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day by day: a blog

August 03, 2007


sckbd.jpg In this one, I was lying in a bed. The bed was in the corner of a vast white-washed room, and was one of many. The ceiling was covered with lacquered, hardwood planks. I thought that by now my prolonged staring meant that I knew every knot, stain, splinter and crack in the area directly over my bed. The windows on two sides of the room looked out, from my perspective, onto a row of evergreen treetops and, beyond that, an infinity of clouds. A man in an orderly's all-white uniform sat in the far centre of the room at a desk by the windows. His head was bowed. He had fair hair, and was wearing gold-rimmed glasses on which the sun occasionally flashed. He wrote steadily, unhesitatingly, with a fountain pen in a large ledger. I never saw him look up.

In each bed, there was a wounded man dressed in regulation issue striped pyjamas. I soon realized I was wearing the same pyjamas myself. In fact, only the different bandaging of each patient's wounds individuated us because we were all dressed the same way and all seemed to have exactly the same face.

There was a war on, a big war involving millions of soldiers and sailors. It was completely different from the kind of thing we had expected when we got into this. Hundreds of thousands of our troops had been killed or imprisoned. In fact, I think we were losing the war. I knew I must have been hurt too, or else I would not have been here. But I could not fathom where I had been or what had happened to me, or, indeed, whether I was in pain or not. (Incidentally, for some reason or another I associate this period with the fulfillment of my ambition to write in the style for which I have, I suppose, become quite well-known. For years I had been longing to offset my narratives of the most terrible, toxic and complex events with a tone of voice which is at all times lucid, temperate, Socratically mild and unruffled. Do you understand what I am getting at? Well, now it suddenly seemed perfectly easy to me.)

I was struck by the silence of the room. So many people, so little noise. The quiet amplified the impact of every tiny scrape or cough. Oddly, it reminded me of a time when I was a young boy and had visited the amphitheatre at Delphi with my parents and siblings. I climbed to the top of the huge, steep banks of stone seating and gazed down at my father, who looked tiny, standing in the middle of the ancient stage below. I watched as Dad took a piece of paper out of his pocket and slowly crumpled it up. Even though I was far away from him, I could hear the crunches and snaps of the paper as it buckled and folded up in his hands. Then he waved and beckoned at me, signalling me to come down and join him. I didn't at first, but just sat there for a while. After the sound of the crumpled paper had died away, I had an exacerbated sense of the hugeness and solidity, almost the tangibility, of the ensuing silence. I had the chilling sensation of being alone at the center of an unpopulated universe.

Now, the room we wounded men were in felt equally silent, so much so that I could distinctly hear the mouse-like scratching of the orderly's fountain pen as it crossed back and forth over the sheets of the book. I suppose that made me think, perhaps wrongly, that at least here I wasn't quite alone. You know how eerily quiet sickrooms, and medical environments in general, usually are. Suddenly, there was a loud "nrggh, nrggh, nrggh" coming from the bed next to mine. I looked over. The man in that bed was lying on his left side, with his back turned towards me. His head was bent over so his chin must have been pressed hard against his chest. He didn't seem to be moving, but he kept making that same sound more and more loudly. There was also something that sounded like sticky bubbles popping. Have you ever heard melted chocolate boiling?

Next, I heard the orderly pressing an ivory-tipped button under the top surface of his desk. How did I know the button was ivory-tipped? Good question. I'm not sure how. The bastard did not get up and, once he had pressed the button, he resumed the steady, relentless gait of his writing. Somewhere far off in the corridor — as though one of the reindeer on Santa's sleigh had unexpectedly shifted its feet and had sent a little reverberation up through the reins and into the sleigh's wooden frame — a bell tinkled gently.

About 10 minutes later (I estimate), a man in dressed in fatigues over which he was wearing a white jacket and a Sam Browne belt, complete with a holster and pistol suspended on his left, came rushing into the room. At first I thought he was also wearing on his chest a badge which said "I Paid for This!" But as he came nearer, I could see that the badge merely had the name "Jackson" stitched into it.

There was no need for him to ask the orderly who was in need of help. The man lying in the bed next to mine was now moaning terribly. "Jesus Christ, man!" Jackson roared as he rushed up to the bedside. "Why on earth didn't you call me sooner? You're bleeding like a pig!" There was another groan, very much like a sigh that had gone badly wrong. "Mnnh, mnnh, mnnh." "What's that?" Jackson roared, "what's that?" He bent down to the groaning man. "Here, get this bloody thing out of your mouth." He seemed to be wrestling fiercely with this wounded wretch, who was trying to fight Jackson off. After a few moments, Jackson wrenched something away from the patient and threw it onto the floor between the man's bed and mine. "You're bloody ill, that's what you are," Jackson said to him through clenched teeth. "I... I'm sorry, sir," croaked the man in the bed. Then I was suddenly aware that, aside from the fair-haired, hunched orderly who kept writing as if he locked in that position and programmed to keep producing more and more pages of script, the whole roomful of sick men, along with myself, was quietly watching this sick drama play itself out.

"I'm sorry, sir," the man in the bed moaned, still lying abjectly on his side. (Come to think of it, I never did see his face.) Then, like a pipe being undammed, he let out a huge belch of blood, pus and vomit. I know this because it sprayed all over Jackson's white coat. "Jesus H. Christ!" Jackson bellowed. Still the relentless scratch-scratch-scratch of the fountain-pen was audible. "I'm sorry, sir...," the man said, as if, between groans, he was still trying to complete his sentence. And then, very softly, he added, "I, er, I didn't want to bother you...." I heard Jackson roar again. It sounded like someone had stabbed him, like he was the one in pain. "You blithering idiot!" he boomed. And then, as if addressing the whole room, he shouted, "You're all alike!"

Sometime later, after Jackson had, literally, thrown in the towel and shambled off, and after some grim-faced nurses had wheeled the wizened corpse away and had changed the sheets on the bed, I managed to shut my eyes for a few moments. "But it is just one death amongst so many," I thought. "I wonder if my family, whoever they are, are still alive?" As you can clearly discern, I had slipped into a completely despairing and irrational state of mind. But we had all seen people dying before — collapsing in the streets, tumbling from buildings, falling down like a puppet whose strings have been cut when a string of bullets hit them, and so on. As well as, of course, writhing and moaning here in the ward. Death was not unfamiliar.

I opened my eyes again and found I was lying on my side and staring down at the object which Jackson had ripped away the dying man and tossed onto the floor. I recognized it at once. It was an ancient copy of the Loeb edition of the plays of Aeschylus. The sea-green cover was covered with dark spatters, the larger ones formed into a sort of crescent or semi-circle which ended at the edge of the binding. Gradually, as I looked at it for longer, I began to see as well that not only was the volume covered in multiple blood spots but that there was also a set of indentations in the cover, exactly embedded in the semi-circle of darker stains. Whoever that fellow was, he must have been biting deeper and deeper into the book in order to stop himself from groaning.

That was when I noticed that the sound of the orderly writing in his ledger had stopped. Then, I heard footsteps padding across the linoleum. The next thing I knew was that an ink-stained hand reached down and picked up the copy of Aeschylus which I had just been gazing at indifferently. In the gulley of shadows formed by the two beds, mine and the dead man's, I saw a gold glint. Some while later, when I turned my head to the right to catch the sky turn a glowing pink as the sun went down, I found that battered copy of Aeschylus lying near to me on the pillow.

Posted by njenkins at August 3, 2007 07:02 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins