She has an Anglo-Saxon sternness. She could be 20 or 40 years of age, her religious conviction writ large in her plain facial features. She loves warmly but disciplines firmly, an island of austerity in a world of plenty.
And I thought of myself too, of my foot, and of Oddball’s thin, wiry body; it seemed shot through with appalling sorrow, quite unbearable. As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.
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 for 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 and into the opening lift, down into the waiting embrace of the sterile patient bay where angels check to confirm your personal details once again. After a short while it is your turn to be taken into the surgical corridor. This is where evenly spaced doors are to be found which lead to operating theatres where dedicated teams work to save or improve a life, perhaps both if miracles are allowed to be worked.
Once I could 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 was also waiting 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 their friendly open faces made me feel somewhat more at ease; as if this most inappropriate of venues for sexual thoughts had lain 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 just 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 that natural inclination and instead relax, relax your feeble 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, and 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, bollocks and all. Each crevice, each crack and each roll of body fat laid bare. There is no hiding the essential truth of the naked 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, and never quite in the future.
The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest cycle of books, the Seasons Quartet, has recently seen its first release, Autumn, in English this month. (A quick note – the Seasons Quartet was originally published in Norwegian throughout 2015-16). Styled as a series of letters to his unborn daughter, the quartet takes everyday objects or landscape features as their starting point for Knausgaard’s short and varied digressions on what it means to be alive. I currently have Autumn by my bedside and it is a beautiful publication indeed, illustrated in style by Vanessa Baird and ably translated by Ingvild Burkey. I haven’t yet started reading it but I shall do tonight, as it seems fitting to do so as the clouds roll in and the temperature drops. Autumn truly is my favourite season and I look forward to the changing colour of the landscape as trees shed their leaves and the nights draw in.
The second volume in the series, Winter, is released on the 2nd November 2017 and I cannot wait to hold and to read it. I note on the publisher’s website that the volume has a different illustrator; I’m quite impressed that Knausgaard (or at least his publisher) is bringing together other artists into the fold of his new publications. It also introduces the English-speaking world to new Scandinavian writers and artists that they may otherwise have not come across. In the meantime Knausgaard’s much-anticipated sixth volume of his My Struggle cycle of novels isn’t released until late 2018, in the English translation, but the Seasons Quartet more than makes up for the long wait. Happy reading!
He stumbled into the room, roughly grasping the top of the chair by his well-worn desk and cursing each former lover in his moist and ailing breath, fell into a sorry heap upon the bed, too tired to pull off his boots and too saddened by the decline in his quality of life to remove his glasses. Nothing, save the frothing fury of the tropical sea rising up and laying salty claim to all the beaches in the land, could save the loss of face that he had endured that day. For in front of his red-headed daughter, who was buxom, proud and ready to marry the young military captain that had so captured her heart and stained it so openly on his own uniformed arm, he had been stripped of all power, humiliated and whipped like a cowering dog chained to a post in the yard.
The cause of his mistreatment was the maid, who had so blithely started that fateful day as gormless as she had entered this life, the daughter of a whore who had given her up at the first opportunity. That is not to say that she, the maid, was unaware of the power that her accusation would bring to her master, as she knew from her dilapidated upbringing that the raw power of sexual lust could do strange things to a man’s heart. It was a memory passed down in blood from her estranged mother, the one who would die empty-handed clutching helplessly at the passing shoes of the sons and daughters of her customers. It was an ignoble end to a life lived in the shadows, but one that her daughter would not share with her mother, or so she had thought.
Instead she would carry around with her a glowing heart filled at the memories of a holiday romance, a fling that had lit a thousand nights of self-fueled passion spread across the decades following the now hazy memories of a lifetime ago. These were the glimpses into her past that brought her body and mind onto the edge of so fantastic an experience that she temporarily blinded herself each and every time she accessed them. Although her current life lacked little in the way of attention from the opposite sex, keeping as she had the plump and youthful looks of her mother, the willingness to partake in the tasting of the flesh was strictly divorced from the cannibalization of her own memories. In short, it was these that she feasted on instead of the current attention that she attracted and returned to again and again in the silence of the night.
Time passed silently, the moon forever chasing the sun as the weeks leaped into months and the seasons dictated the passing of the years. By chance work had found her employed as a maid for an owner of a large tract of land, which included numerous rented apartments and holiday villas for tourists that visited this small Caribbean nation alongside the owner’s main housing complex, hidden in a corner behind a curving perimeter wall. The owner coveted his private life and communicated with both his retinue and his staff by way of paper notes, dotted across the working surfaces of a life he had little known intimately but instead managed from afar. The practice worked as if by magic though, the newer members of staff at first baffled by the notes left in green ink each morning, documenting the previous day’s stock figures, both incoming and outgoing, and dictating the actions of the next. The older staff however were well used to this method and blithely accepted whatever the writer of the note wanted, trusting as they did the path ahead as an apparition of the successful path behind.
The persistent rumours of the sightings of the owner were frequent among the staff, with wild recollections of a golden-haired Lothario prowling the grounds at night or that he was actually a hunchback man who had been seen howling at the moon in rage and despair. Lucinda, the young slip of a girl who worked in the granary, had once caught a slender grey-haired gentlemen helping himself to the kitchen stores but he had pranced off into the night before she had a chance to shout his name. No sightings were confirmed although that did not stop the rumours being mulled over and created late into the night by the staff at the end of their long shifts; instead the owner preferred always to communicate by his spidery flowing script rather than by sight and sound.
The maid had seen his notes and was taken by the veracity of the green ink on the faded, golden papers. The twirls of the P’s and the L’s satisfied some small section of her stomach, pleasingly looped as they were. In time she started to collect a number of the notes once the older ones had been discarded, their actions carried out by the ever observant and trusting staff. It was late one springs night, in her provided for one bed-roomed cleaners cottage, that the maid noticed the odd word or phrase that silently rung a long-dormant bell within her memory.
Surely the owner could not be the very flame that had burnt for eternity within her chest, ever since that fleeting coastal romance? She gathered up the dozen or so notes spread across the duvet and held them close to her tight chest, breathing in the vapors of the ink as her pupils dilated and the clothes fell from her body of their own volition. When she woke she noted the cold sweat of her body, the notes plastered on the inside of her thighs, on top of her belly and on her breasts, a love intent on the recreation of the physical and the spiritual. She knew then that the owner was indeed her former lover.
Some days later a note went up on the main noticeboard: ‘To wit: My Daughter to Marry the Captain, Two Days Hence – Staff Welcome’.
The owner’s daughter was most unlike her father in that she was well-known in the community, haughty but well-known. Little did she communicate directly with the staff, she was instead seen and not heard. Two days until the wedding! Some of the staff, the kitchen women and the mucker outers especially, expressed surprise that they were invited to view the proceedings, but all were excited by the prospect of finally seeing with their own eyes the owner of the land. Much was made of the brevity of the note in comparison to the usual notes but none could argue that the next 48 hours were to pass in a state of increasing frenzy and intrigue.
Today was the day that she was going to proclaim that this stored fountain of love was directly transferable to the object of her affections, the owner. In her fevered night-long dreams she could foresee a double marriage taking place, father and daughter pleased and pressed into unions of love, her simple maid’s status raised to the title of owner’s wife! Oh, what pleasure awaited them both! Dressing in her finest clothes and smartening up her shoes, she went to join the rest of the workers gathered outside in the courtyard, ready to proceed to the wedding venue – an outdoor folly that took into its expansive view the bay and the mountains in the background and the luscious greens in the foreground.
The crowd waited with bated breath as the procession of the captain and his bride, and assembled groomsmen and bride’s maids of honor, sorted themselves within the folly. A minute or two later the owner strode into view, each booted foot planted with firm resolution, his tight thin-lipped mouth curled up into the slightest imitation of a sneer, framed by golden-greying hair. A complete hush fell over the crowd of workers and some swore they could see green ink stains on his fingertips, a visual clue that this was who they suspected that he was.
It was at this moment that the maid, her breasts almost bursting out of her tight white top, lunged forward, one foot unsteadily following the other as a faint scream of ecstasy escaped her lips and the faint light of terror entered the owner’s eyes.
‘Matías! Matías! My love, it is me, Natalia!’
It was later recalled it was at this moment that the owner’s heart sunk fully into the very bowels of his body.
What for her had been an unforgettable romance by the sea, had been instead for him a desultory sink in status, one that he had revelled in at the time for its feeling of desperation but had since been forced into the very back of his mind. Instead, and ever since that long weekend spent entwined in both the arms and breasts of Natalia, he had made love to women only on par with his social standing, determined to remove the grit that he had felt instilled itself in him from sinking so low that one time.
In short, there could be no worse time for his past to haunt the owner then at the very moment he chose to show himself for the first time to his staff at his daughter’s wedding.
His eyes sunk into their sockets, and continued to join his heart, whilst his cheeks became maroon curtains of the richest silk.
He ran and he did not look back as Natalia stumbled onto her knees and tried clasping onto his fleeing heels, just as her mother had once done in the street where she lay dying …
Taking turns to sleep, taking turns to keep watch. I wonder what my life could have been like if I changed just one of a thousand choices. Would I still be alive? Would I be living in a different country? Would I still be as thankful as I am now for what I have got, or would I be hungry for more, oh so much more.
Taking turns to keep watch, taking turns to sleep. Does she know just what I’ve done for her, even as I keep scanning the horizon, searching for the ever present threat of a life in the balance. Would he still be dead? Would I still be living in this country? I’ll keep my watch, I’ll keep my silence.
I have been away for a while but nothing much really changes within the hearts of humans. We are all flesh, we all feel, love and grieve, and we are all united by life and divided by it:
“What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history – how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love… How old did you say you were?”
“I was much older when I fell in love.”
Hana pauses. “Who was she?”
But his eyes are away from her now.
Quoted from the novel The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje.
I love you and I need you, I wish that I could see you. I’m travelling down this corridor alone, strapped to this trolley with doctors by my side pushing through door after door. I can see the light shining but I’m not sure if it’s for me or if it’s for everyone around me. I cry out, not pain not in horror, I cry out in confusion. I need you and I want you, to be by my side again. Memories flood my frazzled mind, a skeletal hand clasps my own and tells me it will be alright, it will be okay. I can help but feel that this is a denial, that my body is failing even as I flail in the half-light of an under-funded hospital, staffed by sleep walking staff with the warmest of hearts.
I need you and I want you, I can hear voices in the corridor, not my own or those around me but others, crying out in equal pain or in anger at the wait. Where are my sons, where are my daughters? I wanted to say to grow up in peace, to love your family, friends and neighbours as one, to move on or to leave if you need to. We understand, we want you to be happy, we need you to be with us. I love and I need you, and I wish that I could see you.
The final corridor, my body is checked in. Checked once that I am who I say I am, that the arrows painted on my limbs are correct and that my brain is related to my body and my body is related to my name. I say I am who I am and they take it on board, and I’m made to wait at Heaven’s Gate. Two blonde angels guide me, make me comfortable on the slip green sheets which matches their sleek outfits. Only bras and knickers must be under their gowns I think, wondering who they share their bed and younger, supplier bodies with at night. My own is broken, battered and torn. A mess of surgical scars, shortened limbs but above average, well we won’t go into that but it is according to a litany of my previous lovers.
I want you and I need you, I wish that I could see you. I laugh, laugh at the futility of it all. The drugs, I yearn for the warmth of the morphine, of the wicked sleeping potion to crawl up into my veins and up into my arm and to flood the chest cavity and consciousness itself. I yearn to sleep with no dreams, where the minute that passes is not a minute but a moment between awake and awake. My eyes linger on one of the angels, filling in the paperwork in the corner of the room, haloed by broken bodies on stripped back beds.
I need you and I want you, I wish that I could see you. I’m moving, I’m moving, but I’m not moving, there are no words for this. Through the first set of doors I am pushed, name confirmed once more. Am I aware of what is going to happen to me and why it is happening? Yes, yes I scream still dreaming of the green robed angels in the theatre waiting room. Just do it, yes the heart always beats fast. I need you and I want you, but I just can’t seem to see you. I stare at the anaethetist’s eyes as the plunger is gently but firmly pressed down, a milky white liquid seeps into my own bloodstream diluting reality.
I needed you and I wanted you, but I just can’t seem to have seen you. I wake as if I have been asleep for years. I crave water, yearn to drink a thousand litres of the freshest water available. I want to drown in crystalline lakes and to never wake. A tube has been down my throat, a mainline into the neck is still present. I wish that I could have seen you, I’m sorry to have left you. I close my eyes again.
How could I possibly tell her that I had thought we had a future together when these thoughts alone were just the remanent of fragmented dreams, and that those dreams were recalled by the half light ecstasy of sexual mores that only I could gain personal satisfaction in? No, these feelings and lust-filled thoughts were just that. They were simply a morning temptation before the creeping light of dawn awoke me fully to the realities of the day ahead. I held the phone in my right hand, her number displayed on the screen with a text half-finished underneath. I reread the message and cringed in shame, the liquid warm against my belly whilst I drew deep breaths. Deleted. For the betterment of us both.
Besides I had double English to attend and I still needed to scrub the sleep from my eyes, shower and dress. The walk to the college alone would take twenty minutes and I had an hour at the most to get ready, prepare for the class and to arrive on time. Timekeeping was never a strong point for me, the lack of punctuality ran in the family and infuriated my mother continually throughout her children’s adolescence. My eldest brother, for I was one of four and the second youngest of our parent’s brood, would drive my mother crazy by getting up late, sometimes comically late and especially so if we had to be somewhere on time. This would then cascade a chain of fury from my mother to my father, who got annoyed on her behalf before the fury finally found us, his younger brothers. Once we were out of the house however we were fine and I think Dad sensed this when he saw the frustration spreading and urged us out as fast as was humanely possible.
The house was empty this morning though so I could blast the music, keep the bedroom door open and move about freely as naked as the day my poor mother had pushed me out. I loved it – the feeling of an empty house where my favourite music reverberated from wall to wall; where I could eat quickly before I jumped into the shower, laughing as I did so as the water followed and flowed over the contours of my limbs and ran down my thighs. They were where the thick surgical scars outlined the orthopaedic surgeon’s fixation. I was proud of these scars, they were my personal tattoos of a specific time and place, my memories of pain and pleasure entwined to produce a better me (or so the hope went).
The first lesson passed without incidence, we learnt of the black ram tupping the white ewe and the lecturer expounded on what this meant for the play, for the deft characterisation and turn of phrase the author was so well-known for. I wondered of his contemporaries, of his hopes and dreams. I wondered what became of his loves and hungers, what his reaction would be if he knew that his plays would be enacted out four centuries hence whilst his fellow playwrights would lie largely forgotten in the lands that birthed them. But still, I had the break to look forward to where I would see her and think ashamedly back to my morning scene. I wanted to hold her hair in my hands and look deep into the blues of her eyes. This was a fantasy, the girl who I would later call my partner had brown eyes and curly hair, she wasn’t the person who I had dreamt of whilst I had lain in bed, regretting the passing of the minutes that I was powerless to stop.
This was the contract, signed by us both. Remaining friends but no more, the blushes of a late teenage crush hidden by a mop of hair. Instead I put aside my fantasy of my cheek against hers, my lips kissing hers, my body entwined with hers, and put our friendship on a higher plane. There was no underlying hidden moral heroism driving this, it was purely the shame of not trying and never asking for her hand. The joy of seeing her and sharing stories over drinks replaced this erotic dream of mine, one that I had subconsciously harboured since school and let blossom fully at college. Instead I focused on the give and take of friendship. The unsaid declaration of the fact that she and I were always willing to be there for one another, at the end of a text, a phone call or in person, that it remained hanging in the air never needing to be vocalised.
Taken by the author with a Pentax S1a camera using Lomography Lady Grey film. If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate.