© Andrew Wrigley
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I came to England following a woman. She was called Mary and with hindsight I suppose you could say she reminded me of someone. Tall and slim, lemons not melons, looked good in a miniskirt. We met in Buenos Aires, in a bar in Palermo Soho, two days before she returned to England.
I had a good life in Buenos Aires. Great job, outdoor tennis all year round, sushi galore and long nights out on the town. Big enough to walk away from trouble when it found me. Creature comforts care of Paula, attractive long term girlfriend.
When I went back with Mary to the flat she rented in Puerto Madero, I threw it all away.
“Wow!” I said as we walked into the glass-walled living room on the twentieth floor. The view smacked you in the face. The flat didn’t face the river, it looked back over the Puerto Madero docks, the Casa Rosada, the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, all ablaze in the night. The best cityscape in town.
“Just because I am a student again doesn’t mean I have to slum it,” she said tossing the keys on a coffee table.
She didn’t need to. She worked as a senior financial analyst in London, a partner in a small firm that had just been bought out by Schroeders. Part of the deal was a six month sabbatical. She thought Latin America was going to be the next big thing, so she came to Buenos Aires to learn Spanish, suss the place out, make contacts, get screwed. Make sure she really did want to marry the rising star over at JP Morgan. A career woman, thirty five, smart and sassy. Just my type.
She walked out onto the balcony and leant on the railings, knowing I would follow her, come up behind her, slide my arms around her waist, kiss the nape of her neck.
In the morning, I told her I loved her, that I would leave Paula and move to London to be with her.
She laughed at me.
“Don’t be silly. Why leave this great city?”
“You don’t even know me. Anyway, I’ve already told you, I’m getting married in two months time.”
I didn’t believe her but she really did get married. I was in England so Mary invited me to the wedding at her family’s pile in Yorkshire. It didn’t go well, not for me at least. The best man punched me in the mouth and knocked one of my teeth out. He was bigger than me and I was pissed.
I didn’t even get to tell Mary’s new husband that I had shagged her just two months before. Life is full of regrets.
All I said was that I loved her. That he was the luckiest bastard I knew.
One thing you can’t walk away from is a heart murmur. My Dad certainly couldn’t. It killed him ten years ago. The rest of my family doesn’t even know that I have a heart murmur too.
I don’t speak to them anymore.
The bacterium is Streptococcus mutans. It lives in your mouth and your throat and does you no harm. Until it gets into your blood when you have a tooth punched down your throat.
Endocarditis is one of the risks of having a heart murmur, so I knew the symptoms. Evening fevers, night sweats and headaches in the morning, sudden fits of shivering, it all fitted. After the punch-up at the wedding, the baddies poured into my blood. In their millions.
An echocardiogram has shown a clump of bacteria, huddled on my mitral valve. That’s what Endocarditis is. It eats your heart out.
In the days before penicillin, I would now start to die, but times have changed. With a six week course of day and night intravenous antibiotics, once every four hours, six times a day, my chances of a full recovery are good.
The only question is whether the valve has been damaged.
After two weeks in hospital I am stiff and sore. I am losing my fitness. I am stressed, anxious. Nothing is within my control. I am just the patient in bed 25, on Oak Ward.
That bastard Dr Shivlani has made his mind up. I need heart surgery, but I feel fine. I can walk an hour a day without losing my breath. I’ll have a heart operation when I need one. But aged thirty six? Surely not?
Week three. In a quiet sort of way, I am going crazy and I am only half way there. Another three weeks to go. And then I am going to Hull and back for the operation.
In week five, they do the second echocardiogram. My last hopes of a quick escape from this nightmare vanish. The clump of bacteria, the ‘vegetation’ as they call it, has gone, but the infection has destroyed my heart strings, the Chordae Tendinae. The murmur has got worse, a lot worse.
“You are doing very well,” Dr Shivlani says. “Once the course of antibiotics is finished, we will transfer you straight to Hull for a valve replacement. It is a very standard procedure nowadays.”
I stare at him. This might be standard, it might just be a small part of his working life, but it is me they will cut open. I feel like knocking one of his teeth out.
They will give me a metallic valve because I am still young. Metallic valves last longer than pig heart valves, the only problem being that I will be on warfarin for life, to stop my blood clotting on the artificial valve. A car crash and I bleed to death. A tennis ball in the eye and I lose the eye.
So I sit in my bed and get stressed. When I hear Dr Shivlani’s voice, I start to sweat. My fitness plays against me. My metabolism has switched the after burners on and my magnesium levels plummet. The muscles in my back knot and spasm. I can hardly move, and hobble around the ward hunched up like an old man.
Next week nimble-fingered strangers are going to cut my chest open with an electric saw and jack my rib cage apart to get at my heart. They will stop my heart. They have no idea if it will start again. All they know is that more often than not it does.
Dr Shivlani is reassuring.
“You are still quite young. You have much better chance than if you are old.”
I stare at him.
“You will be out of hospital within the week. After two months you will feel quite normal. Four months, your life will be like before.”
So my life will resume, exactly where I left off. Paula, tennis, long nights in the bars of Palermo Soho, charming my way into the knickers of someone else’s bride-to-be. Get my teeth punched out at flashy weddings. Get Endocarditis.
In another bed, a Yorkshire farmer is talking to his wife on his mobile. He has had a mild stroke.
“Yes, yep, you will. Oh, yes. Yeah. No, no, no. I won’t. Yes. So do I.”
Say it you dunce. Tell her you love her. Just once. There will never be a better time.
I have a hairy chest and when the nurses change the Electro Cardiogram stickers it is sheer, waxing agony. So I took matters into my own hands. I shaved my chest. I look different without all the hair.
There is a sag to my tits that wasn’t there before. Man tits. You get them after thirty and there is nothing you can do to about it. Even Arnie has man tits these days. That’s why he went into politics.
Arnie shaves his chest too and has had a heart valve replaced. I am in good company.
Sitting in my bed, I exchanged emails with Paula and my friends back in Argentina, the black humour mounting, escalating. Then one day Gustavo Pardo sent me an email saying:
“Andrés, if you die, please let us know. That way we won’t waste our time sending you emails.
PS: I think Paula has found out about Mary…”
Me? I’ve just got to have the last word. I sent an email back, impersonating Dr Shivlani:
“Dear Mr Pardo,
We regret to inform you that Mr Baxter died last night. The infection perforated his valve and he died after three hours in intensive care. Fortunately, he was unconscious and didn’t suffer.
Could you please inform his family and friends as we have no record of his next of kin?
Dr Vinood Shivlani
And that is when the dongle I was using to connect to the internet from the hospital ran out of credit. Paula, having figured out why I had gone to England, emptied all the cash out of our joint bank account and, when the monthly payment bounced, my credit card was cancelled.
I thought Gustavo would realise my email was a joke. He didn’t, but I didn’t know that and I had no way of finding out. It may sound strange, but I actually wanted it that way.
Suddenly, I was very alone. Penniless and alone.
Memory is a funny thing.
Shaving my chest hair took me back to when I was thirteen. It reminded me of Mari. I was hell bent on shagging her. She was my classmate, but because I was so fucking precocious, my classmates were all sixteen and I was thirteen. I didn’t stand a chance. Still, Mari liked to flash me.
“Andresitooo…” she whispered at me in Maths. When I turned round she flashed her knickers at me, spreading her legs, lifting the hem of her miniskirt. Her crotch was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. So neat and trim. Forget the Venus of Milo, to this day Mari’s pubis is my gold standard.
At the end of the year, we organised a party at the local disco, El Candil. Esperanza is a small village in the Argentine outback, out west, on the fringe of the Pampas. No one cared that I was underage. That was the first time I got pissed. Whisky and coke. Mari was dancing, looking good in her best miniskirt. Tall and slim. Lemons not melons. She saw me watching her and waved, beckoning me. I got up, weaved my way towards her and was sick all over the dance floor.
Unlike many of the other girls in my class, Mari did not have a child out of wedlock. I guess she had learnt from her mother that it wasn’t much fun. When six years later, someone organised a class reunion, she was still single. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years. She had moved to San Rafael, four hundred kilometers west of Esperanza and was working, earning her own money. She was even trimmer, any puppy fat had turned into lithe muscle. She saw me staring at her, and ran her fingers along the hem of her miniskirt.
“Andresitooo…” she mouthed at me from the other side of the dance floor and laughed.
When a slow number started, she took my hand, dragging me away from Olivia, a quiet girl who had always sat at the back of the class, avoiding attention.
“It is my turn,” Mari said to Olivia. Olivia let go.
The music was slow and sweet. The distance between us narrowed and closed. I felt her breath on my ear. She ran her fingertips through my chest hairs.
“What is all this?” she murmured. “It wasn’t there before…”
She didn’t let me kiss her. We danced some more. Our bodies nestling against each other, blending with the slow rhythms. Her eyes were closed and she was smiling. I buried my face in her hair. Then the music changed.
“Come with me,” she whispered, leading me off the dance floor by the hand. She took me outside.
It was July, freezing cold. There are no skies like the ones that hang over Esperanza. All ablaze, the shining stars. Everything was crystal clear with the cold, like you could shatter it. Oh, God, we were both so young. We kissed in the starlight, her slim, neat body yielding and soft.
We walked across the railway track, to the wrong side of the village, where the houses were all made of corrugated tin and bamboo canes rendered with mud. We didn’t talk. We just held hands, both of us knowing what would happen, knowing that nothing had ever felt so right.
We walked along the dirt streets, ignoring the warning growls and barks of the dogs, their chains clinking and snapping taut.
We stopped at the gateway into her grandmother’s house. We kissed. Mari opened the gate. The house was just a shack, but neat and whitewashed. A small kitchen, her grandmother’s bedroom, and the little room round the back were Mari had grown up. Mari had been born out of wedlock and after her mother married, her grandmother took care of her.
A horse snorted, somewhere beyond the gate.
“My cousin is here,” she whispered. “He is sleeping on his saddle in the kitchen.”
I nodded and kissed her again. She put a finger to my lips.
She led me into her room. I was too tall for the roof, let alone the doorway.
The tin door creaked as Mari closed it behind us. She could see me hunched over.
“You have grown,” she whispered, “sit down on the bed.”
I did as she told me. She found some matches and lit a hurricane lantern that was hanging from the wall.
“I want to see you,” she explained in a whisper. “And I want you to see me.”
She turned the wick down, as far as it would go without smoking. The light was soft and yellow, more intimate than any candlelight.
She stood in front of me. The mattress was made out of old sheepskins sown together. It was soft and smelt earthy. Ranquel Indians had slept on that kind of mattress. I pulled my jumper off along with my tee shirt. She traced her fingers over my chest as we kicked our shoes off and she pulled the zip down at the back of her miniskirt.
The floor was just hard earth. Mari had always been one of the best dressed girls in the school. Clean, neat, smelling sweet as roses. And yet she had grown up in a shack on the wrong side of the railway line with earth floors.
She pulled her miniskirt down. She wouldn’t let me touch her until she had kicked it off. Against the light of the lantern, her legs were perfect, muscular and lean. They were slightly parted and I could see the outline of the neat wedge between them.
I could also see her knickers. They looked expensive, designed to be seen by a man. They plunged down from her hips, with little frills on either side. I leant forward. I kissed her slim midrift, inhaled her. She ran her hands through my hair, cupped the back of my head in her right palm and pressed my face into her belly. I kissed her knickers. Some dreams come true, this one was made of silk. I pushed the silk to one side and kissed her again.
“Andrés…” she whispered.
A man is not a man until he hears his name, whispered on the lips of a woman. Antonio Machado said that.
I left the next day to go to University in Buenos Aires. The Travesía, the arid hinterland of the Pampas, was no place for me. I wanted to be a cosmologist.
I never saw Mari again.
For over a decade, I hadn’t even thought about her. And then I shaved all my chest hair off.
Week six. Three days ago, I heard a strange, repetitive noise. Scrape, shuffle.
I heard it again yesterday. Today, curiosity got the better of me. I got up, and wandered into the hub of the ward, from where the nurses could see what went on in each of the rooms.
I leant against a row of cupboards and waited.
“Do you need anything, Mr Baxter?” asked one of the nurses.
I shook my head.
“Just a change of scenery,” I said.
Nothing happened. The ward hummed and thrived like a living thing but there was no strange scrape and shuffle. I hung around but nothing happened. Maybe I had just imagined the noise?
I was tired. I straightened up and turned back towards my room, and then I heard it.
In one of the women’s rooms, right up against the window, a little old lady was holding onto the back of a chair. She didn’t look taller than five feet and was dressed in a light blue dressing gown and slippers with fluffy pompoms.
Scrape, shuffle. Inch by inch, she advanced. Everyone except me ignored her. The ward streamed past her, as if she wasn’t there. No one even looked at her. On and on she came, her gaze fixed on the double doorway that led out onto the passage. The little old lady was going home.
It was riveting. Leaning forwards as if walking straight into a hurricane, she just kept on going home.
She had an owlish face, round and rather intelligent, big eyes made even larger by her huge thick glasses. So old that her jowls hung off her cheekbones in tidy little bags.
She passed the reception desk. Nine yards to go. Her eyes began to shine. She licked her lips and kept going.
Eight yards, seven. Six.
“Deepa, Mrs Morrison is getting close to the door.”
Deepa intercepted Mrs Morrison’s flight path, blocking her way.
Mrs Morrison ignored her.
“Mrs Morrison, where are you going?” asked Deepa.
“Mrs Morrison, you cannot go home.”
"Yes, I can."
"No, not allowed."
Mrs Morrison changed course to go round Deepa. Deepa took a step sideways.
"My husband is making my dinner, I have to get home.”
Deepa put her hands out and held onto the chair.
"No! No! No!" said Mrs Morrison.
"You cannot go home, Mrs Morrison."
"Yes I can! Get out of my way!"
That’s when Liz turned up. Purple epaulettes. Health care staff, not a nurse.
"I’ll deal with this, Deepa,” said Liz.
Deepa opened her mouth, then nodded and backed off. Scrape, shuffle. Four and a half yards to go. Mrs Morrison could almost touch those double doors.
"Hello, Mrs Morrison," said Liz.
"You!" said Mrs Morrison.
"Yes, it’s me. Where do you want to go?"
“OK, but first, give me your hands, yes? Let go of the chair and hold onto my hands.”
"I want to go home," said Mrs Morrison, taking Liz’s hands.
"Come on, let’s go this way," said Liz and they walked in a slow semicircle and started heading back towards the room.
"We are going the wrong way. I want to go home."
"Yes, but today we aren’t going home. Today we are going back to your bed."
Step by step, Liz led Mrs Morrison back the way she had come.
"Do you know something?" said Mrs Morrison to Liz.
"You are a murderer."
"Yes, I am a murderer.”
I couldn’t watch anymore. I felt as defeated as Mrs Morrison. I walked back to my bed, lay down and fell asleep.
I woke up at about three in the afternoon feeling fuzzy and dazed.
I sat up in bed and started with fright. Mrs Morrison was sitting on her chair at the end of my bed. I looked at her in silence. She was chewing on a pencil and every so often wrote something in her lap. For a while she ignored me and then, quite suddenly, she turned and looked straight at me. Her irises looked huge behind her glasses, like goldfish in bowls.
“What are you looking at?” she demanded.
“Are you a murderer?”
“Oh,” she said.
She sounded disappointed.
“Do you mind not staring at me? I can’t concentrate on the crossword.”
“I’m going home, you know. I just stopped here for a rest. Are you going home?”
“Don’t you have anyone to cook your dinner?”
She looked up and peered at me, the goldfish swimming around their watery bowls. I shook my head.
“That’s sad,” she said.
“A state in the US. Four letters. First letter is O, last one is O.”
“O-H-I-O. Did I spell it right?”
“Are you from Ohio? You have a funny accent.”
“No. I’m from Argentina.”
“So how did you get here?”
“I took the wrong turning.”
She hummed tunelessly to herself.
She tapped her pencil on the side of her nose. Looked at me.
“Native of New Zealand?”
“No, five letters, beginning with M.”
She looked up, the goldfish quizzical. “Are you missing someone? You look sad all of a sudden.”
“Missing anyone? No.”
The goldfish got huge, like sharks.
“You stupid boy,” she hissed.
She struggled to her feet, angrily stuffed the pencil and a scrap of newsprint into her dressing gown pocket and supporting herself on the chair set off back towards her room.
That evening, they moved Mrs Morrison into one of the single rooms. Whenever I walked past her doorway she was always engrossed in the crossword puzzle and didn’t notice me. She didn’t go for walks anymore and the day before I was moved to Castle Hill in Hull, she died.
I was in Castle Hill for two days before they operated on me. On the morning of the second day, I had a little sign above my bed that said Nil by Mouth. Then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, they wheeled me into theatre, knocked me out stone cold and did what they had to do.
My chest is now held together with stainless steel staples. I have a metal heart valve that goes tic tac.
A week has passed since heart surgery. I am off the morphine now and reality is beginning to make sense again. Soon I will be down to Paracetamol. I’m dreading it. To be honest, I quite liked being on the morphine. Oblivion has its attractions and the hallucinations were something else. Weird.
There I was, lying in my bed, a row of Afghan mullahs walking past. As each one passed, they would glance briefly at me and nod. A long line of Russian Orthodox Priests followed. The Rabbis came next, then catholic priests in their thousands, even the odd Pope. Always the same thing. One glance, a nod and on they went. They all went past me and they all gave me the nod, even the Buddhists and the Hare Krishna bunch, only they weren’t doing their little jingle, they were just shuffling along like everyone else, one behind the other. The line was never ending. Protestants, Evangelists, Sunnis, Quakers, Shiites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, fetishists, witch doctors.
It was beginning to get tiresome when I heard a familiar sound.
I could see the end of the line now, and behind them all, bringing up the rear of World religions, came Mrs Morrison.
Unlike all the others, when she finally reached my bedside, she stopped and peered at me.
“Is that you?” she asked.
“You don’t look so good right now.”
I shook my head.
“Did you think about what I asked you?”
I stared at her. I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
“About missing someone,” she said tartly.
“Can you help me with my crossword?” she asked.
“I can try.”
“Four letters. Begins with M. Name of the woman you have always loved.”
“Mari,” I whispered.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“Thank you,” she said and off she went, like the mythological creature she was, her eyes fixed on some doorway she would never reach.
I had a last meeting with Dr Shivlani.
“Hello, Mr Baxter. How are you today?”
“I’m fine. Never felt so good.”
“Ah, you see, you were so scared. But it is nothing, right? Cancer is much worse than heart valve replacement.”
“I suppose so.”
“So, you go back to Argentina.”
Dr Shivlani, peered at me through his glasses. A bit like Mrs Morrison would. He took his glasses off, cleaned them on his tie and then put them back on. Peered at me again, as if distrusting what he was seeing.
“You know, Mr Baxter, a very curious thing happened when I sent your case details to your Cardiologist in Buenos Aires, Dr… Dr…”
“You know Mr Baxter, Dr Fernandez he said he was very surprised that I was contacting him about you.”
“Because he thought you were dead.”
Dr Shivlani put a lot of emphasis on the word ‘dead’. We looked at each other. I said nothing, so he continued.
“Dr Fernandez says he saw Death Notices for you in all the Buenos Aires newspapers. That you had died in England of Endocarditis. Five months ago. Quite odd, don’t you think?”
“It must be some kind of mistake,” I suggested lamely.
“Clearly. You look very alive to me.”
“You know,” he said, interrupting me, “some patients find the idea of heart surgery so terrible that they invent stories of their own death. They have this fantasy of resurrection, of reincarnation so to speak, of rebirth into a new, healthy body.”
He put his hands behind his head, and rocked on his chair, watching me.
“Remember, Mr Baxter, fear will get you nowhere. You always must do something. You always must try.”
He stood up and shook my hand.
“Thank you for saving my life, Dr Shivlani.”
“That is my job.”
He gestured towards the door. I backed out of the consulting room.
“One last thing, Mr Baxter,” said Dr Shivlani. “When on morphine they tell me you were smiling, even when you were crying. Did you see good hallucinations? Some people see angels, others see demons. We are all different.”
I thought for a second.
“They weren’t demons.”
“Angels then,” he said, making a final note in my file and closing it for good.
“There was only one.”
“Only one what?”
“Then you are lucky, Mr Baxter. Too many Angels can be a nuisance.”
He sat back down in his chair. A short, squat man to whom my life had been attached for six long months. The tie was being severed and I felt bereft.
“You will be fine, Mr Baxter,” he said and waved again in the direction of the corridor, dismissing me. He put my file to one side and picked up the case notes of another patient.
“Have a good resurrection, Mr Baxter.”
San Rafael, Mendoza.
The address I had was Charcas 201, on the corner of Uspallata.
I approached cautiously. A tall boy of about seventeen was watering the front garden with a hose pipe.
“Is this Charcas 201?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “what do you want?”
He was about four inches taller than me. Greenish eyes that would go hazel when he was angry, emerald green when he cried. Like mine do.
“Is your mother in?”
“No, why do you want her?”
“Is you father in?”
His eyes went hazel.
“I don’t have a father. Who are you?”
“Is your mother’s husband in?”
“She doesn’t have a husband.”
He turned the tap off, walked into the house and slammed the door behind him.
I sit down on the curb. Suddenly I feel so tired. My family, my friends in Buenos Aires, Paula, they all think I am dead. So be it. That life is over and this is where I have washed up. What next? I have no idea.
I look around me. A simple neighborhood with small houses and no swanky bars. I wonder where the nearest tennis club is, it can’t be that far away.
Crystal clear skies all year round. The Andes towering out west. I can think of no better place on Earth to resurrect.
I see a woman walking down the street towards me. Tallish, stooped with tiredness, frayed in an almost middle aged sort of way, but still slim enough to wear a miniskirt.
I stand up and start walking towards her. It is the most terrifying moment in my whole life.