Butterfly by Ruby Brooks

Witherstern Infirmary’s orange entrance is more yellow these days. It’s streaked with leftover rain. I remember the first time I came to visit Millie on Puffin Ward. The signs were so orange I wanted to lick them to see if they tasted like ice pops.  

I used to stare at them, wondering which would taste nicest. Mum would have to pick me up and drag me away so we could get to Millie before visiting time ended. I never wanted to go in. Especially when she was referred to Great Ormond Street to have her shunt fitted. It looked like a pipe protruding her skull, but she was so out of it I don’t think she cared. Not like Mum did. She’d hide her tears until we got to the car and then she’d gulp cry like Millie did as a baby. I think she forgot I was there.     

She’s not been admitted since she grew out of GOSH, but she’s often at our local for appointments. She’s been doing so well Mum moved away to be with Grandma, and Millie moved into my flat. She won’t get a job. She won’t even make her own bed even though I know she can do it with one hand. I’ve shown her how, but what do I know? I didn’t have a stroke as a baby like she did.  

***

I stayed with a friend last night. Millie threw herself on the floor before I went. I was halfway to Georgia’s house when I got a text from Millie saying she’d called an ambulance because she started feeling funny. Ten minutes later she sent me a picture. She captioned it, 

It’s so blue in here, nee naw. Once she got onto the ward, she sent me visiting times.  

‘Rather you than me,’ Georgia said.  

***

When Millie first met Georgia, the first thing she told her was that she’d not had an appointment with Neurology since leaving GOSH. 

‘You had an appointment last month, Millie,’ I said.  

‘No I didn’t,’ Millie said before linking arms with Georgia. ‘I don’t even know Neurology’s number.’  

‘Have you tried the switchboard?’ Georgia asked, even though I silently told her to stop talking. She didn’t see my face in time. 

‘What’s a switchboard?’ Millie asked. 

‘It directs you to the department you need.’ 

‘Why is it called a switchboard?’ 

‘I don’t know.’ Georgia said, gaping at me, hostaged. ‘Probably because it’s a board that switches?’ 

Millie cackled, sliding her hand up Georgia’s arm. Georgia shuddered.  

***

‘I don’t know how you do it, Saff,’ she said, when I showed her Millie’s texts. ‘Why can’t you move in with me?’ 

‘She’s my sister.’ 

‘Are you going to see her tomorrow?’ 

‘Yeah, I guess I better had. I wish I had a game to take. It’s probably just going to be two hours of listening to her complain.’ 

‘You know, you always do this.’ 

‘What?’ 

‘You just let her rant the whole time about how hard she has it. You never tell her how it makes you feel.’ 

‘Well what can I do? She’s in hospital. I can’t just start telling her now. She’ll get one of the nurses to chuck me out.’ 

‘There must be a way.’ Georgia frowned. She got up from the sofa and headed to her room. 

‘Where are you going?’ I asked, following her upstairs. 

‘I have an idea,’ Georgia said, rummaging in her draw until she found a handful of flashcards. 

‘Last minute revision?’ I asked. 

‘Why don’t you make up your own game? You could write down some questions 

about your feelings and say that you both have to answer them. That way, if she starts getting defensive, you can just blame it on the cards.’

‘I don’t know. Would that work?’ 

‘It’s worth a shot. Make her listen.’  

***

I double check I’ve got the cards as I walk past Puffin Ward. When I was little, I wanted to stay in there just once to see what Millie had. Mum would visit me, and I’d have nurses give me cannulas with teddy bear plasters whilst telling me I was an inspiration. Millie would have to sit in my wheelchair if they ran out of seats, and Mum would tell her off for doing wheelies in it because I need my rest and it’s squeaking.  

I get to Millie’s ward. Maternity. They’ve ran out of space everywhere else.  ‘They’ve not even given me a cannula,’ she says when I sit down. She glares at the nurse, who heads to the bed next to Millie’s.  

The woman in it is sobbing, her face contorting like a walnut. The nurse pats her arm with one hand and picks up her chart with the other. There’s a butterfly sticker on her baby’s cot. 

‘Why do you need a cannula?’ I ask. I thought she was only in for tests.  

‘I need fluids. I’m fasting for my CT.’ 

‘You’re not having a CT today, Millie,’ the nurse says.  

‘Well, you’re going to have to do something,’ Millie says. ‘I can’t feel my legs. At 

GOSH I’d have had CTs, MRIs, X-Rays, endoscopies…’ 

‘You’ve never had an endoscopy, Millie.’ I think of the time I had one. I told my GP I couldn’t swallow properly. Turns out it was just anxiety.  

‘I’d have anything at this point,’ she says. 

I take the cards out of my bag and put them on her bedside table.  

‘I’ve made up a game. Want to play?’ 

‘I don’t know. I think I just want to sleep.’ She closes her eyes, but keeps her lids ajar, to check I’m still there.  

‘No come on,’ I say shaking her arm. ‘We’ll do whatever you want after. We can watch Paul O’Grady’s Little Heroes. Your old consultant was on it.’ 

She chews her teeth. ‘How do you play?’ 

‘So, we take it in turns picking up a card and we both have to answer whatever’s on it.’ 

‘Sounds a bit lame.’ 

‘No, no. It’ll be fun I promise.’ I pick up the first card and show her. What did you have for breakfast?  

‘I had cereal,’ I say.  

‘Are you for real, Saff? This isn’t a game.’ 

‘Just tell me.’ 

‘Well I didn’t have anything, because I thought I was fasting.’ She raises her eyebrows at the nurse, who rolls her eyes and leaves the bay. ‘Is it my go now?’ 

She tries to pick up a card. Her right-hand flops on it like wet pasta. She often tries to do things with her bad hand, so I can video her to get Facebook likes. I’m surprised she hasn’t asked me to film this.  

I turn the card over for her. What’s the best thing you’ve ever read? 

The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe,’ I say. ‘How about you?’ 

‘You know, I read this article about how when people have seizures, they try to say one thing, but another comes out,’ Millie says, her eyes gleaming. ‘This one guy went downstairs to tell his mum he was going out. It came out “I don’t like broccoli anymore.”’ 

I remember seeing that article on our computer. She’d favourited it.  

‘I would have thought it would be a book Mum read to you in hospital.’  

Mum used to read Millie stories as she came around from anaesthetic. I would drift in and out of The Tiger Who Came to Tea whilst I did my homework in the corner.  

‘No,’ Millie says.  

I pick up another card. What’s your biggest secret?  

Sometimes I wish Millie died. She used to have seizures all the time before the shunt. 

Mum would stay with her in hospital and leave me at my aunt’s. At night, I’d hug myself on the sofa bed and imagine Mum’s arms were around mine. She’d tell me Millie didn’t make it. She’d say how much she loved me and how we’d get through it together because our pain is the same, and that’s something Millie wouldn’t understand because she’d dead now and dead people don’t hurt. 

‘I wish I had what you had with Mum.’ I look at Millie.  

‘I hate her,’ she says. 

‘Why?’ 

‘She left me.’ She stares at the jelly on her table.  

‘She didn’t though, not really. She just went to look after Grandma.’ 

‘Grandma’s got friends. Who do I have?’ 

‘Millie, we don’t need her. Not like we used to. We’re not babies.’ 

‘I wish I was.’  

‘It’s a good thing you’re on this ward then.’  

She doesn’t look up.  

‘By the way, I told her what was going on. She sends her love.’ 

‘You told her?’ Her eyes are black. 

‘Millie, why should I be the only one who knows? I was worried.’ 

‘Well you’re not the one in hospital.’  ‘I’m sorry, I thought she should know.’  

‘Just keep her away,’ she says. 

‘Ok, I’ll make sure Mum doesn’t come to read you any more naff kid’s books,’ I say nudging her.  

She tries not to smile. I pick up another card. Have you ever told a lie? 

I was 10 when Millie had shunt surgery. Mum went with her. When she went to leave, 

I probably didn’t have to breathe as fast as I did, but she turned away from the door and came back. She held me and told me to take deep breaths. I had to stop my lips from smiling.  

‘I faked a panic attack once,’ I say.  

‘You what?’ Millie laughs. ‘You sick freak.’ 

‘Have you ever wanted to tell someone something, but you had no way to actually say 

it?’ 

‘No.’  

‘What’s your secret then?’ I ask. 

‘I don’t have a secret.’ 

‘Oh come on, everyone has something.’ 

‘Not me.’ She picks up another card. Who do you most want to be? 

I wanted to be Millie so much growing up. I fell over at the park once. Mum was just about to take out my splinter when Millie collapsed at the bottom of the slide. I pretended not to notice. I was about to enjoy the pain, but a lady ran over to tell Mum. In the ambulance, she wet herself, showing off.  

‘I want to be Cara,’ Millie says. Cara was her roommate at GOSH. 

‘Cara died, Millie.’  

‘Yeah and she still gets presents. No one’s sent me anything.’  

‘I never got presents when you were admitted,’ I say. 

‘You didn’t need them.’ 

‘Well neither did you. You were too weak to play with them.’ 

‘You have no idea what it was like. You could go home whenever you wanted. You could go out with your friends while I was stuck in here. Don’t you think I’d prefer that to teddies?’ 

I look at the floor.  

‘I need the toilet,’ she says, standing up. 

‘Millie?’ 

‘Yeah?’ 

‘I thought you couldn’t move?’ 

She opens her mouth and closes it, air puffing out like a car breaking down. She falls neatly, gripping the side of the bed. 

I close her curtain and sit with her on the floor.  

 ‘Why are you doing this?’ I ask.  

‘I can’t control it.’ 

‘You don’t need to do this. You’re better now.’ 

‘What would you know?’ she asks. ‘I’m not a faker, like you.’ 

‘Is this why you’re so obsessed with hospitals? You miss them?’ 

‘Shut up. I hate you. You don’t know what you’re saying.’ 

I have to get out of here. I get up to leave but Millie throws herself at my ankles. 

‘Saff, don’t go. I need you,’ she cries, squeezing out tears. They streak over her face like rain on a car window. A choir of wailing new-borns join in.  

I step out of her hands and open the curtains, but when I turn back to get my bag, I look at Millie. She’s sat with her legs spread out like a toddler who’s fallen over. Her face is plastered with snot. She tries to wipe it with the back of her hand, but it rubs in like face cream.  

I crouch back down next to her.  

‘Come on, let’s go to the canteen,’ I say.  

I put my hand on her shoulder, but she slaps it away.  

‘Millie, come on we can’t talk properly here,’ I say, noticing the nurse’s darkening face from the corridor. ‘Come on, it’ll be ok.’  

‘I can walk sometimes,’ she says in between sobs.  

‘I know,’ I say, helping her up. ‘Let’s go get a drink.’ 

***

The canteen is empty, apart from a cleaner mopping the floor. I pick up a couple of lemonade cans from the fridge and go to pay for them. I watch Millie from the kiosk. She’s slumped so far forward in her seat that her chin nearly touches the table.  

I sit down opposite her and sip my lemonade.  

‘Do you have to slurp it like that?’ Millie says, creasing her nose.  

‘No,’ I say, before deliberately drinking it through my teeth. ‘That better?’ 

‘You’re disgusting,’ Millie says.  

I finish the can, drinking it properly.  

‘You know, when I was little, I was so jealous of you,’ I say.  

‘Really?’ She asks, suddenly proud. ‘Why?’ 

‘Because when you were sick, Mum had to be with you. It felt like she loved you more,’ I say, twiddling my fingers. ‘She used to cry about you all the time. And when her friends would come round, all she would talk about was you and how you were doing. She was so proud of you for just being alive.’ 

Millie looks at me, eyes sparkling.  

‘Nothing I did felt good enough,’ I say. ‘That’s why I used to fake sometimes. I wanted Mum to hold me like she held you. Looking back, it was stupid. It wasn’t the right way to get what I needed. But at the time it felt like the only way.’ 

‘Mum doesn’t hold me anymore,’ Millie says, looking at the table. ‘Not since I started getting better.’ 

‘Is that why you came back to hospital? You wanted Mum to come?’ 

‘I miss her.’ Her eyes fill up.  

‘I miss her too. But just because she’s not here doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.’ 

‘Why didn’t she come then?’ she asks. ‘I thought you told her I was here.’

‘She wanted to,’ I say. “But Grandma’s really poorly, she couldn’t get away.”  Suddenly she comes around to my side of the table and hugs me.  

‘It’s gonna be ok,’ I say. 

***

‘I’ll come back tomorrow,’ I say once we get back to the ward before giving her 

another hug.

‘No need,’ a nurse says. ‘Millie can go home as soon as she fills out these forms.’  

She puts the forms on Millie’s bedside table. Millie stares at them, pouting. I feel her 

body stiffen next to mine. 

‘I’m ill,’ Millie cries, ‘why won’t you believe me?’ 

‘There’s nothing wrong with you, the tests are clear,’ the nurse says, before turning to leave. 

‘Millie, it’s ok,’ I say, putting my arms around her. ‘We’ll go home and watch a film together. You can pick.’ I don’t think she can hear me. She slaps my hands away and bolts over to the butterfly baby’s cot. Her mother picks the baby up and cradles her against her chest, her fingers gripping a little bit too hard.  

‘She’s not sick,’ Millie yells, pointing at the mother. ‘Why are you keeping her in? 

Her other baby’s dead, you can’t treat it!’  

She pulls the sticker off the cot and squeezes it into a ball. As the nurse turns back around, Millie throws it at her. For a minute the ward is completely silent. The nurse opens her mouth to shout but can’t think of what to say. She closes it again. 

A healthcare assistant picks up a phone in the nurse’s station. ‘Security please.’ 

***

‘Everyone hates me, I wish I was dead,’ Millie sobs as we wait for the bus. 

I look away. Out the corner of my eye I see her step forward towards the road. She lifts her foot up, daring me to pull her back.  

I think about pushing her. I’d say that she ran into the road before I could stop her. Mum would come and tell me that it wasn’t my fault. It was an accident and that we’d get through it together.   

After the funeral Mum would move in with me, as she’d be too devastated to go back and look after Grandma. It would be just me and her, like it was before Millie was born. 

Except she’d probably set up a shrine of Millie’s baby photos in the living room and drag me to her grave every day. She’d talk about how much she misses her over dinner and tell me how lucky I was to have a sister like her.  

The bus comes. I don’t push Millie under it.  

‘Come on then,’ I say. ‘Let’s go home.’ 

‘No,’ Millie says, turning away from me. 

‘Come on.’

Millie folds her arms in response. 

‘You know what? Don’t then,’ I say and get on the bus, trying not to look at the driver’s reaction. 

Millie doesn’t follow. I wonder how long to pretend I’m leaving for, before going back outside to get her. Then I realise I’m not her mother and she’s not a child, so I don’t have to. A girl sat three seats away gapes at me. Her bother is sat on their mother’s lap, enveloped in a hug. His hospital bracelet rides up his arm. I smile at her and she smiles back, eyes shining guiltily.

I watch Millie through the window as the bus drives away. She squeezes her wrist like a tourniquet and checks her hand for veins. 


Ruby Brooks is a UK based freelance journalist and has written articles for the online magazines Kettle Magazine and The Overtake. She is completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. 

 

 

 

 

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