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.
‘You need treatment they said,’ Caroline says. ‘You need care. 24 hour care.’
Caroline has dried her tears but you can see her eyes are red and there are tracks on her cheeks. I don’t think she dried her face very well. She went and washed it just now, but I think she wants people to see her and realize she has been crying.
I shouldn’t criticize her.
She is, after all, all I’ve got.
My first two weeks in the hospital were the worst. My body was totally paralysed and my mind was working very strangely. I couldn’t understand Italian. I couldn’t communicate in any way. Roberto had visited. And then some colleagues from the university had come. With each visit I could see their faces change as they went from disbelieving the worst warnings of the hospital staff to realizing that as far as they were concerned I was as good as dead. Everything they knew me for, my talking, my jokes, my erudition, dry wit, none of that was present. All they could see was a body dressed unfamiliarly in an unfamiliar posture, wearing a hospital gown and utterly silent, with a pair of mad staring eyes.
It was becoming clear to me without the explanations that I had had a stroke. It had been terrible when Gill had come. Gill was the first English person to visit. I say English she is in fact Australian. She is a travel writer. She has done guides about the whole area and she would occasionally stay at mine and then leave very early in the morning and drive into the mountains. She would be there for days and then come back and use my shower, maybe conk out for a few hours in the spare bedroom and be off. She didn’t think my mountains, the ones I walked, were mountains at all.
‘They’re just piles of rubbish, detritus left behind by the ice age,’ she said.
She came to visit and she spoke to me but even though I knew she was speaking English I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. It was just garbage. It was like the alien race in a science fiction film. It sounded like language but it wasn’t.
She stopped talking and just looked at me with such sadness. I was glad when she left.
The same happened again and again. Colleagues and friends. I could guess what they were saying and then after a week or so I woke up and I could understand speech.
Italian and English.
‘Come sta oggi?’ the nurse asked. And I understood her.
They did a test every day to see if I had regained some lost movement or facility. I was able to blink when instructed to do so and the doctor was called. He did a more extensive test and was able to tell me about my condition.
I had had a stroke. My brain had been starved of oxygen. The extent of the damage was yet unknown. I should be able to regain movement and hopefully with time and work speech. But these were early days.
I wanted to smile. To give him reassurances. I didn’t want him to feel bad. I was just happy that I could understand people. It had gotten incredibly lonely in those days. They had done their best for me. I was fed intravenously so mealtimes didn’t break the monotony. I was bathed and the physiotherapist would come in and manipulate my arms and legs. I longed for a different view. I saw the ceiling most the time. I could sometimes see out of the window. But I was always at a poor angle. I closed my eyes and time seemed to go quicker that way.
I tried to think about my life in a way that was all inclusive. I thought I’ll go back to my oldest memory and then I’ll tell myself the story of my life like an autobiography. I’d always wanted to write my autobiography. Secretly. It was a wish I had never told anyone about and I certainly had never actually put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Ultimately when it came down to it I was too embarrassed to begin. But now just to maintain my sanity, the idea of thinking back to the past and dwelling on it in the smallest detail possible would serve a double purpose. First of all it would pass the time and amuse me. It would be what I would have instead of a book or television. And secondly it would no longer be a matter of vanity. I had almost ceased to exist. That much was now certain. And if I had ceased no one else would have collected the data, no one else would have told my story. Before I would have disparaged such thoughts. I would have said, what story? But the point now seemed vital. I had lived and I was that story and I would remember it fully and vividly and in this way I would shore up who I was and I would be alive. I would exist. It was no longer vain, but instead courageous and necessary.
Of course, it didn’t work.
My mind wandered. I couldn’t remember some very important moments, nor could I construct the chronology of what had happened when. I recalled my life at Bracken Hill. My early life in the caravan. But I almost immediately remembered when I was sixteen and I had lost my virginity to Amy Thompson. She was a beautiful girl. More experienced than I. And so beautiful. I had been going out with her for some months and I fell ill for a week. I was unable to go to VIth form college. I lay in bed with a high temperature and a horrible sore throat. To pass the time, I began to write a list of times I had seen Amy. I wanted a complete calendar. I couldn’t do it. There were weeks where I knew I had seen her more or less every day but the details had all merged into one.
It was this that learned then and that I now learned again. Essentially I had already ceased to exist. There was no act of will, there was no act of the mind that I could do that would see me a complete person. I was fading beneath the horizon, even as I continued onward.
I didn’t care.
The future was much more interesting anyway.
The ludicrous thing was that I actually fantasized about this moment. Life was so busy. So many things happened. There were so many calls upon my attention, I never had time to just sit down and think. I read books about political prisoners and envied them. At least confined with nothing to do they might at leisure take complete stock of their lives in a way that I never found time to do. Or the long term ill, the bed ridden. I could tell some one sitting next to me the story of my life that would in the film version be seen in flashback.
In my mind I was always telling Juliette Binoche this, but that was only because Juliette Binoche was never far away. She was like Mephistophelean familiar.
And yet here I was. All the time in the world. And no distractions. And not only could I not do it, I began to realize it could not be done. I don’t think it was the stroke that impaired my memory, I just think that I had boxed all my memories in the attic and the mice and rain had got to them, the mould. Everything was spoiled and incomplete.
I tried going through my curriculum vitae. My education. Schools and then university and then my first job in Venice and then different language schools and finally the university and that gave me something like structure but years all bled into one another. It was particularly hard to explain to myself my motivation for coming to Italy in the first place. It was a question people had often asked me and so I had always said something flippant abut the weather or the food. But I didn’t know what I had come and I didn’t know why when I came, I came with such a determination to stay.
But I had determined.
I remember seeing a man working in the edicola at Padua railway station and mentioning to my then companion, ‘I could do his job’. It was an idle comment. But it actually had a deep resonance with me. I wanted to do his job and stay here. I was willing to do anything. The most menial task I would have accepted if it gave me the wherewithal to stay. Language teaching followed on fairly naturally.
One day a new therapist came. She had a big bag so I assumed she’d been called in from another hospital. The nurses deferred to her. She had her hair pulled back in a way that I liked and she wore a large broach of a spider which suggested something slightly strange, slightly exotic about her. She had a board with her which was like a Ouija board and she explained how we were going to begin to communicate. She said that she would train a nurse to do this also so that I could communicate my needs and restore the quality of my life in some way. The strangest thing is I almost felt angry, as if this represented an intrusion. How dare they infringe on my isolation in a way that was at once so rude and yet also helpful. The symbolism of the Ouija board also did not escape me. I was effectively dead and they were to communicate with me as a member of the spirit world.
Dottoressa Vilan moved a transparent plastic cup shaped like an arrow over the board so I could see the letters and I would blink. She would say the letters out loud. She spoke English but I let her know that I would be fine doing it in Italian. It was very difficult. As she spelled the letters out and a nurse wrote them down and then read them back. My spelling was a lot worse than I thought it would be and my pride in my Italian took a blow as I saw that again and again they had to puzzle over exactly what it was I meant.
They could record question that they would then give to the doctor. Effectively a demand for him to explain his explanations which were convoluted I suspected because like many learned many he sought to confuse when he effectively didn’t know.
I asked for a book, or a tablet, or something to be propped up so that I might read, but the nurses had their duties to fulfil and so the page was read over and over and stayed there. So I asked for a television if at all possible. That was easier, but there was no way of turning it over or off, or lowering the volume, or avoiding the endless advert breaks, the infomercials for beds , of which there seemed to be more than actual programmes. Roberto brought in a bag of my films but they were all in bluray and the hospital of course only had a DVD player. To my embarrassment a porno was hidden in among them and there was some laughter at my expense. Nurses were called in to see, and there was nudging and faces covered and fingers jovially wagged.
If I had been able to move my body I would have leapt out the window or thrown one of the nurses out of the window. Or something, but I of course did nothing.
I never saw Dottoressa Vilan came three times and then stopped coming. The nurse would occasionally use the Ouija board, but after a few days they forgot the technique and they became very impatient with the slowness of the process for what eventually turned to be banal complaints and/ or requests. I could be easily shut up and other more vocal or needy patients could be seen to without any such complications.
To think I was almost pleased when I woke up one day to see Caroline sitting there.
‘Oh Michael,’ she said. ‘What did you do to yourself?’
That’s how long my pleasure lasted in seeing her. The length of that sentence.
She picked up the Ouija board with an expression of distaste. I couldn’t remember if Caroline had gone through a religious phase or if that had been Elaine. They had both gone through phases. It was difficult to keep track and I was not someone who took the effort to remember or engage with them. We were family. I suppose.
The nurse had probably given her some instruction, but then again probably not. The one with the best English, didn’t have good English and Caroline would be nervously impatient and panicky listening to someone trying to communicate in English. Needless to say, Caroline didn’t speak Italian.
‘Oh Michael, Michael,’ Caroline says, shaking her head.
There’s nothing I can say to her and in a way this is okay. It means I can just let her get on with it.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ she says. ‘I had to hear from someone I didn’t know on Facebook and I hardly ever check my Facebook. I was supposed to delete that account last year. Although I’m not even sure you can delete them. Not really. They have all your information. I suppose they would have contacted us somehow. But I don’t know. People don’t even try the traditional channels anymore. I heard a news report the other day. It was on the Today programme and it said ‘The Egyptian air force have announced on their Facebook page a series of air strikes against ISIS targets in Libya’ ... on their Facebook page? Unbelievable.’
Caroline marvels at this for a moment longer.
‘They say you will need 24 hour care. I don’t suppose you have anybody here who would be willing to provide that, do you?’ she looked intently at me for a moment. ‘Blink twice then!’
I blinked twice for no.
‘The hospital won’t keep you here indefinitely,’ Caroline says. ‘And I can’t coming back and forth. I think the best idea will be to move you back home. At least until we get this sorted. The doctor seems quite hopeful you’ll recover, although what he’s basing that on…’
She is still beautiful. She has a very round face, and her skin is smooth and still very young looking. Her hair is still blond and is pulled back into a no nonsense pony tail. Caroline is the youngest by a minute. Elaine looks the same. They were identical, but Caroline always looked fresher, more naïve a bit stupider if truth were told. Elaine is the wiser one, the one I can talk to. Elaine comes and stays for proper visits. She goes off on her own. She does research. She makes a go of learning the language. Caroline arrives like a baby plopped on the airport tarmac and needs her hand held, her food ordered and she is smilingly stupidly awestruck but underneath the beaming smile viciously suspicious that she is constantly being abused, cheated or seduced. I wish Elaine had come. But I knew that it would be Caroline.
‘Elaine has her blog and her site at the moment which is doing very well,’ Caroline says as if she was following my thoughts and wants me to know she wishes Elaine could have come as well. ‘She has the caravan site fully booked even in the winter. We built an extension and we’re using it as a conference centre. We hardly do any farming at all. We get subsidies not to farm some areas. You know if that old oak tree you used to climb up into? That field we get money just not to touch basically. I mean if that’s what they want I’m fine with that. I suppose you don’t need to know about it.’
I enjoy listening to her. It is funny how boastful she is, and she cannot resist the opportunity of me lying here unable to move. But then she catches herself and a tear starts into her eye. It is a genuine tear and I feel bad for thinking badly of my sister.
‘Oh Michael, what am I going to do?’ she says. ‘I knew Elaine should have come. How am I even going to move you?’
I feel sorry for her. She has her head in her hands and I close my eyes. I don’t know when it happens but I must fall asleep.
I listen to some other things she says and then I close my eyes again and somewhere along the line I just fall into deep dreamless sleep. I don’t know if I want to go back to Bracken Hill. I seem to have spent my life avoiding the place. I live in Italy. My life is here. I want to be angry. I want to be able to get up and just go but I know I can’t. I know I’m going to go back.
I open my eyes and Claire is no longer there. She has left some flowers and a tissue scrunched up besides a half empty glass of water.
There is very little I can do to alter my fate. Although the next day I am able to move a finger. It is such an extraordinarily small triumph and at the same time it feels also so huge. It feels like if I can move that then I can reclaim everything. That the cords and wires that connect what is in here to what is out there aren’t irreversibly severed and it is only a matter of healing and patience and some semblance of my former life can be retrieved.
I wonder about my home very little so that it surprises me when I find myself one morning thinking about it. I have nothing at home which requires attention. I don’t have plants, nor do I have a pet although I sometimes leave milk out for the various strays which plague the village. There is milk in the fridge which will go off and other food that might spoil. But not much. I always go shopping often and I buy small amounts.
If someone were to clear out the fridge and turn off the electricity, the house could be shuttered and no one need worry about it. I realize I am thinking this because I have somehow resolved to go to Bracken Hill or at the least to allow myself to be taken there.
The doctor is overjoyed by my ability to move my finger. He is so happy that I realize retrospectively he had given up all hope. I seems to realize this and dampens his own enthusiasm a little bit but it is too late. He grins unabashed.
‘I thought you were a goner,’ he says, in Italian.
I blink once to say yes.
And then I move my finger again.
It is like I am waving a small flag of defiance. In my head it is a shout, a victory yell, but I know in reality it is just my finger, lumbered with the rest of this body which is still an inert bubbling mass of internal organs wrapped in skin and this stubborn consciousness that has nowhere else to go and no way of getting there.
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.