Words in a Vacuum

by Madeleine Oliver

By the reception, I weigh my chin on the desk,
so that I’m eye-to-eye with the phone and the pens,
whilst my mum talks with a lady wearing blue.
They are skimming words across my head,
with a sad and casual adult politeness which webs
in my hair and is so boring I can hardly hear
the deadbeat hope and fear that lingers there.

Almost on cue, they wheel in our Jim, slumped
as though his form assembled just for us,
but they’ve puffed him up and got it wrong-
so it makes me uneasy just to look at him for very long.
The blue lady reintroduces me and my sister
as though we are her proud answer to a guessing game
and as though she knows us just as well as he does.

I help push Grandpa, like a shopping trolley down
a long and empty isle, Mum’s hand keeping direction.
All the while, I listen for a heartbeat, trying to translate
the mechanics and the breath and the wordlessness.
Until further down, the lady in blue probes again:
Do you remember who they are? – and he is turned
to face us, rotating planet on his axis. Face still static.

We reappear faint in the white light, waiting for words
which eventually slip down his chin and shirt,
landing on his lap and quivering like a fish out of water:
he mistakes us for our cats, which I think is funny
although I’m not quite sure. Tongue caught, I stay quiet,
and Mum mops up his words with hers, filling space
with simple explanation. The blue lady echoes her.

We are brought to a strange silent room with words
taped to the wall like flies, squashed impressions
without wings. The names of relatives under pictures
of their faces: both unreal, substitute for memories.
On the cupboard there is even a picture of us.
Granddaughters, smiling and faded into semi-truth,
like the end of an echo floating up from a well.

By the bed they’ve left a pad of plain white paper,
when they should have left a doctor and a translator,
a psychic, a telescope or someone with a fishing rod
to reach in through meaningless skin and hook upon
a thought. I perch on the head of the bed, far away,
watching the pens and paper with quiet frustration.
Their talking melts into the sheets, evaporating pools.

We <3 Jim, my mum and sister write. Colouring in
that beating heart in the middle of the page, hazed.
Does it translate? The forgotten hieroglyph, memories
boiled down in that smooth round shape, pinched
at the end. We … Jim, he reads, and so we outline
the heart again. It swells into desperation, pumping
blood through nowhere, as honest as the shape itself.

I take the black felt tip and spell in awkward writing
the four letters that it means. So that love is pressed
open like a butterfly corpse, pinned down and brutal.
A dried flower, pressed between the pages, mimicry.
We love Jim, he reads. Mum gives me a smile meaning
well done, but I’m a sceptic. Love looks silly lying flat
like that. A stone tossed out onto a quiet lake, uncertain.