The Memory of Being

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four, close the door…

I pat my matted hair and unbunch the long gown caught between my legs. It’s wet and clumpy and soiled with piss. Four white walls press in on me, two steel railings confine me; the smell of disinfectant rises from a swamp of syringes, pills and syrups. I’m surrounded by the fugue of darkness. Someone enters the room and flicks on the light switch. She’s a black woman in late middle-age with a downturned mouth full of resentment. Outside, lies the vastness of unknown rooms, people and events.

‘Irene, you got to behave yourself’, she says, digging her talon-like nails into my flesh, as she pulls the gown over my head, and replaces it with a flowery one; the kind I hate, the kind that scratches against my flesh and gives me a rash. She leaves the bed linen unchanged.

‘Not much time now,’ she says, rubbing the sleep from her tired black eyes rimmed red, unsmiling all the while, ‘but you behave yourself, hear?’

Janelle – that’s her name, I read it on her plastic name tag.

‘I’ll behave,’ I promise, unwinding my legs; the damp patch still wetting my bottom.

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four…

It’s a riddle; of that I was sure. A riddle I’d made up some time ago to help me remember. But remember what?

I crumple back into my bed and watch Janelle knocking about the bottles on my night-table.

She’s small and wiry, wearing a white coat too big for her; underneath the unbuttoned coat are baggy black sweat pants and a cotton t-shirt, a cast-off from the second-hand shops, no doubt. She reeks of the indignity of meagre meals and fuel-deprived winters.

‘Yah, here it is,’ she says, unscrewing one of the bottles. She thrusts her black hands towards my mouth holding out a white pill and a glass of water. I feel Larkin’s fat Caribbean germs pattering all around me.

‘Are you my nurse?’

‘No Irene, I look after you, that’s all’.

‘Why do you call me Irene then? Don’t I deserve a Mrs?’ I feel hot tears sting my eyes. I can’t remember my surname. I don’t know it. Even when I reach into the inner sanctum of my mind, I can’t find it.

Janelle raises her eyes to the ceiling and then looks at me.

‘Yous told me to call you that! Now you want somefink different?’

I flinch.

I swallow the tablet and then the water. I feel an instinctive revulsion for this woman who underneath a veneer of acceptability, is coarse.

‘The bed linen can wait till morning’.

She walks to the door, dragging her slight body, one foot after another, as if walking itself requires an undue amount of effort from her. She switches the light off and shuts the door.

I am Janelle’s prisoner.

 

***

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four, close the door…

Four white wall press in on me, two steel railings hold me in.

A black woman in late middle-age enters the room and walks to the medicine cabinet. Turn around, please turn around, so I can see your name tag. The woman turns sharply to face me. There it is, a tiny square plastic tag with black lettering.

‘Janelle, could you please open the window for me?’

Janelle walks over to the window, pulls up the lever and pushes out the pane wide enough to let in the outside world.

‘There, happy now?’

The quiet of the day pours into the room. It’s morning. A sprig of cherry-blossom has crept in to the left hand corner of the window; a cumulous cloud, of which the weather man might say, has the potential of turning into a thunderstorm hovers on the right-hand side. It must be spring.

I remember thunderstorms. I remember being very afraid. I remember clouds, warm clouds, clouds that brought warm rain, heavy and thick, a downpour which didn’t stop for days on end, and I stayed indoors and whiled away my time playing childhood games, while the damp set in, the dog stank, and mother ran out of the jams she had preserved over the summer. There, right there, is the glimpse of a memory; an ephemeral memory. I need to hold onto it. But I need to hold on to this moment too. I need to form a loop. Join it to another loop of coherent thought. My own mind is the only company I have. When it shows up, I have to delight in it. Can the immediacy of a single moment have more validity than my entire past life?

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four…

Janelle lifts me out of bed and sits me in the nearby chair. She pulls the linen off the bed. A strong smell of urine momentarily fills the room. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror across the bed; the grey hair falling lankly about my emaciated face, the flesh sparsely spread over a skeletal frame; I stare at my fingers, the webbing between them, the criss-cross of lines woven all over. It’s as if I have retreated into my own skin and hollowed myself out. I am Kafka’s cockroach; helpless and hopeless.

On the table next to me is a picture of a young woman perhaps in her late-twenties, the only time a human being is truly human and yet immortal; winged by the fury and passion of an Icarus, flying dangerously into the unknown, believing one’s outer shield to be indestructible and inner reserves to be bottomless, trusting the world to be infinitely good and knowing instinctively, that trust will be misplaced. Later in life, one tries to refashion those singed wings but they are all flagging attempts at recapturing that one glorious moment of youth.

She’s quite pretty, that woman in the photograph, with big brown curls floating about her pale, elongated face; the sort Modigliani might have gazed at sitting in a café, himself driven to distraction, half-crazed with lingering pneumonia, hunger and lust. His body pulsating and longing for her. Perhaps she had stared back; intrigued, curious, quietly quelling her own desires, as she sipped on her coffee. It occurs to me that this woman would have known passion at some point in her life. She might have sunk her teeth into a lover’s back, wrapped her legs around him, twisted her tongue in his mouth, drawn him into her. She might have wrecked cars, slapped children, chained dogs, poisoned cheating husbands. She might have been any multitude of characters with the potential for fulfilment and the inevitability of ruin. What it must feel to be so alive on the eve of life happening?

The woman is not very tall and standing next to her is a little girl, perhaps her daughter, who looks like she’s benefitted from having a father with nicer eyes. It crosses my mind, that she might be me. Or perhaps, she’s my mother and that child clinging to her is me. What sort of relationship have these two women shared? Mother, daughter, daughter, mother. It doesn’t matter. One will eventually grow into the other.

‘Janelle?’

‘Yes?’

‘You know about me, don’t you?’

‘Yes’.

‘Who is the woman in the photo?’

‘That’s you’.

‘And the little girl?’

‘That’s your daughter.’

‘Where is she?’

‘She died.’

I feel my heart lurch. I imagine what it must have been like for that woman in the picture to lose her child. But her pain does not belong to me. It is her’s alone.

‘How?’

‘In an accident.’

‘When?’

‘She’s been gone a long time, Irene. Yous were just forty then’.

‘We are all so lonely aren’t we Janelle?’

‘Who are you talking about?’

‘Human beings.’

I sense the comfort of passing years in my relationship with Janelle. Somehow I know, even when my world extended beyond this room, beyond this high-tech gadgetry, clicking and whirring, monitoring and registering my every pulse, that Janelle had been the repository of my secrets and a compendium of my thoughts.

I am surrounded by the fugue of darkness. I am a prisoner of Janelle’s memories.

***

Turn around, please turn around so I can see your name. There it is.

Janelle is methodically stacking boxes; the larger ones at the bottom, the medium-sized ones in the middle, and the smallest of them on top. She retrieves one from the top, places it next to her, and squatting on the floor, starts to fill it up.

The room steadily empties of its contents: scarves, cardigans, blouses, trousers, nightgowns make their way into the box. Then the books: old issues of Chaucer’s Literary Musings, National Geographic, London Art & Architecture, slim volumes of Larkin, French and Portuguese dictionaries, hardcovers of Arthur Miller, Updike, Orwell, are all stacked vertically into boxes. Perfume bottles, toiletries, disinfectants, syringes, medicine bottles are tipped in. Janelle stands on her toes and reaches for the artworks, all neatly labelled for my benefit; the reasonably decent reproductions of Gauguin and Sargent alongside original works gifted by friends who fancied themselves as artists or worse still, intellectuals. All of it now rests in boxes, in a limbo, a purgatory, distended from its usual purpose and not knowing what lies ahead. I suppose, in some distant past, this room had been empty once before; an expanse waiting to be filled with the clutter of someone’s dreams and ambitions.

‘Janelle?’

Janelle spins on her heel. Wearing a stoic mask and glassy-eyes, she shields herself from me.

Except for the minutes ticking away like insects on the wall, I am engulfed in silence.

‘Yes?’

‘How did it begin?’

‘It was after the little angel died. You began to forget somefinks’.

I remember somewhat; at first I forgot names. I made excuses; told myself it was only those people who I didn’t care about. Why should I remember my second cousin’s third daughter’s name? Then came the television plots, I couldn’t quite follow, the books whose main characters blurred, the wasted trips to supermarkets, the password lockouts, the banking information all sinking into a quicksand of forgetfulness. My mind a mulch from which thoughts found it ever more difficult to emerge. Terrified of the world intruding on my life, I made up ciphers and anagrams and riddles to help me, but then I’d forget the codes. For some years, there had been nightly epistolary expositions addressed to myself, giving birth to a virtual catalogue of lists, appointments, numbers, and treacherous biographies on lovers and friends.  But in the end, what I wanted was the pleasure of memory; of quivering joy and rancid pain. However wearied the memory, I wanted it. It was mine.

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four, close the door…

I watch Janelle as she struggles with the Spode ceramics kept in a glass cabinet next to the now empty bookshelves. Someone had invested an entire lifetime collecting plates, tureens and teapots in the classic Blue & White willow pattern.

It was difficult to think with Janelle rattling the plates as she placed them in a box lined with old clothes to cushion them. But I had to think. The knot in the pit of my stomach is prompting me to think, to instinctively suss out imminent danger.

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four, close the door…

Janelle has dropped a plate on the hard floor. Its shards scatter in an uneven circle. She looks at me apologetically. She begins clearing the pieces.

Had I really collected all those plates? Read all those books? Admired that art on my walls? Memorised poems from minor poets and whispered them into my lovers’ ears? I had devoured life and life had leached out of me. To grow old without the memory of youth is to die on the battleground, a long and lingering death, vanquished by a enemy who torments you and toys with your flesh. It is to lose faith in patterns, in purpose, in destinations. It is to realise the supremacy of the moment, and that it survives quite detached and alienated from the next moment.

‘How old am I, Janelle?’

‘You’ll be sixty-four tomorrow.’

Janelle avoids my eyes and places a large tureen into a box.

‘Janelle, am I being moved somewhere else?’

‘No, Irene.’

Janelle turns her back to me. I can see her body rise and then fall, and once again, I’m unable to fathom the emotion Janelle is trying so hard to hide.

Janelle and I must have shared some sort of intimacy. The sort of intimacy that must have begun with nodding-head agreement on her part and ended with lingering dependency on mine. Janelle cares for me, I know that somehow, and I must have cared for her.

She stands up and walks towards me.

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four..

She reaches for the top of my head and kisses it. She smells of household bleach.

Close the door…

She rests her head on mine. Warm, salty tears spill onto my face.

‘They’re coming tomorrow..’ She chokes on her words, wondering if she should go on.

I will miss you,’ she says at last, ‘you know I will. I only agreed to it, because it’s what you wanted. You knew exactly how it would turn out for you, and you made arrangements with the lawyers and doctors. You knew then, how you wanted it all to end’.

Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four, Close the door. I don’t want to live anymore.

I wait in my chair for the sun to set. I wait for the clot of fear that has formed in the tip of index finger to wind its way to the pit of my stomach. I wait to hear the thump of my heart. I wait for the air to dry up from my lungs. I wait for my tongue to thicken, my eyes to smart, my head to burst with the most absurd fear. I feel alive.