Sunday, 19 December 2010

After the Panto

This is the only holiday story I've written. For some reason I never posted it here. For those of you unfamiliar with British theatre, the panto is a wintertime institution of costume farces, based mostly on children's stories such as Aladdin's Lamp. 'Brighton Rock' is a form of hard candy, like that found in candy canes; Brighton Rock is formed into a circular stick, and, when viewed end-on, the word 'Brighton' appears in tiny letters around the outside edge of the circle. 'Brighton Rock' is also rhyming slang; its referent should be apparent from the story.


After the Panto

Nexis Pas

© 2007 by the author



‘Hey, you’re back. How did it go?’

‘Thank god it’s over. It sounded like such a good idea in October. Take my nephew to the panto on Christmas Eve, give my sister and brother-in-law a chance to talk with my parents without the nephew demanding attention every other second, be a good uncle, brother, son, bond man to man with Lewis Minor. How could a good deed go so wrong!’

‘Didn’t he enjoy it? I thought all kids liked the panto.’

‘Oh, he loved it. But do you know what the Odeon sounds like when there are 5,000 children screaming at Aladdin to watch out for the evil wizard?’

‘The Odeon doesn’t seat that many people.’

‘They hung them from the rafters. They were all small and packed in four to a seat. All of them shouting and eating chocolates. I was the only person over 21 in the entire theatre except for the actors. I’ve got such a headache. Is there anything to eat? Or drink? Preferably both, but I’ll take drink rather than food. I asked the Frog what he wanted to eat afterwards, and he insisted on burgers and chips. As we were leaving my parents’ house, my sister specifically told him he was not to eat fast food. Of course, that put the idea in his head. And nothing would do but the Great Danes at Horatio’s Hamburger Hamlet. He ate all of his and most of mine. He also insisted I try this milk shake called a Polonius Assault. He assured me it was the best thing on the menu. It must have contained the annual output of sugar from some Caribbean island along with enough artificial fruit flavourings to poison all of Brighton. It was pink, Ari, pink!!! Like chewing gum.’

‘It sounds as if you had a great time, Lewis.’

‘He wants to do it again next year. As I was dropping him off at my parents’, he asked if I would take him again next year.’

‘Next year take him to the Nutcracker.’

‘I don’t think he’ll be the type to enjoy ballet.’

‘Poor Lewis. He’s only--what is he now?--seven? And already your namesake is straight. Well, take Lewis Minor to a rugby game. Both of you will enjoy that--men chasing one another around in the mud and getting all dirty.’

‘You and I are going to take a holiday next December. Somewhere without a panto. Can we visit your family in Tel Aviv? Surely there’s no panto in Israel.’

‘Here’s your drink. I’m warming some leftover curry in the oven for you.’

‘You are my lifesaver.’

‘I even come with a hole in the middle.’

‘Don’t start. I heard enough double-entendres today to last a lifetime.’

‘What are you so squicked about? You usually like that kind of humour.’

‘My most embarrassing moment.’

‘What? Why are you mumbling?’

‘My most embarrassing moment of the day.’

‘What happened? Tell me.’

‘Well, when Aladdin recovers his treasure at the end, it turns out to be this chest full of candy, and he and the princess and Widow Twankey pick up handfuls of it and start throwing it into the audience. That causes a major riot. When everything settles down, the Widow Twankey walks over to the horse and reaches under the hind legs. There’s this loud sound of a zipper being unzipped. Then the actor playing Twankey pokes around between the horse’s legs. Finally he pulls out this enormous stick of Brighton Rock. Of course, all the kiddies thought that was hilarious.’

‘Well, it was clever. But how did that embarrass you?’

‘Well, he prances about on the stage, peering out into the audience. He even asked them to raise the house lights so that he could see the “good little boy” who’s going to get this “large Brighton Rock up his stocking”. Unfortunately I had decided to be the good uncle and popped for expensive seats so that the nephew could see everything. So we’re right there in the centre front, and the nephew is jumping up and down, clamouring to be the one who gets the stick. Twankey is pacing back and forth drawing out the suspense. Finally he motions everyone to be quiet. And he says in this queeny voice, “Aha, I see someone who reaaaaaaally enjoys Brighton Rock and who reaaaaaaaaaally knows how to suck on it.” And then he leans over the edge of the stage and tosses it in my lap.’

‘He didn’t. Oh, Lewis, that’s hilarious. “Someone who really knows how to suck on it.” He said that in public? In front of an audience of children. Luckily, that must have gone over their heads.’

‘Oh, no. The monsters got the joke. All of them. All of them screaming and pointing at me and repeating it. Even the nephew. As we were leaving, a dozen kids stopped me and asked me to show them how to suck on Brighton Rock. And their parents are glaring at me as if I might do just that. I could tell that they wanted to have me arrested for public indecency. But that wasn’t the worst.’

‘There’s more?’

‘When I took him back, the nephew runs into the house holding the stick of Brighton Rock aloft and tells my sister and her husband and my parents what happened. They all thought it was uproarious. This is destined to become a family legend, Ari. I just know it. I’ll have to hear about this every time I see them. Uncle Lewis and his Brighton Rock.’

‘Oh, Lewis, my teacup, come here. Let me give you a hug.’

‘Teacup? Now you’re laughing at me too.’

‘It was in my English textbook in school. Mr Smith always called Mrs Smith “his little teacup”. But Widow Twinky is just lucky I wasn’t there. I would have known where to put that Brighton Rock. I would have defended your honour from this travesty.’

‘You would have been mobbed by an army of angry children. Widow Twankey is a sacred British institution. And think of the bad example you would have set for young Lewis.’

‘Bad example? He would have seen someone defending a loved one. How is that bad?’

‘You would do that for me? Risk disembowelment by a horde of future footie louts? That’s so sweet.’

‘Disembowelment? I didn’t realise these children were footsie louts in the making. Maybe a black eye, Lewis, but disembowelment? That’s rather extreme--I would have to think about that. But, of course, if I had been there, Dame Tinkle would have awarded me the Brighton Rock, and you would have had to defend my honour and risk a moppet mauling. So it is a moot point.’

‘Oh thanks. That makes me feel much better.’

‘I hope so. Your curry must be hot by now. Go into the dining room and I’ll bring it in.’

‘Ari, what’s this?’

‘What’s what, love?’

‘This small tree on the sideboard.’

‘Well, I didn’t have anything to do this afternoon, since you were out contributing to the delinquency of minors with your demonstrations of rock-sucking techniques. So I decided to do a bit of decorating. And I found this small tree in a pot. And I thought a bit of green would brighten the dining room. Besides cedar always smells nice.’

‘But we decided we wouldn’t celebrate Christmas. I mean it is a Christian holiday and you’re . . . .’

‘And I’m not. It’s just a tree, Lewis. It has nothing to do with Christmas.’

‘Just a tree?’

‘Just a tree. It’s just for decoration. Just like those candles that you put in all the windows a couple of weeks ago were just pretty decorations. Now eat your dinner. Say “Thank you, Ari,” and don’t mention it again.’

‘Thank you, Ari.’

‘My pleasure, Lewis.’

‘The tree looks nice. It was a good idea.’

‘So were the candles. Now eat your curry before it gets cold.’



******

‘God, that bathroom is cold. We have to buy a heater to put in there.’

‘Hmmm. Maybe if we got one that could be anchored on the wall so it wouldn’t fall into the bath.’

‘Should I turn down the fire?’

‘Only if you agree to stay close all night.’

‘I think I can do that, Lewis. Let me under the blankets. There’s got to be some way to heat this place. What are we going to do when we’ve been here forty years and get old and the cold starts really bothering us?’

‘Ooo, your feet are freezing. Get them off me.’

‘It’s that flagstone floor in the bathroom. We’re both going to have chilblains before the winter’s out.’

‘I have something that may help.’

‘Hmmm, do you? I know all about your help. I was hoping you were in the mood for that kind of help.’

‘That, too. But this is different. I wasn’t going to give you this until Boxing Day, but since you brought the subject up, here, this is to celebrate our sixth-month anniversary in the house, and our 424th day of living together.’

‘Lewis, this looks suspiciously like a present.’

‘No, it’s not a present. It’s just a stray thought from the man who loves you.’

‘Fleece-lined slippers? Oh, Lewis, these are perfect.’

‘They’re just slippers, Ari. Just say “Thank you, Lewis,” and don’t mention them again. Try them on.’

‘Thank you, Lewis. Oh, the fit’s just right. How did you know the size?’

‘My pleasure, Ari. And I know your shoe size.’

‘Hmmm, I suppose you do.’

‘Where are you going? It’s getting cold in bed without you.’

‘Won’t be a tic. I just have to get something out of the other bedroom.’

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s a stray thought to celebrate Hogmanay from the man who loves you.’

‘Hogmanay?’

‘I looked it up. It’s a Scotch holiday to mark the beginning of winter. Although I do not understand why anyone would want to mark the beginning of winter.’

‘It must be a Scottish thing. Ah, I see. Scotch holiday. A bottle of whisky.’

‘I thought it appropriate to the season, and to this house. Something to keep you warm inside.’

‘Oh, Ari, you keep me warm inside. Always.’

‘Lewis, you’re going to make me cry. I may break into song.’

‘Not Kate Bush, please, Ari, not Kate Bush. You’re going to sing “Wuthering Heights” again, aren’t you? “Teacup, it’s me, it’s Ari. I’ve come home now. Oh o oh o. It’s so cold out. Let me inna your windoh o oh ow.” ’

‘Appropriate considering the temperature, but actually I was thinking of

“I hear him, before I go to sleep

And focus on the day that’s been.

I realise he’s there,

When I turn the light off and turn over.

Telling me about the sea.

All his love, till eternity.

Oh, he’s here again.

The man with the child in his eyes.” ’

‘Oh, Ari, what did I ever do to deserve you?’

‘Lewis, dear heart, it would take me fifty years to list all the reasons. But for right now, you know what an awful sweet tooth I have. And I’ve been thinking of Brighton Rock all evening.’

‘Have you? Coincidentally, I happen to have a stick of that on me.’

‘Hmmm, so you do, Lewis, so you do. How thoughtful of you to bring it to bed with you. That just might satisfy my craving--for a while, anyway. And now I will sing a line from “Wuthering Heights”: “Oooo, let me grab it. Let me have your tool oh o oh o.” ’

Monday, 8 November 2010

As the Emperor Lay Dying

As the Emperor Lay Dying

© 2010 by the author



Samhail, the Emperor of Marbhtír, lay on the imperial bed in the innermost chamber of the Palace of the Eastern Capital, attended only by his four most trusted advisors: Asal, his prime minister; Sagart, his chief priest; Laoch, the leader of his armies; and Beanne, his empress.

From far off in the Palace came the sound of wailing, abruptly cut off. The Emperor raised his head from his pillow and lifted an eyebrow to query the source of the sound.

‘The doctors acknowledge their incompetence, Your Majesty,’ said Laoch.

‘Good. They deserved to die. The fools could not cure me. At least their deaths will prevent them from harming others.’ The Emperor’s disease had eaten away at his energies, and he could not speak above a whisper. The other four had to lean in closely to the bed to hear him.

‘There are many who would volunteer to die in Your Majesty’s service, if it would restore Your Majesty to health.’ Asal bowed obsequiously, but he kept his hand on the small dagger he had secreted in his robes. All eighteen of his predecessors as Samhail’s prime minister had died in office, all but one of them at the Emperor’s hand. The Emperor had graciously permitted the lone exception to hang himself. Asal intended to outlive his lord.

‘Are you volunteering to be one of them, Asal? Are you ready to join the thousands whose deaths you have ordered?’ A smile flitted about the Emperor’s lips. The contemplation of others’ death still amused him. ‘You do not answer. Do you fear that I would accept your sacrifice? But perhaps one of the others will offer to kill himself in your stead.’ The Emperor peered in turn at each of the quartet gathered around his bed.

‘What about you, Laoch? You have killed even more than I. Surely one more death, even if it is your own, would not matter to you if it could save me?

‘Or perhaps Sagart, my holy warrior? How many heretics and nonbelievers have you persuaded me to offer up to your gods? Should we sacrifice you? I am sure that your pleas before the Tribunal of Death would carry great weight. Who better to plead the case of the holiest man in Marbhtír than his chief priest?

‘And you, Beanne—are you ready to confront all the rivals for my attentions that you have slain? And what of their sons and daughters? So many of them seemed to die. Ill-health and bad luck have prevailed among all my offspring except for yours. Many in the Court found that curious. I tacitly thanked you for entertaining me. Perhaps, my beloved, the gods would find you equally entertaining and in their joy at having you forget to take me.’

The four courtiers eyed the Emperor uneasily, watching for any signal that might indicate they were to become his latest, and possibly last, victims. All of them bowed and murmured their willingness to die for the Emperor.

‘And what of the Crown Prince? Is he closely guarded? I would not want him to ascend the throne beforetime.’

‘He is locked in his chambers, Your Majesty,’ said Laoch. ‘Several of my most trustworthy lieutenants are watching him. He is safe.’

‘Perhaps we should sacrifice him to the gods. Surely they will delight in having yet another member of my family to feast on. I forget. Beanne, how many of our sons are still alive? Can we spare this one?’

‘There are six princes, but the Crown Prince is your favourite. I beg Your Majesty to spare him.’

‘Well, soon enough there will be only one of them alive. Whichever of them succeeds me will see to that. Did you know that that was Laoch’s first service to me? As your predecessor was anointing me, Sagart, my remaining brothers were led in, all of them bound and chained. The Crown of Marbhtír lay on the altar, and Laoch dragged my brothers forward, one by one, and cut their throats and washed my crown in their blood so that their strength would flow into me. When he had finished, the priest lifted the crown and set it upon my head. The blood flowed down my face and soaked my robes. That was the bargain I made with your gods, Sagart. I swore to feed them rivers of blood, unending rivers of blood. In return, they would spare me. I offered them the deaths of millions in exchange for eternal life for myself. I have not failed to uphold my half of the covenant, Sagart. But your gods have forgotten their pledge. To their dishonour, they seem to want me as well.’

‘Your Majesty, we cannot judge the gods. All we can do is live by the laws they have given us and hope through our offerings and sacrifices to placate them. At this time, it would be better to devote yourself to thoughts of . . .’

‘Enough, priest. I weary of your prattle. I tolerated you only because you have supplied me with so many reasons to sacrifice thousands to the gods. Do you never suspect that your eloquence was wasted on me? Every time some village of ignorant peasants on the marches of the empire began to worship some lump of wood they thought a god and failed to remit its tithes to your coffers, you harangued me for an hour on the need to slaughter them. And you outdid yourself when you wanted me to order the deaths of Carthanacht and his party. I would have ordered their deaths without your eloquence. You had only to ask.’

The Emperor did not notice the priest edging slowly back from the bed. His eyesight was failing. Whatever he looked at was surrounded by a halo of light so bright that it hurt his eyes. ‘Perhaps,’ he said to himself, ‘I should sacrifice all the priests. There are so many of them. Their deaths might buy me another week. Hell will be too busy processing them to take anyone else. If religion and sacrifices to the gods cannot save me, what need have I of priests? What do you say, Asal, should we sacrifice the priests?’

The Prime Minister considered each of his three rivals in turn. The Emperor would soon be dead. He would need allies if he were to survive. Beanne was necessary. The Crown Prince adored his mother. Once on the throne, would the Crown Prince favour the priests or the military? Laoch caught his eye and nodded. It was the slightest of nods, but it was enough.

‘It is a difficult decision, Your Majesty.’ Asal paused to lend his words weight. ‘On one hand, their sanctity would please the gods, Your Majesty. If they were to be your messengers to the Tribunal of Death, they could plead eloquently to the gods to restore Your Majesty’s health. Surely if they were to attest to the gods how bereft we Your subjects, would be without the solace of Your august presence, the gods would have mercy and spare us the terrible affliction that threatens us. On the other hand, there would be unrest among the people. The priests would attempt to preserve their own lives and would stir them up. I fear that many priests would not understand the nature of the honour being offered them. Unlike your soldiers they would not sacrifice themselves willingly. Thank the gods, that we can always count on Your armies and their commander, General Laoch, to carry out your orders.’ Asal began mentally composing the writs of execution to be issued in the Emperor’s name.

‘I protest, Your Majesty, the Prime Minister’s aspersions on the priesthood,’ Sagart broke in. ‘I can assure You that Your priests would to a man willingly forfeit themselves if such an act would restore Your health. There need be no talk of calling on Your armies to enforce their sacrifice. However, I remind Your Majesty that there is another group even larger than the priesthood and even more eloquent. And that is the bureaucracy. Are their proclamations and their reports not filled with earnest declarations of their loyalty to Your Majesty? Would they not be honoured with Your command to sacrifice themselves on Your behalf? We priests labour without pay, motivated only by our concern for the welfare of Your Majesty’s state and Your subjects. The military risk their lives and health to protect Your Majesty. What do the bureaucrats do? They grow rich from the fees they levy on Your subjects. They use the awe of Your Majesty’s power to extort others’ possessions for themselves. It would not be necessary to call out the army to enforce an edict from You that they surrender their lives to appease the gods. The people hate them and would rise up and enforce Your wish.’

‘We are not as hated as the priests, nor as venal.’ Asal interjected. His hand sought the dagger hidden in the fold of his robes.

‘Silence.’ For a moment the Emperor spoke in the voice that had caused thousands to tremble. ‘I understand. Each of you is willing that the other make the sacrifice. And what of you, my love? Who would you sacrifice for me?’

Beanne was skilled in the art of pleasing the Emperor. She stepped forward and lifted his hand in hers. ‘Beloved, I volunteer to die for You. I beg You to allow me to plead Your case before the Tribunal of the Dead. And not only myself. My entire family wishes to repay the great honours You have showered on us. All of us shall die in Your stead. I ask only that You be the one who sacrifices me.’ The empress smiled prettily and then bowed her head in submission to the will of the Emperor, confident that he would never accede to her request.

‘And what of the Crown Prince and his brothers? Are they not part of your family too? Will they be as willing as you to die for me?’

Beanne was quick to answer, too quickly perhaps. ‘They are part of your family, my beloved.’

‘But if I survive, I will not need a successor. Tell me, Laoch—do you think the gods will not look favourably on one who dedicates the blood of all his children to them?’

‘I am sure that they would, Your Majesty.’ Laoch smiled inwardly. The princes and princesses and all the Emperor’s descendants were already dead, as were all the many members of the Empress’s family. The Empress would not survive twenty steps when she left the Emperor’s bedchamber. As for the Head Priest and the Prime Minister, if they supported him, he might let them survive. If not, their bodies and those of their supporters would fuel the Emperor’s funeral pyre. Not that many would follow them if they chose to oppose his ascension to the throne. There were always men ready to lead the priesthood and the bureaucracy. ‘But I will perform one final service for Your Majesty. I have stood by You since the beginning. I have grown old in Your service. I have no wish to serve another emperor.’

Laoch unsheathed his sword and held its blade against his own throat. ‘Eternal life to the Emperor.’ He shouted the phrase that greeted the Emperor whenever he appeared.

The other three reacted automatically, conditioned by many years of attendance at court. Ritual required that everyone present respond by bowing and uttering the dictated response fervently. They bent low as they shouted ‘Forever and forever.’

Laoch plunged the sword into the Emperor’s chest. The doors to the bedchamber were flung open. Laoch’s cry had been the signal. Armed soldiers quickly filled the room. Asal pulled the dagger from his robes to defend himself. Three swords pierced his body before he could raise his hand. In a panic, Sagart tried to escape, only to meet the same fate as Laoch. At a nod from Laoch, two soldiers dragged the Empress away.

Blood pumped from the wound in the Emperor’s chest. With his final breaths, Samhail, the Emperor of Marbhtír, laughed. ‘My legacy is secure,’ he whispered. ‘I shall live forever. My reign will never end. I am Death, and I shall live forever.’

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Island 4

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island



The Island 4

© 2010 by the author



Munfrees is a child of nature.

The ocean pulls at the land, each wave claiming its bit of rock, of soil. The tumbled rocks below the cliffs at each end of the valley bear witness to the slow undermining of our land. Our sky is an ocean sky; it reproduces the colour of the sea—blue, green, grey. Our fogs and clouds make landfall on currents that begin far to the west. Our rains taste salty and smell of the ocean. The sea is always there, at the corner of your vision. Even when you turn away and look to the hills, the sound is there, and the scent.

Our visitors often remark on how peaceful Munfrees is and how quiet are our nights. A bird calling, the bleating of a lamb, the soft closing of a door, the tread of a passerby, the passage of a star—all of these ring loudly in the silence of the sleeping village. And underneath all the silence is the sea. On calm nights, as the waves swell along the shore, the water hisses as it bubbles over the shale outcroppings, and then runs back soughing between the tilted layers of those midnight rocks. And on stormy nights, the wind catches the spume of the waves and hurls it beating against the seaward walls of our cottages. But these are shore sounds. The sea muffles all these sounds deep within itself.

The sea even steals our light. The hills to the east keep the village in shadow for two to three hours after sunrise. On land the light remains dim long after the sea is alight. For us the day is apparent first high in the sky and far out at sea. And then two waves of light, one spilling down from the crests of the hills and the other racing towards us from the ocean, flood the valley with colour. But even then the sea is brighter than the land, so bright that it hurts the eyes to look seaward. The colour of the sea determines the colour of the land. If the sea is grey and heavy, it mutes the greens and browns of the land. If the sea is brilliant, so is the land. And at night, the sea magnifies the moon, absorbing its light and leaving the land a darkness under the lowering stars. The land absorbs the light; the sea shatters it into thousands of pieces, each as bright as the original.

The sea is, I think, even part of our language. Its motion is there in the way we speak. Like the ocean, Irish is a language that foregrounds action. Sentences begin with verbs. ‘Moves the wind the barley.’ ‘Opened the child the door.’ ‘Walked he with the sun through the green stubbled fields of autumn.’ When Irish speakers ventured into English, they carried that sentence order with them into the new language, where the initial verb mimicked the sentence order of English questions and became the habit of expressing statements as interrogatives.

I think the endless movement of the sea is also there in the habit of beginning conversations with ‘and’ or ‘so’. The Irish word for and, ‘agus’, is commonly shortened to ‘s’ at the beginning of utterances. I have often wondered if so was simply the closest English phonic equivalent to that ‘s’. That initial sibilant signals a new wave of speech, a recognition of the ceaseless motion of our thoughts.

I must have seen the Irish Sea when we lived in Dublin. I don’t recall that, however. Those placid confined waters apparently made little impression on me. It wasn’t until we arrived in Munfrees that I encountered the living ocean. On my first day there, I stood on a rock outcropping watching the water surge over the rocks below me. It was the first of the many mysterious forces that are part of my life in Munfrees.

Among the permanent inhabitants of Munfrees, I am one of the few who loves the sea. Most of my fellow villagers live with their backs to it. It is there, but they are not mindful of it. The sea is simply part of the landscape, like the hills.

They do not fear the hills, however. But fear and caution are uppermost in dealing with the sea. The inhabitants of Munfrees find the notion of swimming in the ocean incomprehensible, and most of them would not willingly ride in a boat, either for work or recreation. Drowning is considered the eventual fate of all those who take to the sea. Given the temperature of the waters off Munfrees and the bulky clothing and heavy boots most of us wear, falling overboard is almost a death sentence. Even those who are pulled alive from the ocean are thought certain to die shortly from fevers or the chills.

The villagers may live with nature, but they do not live with Nature, that romanticised notion of the natural world surrounding us. They may look out at the ocean to check on the weather heading toward us, but they do not see hints of the sublime Ocean. As I look back at those first years in Munfrees, I recall only one other person watching the ocean with joy.

Máire Ahern stood on a rock outcropping above the ocean, shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight with one of her hands. She was dressed in clothes as black as the shale on which she stood. She must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. Her parents lived in the village, but that was the first time I met her. She was usually absent attending school in Sligo, an education funded by an aunt who had emigrated many years earlier.

She turned when she heard me approaching. “You must be the Brennan lad, Patrick, is it?” She examined me briefly and then turned back to the sea. “In two weeks, I going to cross the ocean. In an ‘ocean liner’.” She pronounced the term carefully, using the English phrase. She stared intently at the horizon as if the very intentness of her gaze could make her destination visible.

“Where are you going?” I climbed up on the rock and stood beside her, trying to see what she was seeing.

“My auntie is coming to get me. She lives in Boston—that’s in the United States—and she’s going to take me back with her. She and her husband own a store, a supermarket they call it. They don’t have any children and I’m going to work there. It has everything. She says it’s a hundred times bigger than Feelihy’s. There is a field for cars around it so that people can park while they shop, and she says it’s bigger than all of Munfrees.”

I turned and looked back along the shore to Munfrees trying to gauge the size of a parking lot larger than the whole village. I couldn’t see Feelihy’s because of the other buildings, but I tried to imagine a store a hundred times its size surrounded by a gigantic field filled with cars. “There is a big store in Dublin, a department store. My mother took me there once.” I trotted out my superior knowledge of large cities.

Máire waved Dublin into insignificance. “That’s nothing. America is full of big stores. And everything’s new. Everything here is so old. Even this dress—it belonged to my mother before me, when she was my age, before she got too big to wear it. And after I leave, someone else will wear it. I’m not going to take anything of Munfrees with me. I’m going to have everything new. I’ll be like your mother and aunt and have all the clothes I want.”

“But . . .” My mother and my aunt had lectured me on not bragging about our relatively greater wealth, and they were careful not to spend money freely. We were not by any means rich, but we did have more than the villagers. I felt compelled to defend them against this casual charge of extravagance. Máire Ahern wasn’t interested in anything I might say, however. Her grand vision of the life she would shortly be leading had already transported her to America.

“And I’ll eat ice cream every day. Have you ever had ice cream? They have it down in Sligo, and I’ve had it twice. Auntie says that they have a dozen different flavours in their store. I will have a different one each night. And I’ll go to the cinema. The nuns at school showed us a moving picture once—it was a story of the Holy Mother’s visitation at Lourdes. It was so beautiful. There’s a cinema in Sligo, but we’re not permitted to go. The nuns say it’s a temptation to evil. But the nuns won’t be able to tell me what to do when I reach America. I’ll go to the cinema every week. One of the girls at school has a magazine with pictures of all the stars in Hollywood—that’s where they make the moving pictures—they’re so beautiful. I’m going to be just like them. And I won’t have to wear my hair in braids. I can get it cut and waved. . . .”

Máire continued the story of her life in America for several more minutes. When I realised that she had forgotten I was there, I edged quietly away and left her looking out to sea, with her dreams for America.

Máire wrote her parents once a month. Her mother read her letters to the women of the village. Máire’s life was filled with her new possessions, her days in school, her work in the store. Her life in America more than met her expectations. She never to my knowledge expressed regrets or felt homesick for Munfrees.

When I was sent away to begin my own formal schooling, Máire ceased to be part of my world. When, after many years, I returned to Munfrees, her parents had died, and she was no longer known in the village.

About fifteen years ago, my American publisher arranged a publicity tour when The Garden After the Fall was issued there. One of the stops was a bookstore across the street from the gates of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, north of Boston. I spoke for a half-hour about the book and how I had used my knowledge of life in Munfrees in the early 1950s as a basis for the fictional village of Scamall. I was trying to make the point that the novel drew upon my experiences but without replicating them accurately. To judge from the question period that followed most people in the audience did not believe me. Most assumed that The Garden and my other works about rural Ireland were barely disguised autobiography.

After the talk, I autographed copies of the book. As the line wound to an end and the crowd thinned out, I noticed a well-dressed white-haired woman looking at me. She stood off to one side and appeared to be waiting for the book signing to end before approaching me. Most members of the audience that night were from the university, and in contrast to their academic version of casual, she wore a tailored suit with a silk blouse and several strings of pearls. Her hair owed much to the hairdresser’s skills. She had, as the saying goes, the map of Ireland written all over her face. With the proper clothing and less attention to her hair and makeup, she could have played any of the female characters in The Garden.

“You wouldn’t remember me, but I’m from Munfrees. My name is Mary Ryan. In Munfrees I was Máire Ahern. I’ve been trying to remember, but I think we spoke only once. It would have been in the summer of 1952 just before I came here.” Her handshake was cool and confident, the handshake of someone who performs that act dozens of times a week. Her pronunciation was standard educated American except when she pronounced Máire Ahern.

As soon as she spoke, I could see her standing above the ocean at Munfrees and speaking of her dreams. “Yes, I remember you. Did you get all the ice cream you wanted?” For some reason, her remarks about ice cream popped into my mind.

She smiled, I think with pleasure at being remembered, but also with puzzlement. “Ice cream?”

“Yes, you told me that you would eat ice cream every day in America.”

“I don’t remember that, but my notions of life here centred around clothes and food and the movies. Having enough to eat was a large part of my idea of America.”

“You seem to have prospered here. Ryan is your married name?”

“Yes. My husband couldn’t come with me tonight. He’s in New York on business. We own a chain of supermarkets.” She offered that statement with pride.

In answer to my questions, she revealed that her aunt and uncle had sent her to business school and that she had taken over their market and expanded it into a regional chain. She had three children, all of them successful according to her account. As she spoke, I grew curious about her reasons for speaking to me. She seemed anxious that I understand that she had prospered. My immediate reaction was that very little of Munfrees remained in her. This knowledgeable and articulate woman was no relation of the villagers of Munfrees. It was a curious reaction. I didn’t begrudge her her accomplishments or her prosperity, but to my mind her very success removed her even further from Munfrees.

“You’ve come a long way from Munfrees,” I finally said, if for no reason other than to stop her smug recital of her triumphs.

“We both have.”

I nodded and began to consider how I could bring the conversation to a close. The minder from my American publisher and the clerks in the store were shuffling about in the background, obviously wanting the evening to end.

Before I could speak, Mary Ryan said, “They didn’t understand what you were saying about the village in the book not being real. They want the legend, you know. It’s more romantic and it fits their idea of Ireland.”

“Tonight’s audience?”

“Yes. I’ve read your books. I know it isn’t Munfrees that you describe. It wasn’t as awful as you describe, but neither was it filled with your hardy peasants who remain cheerful in the face of adversity, always ready to burst into song. I don’t blame you for offering readers that. I’ve done the same when I’ve been interviewed about my life or when I’m invited to speak. It makes my climb more meaningful.”

“My descriptions aren’t totally divorced from real life.” I felt I had to defend my works. “The problem is that no work of fiction can ever capture all of reality.”

“No, not totally. But you ignore a lot of things, important things. It’s not your fault. You only ever saw our life from the outside. The big difference was that you and your mother and your aunt could chose to stay or leave. We had to leave, to escape. There was nothing for us there. We knew that from the time we were six or seven.” She spoke with some bitterness.

“You could have stayed. Several of your cousins did.” I was beginning to grow impatient with Mary Ryan.

“And do what? I couldn’t even have married within the village. Even if there had been boys my age, I would have been too closely related to them. I would have had to go to another village like Munfrees. And for what? A chance to work hard all day long and have nothing more at the end of the day than I began with? A chance to be like ‘me mam’?” She spat out the Irish term.

“She had a fierce pride and dignity. Her life had poetry.”

“She had to have pride. Pride is what you eat when you have nothing else. And dignity is the face you put on for the neighbours so you don’t have to acknowledge that’s all you have. That’s what you’ve never understood. That ‘fierce pride and dignity’ that all your characters have is an admission that they have no reason to be proud or dignified. It’s a way of hiding your shame. As for the poetry, that’s what you chase when justice is out of reach.”

“Why did you come here tonight?”

“I came to congratulate you on your success. On the success of your books. I visited Munfrees last summer. I didn’t tell anyone who I was. As far as they knew, I was just another tourist visiting the famous Munfrees, the village your works have made famous. But it wasn’t the village I remembered. All those cousins of mine—they were like actors in a play, a play you wrote. They were so busy being the characters in P. R. Brennan’s books that they weren’t themselves any longer. You and your family are worse than the English. You betrayed us. You took what we were and left only the shadows. You’ve stolen everything from us.”

For a few seconds, her face shone with her mother’s fierceness. Then she turned on her heels and walked away.

The fierceness of the sea is in Munfrees’ blood.

Friday, 24 September 2010

A Loaf of Bread

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

A Loaf of Bread


© by the author 2010



Last week I drove Mary Coughlaín to the Medical Centre in Killybegs. This morning her granddaughter Kate knocked on my door. “Gran sent this for you.” She carried a bundle wrapped in a piece of thick white cloth, knotted on top. She held it gingerly by the knot, at the end of an outstretched arm. “Best not to touch it. It’s still hot. It only came out of the oven.” She stepped into my front room and deposited her burden on the table. “Gran says please, I’m to bring the napkin back, Mr Brennan.” She stood patiently waiting for me to unwrap the bundle and return the cloth.

I didn’t need to look inside to know what the bundle contained. The distinctive smell of freshly baked brown bread filled my house. I removed the still-steaming loaf carefully and set it on a mesh screen to cool. It was one of what I think of as the new-style of soda breads. I could see the raisins in it and smell the caraway seeds. It was far less dense than the version common in my childhood and would, I knew, have been made with a mixture of white and wholemeal flours.

My aunt made brown bread at least once a week. She used only wholemeal flour, buttermilk, salt, and baking soda. The loaf was cooked in the fireplace in an ancient cast-iron pot. The pot had three short legs and a heavy domed lid. It resembled a modern cast-iron casserole pot raised on stubby legs. Ours was blackened and shiny from years of use. It was called a bácús and was used for cooking not only bread but stews and soups as well. I have heard it called a ‘pot-oven’ in English, a name that captures its use and function.

Only after the pot was thoroughly heated in the fire would Aunt Alyce begin mixing the dough for the bread. The flour was measured in a small blue china bowl—two bowls worth for each batch would be placed in a larger wooden bowl. She measured the soda in the palm of her hand, the salt between her fingers. When the pot was ready, she would make a well in the centre of the flour mixture, pour in a scant bowlful of buttermilk and then stir it together. When it was mixed, she would tip it into the heated pot, quickly cut a cross in the top of the loaf and put the lid back on. The pot would be placed away from the hottest part of the fire and then covered with barely smouldering turves. It took about an hour to cook.

We ate it shortly after it came out of the oven, allowing it to cool for no more than half an hour. On the evenings we had bread, our tea would consist of thick, still warm slices with generous layers of butter and marmalade or jam. It was often our evening meal on fast days. The loaf was not large, perhaps six inches across, and we usually finished it the evening it was made. That bread did not keep well. By the next morning any leftover bit would have been rock hard and a danger to one’s teeth. Even when a loaf was fresh, the crust often had to be soaked in tea to soften it before it could be eaten.

In my memory at least, the wholemeal flour made a rich nutty-tasting loaf, nothing like the modern, blander version of soda bread. I considered it a treat, a change from potatoes. Inevitably, there were be a slice left after my mother and aunt had finished their tea. My aunt would turn to me and ask, “Well, Patrick Ross, will you be the martyr and finish this last bit? It won’t keep.” I always consented graciously to play the victim and prevent the waste of food. It would have been unthinkable to throw food out.

Except for the buttermilk, all the ingredients had to be bought at Feelihy’s store. There had been a time when the inhabitants of Munfrees had burned seaweed to produce salt, but those days were but tales heard by the oldest inhabitants from their grandparents. The expense made bread somewhat of a luxury in Munfrees. Everyone made it, but it was not eaten daily.

The only other form of ‘bread’ we ate were oat cakes. They were made with ground oatmeal, salt, water, and a little bit of butter. They were cooked on a cast-iron stand. Like the bácús, it had short legs. There was a shelf to hold the oat cakes as they cooked. The stand had a high back of open ironwork. The stand was set near the fire but not in it. The cakes were not so much baked as slowly dried. They kept well. We often ate them for breakfast, after toasting them over the fire. The one problem with them was that they crumbled easily. Sometimes even the spreading of butter on one caused the cake to disintegrate into a plateful of bits and pieces that had to be eaten with a spoon.

In the 1960s, as Munfrees became more accessible, bread-making almost died out as both yeast and soda breads became common in the stores. For the first time, most inhabitants of Munfrees ate bread every day. The resurgence of baking in the village resulted from our new status as a tourist destination. Our visitors expect to eat traditional Irish food, including ‘Irish’ soda bread.

Amy Graham, the co-owner and manager along with her husband Thomas of the new Munfrees Hotel, was the first person to encourage the village women to bake soda bread. Neither of the Grahams has a talent for cooking, but they felt they have to serve their guests ‘authentic’ Irish food. Amy found a recipe for ‘Irish soda bread’. Unfortunately she likes to cut corners, and her recipe consists of flour, water, and soda—so much soda that the bread tastes metallic and acrid. Most people who tried it fed the results to their pig.

However, the idea of making and selling bread to our visitors inspired several women to search out better recipes. Most of them now make the form of brown bread studded with raisins or currants and seasoned with caraway seeds or other spices. The loaf is much softer and keeps better than the soda bread of my youth. It is also much sweeter and richer, more like a sweet snack than a bread to nourish and sustain. During the summer months, our local express mart has a display of ‘home-baked Irish soda bread, made in Munfrees, fresh daily’. I am told that it is a profitable sideline business for many.

Oddly enough, this ‘traditional Irish food’ is not that old. Baking soda became available in Ireland only in the mid-nineteenth century. As a form of leavening, it was more suited to the type of flours found in Ireland than was yeast and for most people quickly supplanted the leavenings in use previously. And the loaves required less heat to bake than did yeast bread, an important consideration in a country where fuel for cooking fires, especially among the peasantry, could be scarce. The raisins and the spices came much later.

We never referred to these loaves as anything but arán, ‘bread’. Certainly we never called them ‘Irish’; to make that distinction, we would needed to think that other forms of bread took precedence over the type familiar to us. And we never called them ‘soda breads’. They were simply ‘bread’. Now we might refer to them as ‘brown bread’, but ‘Irish soda bread’ is a name for tourists.

I still have Aunt Alyce’s bácús and blue bowl. I tried once to make bread in the bácús using what I remember as her recipe and technique. The effort was disastrous and never repeated. I have never mastered the art of cooking in our kitchen hearth. I either burn the food or end up with a raw, undercooked mess. I have used the bácús to make bread in the oven. The results were better—the bread was edible—but it didn’t have the taste I remembered. It was bland and uncomforting.

So many of my memories of my childhood in Munfrees revolve around food and eating. With the exception of fish, which could be had in great abundance, and clams and mussels, our diet was starchy. Potatoes, oats, hearth breads. We had few fresh vegetables, chiefly cabbage and kale. The food was monotonous—it couldn’t have been anything else given the lack of variety in provisions—but it was hearty and comforting. No one starved in Munfrees.

I have witnessed children of friends helping themselves to food from the refrigerator and pantry. I don’t ever remember doing that. We ate only at meals, not between. We never snacked, most likely because there was never food to snack on. As a child, food was doled out to me. I never helped myself at table. My aunt did most of the cooking and serving, my mother only rarely cooked and seldom put food on the plates. We ate what was served, and there were never leftovers. Nothing was wasted. Potato peelings, the outer leaves of cabbages, fish bones—anything that we didn’t eat went to the pigs or the chickens.

Breakfast and tea in the evening—those were our two daily meals. The three of us ate at the round wooden table, sitting on heavy rough wooden chairs, in our front room, the combination cooking, dining and sitting room. The gas lamp in the middle of the table was lit when it was dark outside. It provided a harsh, bright light within a radius of a few feet. The room was dark outside that circle. Still it was better than the wavering light of candles.

We spent much of our time at that table—eating, talking, reading, working. Now, of course, we have electricity in Munfrees. I read in a chair designed for comfort with a strong reading lamp beside it. I seldom have visitors and spend most of my day working in solitude, sitting before my computer in the other ground-floor room and writing. The only conversations that take place in this cottage take place silently in my mind or on my computer screen. I still eat at the same table, even though what I eat differs considerably from what we ate. On cold nights, however, when the wind is hurling salty ocean foam against the front side of my house, I still find comfort in the old foods. Potato soup, colcannon, a baked potato pulled from the hearth, thick slices of homemade bread, perhaps a few rashers of bacon. Tonight I will have some of Mary Coughlaín’s brown bread.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Changeling

Tabulae mundi mihi, Lenition

This is a companion piece to 'A Net to Catch the Wind', which can be found here.


The Changeling


Nexis Pas

© 2010 by the author




As the curtain opens, a solitary child sits in a small chair at an old desk beneath an open window at stage right. He is seen in profile, looking out the window and holding a pencil. The room is dark. The only light comes through the window. Behind him in the room there is a child’s bed, a bookcase, a wardrobe. There are pictures on the wall, toys atop the bookcase, a rug on the floor. None of them can be clearly seen because the lighting is so dark. There is a door in the rear wall.


Before him on the desk is a piece of paper with a drawing on it. The boy looks back and forth between the paper and the world outside the window comparing the image on the paper with the scene outside as he makes marks on the paper. His efforts to depict the reality he sees through the window fall short, and he scratches angrily over the drawing with the pencil, gouging the paper. “I’ll never get it right,” he shouts. He wads the sheet of paper into a ball, tosses it onto the floor, and runs from the room. The noise attracts the attention of his mother, and a few moments later she enters the room and finds the ball of paper. She carries it over to the window, unfolds it, and tries to smooth the sheet flat on the desk. Innumerable folds bend and distort the paper. The picture is unreadable, wrinkled into indecipherability.

*****

The man in the hospital bed was so crumpled. His skull had been shaved so that a drain could be inserted to draw off fluid and relieve the pressure on his brain. Only an inky stain on his scalp was left to attest to what once had been a dense thicket of black hair. Most of his body was covered with bandages or encased in casts. The half of his face that was visible was swollen and black with bruises. A line of tiny stitches crossed one cheek. He was connected to several machines, and the monitors blinked and hissed and beeped constantly. He didn’t look as if he were breathing. The track on the heart monitor was more alive than he was. The machines must have been connected to someone else. No one could survive that much damage. They were showing me a corpse.

When the critical care ward sister approached me and asked if I wanted to see David, I leaped to my feet. I had to restrain myself from hugging and kissing her in gratitude. More than a day had passed since the accident, and I had spent most of that time waiting at St Brendan’s for that moment. She held up a hand to stop me for a second. “You can’t stay long,” she cautioned. “Just a few minutes.”

I was so happy. I dogged her heels and practically pushed her down the hall. I thought she meant that David was conscious again, and I could say something to him, reassure myself that he was all right. When she pulled aside the curtains and I saw the creature in the bed, I thought she had shown me the wrong person. “This isn’t David,” I almost said. “You’ve made a mistake. I’m here to see David Scotthorn. Take me to see David. Please.”

She patted the bed and made some minute adjustment to one of the machines. “You mustn’t stay long, Mr Somerset. And please don’t touch him. He’s very fragile at the moment.” She stood there like a clever sixth-form college student demonstrating her science project, a man reconstructed from an inept drawing.

I didn’t know what to do or say. No one had written lines for me to speak or told me how to play the role. I stood there frozen, fearful to move lest something more break.

*****

Alexis called me on her mobile within minutes of the accident. She kept interrupting her conversation with me to talk to someone on the street. I could hear her giving David’s and my names to someone and explaining that she was talking with David’s partner. I think it must have been a policeman because she insisted emphatically that we were civil partners and that I was legally David’s next-of-kin. In the background ambulance sirens grew louder and louder. There was a confusion of people shouting “stand back”, “let us through”, doors opening, and then Alexis calling out “Where are you taking him? Where are they taking him?” And someone saying “St Brendan’s”. And then doors slamming and the sound of the siren starting up and more confused talk.

I was asleep when Alexis called. I was in Cardiff filming a movie. I had a makeup and wardrobe call for 5:00 the next morning. We were scheduled for an outdoor scene, next to the harbour, and the director wanted to start shooting as the sun was rising. I thought I was dreaming at first. When I finally realised the phone was really ringing, it took me several seconds to find the light switch and then recall where I had left my mobile in the hotel room. By that time the message recorder had come on, and Alexis had hung up. The phone started ringing again within seconds.

I was irritated at being awakened from a sound sleep when I had to get up early the next morning. I let my anger show when I answered, but Alexis ignored that. A deluge of words came over the phone. I couldn’t make any sense of what she was saying, just that something terrible had happened. I wasn’t fully awake and I was annoyed, and she was distraught and alarmed. And when she finally made me realise that something had happened to David, I became equally distraught and alarmed.

“They’re taking David to St Brendan’s. I’ll go there. You have to come right away, Richard. He’s so broken. He was lying on the ground, only his body was wrong. It was all twisted about.” She was crying.

It took me an hour to get away. I had to wake the director and explain why I was leaving. He wouldn’t let me drive. That was for the best. I would have been stopped for speeding and reckless driving within a few miles. He pulled on the first clothes he could find and drove me to London. I was frantic by the time we left. The traffic was light on the M4 until just outside Reading when we ran into the lorry traffic taking the day’s load of goods into London. We were in Hounslow within three hours of Alexis’s call. Neither of us knew how to get from there to St Brendan’s. We had to stop at a police station and ask directions. By the time we arrived at the hospital, it was five in the morning.

No one would tell me anything. Just that David was being prepped for surgery. I couldn’t find Alexis. My mobile wasn’t working. The person at the counter at the main entrance finally sent me to the waiting room outside the surgical theatres. I checked with the attendants at the desk there every few minutes, until one of them took pity on me and went through the doors marked “No Admittance Authorised Personnel Only” to find information. She returned with the news that it would be several more hours before David was out of surgery and then several more hours before I could see him. She told me to go home and come back that evening or the next morning. But I couldn’t do that. I found a seat in a corner and gingerly lowered my body into it. The world had become fragile, and I felt that I had been compressed into a heavier form of being and that the chair would collapse under my weight. I didn’t move for hours. I feared that if I left, even for a minute to run to the toilet, a nurse delivering a message would think I had abandoned David and gone home.

Peter once told me a proverb he learned from his Russian grandmother, the Slavic equivalent of “Hope springs eternal”: “In the Kingdom of Hope, it is never winter.” I think that proverb originated in an era before hospitals. Over the next few weeks, I spent many hours in waiting rooms, and I became familiar with winter.

The committee that chose the furniture for the waiting rooms at St Brendan’s must have thought that bright and cheerful furnishings would lighten the burden of those waiting. A different committee chose the colours for the walls and the paintings that hung on them; it opted for soothing and bland. The results hurt the eyes. Both committees agreed that everything had to be easy to clean. The moulded plastic chairs may have been red and yellow and blue, but they were hard and uncomfortable. The paintings—reproductions of famous French impressionist works—were encased behind hard plastic covers that mercilessly reflected the light. I doubt if many people studied the décor, however.

So many people wandered in and out of those waiting rooms. The traffic never ceased. Most people spoke softly, but so many people were talking that there was a constant drone of conversation. The staff were always chatting among themselves, but they seldom spoke of their work. For the most part, they discussed their life outside hospital. Whenever I approached the nurses’ station to ask a question, there would be a group of four or five people talking. When they noticed me, one of them would break away and say brightly, “Yes, Mr Somerset? Is there something?”

There were others who talked so loudly—not the staff, but visitors. In the relative silence of the hospital, they seemed to shout. Everything they said was audible throughout the waiting room. They rarely mentioned their reason for being there—they had tacitly agreed to avoid that topic, as if ignoring the sickness and injuries around them would make them disappear. Mostly they gossiped or chattered on about television shows. They always seemed to be eating crisps and biscuits or drinking endless cups of coffee and tea. They brought the food with them in large tote bags. There was always a motherly figure who doled it out. Sometimes I sat there and let myself become absorbed in their speculations about the identity of the father of Ruby’s child or their complaints about the local council and the bin collections. I revelled in their normalcy. When they did speak of the person they were visiting, it was always with loud protestations of hope. Stridency itself apparently guaranteed fulfilment of their wishes.

There were many people like me who were there alone and had no one to speak to. We stared at the air, we checked our watches against the clock on the wall every few minutes, our eyes followed every nurse and porter who walked past, hoping that they were coming for us. We paced. We constantly shifted in our chairs, trying to find some comfort. We read or, rather, we pretended to read. I know I had a novel with me. I could not now tell you its title or what it was about. I could not remember what was happening from one sentence to the next.

Many who were there with others said nothing. There was one elderly woman and a younger women, her daughter I think. I saw them several times over the course of the first two weeks. The daughter could never sit for more than a moment. She would wander off and return shortly with a Styrofoam cup of tea, the label of the tea bag fluttering in the air or stuck wetly to the side of the cup. She would hand the cup to her mother. The mother would look at it without recognition, as if she had no idea how she came to be holding the cup or what she was supposed to do with it. She might take a sip, but then she would set the cup on the table beside her. The two of them might sit there for an hour waiting to be called back to the bedside of the person—husband, father, son, I never knew—they were visiting. When they left, the table might hold six or seven cups of cold tea.

Even in my memories, I focus on the waiting room, not that other room, the room down the hall, the room with David in it. I studied my fellow sufferers. I mined them as ore for future roles. This is how a hand gestures grief. This is how the tilt of the neck and the set of the shoulders mime despair. This is how one wears the mask of hope.

The population of the room changed constantly. I can still call to mind so many of the people who sat there. I was so irritated with all of them and with the hospital. Until I saw David. When I had to confront what now bore David’s name, I wished I were still in the waiting room, on the M4 mired in traffic, in Cardiff, on a plane headed across the Atlantic, anywhere but that room and the loud silence on the bed.

*****

I sat in David’s room for all but a few hours each day for the next several weeks. In the beginning, I had to force myself to enter it. When they let me see him after the initial round of surgeries, I hadn’t known what to expect. The next visit I knew what awaited me behind the curtains, and that step through the curtains into the area that held the bed was the only act of true courage I have ever performed. I was almost physically sick. I felt terrified and alone. Luckily they kept David heavily sedated for the first few days, and he hardly moved. I wouldn’t have survived evidence that he might be alive and in pain under all that machinery.

I was the only visitor allowed to see David at first. If either of his parents had been willing to see David again, I suppose I would have been supplanted during their visit. On the second day, I rang his parents to tell them what had happened. David’s father answered and, when he understood it was me, told me to bugger off. “David isn’t our son. Not since he took up with your lot.”

Our friends and colleagues came by in a continuous stream. After three days, David had been moved to a room in the casualty ward. I had to leave David’s room each time someone arrived and speak with them in the hallway. Alexis saw that I was not up to dealing with their condolences and sympathy. She organised them and restricted visitors to a few each day. She took my mobile so that I didn’t have to answer all the calls from people who had that number and brought me another. She dealt with the media and kept them from hounding me for information. In some ways her efforts were a great help. In others, they meant that I had to spend more time sitting beside David’s bed, watching him be nothing.

Each morning they wheeled him away on a gurney. He would be gone for several hours. Usually some bit of medical jargon would be thrown at me in explanation as he was taken out. “Procedure”—every day another “procedure”. Couldn’t they have found a less pretentious term to describe their barbarities? Every time they brought him back, I would be told that David was “improving”. If I pushed them for more information, they would say “Mr Scotthorn is doing as well as can be expected.” Then they would point at him as if that explained everything.

They treated him like an object, moving him about, prodding him, talking over his body as if he weren’t there. Every doctor who came into the room lifted his unbandaged eyelid and shone a light from a penlight into it. Every nurse took his pulse, even though the heart monitor flashed the current rate with each beat. Three or four times an hour someone walked in and disturbed him. Then they would make a mark on his chart, nod at me, and walk out.

They told me repeatedly not to touch him. Finally one night I couldn’t hold back. His left hand and forearm were unbandaged. The arm was arranged atop the sheet so that the nurses could attach the saline and glucose drips to the shunt in the arm. I stepped up to the bed. They had shaved the arm, I suppose to make it easy to keep it sterile. It looked so naked and so small and so pale without the familiar mat of black hair extending from just beneath the elbow to his wrist.

I never told David, at least not in words—I suppose I feared that he would think that I was silly—but I loved stroking that hair. It was so silky, and beneath it were the firm flesh and the blood vessels beating with his life. All the contradictions that I loved in him were there—the tenderness and the warmth, the strength and the ferocity, the energy and the joy. I guess they’re not really contradictions, are they?

On the underside of the wrist about an inch from the palm, he had a tender spot. A little gasp of pleasure escaped his lips when I touched him there, and his hand jerked involuntarily. Sometimes he held his arm up for me so that I could caress it. I would let my hands glide over his forearm, barely touching him. Soft rumblings would come from his throat, and he would move closer to me, angling his head to fit against my shoulder. The pleasures of a Sunday morning, the curtains pulled back and the sun shining across the bed, laughter and conversation from people on the street far below us coming through the open window and playing around us. And the two of us anticipating the joys that were to come, but not rushing them.

“Whispering,” that’s what David called it. I was stroking his arm once, and he said, “Your fingers are whispering to me.”

His hand lay palm up on the bed. I reached out with a fingertip and stroked the pad of his index finger and then traced a line along the outside of the finger and then the outside of his thumb and down to his wrist. His fingertips trembled and contracted inward a bit. Perhaps I just imagined that. I wanted a sign, some sign he knew that, of all the people who touched him, there was one special one.

I wanted him to open his good eye and wink at me and say, “I hope this is done soon so that I can get out of this costume and take this makeup off. Let’s have takeaway tonight. Just the two of us. I don’t want anyone else around. I’m tired of all these people. I want to be alone with you.” And the director would ask me to step back, out of the shot, and the camera and lighting crews would move in to finish filming the scene, this medical drama in which he had a starring role.

His hand was so cold. So alien. His skin was rubbery and too soft, like a balloon that isn’t fully inflated. I shrunk away from him. I wanted so much for all this to be undone, for it never to have happened. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be the watcher who had to sit there because someone has to sit and watch, if only so that someone will sit and watch for us when our time comes. I couldn’t leave David alone, to die alone. He deserved my presence. After all he had done for me and meant to me, I had to stay there, with him. My mate, friend, counsellor, companion, mentor, coach, fellow prankster, co-conspirator. My ferocious foe and ardent defender. My lover.

If he survived, the days would lengthen with his care. His body might be beyond his control, his mind perhaps gone. No one would commit to a prognosis. There was one doctor who was more forthcoming than the others. He spoke of injuries to the brain, the ruptured spleen, the damage to the “soft tissues”, by which he meant the liver and kidneys, the lack of response in David’s legs. He never said that full recovery wasn’t impossible, but he was trying to prepare me for the worst. When you expect the worst, anything even minimally better is a victory.

If David couldn’t recover fully, then I hoped he would die. I didn’t want him to live if he were less than himself. And I didn’t want to live with him if he were less than himself. I hated myself when I realised that. I wanted him to be well, but only if he were totally himself again. I knew I was being selfish and thinking only of myself. I tried to persuade myself that that was what he would have wanted as well.

I didn’t understand why his body clung so to life. He was so heavily sedated that I knew it wasn’t a conscious decision. It could only have been some primitive part of the brain—the ghosts in the machine, I read that somewhere. The primitive layers of the brain kept sending out the signals that made his heart beat and the blood circulate and the organs function however feebly. It is still a mystery. He was broken, held together by wires and stitches, his body oozing fluids, connected to machines that forced air into his lungs and fed him and cleaned his blood. Had he not been drugged, he would have been in enormous pain. Perhaps he still was inside. Perhaps the painkillers merely kept the pain from showing and distressing those of us who had to watch. His mind had been unplugged from his body, except for that one small part that held fast to living.

I sat in a corner, on an uncomfortable chair, alone in a darkened hospital room with machines beeping, the respirator pump gasping and clicking, the sounds of conversations in the corridor muted by a closed door, a lifeless body on the bed. The perfect ingredients for prompting thought. I had no one else. I didn’t have to pose for anyone. There was no one I had to impress, no one I loved whom I had to protect from the truth about myself. I could confront myself without artifice. And the truth was that if I had been lying in that bed, he would have battled for me. If I were never to recover and had to spend the rest of my life lying in a coma, he would have battled for me. I didn’t have that sort of strength within myself. I was always on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let myself cry. The only person who could have comforted me lay a few feet away. If I started crying, I had no one who could help me stop, no one to hold me and to crush the sorrow within me with his living warmth.

I compulsively revisited every scene of our lives together—well, not every scene. Just the good ones. I was like a figure skater, drunk on the joy of overcoming gravity and whirling in the air, unmindful for that moment aloft of the bone-jarring contact with the hard dark ice at the end of the leap. I glided across our time together.

“Should we practice the kiss?” David wore his most solemn look, the true professional interested only in his craft. He was helping me rehearse a scene—I was the male lead in a student production, and the scene we were working on ended with a kiss between my character and the female lead.

We were sitting on the couch that doubled as his bed in that awful room he rented above a stationer’s store when we were students. The room was barely big enough to contain the couch and a wardrobe. It smelled of dust and mould. The one window was so dirty that it admitted only a diffuse grey light.

When I spoke the final line in the scene, I lowered my copy of the script and closed it. David looked up from his copy. “Should we practice the kiss?” He looked so serious. But his Adam’s apple gave him away. He gulped, and it bobbed up and down. Until then, I hadn’t been sure if he was attracted to me. I was certainly attracted to him. I had been chasing him for weeks, forcing my presence on him at first until he accepted me. It had taken me days to persuade him to allow me to visit him at his digs. He kept insisting that there wasn’t room enough for two people. He was right about that, but I shamelessly manoeuvred him into an invite.

I shrugged. “I was thinking it would be better not to do one of those stage kisses. You know, the kind where the lips meet tentatively and then the kiss grows more ardent as the two people realise they really are attracted to each other. I thought it would be better to do something more like this.” I demonstrated what I had in mind.

“Hmm, that might work. But what about something like this?” He placed a hand behind my head, slid down a bit, and then pulled me down. His arms grasped me tight. I could feel the heat rising from his body into mine.

There was no subtlety in our first encounter. We were attracted to each other, horny, lustful, hormone-programmed. We learned to be lovers later, to experience each other with joy, to approach the act of love with kindness aforethought. But all that came later.

The first time we spent the night together, I woke up in bed next to David. The window in his room had no curtain. The light coming in from the street was almost blue. It fell on David’s glossy black hair. It was as if silver dust had settled on his hair. And I knew that I wanted to spend my life waking up beside him and watching the light in his hair.

That’s what I remembered as I sat waiting for him to die.

Of course, David didn’t die. At least the body to which his name was attached didn’t die. But much of the David that I had known, and loved, died in that accident.

The changes in his condition were gradual. The bruises on his face started to fade. The black gave way to green and then yellow and finally a pallid white. The drain was removed from his scalp. Some of the bandages weren’t replaced. He began breathing on his own, and the respirator was disconnected. The nurses began opening the curtains again to let in natural light.

One day as I was sitting there watching him, I realised that his good eye was open. He appeared to be looking at something on the table beside his bed. It held a vase of flowers, several brightly coloured get-well cards, a box of tissues, and a clutter of hospital odds and ends. I stood up and said his name. His eye moved toward the sound of my voice but didn’t focus on me. Then it closed again. I said his name again, but there was no response. I didn’t tell anyone. It was my sign. I didn’t want to share it with anyone. But I pulled the chair closer to his bed and sat there very still, concentrating on his face and watching for any movement.

I knew he wasn’t asleep. He never slept during those first weeks. I’ve watched him sleep. His face is alive then, the eyes rolling the lids, his mouth twitching slightly. Dozens of little movements. But in hospital his face was always slack. That’s how I first knew that he was coming back—when I saw his face move. As I watched, his lips pursed slightly, and his eyelid quivered. His face was alive again, if only for a moment. But those moments became more and more frequent.

And one day he looked at me and said “Ri–” and “Wh–?” He tried to shift his body on the bed and then groaned in pain. His eye began searching for me, and I moved into his field of vision and touched his hand. His fingers clutched at mine spasmodically, as if he had forgotten how to move them.

Every day after that, there was another sign of improvement. The day the final cast came off, the day the shunt was removed from his arm, the first day he could sit in a wheelchair—sometimes I became frustrated and impatient at the slowness of his recovery, but there was always some new evidence of his return.

The doctors wanted to send him to a long-term care facility. When I protested, they told me that he would require too much help, that it would be months, if ever, before he could manage by himself. I badgered them, and they finally gave me a long list of adjustments I had to make to our flat before they would release David to me. I also had to hire an attendant. I surprised them with the speed with which I got it all ready.

The best thing was seeing how happy David became when he started improving rapidly. He was so chuffed at the prospect of leaving the hospital. His progress had been so rapid. He was allowed to have more visitors, and I came in on him one day to find him entertaining several members of the cast of the play he had been in when the accident occurred. He was joking with the man who had taken over his part that he needn’t worry about David returning to play the role.

“I can’t remember the lines. Not a one. That car knocked them out of my head. So you’re safe for the run of the play. I don’t even remember what the play’s about. Alexis told me it’s called Autumn Garden. So I suppose it’s about fallen leaves decaying in the cold rain. Terribly sad. Yet the promise of spring is there too.” He mugged sadness and then followed it with a look of bedazzled hope with his tongue lolling out. Everyone laughed, he loudest of all.

He chatted on, making light of what had happened to him and dismissing the remaining physical problems as only temporary. He would, he told them, return to work as soon as he could walk again. He even called his agent in to begin planning what roles he might play.

His optimism grew boundless. He insisted that I arrange for physical therapy at a place near us so that he could walk and eventually jog there and build up his legs faster. He had me buy several new pairs of trainers for him. When one of the doctors suggested he buy a motorised wheelchair with more controls, he vetoed that. “There’s no need to spend the money. Just rent one that will get me about for the first few weeks.”

As soon as he could spend most of the day sitting up, he wanted to be in his wheelchair as much as possible. Just being mobile and able to leave his room meant so much to him. Every time I came to visit, I had to enlist the help of the hospital staff to find him. He took to roaming the halls and visiting with the other patients. I would often come upon him in earnest discussion with someone. People opened up to him so much. They told him their life stories, they introduced him to their families, they turned to him for comfort. When the two of us were alone together, he would tell me about them. He obviously felt that they deserved more pity and sympathy than he himself did. In his own mind, he was healthy and whole again, his current infirmities but minor, temporary problems.

One day he was in the children’s wing when I arrived. He was acting a panto version of Aladdin’s Lamp. Somehow he had co-opted the ward sister into taking the part of the lamp. The children and their parents and the other nurses erupted into laughter every time he rubbed her stomach and commanded the genii to come forth. He was surrounded by smiles, the centre of a circle of onlookers, as he hammed his way through the various parts, his voice changing effortlessly as he moved from character to character. They were entranced by the story he was telling them. For a few moments, all of them were in some other place.

That was the day I dared begin to allow myself to hope for a complete recovery. Our lives had been on pause for so long. We hadn’t dared make plans because we didn’t know if we had a future. Now we could press the button again and start the tape running again.

The day before his scheduled release, I was with him in his room when the doctor in charge of his treatment came in to talk to him. I stood up and walked to the window and looked out with my back to them. I wanted to give David some privacy but be near enough to hear any special instructions. David sometimes had lapses in his memory. He could be like an old person who forgets something seconds after he is told it.

The doctor had the results of the final series of tests that had been administered to David over the preceding week. In the most technical language he could muster, without any attempt to soften his message, the doctor bluntly told David that he would never walk again. He didn’t apologize, he didn’t express regret.

For weeks everyone in that hospital had held out the hope to David that he would recover fully. They could have told me and let me break the news to David gradually. I think that doctor enjoyed telling David he would never walk again. He was so smug and self-satisfied, as if this were a punishment David deserved.

David didn’t understand as quickly as I did the import of what the doctor was telling him. But when he did, he moaned. That’s all, just one soft moan as all hope drained from him. Even then, the doctor droned on. David slumped in the wheelchair. All emotion had disappeared from his face. He had fled from his body again. I lost my temper and shouted at the doctor to get out. That at least brought David back to reality. He looked at me and held out a hand to me. When I grasped it, he broke down in tears. Great ugly gasps tore through his chest as he struggled to breathe. He was trying to say something, but all that came out were whimpers. He shook his head from side to side in denial, each swing more violent than the last. He was struggling to stand up, to prove the doctor wrong, to show himself that he could walk.

I wrapped his head in my arms and hugged him tightly against my chest. I didn’t know what to say. I babbled on, trying to comfort him. We would consult other specialists. We would find someone. We would hire a physical therapist. I had to give him hope.

That became my principal role in the weeks that followed—giving him hope. Well, not so much giving him hope as seconding his frantic insistence that he would recover. He scorned any suggestion that he might not recover fully. Even a warning that he should take it easy and not overextend himself too quickly provoked assertions that caution would only delay his recovery and the day when he would regain full use of his legs.

He tried so hard. He saw the physical therapist three times a week for an hour-long session each time. Those were the one appointments David never missed. Paul Norman—the home healthcare aide we hired—had some training in physical therapy, and David forced Paul to devise ever more intensive routines. He and Paul spent hours exercising each day on the equipment David rented and had installed in our flat.

Before the accident, David had always kept himself in good shape. He jogged and worked out daily, but he had never been a fanatic about exercising. During the stay in hospital, his muscles had atrophied. His upper body and arms responded quickly to the hours of exercising, but his legs remained stubbornly unaffected.

I came home one day to find him sitting in his wheelchair in front of a mirror. He was wearing only shorts. He had just finished exercising, and I could hear Paul in the bathroom preparing to bathe him. David’s body was glistening with sweat. I walked up behind him and leaned over to kiss his neck. His skin was still damp and felt cold. I met his eyes in the mirror and realised that he was struggling not to cry. He tried to smile at me and say something, but his mouth was distended by a rictus he apparently could not control. He began compulsively pounding his thighs with his fists as if he could beat life back into them.

I grabbed at his wrists to try to stop him and he turned on me. Despite my greater size, his exercising had made his arms strong and he shoved me away. “Get the fuck out of here. Leave me alone. You’re always pushing at me, trying to help. I don’t need your help. I will do this myself.” He wheeled around violently and drove at my legs with the chair. In an effort to get out of his way, I lost my balance and tumbled to the floor. Paul rushed into the room and helped me to my feet.

David backed away and began struggling to lift himself out of the wheelchair. His upper body had become so powerful that he was able to raise himself out of the chair and put his feet on the floor. But he had forgot to set the brake on the chair, and his attempt to stand up made the chair roll backward and out from beneath him. He fell to the floor, striking his back on the chair. He cried out in pain. His legs were bent back beneath his torso, and his arms became tangled with the chair as he fought his body to right himself.

Both Paul and I rushed to him and tried to help him back into the chair. His clumsiness and helplessness made him furious. “I told you to get the fuck out of here.” His shout was directed at me. He clung to Paul. I think if he had had the use of his legs, he would have kicked me away.

Paul turned to me and whispered. “Let me deal with this.” He pushed me out the door and closed it behind me. I could hear David saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck” over and over and then Paul’s voice murmuring. I stood there with my forehead pressed against the door trying to hear and guess what was going on. Eventually David stopped speaking and then I could hear Paul bathing him.

As the weeks passed and his legs failed to respond, anger replaced hope. Paul alone could handle him—I think because David was Paul’s employer and that made David feel as if he were in charge. Paul was the only person David ever thanked. Anyone else who attempted to help him was greeted with irritation and impatience at best. The more frequent response was rage.

One day I found the sitting room floor littered with the torn remnants of a script that David had been reading. David and Paul were absent. Paul told me later that Jeremy Castle, David’s agent, had dropped by. David had pushed him to secure David a role in the play he was reading, and it fell to Jeremy to explain that the role was physically beyond him. David had become livid with anger and shredded the script and then attacked Jeremy. Jeremy had fled, and Paul had taken David out to allow him to calm down.

My feelings towards Paul were—are—complex. On one hand, I was grateful that he was there to deal with David for most of the day. I couldn’t have left David alone, couldn’t have escaped the emotional miasma of our flat, if Paul hadn’t been there to care for him. And I needed to escape that poisoned atmosphere if only for a few hours a day. On the other hand, I was jealous of David’s growing attachment to him. Paul and David are cut from similar patterns and have similar backgrounds. They often speak a language that I do not understand. Paul is so intimate with David that I suspect them of having secrets, even though I know David’s new body is incapable of physical intimacy. Yet the two of them have developed a mental shorthand that allows them to communicate with the merest of gestures. Paul understands the new David better than I do, perhaps because it’s the only David he’s ever known, perhaps because he wants to.

There were so many levels on which David and I had to re-establish our relationship. One night, about two months after his return, I went into David’s bedroom to check on him before I went to sleep and make sure that everything he might need was in reach. He had raised the top half of the bed so that he could sit up and read. I asked him if he wanted anything. He pushed back the covers a bit and said, “Just you.”

We hadn’t shared a bed in months. He was still recuperating. He often felt cold at night and had taken to wearing the top from a set of flannel pyjamas. In the V-shaped opening at his throat, I could see the beginning of the scar line where the doctors had stapled his chest together after the operation to close the puncture wounds in his lungs and rejoin the broken ribs. The scar itself was stark white, and the flesh puckered around it was red. He hadn’t been outside in the sun for months, and the tan he always achieved so easily had faded. His chest was smoother than I had ever known it. The hair has never grown back as it was before. There are small patches of thick hair surrounded by hairless areas. Much of his skin was scarlet, as if it had been burned. Some of that was due to the medication he was taking.

He lay there with his glasses on, his bad eye drifting to the left. “It’s too soon,” I protested. “I might hurt you.”

“No, you wouldn’t do that. I just want . . .” He looked so forlorn, so devoid of hope. I think it would have killed him if I had said no.

I sat down on the bed and stroked his hair. It had grown back very stiff, more like bristles than hair. Paul kept it cropped short because it couldn’t be coaxed into lying flat. “Let me get undressed. I’ll be back in a moment.”

When I returned, he had manoeuvred that top half of his body nearer to one side of the bed. He hadn’t been able to move his legs, and they still lay in the centre of the bed. I pulled the covers back and helped him out of his pyjama top. I couldn’t bear to look at his flesh closely. I turned the lamp to the lowest setting. I eased myself onto the open side of the bed. I lay on my side facing him and gently lowered my topmost leg onto his legs.

David slipped his arm under my neck and around my shoulders so that my head was resting on his shoulder with my face pressed against his neck. He kissed me on the forehead, very lightly, and then said, “I’ve missed you.”

I knew he wasn’t referring to the two of us being together. He meant that he missed us being intimate. It wasn’t until I was in bed with him, with my head resting on his shoulder and his arm around me pulling me into him, that I realised how much I had missed being intimate with him.

I began kissing his neck and stroking his chest. His flesh felt so alien. In many places it was devoid of texture. It was too smooth. His body was corroded with scars. Everywhere on his chest was evidence of what he had been through. Beneath my fingertips, the scars felt larger than they were. His body was so cold. It was repulsive.

“I love you.” That’s all he said.

It was enough. I had never before felt his love as a burden, but that moment the weight of my responsibilities toward him almost crushed me. My guilt smothered me. And I grew angry, angry at myself for feeling guilty, angry at him for making me guilty, angry at the world for dealing me this hand. And the worst was I couldn’t show it. I had to fake pleasure, for him, so that I wouldn’t disappoint him again.

We would not repeat the experiment for many months. It did, however, have a result. I became even more reluctant to be with David. I took to leaving early and returning shortly before I knew that David would become tired and go to bed. I arranged for Paul to work longer hours on the excuse that my involvement with a new television series was requiring more of my time. Rather than confront what David had become, I spent hours sitting in cinemas or in pubs. I paid no attention to the movie on the screen. I hardly tasted the drinks I ordered. They was simply excuses for not being with David.

There is no excuse for what I did next. I rehearsed the pretexts for my behaviour many times, trying to justify what I did. I had been celibate for the months since David’s accident. I told myself that as long as I didn’t care for the person, it would be a meaningless transaction. It wouldn’t harm my and David’s relationship. I needed the comfort of another body, if only for an hour. There was an actor on the television series. He had a minor role, but he appeared in most episodes. He was young, good-looking in a conventional way. More important, he was nothing like David. He had hinted that he would be interested, and one day I took advantage of his interest and his availability.

He was kind about what happened. But at the end, he asked me if I had ever had sex with a man before. What could I tell him? That he wasn’t David, and that he didn’t know how to be David. That guilt is not an aphrodisiac. That he couldn’t be a substitute for what to me was the only real thing. The problem was that the real thing no longer existed. Someone had snuck into our bedroom and substituted a changeling for David, and I wanted him to go away and for David, my David, to return. I was an actor, alone on an empty stage, facing a vacant theatre, without lines to speak or stage directions to follow.

All the guides to relationships tell you to talk out such problems with your partner. And in the past David had been the person who had helped me through every problem. He listened. He talked. He could be more angry and indignant on my behalf than I was myself, he could be infuriatingly impartial and objective if he thought I needed to see myself in perspective, he could make me laugh at myself. Somehow he always knew the way to help me find the solution to my problems. We would be talking and suddenly I would know what I had to do.

But how could I tell David that I couldn’t deal with him as he was now? That I was so shallow that his mangled body revolted me? That the very memory of the love and passion we had shared had become a torment because it was impossible to restore what had existed before?

That night I waited until late to come back. I checked the windows of our flat to make sure that all the lights were out and David safely asleep before I went in. I didn’t want to face him. He would have known instantly what I had done. As always, I looked in on him before going to bed. He had pulled the blanket up to his chin and only his head was visible. In the dim glow of the night light in the hallway, he looked like the old David. “With the right lighting, I can create any illusion,” a stage director once told me. I watched David for a few minutes and then continued down the hallway to our bed, my bed now.

As I tried to find a way back to the relationship we had once had, I realised that now I had no one to talk to—that was the worst injury we had sustained. Our friends were no help. They were sympathetic at first, but as the months passed, many of them began avoiding us. I don’t blame them—I would have liked to have been able to avoid the situation as well. Others cheerfully assumed that all was well now and were thus able to ignore our problems.

David is an actor, a good actor, and for our casual acquaintances and friends he could sustain a plucky façade, the courageous cripple who has overcome his handicaps and never burdens others with his problems. And they were happy to accept him in that role.

What David was learning, what he was making me learn, was a foreign language for our friends. None of them could comprehend the daily frustrations of his life—the embarrassment he felt when his wheelchair caught in a doorway, his silent rage at others’ good intentions, his despair when he realised that he would never work as an actor again. Outsiders just did not want to see what he was really going through. I don’t flatter myself that I fully understood either. I, too, didn’t want to see what he was really going through.

And it could be hard, bloody hard, to deal with him. I tried to remain calm when he provoked me. I knew that he was taking his frustrations out on me because he had no one else, because he thought that I was his safe haven, the one person he could shout at whom he could depend on to understand, who would love him no matter what he said.

There were days when I couldn’t stand it, when he pushed me too far, and we had some blazing rows. The neighbours must have wondered if their lives would ever be calm again. I had to learn to be strong in a way that was new for me. David had always been the strong one in our relationship. I had to keep his hopes up, force him to continue his exercises once he realised that he would not walk again, force him to contemplate the future optimistically in terms of what he could do rather than what he wanted to do.

It was difficult for me to keep him focused on the future when we both wanted the same thing—a restoration of the past. I often felt as if I were a robot programmed to perform the motions of daily life, to pretend that all was normal and that nothing important had really changed, that a wheelchair was nothing more than a piece of furniture, that a husk was the same person that I had loved for a decade.

David must have sensed my feelings of estrangement from him and my reluctance to confront fully what he had become. He grew secretive and uncommunicative. In some ways, that suited me. I didn’t have to deal with things I knew nothing of. There were days when we were nothing more than flatmates, two individuals whose lives intersected only at breakfast over hurried cups of coffee.

I didn’t, for example, learn until several weeks had passed that he had begun attending a group therapy session for adults like himself who had become crippled. I think that helped him a lot—he could talk frankly with people whose experiences were similar to his own. And I didn’t know until the arrangements were complete that Jeremy had found him a job as a director for a repertory company.

That job more than anything saved David. Both Jeremy and David claimed that David had always planned on becoming a director eventually, but it was something he kept putting off to the distant future. I had never heard of this before, but it is now firmly part of David’s history of himself. The credit really goes to Jeremy, I think. He somehow persuaded David to try directing. And David loved it. He was back in the theatre, perhaps not as he had planned, but still he was working, and he had a talent for it. It was wonderful to see him find himself in this new role. He was so excited about it. Jeremy—and work—saved David.

Our flat quickly became littered with scripts and set designs and costume sketches. I would return home to find David conferring with one or more members of the repertory company. He would greet me with the briefest of nods and then resume his discussion with the others. I was a supernumerary in this new production, far less important than Paul, who was co-opted into a new role as David’s assistant director, a role he handled with his usual efficiency. When David began working, it was like one of those old movies in which someone exclaims brightly, “Let’s put on a play,” and suddenly all problems dissolve.

Yet, he still missed being an actor, I think. I came home very late one night to find him in our bedroom, sitting in his wheelchair, a script in hand, examining himself in the full-length mirrors that line one wall.

“I was just acting out some of the roles in this new play, trying to figure them out. We begin rehearsals tomorrow.” He lifted his head for me to kiss.

“How’s it coming along?”

“The play? A few problems to iron out, but we’ll be ready. If you were asking about me, then I still have a few problems to iron out as well.”

I sat down on the bed behind him and looked at him in the mirror.

“If I were to play Caliban now, I wouldn’t need any makeup or a costume.” That was the first time I heard him refer to his damaged body so casually and frankly. He spoke softly, his gaze fixed on his image in the mirror. He seemed to be inventorying it, and his attitude towards it was strangely objective.

“You were great in that role.”

“Yes, I was. I won’t be modest about that. But that’s behind me, now that I’m tout court so to speak. Now I couldn’t manage all of Caliban. I maybe have enough for ‘Cal’. I could just about play that part.”

“Don’t talk like that. You’ll live to play Prospero some day.”

“No, not Prospero. Prospero’s your role. You could be a great Prospero—with my help, of course. I’ve always been better with Shakespeare than you.” He turned half way round and smiled at me.

“You’re enjoying directing, aren’t you?”

“And why not? It would be fun to boss you around. You’ve always been a lazy actor, never lived up to your potential, always opting for the easy way out, the safe roles.” He was teasing me, but there was a hardness beneath his comments. He was pushing at me, trying to make me see something.

I didn’t say anything. I was worn out from the months of tension and disappointment. I couldn’t take another argument. I was tired of struggling.

David wheeled his chair around to face me and took my hand in his. He began quoting Prospero’s final speech. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown and what strength I have’s mine own, which is most faint.” For the time it takes to speak those lines, he was Prospero begging his audience to free him from the stage on which he stands and the role he is playing. “But release me from my bonds with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please.”

When he finished, I began crying. He tried to embrace me but the chair was in the way. I knelt beside him and put my head on his lap. David stroked the back of my head as I gave way to great racking sobs. “We’ll be all right, Richard. We’re going to make it.” He kept saying that over and over until I calmed down.

We remained in that clumsy embrace for several minutes. After a time, I resumed my seat on the bed. I went through a box of tissues. It was as if the dam inside me holding back months of emotions had given way, and I was free to stop playing a role beyond my abilities. My eyes were red and my face was blotchy. We sat there holding hands for close to an hour, eventually joking and laughing about inconsequential things, having a gossip for the first time in months. It wasn’t so much what we were talking about as the fact that we were talking that was important.

It grew very late and when both of us began yawning, he asked, “Will you help me get into bed, Richard? It’s easier when I have help.” That was no longer true, but we needed things to do together that night.

I suddenly felt like a schoolboy, wanting to suggest to a date that we sleep together but uncertain of how the remark would be received. “I, uh, . . . could you, I mean . . . .” I gestured feebly toward the bed we hadn’t shared in months.

“Yes.”