A Short Story
By Prenesa Naidoo
Before he died, my grandfather used to tell me stories of the world, of life and death. One day, he told me that I needed to protect myself in the late hours of the night and the early hours of the morning. He said that all the veils between the worlds were very thin. Too thin. It was easy for loved ones to come and visit, and unwanted guests to cause trouble in the minds of people. I didn’t understand. I still didn’t understand what he meant, even when my grandmother used to say that she saw him after he died. I was seven.
A tap on your shoulder only gets more intense at 3am. It’s 3am, and 3am, and 3am. And the tapping doesn’t stop. I’m on the sofa, and I’m asleep, not asleep, dreaming, not dreaming, awake, not awake. She’s dead and she’s dead and she’s dead.
A few days after my grandmother died, I walked through life in the shadows, in the quiet moments, in the in-betweens. I remember feeling the weight of a paradox on me, thick and heavy and compelling. The paradox of loss; how can something that’s gone, weigh you down so much. There was a loss of the senses, a loss of time and for certain fleeting moments, the loss of consciousness. I packed away all my colourful clothes. It was not a sign of mourning, as one would have assumed. I was transfixed with living in this half-light that I found myself in. I wore black to blend in with the shadows, to not draw attention to myself, to borrow Death’s uniform.
Around six days after the funeral, this new state left my body overwhelmed. Everything was new, and difficult to understand. Nothing was easy, and nothing could be explained, except that she, my grandmother, was dead. But that understanding came with a thousand questions, all of which had the same answers. A reel on repeat.
I began to see things move in the corner of my eyes. I felt presences that may or may not have been there. I began to stand in door frames, because I was told that they were a part of the in-between, a portal of sorts. I don’t remember why I did it, or what I had hoped to achieve, but it gave me a sense of purpose, trying to explain the things happening to me, around me. Family and friends moved away from me with drooped shoulders, some avoided eye contact. It seemed they were adamant to not catch whatever it was that I had. Others became overbearing, wanting to feed me and brush my hair, unpacking clothes to bring some colour back into my life.
Then, the tapping on my shoulder began. Every morning at 3am. At first, I thought I imagined it, knowing that I was not getting enough sleep, barely eating and completely and utterly obsessed with death. But it happened every morning, at the same time, until I shook off the delirium that I found myself in. The one night I decided to sleep in the living room, my mother had taken it upon herself to share my bed, just so that she could keep an eye on me. I had my green fleece wrapped around me, while drifting in and out of sleep. Then, at 3am as if on cue, there was a tap on my shoulder.
It took me a few moments to understand that it was my grandmother. She stood there, wearing a purple sari, smiling at me, trying to talk. But I couldn’t hear the words. I couldn’t hear anything. There was a moment when I thought that I had finally given into my grief. That I was unable to remove myself from it, so it consumed me whole. But this didn’t feel like that. It made no sense but made absolute sense at the same time.
I remember that her smile was full. A smile steeped in some sense of joy and contentment. But this, this made me feel like she missed me as much as I missed her, and that was a feeling that I cannot describe. It made my body come back to me, after feeling foreign for so long. And then, I did what any person would do, I put the kettle on.
For as long as I could remember, my grandmother and I used to drink tea together. It would happen before and after school, sometimes after sport practice, when I wanted anything but a hot cup of tea. It would happen when we used to watch movies, or when I’d be up studying at 3am because it was peaceful. So, when she visited, it only made sense that I would make some tea.
That first morning, I made two cups of tea, just how we liked it. I filled hers up to the brim because that’s how we used to do it before she died. I couldn’t hear anything she said, but I would see her lips moving in the light. She also never touched the cup. If she touched anything, it was either my shoulder, my hand or my face.
I couldn’t understand what this was, and what it was doing to my already diminishing state of mind.
A few mornings later, my mom came to the dining room, where I was sitting with my grandmother. She rubbed the sleep away from her eyes, asking what I was doing in the dark at 3am, alone. Her mouth closed on the question, and when I traced her eyes, she was looking at my grandmother. My mom went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea too, coming to sit with us.
But that was the only morning she joined us, after that, I would hear her move around at 3am, but she never came back to the living or dining rooms.
This happened for nine mornings. At exactly 3am every morning, my grandmother would come to wake me up with a tap on my shoulder. We would have some tea, and I would imagine her telling me stories of her life, and her giving me life lessons. On that ninth morning, something felt final about the whole thing. I knew it felt different, but I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t understand any of it.
On the tenth morning, when she didn’t come and wake me up, I waited for the sun to come up and then I unpacked some colourful clothes.
I was taught that in the beginning, the world began with a word, Aum, and it came with a tune. And that is how it began. It was sung into place. But I did not know that this music would have a lasting effect on my life. I also did not know that even when all the other sounds of life were too loud and consuming, this one tune would remain. It would be a bassline, something so subtle that I would not notice until it was missing. I also did not know that a person could be attached to this tune of your life. And only when they left, would you notice the absence of the music.
3am rolled around, I remember seeing it on the screen of my phone. He was supposed to be here. Parachute’s lyrics started off softly, a whisper almost. And it got louder and louder. I remember checking my phone, to see if I turned on the music player by some slip of hand, but I hadn’t. My laptop lay asleep on the desk. And my university residence had the life snuffed out of it, all the girls were silent, all the lights were off. There’s no one in the driveway. The song was playing out in my head, and with every second, every memory of us listening to it came to mind. It was colourful and alive, and this was the first time that thinking about my best friend, since he died, didn’t throw me into a spiral. I thought about Cameron’s smile, how it always lit up his eyes and you could see that a laugh was threatening to escape, even when the situation did not call for it.
It’s curious how a little thing like choosing a song with someone could become the script for how they die. Suddenly the phone rings. A voice says something’s happened. Two nights before that, there were two calls. One from him, which I didn’t answer because I was having a movie night with my friends, and I remember my yellow socked foot pushing the phone further into the blankets as it vibrated. Later, there was another call, from a friend, the paramedic. I answered that one. I remember waking up, opening the window and sitting on my desk, letting the cold breeze take over. I also remember hearing the lyrics Through the good and the bad and the ugly, from the same song and then going back to sleep.
He’s dead and he’s dead and he’s dead.
But when 3am struck on that morning, the song lyrics pulled themselves out of the air. I remembered tea with my grandmother many years before. In that moment, I understood that he was there with me, but he did not take as long as she did. He did not wait for me to try and understand his death and lose myself in the process. He did not wait for me to travel twelve excruciating hours before seeing his cold lifeless body. I thought that it was selflessness. The kind of selflessness that came with knowing someone, knowing how they thought before the thoughts manifested, knowing their actions before they even moved. It was because he was the mirror to the shadows I knew.
She sits by his bedside, holds his hand too tight.
The next morning, the music was just as loud, and I remember the room feeling too hot, and then too cold. And he was present. Sitting on my desk as the music became louder and louder in the silent bubble of my room. He was wearing that denim jacket that he always wore, with one of the buttons hanging loose. It was always loose, no matter how many times I had sewn it tightly before. They talk about what happened. But she can barely hear them. He tells me about the accident, and how our friend was the first one to find him, because he was on duty that morning. He tells me all the details about it. Details that I would later be told again, from my mom after she attended his funeral, taking a bouquet of pure white St. Joseph’s lilies with her. This is real, I told myself, I would not have known any of these things otherwise.
He tells me that people will ask why I wasn’t at his funeral. Why the person that he had spent so many years with didn’t go say goodbye. He also said that I shouldn’t go. That there were too many questions with answers only he could give me. So, he was here and would keep coming, for as long as I needed him.
Stay, stay there forever.
On the ninth morning, he reminded me of the first time I listened to the song with him, and how I rolled my eyes and laughed at him when he started singing it. He also laughed when he recalled how I refused to wear a ring, saying something about institutions and not wanting to belong to a person. I took it anyway. I remember telling him that one of my favourite things about him was how he used to tie St. Joseph’s lilies to my front gate just before leaving my house. This morning, like with my grandmother before, felt like there was something final to it. He was less animated than the mornings before, more melancholic but there was a sense of acceptance, too, like his death finally made sense to both of us. Somehow, we could try and understand why the course of our lives had turned out this way. He kept looking at me and smiling and telling me that I had to keep listening to this song, because for as long as I did, he would be around.
When he did not show up the next morning, I set the song as my phone’s ringtone.