EYES TO THE RIGHT, NOSE TO THE LEFT
I had heard wrong.
Someone was weeping.
But I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. The expression took me back to my childhood and an Eagle Eyes action man who had a little serrated switch at the back of his head. You moved your hand against the mechanism bedded into the fuzz of his crew cut and there — the eyes moved. To the left, to the right. You dressed him in his combat gear. You undressed him and redressed him in another kind of camouflage. He was your brother’s doll. When you wanted him to play with Sindy something went wrong with the proportions: Sindy’s huge head and breasts and feet that looked like they had been bound, did not play well alongside him. They each came from a different universe. Her long nylon locks, his blonde fuzzy head. It made sense to keep them apart.
In error, on my eleventh birthday an elderly relative had given me a book of short stories. It had been an honest mistake, but the stories were not meant for a child. There was a picture of a doll’s house on the front. Unlike Sindy and Eagle Eyes, the dolls in the book were designed to copulate. All the little fitting together pieces of plastic.
I remembered when my daughter was only two how, we had flown from right to left across the world, and how in the dark, looking down from the plane windows, all we could see beneath us were the blazing fires, oil on water, as we crossed the Gulf.
I remembered, as every day I remembered, the teacher, the line of her make up, and the dirty blue of her skirt as she pressed herself against me. Everything came thick and fast. I remembered the girl at school who had been on ‘Jim’ll Fix It’. I’d written to go on the show too. I wanted to be an astronaut, light, light as air. My friend came to school wearing her badge. Jim Fixed It For Me. The ribbon was watermarked and the metal was heavy as it hung secretly under her school shirt. She’d wanted to play a one-man band. I remember Savile’s face and his hair and his chair and his laugh and how he had been a friend of Thatcher. Now he was the nation’s ghostly shame. Had it really been a simpler life?
Now everywhere was nowhere. Everywhere there was division. The country had been split in half. Politicians were speaking narratives that had never seen more unreal in their dissimulation. Words meant nothing. Mother of All Bombs was in fact a Massive Ordnance Air Blast. H A R M was a High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile. Today in the papers, there were pictures of the Prime Minister holding the hand of the President.
What was going on? Would there be a warning, some kind of instruction? I waited for the letter to come to tell me what to do. I wanted to keep all the little bits and pieces of plastic out of the narrative. I said to you over and over in my head, things that needed to be said. I drifted and bobbed in a coracle of sleepless nights. Not for the first time, I felt entirely on my own and my actions, I see only in retrospect, suggested I had lost all self-governance.
That first Christmas we had stayed in a house not far from a lighthouse. Boats slipped across the horizon as if they were sailing across not sea but land. The landscape held church, castle; a building from where the world service had been broadcast, was a square temporary smudge on the left; wind blew eddies of sand through a row of pagoda-like buildings where the detonators for the atom bomb had first been tested.
As the coast eroded, the lighthouse would topple from the shingle into the sea. Recently it had been decommissioned and the mercury in which the lens of its great Cyclopian eye rested had already been removed.
When I stood looking out from the shoreline I felt I was standing on the edges of the world, like that time in Hobart, looking out. Except now the edges, like the body’s extremities, were breaking off.
My body still carried within it what it felt like when I held your hand. I could feel the little line of scars from one night, before we had even met, when you had fallen on broken glass. It was the same night you had taken a train across Europe, and drunk beer with a group of travelling actors in a town square where the train had paused for an hour.
Or perhaps I had misremembered that. I lay in the dark without you, remembering my fingers moving across the scars like braille. I remembered the train journey through the night I had made myself from Valencia to Paris. In the cathedral in Valencia was a special relic. Somebody’s hand, or finger, somebody’s revered bones. I remember the Serbian widow on the journey, weeping, as I lay on my haversack, trying to sleep beside her, on the carriage floor. As the years passed I had become more and more a stranger to myself.
Hung drawn and quartered, a sliver of a moon emerged from the dark sky. I felt the warm wet threads of tears on my cheeks. Listen, I said,
Every day decisions are being made. Eyes to the left, eyes to the right.
stood very still.
Go on, I said. I’m talking to you, Erato.
Go on yourself, she said. Look up.
I made myself walk through the park. Leaves forced themselves from twiggy branches. Blossom fast-forwarded itself into the breeze.
It was as if someone had set off some kind of auto-suggestive timebomb and every fragment of the world I saw sent me elsewhere. Atoms had become pixels, or was it the other way around. Bud, leaf, branch, tree, earth. Everything seemed too early. Everything was disconnected, Everything seemed.
One second I was remembering being a child and sitting in the park under the rhododendron bushes with my grandmother. Mulch and wet of the earth and the cool leaves. In another hairsplit of the same second, I remembered knowing that the green leathery leaves and their great purple and red jelly eyes earned their name from the conflation of the Greek words for ‘water’ and ‘tree’. Astride one of those seconds I remember the merits of knowing Greek and Latin and the continuing condition of not knowing Welsh.
Each Sunday afternoon as a child I would lie on the old felt tatted rug in front of the hissing gas fire translating sentence after sentence from Approaches to Latin. Sometimes I would imagine ripping pages from the text book, watching them blacken and flame.
The merchant said that he had lost lots of money in the street
The senator said that the slave had killed many citizens
The citizens heard that the enemy had fled
These days I’d often wake at 3am. I’d google and be amazed when next morning I glanced back at my search history. Now, like everyone, I knew everything and I knew nothing.
In my bedroom was a blue and red rug. My friend had brought it back from Syria for me as a wedding present. Every morning I stepped down into its history and the irregular patterns of its birds and tree; I stepped out to thoughts of killings and bombs and two million people in exile. Someone reminded me: the President of Syria had trained as an eye doctor. My shrink had been stranded in Syria once when the volcano erupted. I was in North Africa. Neither of us made our appointments and neither of us was home to notice.
And so it went on.
People died and they kept on dying. My friend said once, For you, it’s like there’s been a massacre.
Every day I walked to work. Days shifted dark into light. Sleepless, I would sit awake sometimes with my son. I’d rub his head and whisper old bedtime stories to him. One night we just gave up and sat together and ate Cheerios and listened to the radio.
The planet was melting. Out there in the solar system astronauts or the memories of astronauts were floating like stars. I thought about space debris and my friend’s husband whose job it had been to programme redundant satellites so they spiraled off into deep space.
As we sat that night, listening, all the waves and particles of the world shifted and time passed and then one of us said I don’t know what the point is. It was a terrible thing, a parent saying that to a child, or a child saying that to its parent. It was like someone had just divulged an enormous secret. There was no taking it back.
I remembered (in the world of that infinite second) sticking my head out of the car window as a child and the way it made me catch my breath. I stuck out my tongue turning the air in my mouth to water. I remembered my son’s look. It’s a kind of scary beauty, mum, he’d said one day but I could no longer recall why. I was scared now and took a deep breath. It felt like a wounding. Still the radio continued. All the continuations and their cumulative horrors, perpetuating themselves as if they were being pulled on a long thread back from time forward into the future.
I said, But even in the darkness, you know you are alive. Or perhaps I never said it but thought it. Maybe he or I or both of us or neither of us thought I was being ironic. Perhaps there was nothing that I or anyone could say.
When I looked my son had fallen asleep, the bowl of Cheerios still clenched in his small hand.
The hospital was due to be closed. In the central foyer — what nowadays might be called an atrium — there was a digital clock counting down the number of days before the relocation. The seconds flicked like the numbers on the clock at the Pompidou. I sat there in the waiting room and remembered visits I had paid to friends and relatives over forty years.
I had arrived there myself once, in an ambulance. My vomit was green and when I peed it was black. I had become so thin my scapula stuck out from my back like wings. But by now I only half-remembered things: the needles, the morphine, the drip.
Out of the blue the image came to me of the woman in the bed opposite who was brought in in the early hours. She was a pole dancer whose breast implant had split; there was something both terrible and comic about the drama of her situation, her glittering costume, and her long blonde hair. I remember her asking for pain relief and how I argued with the nurse when it was denied. I was still vomiting into a cardboard bowl. They said she was an addict; her baby was in another hospital, in ITU.
It was hard to think about, even now. Outside I could catch the wail of an ambulance’s siren. On the floor were various motivational assertions in brightly-coloured think-bubbles. Courage, challenge, competency.
I thought about song and the way when I was a child I would hum without even knowing I was humming, a strangely flattened sound. As I sat, a woman pushing a trolley came and wiped down the plastic seating beside me with disinfectant.
I started to pick out the art from the walls. You had to pause, just for a moment, to distinguish between what was a sign and what was a picture. There were posters of smiling nurses and chief executives and patients being advised on how to have their say. No one looked real. Or perhaps they looked too real.
On the wall opposite me was a shifting digital image of flowers. To my left, a small frame oil of horses racing over Beechers Brook. Behind me, bedded into the stairwell, stood a woman twenty feet high opening her arms to the geese which surrounded her. The birds dallied at her feet and some of them as her arms opened slipped up the canvas —- rising, rising up.
I thought about the word siren and the strange bird-women who sang between treacherous rocks.
What was the difference, I wondered, between a sigh and a song?
The seconds kept slipping by. Competency, Challenge. People wearing id cards on thick blue nylon ribbons round their necks greeted each other cheerfully. I noticed how many amputees were in the hospital. There was something very unashamed about the way they exposed their uncovered limbs. Diabetes. War. Everything was starkly lit.
Soon the building would be rased to the ground and the art transferred from the dirt-infused walls.
I was going to have to wait longer. Courage. I listened again to the sirens and the sound of the trolleys moving up and down the corridors, and the tinnitus in my ears — all of which by now I had found a way of switching on and off.
Soon it would be time, I thought, and leaning back into the chair
I put my hands over my ears.
I needed a blindfold. Instead I closed my eyes.