Inside Out: A Short Story

Someone once said that God gave us memory so that we might enjoy roses in December.  The person who said it was probably one of those blind optimists who believe in finding the best in everything.

Memory is a curse.

If I had lost my memory when I lost everything else, then perhaps I could be content with this life; this life that sits around my feet like an unravelled sweater, each kink in the thread representing my thwarted ambitions.  But I can’t do anything about it.  They keep feeding me and keeping me alive because that is the right thing to do under the circumstances.  They manipulate me, like a giant ungainly beanbag, these physiotherapists with their muscular forearms and their cheery banter.  But I refuse to respond to their hateful optimism.  It’s easy for them to be thankful, it’s easy for them to smile and to joke and to work my crippled legs as though they will ever, ever walk again.

They tell me that it’s good to cry.

“Let it all out,” they urge, dabbing at my eyes with tissues and stroking the unruly mess of my hair with professional fingers.  But tears don’t come as easily as one might expect.

How can I ever let it all out?  I am so full of it, so stuffed with it that to let it all out would reduce me to an empty shell of skin and bones.  I am made of it; made of anger, made of fear.

I look around this room that my sister has prepared for me and I know I should be grateful, I know she is doing everything she possibly can to make my life more comfortable, but how can she assume to imagine what this is like?  I try not to hate her because she doesn’t know.  But sometimes I despise everyone.  And, since I cannot really smile – and by keeping quiet about my true feelings – I can offer them the irreproachable satisfaction that they are coping with my condition.

How dare they take this for themselves?  They see me and they pretend that nothing has changed, as though just by being chirpy and by cracking jokes they will make me believe that everything is as it always was.  “The problem with you is that you wallow in self-pity.”  That’s what one short-lived ‘carer’ said to me when I refused to eat the disgusting mess she had made of my scrambled eggs.  She was the kind of woman who shaved off her eyebrows and drew them back on with a pencil; the kind of woman who kept a hankie up the sleeve of her cardigan and talked endlessly about her son and his executive position in waste disposal.  Poor Sarah; she’s had a hard time recruiting people to look after me but to be accused of self-pity in my position is tantamount to treason in this household. 

We have always been close, Sarah and I.  Our unconventional parents, our bohemian childhood brought us together.  There wasn’t anyone else we could talk to you see.  But now Sarah is afraid of me.  I can see it in the way she keeps her distance.  She looks at me and she wants to run.  She can’t wait to get out of the room, out of the suffocating heat, out into the fresh open air where she can breathe.

Meanwhile I sit here; reduced to nothing more than a functioning brain.  It’s almost like one of those awful science fiction films where the mad scientist hooks up the offending grey matter to electrodes in a jar and creates a monster.  That is me.  That brain floating around in a jar filled with liquid is me right now.  My body is a vacuous receptacle and my brain knocks against the sides but cannot get out.

I stare out of the window and I see a life in which I can no longer participate.  It might be preferable not to see it. It might be better if they just drew the curtains and blocked out the sun, for I have no use for it any more.  I find pleasure in nothing.  I anticipate nothing.  But what can I do about it?  I am controlled by nurses and medications and well meaning people who keep me alive like a leafless stalk that once had a flower.

There is no ‘upstairs’ for me any more; I live my life on the ground floor only and our parents’ old house has been turned upside-down to accommodate my infirmity.  Mum and Dad’s old bedroom has been turned in to Sarah’s sitting room and I now occupy what was once the back parlour because it commands the best view.  The sale of my flat paid for the renovations; the wheelchair ramps, the extra-wide door-frames, the special bathroom equipped with all manner of rails and pulleys.  It was thoughtful of Sarah to incorporate all my things when she re-furbished.  But there is something distinctly pathetic about a middle aged man returning home to live in a room where he once copped a feel of Jill Ward’s breasts during an illicit game of Postman’s Knock.

I try to remember the moment of my seizure, to remember the fall down that stone staircase, but there is nothing beyond a certain point.  My brain is locked like a rusted cog and I have to force it to jump across that small gap of memory so that my mind can arrive at the hospital several days later. 

And before the fall? 

I remember Plasticine, and children, and the smell of pencil sharpenings mixed with the damp reek of cauliflower from the dinner hall.  I was wearing my linen jacket and the classroom windows were open.  Holly Walters was afraid of the wasp, though it was only a fly, buzzing around and around in demented circles.

“Come on everybody, stop fussing, it’s only a fly!”

“Sir!  Sir!  It’s a wasp!  I seen its stinger!”  That was Thom Finley, stirring up trouble as usual; his elbows scabbed and his hair standing up in unruly peaks.

“It won’t hurt you if you just leave it alone, Holly” I replied; the authoritative voice of reason.  I returned to my tray of conch shells but a shriek accompanied by the scraping of chair legs against scuffed parquet alerted me to further disturbance.  When I turned around Holly Walters was half-way across the classroom, swatting at the offending insect and causing quite a commotion over by the terrapins.

“Calm down!  Calm down!” I shouted above the din, rushing towards Holly in an attempt to mollify.  She was crying.  Her face was streaked with tears and I could see Thom Finley smirking from behind his tangle of stickle bricks.  After that I only remember the bell for playtime and my anxious quest to grab a cup of tea while the kids swept past me; a jostling rabble of squawks and pattering feet as they headed for the playground.

It was some kind of burst blood vessel in my brain, bad enough to knock out my system like a broken fuse wire.  The long flight of uneven stone steps outside the staff room have been there for over a hundred years but nobody has ever fallen down them before.  I remember none of this but I have been told so many times now that I can almost see it happening.  I hit my head and snapped my spine and the world came tumbling down.

So now I am here; sitting in this claustrophobic room, with a painful view across the ancient rose garden that will undoubtedly delight everyone in high summer.  People will visit me, they will come here and they will wax lyrical over the roses.

And it will give them something to look at.

Something other than me.

 

*

Bernie, the nurse, is very amiable and he tries really hard to treat me like a normal human being, but it is impossible.  If I were normal I would not need someone like Bernie to translate for me in that alphabet gibberish.  I would not need someone to feed me, to bathe me, to deal with my stinking nappies; cleaning me up so that I smell sweet and acceptable for public consumption. But, having said that, at least he is a stranger.  At least I don’t have to rely on a family member to look after me.  That would be the ultimate humiliation.

At least here I have my privacy.  I have my own quarters and Sarah is very careful not to overstep the boundaries even though this is her house.

Bernie is making my bed.

He hums a tune as he moves around to tuck and straighten the bedspread.  His uniform is a pair of white cotton trousers and a loose, short-sleeved shirt.  He has hairy arms and thick wrists but he isn’t a big man, just stocky from lugging people like me around from room to room I suppose.  I don’t know how old he is but he’s younger than me.  It is always difficult to judge a man’s age when he has lost so much hair but I’d say that Bernie is probably somewhere around thirty.  He has a neat little beard, the trendy kind that frames his mouth and somehow makes him look like a gentle, furry animal.  I like his face.  It is kind.  I wonder if a kind face is a prerequisite if you want to become a nurse?

He is telling me about his philosophy on life; talking to himself while he keeps busy.  “It’s all a matter of making the best of what you’ve got,” he says as he throws yesterday’s newspaper in to the bin.  Bernie is jam-packed full of home-spun philosophies and cheerful metaphors on life.

Actually I have my own metaphor for life; it originates from my years at infant school where the institutionalised lunches were served up by mop-capped dinner ladies with beefy forearms and ruddy cheeks.  It was the mid-sixties and the teachers presided over our eating habits like rheumy-eyed dragons, weaving slowly between the tables with hands clasped tight against their matronly bosoms.  There were strict rules and regulations to be followed and woe betide anyone who stirred the strawberry jam in to their rice pudding or sifted through their mashed potatoes in search of the gut-wrenching eyes that looked like grey slugs.

I remember the incident with remarkable clarity.  Most of the kids at my table had already finished eating and they were outside making a lot of noise with hoops and beanbags.  I don’t recall the teacher’s name but she was standing behind me, breathing smoke from her nostrils and glaring at the offending cauliflower with bulbous eyes.  She was a teacher of the old-school; these days she would be accused of child abuse and written up in the tabloids but, back then, she was a standard-issue disciplinarian and probably well respected amongst her peers.

“Eat it all,” she admonished, “there’s no pudding until you finish your vegetables.”

My eyes strayed to the neat little square of chocolate sponge in my pudding bowl.  The chocolate sauce was beginning to develop a wrinkled skin and I knew that it would be cold and spoilt by the time I got to it.  I pushed the smallest amount of cauliflower on to my fork and raised it to my lips, taking it in to my mouth as one might accept a wriggling worm or an Australian Witjuti Grub.  The knobby texture of cold, overcooked cauliflower caused my mouth to fill with saliva and made me retch.  Tears sprang to my eyes, blurring the ever decreasing mirage of chocolate sponge.

“Swallow it,” demanded the merciless school teacher, clasping my shoulder in her claw-like grip, “it’s good for you.”

At which point I gagged violently and spat the offending cauliflower straight in to my pudding bowl where it landed unceremoniously in a puddle of chocolate sauce.

“That’s it!” hissed the teacher, slapping me around the head and grabbing up the dessert that was to have been my reward.  “No pudding for you!”  And I was left to sit at the dinner table with my head bowed until the bell rang and it was time to go back to the classroom.

And the lesson I learnt from that little episode?  

There’s no pudding until you’ve eaten your vegetables.

*

Yesterday, Sarah brought Toby Tapworth to see me.

It took a lot of persuading from Bernie to bring me around to the idea and at first I said no-way.  I mean, who wants an eight-year-old child gawking at them when they’re like, this freak?  I know how insensitive kids of Toby’s age are, I know the kind of names they use for people like me and it only gets worse as they get older.  That’s why I never wanted to teach secondary kids.  I was afraid of them.

Bernie said he thought it would be a good idea for both of us; Toby and me.  Bernie, being a trained nurse, would think that wouldn’t he?  He’s all about healthy bodies and healthy minds so he’s keen for me to start branching out.  They all think that, like some Technicolor miracle, like a soppy film at the pictures with throbbing violins and life-affirming proclamations, that I’ll suddenly find inspiration through the eyes of a little boy.  I wish it were that simple.

Toby’s a bright enough lad.

He was always very cheerful in class, always willing to help.

When Sarah ushered him in to my room he wouldn’t come near me at first.

He stuck close to his mother and looked at the carpet as though he’d done something wrong.  Bernie encouraged him to come over to me, but I could see it was a struggle.  And why should I be bothered, I thought?  He could sod off for all I cared.  But he came, eventually, creeping forward with his hands in his pockets and his hair sticking up at the back of his neck.  He’s a nice looking boy.  I know he probably hates having that red hair but when he grows up he’ll be glad of it.  It’s not the awful orange colour that kids love to poke fun at, it’s more auburn but I’m sure he still gets called names.

“Can he see me?” he asked, looking at Bernie, not at me.  I’m getting used to that kind of treatment.  People talk about me as though I’m not in the room.  ‘Look at me,’ I scream in silent frustration, ‘look at me,’ but they avert their eyes and aim their questions at an invisible spot somewhere above my head.

“I’m sorry about your brain,” said Toby.

And I was so caught off guard that something happened.  It surprised us all, especially me – I laughed.  Well, it started out as a laugh, but it sounded more like a grunt.  You see my face doesn’t move in the normal way, so there was no true smile attached, just a twist of my lips and this unexpected noise that scared the hell out of Toby and made him back away as though I’d just spouted fangs.

I could see that Bernie and Sarah were delighted with this advancement so I resolved to keep my emotions to myself in future.  It doesn’t do to get them too excited; after all, it was only a laugh for crying out loud.

“I’m glad to see that you haven’t lost your sense of humour,” laughed Sarah, squeezing my arm with enthusiasm.

But she failed to mention the fact that I’ve lost so much more.  Maybe I just need to laugh more often?

Maybe then they’d start to look at me?

Maybe then they wouldn’t be so terrified?

*

This morning I had porridge for breakfast and Bernie mixed in some cinnamon and honey.  My sense of taste and smell has become startlingly acute and food is something I can truly appreciate.  I started with the alphabet rigmarole; eyes raised for yes, eyes lowered for no.  It’s a bloody inefficient way of communicating but the computerized thingy they’ve set up for me is more trouble than it’s worth and I still haven’t got the hang of it.

“A to E…” started Sarah, sitting patiently on the edge of my bed.  I raised my eyes to indicate that she had the right bit of the alphabet.  It took me about four minutes to pose my question but Sarah appeared enraptured by my effort.  “Well done,” she gushed with a somewhat bleary smile.

 It’s obvious she’s exhausted; who wouldn’t be under these circumstances?  I need to make things easier for her but when I mention nursing homes and full-time help she won’t hear of it.  She pushes her hair behind her ears and kisses me on the forehead.  “My burden is nothing compared to yours.  I just want you to make a bit more effort, that’s all.  It’s been over a year now and the doctors keep telling you that you’ve got to try harder.”

So I asked her to push me out in to the garden and she clucked enthusiasm as she prepared me for the ordeal.  Bernie helped her battle with the wheelchair and the pulley system they’ve rigged up over the bed and Sarah busied herself with the kind of futile conversation that usually drives me mad.  She popped a mint in to her mouth, offering one to Bernie but he’d got his mid-morning chocolate on the dressing table so he shook his head.

“I could murder a ciggie right now and these Polos aren’t doing the trick,” sighed Sarah.  “I threw away the last packet on my way home from Asda on Wednesday and apart from a couple of puffs in the lav last night I haven’t had a *** for nearly a week now.  I’ve pinned up a photo of lung cancer in the kitchen and I’m going to try the patches tomorrow but I don’t have much faith in them.”

I shared a covert glance in Bernie’s direction but he was busy gathering up a blanket from the back of the chair.

  “I’ve tried hypnotism and chewing-gum that makes a drag on a Silk Cut taste like dog’s breath.  I’ve experimented with plastic filters and herbal whatsits concocted from camomile and wheatgrass.  All to no avail.  I’m only doing it this time because I’m tired of being looked at in restaurants every time I light up.  It’s getting more like America every day.”

I grunted in my inimitable fashion.  When was the last time Sarah went to a restaurant?

“The day you give up smoking is the day I give up Terry’s Chocolate Oranges,” joked Bernie as he tapped and un-wrapped the foil-clad segments of his so-called ‘greatest vice’.  But it’s easy for Bernie; he’s never smoked.

I, of course, being the bad lad that I am, started smoking when I was thirteen.  Not any more, of course.  It was Penny Thompson who gave me my first cigarette.  We were in her bedroom sniffing nail varnish remover because it was supposed to make you high and she produced a crumpled packet of Consulate Menthols from her bedside drawer.  Penny’s Mum was on parole for repeated shoplifting and her Dad was living with a seventeen year old circus girl in a caravan - so Penny could get away with murder.  Smoking cigarettes at an early age was par for the course in a dysfunctional household like Penny’s.

She taught me how to inhale without choking and how to blow smoke rings from a reclining position on her bed.  We used to steal **** and magazines from the newsagent’s on the corner or we’d sidle around the narrow aisles of the Co-Op changing the price labels on bottles of expensive shampoo and makeup so that we could buy it for a few pence at the cashout.  Penny was what you might call a Bad Influence but she was a fantastic liar and she was the only girl I knew who was willing to show me her ‘poppy’ as she called it.

*

Sarah has left me out by the oak trees for half an hour with the blanket tucked over my legs.  I think it is the first time I’ve been left unattended for weeks.  I watched her strolling back up to the house just now, the blister on the heel of her foot quite visibly raw between the straps of her sensible sandals.  From behind she’s started to look like Mother.

Our mother; our wildly impetuous mother who was stark raving bonkers!  We were raised by a crazy woman who dyed her hair orange and slept on a bed surrounded by fairy lights.  She had gold teeth and silver rings.  She had an ouija board and could see the future in the surface of a mirror. She once told my junior school teacher that he was about as effective at moulding young minds as a colostomy bag is at shaping an appetising strawberry blancmange.  I didn’t know what a colostomy bag was at that age but it sounded like something I’d rather not dip a spoon in to.

There is something about the stoop of Sarah’s shoulders as she wends her way over the grass that brings to mind those final few months before Mum ran away with the bloke from the Fine Fare and left Dad to cope with us the best he could.

  Sarah turns when she reaches the French doors and shouts “I’ll be back with a nice cup of tea!” 

Sarah and her nice cups of tea.  It’s become something of a joke between us and I find my face muscles fighting to recreate the semblance of a smile.

I haven’t thought about Mother for such a long time but now I wonder what she would have made of this current situation if she were still alive; she would probably have burnt incense and scattered rune stones across the tabletop, calling on her deities to make things right.  And I would have put my faith in her now as I did then.

Naturally it was my mother who showed me the way.  Father was hardly ever around in the early days.  She held up the lantern of her experience and I took my light from her.  My mother was something of an oddity back then in the small neighbourhood where I grew up.  The women on our street avoided her as one might avoid walking beneath a ladder, sometimes crossing the road rather than chance a casual meeting.  But the men were drawn to her light and they would flutter helplessly in her presence.  The women watched from a safe distance with their arms folded over their disapproval and their lips compressed like wounds sprinkled with salt.  When Father was away on his endless business trips the men would sneak to our house late at night and feed on my mother’s shameless needs.  “You make your own magic, son” she would tell me.  And I would watch in awe as she pressed her fingers in to a lifeless lump of candle wax, transforming it with scraps of wool and fabric in to a soldier for me to play with.

The sun darts through the unfurling leaves above my head and falls in fidgety scraps across the lawn, across my blanket.  And on the lightest of breezes I can smell the barely discernible scent of daffodils.  It is a fragrance I have never noticed before and it is pale yellow and green.  It is the kind of spring day when you catch the first glimpse of summer and, in spite of myself, I remember the caterpillars we used to catch as children.  We would spend hours collecting wriggling insects from beneath the thorny stems of the rose bushes, breathing in the glorious scent of the overblown blooms with the full heat of August burning fiercely against our backs.  I can feel the scratch of those thorns against the back of my hand, the soil and grit against my knees as I scavenge for bugs.

“You make your own magic, son…”

And I make an astonishing discovery; like fingerprints on the surface of last night’s wineglass, my sense of touch is still there; a smudge of memory that can be commanded by my underestimated brain and pulled in to focus when I jiggle the lens of recollection.  I know how this blanket feels against my legs.  I know how the cold steel of this chair stings the surface of my skin when I touch it.  My mind holds the template for all of these sensations and all I have to do is follow the outlines to bring them from the inside, out.

And for the second time in two days I make a noise.  It startles the birds out of the branches above me with a clatter of frantic wings.

That noise is laughter.

And, like the scent of the daffodils, like the warmth of the sun, the sound pleases me.

BarmyCow BarmyCow
51-55, F
May 8, 2012