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.
I can remember an exact day. It was April the Fifth, 2015.
It was Easter Day.
I had been invited round to a barbecue – a grigliata – at a friend’s house in the village. They knew I was on my own, I had no family and few friends and so I was frequently invited to get-togethers especially when it was on a holiday. Initially, I’d made excuses, but it got so it was more awkward and embarrassing to get out of these things than to simply go. Most the time I ended up enjoying them.
I’d still make an excuse and leave early but they weren’t unpleasant.
On this particular day, I had got up late.
I had a shower and I combed my hair back. My hair had gotten a little on the long side. I looked in the mirror and I could see my a white line of scalp running over the crown of my head.
It had never been there before.
It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t a handful of hair in the shower, or a sudden streak of grey. In fact I already had a fair number of grey hairs and if I let my beard grow there was white in it. But this was the first time I noticed a real full on sign of aging. I was getting old and that was that. Not old-old. Just no longer young. I no longer went to play five a side. I went swimming less and less. When I did something strenuous I would often go and lie down soon afterwards.
I didn’t even feel much when it came to the sex urge any more. My libido was totally flat. I just wasn’t interested anymore. The thought of it was no longer salacious and tempting, yearning and obsessive. Instead it was the practicalities, the bother of it that obsessed and put me off. The snagging of clothing, the fiddle of zips, anxiety of performance, making eye contact, getting it up. Jesus Christ, why bother? The advent of internet porn was propitious.
But the day was the day looking in the mirror. It wasn’t that I knew, or I felt or I suspected. It was now undeniable and there was almost a relief. I was no longer young. I could put all those youthful dreams into a category and float it into the middle of the lake and sink it. I was not going to write that book, I’d always imagined myself writing. I was not going to found that business empire that was going to take people by surprise. I would not have my own helicopter and heli-pad, which for some reason always featured in my day dreams about my imminent but mysteriously acquired wealth. It’s so stupid as to be almost embarrassing that I even daydreamed about them, but even worse, on a deeper level, I genuinely thought they were going to happen. When I was kid at Bracken Hill I would play in the fields, dig camps and imagine the nuclear war was upon us and I was the only survivor. That was my pure childhood fantasy.
It was a lovely thought.
As I got older I would walk down to the sea and spend hours wandering the shore. No real reason to it. I just liked the shove of the wind the smell of the salty air and the vastness of the horizon and the sky above. I’d be walking along the road on the way home and I would imagine someone pulling over in the car and asking directions. I imagined Steven Spielberg perhaps, or Roger Waters from Pink Floyd and from that mere conversation I would somehow be recruited, spotted, plucked from obscurity. And next thing I would know I’d be the next kid to star alongside Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones 3. Or I’d be playing an admittedly rudimentary rhythm guitar for the re-formed Pink Floyd.
None of that was going to happen, the line on my head indicated clearly. When I looked at my reflection in the mirror I saw what other people see, my colleagues, the villagers, my students, a man passing through middle aged who had once been young, but whose youth was irrevocably gone and who was unhappy about how little he missed it.
This is all to say that when the stroke hit me – the brain insult as the pack defines it – there was a sense that I had called it upon myself, that I had prepared the ground for the sudden fall. It was the snake on the snake and ladders board that lurks in the top right hand corner of the board, when you think you’re on the home stretch, but it takes you to the end rather than the beginning.
‘That’s a poor metaphor,’ Dr. Petersen says and I nod and smile.
I do this strange little smirk which has become habitual. Self-deprecating gratitude. When I see it in the mirror, it actual looks benign.
She finishes reading what I have written in the diary she forces me to keep. Our sessions are half psychiatry, half literary criticism. She seems to enjoy the role and I quite like the boot being on the other foot. So many times I’ve glanced over essays as my student sits nervously waiting, trying to read my sighs and my eyebrows.
‘You don’t write about the farm,’ she says.
What is there to write?
I sit at home. I sit and I read books. I am reading my comic books at the moment. I have hundreds of them, they go back to the late seventies. 2000AD and Warlord. I prefer 2000AD. Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog. I have a pile of books by my chair. I have spent several weeks reading all my books. I type ‘READ’.
She nods but doesn’t seem to be particularly satisfied by this. I feel she would like to pick a fight with my sisters. She would like to catch them out somehow. She knows that Caroline has a certain animosity towards her. She refuses to come into the session. Elaine on the other hand would probably like to come to one of the sessions, but it just so happens that when we have a session she is down in London, or over at Manchester.
She is in New York at the moment. She has sent pictures of the freak snow storm that hit Manhattan. The one that has been on the news. A snow storm in May. No flights from La Guardia or JFK. People uploading videos of them skidding around in shorts and Hawaiian shirts.
‘And the internet?’ says Dr. Petersen.
This is true. I’ve become very much a presence online. I didn’t even have a Facebook account when I was in Italy. I was supposed to have one because that way I could keep in touch with everything that my sisters were up to, and so I didn’t have one. Now though I have a Facebook account, twitter, Instagram, a YouTube channel and my own blog.
I particularly enjoy trolling.
It is an outlet for my rage issues.
Although not a part of the therapy, we have become good friends, Dr. Petersen and I over the past year. My mobility has improved amazingly. I can now walk, not very far and not very quickly admittedly. And I need a stick, but I can walk. I can get from A to B. Sometimes I resort to a wheelchair, but rarely. My right hand is useless entirely, although I have some movement in the arm. My left hand does everything for me. It types and scrawls my messages, feeds me, dresses me, opens doors, eases the occasional longing and physical discomfort. I am very grateful.
I find that since my stroke I treat the rest of my body very much as things which belong to me, for the moment, but are essentially not me. I’m grateful to my left arm and I pity my right arm and get occasionally angry, not at myself but at the limb. The limb that is there. It isn’t even my arm anymore, so much as the arm.
My swallowing is very good now and I hardly ever choke. Choking was a big problem that first summer. I would choke at least once a week and Caroline got to be quite adept at the Heimlich manoeuvre. All that summer they had summer camps and conferences and important journalists would come and guests who paid thousands of pounds for a weekend of talk and individual meetings with Elaine. There were some businesses who would bring a small team of their top management, intelligent, cynical, sceptical forty year olds who had achieved their ambition and now wanted to be less cynical and less sceptical so they hovered up Elaine’s bullshit like it was chilled cocaine.
I started using the piano room and it became my room. I don’t know why I chose it although I do. It was my increased rebelliousness I suppose. I knew that Elaine and Caroline loved me and were looking after me, but gratitude always holds a taint of hatred in there too. Resentment. I could feel how they were using me.
When I first started living in Bracken I felt almost liberated. Not being able to do anything for myself, also meant that I didn’t have to do anything for myself. I could just sit back and let everyone else take over. Caroline was my main care provider but Agatha became something almost like a servant for me. She is so full of love Agatha. I don’t think I have ever met anyone so truly innocent, so absolutely giving. She thinks the best of everyone; she believes in them. I don’t know why but I am filled by an almost pathological loathing of Agatha.
It developed slowly, over a matter of months. Over the Summer months. Agatha and Caroline would take turns to drive me to the hospital. I had many appointments and for some of them I had to go to Lancaster. Caroline was very busy with the farm and as Agatha’s duties were more limited and less deadline specific, it was Agatha who tended to be burdened with ferrying me from one mint and pine scented corridor to another. It was she that helped me into the disabled toilets and out again. We joked about it. We joked about our romance. Agatha joked about it. I was unable to respond. My smile, lopsided and strange. I saw my eyes in the wing mirror of the car. How could she not see the anger that they had? Or the deep darkness that lay behind them?
But Agatha didn’t. She loved me.
Agatha chatted away happily there and back. She was careful and attentive to my needs. She worshipped Elaine and loved but was slightly scared of Caroline.
When they had their business people over and the paying clients, Agatha became unambiguously an employee. She didn’t participate, she facilitated. That was her role. Elaine was keen on always thanking ‘our wonderful Agatha’ for facilitating the refreshments, or whatever the mundane task as if the use of the novel verb would cover the fact that Agatha was basically a servant.
Instead of feeling sorry for her, having some fellow feeling of rueful companionship, I found I despised her lack of spine. I couldn’t see how she couldn’t/wouldn’t resist. Why wouldn’t you? She had her limbs. She had her voice. Why didn’t she speak up? I who no longer could boiled with rage and it made me hate her all the more. I wish I could my words in her mouth but every refusal to say anything, every missed opportunity not to put Caroline back in her box or tell Elaine to just shut up for once in her life felt like a direct offence against me.
Dr. Petersen encourages me to express my bile, my rage. She was initially worried for me.
‘I’m HAPPY,’ I wrote in one of our early sessions.
‘That’s why I’m worried,’ she replied.
I couldn’t understand her. I imagine the look on my face was fairly comical.
‘That’s exactly why I’m angry with you. You shouldn’t be happy. You shouldn’t be calm. You should be raging, you should be full of strange emotions,’ Dr. Petersen said. ‘Something dreadful happened to you. Being upset about it would be the normal thing.’
I shrugged with one shoulder. I must have looked pitiful.
‘It’s not that you are choosing not to feel anything,’ Dr. Petersen said. ‘Your not feeling anything is a symptom of your condition. It is called absence of effect. It is a very comfortable place to be. It is important that you use it. It is a zone of healing. But once the scar tissue is strong enough it is time, if you want to return to anything like a normal psychic existence, if you want to reassert your dignity, then you have to allow yourself to be aware of the unfairness of your condition, the injustice, the absurdity and the terror and respond to the situation accordingly. You see?’
It was unlikely that I communicated anything other than dumb acquiescence.
‘You look pleased with yourself,’ Caroline said on the way back.
The rain was lashing down and I loved the feel of it on my face, even as Agatha ran out of the house and covered me with an umbrella. It didn’t do that much good. The wind turned the corner and ran into the yard and grabbed the umbrella and broke it from Agatha’s grip sending it whirling into the branches of the trees.
‘Ha ha!’ shrieked Agatha. ‘Did you see that?’
‘Get him in,’ said Caroline and together we all struggled our way into the house. I’m not sure if was being sensitive but it felt as if I was a cumbersome item like a washing machine that they were inexpertly delivering. The Lamon nurses had been fairly rough as well but they weren’t my sister and her friend.
Agatha had made a vegetable casserole and we ate it in the kitchen.
I was tired and Agatha sat by me and helped me. My hand shakes so much because I’m using it all day so it gets tired. I enjoyed her feeding me.
Dependence has its moments.
I look back on my first days at Bracken Hill with nostalgia. Time changed here. I no longer had lessons to prepare, trains to catch, bills to pay, timetables to respect, homework to mark, meetings to attend. I sat and watched the way the clouds rolled in from the Irish Sea. I watched the sand on the beach blown from the dunes. I watched the white waves crashing towards shore. A trained would pass. Two carriages going up to Sellafield and on to Carlisle. Or back again to Barrow-in-Furness. The horses in the lower paddock; standing in their coats. The birds jumping from hedgerow to tree and then into the air, where they’d chase each other. Spring was full upon us now and there were lambs in the field. That short interval before they’d be taken away and slaughtered. The interval of joy. The trees were now heavy with green leaves. People were beginning to arrive.
‘We’re booked from May all the way through to October,’ Agatha said, when she hung up the phone. ‘It’s amazing.’
She showed me the book.
I smiled and gave her a cheery thumbs up. Caroline came in from Asda with bags of shopping.
‘Up then?’ she said to me and turned briskly back to the car to fetch the rest.
I did sleep long. I didn’t see the point in not sleeping long. But I also stayed up late.
I read a lot as Caroline didn’t have a television. I did my exercises. I was getting more mobility back and as I did it became more important for me. I enjoyed the exercises. I enjoyed the structure. I tried to walk as much as I could though the right leg had no strength in it at all. I was basically leaning on it like it was a peg leg. I would limp and stumble around the house but the list of things which I could accomplish on my own was steadily increasing. And with that autonomy returned a sense of being myself again. Of not having to be on my best behaviour all the time. Of having to hold back.
I began to feel that Bracken Hill Farm was mine after all. A feeling I never thought I’d have. I’d never been interested in having. I would sometimes drape over the green parka that Caroline had bought me and I would limp into the yard. The ground was often slick with mud and waste and uneven as well, but I managed.
‘Good man,’ Sam said when he read my note.
‘Dear Sam, Just to let you know, I managed to walk by myself to the end of the yard. All the way to the gate which must be fifty yards. I would not have been able to do this without your help.’
‘But still…’ he said as he folded the note neatly into a square and handed it back to me. ‘I won’t be properly satisfied until we get you up on the fells. You used to walk mountains in Italy. Fell walking should be a doddle for you.’
And we’d go back to the exercises.
I didn’t get to see Sam as often as I would have liked, but the sessions always left me exhausted and happy. Sam filled me with confidence and made anything possible and the impossible likely. That’s one of Sam’s phrases.
Agatha would sit and watch the exercises if she came with me, but Caroline always took the opportunity to go into town and do some shopping. She would drop me at the front of the hospital and pick me up from a pre-arranged spot. She was often late. Actually she was always late. She disapproved of me. I don’t know why. But I could feel it in the small sleights, the little careless forgetful humiliations which she inflicted on me with malice of forethought.
The way she’d snort when she picked up one of my comic books. The way she’d squint at the screen of the tablet that I now used to communicate.
I didn’t mind.
‘I don’t mind,’ I write to Dr. Petersen.
‘Why not?’ she asks.
‘It’s normal,’ I write. I don’t even have to type. I use the swift key app, which means I just drag my finger across the keyboard to each letter I want and the words are formed. It means I can write with a speed which doesn’t lag so far behind speech. It means that our sessions are very similar to the sessions we might have normally had if I spoke. The diary feels unnecessary to me, but I like having a task. The days lose structure and bleed into each other. The hospital appointments and the exercises, the lists of objectives which I try and achieve give me a sense of time and order. At first I enjoyed that looseness. It was also the Spring and then soon enough the Summer.
Elaine came back and she immediately saw what was going on.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ she asked Caroline that first night that we were eating.
‘What do you mean?’ Caroline said.
‘Come on,’ said Elaine. ‘You know exactly what I mean. You don’t speak to him; you ignore him; his room is a mess; you’re being sarcastic with him. You can’t even look at him.’
‘He gets on my nerves,’ Caroline said.
‘He’s our brother,’ said Elaine.
‘It’s easy for you to say,’ Caroline said quietly. ‘You’re always away; you’re never here. He’s a lump. He sits there and stares at you. He reads his comic books. He doesn’t do anything. And anyway he likes his room to be a mess. You know that.’
‘Christ, if I’d known…’
‘What? If you’d known, what would you have done? Would you have cancelled your talks and come back?’
‘This isn’t a competition,’ Elaine said.
‘I just want Michael… Michael what do you think?’
I smiled. I was going to give a thumbs up but I had only just got my tablet and was keen to use it so I wrote a message and tilted the screen so they could both see.
‘Caroline has always been a bitch,’ I wrote.
For a moment I thought Caroline was going to explode, or burst into tears, or storm out but then she caught her breath the way you sometimes accidentally catch a sneeze just before the explosion. And she smiled and then burst out laughing.
‘You see?’ she said, pointing at me. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
Elaine opened her bag and took out a padded envelope.
‘This is the money for the farm,’ she said. ‘Put it all in the farm account. It’s enough to see us through until October. You shouldn’t need anymore, but if you do just let me know.’
‘You’re not staying?’ I could tell that Agatha was disappointed. She whined a little. At that moment it struck me in an entirely original way that Agatha and Elaine must once have been lovers. Or perhaps still were. Ludicrously, I had always avoided the conclusion because I thought it a species of lazy thinking.
‘Ha!’ Dr. Petersen wrote in the margin of my diary. And then ‘???’
The fact is I am so wary of stereotyping and cliché that the cliché is the perfect disguise if you’re seeking to confound me. It’s almost like a blind spot. So Agatha and Elaine… And then again as I told Dr. Petersen, ‘Just because it is obvious, doesn’t make it either true or not true.’ Which earned me a facial expression which clearly said ‘???’
It’s sad to think of it now with Agatha gone but to understand that you must know clearly what happened that Summer when and how. And the easiest way of doing that is via the diary Dr. Petersen insisted that I keep.
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.