January 02, 2005

Second test

This is the only story I know that belongs to the second of January, and the only story I know that still moves me to tears. I no longer read fiction. I no longer respond to it, so what's the point? But the passage from Jonathan Coe's What A Carve-Up!, in which, in the early hours of the second of January 1991, Michael speaks to an unconscious (and, quite probably, already dead) Fiona in the hospital, is a peculiar and particular exception.

It's hard to explain why. Not in detail, and detail is what I do not want to give. But a couple of years ago something unspeakably stupid and unnecessary - and at the same time entirely inevitable - happened to me. The effect was not what I had expected: instead of disintegrating, an unwanted but lifelong habit, I just found myself numbed. Truncated, I suppose. Out of petrol. Whatever metaphor seems to fit. I just didn't want to know any more. If I did want anything, it was to keep away from people, except those people whom I already knew well and trusted entirely. It happens. Sometimes it happens for while, and sometimes it happens for good.

There is that. There is also a sense I have had for years, of having gone missing, of having gone to war and not having come back whole. By which I mean my mind being permanently elsewhere. Preoccupied with other things, distracted, unable properly to respond. Except to this particular passage, in this particular book.

Rereading the passage, I realise how many reasons I have to find the passage moving. The tone of it, so close to the tone in which I think and write. The way it is framed, with the narrator, Michael, becoming detached from himself, seeing himself from outside himself - having gone missing. The setting, in an intensive care ward, which picks away at me because I was once in an intensive care ward and - having been unconscious throughout the experience - I have always been bothered by it. Always bothered by the fact that I did not see myself there. The experience, this crucial experience in my life, was, and is, forever hidden from me.

There is something, too about the way which Michael first speaks to Fiona:
I suppose now you're going to die on me
which has a familiar sense of resignedness. Of resignedness to inevitability. Of realising that this is what was always going to happen. Then there is the content of his speech - families and their betrayals, and the secrets and lies that are concomitant to those betrayals. The anger that arises from betrayals, an anger beyond healing. The anger at fathers, an anger beyond all expression, an anger without resolution. The details are almost entirely different, but the anger is the same.

And then - I hadn't realised this before I began to write - there is this. Michael is saying the things he always wanted to say, the things he always needed to say, and it is too late, because there is nobody left to listen. And it doesn't matter whether it's his fault or not, whether he made a mess of it or whether he never had a chance. It doesn't matter. Nothing really matters when you think about it. Because either it didn't have to turn out this way, in which case it is awful that it has. Or there was nothing to be done, because it was always going to turn out this way. And that is awful too.
There was still this woman, Fiona, lying there surrounded by tubes and gadgets and drips. She was staring straight ahead, motionless. And sitting next to her was Michael, her lover or friend or whatever he liked to call himself. He was holding her hand. Neither of them said anything for a long time.

Then he said: 'I suppose now you're going to die on me.'

He said this very quietly. In fact I'm not sure that he said it at all. It seems a strange thing to say, in any case.

There was another long silence. I began to get a bit fidgety in my seat. I hoped this wasn't going to be too boring. I don't like death-bed scenes, as a rule.

Then he said: 'Can you hear me?'

Another pause.

Then he said: 'I suppose thank you is the most important thing I've got to say. You were so kind to me.' There was some fairly sentimental stuff after this. His voice was shaking and he started to get incoherent. There was a lot I couldn't understand, and then he stared alluding to some secret he'd been keeping from her, some story to do with a Chinese restaurant he'd never explained to her properly.

He said: 'It isn't too late to tell you now, is it? You're still interested?'

Personally, I don't think she could hear him by this stage. That's my theory. But he carried on anyway. He was the persistent sort.

He said: 'It was a Friday night. We'd booked a table for two, for eight o'clock. Mum had come down about five. I thought she seemed a bit edgy, for some reason. I mean, she'd just had a long drive and everything, but it was more than that. So I asked her if there was anything the matter, and she said yes, she'd got something to tell me, some news, and she wasn't sure how I was going to take it. I asked her what it was and she said it was probably best to wait till we got to the restaurant. So that's what we did.

'Well, you know how busy the Mandarin gets, especially on a Friday night. It was pretty full. The food was a long time coming but she insisted on waiting for the main courses before saying whatever it was she had to say. She was getting very nervous. I was getting nervous, too. Finally she took a breath and told me that there was something I had to know about my father. Something she'd been meaning to tell me ever since he died, but had never had the nerve because she knew how much I worshipped him - how he'd always been my favourite, out of the two of them. Of course I denied this at the time, but it was true. He used to write me these letters when I was little. Made-up letters, full of all these silly jokes. They were the first letters I ever got. My mother would never have done anything like that. So, yes, it was true: he was my favourite. Always had been.

'And then she started telling me about how they'd met, how they'd both belonged to the same badminton club, and how he'd courted her for months and kept asking her to marry him and she'd kept refusing. I knew most of this already. But what I didn't know was the reason she finally accepted, which was that she was pregnant. Pregnant by another man. She was three or four months pregnant by then and she asked him if he would marry her and help her to bring the baby up and he said yes he would.

'So I said: Are you telling me that the person I called my father all those years wasn't my father at all? That he had nothing to do with me?

'And she said: Yes.

'So I said: Who knew about this? Did everybody know? Did his parents know? Is that why they never wanted to speak to us?

'And she said: Yes, everybody knew, and yes, that was why his parents had never wanted to speak to us.

'We'd both stopped eating by now, as you might have guessed. My mother was crying. I was beginning to raise my voice. I don't know why I was starting to feel angry: maybe it was just because anger was so much easier to deal with than the emotions I should have been feeling. Anyway, I asked her, in that case, could she possibly see her way clear to telling me who my real father was, if it wasn't too much to ask. And she said his name was Jim Fenchurch, and she'd met him twice, once at her mother's house in Northfield and once again about ten years later. He was a salesman. She'd been on her own in her mother's house and he'd come round to sell her a vacuum cleaner and after a while they'd gone upstairs and that was when it had happened.'

The nurse came back at this point. She tapped Michael on the shoulder and put a cup of coffee on the table next to the bed, but he didn't seem to notice, and carried on talking in this low, murmurous monotone. He was gripping Fiona's hand quite hard by now. The nurse didn't leave, she just stepped back a few paces and stood in the shadows, watching.

'So then I started losing my temper. Then I started thumping the table and sent a couple of chopsticks flying, and I said: You went to bed with a
salesman? You went to bed with a man who came to sell you a vacuum cleaner? Why did you do it? Why? And she said she didn't know, he was so charming, and so nice to her, and he was handsome, too. He had lovely eyes. Like your eyes, she said. And I just couldn't stand it when she said that. I shouted; I do not! I don't have his eyes! I have my father's eyes! And she said: Yes, that's exactly it, you've got your father's eyes. And that was when I got up and walked out, only you know how close together the tables are in the Mandarin, I was so angry and I was in such a hurry, I bumped into this couple's table and knocked their teapot over and I didn't even stop or anything. I just walked straight out into the street and didn't look to see if my mother was following. I walked straight out into the street and didn't go back to the flat for hours, not till some time after midnight. And my mother was gone by then. Her car was gone and she left a note for me which I never read and a few weeks later she sent a letter which I never opened and I've never heard from her since. After that night I just stayed in my flat and didn't really go out or speak to anyone for two, maybe three years.'

He paused. Then his voice was even quieter. 'Till you came along.'

And then, quieter still: 'So now you know.'

Then the nurse stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder. She whispered, 'She's gone, I'm afraid,' and Michael nodded, and bowed his head, curling in upon himself. He might have been crying, but I think he was just very very tired.
Afterwards I really didn't go out or speak to anyone for two, maybe three years. Maybe never will.


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