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Death's Door

The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present this short story by Merryn Glover - Read more about her and the inspiration behind this story.

One cannot argue that the life of a mother is one of tribulation.  Indeed, one would be unwise to argue the point with Sharmila, one of those mothers singled out for especial hardship.  She does not like to complain, but what with the demands of housework, the caprices of health and the disregard of offspring, one simply cannot suffer in silence.
Far better to shout down the phone. “Rajesh?  Rajesh, babu?  It is Mummy here.  Look, I am not well - you must come at once.”  Gripped by the conviction of her prominence in the Hall of Ill Fate, she was in no mood for dallying. 
“Mother, I have duty today.”
“But you can’t work today – it’s Holi!  A public holiday!”
“No, Mother.  Not a public holiday.  Just one of the hundreds of festivals we have every year.  The hospital cannot close for them all.  In fact, the hospital never closes.  Accident and illness are no respecters of ceremony.”
 “And you are telling this to me?!” Sharmila’s voice was endangering the glassware.  “How well I know it, son!  How many times has your mother herself been sweating over the stove for a feast when the hand of illness has struck, causing her to nearly collapse at the very moment when everybody else is tucking into the fine food?  And I not even able to sample the smallest ladoo!”  She popped another wad of rice into her mouth and chewed succulently down the line.  “But you cannot go to work, today, son, the place will be full of drunks and hooligans.  I hear the young folk are even taking drugs for Holi now!”
“That is precisely why I must go to work, Mother.  There are always many injuries at Holi and the Emergency Room is busier than ever – “
“Yes, son, but first you must come to your mother.  I’ve got that most terrible constipation and my heart is pounding again.  This time it is very serious, I’m afraid.  I hate to cause you worry on such a busy day,” she sighed, licking her fingers, “but what to do?  You must come.”
 “Mother, I am very sorry to hear of your condition, but I have explained –“
“Explain, explain, I know, I know.  But Babu, do not forget who has worked and saved all these years to make you a doctor - so that in our hour of need you could assist.  Do not forget your duty.”
“My duty starts here on the ward in ten minutes, Mother.  I will come after work.”
And with that he hung up. 
“Aaaiii!  What is the use of bringing up sons these days?!”  Sharmila banged down the phone.  It had been far better when Rajesh lived at home and was available to the family for immediate consultation in the evenings, on Saturdays and - most importantly - first thing in the morning just as he was heading out for work.  Sometimes there is a mysterious pain in the stomach that must be examined and explained before one partakes of breakfast or there could be serious consequences.  He persistently failed to subscribe to this view, however, and became so excessively pressed upon matters of punctuality that he actually moved into hospital quarters!  Chha!  Even eating in the canteen!
“They forget the mother that bore them!  You must tell him,” she turned on her husband, sheltering behind the Kathmandu Post.  “Tell that son of yours to have some respect for his mother.  He has completely forgotten how much I suffer.”
 “That, I think, would be almost impossible,” Suman murmured, folding his newspaper and rising to his feet.
“Where are you going?!” she called.  “Surely you cannot think of going to work today?  You will be a fine target for those stupid Holi boys.  Don’t think I will wash all the colour from your suit when you get home!”
“I would not dream it,” he replied quietly, slipping on his jacket – his best jacket, too, brand new from Padmini Shirtings and Suitings.  Sharmila had picked it up from New Road just last week.  “The company are sending a car today.  I’m sure I will be quite safe.  My mother has not risen yet.  Kindly see to her.”
“See to her?  See to her?”  Sharmila followed him down the stairs to the main door.  “What can I do for her?!  She can barely move, she’s blind and deaf and hardly says a word -”
“So rare are the opportunities…”
“ – I mean, really, what’s to be done with her?”
“I’m sure you will think of some small entertainment.  I’m going now.”  Suman straightened his back and walked down the neat brick path to the gate. 
“Phone Rajesh from the office and tell him to come at once!” Sharmila called after him, catching a glimpse of a silver car before her husband clanged the gate shut behind him.  She swept back up the stairs, muttering, and then remembered - upon seeing her daughter on the top landing - the acute pain in her lower back.  She clutched it with one hand, groping for the banister with the other.
“Sweetie, go and get Grandma up.  If I try to lift her my back will surely snap.”
“Mummy I’m going out.”
“Out?  Out?  Out of your senses, you silly goat!  Today is Holi.  No respectable girl steps out her front door on Holi.”
“But – “
“Anyway, I need you here to help with the cleaning.  I would do it all myself, but today I am in terrible pain.”
“Mummy, Lila is sending her Daddy’s car for me.  She has just got Nazar on DVD and we are going to watch it at her’s.  Please Mummy.”  Nilam fluttered her lashes and pouted her plump mouth.
“Please, please, alu and peas, nothing but begging favours and never lifting a finger.  Surely you have studies to do today?  What are you going to get – a Bachelor’s in Hindi Movies?  A Masters in Make Up?  Your Daddy and I have not slaved all these years for your education so you can squander it on parties with your silly friends.  Ohhhh!”  she moaned, lowering herself into a chair in the kitchen.  “My back, my back…  Nilam - come make tea.  But no biscuits for me, today, na - my gastro is up again.  At least not many.  Perhaps just two or three.  Then Nilam, you must phone Rajesh – Nilam?  Where has that girl got to?”
Just then, Sharmila heard the front gate clatter, a car rev and the squeal of tyres off down the road.
She leapt to the window.
“Hey, Baghwan!  That hussy!” she shrieked.  “What is the point of raising daughters these days?”  She felt a sudden urge to cry, but resisted it, sniffing hard and firmly tucking her sari in at her waist.
“Right!  Nothing for it,” she said.  “I will get Bijesh to ring his brother.”  And with that she thumped down the stairs and into her younger son’s apartment.  She never knocked.  There was mousy Mina - wiping things as usual.
“Where is Bijesh?” Sharmila cut to the chase.
“He has left for work, Mummy.”
“Gone to work!  But this is Holi?  Has the whole world gone mad?  In my day no decent people left their front door on Holi.  He will catch his death of red dye!  But he never listens to me.”  Sharmila spread her girth across a dining chair.
“No, Mummy.”
“I mean, yes Mummy, we all listen.”  Mina’s thin hands were twisting the dishcloth into a tight wad.
“Good.  But speak up girl.  None of this whisper shisper nonsense.  If you’ve got something to say, open your mouth and be done with it.”
“Yes –“
“But you have not eaten daal bhat!” cried Sharmila, pointing at the table as if poison were spread before her.  “Have you let my son leave for a day of work without a rice meal?  He will starve!”
“No Mummy, he had cornflakes.”
“Cornflakes!  This is food for chickens, not my sons!  I tell you, when I was a new bride I rose at five in the morning to sweep and wash the floors, do puja at my husband’s feet and then squat for hours over the stove cooking daal bhat.  It was much better then.”
“Yes, Mummy.”
“But who cares about the old ways anymore?  Who cares for an old mother?”  Sharmila fixed Mina with a brassy eye.  “Nobody.  They’re all running about like stray dogs in the Holi frolic while I must crawl through the day on my own.  But I will not stand for it – I will go to the hospital by myself.  Here, you run and get a taxi for me.”
“But Mummy, it is Holi and I will get covered – “
“Don’t be so silly.  Nobody bothers about that anymore.  It’s much quieter than it was in my day.  Run along now.”
As soon as Mina was out the door, Sharmila helped herself to a large bowl of cornflakes, with a generous coating of sugar.  Only half-way through, however, the girl had the temerity to return.
“Oh, Bumcha - !  You mustn’t just walk in like that without knocking!”
“I’m sorry -”
“How are you back so soon?”  asked Sharmila, eyes narrowed.  No one could be trusted, but particularly not daughters-in-law.
Mina flushed.  “There was a boy outside the gate – I have sent him for the taxi.”
“No doubt we will never lay eyes on him again.  But I have realised I am nearly fainting from hunger. I must have a small morsel before I go to the hospital or they will berate me for allowing myself to become so weak.”
“Of course, Mummy, please eat well.”
“One can hardly eat well on cornflakes, but needs must - though I am sure they will disagree with my stomach.”  Despite her delicate condition, Sharmila managed two bowls and might have attempted another had the errand boy not appeared.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, getting up from the table and lumbering to the door.  “What’s this?  A three-wheeler?  What kind of common muck do you think I am?  Go and get a proper taxi at once.”
“I think there are none, Mummy,” said Mina, trying to lift her voice above a whisper.  “Bijesh hunted for a long time this morning, but he also had to go by tempo.”
“How many trials in one day?!”  Sharmila cried, throwing up her hands.  However, when life is at stake, one must take risks.  She squeezed into the back of the motor rikshaw. 
“U-hoo!” she grunted.  “This ruined hip is not bending.  This is what comes from a lifetime of hard labour, I tell you.  Consider yourself lucky, Mina, your lot is different.  You have cornflakes and televisions now to do all the work.”
“Yes, Mummy.”
“Oh – and Bumcha, you must tend to Grandma,”  Sharmila flicked her hand towards the upper floor of the house.  “It is no big deal.”
She pulled her sari around her face and waved away the expectant palm of the errand boy that was sticking through the window.  What a mercenary world we live in when a strapping youth no longer offers help to an invalid without expecting payment!  With a roar and a cloud of smoke, she set off in her tempo like a chariot down the dirt track.
At that very moment, in the meeting room at Top Health Hospital, Sharmila’s son, Dr Rajesh was addressing the staff.  “As you know, every year we hold a Major Disaster Practice.  There’ll be one today, so I’ll just remind you of the protocol.”
The staff nodded and grinned.  It was generally considered the highlight of the year, with more blood and human tragedy than the best of Bollywood.
“The staff and students of Shining Stars English-Medium Boarding School will be our victims this year,” Rajesh explained, clipboard in hand.  “So we’ll have all the ages from little kids to the old chowkidars.  We’re pretending a bomb has gone off on their campus, so there’ll be a good range of injuries: burns, crushed limbs, trauma, you name it.”
This was sounding better than ever.
“The victims will be fully briefed and made up so will arrive showing all the signs and behaviours of their condition.  They’ll be brought in by bus, van, taxi, tempo - all piling in at once - so it’s going to be chaos out there, ok?”
“Now, remember, first thing is to triage.  Red is for people needing urgent resuscitation.  Take them straight into ER where the doctors will attend.  Yellow is for patients with minor injuries – they go to reception with the nurses.  And black is for the ones that are irrecoverable or dead.  Porters can carry them to the courtyard outside the mortuary.  And we need one doctor there giving analgesia.  Everyone got that?”
Much head waggling and tongue clicking.  Mission accepted.
Meanwhile, back in the tempo, Sharmila was upbraiding the driver.  “Be careful, you fool!  Slow down!” she shouted, forced to drop the sari from her mouth lest the full impact of her words be lost.
He shrugged and slowed a touch as they crossed the swarming traffic on the Ring Road and buzzed into town.  The scenes that met Sharmila’s eyes were a disgrace!  Wild young men were running through the streets pelting one another with water balloons and fistfuls of coloured powder.  Their hair stuck out in stiff clumps like stray dogs, and their faces and clothes were smeared with red, orange and yellow.  Worse still - they were laughing!  As if this display of lewdness were not a shame and a smite upon the whole city.
“Have they completely lost possession of their senses?” she declared.  “Speed up, you fool or we’ll catch our death!”
However, as they turned into the main road near Jawalakhel Roundabout, all hell was let loose upon them.  The holi boys were running mad!  The driver swerved to avoid a mob of youths, but one hurled a water balloon full in his face.  Blinded, he lost grip on the steering and the tempo jerked crazily, crashing over into a ditch.  Sharmila was spat out the side, landing like a sack of pumpkins on the pavement.  No sooner had she hit the ground, though, than she was caught in the crossfire between a bucket of water and several fistfuls of red powder.
Drenched and disarrayed, she vented a torrent of abuse over the young scoundrels.  “Filthy vermin!  May the wrath of Kali curdle the very wombs of your mothers!  Do you know that my uncle is a Chief Minister?  He will have you all thrown into prison, you scum of the gutter!”  (The Minister was actually the uncle of her good friend’s cousin’s neighbour, but a connection nevertheless.)  Certainly, the effect on the youths was impressive: they dropped their buckets and ran.
Everybody ran.  The assistant from Prem’s Stationery and Photocopying swooped down from her shop to Sharmila’s side.  The owner of All Bright Ceramics abandoned his toilets and offered his arm.  Then the old man from the quilt shop, who had hobbled down his steps, suddenly pointed to her face and croaked, “She is bleeding!”
“Really?”  Sharmila’s hand flew to her forehead.  Her mouth dropped open and her eyes grew wide.  Overcome she fell back into the arms of the photocopy lady, grasping her ravaged head.  Such an extraordinary stroke of fate!
“Take me to Top Health Hospital,” she managed in a strangled whisper.  (Mina could not have done better.)  “My son Rajesh is a doctor there.”
Though never the type to draw attention to herself, Sharmila was not surprised - nor entirely put out - to see that the scene had attracted a large circle of onlookers.  Not to disappoint them, she allowed her arm to drop from her face affording full view of her brow.  There was a satisfying gasp.
The toilet seller stopped a mini-van and hauled all the disgruntled passengers out of the back.  Some of them had the audacity to complain, even though there was - right at their feet - a woman so clearly clutching at the very last straws of life.  Such a pitiless nation!  The quilt man spread one of his thickest shiraks on the floor of the van and then there followed a great deal of shouting and pushing and giving of instructions.  So much so that Sharmila was forced to rise from her incumbent state more than once to direct the operation.  Against her better judgement, she allowed a handful of the bumbling fools in the van beside her in order to provide carriage at the other end.
“Off my sari!” she shouted at one unfortunate with red powdered face and bristle hair.  He huddled down into a corner, mortified to have had added insult to her injuries.  However, lest she seem in possession of too much vigour, she lapsed into a soft moaning.  Very quiet, but the effect was striking.  The photocopy lady sucked in her breath and tried to wipe the blood from Sharmila’s face, but was fended off with a strong arm. 
“Don’t touch me!” Sharmila ordered.  All the gore was to be saved for Rajesh.  The van swerved at high speed to Top Health Hospital.  At every jolt and jerk she let escape a small cry.  The people huddled in the van shook their heads and clicked their tongues, eyes fixed on her in fascination.  Holi had never before been this exciting.
The van screeched to a halt at the entrance to the Emergency Department.  The place was heaving.  Buses and taxis were abandoned at jagged angles across the forecourt, and people were running and screaming.  Sharmila’s helpers piled out of the van and gaped.  Stretchers with bloodied bodies jogged past, while knots of wailing teenagers huddled around unconscious friends.  “I AM BURNING, I AM BURNING!” one man howled as he fell from the back of a tempo and rolled on the ground.
Sharmila sat bolt upright in the back of her van and looked out on the scene of devastation.  She could never have imagined that Holi could get so bad!  Poor Rajesh!  What on earth was she to do now?  Her helpers turned to her, their faces white and panicked.  Sharmila’s stomach turned to water.
“Just lie me in a quiet corner,” she whispered.  “I’m sure they will tend to me… when things settle down.”  She wafted her hand towards the vision of hell beyond, then lay meekly back on her quilt.  The assistants did not shove and argue this time as they carried her from the van, but moved swiftly, despite shaking hands and wobbling knees.  They laid her in the shade of a pipal tree and with apologetic bows, slipped away to watch the carnage from a better vantage point.  Sharmila lay trembling, her face a mottled grey.  Only the photocopy lady stayed at her side, gripping her hand and sucking in breath at each new wave of blackened bodies.
“Red! Red!” a doctor shouted.  “Straight to emergency!”
“You’re yellow,” another voice filtered through the din.  “Minor injury – reception’s that way.”
Sharmila, for the first time in her life, was speechless.  The photocopy lady looked down at her pallid face.
“I’m going to find your son,” she said, getting up.
“No, no…” Sharmila’s voice was small.  “I…  he… don’t get him.  Very busy…  I can wait.”
“Then I will get someone,” the lady replied.  “You are not looking well at all and can’t be left here on the ground.”  She moved off through the seething mob, stepping around stretchers and picking her way past weeping figures.  Sharmila lay frozen, staring fixedly at the leaves above as her ears rang with the horrors around.  With a trembling hand she pulled her sari down over her head and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Right, this one here – where do we take her?” a rough voice spoke above.  Sharmila’s eyes snapped open.  Two sweating porters were leaning over her, peering into her face.
“Looks like black to me,” the older one said.  They both nodded.
“Fine,” said the first man.  “You get the feet, I’ll take the top.”
Sharmila opened her mouth to speak, but just then a girl, drenched in blood, hobbled past.  She shut her mouth.
Taking hold of the corners of the quilt the men heaved her off the ground. 
“Ooof!” gasped the old one.  “You’d think they could have given her a minor injury instead.”
“Yeah, and when’s tea break anyway?  I’m dog tired from carrying all these bodies.”
Sharmila lay stiff in her quilt, white knuckles clutching the sides, eyes bolted wide, as the porters humphed her round to the back of the hospital.  They parked her on the ground beside a row of bodies and walked off, rubbing their backs.  Directly in front of her was a door emblazoned with the word MORTUARY.  Sharmila’s stomach turned to stone.
A cheerful doctor in floral sari and white coat squatted beside her.  “And what are you?” she asked, tapping a syringe with a long vicious needle.
Sharmila stared at her, her lips cracking open, but words stuck in her throat and she could only sputter and shake her head.  Sudden tears blurred her eyes and one spilled across her cheek.
The doctor grinned.  “You’re good at this!” she winked.  “I’ll have to tell Dr Rajesh.  So what is it, then?  Irrecoverable, na?  Or dead?”

About the author

Merryn Glover; Photo: Margot Mackay

Born in Kathmandu to missionary parents, Merryn spent her childhood in Nepal, India and Pakistan. After a teaching degree in English, drama and dance in Australia she moved to Scotland in 1993 and worked freelance as a community artist and teacher. In 1995, she and her husband returned to Nepal for four years where Merryn taught at an international school.

In and around her other work (which now includes two young sons) Merryn has squeezed in as much time as possible for writing. Her first major work was the play 'The Long Way Home' which was broadcast on Radio Scotland the following year. She has published several articles and in 2004 was awarded a Scottish Arts Council New Writer's Bursary for a series of short stories set in Nepal. One story was shortlisted for the Middlesex University Press Literary Prize and will be published in their Watermark collection in December. 'Death's Door' is another from the series.

The inspiration behind the story

Merryn says 'The story is drawn partly from my husband's experiences as a doctor in a large Kathmandu hospital and also from a certain neighbour of ours who had an unending litany of complaints. I find it amusing that when my western friends read the story they think Sharmila is over-the-top but my South Asian friends say she's spot on.'

The writer acknowledges support from the Scottish Arts Council towards the writing of this story

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* Poem of the month
* The Short Story Group
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