A Case of Paracosm
When my estranged son heard a cardiologist had given me three months
to live, he paid me a visit, the first in forty years.
He moved my single bed into the sunroom looking out over the harbor
and here I spend my last days, gazing across the grey water to the grey hills with
their dismal shroud of winter cloud.
I can still get up to the loo, but the effort tires me, so I always
wait till I’m busting and sometimes don’t quite make it.
I live alone and see few people. The meals-on-wheels lady comes
daily. The district nurse comes fortnightly. A caregiver woman comes for half
an hour each afternoon. A few friends and old colleagues drop by occasionally
and try to cheer me up, but they piss me off with their hail-fellow-well-met
joviality, and I’m rude to them, so they’ve mostly stopped coming. Except for
one old buddy who brings my whisky. I must admit I like a drink now and then.
More now than then, to tell the truth.
My son stopped coming after he asked about his inheritance, and
I told him everything was going to the Salvation Army. He muttered something under
his breath and took off—discarded me for the second time. At least his mother,
my third wife, only discarded me once.
I’ve often thought that dying would be easier than living, but I’m
not so sure now.
The idea of death frightens me, but life confuses me. Half the
time I don’t know whether I’m Arthur or Martha, whether I’m coming or going,
what’s fiction and what’s truth, what’s fact and what’s fantasy, who you can
trust and who you can’t trust.
My only safe place is the space inside my head.
But there’s one doctor who visits me quite often that I really
love: Denise Donaldson. She’s not my own doctor, just somebody I knew before
she became a doctor. I’ll tell you about Denise shortly.
I don’t think I’m afraid of actually being dead. At worst, it will feel like it did before I was
conceived. And at best… well, I often think of Virginia, my mother’s younger cousin,
who died decades ago with a serene smile on her face and a Bible in her hand.
These days, I think about Virginia a lot.
Apart from Denise and Virginia, I can’t think of anyone else I’ll
regret leaving behind when I die.
Basically, after a lifetime of people, I’ve had a gutful.
People wear me out with their expectations, their demands and
manipulations, their brutality when they don’t get their own way.
But I often daydream about Virginia and imagine her hand on my
forehead, like when she lived with us when I was a boy, and I suffered severely
I’d wake up in the night, wheezing and gasping, couldn’t
breathe, and Virginia would always calm me down with her gentle touch, as not
even my mother could.
Sometimes I wish I were a little boy again and often I actually
feel like I am one, though the reality is, I’m over 80. I think I’m going soft
in the head.
But I must tell you about Denise, my doctor friend.
When I was in hospital for my last dose of surgery, Denise
happened to walk past my bed to see one of her patients. She recognized me at
once, though she hadn’t seen me since her high school days, thirty years
before, when I was her form teacher and she was a right little so-and-so.
We chatted for a while and when I got out of hospital she turned
up at my place one day and started to visit frequently.
I enjoyed her coming, because she was lovely to me and I could
talk to her about anything—not just about the weather, but about the important life
and death stuff. She was not into airy-fairy reassurances and glossing over of realities.
She was just what I needed.
And somehow I thought she needed me as well. There was a loneliness
about her, a particular flavour of sadness.
She never talked about her private life. At least, not directly.
Once when I was telling her about my third wife, Denise quoted
that famous Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, who famously said: “If you are
afraid of loneliness, don’t get married,” and she laughed, as if it were a great
joke, then fell silent.
“It’s just so unfair, what’s happening at home,” she blurted
out, after a while, the words just sliding from her lips. And the look on her
face! I wanted to reach out and touch her, but you don’t do that when you’re an
old man or people might think you’re a dirty old man.
Anyway, she resumed chatting and stayed for longer than normal,
as if reluctant to leave. When she finally stood up to go, she hugged me long
and hard. I asked what she’d meant by that quotation, but she just
Anton Chekhov, she told me, was always just joking around. The
same writer who said, when somebody asked him how he was feeling, “I feel like
a donkey, with a stick in my mouth and a carrot up my arse.”
Denise was laughing as she walked out the door and I could still
hear her laughter as she walked down the path.
A week later the district nurse tells me that Denise is dead. I
ask her what happened, but she can’t or won’t tell me, and it’s obvious to me
she’s making it all up for some reason. She’s lying. Denise can’t be dead - that’s
And sure enough, Denise’s visits resume. She reappears in my
room about a week later, sits on the bed and talks to me as if she’s never been
away. After that, she starts turning up any time of the day or night and next
thing I know, she’s living with me.
She sits beside me during the day and at night she slips out of
her clothes and slides into my bed. It’s no big deal. We cuddle all night and
that’s all we do.
It’s the best relationship I’ve ever had. No sidetracks. No
tangents. No kids. No marital minefields. No expectations. No social life. No
sex. Nothing to go wrong.
I tell her about me, and she opens up and tells me about her. We
talk about who we are, what we think about life and how we feel about each
other. We talk about crappy things from our pasts, shake them around, toss them
about, then forget about them. We live in the present tense.
And then, would you believe it, Virginia, my mother’s cousin, who
used to babysit me, Virginia whom I’d thought had been dead for decades, turns
up out of the blue, looking soft and serene, just like I remembered her from when
I was a kid.
I introduce her to Denise and the two get on really well, like best
sisters. Virginia is at a loose end in her life and has nowhere to stay, so
Denise suggests we ask her to move in with us. Virginia accepts instantly.
The pair set about tidying my room. They start by taking down
the musty old net curtains and cleaning the windows inside and out. Light and
colour start to pour into the room and this makes such a difference.
And now with my two favourite women caring for me, I start to
feel better. My health is returning.
I think it’s probably the district nurse who arranges for the
cardiologist to call around and check me out. A tall American wearing a bow tie,
sunglasses tucked in his top pocket, he is gobsmacked to find my heart is on
the mend, that I’m actually going to live.
“It’s a miracle,” he says. “Fantastic. How did you manage
“I’ve been well looked after,” I say. “There’s nothing
the curative love of a good woman and when there’re two of them in your bed,
you’re on a winning streak.
“Well, whatever you’re doing, and however you’re doing it,”
cardiologist says, raising his eyebrows, “keep doing it.”