The Great Dying

Sachie is sick. His breath clogs in his lungs, rattling like a trapped animal in a pipe. His skin is first cold, then hot to the touch and covered in a sheen of sweat. There is silence for hours apart from that laboured breathing, and when he speaks little of what he says makes sense. He strokes Theresa’s hair, talking in Czech. He grips my hand, he thinks I am his dead brother. Jan’s car is waiting to take him to the hospital, and slowly, the three of us lift him up from his bed and get him downstairs. He does not want to get into the car, he is watching the snow fall out of the sky and gasping with relief when the tiny flakes hit his skin. He is pointing into the void, he says something in English about flowers.

At the hospital, he is taken away from us. The nurses are kind and brisk. They talk softly to him, lifting the dark hair plastered to the back of his neck. Theresa and I stand motionless in the white corridor for a while. We are as blank as the walls, as blemishless and without distinction; we’ve had our strings cut and no longer remember how to shift our limbs. Jan is as shocked by Sachie’s sudden deterioration as we are and he drives us home, he is as quiet and firm as the nurses, warming our cold rooms with his sense of purpose as he makes tea in the kitchen. Theresa and I sit on the divan and we don’t avoid one another’s gaze, as such. It is as though she is not sitting next to me at all; there is a shell of empty clothes there, inexplicably upright. A directionless rage is building within me, oppressive as thunder; we are both drowning in blame even as we breathe easily under the heavy water. My organs are cringing away from one another inside my body, such is the force of my loathing. What if he dies.

‘He won’t, they’re a wonderful hospital. They’ll take care of him.’

I realise I must have said that out loud. There is no boundary between myself and the surrounding air anymore, anybody can read the thoughts inked across my brain, they can tear into the secrets printed on the inside of my heart as though my body were made of glass. Jan comes in with the steaming cups of tea. He is saying something comforting, trivial. I want to strangle the words out of his throat, slap them out of his mouth. I want there to be silence as I wait for the harsh bird call of the telephone. I wish Mona was here.

It is pneumonia, in both of his lungs, and the infection is complicated. We visit him, but he is hardly ever conscious. One day he is awake, but his eyes are glazed with the effort it takes to breathe. Antibiotics are being pumped around his veins through a tube that goes into the back of his hand. He doesn’t speak to us, although sometimes he says words in Czech, disjointed sentences that we cannot understand. I don’t think he knows we’re there, now he inhabits a world of restless shadows lingering at a crossroads we are privileged not to see. Theresa and I are his only visitors but for Jan, who looks in out of a peculiar sympathy. He is not Sachie’s friend, but he was witness to his fall and so he feels strangely obligated to be here. He does not bring useless gifts, just himself, and his hand in Sachie’s, and I love him a little for it. I take the sick air of the place into my lungs and hold it there, making wishes. There are hours when we are not allowed to see him. There are hours you are not allowed to look on the faces of people resigning from life in their halfway houses of thin cotton sheets, even when they are your best friend. Even when they are leaving you.

He dies at 03.46 on Monday morning, when neither of us are there. Theresa and I go to his funeral dressed as swans; white feathers hang from our shoulders, they are wrapped into our hair. Our faces are covered with thick white make-up from the theatre, so are the backs of our hands. You are not allowed to leave flowers on Jewish graves because it is not well to mix the worlds of the living and the dead, but you may leave stones. Theresa and I leave a piece of deep amethyst where the headstone will go because he loved the colour purple, the crystal is fractured inside and reflects tiny rainbows and I hope it remains in the ground with him forever.  At night, whether my eyes are open or closed, I see him laughing at one of Millie’s parties, surrounded by a halo of electric light. I see him roaming the sterile hospital halls, holding hands with silence.

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For a little while, everything comes apart. I realise the true nature of grief. It is not quick; a bursting bank of tears that flash-floods your life and then recedes. It is a hundred electric shocks to the heart per day. I see a bank of tulips opening in the park and I want to tell Sachie, to bring him there, but I can’t because he will never take my calls or receive a hasty note shoved through his letterbox again. It is as though we have broken off a long talk and I am yet to realise that he will never reply to my questions. He has shut the door, thick enough that he cannot hear me, and will not open it. In my dreams, we are walking side by side down one of the alleys in the Jewish quarter at three in the morning as we so often did. I turn my head, waiting for him to renew our conversation but he never does. He stands with his hands limp and natural by his side and when I shake him by his shoulders he does not respond, and soon I am left clutching cold air. In my worst dreams, I am watching his coffin being lowered into the earth when I think I hear him pounding on the wood. I try to alert the mourners to the sound but they do not hear it. He is covered with earth even as he kicks at the coffin lid and I scream soundlessly into Theresa’s face. I wake then, drenched in sweat and terrified of something in the room I cannot see.

Theresa is patient with me. She listens to my endless protestations of guilt. She comforts me, she does not feel the burden of his death as I do. I accuse her of being unfeeling, of cold. She is like a mother holding the thin shoulders of a child lashing out in his ignorant innocence. Of course she is distraught, and guilty, and cries when no one is looking, because that is Theresa’s way. I want to suck in her quiet strength but I am too angry with it. I am dizzy with rage. Sometimes I fall in the street and gaze at the cuts on my hand without understanding the force of my own defiant blood, seeping through the miniscule abrasions on my palm. People are kind and solicitous, they want to know if I’m alright after my fall, but they are just moving their mouths and no real sound comes out. I think I push them aside and keep walking, head down, measuring my steps by the number of breaths I am conscious of taking. I feel as though I should always have a hand held firmly over the flesh of my chest to keep anything from spilling out. The flowering trees of the city creep shyly out in their new dresses and I don’t notice any of them, I feel as though I am trying to staunch an exit wound with a clock.

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Somehow, Claudine hears. She sends me a letter, I burn it. I remember without wanting to the talks I had with Sachie about her. Her serene and celestial presence, her yellow hair that haunted me so that I chased women I did not know down the street, trying to get a glimpse of their faces all because they were blonde. I remember his peculiar grimace, the clown-like contortion of his features when he swallowed really bad table wine. When I realise that I will never drag him by his collar into a cafe again, I fall in upon myself. I am like him when he was drunk, I become a collapsing wall. I say the word ‘dead’ to myself over and over in our rooms when I am alone. I cannot comprehend it. What is dead? Where is he? Has he gone, as he used to say, to the arms of God? If he has, then can God not release him for a moment so he can let me know that he’s alright? Why is he so unreachable when all that separates us is death, that upstart we used to joke about in our morbid cups? I want his God to understand that for me this is an extinction event, the Great Dying, and like people chasing the mystery of the dinosaurs I will dig and dig until I get my answers.

***

Sometime in the spring, I decide to return to London. I pack what little I’ve remembered to salvage from the ruins of our life together. Theresa and I pass each other in the kitchen, the corridor, like ghosts now. I don’t believe she will even notice my departure; perhaps she will bump into my spirit in the hallway as I so often bump into Sachie in my sleep. Perhaps she will continue to speak out loud to me although I am gone, as I do to him, as though his shade lingers close to my body, listening. At night, the people across the street flick off the lights and their window goes dark in an instant. I wonder if that’s what it was like; darkness falling like a velvet axe across the dinner table, when the guest of honour has left for home.

Tongue of Fire, Hand of Fate

There is a voice that seeks to discourage you.

I hear it when depression creeps like frost over the leaves resigning themselves to death fallen on the autumn soil, and I think: ‘Why live, when waking up is penance and my heart has no home?’ I hear it when my pages miss their mark, or worse, float into silence, ignored, and I think: ‘Why write, when my words fold like paper arrows?’ I hear it now, when a dear friend faces imminent death, body and soul caught in the black maw of crack cocaine and I think: ‘Why get sober, when years of struggle still end in devastation?’

The demolition voice, reducing hope to rubble. You become a ruined abbey, paneless windows open to the cold.

The voice says that this will never change, that the road will always be strewn with rocks and glass, and your feet will always be bleeding. It tells you to hold out your arms, and drops an iron bar into them every day, even when nothing terrible has happened but the sheer relentless passing of grey time is iron itself, until you can’t remember what it was like to stand up straight, until you can’t pinpoint the day your back became irretrievably bowed. That voice that says you have done nothing, will do nothing, are nothing.

You can’t stay afloat with your arms full of iron.

Yesterday I walked round and around Bedford Square, steps too quick, breath harsh, claw-hands. I walked because if I stopped walking I was going to start shouting, or breaking things, or breaking myself, and whatever I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. This week, too close behind my own recent stint in A&E, the unkindness of life has rained down in cold hail as the last of the year’s sun shines on like a traitor. There is a life waiting for the recovering addict, I know, because I’ve seen the power of the rooms in action, but right now I’m surrounded by the drowning as my own lungs are filling with water and I can’t see the salvation, just the living death of the spirit, and it’s unendurable.

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Except…It’s not. Because there is another voice.

The one that says: Get up, get up. You would have to be mad to believe in turning a corner now, so be mad. Ride that wave of lunatic fire, and that conviction like a bell ringing in your body, and that crazy terrifying love you have for people, you sit on that bitch like a horse and ride it right through the valley of the shadow of death. I see you afraid of what people think of you, because you care too much and are passionate beyond reason and thank God for that, because lukewarm and sensible and proper are getting this world fucking nowhere. And no, you’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, or every place’s, or every cause’s, but I will show you how that terrible iron can be forged, and where it can be wielded, so get up. Fate is a hand held out to you now, will you take it? These words are falling from a tongue of fire, will you heed them? Do not despair, do not come down, do not bow out, pour out that madness like oil on the wounds of the world and thank me later, because this is not how it ends.

I will not be discouraged. I will listen to that tongue of fire, I will be directed by the hand of fate. I will keep these sodden lungs going because I have spent twenty-five years learning how to breathe underwater.

These are the conversations I have with God. If you find me walking around Bedford Square with a face like the end of the world, don’t be afraid. I’m just walking it off, the weight of all this burning iron. I wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.

Scarlet

‘What happened to you?’

I remember the old Spanish woman in the corner of the ward. I woke to see her bending over my bed, rosary beads slipping rhythmically between her brown spindle fingers. When she saw my eyes crack open, she stopped her prayers to ask, ‘Was it an acid attack? Were you in a fire?’

The fire is in my body. I have had an allergic reaction to some new medication that is burning my skin off from within. Wisps of thinnest tissue are weeping clear fluid, I am shedding myself; a serpent thrown into boiling mercury. I am 23. They tell me I might be about to die.

My face is so deformed by the swelling that I am unrecognisable. I wake in the night, the heat from my dying skin has dried my tears in my sleep. I was always terrified of fire as a child, of burning alive, trapped in a building. Now it is finally happening, inside my own windowless, bony house.

In the chapel, there is a prayer board.

For Sandy, For Colin. For Mum. For my little boy. Please, God. Thank you, God. Please.

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I scrape through the days. They pump pints of water into my drying husk at night along with pink steroids. A vase of white roses appears by my bed, ghosts going brown around the edges.

Later, they take pictures of me for their textbooks; my feet planted a hips-width apart, my arms outstretched; so that young doctors can examine in detail my raw Vitruvian form; the skinned snake with a fearful heart exposed.

When it is certain I am going to live, I go home. I cannot lie on the bedsheets. I speak in shocked monosyllables. I eat slowly through the scarlet mess of my lips. The fire dies to a mere smouldering ash in my lucky bones. I remember the clicking of those white beads in the dark, again and again.

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Please, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.