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Thread: Counterpoint

  1. #1
    Worthless Hack Zippy's Avatar
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    Aug 2005
    West Coast of Scotland


    The room is dark.

    The only light is from the television and the red winking eye of Tommy’s cigarette as he inhales the smoke.

    He is alone in the house; the third time in twenty years that he has spent the night apart from his wife. The first and second times were yesterday and the day before.

    He stubs out his cigarette in the ashtray balanced on the armrest. It is overflowing and he knows he should empty it, but he doesn’t have the energy. The light from the TV has hypnotised him. He is not seeing the picture on the screen, but is inside his head, occupying a memory, a scene that he has re-enacted countless times over the past three days.

    The ambulance drivers are taking his wife away. She is wrapped in a blanket, the straps of the gurney fastened around her chest and thighs. Her hair is wet; thin and straggly, hanging limply about her face. He is worried she will catch a chill, but does not say anything. It seems foolish to mention it in the circumstances.

    I should have said something, he thinks.

    He reaches into the top pocket of his shirt and takes out his tobacco pouch. He makes another cigarette, rolling the paper between his fingers and licking the gummed edge. The process is automatic, like blinking or breathing.

    He glances at the clock on the wall across from him. Another two hours until visiting time. He should get ready, he thinks, go upstairs to the bathroom and take a shower and shave. He should change his clothes as well. His shirt stinks of tobacco and fried food.

    But what’s the point? he thinks. What’s the point of making an effort if she won’t speak to him? She hasn’t spoken since he found her in the bath. She couldn’t get out. Why doesn’t she speak?

    He better bring a fresh nightdress for her. And a dressing gown and slippers. Maybe a magazine or a newspaper. He can get those from the shop in the hospital. But she won’t read them. Why won’t she speak to him? Is it something he’s done? The other newspapers are still lying on the table next to her bed. No point bringing anything. Just a change of bedclothes. He should have said something. There was nothing stupid about it. He hopes she speaks soon. He can’t take much more of the silence. She could have caught a chill. It wasn’t a stupid thing to say. What is wrong with her?

    His head is beginning to hurt. He puts the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and reaches for his lighter. It is a Zippo. She gave it to him for his fortieth birthday. Things were very different then, he thinks.

    He walks through the memory again. She is on the gurney. The wheels bump down the stairs towards the back of the ambulance. Her hair is wet. He wants to say something, but doesn’t.

    Tommy’s head is pounding now. His face feels hot and there is a smell in the room. Burnt cheese. But that is silly, he thinks. He never eats cheese, he can’t stand the stuff. It gives him heartburn.

    His arm is numb as though he has been leaning on it for a long time. The pounding in his head is suddenly gone and then it is in his chest.

    The cigarette drops from his mouth and lands unlit on the sofa. He can’t seem to get a breath; the air is thin and he can hear a whistling as he breathes out his nose.

    The pain is very bright now. It is deep in his chest and spreading outwards. His throat feels dry and thick and he wishes he had some water. The pain is everywhere and he is shaking.

    I should have said something, he thinks.

    "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin.

  2. #2
    Worthless Hack Zippy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    West Coast of Scotland
    The man and woman stood for a moment and looked around the ward.

    It was visiting time and the room was very busy. Most of the beds had three or four visitors. Some of them were sitting on the heavy overstuffed chairs, but most were on the edge of the beds, next to the patients.

    ‘Are you sure this is the right ward?’ said the man. ‘I don’t see her.’

    ‘There she is by the window.’ The woman pointed to the bed at the far end of the ward. There were no visitors and the patient faced away from them, her head turned so she could look out the window, over the car park in front of the hospital.

    The man thought she looked very small in the bed. There was something about hospitals that made everyone look small, he thought. Small and old as though their muscles had withered and atrophied.

    They went to the bed and stood for a moment in silence. The man felt shocked; she looked badly ill. Her face was pale and lined, her cheeks sunken and hollow beneath the artificial lights. Her left hand rested on the bed sheet and he could see the veins standing out ropey and blue through her papery skin. There was a small plastic tap in the vein just above her thumb. It was held in place by a blood spotted plaster.

    The man looked away from her hand just in time to see her turn her head and look at them. She gave a grunt of recognition and her lips moved silently, mouthing their names.

    ‘How are you?’ said the man. ‘You’re looking well.’

    She said nothing. She turned her head away from them and went back to looking out the window.

    ‘We brought you some grapes,’ said the woman. She removed a brown paper sack from her bag and put them on the bedside table next to the water jug and a pile of newspapers.

    ‘I’m sorry we couldn’t come sooner, but we didn’t know that you were here until last night and by that time visiting hours were over.’

    The woman sat beside her on the bed and took her hand. ‘Dad and mum say hi. They phoned this morning and said they’d be over to visit tomorrow. They couldn’t remember the last time they’d seen you. They’re sorry about that. But they’ll be around for sure tomorrow. It’ll be nice to see them again, won’t it?’

    The silence continued. Her head was resting on the pillow and there was no movement except the regular swell of her chest beneath the cover. She was still looking out the window.

    ‘Has the doctor been around?’ said the woman. ‘Has he said when you’ll get home? God, I hate hospitals, if it was me in here I’d probably break out. Couldn’t wait to get home.’ She smiled and looked at the man. The smile was rigid and strained. She motioned with her eyes towards the patient.

    The man cleared his throat. ‘I bumped into Tommy earlier today. He’s missing you. He seems to be coping alright, though. Practically living on pizzas and take-aways, but you know Tommy, he’d eat that junk all day if you weren’t there to keep him right.’ He looked at his feet and then glanced down the ward to the other beds.

    ‘Busy in here tonight. We were lucky to get a parking space.’ He pursed his lips and blew out a gust of air. The woman still had the same strained smile on her face.

    ‘I’ll see if I can find the nurse, shall I? Maybe she knows when you’re getting out.’

    He left them and went out the ward and into the hallway. God, that was awkward, he thought. When he’d spoken to Tommy earlier he’d mentioned that she wasn’t talking to anyone. The doctors weren’t sure what the matter was, but it was as though she didn’t know where she was, as if her mind were as atrophied as her muscles. Yet she’d recognised them when they first came in. He was sure of it. He’d seen her lips sound their names.

    Poor Tommy, he thought, he’d looked so worried. It had shaken the man to see him that way. For as long as he could remember Tommy had been a jolly person. Actually, jolly probably wasn’t the word for it, he thought. Jolly, was for comical people, people you didn’t respect. He respected Tommy and it had scared him to see the dark marks under his friend’s eyes and the lines of fatigue around his mouth that he hadn’t noticed before. No, Tommy had always been happy. That was a better word, he thought, plain but true. For as long as he could remember Tommy had been happy and it had scared the man to see him otherwise.

    She’s got to get better, he thought. She’s got to get better so that Tommy can be better too.

    He found the nurse sitting behind a desk in the middle of the hallway. He asked if she knew when the patient would be released. But she wouldn’t tell him because he wasn’t a member of the family. There were rules you know. She could get fired for telling him something like that.

    The man thought the rules very stupid but said nothing. He thanked the nurse and headed back to the ward.

    It was getting late and he thought Tommy would have been here by now. If Tommy had been around then things would have been at least bearable, he thought.

    He looked back to the bed where the woman was sitting. She was leaning over, close to the patient’s face, whispering. Her lips were narrow and white and he knew that she was annoyed.

    The man and woman made small talk for another fifteen minutes before tiring. It wasn’t easy and the man had never been one for small talk in the first place. The patient wouldn’t say a thing. She’d moved once during the time they’d been there, turning her head away from the window to stare at the wall across from her.

    They made their excuses and said they’d be back to visit again. Neither of them thought they would. The man could see that the woman was still annoyed. There were two bright spots of colour high up on her cheeks. She wouldn’t look him in the eye. She bent over the bed and kissed the patient quickly on the forehead.

    They left and went back into the hallway and down the long corridor that smelled of disinfectant. Their shoes squeaked on the polished linoleum as they walked.

    ‘What the hell was that about?’ said the man.

    The woman walked fast, her handbag tight under one arm. ‘I don’t know. She’s taken a funny turn alright. It’s not like her at all to be so…ignorant.’

    ‘Well, it’s not her fault if she’s sick. Maybe she doesn’t feel like talking or just can’t manage it.’

    ‘I don’t know. It’s just not like her. She’s not usually so ignorant.’

    The man took the woman’s hand. ‘You can’t call it ignorance if she can’t help it. It’s not as though she’s deliberately snubbing you or something.’

    His words seemed to cheer the woman up. She moved closer and put her arm through his. ‘I don’t know. I hope she gets better soon, but I won’t be coming again. That was awkward, visiting someone who won’t speak to you. How did Tommy seem?’

    ‘Not good. It was him that found her. He came home and she was in the bath. She’d been lying there for hours and couldn’t get out. Tommy couldn’t shift her either and needed to call an ambulance.’

    ‘Poor Tommy. Didn’t she speak at all, even when they were lifting her out?’

    ‘Not a word, not even to Tommy. He’s worried sick. See, honey, if she won’t speak to her own husband then it must be serious. She’s not ignorant, she’s just ill.’

    The woman squeezed his arm and he stooped down to kiss her on the cheek. They were outside the hospital now and there was a cold breeze blowing on their faces. The man could feel rain spotting his forehead and chin as he zipped up his jacket.

    ‘I’ll phone Tommy tomorrow,’ he said. ‘That’ll be four days she’s been in. The doctors should know what’s wrong with her.’

    They walked through the white puddles of sodium light and into the car park. The woman reached into her handbag and found the keys.

    ‘You think she really can’t talk?’ she said.

    ‘Sure. Don’t you?’

    ‘I suppose.’

    ‘Don’t worry, she’ll get better. She can’t help it. Probably doesn’t know where she is.’

    The woman nodded and opened the car door.

    The man smiled, but in his head he could see lips silently mouthing their names.

    "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin.

  3. #3
    Worthless Hack Zippy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    West Coast of Scotland
    They hadn’t shut the curtains properly and she lay awake with the light on her face.

    She could have got up and shut them herself, but couldn’t or didn’t want to, which amounted to the same thing.

    Far down the ward someone moaned. There was an old woman down there, seriously ill, probably dying, she thought. It was terrible, a terrible thing to be in a hospital ward at night, alone and dying. But she couldn’t feel any sympathy for the woman. She wished she would hurry up and go.

    She puffed up the pillows beneath her head and looked up at the ceiling. The hospital was old and the ceilings very high and she could see nothing except the uniform darkness until a car drove into the car park outside and swept the windows with its headlights.

    She’d been in the hospital three days now and was feeling no better. Earlier that day a doctor had arrived at the head of half a dozen trainees, looking young and frightened in their too large white coats. They looked over her charts and passed a clip board around. They asked her questions which she did not answer before they got bored and went on to the next patient.

    Just before they’d left she had heard the doctor whispering to one of the trainees. She couldn’t hear exactly what he said, but could make out the words ‘Psychiatric ward’. They thought she was crazy, she realised.

    Even though it was warm in the ward she shivered and pulled the covers under her chin. The frightening thing was that she could do nothing, she thought. She wasn’t mad; she did not even believe she was ill. She was in the grip of something she was confident no one would understand. It was so profound a feeling that it had numbed her; she couldn’t bring herself to do anything.

    It had started on the Monday afternoon. She had been cleaning the house and was tidying out the cupboard that sat in their living room. It hadn’t been touched for a number of years and it was full of the junk that one accumulates over time.

    It annoyed her. Every time someone opened the cupboard door a stack of old bills or a photo album or some other piece of detritus would spill out onto the carpet, only to be gathered up and thrown back in, shuffling the junk until it was as random as a used deck of cards.

    She was on her knees in front of the cupboard, rooting deep inside and sorting some old bills into piles – one pile for bills more than a year old, another for more recent bills – when her hand came to rest on something hard and pointed amongst the papers.

    She took the object out and saw that it was a child’s toy, a small red, plastic dinosaur. She remembered that it had came from a set they’d bought the kids one Christmas, something called ‘Dinosaur Island’ which the kids had been interested in it for a couple of weeks before moving on to the next thing.

    She turned it around in her hands. The dinosaur had a very fierce but bewildered expression on its face like a child’s idea of anger.

    She smiled to herself as she looked at it. She decided she would put it aside to show the kids next time they came to visit. It would be good to see their faces when they saw what she’d found; a fragment of their childhood long forgotten and now unearthed.

    Her fingers traced the hard contours of the figure’s spine, the tiny plastic bumps that represented scales. She noticed a small indentation on the tail and held it closer to the light to look at it. There was a tiny tooth mark there. She could clearly see it in the light from the window. Two small grooves that could only have come from a child biting on it.

    Kids were always ruining their toys, she thought. She couldn’t put a book near them when they were younger without it being chewed and turned into pulp. But all kids were like that. They don’t know the value of things, how you had to work hard to get what you had and then hold on to it. Things came easy to children and it was only when you were older that your realised how difficult it really was. How life eventually ground you down.

    She was suddenly aware of how quiet the house was. Knelling there with the plastic dinosaur in her hands she realised for the first time how alone she was. The kids were gone. She hadn’t been able to hold on to them. She hadn’t known the value of them when they were here and now that they were away – making a life of their own – she had nothing really to hold on to.

    Sure, there was Tommy, she thought, but Tommy didn’t need her, not really. He was the most content person she’d ever met. He’d been like that even before they’d met and was one of the things that had attracted her. But he didn’t rely on her, not the way the children had.

    She ran her finger over the tiny tooth marks and then rose shakily to her feet. Her legs were stiff and sore from kneeling.

    She went upstairs and ran a bath. She undressed and lowered herself cautiously into the hot water. As she lay there, looking upwards at the steam curling into the air, she realised she was still holding the plastic dinosaur. She hadn’t been aware of it. Just as she hadn’t been aware until now of how silent the house had grown. She was so tired. Perhaps if she lay a while then she could relax. Just lay a while in the silence and not think of a thing.

    The silence had been tangible then. It was all around her and in her and it felt as though there would never be anything but silence again. The water grew tepid, then cold, and still she lay there, unwilling, unable to move. It was the strangest thing and she could never explain it but she’d become part of the silence of the house, something more than herself. Tommy came home and found her. He’d shaken her and shouted at her and begged her to get up, to speak to him. But she couldn’t. Didn’t want to. How could she explain to him that the silence had penetrated her? That there was no point doing anything. That you couldn’t hold on to any of it.

    Lying now in the hospital bed she had the feeling that once again the silence was closing in.

    She did not like the ward with its whitewashed walls and monstrous, cast iron radiators flecked with rust. But she could not move. She lay there, prone and passive, and believed that she would never move again. Never speak again. Never love again. There was only herself now and the silence and a great bitterness that was twisting something inside of her, turning her bad.

    She could hear the gentle creak of someone’s shoes as they walked down the ward. She did not look around. Sleep was very far away, but the darkness of the ceiling was comforting.

    There was the rustle of the plastic curtain being pulled around her bed and someone reached forward and switched on the lamp. It was the doctor. She could make out the glow of his white coat in the half-light.

    He looked very tired and pale. She saw that there was a small ink-stain on the pocket of his coat where a pen had leaked.
    ‘How are you feeling?’ he said. His voice was low and intimate, but there was hesitancy, a slight cracking around the edges as he spoke. When she did not answer he sighed and shook his head. He seemed to think better of continuing, but after a moment did anyway.

    ‘I’m afraid there’s no easy way to say this…so I should just probably say it. We received a call from your son. He’s on the way. I-I’m afraid your husband suffered a heart attack. He died instantly.’

    She heard the words and lost the doctor for a second. For a brief flicker he was simply gone, blinking out into darkness. Then he was back again and she was aware that her heart was racing and she was feeling something for the first time in three days.

    ‘Tommy,’ she said.

    At the far end of the ward the woman had started moaning again.

    "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin.

  4. #4
    Worthless Hack Zippy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    West Coast of Scotland
    ‘…And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

    The priest finished and closed the bible with a thump.

    It was really a very good spot, thought the man. It was the new part of the cemetery, higher than the old section and overlooking the valley where the river ribboned through the town, glowing dully like hammered tin.

    Tommy would have loved it.

    The coffin was in the earth and the mourners moved away from the open grave with its frightful implications.

    The man was one of the few that remained. He didn’t feel ready to move yet.

    ‘Poor Tommy,’ said the woman. She reached out and grasped his hand and after a while he squeezed back, grateful for the comfort.

    ‘I’m going to miss him,’ he said. ‘He was a great guy.’

    ‘We’re all going to miss him. It’ll be tough but we’ll get by. We’ll get each other through.’

    Yes, there was that, he thought, and perhaps only that. Maybe that’s all life was in the end. Two people together, helping each other through.

    He looked to his right where a knot of mourners were congregating around Tommy’s wife. Her son was by her side, holding her arm and steadying her on the uneven surface of the grass. They were paying their condolences to her, shaking their heads and her hand.

    She looks good, thought the man. You wouldn’t know her husband had died if it wasn’t for the black suit and dark blouse which she wore. Her cheeks were flushed and the wind tousled her hair into a nimbus which floated ethereally around her head. She looked like a young bride after her wedding night, rather than a widow burying her husband.

    They went to her and the man shook her hand and the woman hugged her.

    ‘I’m so sorry,’ said the man. ‘If there’s anything we can do…you know you only have to ask.’

    ‘It’s me that should be sorry. They told me you came to visit in hospital, just before, just before Tommy went.’ She produced a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. ‘I wasn’t my self then, I don’t remember any of it. It was the strangest thing, but I can’t remember anything until they told me he’d died. They say I came out of it just like that.’

    The man smiled sadly and told her he understood and not to worry about it. Tommy wouldn’t have wanted her to worry. But as he said the words he once again remembered the hospital bed, her lips moving, silently mouthing their names.

    She had recognised them, he was sure of it. And if she’d recognised them then she must have recognised Tommy, he thought.

    It angered him, because if it was true then she had helped kill Tommy. Tommy, who wasn’t a big man, or a strong man, or a brave man, but a good man. One of those people who were free from cynicism and would speak to anyone on equal terms. A good man who had only wanted his wife to speak to him.

    His death wasn’t anything dramatic. His wife wasn’t guilty of anything, but she hadn’t made it easy on Tommy.

    She was there now, dabbing her eyes and talking with the priest. She told him her story as he did so. It never altered. It was well rehearsed. Tommy’s death had brought her back, she said.

    Tommy’s wife felt guilty. She was lying to everyone, but they would never understand the truth, she thought. How to tell them that she had known where she was, had known what was happening, but had simply been unable to do anything about it? The silence had possessed her and she had been unable to think of anyone but herself.

    No, better not to tell anyone, she thought. They wouldn’t understand. They’d think it selfish. It was selfish – almost the definition of selfish – but it had not been a conscious act. She hadn’t had a choice in it.

    She tried not to think of Tommy, she wasn’t ready for that yet. But still, somehow his going had given her something. A new purpose. A new role to play. She had played many roles over the years – everyone did. She had been the young lover at the beginning of a relationship; she had been the young wife looking after her man and trying to build a life; she had been the caring mother bringing up her children; and then she had been the older, concerned mother, fretting after her children as thye left home and made their own lives. After that there had been nothing but the silence, she thought. That had been the trouble, why what had happened happened.

    But Tommy’s going had given her another role, one she could play for a long time, perhaps even to the end of her years. She would be the grieving widow, she thought. Strong, but meloncoly, she would soldier on and make the most out of her own life. To do otherwise would somehow be a waste, she thought. A waste of what Tommy had given her. What he’d left behind after he’d gone. This new role. This new opportunity.

    She smiled a sad smile to herself as the priest patted her on the back. Already she was playing the part, she thought.

    The man, seeing the smile, bit his lip. He walked away from the grave and though of that mouth silently moving and the look of recognition.

    Tommy had become a character in someone else’s story.

    The End.
    "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin.

  5. #5
    Oh Zippy,
    First I am thrilled to see you once again. I always think of you and how you described your life to me and I smile. You are one cool guy.

    This story,,
    This story is so real and fresh and honest and I am still crying as I write this. The feelings, the reality of it, for him -"don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got til its' gone.) and I so felt the heart attack coming I was so scared for him and the anguish of his mind going on and on and on about doing something...
    I liked Tommy, simple man, lived his youth with her, life became comfortable and blended into his passtimes of smoking and the other little things that made up his world.
    And she, I being a mother really identify with her feelings and although I cannot imagine feeling like her upon the death of someone I love, unfortunately for me it is as if I am fused to them and their death seems to be a death of part of me........still I in fact have girl friends who have suffered this loss and for t hem it too was as if the emerged from a stale cocoon and became these glorious butterflies.
    you are fabulous at evoking a whole world, I could see ,smell the rooms, feel the bathwater, the silence...
    Thank you for this beautiful , really really great story.

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