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The log fire has died in the grate and its bone-white remains crinkle and
whisper together, small pieces of ash fall through the cooling bars. Finer ash is caught by a sudden, violent down-draught and swirled out onto the grey slate of the hearth.
The room looks odd, as if frozen - like one of those still photographs from a film or a play - unreal - somehow separate and out of phase. The old, black-oak dresser, with its ball and claw feet crouches uncertainly against the rough plaster of the wall. The book I've been reading is lying open on my lap and I stare at the yellowing edges of the cheap paper. The lines of print are sharply in focus but the words empty of meaning, the letters dead and neutral. My hands, slumped and curled alongside the book, look swollen. I stare at the livid-whiteness of the skin of my arms and the backs of my hands - the darker blue of the veins - and I wonder vaguely at the strange contrast of the purplish-red pads of my fingertips.
The wind roars again dislodging small fragments of mortar and soot that rattle down the flue and bounce and skitter with small metallic sounds in the hearth. The heavy, ledged door where my coat and stick hang is rattled against its worn old lock with abrupt, shocking violence. My iron-shod ash stick swings out and returns, rat-tatting in reply.
Somewhere is the urge to move - to stand up - to stamp around the stone-flagged floor flapping my arms against the numb-coldness but a greater disinclination has control and my distant feet, pigeon-toed in their grubby carpet slippers, do not budge.
The mantel clock clacks unrelentingly. I can see the pale dial, the marks round the edge, black fingers point. "Clock? Clock! - Tick-Tock?" I think about Clock, “Clock! .tchlock...tchlock...dock! Dock sounds right - something in that - some meaning - important.” I look at my hands again - try to move my fingers. I'm trying...trying… A giant force has gripped my wrists... Fight? No... No strength.... Why bother?
I'm floating now! Floating just below the beams of the ceiling. My feet must be poking into the alcove to the right of the chimney breast. I'm dead. I know this for certain because I can see my dead body lying slumped in the chair in front of the cold grate. There's the book on my knees and on the hearth is a mug of cold tea. I regret the tea.
I gaze down at my corpse and I wait. I’m waiting for my emotions to kick in - for the fear, the sadness, the pity. Would that be self-pity? I don't think so. I’m simply detached. Detached is exact. I feel no connection to that dead old man whose slack mouth, hanging open, slumps heavily on the left side, dragging down his cheek and lower eyelid. The eye, dull-blue, misted over - stupid. The white stubble of the sagging cheek and dewlap has a shiny trail as if a fat slug has emerged from the eye socket and headed downwards over that land-slip face to hide or to feed under the food-stained shirt.
I’m reminded of those flying-dreams I used to have as a child and make a vague mental effort to move out of the corner but it seems I have no ability now to move about. I wonder what comes next - do I remain here to pointlessly haunt the place or do I fade away gradually - maybe I’ll simply dissipate like morning mist when the daylight comes. I think I like the second option better.
I'm surprised to feel the first stirrings of something like joy. The room is fading - its solidity revealed as illusion - pure white light is dissolving the walls, the ceiling, the floor and I am merging with the light and the light is song and new life and welcoming love.
"SELFISH OLD BUGGER!"
It's a woman's voice, high and aggrieved. Mary is standing over me, her eyes wide and angry. She is massaging the fingers of her left hand and I’m back in my body. I can feel a dull pain in my right cheek. There is shock. Shock and a huge sadness. The light! My light! Me! I try to close my eyes - try to get back to being dead - to escape from this weird little knot in time that pretends to existence. My eyes will not close. Feeble sunlight streams through the window.
Mary moves to the window and drags the curtains savagely together.
Enough light penetrates the thin material for me to see her quite clearly as she turns towards me, "You miserable old bastard!" Her voice is strangled with fury, "Just bloody typical - Just like you to die now - just when you'd said. Just when you'd promised... All this wasted time coming round here: Here you are John - I've made you a nice plate pie, a chop - you like a nice pork chop, don't you? and I've made you your favourite sodding pudding."
She takes a step towards me, as if to hit me again but suddenly whirls round and drags open the bottom drawer of the dresser, roots about and pulls out my old black cash-box and bangs it down on the table. She steps over my legs to reach down my bits-and-pieces Oxo tin from the mantel. Her fingers scrabble amongst buttons, fuses, old coins, washers and nuts and bolts. How the hell does she know where the key is? She opens the cash-box and lifts out the top tray. Her other hand grabs the white envelope that contains my will and my insurance policy. She rips it open and her eyes search both documents quickly. I see her shoulders sag and her hands come up to clutch at her grey old hair, pulling it down across her sallow cheeks towards her narrow mouth.
The fury has left her. She stares for a long time at the cash-box, her eyes blank, I feel the urge to reach out to comfort her. To hold her in my arms and tell her how bad I feel that I never got round to marrying her - or even altering the will. Now, when I do get to die, everything will go to Peter, that feeble excuse for a son of mine - the boy who couldn't wait to bugger off and leave me after his mum died. Never comes round now except when he's wanting to scrounge some money to throw away on one of his hare-brained schemes.
A right little mother’s boy, Peter. If I’m truthful, I never really took to him, or him to me. He was a mawkish baby that grew up into a mawkish, awkward youth. A great clumsy lump of a lad, no good at sport - waste of time me taking him down to the park - couldn’t kick a ball without falling on his arse. Reading was what he liked best; he was never happier than when he was sitting in the house with his nose stuck in some trashy book or comic.
Mary's alright - she's looked after me, been as good as a wife - better,
living next door. Abused her I suppose... selfish is right. But I can't move, can't talk - ll I can do is sit here and watch as Mary tips the cash-box contents onto the table. There's five hundred and seventy five pounds in notes, fifty-odd pounds in pound coins and some jewellery. A bracelet, a necklace and a couple of dress rings that belonged to Maureen and that big Victorian brooch that might have diamonds in it that came down on my side from Grandma Jackson.
A thought strikes me and suddenly the mental torpor is gone - and in its place is fear. Not fear of death, no not now, but the fear of being alive - alive and inside a coffin with the earth thundering down on the lid. I make a terrific effort. Mary is bending over the table. "MARY!" My mind screams her name. She puts the notes into the torn envelope which she places in her apron pocket, patting it down..
Surely it must be possible to connect somehow.
She picks up and carefully scrutinises each item of of jewellery but, after hesitating for a moment, replaces them in the cash-box along with the coins, the will and insurance policy. Locking the cash-box, she takes her handkerchief from the sleeve of her cardigan and uses it to carefully wipes its surfaces. DNA? The box back in the drawer, she drops the key into the Oxo-tin and gives the tin the same treatment before replacing it on the mantelpiece. Without looking at me, she hurries across to the door and pulls it open.
The door slams shut behind her.
I'm looking at cobwebs. A cracked plaster ceiling with cobwebs. There is an old-fashioned enamelled metal light fitting with a dim bulb in the centre of the ceiling and the cobwebs are pitched between the edge of the shade, the dusty supporting cable and the cracked ceiling. I have seen no spiders.
I'm in a coffin. Not the ceremonial coffin of polished oak or mahogany lined with white satin. This is the battered functional coffin of brown fibreglass that H. Hetherington, Funeral Director uses to collect his customers and cart them off to his little workshop next to the chapel of rest. I’ve often wondered what work is done on the bodies in this grim little room adjoining the soberly appointed chapel of rest - I’ve heard rumours about formaldehyde and bungs - I do not relish the thought of finding out they are true.
I am officially certified dead. Old Fisher it was who came, stuck his thumb in my eye and shone his little light. Either he wasn't looking or my pupil didn't respond. He made a show of feeling for a pulse, lifted my hand and showed the red finger-pads to Mary who was hovering in the background. The book on my lap had closed now and I could see the red cover - the cover I had slopped tea over the night before and which must have stained my fingers as I was reading.
"Blood's pooled you see - been dead for some time - very severe stroke - look at the face - do you know him well?"
"I used to pop in to see if he was alright, that's all."
"Well he's alright now - nothing can hurt him now!"
"Has his son been told?"
"I've been round but he's away on some business or other in London - don't know when he'II be back. D'you know he's not been near for over a year?"
I must have gone to sleep or maybe I’ve been unconscious. I wake up in pitch blackness and I can hear scratching and scuttering. Not the tiny skittering and scratchings of mice - this is heavy-duty stuff and it’s near. "Rats?" I hear scraping at the coffin sides and I’m gripped by a new horror - here I am, paralysed in a place swarming with rats - any second now they'll be in the coffin with me. Panic rises - my mind feels frozen. I lie in the dark and wait. The noises are directly above my face now - relief! - someone has been in and closed the lid.
I'm awake. My son is staring down at me; his cheeks are wet; he's been crying; I'm pleased. He's talking to me:
"… never gave me a chance to get close to you."
"Say it again Peter, I didn't hear!"
Peter is twisting a handkerchief but does not bother to use it to wipe away a large dewdrop which is threatening to fall from his reddened nose.
"Always on my back. School work not up to scratch: `D'you have to walk with your arse stuck out like that?` `You should do something about them spots - you'll never get a girl looking like that!` You've never loved me, `Clumsy idiot! Stupid clown!` was all I ever got from you..."
"And then you were always lashing out with your big, heavy hands"
"PETER. THEY'RE GOING TO BURY ME ALIVE!"
"And when I got a job were you pleased? "Is that the best you can do? a crappy clerk’s job in an insurance office?"
"PETER. FOR GOD'S SAKE!"
"And then when Mother died..." He stops and stoops to look at me closely; hesitantly reaching down to touch my cheek.
"Dad? Dad you're...you're crying! Are you alive?” His hands grip my shoulders pulling me up towards him, staring wildly into my eyes. “Dad, can you speak?"
I can feel cold tears welling out of my eyes. Suddenly it's as if a rusty key has been turned in my throat and my voice croaks out.
"Peter, lad, I can't move, I’ve had a stroke or something, I‘m paralysed. Get a doctor - get help!"
Peter has gone chalk-white, “Ah! Ah, right!" he babbles. He flaps his arms, turns to go, turns back, "I'll go get Doctor Fisher - stay there!"
Classic irritating Peter that! I can't help myself, I snap back, "Well I'm not bloody-well going anywhere am I? Go on!, get a move on - stupid bugger!"
He was on his way to the door but now he stops and turns round, slowly.
"What was that you called me Dad?"
"Well, it was a bloody daft thing to say…"
Peter begins to walk back towards me.
Once again I’m not able to speak, but this time it's because Peter's hand is covering my mouth and nostrils. He's got very large, strong hands - for an insurance clerk.
The light is dissolving the world again and Peter is fading - his face set in a grimace of hate or maybe pain, and he's crying his eyes out.
I just wish I could somehow let him know that at long last he's managing to get something right.
Coma (2nd story)
James is sitting comfortably on the dry, coarse grass of the rock-shelf. His back is resting against the warm, smooth granite of the cliff-face and his bare legs dangle over the drop to where, far below, he can hear the sighing, roaring and crashing of the surf as the rolling waves break onto the black sand of the shore.
A hundred feet above him, James knows that a vast desert stretches away from the cliff-top and in that desert no-one lives or ventures. He does not know how he knows this, but he knows it as surely as he knows that on the heaving ocean below, no ship moves. He is alone, completely alone, with no possibility of anyone reaching him and he is at peace.
He leans his head back, enjoying the gentle heat of the sun on his face and the way its rays are tempered to a soft red glow by his eyelids. He has been here for a long time now - he knows that too - but there are many things he does not know. One of the things he does not know is that his name is James. Nor does he know what a name is or where he has been before he was here on the ledge.
Set into the rock at his sides are two thick iron handles, their surfaces worn smooth and glassy. James knows that his hands have been gripping these handles for a very long time and that he must never let go, because if he does - even for a second - he will have to go back to the place he can not remember - another place. Whenever he has this thought, James bites his lower lip and holds on tight to the handles and pushes and pushes until the thought goes away.
Sally Williams looks down at the still form of her seven year old son as he lies in the hospital cot and feels the familiar sigh welling up in her chest. A small pang of conscience also as the thought intrudes, that all this - the sighs, the tears, the worry, the reports to relatives and friends have become routine, almost boring. She shakes her head. No! Of course it isn't boredom. Of course not! It’s just this numbing tiredness, the result of sleepless nights spent agonizing as her too-active imagination rehearses again and again the eventual death of her only child.
Six months now, almost, since the accident. Six months of constant worry. Six months in which nothing breaks through her pain - in which nothing and no-one is allowed inside her defences to add to her distress. After four months Mark moved out - unable to defend himself against the constant references, both imagined and real, to his guilt - to his failure as a father and protector. Even this event was unable to move her - she had watched him walk down the stairs with the suitcase, seen his hand on the door-handle - she had watched the door close behind him and felt nothing. Their meetings at the bedside are now cold and formal and without comfort for either of them.
Only very rarely, when she has glanced at the pale, drawn face of her husband has she registered his pain - seen the dread in his eyes and fleetingly, acknowledged the stratagem of her accusations. Of course he isn't completely to blame. All fathers buy bicycles for their children and James had been told time and time again never to ride in the road.
Mark had been at work when it happened - yes she had turned her back for a moment, just a to answer the phone that’s all - two minutes at most. But he shouldn’t have bought the sodding bike! He should have known - should have waited until the boy was older - more sensible. Poor little lamb! Look at him lying there - and him? Useless! Sitting there staring, staring, staring...
The puffin has been sitting there for some time now but James has been trying to ignore it. It is difficult to ignore. There is something too solid - too vivid about the bird. Everything about it is sharp and clear, from its brightly coloured beak to its scaly-looking feet. And that eye! He can only see one eye as the bird cocks its head and regards him in a sort of grave but mocking way. The eye is black and lustrous like his father's car... "father's car?” James wonders what that means and continues to ignore the bird.
Somehow he can see the bird clearly, even though he is not looking at it. James shakes his head and closes his eyes and then opens them carefully. "I'm not going away" says the bird in a quiet but rather croaky voice. "Go away!" says James and turns his head away so far that his nose is buried in his shoulder. "Not going!" croaks the bird and James sees it raise its wings and shake them vigorously before furling them again and seeming to settle itself down for a long wait.
Sally walks slowly along the wide, familiar corridor which will take her to the ward. There are tears prickling, but she sniffs and straightens her back. “It’s coming closer.” she thinks, “They’ve started hinting now about removing the tube - about discontinuing nutrition - about starving the poor mite to death.”
She’d tried to talk to her husband about her suspicions but he had simply stared at her, as if uncomprehending, and had stumbled away without a word. Now when she pushes open the door to the little side-ward she sees Mark is sitting on the edge of James’ bed. He is leaning forward, his hand is cupping the boy’s cheek. James, as usual is wearing ear-phones - his face is as waxy and expressionless as always. Sally hesitates, not wanting to intrude on this scene, but Mark turns and looks up at her - not bothering to hide his tears. He reaches over and picks up a CD sleeve and turns it so she can see,
“Found this today - I think it’s the only one we haven’t tried.”
Sally took the cover and smiled wistfully, shaking her head, “Well, yes, he used to like this but it’s so long since…
James has noticed the bird before - several times. The first few times it had perched a long way off and had appeared to ignore him completely, just sitting there and staring out to sea. Gradually the bird had come closer and as it came closer, so it started to do things. Just little things at first like blinking or stirring ever so slightly. Later it would crane its neck or open its beak a little. James takes care never to look at the puffin but even when he doesn't look, he can still see it quite clearly. After that it had come closer still and had done more and more things. Once it had stood on one leg and scratched the back of its neck with its foot.
Mark and Sally are sitting side by side by the bed, waiting for the end. It is three days now since the tube was removed and James is visibly weaker and thinner. His eyes are sinking into the sockets and the eyelids are tinged with blue. Sally has reached across and taken Mark’s hand and together they sit in silence, listening to their son’s shallow breathing. The only other sound is the tinny, repetitive jingle from the headphones.
James frowns - mixed in amongst the rushing and roaring of the sea, he is aware of a faint new sound. He cocks his head slightly, wondering what it can be but the harder he listens, the less he is sure that he really heard anything at all and soon, all he can hear is the surf.
He opens his eyes and sees that the puffin has come to perch close by him on the ledge at his side. "Go away." says James but he feels tired and hungry and the light is changing. A cold breeze ruffles his hair. James risks a glance at the puffin and sees that it is holding two small silver fish in its beak.
"Time to go" it croaks, making the fish wiggle. "Time to go!"