She’d switch off her hearing aid so that she couldn’t hear us and we took it in turns to mouth words at her and she’d say them back to us. It was a game we used to play.
I leaned forward a little and lifted my hand and brought my fingertips to rest on the grey skin of her dead hand. Then I laid my palm flat across both hands and left it there. Feeling that coldness creeping up through my own hand, coming up from the deepest cold ocean bottom, from the far side of space, stone-slab cold, mortuary cold, the coldness which is the only language the dead speak, the only way they have of communicating with us. I left my hand there and let the coldness creep up. Looked at her hands under my hand then looked at her face which was grey and cold too, and her lips which were thin and pale and cold and her grey hair neatly brushed and spread out on the pillow. Then my brother was there sitting across from me and he’d got that look on his face like he was thinking of some remark to make or he’d already thought of it and was waiting for the right time to make it.
Where’ve you been? I said to him.
Oh, you know, he said.
No I don’t.
Here and there.
We tried getting in touch with you.
You didn’t try very hard.
You’re hard to get hold of.
That’s the general idea.
He looked down at my hand on her hands then looked up at me and grinned and I could see he was going to make the remark. But then he wasn’t there and the coldness was creeping up and through and I lifted my hand away and I could still feel the coldness creeping up and through.
That coldness is how the dead communicate with us, how they speak to us, like a mouth behind glass. If I stayed there long enough, if I left my hand there long enough with the coldness creeping through I might be able to make out what it was that being said and this time I might be able to say something back.
It was a game we used to play. She turned off her hearing aid so that when me and my brother spoke all she saw was the shapes of our slowed-down mouths moving in silence.
I lifted my hand away and rubbed my fingers against the palm, pressed them in hard to get some warmth back into it, some life, then stood and moved round the bed to the window. I stood there looking out through the glass. The cloud wasn’t going to lift, it looked like the drizzle was in for the day and the roofs of the houses across from the hospital and the grey walls of the tower blocks further off had that same dull, aching shine as the sky, a mistiness that blurred the lines of things, giving everything a washed and unreal quality. The only things that had any kind of substance were the gulls, still out there and more of them now, squabbling over whatever piece of garbage one of them had picked up that the rest of them wanted, and I could see their beaks opening and shutting as they squawked at each other but I couldn’t hear them. But I heard them in my head and their cries were like the barking of dogs in the before dawn dark.
I made a mouth at myself in the glass.
Then one time my brother mouthed a swear word at her. I didn’t know he’d done it because I was looking at her not him. She was smiling then I saw her face change. It was a face I’d never seen before. He told me later he didn’t think she’d know what it was, it was a really bad word, but she did, and I saw the look as she swung round with her hand and slapped him hard across the face.