Her illness is orange. As she breathes through a ventilator, as her hand rests limply in mine, she’s surrounded by an orange glow, an aura.
The last thing she’d said to me was, ‘Everything will be fine.’ That was a week ago. Before her head started bulging, her skin tightening, taut like plastic. Now she speaks only with her eyes, they tell me she’s sad, she’s dying.
I’ve seen illnesses in colour for as long as I can remember.
‘Why is Daddy red today?’ I’d asked Mum one day before school.
‘What do you mean, Emily?’
‘Dad’s red like a post box.’
Mum looked at him, puzzled.
‘He’s got a cold, that’s all.’
When a friend was sent home from school with a fever she’d turned purple, like a grape. When I grew older and started work, I’d see colleagues mustard yellow with stress, scarlet with depression. And when the world suffered the great pandemic, everybody isolating for months, the economy collapsing around them, the victims were green, like ivy.
I read about a mathematician who saw colours with numbers—purple sevens and pink zeros, and a musician who saw colours with sound—blue reggae and lilac Euro pop. They seem like nicer things to see colours with. I only see colours with illnesses.
On the rare occasions I've told people about my ability, they’ve called me mad. People often say things like that to me.
As I stare at Mum in the hospital, her head large and round, I think how orange used to be such a positive colour, so happy and bright. Orange juice, sun rises, carrot sticks dipped in houmous, mashed sweet potatoes, marmalade on toast, and sun sets—all great. But the other night, returning from the hospital, Mum’s rasping still haunting my ears, I’d gathered all the orange things in our house, and dumped them in the bin.
My alarm clock.
A plastic mixing bowl.
Mashed sweet potato from last night’s dinner.
A pair of scissors.
Marmalade—the surface coated in mould.
Carrots, black and liquidising at the bottom of the fridge.
I’d taken the orange back out of the bin and peeled it, zest gathering beneath my fingernails, and devoured it, juice running down my chin.
A doctor shakes me out of my daydream.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ she says, reading Mum’s test results. The doctor is tinged pink with diabetes, shadows beneath tired, bloodshot eyes. She slips a blue plastic glove over chubby fingers and pokes Mum’s elastic cheek. ‘She’s turning into a balloon.’
A woman sniggers in the bed opposite Mum’s. I give her my evil look and she turns away, pretending to read her magazine. I notice she doesn’t have a colour. She isn’t ill.
‘A balloon?’ I ask the doctor.
‘It’s the only explanation. Her head is filling with air.’
Later, when the doctor leaves, I stand by the sniggering woman’s bed. She looks familiar, but I can’t place her. Her eyes bulge, her brown hair is wild and matted. She smells of stale body odour and alcohol.
‘You’re not ill,’ I tell her.
‘How would you know?’
‘I just do.’
I stare at her until she asks me to leave her alone, threatening to call a nurse to remove me.
I’d noticed when Mum first started turning orange.
‘Is there something you want to tell me, Mum?’ I’d asked.
‘No,’ she lied.
I didn’t push it. She’d tell me once she’d admitted to herself what was happening.
I know Mum’s illness is my fault. Mum worries about me—divorcing the son-in-law she’d doted on, who could do no wrong, who was handsome, and funny, and caring.
Then losing the job I loved.
‘My daughter, the lawyer,’ she’d proudly told her friends at every opportunity. She cried for days when I told her the news.
She despaired when I, her only daughter, asked to move back home at the age of thirty-five, because I could no longer afford the mortgage on my beautiful cottage.
And then losing the baby, the result of a half-remembered drunken night out, which I didn’t know I carried until I no longer carried it.
And Dad only dead a year.
A deeply furrowed brow kind of worry.
An unable to sleep, sitting in the kitchen all night, drinking tea, staring at the wall, worry.
Mum began to have headaches—tension headaches she called them—flashes of angry orange around her as she lay in the living room, curtains closed, cold flannel on her head, until they passed, aided by a cup of strong tea, and two paracetamols.
‘I’m fine, Mum,’ I’d say, sleeping until noon, a bottle or two of red wine in the evening, scribbling in a journal as my psychologist recommended I do—manic poems and scrawled doodles like I’d done as a teenager. ‘I just need a bit of me time. You don’t need to worry. You’re making yourself ill.’
But mums worry. That’s just what they do.
She worried when I was given the anti-depressants. She worried when I took sleeping pills for the first time and she found me at midnight wandering the moonlit garden digging up worms, one hanging out my mouth, as I sucked it up like a string of spaghetti. And when the night terrors began—dark figures visiting me in my room—Mum worried some more when she couldn’t stop me screaming.
‘Trust me,’ says the un-ill woman laying in her bed, when I visit hospital next, ‘your mother doesn’t have to die. You need to release the tension building in her head. It’s only getting worse.’
Mum’s head has expanded. Her chestnut hair, once neatly framing her face, is now perched on the top of her head like a nest. To accommodate her huge head, the nurses have removed her pillows and pulled her body down the bed so her feet now stick out the end of her sheets.
‘Why should I listen to you? You shouldn’t even be here,’ I say.
Why does this woman look so familiar? It’s her eyes—I’ve seen them before.
‘I know more than all these doctors put together. You and I know how to fix her,’ she says.
A doctor comes to tell me there’s nothing more they can do for Mum than keep her comfortable—she’s probably unaware of my presence—at some point the machines helping her breathe will be doing all the work.
‘How long does she have?’ I ask.
The doctor answers vaguely, shrugs and walks away.
‘You need to pop her,’ calls the un-ill woman now propped up in her bed. She sips from a small bottle of vodka then hides it under her pillow. ‘Pop her with a pin. Let out all that tension.’
‘The doctors say doing something like that would kill her.’
‘What do they know? They haven’t worked out what’s wrong with me yet. Bloody experts.’
‘Why are you here?’ I ask her.
‘Maybe it’s to tell you what to do,’ she says, smiling drunkenly.
At home that evening, I stare at the picture of Dad above the fireplace. He’s surrounded by the royal blue of a heart condition—it was only a matter of time before his body gave out.
‘What should I do?’ I ask him. ‘Should I pop Mum? Will it save her?’
For the slightest moment I see his photograph smile and wink at me and I hear his voice.
He’s made up my mind.
I relax into a comfortable chair knowing what to do about Mum, my tension gone, staring out the window at the starry night sky, eating a bag of tangerines.
I smuggle a needle—long, sharp and smooth—into the hospital in my trouser pocket and stand over Mum’s bed. She lays still, unconscious.
I take a sanitising wipe from her bedside table and polish the needle clean to prevent infection.
‘Kill or cure,’ I say, pinching the needle between my thumb and forefinger, sunlight gleaming on its polished silver surface.
Pop! The sound of a thousand balloons bursting at once.
Orange goo spatters my face, enters my mouth—bitter as bile, drips off my nose, soaks my clothes, pebbledashes the walls and ceiling. My ears ring from the explosion.
Mum’s head lies deflated and shrivelled—a limp, orange bag of rubber. Her body shudders for a moment, then stills.
‘Mum!’ I cry. ‘Mum?’
Nurses rush in, having heard the explosion. They crowd around the bed. One with burley arms pulls me away.
‘Did you do this?’ she asks me, white with shock.
‘It was her,’ I say, pointing to the empty bed of the un-ill woman. ‘She told me to do it.’
‘The woman in that bed.’
The nurse looks at me confused, ‘No one’s been in that bed.’
As I stare at Mum’s lifeless head, the orange goo becomes crimson blood. And instead of a needle, I see my reflection in the wide, gleaming blade of a knife planted deep in her skull. My face is that of the un-ill woman—the same bulging eyes and distressed hair. And I’m surrounded by orange. Orange like a brilliant sunset.