Clemency was a fat girl. She spent her time caring for others, for she had nothing else to do. She was twenty-six years of age and would frequently hide in the linen cupboard at work so she could let out her tears then recompose herself before picking up a clean towel and exiting behind a convincing smile of contentment. Sister Mary, the ward sister at Saint Vincent’s Hospice, marvelled that Clemency would always so quickly volunteer for this task, only to return each time with that expression of satisfaction that Sister Mary had come to loathe. How could the girl find contentment in such menial tasks?—pondered Sister Mary, who was, herself, too busy seething at life to consider the mystery—seething at the way her husband used a particular turn of phrase, or the way the man in her local newsagent’s glanced indifferently and silently at her as she purchased her daily newspaper; or seething at the daily tribe of souls she met who seemed to have discovered the secret of happiness.
“Well done, Clemency,” she said. “After you’ve finished, can you take care of Mister Brunswick?” She watched Clemency’s back as she carried the towel away and wished she would, if only once, trip and smash her head on the floor. She licked her lips, turned away and called over her shoulder: “Over here when you’ve finished,” pointing at Mister Brunswick.
Clemency carried the clean towel to the bedside of Joseph Milan.
“And how are you feeling today?” she asked, not really expecting a reply, and, indeed, not getting one. She started tidying his bedside locker. “Can I get you anything? Some fresh water?” she asked, stopping to peer through the window at the exposed bellybutton of the paunchy, unkempt builder working on the scaffolding outside. They were re-pointing the brickwork of the hospice’s decaying fabric. She wondered if the builder, being so undesirable, might be interested in her.
Joseph Milan said, “Dying is a sobering business.”
These were the first words she heard him speak. She was awestruck, as by a baby who had not only just spoken his first words, but appeared to have an intellect beyond her own. He grabbed her wrist, discovered her with his hazy gaze and asked, “Does this mean that life is merely an intoxication?”
His hand gripped her wrist like a shackle. She attempted to pull away but he held firm. She was not finished fantasizing about the undesirable builder at the window and wanted to angrily snap at Joseph to let go, but as the words formed in her mouth she thought of Sister Mary and her entire training which bore down on her like a mountain. She swallowed her irritation and smiled at Joseph, picturing how her smile would look to the builder, whom, she was sure, was watching her every move—and in her picture, she next replied to Joseph in a caring manner, demonstrating her compassion; since, surely, that was what men would find attractive; even that rough piece of work at window—so she adopted a pleasant tone and said to Joseph the only thing she could think of: “Would you like some water?”
His eyes burnt like a window onto an endless night of torment. As Clemency watched the dark, churning clouds through that window, her smile wilted and her own concerns escaped her. She was only aware of his cold hand gripping her wrist. There was nothing, she thought, in her training that had prepared her for this. What could she possibly say to him? She could think of nothing, so she simply nodded towards the water jug.
“I now have nothing to do but regret my intoxications,” he said, coughing, then he focused more clearly on her as she peered into his troubled eyes. She was still pointing towards the water jug. Her hand slowly lowered as she recalled the biggest regret in her own life. At nursing college, there had been an older porter who had, one day, stepped towards her as if to kiss her but she, being so surprised, had stepped back and he then quickly walked on along the corridor pursued by the laughs of the other student nurses. In return he increased his pace and never addressed her again, nor even so much as looked at her. From that moment the other students teased her; she was their new joke, which they never seemed to tire of, and she would endlessly relive that moment—if only she had not stepped back, then her life might have been different. But she did step back and now here she was, with only her patients to care for and, when they needed her, nothing to say; for what could she say to Joseph; she had never lived, had never experienced what he had. She merely watched him as his cold hand gripped her wrist.
“What’s the worth,” he asked, “of being intoxicated if you must sober up in the end?” And he went on, through his occasional coughs: “Or is life supposed to be an intoxication? Is that what we’re here for—to become drunk on life, only to then sober up and, in this last moment of sobriety, pull the saloon door closed behind us as we leave?”
Clemency pictured a closed saloon door with herself standing on the outside. All the pleasures of life were contained within that saloon and she was barred. She thought, “There is no door for me to close; I haven’t even opened one yet.” She recalled the sight of the porter rushing along the corridor, pursued by the laughs of the other girls. Joseph was still watching her; she felt the need to reply but the only thing she could think to say was: “Is there a draft? I could get you another blanket.”
His eyes continued to burn, though the fire seemed so distant that its flames appeared black.
She added, “—If you’d like?”
He said: “I’ve been wondering how I chose my drinks. Did I choose the right ones? Or has my whole life been wasted?”
Clemency was only aware of the shackle round her wrist, and his cold flesh seemed to be draining the heat from her.
“Have I?” he insisted.
She looked up and saw the builder watching her. He pouted and rubbed his crotch. She recalled the sight of the porter fleeing and she wondered whether the builder somehow knew she was undesirable and could tell she had coveted him and whether this was his response?—He knew; yes, of course he did; and he was mocking her for thinking she might be good enough for him. She wanted to sit down but she was shackled beyond reach of Joseph’s chair. She asked him:
“What do you mean?”
“First, I spent twelve years learning to play the saxophone,” he told her, then paused, as if waiting for his cough to speak—as a disturbed dog will bark; not really saying anything intelligible but merely letting its owner know it was still there, now an inseparable part of him that he must accommodate whenever it became unsettled—but it remained silent. “I was obsessed. I spent every spare moment on that instrument.”
“And what happened?”
“I decided I didn’t like the sound of the saxophone.”
“So, you just stopped?”
“Well, what was the point of going on?” he told her, pausing here to allow his agitated dog to bark. “It would have been a waste of time.”
“Your hand is cold,” she told him. And for one moment, this was all she was aware of; she was not thinking of the porter, nor the laughing girls, nor her bedsitting room in the nurses’ quarters—where no other soul ever ventured—nor even of Sister Mary’s daily derisive comments and her look of disgust whenever she spotted Clemency and imagined Clemency could not see her—Yes, she also knew Clemency was worthless and unlovable; everyone knew, even the nameless people she passed in the street—no, her mind was not occupied with any of these thoughts; it was simply empty and she just listened.
“And then I spent seven years playing golf,” said Joseph. And he went on—while occasionally tending to his agitated dog—to describe how he became obsessed with improving his handicap; he practiced in every spare moment; it was his last thought at night and first on waking. Then one day he had begun his swing when he paused to let a bird glide across the path of his shot. Its flight was majestic and he was transfixed. The moment seemed to go on for an eternity. And it was while watching that bird’s progress that he started wondering what he was doing there. And by the time he heard his friend’s voice asking if he was all right, he had realized it was all a waste of time. “So,” he told Clemency, “I dropped my club, walked off the course and never played another shot.”
Clemency looked up and saw Sister Mary sweeping through the ward as if being pursued by a swarm of insects. As she passed by, she angrily instructed her to tend to Mister Brunswick then see to Mister Drake and to, “Get a move on!—what have you been doing?”
The next day, Clemency waited until she knew she would have ten minutes undisturbed, then made her way to Joseph’s bedside, smiled and asked, almost in a conspiratorial whisper: “How are you today, Joseph?”
He watched her in silence, apparently not willing to speak. She began tidying his already-tidy locker then he said, while watching no-one in particular: “Is it of value to speak, or is that also a waste of time?”
Clemency started to consider this but before she could reply, he again shackled her, as though he were hanging from a cliff’s edge and she were his last contact with life itself, and he told her, “I have nothing; I’ve done nothing. I’ve wasted my whole life.”
“But you learnt to play the saxophone. I can’t do that.”
“Well, I’m not you.”
Clemency could only agree with this. Joseph’s face seemed feeble and jaundiced but there was no disputing his logic. She asked him what had happened after he stopped playing golf.
He was silent for a moment, then said, “Another intoxication.” And he went on to tell her how he spent four years painting. There was something about that moment when he watched the bird gliding across the golf course; he had to capture it, and also any other moment like it, whatever it was. He went to night school and weekend retreats; every spare moment, he practiced his craft. Then one day he was painting a scene outdoors and a young boy looked at his work and said, “That’s rubbish. I could do better.”
“And in that moment,” Joseph told her, “I realized the boy was right. I’d been kidding myself. I walked away and never painted again.”
“Well, I can’t paint at all.”
“But you didn’t spend four years trying to, obsessed, intoxicated, on a high, seeing nothing else, then finally realizing you couldn’t do it—you already knew that.”
“I suppose so,” said Clemency, hesitatingly. And she began, perhaps for the first time in her life, to toy with the idea that she had an admirable quality buried somewhere deep within her—perhaps, perhaps. But then she became aware of her biggest failing, which was never far from her mind and which her heart bore like a debilitating wound, and she said:
“But people have loved you.”
“No-one has loved me; I did not have time for love.”
“But haven’t you been married?—you look so handsome.”
“She left me—and what does marriage have to do with love?”
Clemency looked up at the window, which was now framing a different builder working there—much like the window of an enclosure at the zoo. He was nagging the wall with his trowel while allowing his one eye to leisurely investigate every contour of her body. He began whistling a tune that seemed like the soundtrack to a summer holiday.
At that moment, Sister Mary swept into the ward again, now apparently driven to distraction by her pursuing swarm of insects as she muttered to herself: “…and there was nothing wrong with my seasoning; if she wasn’t so stupid, she’d see how busy I am. And he did nothing to defend me—isn’t that what husbands are for?—but all he could do was pompously prattle on about nothing—what does it matter if Jonathan used the wrong grammar?” then she shouted: “Clemency! Why have you stopped going to the linen cupboard? Have I got to do it all myself now!”
The following day Clemency was kept too busy to be able to talk to Joseph, who was left to quietly decay beneath a fog of morphine and jaundice and the same whistling workman.
That evening, after she finished her shift, she changed out of her uniform and returned to Joseph’s bedside during visiting hours. She asked him what happened after he stopped painting. He told her—while occasionally tending to his agitated but ever more ailing dog—that he worked in a warehouse for washing-machine parts. A promotion came up and, at that stage, he had nothing else to do, so he took it. Then he discovered a new obsession; he took on endless overtime and developed new systems to make the warehouse efficient. He even lay awake at night, perfecting a new database.
He gripped Clemency’s wrist and told her, “It was beautiful; I had no idea you could become obsessed with such things. And that was when my wife left me. It had never been a real marriage anyway. After only a few months I realized I didn’t really like her. But the marriage dragged on for a further twelve years. In the end she went off with this rich guy and left me the house, so it turned out okay.”
End of extract
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6 November 2009
10 October 2010, edited to produce final version.
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