This is the first draft of a novel which I have decided to publish on the blog chapter by chapter as a work in progress. Any comments, suggestions, etc will be much appreciated. It will only be up temporarily.
By the time we get to the house it is dark. The journey has been long and with the various complications, the medical necessities which rob anything of simplicity, make everything awkward fussy and embarrassing, interruptions and waiting for assistance. Caroline has been wonderful. Patient and loving, and occasionally tiger-ish whenever she feels that I am being mistreated in some way or ignored. She is careful to speak to me normally and not to lapse into the kind of carelessness which is almost unavoidable. She talks away and is attendant to my needs without ever patronising me. At first I think that she is doing this as a show.
I see that at the hospital in Lamon she disapproves of the staff. She feels they are not treating me like a human being. She notices how they move the bed without consulting me, how they shift me around as if I was a piece of furniture and she is angry with them and shouts at them. I can’t hear the words, but I hear the sound of her raised voice echoing down the corridor.
My fellow patients and I exchange looks of confidential delight at hearing the nurses getting reprimanded. It surprises me that she is so bothered. I have come to understand and expect the nurses and staff generally to treat me in this way. I see the logic of their jobs and how sometimes treating us each as individual human beings could be seen as above and beyond the call of duty for them. They are not highly paid for this work and although they are caring, they roughly humanitarian and they have things to do. They are like canteen cooks who of course want to produce good food but it is more important that they produce a lot of food quickly and cheaply.
So as she chats with me in the hospital about this and that and promises me that things are going to change, and everything will be fine once I am at home where I will be treated with the dignity I fully deserve, I feel that her interest in me is just a continued way of scolding the care staff here.
Likewise when we’re on the airplane, I can still believe that she is making a point to the budget airline and its policy of being obviously irritated by anyone who has needs that might feel excessive compared to how cheap the tickets have been.
‘Elaine is going to meet us with her car. She’s coming up from London. She had a meeting with her agent. She goes down every week or so but she always tries to get up for the weekend. And if she’s away too long she’ll come up and take a week off. She unplugs everything. She is very committed to the farm. She doesn’t do much work you understand. I mean that isn’t her role. We’re very clear that we are to be equal but difference as Agatha says.’
I write on my notepad. She leans and reads my scrawl.
‘Agatha’s a friend who is staying with us. She was originally staying in Keith’s old caravan, but we got some new caravans in now and she is helping us with advertising and the accounts. We have so many people coming and going it’s easy to help out. Agatha is a soul mate.’
I don’t know if I raised an eyebrow. I don’t think I can.
I often feel like I’m doing things but I’m not because my wish to do them, my automatic reach towards them isn’t connected to any nerve endings or muscles. Like if I see a fly crawl on my wrist. I might be sending the mental messages to swat at it, but I have no way of actually doing so. Whatever I do, it is obvious that Caroline must have seen some indication.
‘No, not like that. At least…’ she shrugs and settles into a silence. The engines are roaring and we are turning towards our descent. We break cloud cover and I can see that dark muddy light of England. So different from golds and peaches of Italy. England is a sopping watercolour but the green is so vibrant I can smell the rainwater and mud.
‘We’re not all lesbians, you know?’ in the old days I would have laughed at this rebuke of Caroline’s. I would have been able to time it and pre-empt it. But sadly such teasing is out of my power now. I could almost hear Caroline turning her through over in her head, wondering if she should rise to my bait or let it lay. Wondering if I was such a bigot, or whether I was simply provoking her?
I try my smile. It is almost painful enough to make my eyes water. The whole plane is tilting now and there is a shudder as it passes through some turbulence. If I were to die now the irony. The delicious irony.
But I can’t enjoy her discomfort. Nor do I want to. Caroline, who has interrupted her life and come all this way for her helpless older brother. The only person to still treat him as a person as ifg nothing has changed.
‘You’re teasing me,’ she says. ‘I know you are.’
The plane shudders once more and she grips my arm.
‘I bloody hate flying,’ she says.
The feeling of her fingers on my arm is wonderful. She needs me. She needs my reassurance. My presence. I haven’t been needed for months.
Elaine meets us in Arrivals. She is on her phone and waves as I am wheeled towards her. Caroline follows with the bags. She hasn’t quite finished her conversation when we get there, but she holds the phone away and leans down to give me a hug and then Caroline. And then she says, ‘Yes, Albert. Yes. But this can wait. Yes, it can. Everything can Albert. I’m standing in the airport in front of my brother in a wheelchair who I haven’t seen for some time, so yes. Your bullshit can most assuredly wait.’
She grins as she says this and hangs up.
‘Thank you,’ she briskly dismisses the airport worker. ‘We can handle it from here.’
She crouches down to be level with me.
‘Let’s get a good look at you,’ she says and takes a good long examination. ‘You look tired Michael.’
I have my pad in my left hand and my pen in my top pocket but I give her a crooked wink. She gives me an embrace as well and I can smell her perfume. It is expensive and delicious. I am entering once more that female world that my sisters always allowed me access to. It was like knowing somebody who owned a pub and being allowed to go behind the bar and into the back room and seeing the private inner sanctum of something you had no right to actually see.
‘He’s been marvellous,’ Caroline says. ‘You should have seen how they were treating him. Like a bloody thing. An object.’
‘It’s no wonder,’ Elaine says. ‘They never really got over their fascism. You were damaged goods to them Michael. There’s no point pretending. A charity case at best. No, you’re going to be better off with us at Bracken.’
She pats my arm.
‘We’re doing wonderful things there,’ she says. ‘We’ve got some very exciting plans.’
Nothing is easy apparently. Even getting me into the back seat of the car presents problems. I never realized I was as heavy as I obviously am, until I felt other people having to lift me and manipulate me into position. I can move a little bit and help out. But my muscles are still very weak and they have a way of suddenly not co-operating, of having cramps and seizures which leave me helpless and in agony. Add to this I am terrified that something I will do will give me another stroke. I know I’m being babyish but I can’t help it. I was doing nothing but sitting in a seat when the first one hit my. But it’s as if from that point on I’ve been held together with wet string and whenever I’m straining to do something – trying to walk between the parallel bars or lifting that foolish dumbbell weight – I fear something is going to snap and the final semblance of my life, my mind, my capacity to be me will spill irretrievably onto the floor.
I don’t fear death so much as I do some rupture that will cause me to backslide. If you came to me and told me that I could die tomorrow or wake up back to square one.
Back on the train with it all to do again. I’d choose death.
Surviving is not all it once was.
In the car, the suitcases stowed; Caroline in the seat beside me and Elaine driving. I notice that it is a very nice car. And write on my pad one word. Caroline holds the pad close to her face and barks a laugh.
‘What did you write Michael?’ Elaine asks.
‘BMW!’ says Caroline.
‘Oh yes,’ says Elaine. ‘I’m on the road so much this is my one luxury item I allow myself. And it’s safe and reliable.’
‘Not very fuel efficient,’ says Caroline.
‘For the type of car it’s one of the best actually,’ Elaine says. ‘And how am I going to get to and fro now the railways are run the way they’re run. You know I’d love to not have to do this, but better that I’m doing it and we’re spreading the message than I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere and the message isn’t getting out.’
‘How many of those meetings do you actually need to attend?’
‘I know what you’re saying Caroline and it’s valid,’ Elaine says. ‘I Skype as much as I possibly can, but to be honest it isn’t the meetings which I have to attend, it’s the lunches, the bar conversation, the indiscretions, the vibe, all that stuff you can’t get in a twenty minute conference call. You have to actually be there. And that I’m afraid is where the real power plays happen, the real networking takes place. There’s only so far a webcam can reach.’
Caroline sighs unhappily. She won’t continue the argument but she doesn’t want to concede completely to Elaine. Elaine for her part drives for a while in silence. Then her phone buzzes and she takes one of what turns out to be a series of conversations. I can glean from them that Elaine’s life is very busy and she knows a lot of powerful people who telephone her with requests. A lot of these request are prefaced by jokey banter and there is always a sense of hard-headed informality about them. Many of the people phoning her are asking Elaine to intercede with someone else. There is pleading and there is bitching. Elaine is very good at her work. I am surprised that the editor of the Guardian wishes to speak with her personally about doing a column.
‘I just don’t know if I can tie myself down to a weekly commitment.’
‘Just come in and talk with us. You wouldn’t be on your own. We could give you a team of people to work with. You’d be surprised at how much fun it is.’
‘Hmmm. I’m not used to collaborating with other people in that way. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it.’
‘You can’t deny we would be good for you as well Elaine. We have a readership that would respond well, I think, but it’s also a very broad range.’
‘Let me sleep on it.’
Caroline rolls her eyes and I wink.
One of the main advantages of my condition – perhaps even the only one – is my constant proximity to unconsciousness. I can drift off to sleep almost at will. I don’t know if it is the state of my scrambled brain, my ravaged body, or the merciful intercession of the powerful drugs that I have been prescribed, but I only have to close my eyes for a certain number of seconds and I am gone. I can hear Caroline and Elaine talking, and I can hear the radio at times. An evening programme on Radio 4. I can hear Elaine taking phone calls but it’s less of a performance now. She is quiet and intense. She knows I’m sleeping and doesn’t want to wake me. I hear all this but at the same time I’m gone. I’m dreaming of not being dead. It is a wonderful dream.
All my dreams, even my nightmares come as a kind of relief.
As I emerge I can feel something on my face like a cloth.
‘He does that a lot,’ Caroline is saying.
‘Our baby,’ says Elaine and they both laugh.
‘Hey,’ says Caroline. ‘You awake?’
‘We’re almost there Michael,’ Elaine says. ‘You slept the whole way.’
I shift a little. I feel numb all over and I go through my body piece by piece, my heart panicking. Is this just numbness for being settled in this one position for hours or have I lost something, something that took me hours to get back, days, weeks?
Caroline look sat my squirming with some distaste. ‘What is it? Are you okay? What’s the matter?’
My hand flaps towards my pad but it is lodged between my legs and my hand plucks at it ineffectually. I know I should breath deeply and take my time but I don’t want Caroline to get upset or be worried and the only way I have of communicating that is via the pad. She helps me but when I write, ‘OK’, she seems disappointed.
‘Okay?’ she says. ‘Well, okay then. I suppose.’
‘You spelled it wrong Michael,’ chirps Elaine.
They both laugh and I wag my head slightly. I watch the lights. The car lights strobe across me and the interior of the car. There’s that sensation of weightless movement, but the road here is not straight and the curves have me shifting in a way that occasionally Caroline has to adjust.
‘We’re trying to do something special with Bracken,’ Elaine says. ‘I think you’ll like the ideas we have Michael. It’s an experiment.’
‘It’s going to be great having you there,’ Caroline says. ‘And when you feel better, you can help us.’
I try to send them some sort of signal. I won’t bother with the notepad. I’d only scrawl OK again and I can tell they’re not impressed by that. It’s surprising how often though people are simply asking for confirmation, assent or whatever. Of course, I have more to say. But my fingers are sore and I’m tired and my handwriting has become almost impossible to read. My OK isn’t a word even. It’s an ideogram. A hieroglyph. I recognise the irony. The language teacher who was appalled by the postmodern lunge into abbreviation and emoticons suddenly able to communicate in little else.
Even in the dark I begin to recognise the road. The lights went off once the motorway is past Preston and then we have a curving dual carriage way, with bright futuristic cat’s eyes. There seem to be more roundabouts than I remember and the road has been changed in subtle ways. But I’m drifting again.
I bang my head as we turn off too quickly and now we are climbing through the hills. I can see the flare of startled hedgerows in the headlights and behind us bloody red. The road is potholed at times and we go over a cattle grid which ridiculously makes me feel homesick all over again even though now I’m almost there. I recognise the trees now and the corners of the fields, the gates and the occasional clusters of houses in the countryside darkness.
The lay by with the caravan that overlooks the estuary. The railway bridge. The lonely pub spewing raucous noise into the darkness.
We turn off the road and up the lane, over the cattle grid and climb between the hedge rows and through the trees. We are in the yard now. And there are people around the car. Lights are on. It’s almost too much.
‘Hello, Michael,’ says a young woman at the car door. She has a beautiful bright face. She is smiling. ‘I’m so pleased to finally meet you.’
Caroline has come round and they both help to lift me out. I can make an attempt to walk with them supporting me. It feels good to be outside and the rich countryside smell of manure and sea salt passes over me. And into me.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.