The Life-Writer

David Constantine

November 21, 2016 
The following is from David Constantine's novel, The Life-Writer. David Constantine is an award-winning short story writer, poet and translator. His collections of poetry include The Pelt of Wasps, Something for the Ghosts, Nine Fathom Deep, and The Elder. He is the author of one novel, Davies, and has published four collections of short stories in the UK, including the winner of the 2013 Frank O’Connor Award, Tea at the Midland and Other Stories.

Then Eric said, I don’t want to be like that colleague of yours, Dennis What’s-his-name, I don’t want to be like him, clinging on, nothing else in his head every minute of every day, nothing only clinging on. I don’t call that living when all you think about is staying alive. He halted, they looked at one another, and the man Eric did not want to be like appeared in the cold gap in their conversation, the man whose only thought was not to die, who had no  other interest, no other conversation, nobody else’s doings, hopes, fears, interested him in the least, nothing in the world outside himself, no past, present or future, nothing, all he thought about and spoke about was how not to die. He trawled the web for cures and the last he hit upon was carrot juice. He carried a large bottle of it in his briefcase and took a glass on the hour every hour in whatever company and wherever he happened to be. Nothing else, no other food or drink. Just in time, he said, I’ve found the one thing that will work. To his wife, family, friends, colleagues, strangers he became a living horror, his black eyes, black as anthracite, burning brilliantly in his sunken face. And that was what he was remembered for: his final year when he thought and spoke of nothing but staying alive, the potion supposed to cure him dyed him through and through, and his frightened eyes shone blackly from the holes in his yellow head. No, said Katrin, I don’t want you to be like poor Dennis, of course I don’t. But you can’t just give up. I haven’t, Eric answered. And I promise you I won’t. But it was as though some current or the tide had felt for him, found him, and was beginning to exert an attraction no amount of love would be able to withstand. He would turn, sink, and be taken away from her, far far away, quite beyond her reach.The onset of that remoteness showed in his face sometimes like the vagueness in the face of a pregnant woman, the look of belonging elsewhere, a look Katrin could not bear. He took her hand across the breakfast table. I can’t complain, he said, I’ve had a good life, only two years short of my three score years and ten, that’s not young, think of the people at school and university with me, dead already several of them, ten, twenty, forty years ago, let alone the poets, painters and musicians you write about, so many of them dying so very young. I can’t complain.

It was early January, the low sun entering lit up their kitchen in a strange orange light. The strangeness horrified her, all their familiar things, his mother’s dresser and the blue china on its shelves, his cookery books, his saxophone leaning in the corner by the music stand, she wanted them to stay exactly as they were, familiar and ordinary, let the room be always as it was, day after day, without effulgence and transfiguration, no lurid sunlight entering with the lie that sorrow is beautiful and fit to live in. Katrin stood up and began to clear the table. Eric watched her. Since the diagnosis, her face had altered, it had set hard into the struggle. I will age her, he thought bitterly, I will close up the years between us. She had taken the breakfast things to the sink and stood there turned away from him, looking out into the small garden at the birds she fed. They would die when they were due to die but in the meantime, in a wintry sun, they flitted, settled, flitted, each after its fashion, in their various lovely colourings, restless, quick, all hungry. There was grey in her short black hair. Sadness lay on her neck and shoulders, visibly heavy. He went and stood by her, embracing her. He kissed her neck.Will you work at home today? he asked. I shall go out and do my shopping. I thought we’d have a cassoulet. And I’ve found some very nice wine. You’d like that wouldn’t you? She nodded. Yes, I’ll stay home. Yes, I’d like your cassoulet and your wine.

But first he would go out into the rather dark conservatory along the north side of the house, and at the far end of it, in his smoke-hole, he would read the paper, do the crossword and smoke a cigarette. At the start of their marriage she had hoped this banishment when he wished to smoke would cure him of it. Instead, he grew to love the place and the routine. He sat there among her plants, did the crossword quickly, sat there contentedly reading, smoking, thinking. And she had thought he might give up the habit, to please her! She hated the smell of it on his clothes, on his breath, in his hair, his beard, his flesh. But he shrugged and smiled, those were the facts, nothing could be done about them, he mused affectionately over her and over himself, they were as they were, what more was there to say? His cancer was not a smoker’s after all, so why stop smoking now? He liked the habit, it made a large part of his contentment among her plants and seeds, the half hour after breakfast, he enjoyed it, and Katrin would surely not begrudge him that uncomplicated pleasure.

Katrin left the dishes—Eric would do them when he came in from his shopping—and climbed two flights of stairs to her study in what must once have been  the maid’s room, under the eaves. She had no desire to work. If  she turned the computer on at all it would be to dispatch the most necessary emails as quickly as possible and to study online a high-protein,  low-carbohydrate  diet a colleague had recommended as efficacious when all else failed. I can complain, she thought. If I were your age it might be bearable.You have had forty-five years of your life, your life with others, that I haven’t had. All very well for you to say you can’t complain. What about me when you leave me here, aging alone and we were never young together? But that was a thought which, even as it formed, more or less consciously she pushed to the back of her mind. Let it lodge there, if it must. Later, during passages of grief in which love and its sorrow took the form of self-recrimination, she accused herself of harbouring that thought as one might a grievance, for some future occasion, to be brought up and deployed in an argument against the person you could not live your life without. Such a sad and cruel argument. For by then he was not there to answer back.

Promising Katrin that he would not give up, Eric was honour-bound to co-operate in her efforts to extend his life. He agreed to her getting a second opinion, and commiserated with her when it matched the first. Further along the way, very sick from the chemo, he let her radically change his diet. He had no appetite by then and lost nothing by compliance. He saw she would grieve worse if, afterwards, she could not be assured that together they had tried everything. For that was the heart of the matter: that they should stand together against the thing which would separate them. He complied, for her sake more than for his own, he let her have her way—which she suspected, at times knew certainly. It felt like betrayal, like standing shoulder to shoulder in a matter of life and death with a person you cannot trust. She told him so, she cried out in anguish, Oh you don’t want to live! You have given up. You want to leave me. Then he took her hands, sat her down by him, and did his level best to explain himself. Do you think I love my life less than Dennis What’s-his-name loved his? How can you say that I want to leave you? I love my life and you are the best part of it.Then why won’t you fight? she answered. I do fight, he said, and I will. But only for me, she said, you’re only fighting because I ask you to, not wholeheartedly, you don’t have faith. Then he confessed that the diagnosis, the moment it came, seemed to him correct and final. I saw a dead-straight railway line, he said, like the one I used to cycle to as a boy, the west-coast line that passes under the East Lancs Road, we stood on the bridge and watched the express come at us, nearer and nearer, till it vanished us in the tremendous noise and the steam. Like that, the armoured head of an express locomotive, coming down a dead-straight track, very fast, but in slow-motion. I saw my sickness as an unalterable and ineluctable fact, coming at me in slow-motion, very fast. And I remembered an old teaching: the fact is fixed, but my attitude towards it is mine to fashion as I please. So I decided I would live by that teaching, to the last. And to be honest, I have surprised myself. First, that I ever remembered the teaching—I suppose it surfaced in answer to my case—and then that I have tried to live by it. So that’s what you meant by not giving up? she said. Yes, he answered. The fact: in how I view it I have a sort of freedom. All on your own, she said. All on your own in your head. You have left me already. You have left me all on my own. No, no, he answered. But it wearied him, he closed his eyes, the space behind them filled with hopeless sorrow. Katrin went to her room and wept in rage and  shame.

Wordlessly, they came to an understanding. He would fight in her sense, which meant he would align himself loyally with her in trying to stay alive. She, for her part, would leave him free in his philosophy, in his idea of a sort of freedom against the inevitable. She knew he complied out of love for her, not in faith. He knew she hated his acknowledgement of the inevitable and that she thought his freedom in the spirit amounted to nothing much. In her view, he’d have done better to pit the energies of his mind wholly against the very idea of death. He could be her comrade in the struggle to save his life; but in his struggle for a freedom of mind against the unchangeable fact he was on his own, she could not join him, he did not even want her there, she could be of no use to him. But her adamant denial made him uneasy. As the weeks passed and the fact bulked ever larger, ever more solid and unquestionable, he feared they would part in disarray, at odds, leaving things unsaid and undone that would trouble and perhaps torment her afterwards. So he pleaded with her, We must make some preparations, I can’t leave you ill-prepared or you will suffer worse than need be. She saw his agitation and out of pity agreed to discuss whatever he liked. She saw the mortal illness staring out of his eyes at her and the cold certainty of his death reached like a lover’s hand towards her breast. Still she fought back. She said to herself that she would do all he asked as though it were certain he must die; and reserve to herself, in her innermost heart, the right of denial, the right to continue fighting to make him live.

Eric told Katrin very simply some things she knew already, things they had agreed without fuss or pathos at a time when death had no shape or presence in their lives: that he wanted to be cremated, that the funeral should be simple and secular, that he wanted his friends, even the oldest, to be there if they could. Some music: jazz, a blues, Schubert. A brief address, if she wished it. And a poem of her choosing. Then about the money, which he had  always attended to more than she had: where everything was, what her situation would be. She would get his full pension for a year, after that it would halve. But there was also a life insurance policy, she would have to write to them. Also their savings. All the documents would be on his desk. And she must stop the payments to  Edna. That obligation ended with his life. She nodded, none of it mattered. And he asked her for two promises: that she would keep up relations with their common friends, and that she would carry on with her work, she must  not waste her talents. She promised, but remotely. And to finish, he said—and this was very important to him—he wanted nothing left between them that still needed to be mended or forgiven. Was there any such thing? He begged her to let him make amends while there was still time or to forgive him if it was beyond repair. She shook her head, blankly. You forgive me? he asked. Of course I do, she answered. But truly there is nothing to make good or to forgive. She could think of nothing, her mind was blank. It grieved her to turn her thoughts to faults and blame. So it was in a tone of remote and formal response that she asked him had she herself any amends to make. None, he answered.And he forgave her for any wrong she had ever done him? He nodded and smiled. But to her it was all shadows, it had no sense, she was doing what he bade her do, as well as she could, but the only real thing was how thin his face had become, how thin and white  his beard, and his death stared out so hard at her from his widening eyes that her will to oppose it suffered a shock. I’m glad about all that, he said, patting the back of her hand. Thank you. And relief, almost peace, came over his features. He closed his eyes, he slept, she went away to prepare his evening meal.

As Eric got weaker, time seemed to slow, almost to halt. Perhaps more than ever before, he and Katrin became capable of present life. The hospital delivered a bed, which she made up for him downstairs in the front room, so that he could rest there during the day. Both knew and neither said that it would become his only and his final room; but in the meantime, for an interlude, there was no sense of such a future in it. The light came in plentifully through the big windows, everything was clear and just as it should be, their books and music, flowers, pictures, the furnishings they had chosen together. They would sit side by side listening to music—blues, jazz, a choir, a string quartet—neither saying a word. All was familiar, and infinitely new. They had space and time to listen with due attention. There had been abrupt accelerations in his illness, and phases of crisis, haste, anxiety, fret and exertions and demands beyond their strength; so now their peace and quiet in the downstairs room were a great kindness. The year bore very slowly into spring, but for some hours of every day the dying man and his wife felt cradled, exempted, their life allowed a pause and an abeyance. They were not waiting; at least, it did not feel like that; they were attending, and not upon an approaching and imminent thing but on where and who they were and what they  were doing in the present tense.

They read aloud to one another, in turn, she took the book from him when she felt his voice tiring, she continued in her voice while he closed his eyes, recovered his strength and attended to the reading, to the lives of fellow human beings in poetry and fiction. They sat very close, and each in turn, in a low and familiar voice, converted the signs on the page into living sense.

For more than a year, on Thursday afternoons, Eric had read Proust to a man called Anton with motor neuron disease, the son of a Russian émigré and once an outstanding surgeon. He prepared the week’s pages meticulously; tried every difficult sentence aloud; walked a mile across town and read out Proust in French to a man encased in a respirator, tubes feeding him, tubes emptying him, who signalled the life of his mind with an eyelid and whose adamant wish, should the machinery fail, was to be resuscitated. Even after his diagnosis, Eric continued these readings. He saw no reason not to. He still did the daily crossword, smoked a few cigarettes, shopped astutely for the evening meal, spent much of the afternoon preparing it, practised his saxophone, kept up his Russian, read a poem or two—why should he not continue with Anton a little way further into À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs? So he read Thursday by Thursday, hour by hour, and walked home across the town, until the illness took him up into its appointments and its sessions and leached his strength and constricted his being in the world. Greatly weakened then, more and more confined to the one room down- stairs, his reading aloud to Katrin and his being read to by her became a wondrous extension, countering his own reduction, it lifted him up and out again across frontiers of space and time into the lives of others leased into further life by the imagination.

At first, out of a sort of tact, Eric and Katrin read things they could finish at a sitting or perhaps over a day or two—a single poem or a few by the same poet, a complete short story. But then one morning without comment he reached for Silas Marner, easefully they settled down to it, entered it again with all the time in the world, dwelled in it, handing the book at leisurely intervals to and fro. There was no hurry. It was deeply familiar and deeply strange, their living having shifted into a space of greater attentiveness, the book gave ever more of itself, it met them differently, with new pathos, longing, satisfactions, shocks of enlivening pleasure. They were newly moved by it, moved on, further, strangely, in their thinking and feeling. They read books they had read before, even twice or three times before, books they had shared for years. Eric had always extended the borders of his reading. He was open to suggestions, he read reviews, ordered from catalogues, in three or four languages he had always been on the look-out for new things he would enjoy. Now that was over, and with Katrin he turned to what was to hand, there close on the shelves—which did not feel in the least like a diminution of curiosity, but more like a quickening and an expansion. No sentence, no paragraph can be read quite the same way twice. A sequence of poems, a chapter, a whole story, a novel, all open and go on opening infinitely. So there was no perversity or defiance in beginning a work of poetry  or fiction they would not finish.They felt it to be a living and moving thing, alive in all its parts in every fibre, it was not made to be exhausted, it was made to delight and outlive them. So they had reached Book IX of The Prelude, ‘Residence in France’, when their reading had to stop.

Their lives simplified. He was dying, she nursed him. Now and then his brother, his son or a friend phoned, for news; one day Daniel visited and stayed for the afternoon; and every day she had half an hour out of doors, to shop or just to walk, and a neighbour came in, to watch. Katrin slept on the sofa and woke every three hours to give Eric the morphine that eased his pain and let him sleep. It was a phase of life, an ordeal, she measured out her strength for it, knowing it would end, not wanting it to end. She read to him, but now he could not attend so well. When she paused, she saw that his eyes were on her, on the fact of her reading quietly to him, he had attended less to the words, more to the fact of her, of her caring for him, of the two of them close together in their marriage. He took her hand, asked her again to promise him that she would look after herself, resume her life, continue her work, see people, keep up with their friends, make new friends, she had many years of life ahead of her. But all this she felt to be a cruel distraction: why must he divert her thinking from now, from being with him, from easing his pain, her strength was all measured out for that and when that ended, so she felt, she would have no strength and need none. He was mortally sick, but mortal sickness was better than death, he breathed, he conversed with her, he made his love for her palpable with his hand and with his eyes and he knew—it showed—her love for him, they were there together in the downstairs room in their own home, he was sick, he would die, but not yet, not for a while yet, and meanwhile it was now and time, in pity, had slowed almost to pausing and every minute of his still being alive and their still being together counted, mattered, it was added to the sum. So she shook her head when he pleaded with her for assurances about her afterwards—stood up, cleared away a glass and a cup and saucer, refreshed the flowers, put on the music he would like.

It was early February, cold nights and the moon becoming full, becoming large and brilliant, a flat white pockmarked face of cold, a hard disc beaming at the earth, at the house, at the walls and doors and windows, reflecting the coldness of outer space, passing it on and magnifying and focussing it on homes whose warmth, if let, will always, and very quickly, leave. Katrin drew the curtains tight, but they were not thick enough to keep out the sense of the moon’s acute white brilliance. And the light shone through the windows of the front door, lay on the wooden floor in the hall, showed as a thin blade, like a visible draught, at the threshold of the sick-room. It made her nervous, and Eric could not get warm. She fetched him another blanket, kept the heating on.

Katrin rose at three, to give Eric his morphine, and found him awake, alert. I was waiting for you, he said. She gave him the capsule. I didn’t mean because of the pain, he said. I’m doing well tonight. I’ve been remembering something. I wanted to tell it you. Help me sit up. I want to tell it you properly. She helped him, arranged a cover round his thin shoulders, sat by the bed and took his hand. His face was a wonder and a horror to her: so gaunt, his wisp of beard, his stained and carious teeth, but through all that, chiefly out of the deep black eyes but also from the lips, came something like joy, hilarity, a sort of anarchic and youthful glee. Listen to this, he said, gripping hard at her hand, his voice low and wondering, marvelling, as though he could scarcely give credence to the story he would tell  her.

There were four of us, he said: Smithy, Vince, Daniel and me, the first two are dead and I soon will be, so that leaves Daniel, ask him if you like, he’ll tell you how he sees it. We were done with school, as good as, we’d all got places for October, and somebody had the idea, Why don’t we meet up in France, end of August, when we’ve earned a bit of money, why not? We went to the Central Library and looked at a Blue Guide, for the South, and pretty well at random decided on Vizille. Who’s ever heard of Vizille? Nobody. But the Guide said the town had a rue Elsa Triolet, so we agreed: three days running, 10 in the morning, 6 in the evening, whoever gets there first, sit in a café on the rue Elsa Triolet for an hour, morning and evening, three days running, and watch out for the rest of us, all coming our different ways and aiming at the 29th, 30th, 31st August, 1962. I went back to Kelloggs in Trafford Park, on  nights, £7, 2 shillings an hour, double time Sundays, triple on the Bank Holiday, I was on a conveyor belt, last position, where the packets come through filled and my job was putting in the plastic spacemen, a free offer, collect the whole set, paint them yourself, little grey naked plastic spacemen, hundreds and hundreds of them every night. I earned the money for France. And now this, listen. His face was hectic, as if through the crust of the years, through age and sickness and the cast of death, with a brutal strength delight was breaking out. I got the 66 bus into town, he said, and walked up Market Street to London Road Station, as we still called it then, not Piccadilly, London Road, because that’s what it was, the road below the station, and where people turned left up the slope to the trains, there at that junction stood a signpost pointing along the road that went on its way, and the signpost said: London 186 miles. And night after night in Kelloggs, dropping spacemen into cornflakes, I’d had that signpost in my inner vision, as the place to start from, for Vizille in the south of France. It’s the old A6 from Carlisle over Shap Fell, through Preston and the heart of Manchester and out into the Peak District, Buxton, Matlock, joins the A1 at Luton … I stood there for a minute, at the signpost, touching it, and then off I went down the London Road in my hiking boots and a rucksack on my back, nothing much in it, Rimbaud, a notebook, washbag, sleeping bag… And before I’d gone two hundred yards, at a traffic lights there was a lorry waiting and the driver’s mate looked down and said, How far you going, son? London, I said. Hop up behind, he said. We’ll take you as far as Chapel. I can see him now, he had a fag in his mouth and white dust on his hair, his eyebrows and his overalls. And the tailboard where I sat, leaning against the cab, all there was dusty too, all the gear, the ropes, the straps, the tarpaulins, all white dusty, they were delivering in Manchester from a yard near the quarries in Chapel-en-le-Frith. Eric’s voice cracked, his features jolted. Hush, said Katrin, soothing his hand as though he were her sick and feverish child. Later, she said, have a sleep first, tell me the rest later. No, no, he said, now, it has to be now. I sat amid the dusty tackle leaning back against the cab and watched the London Road spooling out from between my feet. Was ever anybody happier than that? Oh in no time we were out through Stockport and through Hazel Grove and Disley and into the gritstone and then the limestone land! It was only mid-morning when they set me down in Chapel. I had egg and bacon and a mug of tea and, when I felt like it, I was in no hurry, I found my road again, walked a little while, stopped, turned, and put up my thumb for another truck. Think of me then, Katrin, never forget me then, that lad gaily assuming the land and its roads and traffic would never be anything but kind to him, he raises his thumb and a truck stops, after that it’s a vicar in a Morris Minor, an elderly couple in a camper van, a fisherman riding a motorbike and sidecar, How far you going, son? It’s a few miles at a time, through the Dales, the limestone so white under the sun it hurt your eyes, the watercourses deep dark green and secret, little by little down the London Road that never thought further ahead than, it might be, Matlock, pottering along, till suddenly, a vivid red, it’s a BRS all the way to the depot in Brent Cross, hour after hour, the driver a big man, I remember his big hands on the wheel, the blond hairs on them, his blond moustache, his puffy face turning my way as he talked and talked, about the war, how the war had done for him, how his mate from school died shot through the eye right next to him, his grief, his terrible rage, how he’d killed a German when he needn’t have, just to be even for his mate from school, a big blondy man who was on his knees already and his hands lifted up for mercy, and he bayoneted him, a fine big blondy bloke with pale blue eyes, when he shouldn’t have, for revenge, and saw his face still and always would, his face and his uplifted hands, asking for mercy. Katrin stood up. That’s enough now. She walked to the curtains, parted them a little, the moon glared at her full, there was nothing between her and the flat white pitiless face of the moon that passes on the heat and light of the sun to earth’s small habitations in a cold illumination humans cannot bear. She shut the moon out, turned, Eric was beckoning her, his hand like a claw, she leaned over him, Hush now, she said, sleep first, let’s both of us sleep, tell me the rest later. How I set off walking through London, Eric whispered, how somewhere along the way—it was nearly dark by then—a postman halted in his van, asked me where I was making for, Dover, I said, Jump in, he said, and he took me out to an eating place on the A20, I couldn’t say where, a big place, all lit up, and the traffic hurrying past, ask in the carpark, he said, there’s always people making for the ports from here, good luck to you, son, good night. Katrin laid her fingers on his lips. He gripped her hand, hard, kissed it, There’s more, he said, so much more, I’ve hardly begun, I’m not on the ferry yet, ask Daniel, so good it all was, so good.



From THE LIFE-WRITER. Used with permission of Biblioasis. Copyright © 2016 by David Constatine.

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