Don’t disturb Mr. Evans
by Pete Langman
It had been the first rays of the sun falling on his face as they pushed their way through the flimsy materials of the curtains that woke him. It murders time, sunrise. That’s what she used to say. What she had said to him the very first time they had watched a sunrise together, watched it together as the jaundiced disc that is the winter sun on the south coast drew itself painfully and rheumatically upwards, in a manner that could once have passed for slowly and majestically, until it came to rest precariously on the horizon, shining weakly and vapidly over the slate-grey sea off Brighton Pier. It murders time.
Joseph Evans had woken almost immediately, the cracked kiln of his memory being slowly fired as the rays began to warm his face. It was a few moments before he realised where he was, exactly. It had been the smell, primarily; that and the constant low murmur of suffering and disquiet that rumbled beneath the surface. It was only the very cheapness of the curtains that allowed the sun to penetrate to his position; he was four beds from the window, yet still the rays made it to him. Just as the feeble rays warmed his face, his feeble mind now turned over the scene set before it, and his feeble memory began to slowly calculate all the associations, combinations and connections to which it still had access. While he wanted to lie still and consume his past like some ruminant beast, chewing over every last detail, savouring those special moments through which he had lived, and there had been many, he knew, somehow, that he could not. It was not that she had left him almost as soon as the cancer took hold, the very strength which had first so inspired him unable to countenance staying with a husband whose primary function in life had been stripped out by the surgeon’s knife and ravaged by the radiographer’s ray; it was fear. It was the fear that she had felt when he had first told her, the almost physical sensation which takes hold of you, tunnelling deep inside the belly like an insidious worm; the fear of contagion.
That was why she had left. She had always been the strong one, the fearless one, but she was unable to stand and fight something she could not possibly defeat; her own fear. Her own fear seemed to be that his disability would reflect on her, that his inability showed that she was somehow less than a woman. It had confused him then; now it almost made him laugh. How pointless to be scared. Evans knew that he was going to die. And very soon. He had been able to smell death in the hospital ever since he had first been given a bed. There he was, a terminal case whose internal organs had suffered an almost continual round of mix and match for the previous five years, and he was placed in a ward full of geriatrics: colostomy men who leaked and farted and drooled and dribbled; demented pensioners left ignored and uncleaned by the apathetic and lazy staff. Evans was only forty-three, yet he had been put out to grass, left to die in this filthy ward. He looked up, knowing that however painful it may be, the sun could warm more than just his face if he moved.
At first, he had the idea that the wide, friendly face which smiled at him broadly was an angel; certainly he had never seen a nurse like this before, never even suspected that there could be such a person in this godforsaken place. But then, as the face reached across him and gently wiped his perspiring forehead he noticed the blue, surgical gown. No-one had stroked his forehead like that since, well, since whenever. His memory, along with all of his other intellectual faculties, those faculties upon which he had based his life, his livelihood, had been dulled somewhat by the chemotherapy. Emasculated, eviscerated and evacuated.
‘I’m going to die. Soon, you know.’ He said, and the face nodded gently, all the while wearing its smile like a badge. ‘Would you take a letter for me?’ It nodded again.
Evans started to talk. He talked like he had never talked before, he opened up in a way that she had always wanted him to, or so she had said as she finally left. That had been the real problem, apparently; not that she was scared, not that he was not. Not that she was seeing someone else, not that he was no longer able to perform. Not that she was embarrased to have a cripple for a husband, not that he was dying. Oh, no it had been that he didn’t talk about it. That had been the other thing. It was not just his cancer, the removal of what she seemed to consider his soul, it had been his reticence. She simply could not understand why he did not rage against the darkness; she took this as an almost personal affront. He could not understand why she felt he had to. After all, he was the one who could see it, not her. He was the one who was going into it, gently or not. Not her. Yet she was the one who raged. Now he talked. And as he talked, he thought of her face as she read this letter. He thought of the memories his words would stir as they took her back, back to Brighton Pier, back to where they first met. He would make her feel how he felt, see what he saw, think like he thought. All the while, the smiling face etched ever more steadily on a thick, white tablet of paper.
Slowly, steadily, Evans faded away. As he recounted to his wife all those things which he had always meant to say, but never had, the last vestiges of his life force drained away. He stopped, looked up at the face and took its hand. His eyes closed.
‘There you are.’ A gruff voice broke the silence and the smiling face turned around, away from the curtained eyes, as it was taken gently by the arm. ‘I’ve been looking for you all over. I hope you haven’t been disturbing this gentleman.’ The nurse pulled the smiling face to its feet and started to walk away. ‘What’s that you’ve got in your hand?’ he asked, pulling the tablet out from the grasping hand of the still-smiling face. ‘Have you been stealing other people’s paper to draw on again?’ He pulled the top sheet off the tablet and quickly surveyed it, surveyed the mass of squiggles and dots and smiley faces which covered it. He screwed it up and threw it into the bin. ‘Sorry about your paper, mate.’ He said to the now rapidly cooling Evans, as he turned and walked away, the smiling face gripped tightly by the upper arm. ‘He does this all the time. Right nuisance this one is, aren’t you?’ he said, speaking loudly into the face as they walked away.
As the two men walked away, another nurse walked in and drew the thin curtains sharply back. The clouds had rolled in, and it was starting to rain.
© Pete Langman 2001
***Pete Langman would have been one of the great Dickensian ne’erdowells had he been born in Household Words rather than Hitchin. One-time professional guitar slinger, he holds a PhD on Francis Bacon (the other Francis Bacon), an ECB level two Cricket Coaching certificate and a White Fish swimming badge from prep school. Oh, and Parkinson’s disease. Author of Slender Threads, Black Box, and The Country House Cricketer, he blogs at petelangman.com and tweets@elegantfowl. Pete lives in Brighton with a recalcitrant ginger cat. *****
*Landscape photography courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito. Huge thanks to Brian!!*