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Authors: A.S. Byatt

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Little Black Book of Stories (5 page)

BOOK: Little Black Book of Stories
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So he was a little put out when Daisy Whimple stared dutifully up at the banners, cast her eye over the brush-strokes and said unenthusiastically, “Yeah, very nice, very colourful. Pretty.”

“What sort of work do you do?” asked Damian Becket levelly. “Not like this, I take it.”

“Well, no, not like this at all. I’m into installations, or I would be if there was any space anywhere I could get to install anything.”

“The things you are doing in the ward are—are bright.”

“Yeah, I figured that was what was wanted. I mean, like, the notice actually used the words
cheer up
the wards, didn’t it? I agree, really, you want easy cheerful art when you’re in one of those places. Easy on the eye, yes. For
Christmas
and all that.”

“But you haven’t—installed—anything to do with Christmas. No snow, no Christmas tree, no reindeer. No crèche.”

“No one asked for a crèche. I can’t do that sort of stuff. It’s all
kitsch.

There was venom in the word. She added:

“And I don’t suppose the establishment’d be too happy if I, like,
sent it up,
the angels and stars and stuff. Though the angels are the bit I don’t mind.”

He asked, on an impulse, which modern artists she really admired. The answer came quick, without time taken for reflection, as though it were part of a credo.

“Beuys. He was the greatest. He changed everything.”

He was piqued to find that not much came into his mind, apropos of Beuys. He dredged.

“Didn’t he work in fat and felt?”

She looked at him kindly. “Among other things. He worked with himself too. He sat for days and months on a stage with a coyote.”

Damian said foolishly that you could hardly have a coyote in a hospital.

“I know that. I’m doing what was expected OK, OK?”

“OK.”

He said that he would be very interested to see her work when she had finished it. He said he hoped she would get a proper meal. He said he was going to get a taxi home, and could he drop her anywhere. She said no, she needed fresh air. Thanks.

They parted. It was cold outside: an icy wind was blowing in off the Thames. It fluttered in her silly clothes, and ruffled her silver hair. He resisted an impulse to run after her and lend her his overcoat.

HE LIVED in a Docklands apartment, glass-walled and very modern, looking over at Canary Wharf. It was simultaneously austere and brilliant. His furniture was chrome and glass and black leather. His carpet was iron grey. His walls were white, and were hung with abstract works—several of Patrick Heron’s 1970s silk-screens, some of Noel Forster’s intricately interlaced ribbons of colour, resembling rose windows, a Hockney print of cylinders, cones and cubes, a framed poster of Matisse’s
Snail.
He had also one or two brilliant Korean silk cushions in traditional green, gold, shocking pink and blue. He lived alone, since his parting from his wife, with whom he did not communicate. He considered himself hopelessly and helplessly married. He was a lapsed Catholic—this was something about himself that rose to the surface whenever—which was rarely—he was in a position where he was required to give a personal description of himself. He could have added adverbs—savagely lapsed, insistently lapsed, even in some sense devoutly lapsed. His way of life—including his attitude to his marriage—still ran furiously along the narrow channels cut by his upbringing.

His Northern Irish mother had meant him for the priesthood. He was to be her gift to God, she often said, having also decided that his elder brothers were to be teacher and republican politician, which they now were, showing, perhaps, the power of her gentle certainties. His father was himself a schoolteacher, specialising in Irish Literature, and had wanted Damian to be what he himself had not been, a true scholar, a linguist who spoke many tongues, a civilised man. Damian had tried to please both of them. They were kind and their tongues were golden. He had got as far as reading literature at University College Dublin, where he met his wife, Eleanor, who meant to be an actress, who had become since they parted a successful actress on the television. Eleanor was a good girl, and was tormented—in those distant days—by problems about contraception. She tormented Damian in turn, leaving him both over-excited and perpetually unsatisfied. They married, as a direct consequence, when she was eighteen and he was nineteen. Eleanor’s sister Rosalie was seventeen, not scholarly, and not a good girl. She once got drunk at a party, at the height of Damian’s time of over-excited frustration, and had suddenly stripped off her jumper and bra in a box-room where they were hunting for coats. She stood and stared at him, wild-eyed, wild-haired, laughing, and the great brown eyes of her large freckled breasts seemed to stare at him too. She told him not to be in a hurry. She told him her sister was a cold little fish, he hadn’t the wit to see it because he didn’t know enough women. He took her jumper and bra and made her put them back on. She went on laughing. A year later she was dead; she bled to death after a back-street abortion. In his dreams he still saw the spheres of her breasts, and the constellation of freckles, and the blind puckered brown eyes of her nipples.

HE DID NOT LOSE his faith as a consequence of her death. Nor as a consequence of its effect on Eleanor, who now wriggled away from his body as though he was going to damage or contaminate her. Nor out of any moral outrage—though he felt some—at the Church’s interference in processes he wanted to believe were human and natural. (That included contraception. Human beings were not animals. They cared for children for perhaps a third of the normal human life. They needed to have the number of children they could decently and responsibly care for. Their sexual desires were unfortunately not periodic in the way of cows and bitches. Women were perpetually on heat unless, as in the case of his wife, the heat had been turned off. It followed that contraception was natural.) He lost his faith as a result of a vision.

The vision was conventional enough, in one sense. It was a vision of Christ on the Cross—not a heavenly appearance, but the result of an unnaturally close inspection of the carving that hung in his local church, a painted wooden carving, neither good nor bad, a mediocre
run-of-the-mill
carving of a human body, unpleasantly suspended from nails hammered through the palms of hands neither writhing in pain nor distorted by stress, but spread wide in blessing. He thought, The anatomy is bad, the weight would rip through muscle and sinew long before the man was dead. Some crucifixes did support the feet. This one did not. They were crossed, and improbably nailed through both ankles. Some care had been taken to depict the agony of the muscles of the torso, the arms and the thighs. The gash under the heart had realistic slipperiness where it opened; unreal immobilised paint-blood spilled from it, in runnels someone had taken pleasure in varying. There were no bloodstains on the loincloth, which carefully obscured the sex. The face was stylised. Long, unlined, with downcast eyelids, closed as in sleep, and a mouth slightly opened, showing no teeth. More artistic blood had been dribbled from the clutches of the crown of thorns in the abundant shaggy hair. The dead or dying flesh—the carving was
simply not good enough for him
to be sure which—was creamy in colour, with pink highlights. He thought, I belong to a religion which worships the form of a dead or dying man. He realised that he did not believe and never had believed, either that the man’s bodily death had been reversed, or that he ascended into heaven, for there was no heaven, and all human descriptions of heaven made it pathetically clear that we can’t imagine it well enough to make it at all attractive as a prospect. He would not meet poor Rosalie in any such place, and he did not think he would even want to. He did not believe that this one unpleasant death had in any way cancelled out the sins of the earth: Rosalie’s wildness, the Church’s obstructiveness and bloodymindedness, his grandfathers’ deaths in bomb blasts in wartime (paternal) and peacetime (maternal). He
never had believed
any of it. He felt for the shape of the time—his whole life—when he would have said he believed, and was aghast to sense it like a great humming ice-box behind him, in which what he had been had kept its form, neither dead nor alive, suspended. He was a human bowed down under the weight of a man-sized ice-box.

He went on looking at the figure hanging by his hands, with outrage and then with pity. There was a man, who had been dying, and then dead. And there was an idea of who he was, which was a dream, which was a poem, which was a moral cage, which was a film over a clear vision of things. A man is his body, his body is a man.

From which it followed that Damian Becket, having straightened his back, and shaken the ice-box from his shoulders to melt he hoped, at the feet of the lifeless carving, had to concern himself with bodies. His vision had not taught him that everything was without meaning, that chaos reigned. There was order, but order was in time and space and the body. If a man— who had seen the ice-box—wanted to make sense of his life and live well, he must concern himself with the body. There were multifarious reasons why in his case it was the female body. His decision to become a medical student, at the age when he should have been about to earn his living, offended his mother and made his wife extremely angry. He was not quite sure why she was so very angry, and could not find out. Communication is much harder in intimate fear and anger than between casual companions. Silence spread into their lives. He went to London and she did not. She went to church, and he did not.

HE DISCOVERED COLOUR, at the same time as he took up the post at St. Pantaleon’s. Every time he came home, he stared at the bright forms on his walls, and worshipped the absence of God in the material staining of paint and ink.

He saw Daisy Whimple several more times during his visits to the Gynae Ward in the days before Christmas. She seemed to be the only student who had chosen to work on that ward—the take-up of the hospital offer had indeed been rather disappointing. She had made several bouquets or bundles of odd things suspended from the ceiling—children’s whirligigs, coloured feathers, plastic bubble-wrapping stitched with cut-up plastic beakers and bottles, green and blue. He could see her sitting cross-legged on the floor in the corner of the ward, wound in a coil of tape to which she was stitching plumage— hen-feathers, turkey-feathers, black feathers which shone like oil. He stopped once and asked her how all this was funded. She said oh, she had scrounged most of it. She said, if you look closely at a lot of these things—the little whirlies, the gauze flowers— you’ll see that they’re rejects, a bit torn. They look fine like this, if you don’t examine them too closely. He said he would see she got reimbursed, all the same.

“I like doing it,” she said. “It’s my pleasure.”

She said, “I’m putting the really colourful bits at the miserable end.”

“The miserable end?”

“The no-hopers. The dead babies and tied-up-tubes end. Sodding rotten luck to have to lie there and listen to other people’s kids squealing all night and not getting any sleep. I think you lot are cruel, if you want to know.”

He said, “Beds are in short supply.”

She said, with a return of the sudden venom that cut through her pale daffiness:

“I know all about that. All about that. The consultants are overworked, they have to have all their cases next to each other to get round, bad wombs next to good wombs and no-wombs mixed in. I do know about that.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. He wasn’t a man for arguing. He walked onwards. The Sister said:

“She was in here last year, you know. Abortion with complications. Mr. Cuthbertson operated.”

Mr. Cuthbertson had subsequently left, after several of his patients had been discovered to have been badly handled. Damian looked a question at the Sister.

“Raging infection of the tubes. Lost an ovary.”

He did not want to appear to be prying, so dropped the question. He could look it up in the records. But there was no need for him to know the gynaecological history of Daisy Whimple, who was trailing paper garlands of sunflowers and pheasant feathers between the bed-heads of the no-hopers.

THE CHRISTMAS BABY was black twins, huge, healthy, and slow to deliver. Damian was there because there were complications, and because he liked to work on holy days and holidays. The ward, when they wheeled their patient in, was largely empty. The mothers and the no-mothers had Christmas cards on their lockers. Daisy Whimple’s decorations spun and fluttered in the draught from the double doors. Daisy Whimple was sitting at the Sister’s desk, eating a pot of strawberry yogurt. Damian said:

“I’m surprised to see you. You’ve made it all look lovely. But I thought you’d have gone home for the holiday, by now.”

“Home?” said Daisy. “No, I haven’t gone home.” She looked at him rather bleakly. “You haven’t gone home, either.”

“I was needed—”

“I’ve made myself useful in a small way,” said Daisy, looking at the Staff Nurse for confirmation. “Haven’t I?”

“You’ve been great.”

“I wasn’t criticising. I was just asking.”

He waited for her to say, “Well, you’ve asked, now sod off.” But she just bent her fragile neck over the yogurt, and ended the conversation.

HE ASKED THE STAFF NURSE, when Daisy had left, what she thought Daisy lived on. Did she have a grant, or what? The Staff Nurse said she didn’t know. She did seem to be coming in to get warm. “She hugs the radiators, when I’m not looking,” said Nurse Ogunbiyi. “And she nicks things off the lockers and the trays going back to the kitchen. I gave her that yogurt. She talks nice enough, tells you little things, but she don’t say where she lives at present, nor yet if she’s got any cash.”

ONCE OR TWICE, when the Christmas holidays were over, he thought he saw her flitting round the corners of corridors, or stepping into the lift. But he couldn’t be sure. And he was tired, and she wasn’t his business, his business was flesh, and its making, mending, and unmaking.

ON TWELFTH NIGHT the decorations were taken down by the hospital cleaners.

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