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  Still Life

My physiotherapist’s name is Angela. Inappropriate for the hellish tortures she puts me through. I endure it, partly because I have no immediate way to communicate my distress, but also because I know the terrible muscle spasms and distortion of the spine that result from atrophy.

As a distraction, I look around at the others. It’s hard not envy their mobility, their potency. I would like to share in their laughter, the camaraderie that exists always where the conquering of pain and the accomplishment of goals are common aims. If I happen to meet another’s eye, he - they are mostly male - will quickly look away and stare with a look of pensive abstraction out of the window. Embarrassment makes dreamers of these solid lads.

One alone is able to hold my gaze. She is the only girl I have seen here. She speaks loudly; perhaps she thinks I do not hear, or cannot understand. Or perhaps she raises her voice to ensure that I do hear.

‘God, it’s disgusting!’

Her physiotherapist remonstrates with her, but she quivers with indignation.

‘Well, they shouldn’t inflict the veg-heads on us. Why can’t you bring these sodding monsters some other time?’

She’s right, I am monstrous: I caught my reflection once in the gilt-framed mirrors of the great hall. My head lolls, and my bad eye is sewn up; the other stares wildly. Fierce and fearful is what I saw, before recognition made me lose the perspective of objective analysis. She has a right, I suppose, to object. But at least she will look at me, unlike the others, who deny my existence by focusing in the distance and breathing softly, like one who tries to fend off a bout of nausea.

Anyway, it does me good to look at her. She is one of the cripples: I use such terms freely now, within the confines of my own head. If I am a veg-head, then she most certainly is a cripple - her legs smashed in some accident. She is learning to walk without limping.

‘He’s staring at me. I’ll fucking scream if he keeps his mad eye on me for another second!’

She is angry, but also afraid, still in her teens, that life has already passed her by, that there is no hope, only boredom and frantic struggle in unpredictable measure.

Yes, looking at her does me good, because it is liberating to feel sorry for someone other than myself. Ah, but now I have disconcerted her with my scrutiny.

‘I’m getting out of this fucking freak show!’

She has gone. Who, I wonder, does she consider to be the freak in this show?

Locked in syndrome, they call it. They say he hears like a normal person. That he can think. So they say. I’ve watched him. He sits for hours. Just looking. His face doesn’t change, he doesn’t do anything. They feed him through a tube and clean him up like a baby. Yeah, really normal. If I was like that, I wouldn’t let them feed me. I’d make them let me die.

Letters, he gets. And people coming to see him. Sometimes they read to him from books. I’ve heard them through the door. Sometimes they take him for walks. All that effort, and for what? Locked in - he should be locked away - out of fucking SIGHT!

At physio, I can see that she is repelled by my physical appearance. As I drool on my tweed jacket I see her lips draw back from her teeth in a sneer of disgust. Yet she is there every day, although she, unlike me, can decide when she comes down for her sessions.A month or two and she will be ready to leave, her bones mended, nothing to show but a little scar tissue. As for the rest...

He slobbers! Shit. He won’t wear the hospital issue track suit like the rest of us. Not good enough for the likes of him. Christ! All that money and he can’t stop himself slobbering down his good tweed jacket. I fucking hate him.

She watches me compulsively now. I have seen her standing at my door, when the nurses forget to close it. I cannot bear the noise in the corridor. It swells and distorts like echoes in a drainpipe - a result of my condition, this paradox of deafness and hypersensitivity. The sound of footsteps batters my one functioning eardrum like a demented timpanist, and yet I never hear her come; she is silent, despite her damaged limbs; not entirely corporeal, she drifts soundlessly, watches me for a time, and leaves without a word. It is difficult to say how long she loiters, for time seems to run on two separate scales in this place: each second, minute, hour, day, week is unconscionably long, and yet months seems to streak by, overtaking the days, losing the hours entirely in their hectic pace. I think she was brought here before I was admitted. She is a veteran of convalescence. An impatient patient.

Paula, my speech therapist, says I should teach my visitor the code - my new method of communication. Achingly slow, yet it is transfiguringly beautiful, for it returns to me the power of communication, it conveys the thoughts that clamour for expression. I had never thought of communication as a power until I was deprived of the means of it.

I must be selective; my affliction teaches me brevity and clarity. What I want to say must be thought out, planned, deliberated over and memorized before I attempt to relay it. A blink of an eye becomes a letter, as my visitors reel off the alphabet with such casual facility, and I, with my eye, signal when to stop. Each letter is set carefully, one upon another, building syllables; syllables are built into words, and words into sentences. Paragraphs are generally beyond me; repartee is not worth the effort: before half the joke is completed, it has gone cold. Misunderstandings are more often the cause of humour: I tried to explain who Paula was to a friend who had come to visit. I wanted him to understand her importance to me. He wrote out each letter conscientiously, sat back and puzzled over the two words he had written.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, blushing. ‘You’re saying Paula is the rapist?’

Would my visitor have the patience to learn the technique? Skim through the alphabet and watch for the drop of a wink, note down the letters, construct the words? Even if she did, would the trust that is implicit in the one-sidedness of our relationship be shattered by the possibility of my making a reply?

A woman comes, sometimes. His wife. Children. Two of them. They skip along beside his wheelchair. Talk, talk, talk. What do they find to say to him? The boy dabs at the dribbles on his chin with a Kleenex. It’d make me throw up if I had to do that.

I go into his room when they go off for their walkies. Pictures everywhere - and cards, letters, books.

She comes to my room, now, every night after lights out. I wait for her shadow to flit across the doorway, ghosting ahead of her, like the wraith she is. At first she stood in the doorway, as before, simply watching. Then, she came inside, touching things, examining pictures and books. Now she sits by my bed, her head bowed like a penitent. The sibilance of whispered confessions insinuates into every corner of the room, until the air vibrates with it, yet her sins remain a secret to me, because she speaks so softly and - perversely - although my hearing is hyper-sensitive to trivial sounds in the corridor, I cannot distinguish the confidences imparted in the quiet of my room.

Since I do not know her sins, I cannot give her absolution, and yet I know she suffers - has suffered. She wants to die, this girl, this child who hasn’t yet lived, and it snatches at the heart of me to watch her and yet to be unable to comfort her. We are here as convalescents, both of us, but I feel the cruelty of the term used to describe me: I will never recover, neither gradually, nor all at once. I suppose it is heartless to predict a recovery for her, too, since she can never be healed while she is so inwardly tormented. We’re both locked in cases, in our way.

She doesn’t look at me. I suspect she finds me repulsive. I feel a kind of regret - it isn’t vanity - but I do not want her to find me repugnant. You see how circumscribed my ambitions are by my condition: there was a time when I might have contrived to make her fall in love with me, just to see if I could.

What’s it like to be locked inside yourself like that? Does he get mad about things? Maybe he wants to do stuff, like - I don’t know, anything. You don’t have to even tell your body to do things - you just want it and it happens, but not him. He’s not just locked in, he’s locked up. God, sometimes when I think about it, I can’t breathe! If he could talk, what would he say? If it was me I’d scream - Get me out of here! Let me fucking die! Why does he go on? Why doesn’t he just stop breathing?

My two children do not come often to visit me, but when they do, it is as if they have brought a little corner of my old life with them. They smell of London, of our riverside flat, pockets of clean air and diesel fumes, the oily exhaust of the tug boats and barges. My children smell of soap and fresh laundry. I want to ask Clarissa to bring me some clothing - their clothing - so that I can imagine myself at home, make believe that a part of them is with me always, but I’m afraid she will think me morbid.

I see the girl watching them - I cannot call her the cripple any longer, it seems unkind, and anyway, she’s stopped calling me veg-head. She is watching for my reaction. What she expects to see, I cannot think. If the strength of my love for those two little ones could be translated into a physical sign, I would leap from my bed and dance with them to the shore-line, turn cartwheels with little Cloë on the sands, and hug my son to me, rejoicing in the bony awkwardness of his ten-year-old’s body. Instead, I sit, as always, mute, silent, expressionless but for a tear that oozes from my eye. James dabs at it with the same tissue he uses on my drooling chin. He comments that his daddy’s eye is watering in the wind.

You see, I have learned to weep discreetly.

Perhaps I am more like her than I realize; a ghost, a fearful apparition, only half-seen, and yet I am able to see and hear and take a sad delight in the living world, while doomed to be apart from it. A sudden notion makes me smile; smiling is no longer a physical thing for me - but the feeling is as I remember it, and although the smile does not show on my face, it warms me like a glow of evening light. I shall teach my little spectre to commune with me, through the medium of my ouija board - my alphabet.

When the children leave it is getting late and Cloë is cranky and tired: too much sun. I forget to ask for the curtains to be drawn and now the sun falls full on my pillow and I feel the right side of my face drying to parchment in the glare.

A shadow, a fleeting coolness, and I know it is her. She closes the curtains, looks at me and leaves. I think, this time, for the first time, she has seen me - not my hideous exterior, but the person inside. I feel acknowledged, and the affirmation gives me a soaring sense of worth.

They left him frying like a lobster. His face was all red. I was going to sponge some water on it. But I just couldn’t.

I have dictated a note to Paula. When my visitor glides past my door this morning - but she is here! She takes the note cautiously, eyeing Paula with suspicion, begins to read. Then:

‘ Fuck! All this time and you let me think - ’ She stops and tears up the slip of paper on which is written a greeting, my name, a request for hers. ‘Fuck you!’ she is screaming. ‘FUCK YOU! You let me say those things - ’

A little gobbet of spittle has formed at the corner of her mouth and now I understand my son’s urge to dab at my chin to keep it clean: it’s demeaning, this loss of control. She runs from the room and I am left gasping, coughing, and Paula tries to calm me, to help the spasm abate.

Night. A shadow, the merest rustle of denim seam on denim seam. She is on me! I think at first it is a night terror - for me, sleep paralysis has become the reality. Then she drags me into my wheelchair and I know this is no dream. She is surprisingly strong, and I, in my sickness, have wasted to a scrawny seven-and-a-half stone. I try to gasp a protest, but even in my extreme terror I am unable to make a sound. We fly down the corridors, along the terrace, down the lane to the beach.

She heads straight for the water. I think she plans to drown me, and I am powerless to stop her. She halts at the edge of the foam, watching the steady rise and fall of the waves, and presently I hear her weeping.

‘ I trusted you,’ she says.

I understand. She trusted me with her secrets because she thought I was incapable of giving them away. She thought they were locked within me. Now she knows that I am able to communicate, I am a threat. So, it wasn’t trust at all: she shared her confidences in the same way you would with a dog, or a stuffed toy. She thought me inanimate, insensate.

It is still and warm. The waves shush and heave on the shingle and the moon smiles palely down, one half of its face gone, as is mine, so that its smile, like mine, is more a grimace.

For three nights following, she comes to my room and we go on an adventure, taking the twists and turns of the hospital’s deserted corridors, letting fate decide our destination. Tonight, we are on the south terrace. The lighthouse beams at us, as if he is pleased by our courage in seeking him out. The light is so bright I can almost feel the heat. Imperturbable, silent, watchful, he performs his stately pirouette, holding none in favour, giving his light generously to all, a simultaneous warning and beacon of safety.

It seems to affect her as deeply as it affects me, this ungrudging gift of light, for she stops her furious pursuit - it feels like we are chasing something in these frantic midnight races - and looks with me. The hypnotic sweep of the beam soothes her, and after a time, she wheels me back to my room. I have never before seen the lighthouse at night, and I would like to thank her.

Today, I am afraid of her. She is here, as if some prearranged signal has brought her: my visitors all gone, physio and my dear speech therapist (the rapist) Paula. She looks at me and I brace myself, readying myself for the rough handling, the unceremonious dumping of my body into the wheelchair, headlong flights down corridor, across courtyards, and into the night.

She stands hunched by the door. The light is poor, but I can see that she is crying. She edges into the room as if she knows she has no business here. Then she stretches out a hand, flattens it against Cloë’s painting of her pony - her latest gift to me - and claws it from the wall. Cards, letters, drawings, postcards, poems, all are torn or knocked from their places, trodden on, ripped, destroyed.

When she comes to me and thrusts her face, more monstrous in its rage than ever mine was in its ruinous state, she draws back as though I have spat at her. But I am only crying, softly, discreetly.

I took all his things, everything he had. But when he cried, it was for me.

I haven’t seen her for days. I thought she had left, gone home, or to whatever place equates to home for her, but here she is, loitering in the doorway, like a mugger waiting her chance. Paula looks around at her and smiles - I’ve told everyone that I was asleep when the damage was done, that I didn’t see the destruction. My wife wants me to move somewhere safe, but I’ve refused: in the six months since I came to this place, life has never been so exciting, so precarious.

‘ Here’s your friend,’ Paula says. I signal my need to say something.

‘ No,’ the girl says. ‘You’ve got something to say, you say it to me.’ She turns to Paula. ‘Show me.’ Every bit as imperious as I was in my directorial days.

She has a facility for the code, having spoken in fragments and hinted at hidden meaning all her life. She adapts to its quirks and anticipates with quick, intelligent joy, delighting in a sentence correctly completed, as if she has uncovered the secret meaning of a lost tongue. Which, I suppose, she has.

‘ Beginning,’ she says, ‘or end?’ I am given the opportunity to blink. A blink on the word ‘beginning’ gives me the earlier letters in my alphabet code; end gives me the second half. It’s faster than the method everyone else uses, and she’s good at guessing my meaning. Perhaps it’s all that time spent watching me.

I tell her my hopes: to be able to breathe without a respirator, perhaps even to make sounds eventually - not words, I am not unrealistic, but sounds, so that the letters of my alphabet may be made from my own larynx.

‘ Big ambition,’ she says, dismissing me in two words.

Her sarcasm hurts. But she is also capable of kindness and sensitivity. She is watchful for signs of discomfort, and although my face is incapable of expression beyond that of a solemn wink, she is able to interpret my moods, and she notices when I am uncomfortable. Also, she is aware of the keen pleasure I take in our wheelchair adventures, and she is always willing to indulge me.

She stops, frequently, by the canteen and tells me what is on the menu for the day. The chef is good - I can tell by the smells that stimulate my palate and cause me to salivate (one reflex that remains intact, though it can be an embarrassment) - and I tell her of another ambition, to taste real food again.

‘Sundays,’ I say to him. ‘A whole day when nobody comes. Not your friends, or your family. No one to talk to. No physio, no speech therapy. How come you don’t go mad?’

I tell her that my imagination is like a butterfly: it is free to roam where it will. On lonely Sundays I am a novelist, a film director, hero, politician. I have flown, swallow swift to my wife, Clarissa, I have caressed her skin, kissed the nape of her neck, slept beside her, serene, content.

‘ I wish I had your words.’

‘ I wish I had your future.’

She guesses the word two letters in. ‘My future,’ she says. ‘D’you know what my future is?’

I don’t want to hear her say it. I don’t want her to confirm my fears. Sensitive, as always, she is halted by my frantic blinking. I tell her, ‘Your future is what you make it. Your past is finished. You are not.’

I want to tell him he’s talking shit. He had everything. A good start, a good life. But something stops me. Instead I say, ‘You’ve got friends.’

‘ So have you.’ I’ll swear he smiled. ‘Paula likes you.’

‘ Oh,’ I say. ‘Paula.’

‘ And I love you.’

I can’t talk to him for a bit. Then I say, ‘What do you want most right now?’ I’ll give him anything for what he’s just said.

‘ It’s not in your giving.’

In your giving. The way he says things... It’s not just words. He says things and they mean more than the letters and sounds that make them. There’s thought and feeling behind them. A kindness.

I tried letting my thoughts float like a butterfly, today. It felt more like a moth buzzing around a light bulb. Just when I thought I’d got away, airborne, soaring, I blatted my wings against the lamp.

‘ That’s good!’ he says.

‘ Good? I’m fucked if the furthest I can fly is the bedside cabinet of this mouldy old pit!’

He breathes in... out-out-out-out. He’s laughing.

‘ The simile,’ he says, ‘is good.’

He had to explain that one.

‘ You’re bound to find it hard at first. Don’t give up.’

‘ What about the lamp?’ I say.

‘ Switch - ’

‘ It off. Very funny.’ I did, though. Maybe it was a joke and he was winding me up, but I did switch it off.

I didn’t go far next time, but I saw the curve of the bay, like a big horse-shoe, and the sky was blue. The water was right up on the shore and the sun bounced off it till I was almost blinded, and when I looked away, along the sands, I could still see millions of little candles of light on the back of my eyes.

He makes me tell him what I see. Tells me I’ve got to learn the gift of speech.

She takes me to such places! Today, she has wheeled my chair right into the dining hall. Someone complains they couldn’t enjoy their food with me staring at him.

‘ Yeah?’ she says. ‘Well he hasn’t touched a morsel since he saw your ugly mush.’

She is ready to fight, but the neurologist comes over. ‘What are you thinking of, Felicity, tormenting him like this?’ It’s the first time I’ve heard her name.

‘ Shows what you know.’ She turns to me. ‘Am I tormenting you?’

Two blinks: No.

‘ D’you want to leave?’

Two blinks.

The fact is, these visits to the dining hall enhance my culinary fantasies; one might even say feeds them. I can discern the herbs that have gone into making the sauce, how much pepper, whether full fat cream was used. I can almost feel the meat melting on my tongue, taste the juices stimulating my salivary glands. Almost. But this final, glorious sensation eludes me.

I am ill. A respiratory infection, despite all the pummelling and expectorating the physio inflicts on me daily. Clarissa tries not to look relieved. I cannot blame her. Felicity looks worried. I tell her it’s futile. Today I told her what her name means. She did not know; no one had ever told her. ‘Delight,’ I told her. ‘A blessing, a happiness of expression.’ She seemed pleased.

He’s getting worse. His breathing rattles in his chest, gurgles like water down a plug hole. - I can’t help it; once you get into this habit of describing things, you can’t switch it off, it’s not light a bedside lamp. I brought him a surprise. He’s too ill to go on our mystery tours now. She comes to me, shyly, blushing. It fills my heart with such tender joy to see her so softened, so willing to show her true self, in such contrast with that first, hostile meeting. In these few months, she is altered, as I am altered: beyond all recognition, for the better.

‘ Lamb,’ she says, closing her eyes to memorize the ingredients she has demanded from the chef. ‘garnished with fresh rosemary and roasted, served with apple and cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, baby carrots and broccoli.’ She leans forward and kisses me gently on the lips, and my taste buds are flooded with the flavours. She stands back, anxious for my reaction, fretting that I will be offended. She smiles.

‘ And now...’ She disappears for a moment and I hear a clanking in the corridor which hurts my ears. The sound distortion is worse of late. When she returns she has a bowl full of strawberries and cream in one hand and a bag of sugar in the other.

‘ Had to steal this,’ she says. ‘They won’t put it out on the tables - think it’s bad for us.’ she dips a strawberry in the sugar, then in the cream and puts it whole in my mouth.

Felicity: my happiness. My delight.

He taught me that words aren’t like money. You don’t have to store them up so they don’t run out just when you need them. I had kept a store of words like stones, ready to use.

The first talk I remember was between my gran and my mother. We didn’t have conversations in our house. A lot of talk, but not what you’d call a conversation.

Gran was talking to Mum. They were sitting at the kitchen table, sipping tea. Gran’s talk was like hailstones, hard and sharp; well aimed, too - there was always a target. Gran rattled them off, spraying insults like she sprayed biscuit crumbs from her hardened gums.

Mum sat, miserable, trapped by the barrage of sound, trying to please, putting a word in here and there to prove she was listening.

I learned early not to listen.

Mum died before Gran - left her with only Granddad to blame. They fired off words at each other, stockpiling, building a funeral pyre to her and to themselves. I was alone by the age of seventeen.

‘ You have to use words,’ he would say. ‘Using words doesn’t wear them out, it will improve your skill in using them.’

He had a word for it. Articulate: being able to express yourself clearly. But it had other meanings - sometimes he’d use it to tell you what to do:

‘ Articulate! Say what you feel! Don’t worry about getting the words right - they’ll come as you grow accustomed to speaking. You’ve locked yourself up inside yourself.’ He should talk.

He had these words, sentences, sometimes paragraphs ready for me when I visited. Like he’d stayed awake all night, just to get them right.

He left me a little money, a lot of good advice. He’d been writing every day, getting his physio to write things down. For me.

I’m reading from one of his letters. They’re dated, one for each day, to be opened only on that date. I think he was afraid I’d try it again, skydiving without a parachute. But that was before he loaned me his butterfly wings. Today’s letter, like all of them, makes me cry. His kindness is almost more than I can bear.

‘I once told myself that we were both locked in cases, you and I. I was wrong. I am locked in, but you were locked out. And that is far worse. That is the real tragedy.’

I wish he had said this to me, so that I could thank him for giving me words. For giving me the wings to fly.

© Margaret Murphy 1998
First published in The Bridport Anthology, 1998
 


 
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