner of one eye she saw her plump and silver-haired grandmother sitting in the chair next to the bed, her face still framed by the same black plastic-rimmed glasses that never seemed to leave her. The familiarity was comforting to Lucy, who realised her gran always seemed to be wearing the same cardigan too.

The thin white curtain around her was still drawn and surrounded the bed, making it look as if it were just the two of them, but the familiar and harsh sounds of the hospital returned through the haze to insist otherwise. There were voices and hurried footsteps, doctors and nurses tending to machines that made odd noises of their own, and things being wheeled and crashed into place. All of them hastily returned to embed their unease back into Lucy's consciousness. Each one pushed her farther from her beautiful dreams and closer to the ugliness of her reality, of the bed that held her captive, with only the curtain to protect her from the other seven beds in the ward with her.

She breathed in the vaguely unpleasant smell that always lingered, of disinfectant covering something unidentifiable, and wrinkled her nose against it as she turned to her gran.

Her gran was old without being too old, and was lively with a slightly nervous and sometimes mischievous energy. She sniffed and wiped her eyes with a tissue when she saw Lucy wake, and a sudden smile appeared across her kindly face that Lucy knew was forced.

“Morning, dear,” she said.

“Mmm,” Lucy grunted sullenly. She knew she could speak if she wanted, but she felt unusually miserable this morning after being torn from her dreams.

“Your breakfast is here,” she said, gesturing toward the bed.

“No,” Lucy sighed. “I'm not hungry.”

With that she closed her eyes and tried to will herself back into the dream before it was completely gone, but she heard the subtle whirr of quiet motors and felt the bed slowly lift her into a sitting position.

“We'll have none of that,” came her gran's kind but firm voice. “You're having breakfast, young lady.”

Lucy sighed and opened her eyes again. She saw the grey plastic tray that had been placed in front of her, and a bowl of cornflakes sat sinking in a sea of milk next to a cardboard cup of inexplicably-coloured tea. She frowned. She never drank tea, and as far as she knew none of the other kids did either. And yet every morning so far, a cup of the same sad-looking tea had waited for her.

Her gran had either spotted her frown or read her mind.

“Try a drop,” she said. “You might like it. It's nicer than it looks.”

She laughed, evidently more from her own experience, as Lucy knew that, like most old people, she loved her cups of tea to such an alarming degree that it seemed more like an addiction.

“I'm too young to start drinking tea,” Lucy protested.

“You're never too young,” her gran insisted. “Anyway, you'll be a teenager soon.”

“Not till the year after next,” she corrected. “That means no tea.”

“I know we're not supposed to,” her gran continued undaunted in a conspiratorial whisper as she leaned in toward Lucy, “but I could pop a little bit of sugar in for you.”

Lucy nodded, if only to finally put an end to her gran's constant efforts to get her just as hooked on tea's mysterious allure as she was herself.

She lifted a heavy arm toward the spoon next to her bowl, and paused as she saw the plastic tubes taped to the back of her hand. She sometimes forgot about those, and for some reason they made her sad.

Digging aimlessly among the soft, drowned cornflakes she watched her gran carefully measure out only half of a paper sachet of sugar into the tea and stir it with a plastic spoon.

“It's brown sugar too,” she said, a glint of excitement in her eyes as she handed the cup to Lucy.

Lucy took it and held it to her lips. Tea always smelled weird. She sipped it, ready to grimace and declare she didn't like it, but with the sugar in she found that it wasn’t so bad after all. Some magic had been worked to round up all of the crazy flavours into something that was actually approaching pleasant. She smiled an unexpected smile and took another sip.

“It's nice,” she declared, and the joy on her gran's face made her smile even more.

She loyally came to see Lucy every day, and nothing seemed to please her more than seeing her granddaughter happy.

“I love you, gran,” Lucy said, and she saw her gran's smile tense as her eyes welled up, then she stood and leaned over Lucy, hugging her just briefly and ever so gently.

Sometimes Lucy felt like a doll that would shatter if she fell. The image that her imagination had crafted for her fascinated her, a thousand shards of Lucy smashed outwards in every direction, and she wondered if she might fall out of bed one night and that would be the end of her.

As her gran sat back down Lucy ate some of the cereal and then quickly erased the texture of the cold and soggy breakfast with more tea.

“Do you think you'll have a walk today?” her gran asked.

Lucy nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “The pain's a bit better so far.”

“Oh good,” her gran's smile broadened. “What did I tell you?” She gestured to the tea.

Lucy laughed. “It's my new medicine,” she said, and drank the rest.

Later that day, when Lucy's gran had gone back home until the evening, her favourite nurse came through the still-closed curtain and smiled at her. Her name was Anna, and she had fascinatingly dark eyes, shining out crystal-clear from under the equally dark hair that always seemed to fall in front of them. She was young and slender, and Lucy always thought that if it weren't for the blue uniform she would have looked like someone out of a fairy tale.

“You look brighter today, Lucy,” she said happily. “How are you feeling?”

She was Lucy's favourite because she never seemed tired and frustrated like so many of the others.

“Better,” replied Lucy, feeling happier at seeing her.

“Would you like the curtain open today?”

Lucy shook her head. “I still want to hide in here,” she smiled.

“That's fine,” Anna said, looking over the screens and displays around the bed. “Shall we try and turn down the morphine a bit before your walk?”

Lucy's stomach sank a little at the thought of her pains, now relegated into the far distance, being unleashed to snarl at her once more, but she knew that if the morphine were left on it would only build up until it made her even worse. She lay back and closed her eyes as Anna adjusted the drip wired into her arm, and prayed that sleep would find her before the pain did.

An hour passed, while Lucy drifted in and out of the noise and clatter of a hospital that was waking to let the sun in, and tears formed in her eyes as the aches in her bones slowly awoke with them. She looked over at the clear bag on the drip stand, hanging like one of her tears, and wished she could have all of it in one big go. She would fall into a beautiful long sleep where she could live in her dreams forever.

Anna came back around and asked how she was doing, so Lucy put on a brave face.

“I'm fine, thank you,” she said.

Anna said nothing as she saw the tears, and she sat on the side of the bed and took Lucy's hand.

“I know it hurts,” she said, pulling a tissue from seemingly nowhere and dabbing Lucy's damp cheeks. “And I know walking makes it hurt too, but if we don't keep you active then it might end up hurting more.” Anna smiled, getting back up. “Besides, you need to work up an appetite for those horrible soggy cornflakes!”

Lucy laughed weakly and sat up, and she swung her legs around over the edge of her bed, feeling a stiffness in her joints that made her understand what old people meant when they struggled to sit and stand.

Anna opened the curtain and held out a pair of crutches, and Lucy took them and slowly and carefully stood, putting her weight on them. She always dreaded the unsteadiness of walking with her crutches, but it was always easier once she got moving, and once she felt steady, they set off. Anna walked beside her, wheeling the drip next to her as they went, and Lucy looked longingly out of each window they passed.

The morning just on the other side of them was shining brightly, great shafts of its light breaking in to cast their patterns across beds and floors, spotlighting pillars of swirling dust. Passing through them, Lucy found herself forgetting her pain once in a while as she talked and laughed with Anna, but it always came back when she saw the other children. They lay in their sunlit beds, some of them unmoving and others lying with their life dimming behind their eyes. She was terrified that some day she would become one of them.

She faded back from her thoughts as she realised Anna was talking.

“Now the weather's warming up we might be able to take you outside for a walk soon,” she was saying, and Lucy smiled. She liked the idea of getting away from this place to where the sun could shine on her without passing through all the dust and windows and heavy air inside.

She held onto the thought after the pain had overwhelmed her joints and forced her back to her bed. Once Anna was gone she closed her eyes, and in her mind she imagined her searing bones to be something else that no longer belonged to her. It was just an angry skeleton that could be set adrift to float further and further away until she remained by herself, weightless and free. She imagined being the dust caught in the sunlight, never landing, never needing anywhere to go, bathed in warmth.

Sleep seeped in between the fractures of Lucy's waking life and somehow engulfed her to take her a long way away from it, into a world where everything playfully copied the sounds and voices that carried on around her, like children imitating the serious world of adults without being pulled in and weighed down by it as the grown-ups always were. The clattering trolleys and trundling wheels became baffling clockwork flying machines passing her by, filled with people waving to her far below as she lay in impossibly soft grass and watched the clouds. The voices, shouts, laughter and crying all washed over her like a brook, drifting in from far-away playgrounds where smiling white-clad adults taught children everything that was important, things like leaping and dancing and how to float in the air.

Over the weeks Lucy had come to learn that her greatest dreams came when the morphine was turned up and flowed into her arm. The greater her pain, the more wonderful her escape, and she noticed that it was only then that she would see empty streets and the tired man hunched inside his car. She would try to wake him as she ran past, but it always ended with her waking instead.

While she was awake she felt so heavy, like the bed was straining to support her and would one day fold up and swallow her in its sheets, but she liked being awake when Anna or her gran were with her. Something about them made the world brighter than any of her dreams, and they made her smile just by being there. Sometimes, when she was first waking and struggling to cast off sleep's extra weight, Lucy caught voices talking of strange things like donors and rare blood types, and she always caught with them a tone of hopelessness, the same tone that she heard in her gran's voice when Lucy cried with pain and she told her to be brave.

“I want to play outside,” she told Anna one day as they walked past the window.

She paused on her crutches and saw the sun still shining outside like a friend waiting for her, and she looked out at the small gardens that sat between the windows and the tall outer wall fencing the hospital in. There were flowers and trees out there, and she refused to move any further until Anna took her arm and led her to a wheelchair and helped her to sit. When Lucy looked puzzled Anna only smiled and assured her that the doors to go outside were a long way off.

“If you had to walk all the way to the doors, you'd be too tired to walk outside,” she said, and wheeled Lucy slowly along the endless corridor.

She felt somehow sad sitting and being wheeled, as if her legs were useless, while the broken line of lights on the blank grey ceiling passed by in a slow rhythm overhead. She saw other children shuffling or being wheeled just like her, and she felt a great sense of sorrow in her stomach with each, thinking what it must be like to be them.

When they reached the wide hospital doors they slid quietly and politely open as if only too happy to let them out. After being in the shade inside, the brightness of the outside was a sudden and blinding panorama of aching white in Lucy's eyes that only flourished into colours and shapes after they went through. Lucy heard herself laugh, and caught herself with a hand over her mouth. It was just like her dreams.

Anna wheeled her outside, and before the short driveway into the car park she turned a sharp left to take Lucy along a narrow paved walkway that followed the hospital's walls. They soon reached the grassy gardens by the windows where she had looked out during their walks around the wards and corridors. They were divided by narrow flowerbeds which were dotted with fresh summer colours, and leafy, rustling trees grew at irregular intervals, their old roots slowly shifting and breaking the brick wall that cut the hospital off from the surrounding roads.

As soon as they reached the grass Lucy made Anna stop, and then she stood up unsteadily without her crutches, her joints sharp with pain, and held onto Anna's arm. Her steps were slow and laborious and nothing like the carefree leaping that she remembered from being very young, but the air moving against her skin and the sunlight unencumbered by glass were enough to fill her bones with a fresh sense of living.

She leaned heavily on Anna at first, but gradually gained her own strength, and soon she was merely touching her arm as they went.

Lucy led her out into the middle of the grass and then let her go as she slowly sank to the ground and lay down on her back, feeling the cool earth support her like a mother carries a baby. She smiled up at the sky and felt the swaying leaves cast flitting shadows across her in the breeze, and just for a few moments all of her pain sank away and soaked deep into the ground.

That night, after she had been taken back inside, her bed felt different, like an old bandage that was due to be changed. She no longer needed it, and soon she would be gone from this place and would be running in the sun across whole fields of long grass. Her pain seemed to matter less, as if she had glimpsed a world no-one else could hope to see. She slept soundly, and this time she dreamed of a night sky littered with so many stars that their cool light cast shadows all the way down here on earth.

She woke before her gran arrived, and sat up to eat her cornflakes before they went soggy. When her gran appeared and came over to hug her, Lucy felt the comfort of her close warmth and the faint but peculiar smell of soap that always seemed to be on her, and she smiled.

“I went for a walk outside yesterday,” she said excitedly.

“Oh that's great!” exclaimed her grandmother with as big a smile as Lucy remembered seeing. “Are you feeling better then?”

“I'm tired,” admitted Lucy. “But yes, I do feel better.”

“Then maybe you're improving,” she said, and once more a tear made a wet trail down one cheek as she hugged Lucy again, harder this time. “It's about time,” she said softly, muffled by Lucy's long, dark hair that still grew strong and straight. “You're too good for this.” She sniffed quietly before releasing Lucy and sitting back down in her usual chair by the bed.

Over the weeks the summer rushed past with a youthful exuberance that kept all hint of the approaching winter's dark shadows locked underground, fled like refugees to wait their turn. Colours sprang all around the gardens overnight, and Anna even stopped by Lucy's bedside one afternoon with some small flowers that she had picked for her.

“For my favourite patient,” she had said, kissing Lucy's forehead as she had dozed and putting the flowers in a small glass of water. Lucy had loved them so much she had felt like crying.

Her pains would sometimes come back, but between the morphine and its dreams, and the wild blue sky outside, Lucy noticed them less.

One of the days, her grandmother took her out like Anna had done, and Lucy had laughed with delight as she lay in the shade of a tree and closed her eyes to feel the sunlight splash across their lids from between the moving branches, just like the flashes of sunlight between the abandoned buildings in her dreams.

It was on days like this that Lucy began to draw with an art pencil until it was worn to half its original length, its top end chewed until twisted and flaking. She drew the shadows of huge trees and the shapes that the sun made across the ground, and Anna would stop by her bed sometimes and look at them, astonished.

“You're a real talent,” she would say, and there was always a strange expression on her face somewhere between laughing and crying.

On a clear evening, some weeks before autumn slowed down the summer's headlong journey, Anna approached her again, and brought with her a dark cloud that Lucy sensed immediately. She sat on the bedside with red and puffed eyes, and took Lucy's hand in her own.

“Lucy,” she said. “I've phoned your gran and told her....” she paused.

Lucy's heart was already sinking just like the sun outside.

“Told her what?” she asked, knowing something bad must have happened.

“We can't keep you here anymore,” she said, her free hand moving up to cover her eyes as she sat motionless for a few moments. “They say,” she continued with a wavering voice, before clearing her throat. She then looked directly at Lucy, her dark eyes now shining with unshed tears. “They say that the chances of finding a donor are so low, and the beds are so scarce that...”

“I can't stay here?” Lucy asked, feeling like all of the days she had drawn onto paper were falling away from beneath her, page by page. “Who'll look after me?”

Anna let go of Lucy's hand and turned away and began to cry, and Lucy felt her own tears well up and drip down onto the front of her gown.

“I'm sorry,” whispered Anna hoarsely. “I couldn't stop them. There are new patients coming in next week and they want you out before then.”

Lucy suddenly felt as if the misery of her pain was the only true reality that underlay everything, that any glimmer of joy was built precariously on top and only doomed to topple. Her aching skeleton had played a cruel hand and had won after all.

Anna stayed with her until her gran arrived and began speaking to all manner of doctors and men in suits, but there was no amount of arguing and crying that would stop the tide that wanted to push her out. Eventually it became so late that Lucy fell asleep and slipped into a muddled and dark place where nothing felt right anymore.

After that night there were a few more days left for her, but they felt like the last days of earth's last ever summer would feel. Her gran sat with her in silence by the bedside, and Lucy prayed every minute for sleep to take her.

Late in the evening of the last day she reluctantly got dressed, putting on the blue jeans and black sweater she had not worn in so long that they now hung from her, and she realised for the first time how much weight her body had shed. Afterwards, she simply lay back on her bed with her favourite long white coat draped over her like a blanket, and screwed her eyes shut. She felt her world begin to dismantle piece by piece as a small whirlpool of nurses gradually gathered to collect her things, and they eventually helped her aching body out of bed and into a wheelchair. When they dispersed they left Anna, who had insisted on wheeling her to the waiting ambulance outside.

It was a bleak and wordless journey, slowly passing through corridors and out of the doors that had once shone with the brilliance of the sun. There was no warmth or light, just a cooling dusk filled with sombre dull air, parting to let her pass as she was wheeled toward the waiting ambulance and helped into the double front seat. Once inside she turned to Anna who passed up her crutches, still crying, and the sounds of her grandmother still arguing outside faded into the background as Lucy said, “I'll miss you Anna.”

Anna took Lucy's hand, and had a look on her face like someone bereaved. “I'll miss you too,” she said with a faint smile. “My favourite patient.”

“You can come and visit,” Lucy told her. “We don't live all that far away.”

Anna's smile widened. “I might just do that,” she said. “And when you're better, you can come and visit me here too.”

“Okay,” Lucy grinned. She felt better already.

Once her gran was in the front seat next to her, Anna closed the door and they were driving away. The white lines in the road as they drove reminded Lucy of the lights on the ceiling of the hospital corridors, passing her by as she had been wheeled beneath them.

They arrived home in the pitch black of night, invisible clouds drawn across the whole sky and blotting out all of the stars. It was a small house halfway down a quiet and unassuming street, sitting on the corner of a tiny cul-de-sac, and it was the only home that Lucy remembered. Once parked on the cracked and overgrown driveway that was almost camouflaged by the equally-overgrown garden next to it, the driver helped her out and into her crutches.

Her gran went ahead and opened the front door, still with its peeling dark red paint and seized-up brass knocker, and let them through. The faint and unique smell of home hit Lucy as she went in, and she was at once both relieved and saddened. The lights flicked on and illuminated the worn patterns of the brown carpet and the same cream-coloured wallpaper that must have been there before she was born, and she was slowly, painfully, and awkwardly helped up the stairs and into her old bedroom.

Everything had been left exactly as she remembered from before the hospital. Hers was the biggest of the two rooms, with its floor cushioned by a thick dark-blue carpet and its walls covered in swirls of light blue and white which reminded her of the sky. There was one window in the wall opposite the door, which normally looked out over the back garden and the gardens of their neighbours, but now it was merely a blank slate into the night.

Leaning her crutches against the small wooden table next to her double bed, the ambulance driver helped her to lie down and then left her to sink into its luxurious white pillows and sheets. She had missed its space and its softness, and the quietness of the air bereft of the hospital's endless bustling, and she closed her eyes. She listened to more arguing downstairs, but it was just more talk of budget cuts and hospital beds and everything being beyond their control.

She wished more than anything that she could sink back into her dreams, that her bed would take her into its folds and carry her away. She told herself that being back at home would make sleep easier, but something inside her knew that staying here was the start of a darker chapter than her days of sunlit walks and the drawing of shadows.

Her bed faced the window, and as she sat up awkwardly against her pillows and looked at the black glassy mirror that showed nothing of the outside, Lucy saw how pale and gaunt she looked. She reached up and touched her hair, feeling some relief that it was still thick and smooth between her fingers, then she closed her eyes.

When the ambulance had gone, leaving behind a small mountain of booklets and leaflets, Lucy's gran came up to close the flowery curtains and seal the night's cruelty outside. She sat on the edge of her bed, just like Anna used to back at the hospital, and she gave Lucy a hug.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I couldn't stop them. They left us some morphine, but not much. It's different now, without the drip. I have to mix it with water.” She looked hopelessly down at a handful of instructional leaflets. “I don't know if I have the money or the strength to look after you properly.”

She hung her head and wrung her hands and looked ready to fall apart, and Lucy felt bad for her.

“Can Anna come to visit?” she asked.

Her grandmother looked up her and smiled. “Of course,” she said, then she hugged Lucy again, tighter now, and her voice cracked. “You're the most precious thing to me in the whole world,” she said.

That night, as Lucy lay in her bed, she sank into the inky dark as if it had come for her through the perfect surface of her window, and her dreams were of an infinity of stars that shone brighter than anything she had ever seen, each one attached by a beam of elastic light to the earth as it span them all around the universe.

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