Everything falls apart. This, I feel, is finally it. There will be no return from the skies by the birds who trundle themselves across the manicured lawns below; the stench of burnt lamb and hard carrots will no longer waver about the room; the intermittent beeps of the medical machines, and the hallow clop as the nurses pace the corridors, will dissolve, too, along with everything else. The heart, I am afraid to say, will cease to beat. And with that, the world, too, for me, will cease to spin.
I don’t know how long I have been lying here like this. The clock on the far-wall, with its small face, and plain white cover and its terribly consistent ticking, has become an almost illimitable motion. It started with a chest pain, I know that much, but the rest has been lost on me. The minutes, like the hours, weeks, months, have all fallen into one, as consistent in their rigor as the impenetrable pain traversing across my body’s bones. I lie here without motion, dead save for my senses- a bag of bones waiting to be turned to ash and scattered where they choose.
The process is slow, an irritant. It has yet to fully consume me. But I see it, all right, feel it, even. I witness it in the carved features of Nurse Flynn, escaping from the sad cynicism of her lazy eyes, thinking I won’t notice it, as I appear catatonic. And I feel it, too, embedded deep within the marrow of my bones, throbbing at my temples, and up my legs – those sad sticks cocooned in the warm fabric of the hospital blankets.
This all started long before this room imprisoned me, before these drip-wires, punching small wounds into my sore skin, ever took hold of me. It gripped when my retirement finally ensued, and soon became a permanent feature of my days. After 35 years service to Clancy’s furniture fittings, I was made redundant, forcing me into retirement. I had reached the standard age years previously, but took no interest in giving up to sitting by the fire until it arrived.
I lived for my working days. A quadrant of working-stations flanked the rear-walls of the factory’s foyer; clusters of drills, hand-saws, bevel chisels and slide-rules cluttered every man’s space. And though the environment was dark and enshrouded in an insufferable stuffed heat, we went about our business diligently and with good humour. Young apprentices loitered around their elder lecturers, before taking the places of the men whom they inherited their trades from.
And here I am now, my skin, much like paper, lined with needle punctures and mauve bruises where I have knocked my limbs against the bed-side bars. The low stoop and rise of the chest struggles now. This infringing catharsis has blurred my view of life – a once-beautiful painting turned ugly through too much viewing. All earthly pleasures are now confined to memory. And with them, too, is fear, banished through the hysteria of resignation.
My child, William – now middle-aged, divorced- comes to visit daily. Living in a one-bedroom flat in a rough, housing project, he spends his mornings delivering advertising literature into the mail-boxes of the wealthy in Glencross. In the afternoons, at two, he arrives on cue, his doleful face the only mirror through which I can judge how I once looked. I picture the ruination of it: the greyed brows forming in bushed tufts, the varicose veins streaming down the nose’s bridge, the crushed-cherry eyes, the decadent chips that were once teeth.
He arrives smiling, but the tears are only held back briefly. And cry he does, without exception, quietly within the crevices of his cupped hands, wordless and unable to come to terms with another’s pain. When this began, I felt helpless, a useless father unable to raise even a paltry arm to rest upon a feeble shoulder. But now, the sorry routine has become another thing I want to miss, and I yearn, looking at the clock, for him to leave me alone. Maybe it’s the past, not the inevitable- the loss of Marguerite, his blemished mother, my dead wife.
And only if you were here now, my dear Marge, astride me, and tight in my arms in a time where nobody got old. In your crimson petticoat, those sleek fish-nets, I would will the slow trudge of my blood once more and set the motion of my mouth to firmly clamp your skin. My lips would slaver all over the neck, the thighs. My legs would tremble under the unearthly force of the love we once had, once lived for, and we would lose ourselves once more.
And then, I would let go. No regrets. For I know now, Marge. That cheap demise- the slight glow of purple, like a slipped halo, perfectly encircling the slender neck. The scribbled half-note rushed as though if you harried any further, it would pull away and out of sight. I understand now the wails of your sickness, your clenched fists and scratched arms. And why, despite your young child, you had to go. I understand the futility of it all.
Marge died on the 18th of July, 1974. And with that went love. And sex. Before it, I was akin to a machine, as rigorous as the hydraulic drills in the factory. We would lose ourselves anywhere – on a bobbing tied to the river’s edge; in wild phalanxes of dead leaves in abandoned parks, in fields where daffodils darted and swayed like small fires. But that was that – I was a man halved, and I neither loved nor was loved ever again.
Nowadays, the only feminine contact I come close to is when Sister Alford, a missionary nun, visits twice daily. Muttering ridiculous prayers, her bronzed fingers, knotted like misshapen twigs, sift through her beads, as her lips take on spasmodic shapes. I dislike her not only for her rituals, but also for the sordid gifts she brings: false hope and reminders of death, in the form of photos and flowers.
Atop my bedside, stationed in the labyrinth of medicines, and sweets which I cannot chew, lies a pious picture: an image of the Pope, saluting scores of parishioners on the streets of Vatican City. It offers no redemption, but for the realisation that I am bound for nothingness. Her hands reach for an unresponsive God; I just want pills and more pills.
Beside the picture a dozen wild lilies stoop inside a dusty vase. I quickly realised that the last thing to bring a dying man is flowers in bloom. I see Raymond directly opposite me, staring, with fear, at the dahlias his daughters bring. The circle of life cruelly plays out before him: from the petals aflame with gushing red, to their wilting out and falling upon his bedside, decaying further through the arduous hours of the nearly-dead. He screams, the arcane images of delusion rush forth, erupting in guttural squawks.
“Bring me the piano!’ he demands, ‘and fucking get rid of this hellish Eden!’
When night arrives, I stare – my eyes directed towards the slight slit in the corduroy curtains, to where a glimpse of night creeps in. I view the stars – how cold they look, up there, nailed to the sky. And I often see passing jets arching through the twilight, disappearing into the soft clouds. I hear the hollow drone of their engines, and it reminds me of my first and holiday: a weekend in Paris, which I took one summer with my parents, Joe and Elizabeth Costello. An only child, I was laden with attention. Though not rich, my mother and father strived to make my childhood wholesome, nourished. Even now I can take in the rich vapours of the Parisian evening cafes, the soothing waft of coconut milk and warm cocoa aloft in the air as light died and the moon arose.
But what good are they now? Sr. Alford has just arrived once more. The fingers thread the well-worn beads, the head stoops low, the small shuffle towards the bed-side stool and we start over again: the muttered prayers, the study of my wall-chart, the intense discussions with my young, foreign physician, Dr. Altintop. She fiddles with a match at the window and sits again. Religion, I have found, is the practise of nosiness, of busyness. My ailing state should mean little to her. I shall pass like the rest, and become one more unanswered prayer rejected by her mute God. She should be escaping to Lake Garda, or waltzing in a ballroom, or just walking through the gardens below. Not here.
At times, my body jerks along with the forced dance of my heart’s arrhythmia, and I hear Alford cry out for the nurse’s aid. But these peculiar movements are nothing I haven’t experienced before; they’ve become as commonplace as a fit of sneezes, or a phlegm-inducing cough. Yet her infinite alarm persists, and I remain helpless, without word or motion – a collapsed doll strewn upon a heap of bed-clothes.
I watch on as she fingers her way through the prayer pamphlets, glaucous-eyed as though unsure of her readings; perhaps, from pouring over them intensely, the folly of it all has broken through and wreaked terror upon her sad delusions. I turn away, fix my eyes to the window – take in the clouds, and the permanence of the sky, and back to the woman who crawls with me into oblivion. I want to say ‘leave, woman, and never return,’ but I can’t and she never does.
Indeed now, she perks up, smiles towards my eyes, and leaves, before returning with a young nurse. I know what’s coming. My head is raised, under the discomforting leverage of the women’s trembling arms, whilst a hand escapes to affix the pillows into their regular shape. I’m smiled at once more, and Alford placidly places her dry lips on my balding skull, and sits. If only I could muster a spit and the strength to aim it at her.
I hear their words from time to time, hear them whisper in the corners of the room –their plans. I leave the bed – I get placed on a low, narrow gurney, and it squeaks as it shifts me off to the bathing area. They lower me down, into a narrow pool of water, and I am doused in cold liquid by the young nurse, whose name I’ve never known. Alford appears, watching from the brass sinks at the rear of the room, as though terrified by the show. And who could blame her? There I lay, much like flotsam on a river-bank, my eyes the only reminder that it has not arrived yet. Even I can’t look down at this distant shell I’ve become.
Hours pass as I slip in and out of dreams. I am brought to a new room, where an incense stick billows small curls of fragranced smoke near my bed-side. An intravenous needle eases into a bulbous vein, after which my sheet is pulled tightly across me and tucked just below my chin. Ratzinger looms fervently on the locker. Though it is dark, night-birds piercingly chime their sorrow songs on the thick branches outside. Strangers enter and leave the room. In the distance the shrill jingle of telephones cry in the corridors. And she walks towards me, the beads, as ever, bound tightly across her cobbled knuckles.
Maybe this is it – perhaps the time of consummation has come. The heart’s distant drum is withering out into a hoarse trickle in my chest. The medical machines are chirping more incessantly. William arrives, his face red and wet, speaking into his telephone. I hear -at least I think I hear – the name of the parish priest. That’s all I need now – a lie masquerading as a sedative. ‘Don’t bring him,’ I want to say, but the only person at my side is pressing her face towards mine.
‘It’s Ok, dear’ she says, ‘everything will be OK, James. I promise.’
She courses her fingers along the sheets, hesitates, and finally runs them over my hand. And I feel it – the burden of familiarity exposing itself through touch. The slight indentation of an aged scar shines pale against her bronzed wrists, its shape much like the warped string of a child’s balloon. And then, William sits by her side, rests her head on his shoulder, and cradles her as she weeps. I close my eyes and enter the terror of it all.
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