I cradle the bulging medical file by my side and wonder just how many months of my life I have spent inside a hospital. Has it been over a year? More than a year and a half? How many times has my body been sliced open, how many eyes have viewed my prone body, naked save the basic green coverings?
Silly thoughts go through your head as you await the long journey down to the operating theatre. Even if you can walk, you are taken on a bed, strapped in and wheeled by porters, along the long cold corridors, down the wide lifts, into the waiting embrace of the sterile waiting bay where angels lay to confirm your personal details once more. After a short while it is your turn to be taken into the surgical corridor where evenly spaced doors lead to operating theatres in which dedicated teams work to save or improve a life, perhaps both if miracles are allowed to be worked.
One time I remember clearly waiting to be taken down to the operating theatre, having made it to the waiting bay where my name and wrist band were checked to make sure I was the person I said I was, that I was here to have this limb operated on as indicated by the black arrow the surgeon had drawn on the flesh the day before. The two nurses who managed the surgical waiting bay came back and forth between myself and another, older individual who also waited patiently to be taken for his surgery. I had left my glasses up on the ward, safely locked inside my bedside cabinet, but I could tell from when these nurses were up close that they were singularly young and attractive. The contoured curves of the green scrubs contrasted nicely against the dyed blonde hair and the friendly open faces made me feel somewhat more at ease, as if this most inappropriate of venues for sexual thoughts had laid this final temptation on before me as a reminder of the beauty of life itself as I faced yet another grueling round of orthopaedic intrusions.
I realise now of course that they were doing their job and doing it well, that I was projecting my worries and feelings onto them, that I in some way wanted to be mothered, nursed, and sexually sated by these babes in green because I faced the great unknown and I wanted to be reassured. Under anesthetic there is no sleep, there is no passage of time. There is a moment of clarity and sheer muscle relaxation, and in the next moment you are waking up in recovery, dazed by the drugs and sore from the physical manipulation of the surgery itself.
It can be a shock to find yourself trapped in your own body, hazy and in pain. You have to remember to follow the instructions of the staff. It really is much less painful if you relax your entire body and roll over gently as they change the bloody sheets from under you. Do not tense, you must instead work against the natural inclination and relax, relax your body. Do not be afraid to ask for more painkillers if needed, do not be afraid to admit your vulnerability and to let the nursing staff wash your iodine-covered body, even if it means baring all in a moment of extreme weakness.
It is uncomfortable, there is no clarity of thought or great moment of singular insight. You are weak, you are waiting to heal. The pain, which can be searing at first, often morphs into a dull and constant ache, exacerbated by occasional movement. One of my greatest moments of realising that I am at the mercy of another person was being rolled over onto my side, no clothing on, and having my back and buttocks washed. It became a treat in intensive care as the heat from a body lying motionless in bed is intense and causes the sheets to stick, to curdle with your sweat and pain. The relief of having warm water freshening your skin once again is tempered by the fact that you are on show, warts and all. Each crevice, each crack and each roll of body fat laid bare. There is no hiding the essential truth of the flesh.
Yes, as I handled my medical file, I knew what it is like to lie strapped to a bed for many months, to lie prone before the great healing god of time. Immutable in its aspirations of forever being, seemingly always present, never quite in the past, never quite in the future.
My mother has this Christmas tradition that, when we have all taken our seats and just before we have taken our first bite of a long-awaited roast dinner, we raise a toast to the dearly departed, to those members of the family who are no longer with us and to those friends that no longer accompany us throughout our life journey. It reminds us, the living, to be thankful that we are seeing the close of yet another year together, to remain thankful to have known the dearly departed and that we remember them still.
The fact that this takes place before we have tasted our food is of the utmost importance. To say thank you on an empty stomach is to accept that we have lost those that will never be by our sides again, that we will never break bread with them and share our laughter and sadness across the table. Our eyes will never again catch theirs.
I sometimes like to imagine where the deceased are now, as if their memories have somehow broken free of their corporeal remains and drift uninhibited across the globe. It can be difficult to think that all that we have ever known and all that we have ever loved and experienced can be so self-contained in our floating globe, silently rotating in the great big soup of the universe. But it is and it must be, that is why we remember and why we say goodbye once again at the close of the year.
In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material. For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce. The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies. It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.
However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints. I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.
Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north. This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries. This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism. This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).
This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me. Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!
‘They say war is coming, that they want it so it’ll happen . . . Just like that! It doesn’t matter if you are the son of the mayor or of the dustbin man, it doesn’t matter what you think or what you feel. As soon as you join up, they’ll ship you out. Give you a rifle, a round, help you point it and let you start shooting. It doesn’t matter that you are scared or do not want to kill, it doesn’t matter if you miss the birthdays of your nearest and dearest. This is war! War does not stop for the dead, and it doesn’t stop for the living! It will continue regardless of what you think, so they say. Join up and get in the fight, prove yourself, prove that you are a man!’
Here, at this junction, he takes a rest and leans against the pillow before starting again.
‘I’ve heard it before and I’ll hear it again. Our lives are not so short that we won’t live through war, a war, any war. Just think about it boy, there must be a hundred wars going on right now – all across the globe people are fighting for this or that, spilling blood for the power of belief. Killing is justified, they say, it is justified because it helps to prove that what you say, what you believe, is right, is the only way. We must fight to take back our land! We must fight to stop them! We must fight to prove ourselves! We must fight because this fat bastard insulted me!’
Another rest before he carries on more lucidly.
‘Wars are funny things my son, they are odd things . . . They are both natural and unnatural. Nature telling us that we are too numerous and too many, that we need to thin the population somewhat, create a bottleneck so we can survive. Wars are the outcome of the idle rich, of those that seek power and revenge. War ain’t nothing good, but we’re used to it. Society accepts the causes and the outcomes, realizes that there is always a price to pay.’
War is war, the living are the living, and the dead are the dead, I wanted to add.
‘There is nothing to see here son but history, the ashes of a thousand dreams . . .’
‘Dad? Can you hear me dad, I’m right here . . . Just give me your hand dad, you’ll be okay. I love you. I’ll be back soon, okay?’
I shepherd the son out, who is caught briefly off-guard by the single tear running down the older man’s left cheek.
This speech wasn’t anything knew, but I knew that the son had to try and talk to his father, to try and establish reality once more.
The state has abandoned you, the forests are on fire. Your material possessions will not give you comfort nor rescue you. Where are you representatives now?
The Nationalists are here, the Centrists want your vote. You are of the wrong skin colour, the wrong heritage. Vote for us or your body will line the unmarked graves that we have prepared.
Your voice has been silenced, the villages are burning and will never be re-built. The sun does not forgive, your body will dry out in the desert. The oceans are acidifying, the animals are dying.
They are perverts, scum, ignore them and vote for us! Watch as the poor burn in their vertical prisons. Watch as the taxes rise and the services are cut. Watch as the rich profit from the misery of the poor, and the ill die in corridors.
Become one of us! Rip your heart from your chest, castigate all that you love, throw away any semblance of charity.
Join us, become us. Give up any hope of hope itself.
‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
She never regretted moving to this flat. It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were. In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city. She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at her parent’s house. If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples. No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.
The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty. Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape. It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace. But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime. She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.
Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man. Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father. She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page. The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body. Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends. It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, that kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness. In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.
The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still. Her foundation of independence had just become solidified, yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world instead turned and had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.
In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life. To put death at a distance and to keep love close. That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it; it was how she lived her life in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise. Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner. The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.
In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass. He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.
It would not be long now.
Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home. This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two. The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:
“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”
“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”
“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”
“Newspapers”, he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.
It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend. For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.
Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…
We pulled up in our rented vehicle, dwarfed quite comfortably by the incumbent coaches ferrying tourists from sight to sight, and prepared to disembark once again as travelers in a foreign land. In reality the location reminded us, perhaps more grandly than we remembered, of our own homes and the landscape therein, the coast battered by salt-fused waves whilst brash accents announced a population who had become ingrained into the very land they lived on. Our identities remained the same half the world away and we became a self contained unit, a family of friends.