Anita Goveas, Neural Plasticity

Anita Goveas is a speech and language therapist by day and a short story writer by night . She is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. Her stories are published and forthcoming in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, Word Factory website and Hawthorn magazine

It started when Vo Thi Mai was attacked by a giant hornet.

A bus approached Lovelace Gardens, her watch beeped for 8.22, but there was a car parked close to the stop, obscuring the edge of the vehicle with its all important identifying number. She stepped back as the bus stopped anyway, and hugged her long, white cane to her chest, to cause less disturbance. Then something from behind pushed up at her elbow, saying “It’s ok, I’ll help you” and she was over the gap and on the bus.

A dark streak was talking at her in a husky, penetrating voice like the buzzing of a bee. Or a hornet, they’re hard to tell apart. Loudly and slowly the voice said,

“There’s a seat just there. I can show you.”

Then she was sitting down. Her knees slammed into a hard surface, confirming her in the disabled seats at the front. Her left elbow buried itself in soft fluffiness, hopefully someone’s coat and not a meringue. A dark-blue blob swam at the edge of her vision. Probably a coat.

Hornet-woman was still talking.

“They’re so brave, aren’t they? I wouldn’t leave the house! She must be going to the hospital. This isn’t the quickest bus, but it gets there eventually.”

Hospital was where she had visited Jason almost every week for four months, reading him Roddy Doyle and Kurt Vonnegut. Then, after the haemorrhage, playing Val McDermaid audiobooks, and AC/DC after he woke up. Perhaps that was where it had started.

In a creamy high-pitched whisper, brushing past her wiry hair, meringue-person says,

“Are you going to the hospital?”

She smells of newly budded geraniums and her voice lilts like breeze-trapped trees.

“No, I’m going to the University. I’ve got to meet my tutor.” Mai whisphers back, focused in conspiracy. Hornets become agitated by direct action.

“I’m sorry, this is a K4, did you think it was a K3?”

Unfortunately, hornet-woman has very good hearing.

“Oh dear, she thinks she’s on the wrong bus. But this goes to the hospital anyway. I’m sure they won’t mind if she’s a bit late. They ought to make allowances.”

Hospital is where Jason taught her the dirty poems he recited at the nurses when they. came to change his catheter. The best way to lose your dignity was all at once, he said. Hospital is where she held his hand when they explained he would need intensive rehabilitation if he was ever going to walk again. Hospital is where she was rushed when the spreadsheet she was looking at filled with crimson streaks, and where she woke up with only outlines, no details. Perhaps this was where it started.

Meringue-person is shifting, sloth-like but with intent. The creamy voice steams out behind her, waving the short hairs on her neck.

“Listen, lady, we’re just trying to chat here, sort out if there’s a problem. Give us a minute?”

Hornet-woman crackles, her coat or bag is leather. The whir of thwarted well-meaningness is audible to even those who aren’t listening for it. The crackles move further away.

“Thank you,” Mai says, unsure if she is grateful. Attention means questions means fractured narratives she can’t fill. Her brain has supplied the gap in the meringue-person’s blue edges with fluffy turquoise clouds. Where was her neural plasticity? She was a turtle that couldn’t flip itself back over, even while the eagle approached.

“Nah, couldn’t hear myself think. It was no problem.” This is kindness, that there is no debt.

The bus jerks, about to stop. Mai could get off now, ring her mother, who’d close her cafe immediately, drive to get her and feed her refreshing iced coffee and savoury pho. But the braille code and the Windows keystrokes, and the six-week long course learning how to to tap a cane for bat-like echo-location, were about earning back her independence. That could be where it started, in the trail of insignificant activities that covered up the gaps. Falling back into her old life was easier than thinking about what was missing. Flowing with the expectations simpler than starting with nothing.

Hornet-woman has not flown away, she has regrouped with new passengers who have not witnessed her rebuke. Her tale of helpfulness is sweling with the suspicion of ingratitude.

“It’s so sad, she’s pretty. Such a waste. She thinks she’s on the wrong bus, but I’ll tell her when she’s at the hospital.” Mai is entangled in her certainty. Hornet-woman will never go away. She has latched on to Mai’s yearning, her disquiet, her guilt and is feeding on the sticky mass.

This was where it started. When she was a person, not an object. Looked at, not overlooked. When her eyes worked, when she should have seen the truck before it hit them, before their car and and her world flipped over. Jason taught her AC/DC lyrics and acceptance. She hasn’t talked to him since the hospital, he might need to take the tiny steps back on his own and she would weight him down. But no-one can teach you about all the ways you’ll have to lose your dignity.

Mai breathes in, deep from her diaphragm, a brief sustaining gulp like a flying fish. She is Vo Thi Mai, trainee accountant, aquarium-lover and part-time florist.

Daughter of Vo Tan Trai and Vuong Thi Han, optician and train-driver, who started with nothing but themselves. Not all fish go with the flow, some of them swim upstream. She pulls herself up to lean on the rail in front of her and turns towards the buzz.

When you lose your dignity, it’s better to lose it all at once.

“There once was a barmaid named Gale
On whose breasts was the menu for ale
But since she was kind
For the sake of the blind
On her arse it was printed in Braille.”

The buzzing stops. There’s just the rumble of the engine, the growl of the traffic, the unabashed chuckling from her seat companion. In her hard-won quiet, she makes it to the bus driver, and asks if this is a K4 as she needs a bus that goes to the University. She says yes, love, you can get off at the next stop and change.

As she makes her way to the doors, a blob of blue swims at the edge of her vision.

“Can I wait with you? That’s the most fun I’ve had in the disabled seats. I usually get asked to move cos they see my eye-brow piercing and not my heart condition. I’m Sheryl.”

“Thank you. I’m Mai.” Dignity seems changeable, fluid, like tide surges and mercury. Jason will love this story.

2 thoughts on “Anita Goveas, Neural Plasticity

  1. I loved your story The Bombay Flying Club, I read this in the Dragonfly Tea short story booklet! Well Done!
    I’m Arts Editor at Marlow FM and we have a monthly ‘book club’ radio programme and we would love to have you as a telephone guest. Would that interest you? It would be 7-10 mins and very relaxed. Get in touch via email on serena@longwall-House.co.k

    Like

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