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.
Physical recuperation is a long and painful process.
At times I long for the numbness of paralysis. The fatigue and the effort, the re-entry into a world which has moved on without you and is impatient of your tardy attempts to approach, it all doesn’t seem worth it.
I am filled with enormous admiration for the nurses and doctors. They are saints, angels, self-sacrificing and expert. They have humour and kindness in abundance. They do this for everyone. I don’t understand how there are people in the world that dedicate their lives to helping people, when people like me and everyone else here, we have just pursued selfish goals. I don’t understand how they are not rewarded more. Of course, at times I hate them as well. As I watch them change shift and they leave talking far too loudly, their voice echoing down the corridors. Or I glimpse their other lives, the lives they think of as their real lives, their private lives. I see them talking on the phone. Or going out onto the balcony where they are not supposed to smoke but where they smoke any way.
I am surprised that I have given up smoking, inadvertently.
It is weeks, perhaps a month since my smoke, and any urge to have a cigarette has completely gone. That part of my brain is possibly fried, or maybe the nicotine is just out of my system now and I can relax. The yearning won’t come back. It slightly depresses me.
Smoking was my last vice.
I’ve already given up the drinking, which I used to do far too much of. The drugs of my youth are now a distant and slightly frightening memory.
My cigarettes were my last obvious vice. My last public vice.
Students would see it as alluring I told myself, but no one really did. They just thought it made my clothes smell, which it definitely did.
I am moved in an ambulance to Lamon in the mountains. I can now sit upright and strapped into the passenger seat, I am treated to some of the most beautiful scenery, though the snow falls and the peaks are veiled in banks of falling white cloud. It doesn’t matter. I have been looking too long at hospital car parks and ceilings to ever complain again about the marvellous weather.
I am to share a room with three other men. I cannot speak so I listen to their conversations. They are all older than I am and their conversations are variously about their ailments, as you’d expect, the staff, and people they know in a vain search for a mutual acquaintance. They speak dialect so it takes real effort to follow what they are saying. I can choose not to listen at times.
I can now move my left arm. My hand can grip and my legs are beginning to gain some strength. I can move the fingers in my right hand but not enough to grip and I have no power in the arm at all. My face remains paralysed and speech is still impossible. I can scrawl instructions in a notebook, but the writing is sometimes so unclear it is usually best if I keep it to one word requests.
I have physiotherapy three times a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tomaso is a strong man build with body hair like head hair and head hair like felt. He wears blue tracksuit bottoms and a white cotton t-shirt. He is serious and focussed. He never chit chats but has a stock of set phrases he uses. He calls me champion all the time and tells me that I’m going to win a medal. He extends the metaphor still further telling me that I am through to the next round and pretends that some of the other patients are my competitors and they’re gaining on me, or I’m beating them hands down. It is silly but I take his fictions very seriously and am appalled if my efforts do not meet his approval. Of course the things I am doing are in no way athletic. I am pushing against his chest with my legs or throwing and catching a sponge ball. He talks incessantly. ‘Come on champion, you can do it! There it is champion, this is what won you the gold in Beijing. You can do it again. It’s only six months away.’
One day a room mate leaves while I am at the physiotherapy session and I can’t even remember his name. This strikes me as careless. It is as if I am giving in on engaging with people. I have never been a very sociable person and I can happily live without people. But now I see how well everyone gets on without me and I have the urge to re-engage; to insist people notice me.
I begin to use my pad to make little drawings. They are rudimentary. I was never that good with my right hand. I couldn’t do the simplest thing like draw a decent circle or a straight line. But I slow myself down and I concentrate on my left hand and I produce small simple drawings. Caricatures of reality, but recognisable. The nurses respond well and the psychiatrist is very pleased. I do little portraits of my remaining two roommates. Pietro likes his very much but for some reason Aldo is mortally offended. He is fat and I suspect that like many fat people he doesn’t think he is really that fat. But he is. He thinks perhaps I am mocking him which I’m not. I am sorry but there is a little bit of contempt for him that I wonder was it maybe there to begin with? And so is he right to be angry with me.
The psychiatrist I see on Tuesday. As I can only write in my pad our sessions are very basic. There is a lot of talk of my mood and there is some talk of the future. She shows me a power point she has done. There are fifteen slides, some of them featuring Disney cartoon characters. I despise power point presentations. She goes through the whole thing and I wonder if this is a speech she is rehearsing for another audience. For their sake I hope it isn’t. When she is finished our session is actually over and I have no time to give my ‘feedback’. The whole thing could have been done in two words and without the help of Princess Elsa from Frozen. The words would have been ‘chin up’.
Both Caroline and Elaine have been in touch. They are waiting until my convalescence at the hospital is over and then they are determined to bring me home. I have written to them with the help of a colleague who came to visit me. He would suggest phrases. He must know me quite well, because he certainly knew my voice and was able to create a very convincing facsimile of what I might have written had I been well. The substance was I appreciated their offer and would take them up on it on a temporary basis. I have always been fiercely independent and I am not looking forward to being a burden on my sisters but at the same time I can see know practical way out. There is no one here in Italy who can look after me and I am simply not yet capable of having autonomy. It occurs to me that I should be angry at the situation and rage in some way. I find this very difficult to do simply because I find everything very difficult to do. I am so exhausted by the simplest action that the idea of expending energy on trying to throw something or spit or something, seems absolutely ludicrous.
It’s interesting to watch John struggling with the letter. Not struggling exactly but correcting it, rewording it. It’s like he cares. It’s like it’s important. Or at least that it matters. Outside the window the sun is shining and the sky is bright blue.
That sunshine has taken fourteen minutes to get here from the sun, from the nuclear fission which created it. It’s travelled millions of miles. To be exact, ninety four and a half million miles. It is reflecting off trees and mountains and hills. It is scattered by the atmosphere to produce this luminous blue.
I died I suppose. I don’t think I will live very long anymore. A stroke like mine, as major as mine, means that the chances of having another stroke have increased massively. And I am in a weakened condition for anything else that wishes to attack me. There are viruses and bacteria in this hospital which are lurking ready to do me in. I am more aware now than I have ever been of my imminent mortality. My imminent death.
And I don’t believe in God or anything after this.
I write ‘send’ and show the note to John. He holds up a finger as he re-reads what he has written as his eyes get to the end of the page his finger comes down, down, down and he presses send. He turns to me and smiles.
‘Thanks,’ I write.
‘You’re most welcome,’ he says. ‘Is there anything else I can do?’
‘No,’ I write. And he understands that I am tired. And he is okay to get up now and go.
I will become a story over coffee.
I love John and all my colleagues. I miss my students and I am moved by the many notes and cards I have received from students past and present. Some cards have come from the US, Japan, Australia, Germany, the Diaspora of an English language teacher’s influence. They wish me well from their onward moving lives. There is a sadness and regret, but there is also a sense that this is the way of the world. Old teachers are like old relatives, doomed to die before you can impress them fully with your achievements. Never mind. I feel no rancour at this. I understand it. I remember when my hated secondary school teacher died.
The mindless repetition of the days, the chat of my room mates and the new room mate Gianni who arrives, a young man, about thirty I’d guess, who has been in a high speed car crash, one that according to his own testimony he caused with his own bone headed recklessness. Gianni brings his youth into the room and the equilibrium of tired ill health and old age is upset. Gianni fully intends to walk again or if not to walk to be one of those virile wheel chair users who are held up as an example to all. He will probably play basketball in his wheel chair. Gianni is devastated by his accident and the fact that it was caused by his own stupidity. He is prone to sudden bursts of tears and yet is still resolutely optimistic. Percy Bysshe Shelley introduced the word optimist into the English language. He was about Gianni’s age when he died.
Gianni also brings his young family. His wife Sara, a much quieter person than I expected, wheels in a push chair and the one year old Gaia lights up the room with her chatter and naughtiness. The old men are softened. Their wives occasionally chirrup some complement at the child and – after the first visit – they now all bring sweets.
Gaia is spoilt and she knows nothing of illness and misfortune. She plays about the room, she fiddles with the beds and the controls and rings the buzzer for the nurses. She empties a bag of toys on the floor and then arranges them in hieroglyphic like patterns.
She comes up to me and pokes me friendlily with the end of her felt tip pen. I let her draw in my pad. It is foolish of me but I treasure the little stick man she makes, with the vampire teeth. It is another proof that I still exist; that someone sees me with their eyes. I am so used now to the nurses and my fellow convalescents and how their eyes never stick to me but slide over my as if I were a picture on the wall.
She talks to me and asks her mother why I don’t speak back. And her mother hushes her and apologizes to me.
But she isn’t really speaking to me. I can see the effort it takes for her to actually regard me and communicate. As if she is humouring a friend by talking to her friend’s dog.
I didn’t think that it was a coincidence that the next day I made a break through with my physiotherapy and a week later I was for the first time since my accident, able to feed myself.
I am still clumsy and my left side is entirely useless. But even a small degree of autonomy makes me sing and dance in my heart.
I sometimes feel I should curse my mind which has fully reawoken. I look back on those days that were muffled by semi-consciousness. When the play of light on the ceiling was all that I could see and all that I wanted to see. But now my mind is whizzing and I can’t express it or use it. I’m not bored. I mean sometimes I am. But I am just so aware of the world at the moment and it strikes me that everything is fascinating. Death is nearby so anything I can get now, anything I can think and appreciate is precious.
I have never been religious, or I was religious but am no longer. I have seen the behind the scenes of faith and so know myself inoculated to it. No death bed conversions for me. I have tried idly in the past when thinking about my death as some abstract possibility, like visiting India, to imagine some way of surviving death. When I read books about Quantum Theory I try to twist the various magic uncertainties and folds in existence, hoping to find a gap where something could survive. Like the concept of time as a slab, which we move through but which always exists. But if I am to be honest, and lying here with my hand on the blanket in front of me, already effectively piecemeal dead, I know it is all nonsense.
These thoughts are melancholy and pointless. Nothing is going to console me and nothing is going to change the future. But I am not dead today.
And more importantly I ate my food.
Even if I did spill half of it down my bib to Gaia’s evident delight.
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.