Authors: Jeanette Winterson
I moved quickly to the kettle, sensing that some appeasement would be necessary. Would a mug of tea protect me? I put out my hand to Earl Grey and settled on Empire Blend. The Stand Up And Be Counted of teas. A man-sized tea. A tea with so much tannin that designers use it as pigment.
She was in the bathroom. I heard the judder judder of the water pipes then the assault against the enamel. Unwillingly the tank was forced to part with every drop of hot water, it wheezed to the very end then came to a stop with a dreadful clank. I hoped she hadn’t disturbed the sediment.
‘Never disturb the Sediment,’ the farmer had said when he’d showed me round the place. He said it as though the Sediment were some fearful creature who lived under the hot water.
‘What will happen if I do?’
He shook his head doomfully. ‘Can’t say.’
I’m sure he meant he didn’t know but did he have to make it sound like an ancient curse?
I took Gail her tea and knocked at the door.
‘Don’t be shy,’ she called.
I prised open the door from its stiff catch and plonked the tea on the bathside. The water was brown. Gail was streaky. She looked like a prime cut of streaky bacon. Her eyes were small and red from the night before. Her hair stuck out like a straw rick. I shuddered.
‘Cold isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Scrub my back honey will you?’
‘Must stoke up the fire, Gail. Can’t let you get cold.’
I fled down the stairs and did indeed stoke up the fire. I would gladly have stoked the whole house and left it roasting Gail inside. This isn’t polite, I told myself. Why are you so horror-struck by a woman whose only fault is to like you and whose only quality is to be larger than life?
Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam. Gail Right was at the bottom of the stairs. I straightened up and made a quick smile.
‘Hello love,’ she said kissing me with a suckering sound. ‘Got any bacon sandwiches?’
While Gail made her way through what was left of Autumn Effie, the farmer’s yearly pig to the slaughter, she told me she was going to change my shifts at the wine bar so that we could work together. ‘I’ll give you more money as well.’ She licked the grease from her lower lip and where it had dripped on to her arm.
‘I’d rather not. I like things the way they are.’
‘You’re in shock. Try it my way for a bit.’ She leered at me over the crusts of her breakfast. ‘Didn’t you enjoy a bit of home company last night? Those hands of yours got everywhere.’
Her own hands were wedging Effie between her jaws as though she feared the pig might still have the guts to make a break for it. She had fried the bacon herself then
soaked the bread in the fat before shutting the sandwich. Her fingernails were not quite free of red polish and some of this had found its way on to the bread.
‘I love a bacon sandwich,’ she said. ‘The way you touched me. So light and nimble, do you play the piano?’
‘Yes,’ I said in an unnaturally high voice. ‘Excuse me please.’
I got to the toilet just ahead of my vomit. On your knees, seat up head down, stucco the bowl with porridge. I wiped my mouth and rinsed out with water, spitting away the burning in the back of my throat. If Louise had had chemotherapy she might be suffering this every morning. And I wasn’t with her. ‘Remember that’s the point, that’s the point,’ I said to myself in the mirror. ‘That’s the route she won’t have to take so long as she’s with Elgin.’
‘How do you know?’ said the piping doubting voice I had come so much to fear.
I crept back into the sitting room and took a swig of whisky from the bottle. Gail was doing her make-up in a pocket mirror. ‘Not a vice I hope?’ she said squinting under her eyeliner.
‘I’m not feeling well.’
‘You don’t get enough sleep, that’s your trouble. I heard you at six o’clock this morning. Where did you go?’
‘I had to telephone someone.’
Gail put down her wand of mascara. It said wand on the side of the tube but it looked more like a cowprod.
‘You’ve got to forget her.’
‘I may as well forget myself.’
‘What shall we do today?’
‘I’ve got to work.’
Gail considered me for a moment then bundled her
tools in their vinyl bag. ‘You’re not interested in me honey are you?’
‘It’s not that I …’
‘I know, you think I’m a fat old slag who just wants a piece of something firm and juicy. Well you’re right. But I’d do my share of the work. I’d care for you and be a good friend to you and see you right. I’m not a sponger, I’m not a tart. I’m a good-time girl whose body has blown. Shall I tell you something honey? You don’t lose your lust at the rate you lose your looks. It’s a cruel fact of nature. You go on fancying it just the same. And that’s hard but I’ve got a few things left. I don’t come to the table empty handed.’
She got up and took her keys. ‘Think about it. You know where to find me.’
I watched her drive off in her car and I felt depressed and ashamed. I went back to bed, gave up the fight and dreamed of Louise.
April. May. I continued my training as a cancer specialist. They got to call me the Hospital Ghoul down at the Terminal Ward. I didn’t care. I visited patients, listened to their stories, found ones who’d got well and sat by ones who died. I thought all cancer patients would have strong loving families. The research hype is about going through it together. It’s almost a family disease. The truth is that many cancer patients die alone.
‘What do you want?’ one of the junior doctors finally asked me.
‘I want to know what it’s like. I want to know what it is.’
She shrugged. ‘You’re wasting your time. Most days I think we’re all wasting our time.’
‘Then why bother? Why do you bother?’
‘Why bother? That’s a question for the whole human
race isn’t it?’
She turned to go and then turned back to me worried.
‘You haven’t got cancer have you?’
She nodded. ‘You see, sometimes people who have been newly diagnosed want the inside story on the treatment. Doctors are very patronising, even to highly intelligent patients. Some of those patients like to find out for themselves.’
‘What do they find out?’
‘How little we know. It’s the late twentieth century and what are the tools of our trade? Knives, saws, needles and chemicals. I’ve no time for alternative medicine but I can see why it’s attractive.’
‘Shouldn’t you have time for any possibility?’
‘On an eighty-hour shift?’
She left. I took my book,
The Modern Management of Cancer
, and went home.
June. The driest June on record. The earth that should have been in summer glory was thin for lack of water. The buds held promise but they didn’t swell. The beating sun was a fake. The sun that should have brought life was carrying death in every relentless morning.
I decided to go to church. Not because I wanted to be saved, nor because I wanted solace from the cross. Rather, I wanted the comfort of other people’s faith. I like to be anonymous among the hymn-singing crowd, the stranger at the door who doesn’t have to worry about the fund for the roof or the harvest festival display. It used to be that everybody believed and faith was found in thousands of tiny churches up and down the British Isles. I miss the Sunday morning bells ringing from village to village.
God’s jungle telegraph bearing the good news. And it was good news insomuch as the church was a centre and a means. The Church of England in its unexcited benevolent concern was emphatically to do with village life. The slow moving of the seasons, the corresponding echo in the
Book of Common Prayer
. Ritual and silence. Rough stone and rough soil. Now, it’s hard to find one church in four that still runs a full calendar and is something more than a bit of communion every other Sunday and the odd parish event.
The church not far from me was a working model not a museum so I chose evensong and polished my shoes. I should have known there’d be a catch.
The building was thirteenth-century in parts with Georgian and Victorian repairs. It was of the solid stone that seems to rise organically from the land itself. Grown not made. The colour and substance of battle. The battle to hew it out and shape it for God. It was massy, soil-black and defiant. Across the architrave of the low front door was a plastic banner which said
JESUS LOVES YOU
‘Move with the times,’ I said to myself, slightly uneasy.
I walked inside across the cool flagged floor, the particular church cold that no amount of gas fires and overcoats can penetrate. After the heat of the day it felt like the hand of God. I slid into a dark pew with a tree on the door and looked for my prayer book. There wasn’t one. Then the tambourines started. These were serious tambourines the size of bass drums, flaunting ribbons like a Maypole and studded round the side like the collar of a pitbull. One came down the aisle towards me and flashed at my ear. ‘Praise the Lord,’ said its owner, desperately trying to keep it under control. ‘A stranger in our midst.’
The entire congregation except for me then broke
into a melody of Bible texts and scattered shouts liberally set to music. The magnificent pipe organ stood shuttered and dusty, we had an accordion and two guitars. I really wanted to get out but there was a burly beaming farmer standing across the main door who looked as though he might get nasty if I ran for it before the collection.
‘Jesus will overcome you,’ cried the minister. (God the wrestler?)
‘Jesus will have his way with you!’ (God the rapist?)
‘Jesus is going from strength to strength!’ (God the body builder?)
‘Hand yourself over to Jesus and you will be returned with interest.’
I am prepared to accept the many-sidedness of God but I am sure that if God exists He is not a Building Society.
I had a boyfriend once, his name was Bruno. After forty years of dissolution and Mammon he found Jesus under a wardrobe. In fairness, the wardrobe had been slowly crushing the resistance from his lungs for about four hours. He did house clearances and had fallen foul of a double-doored Victorian loomer. The sort of wardrobe poor people lived in. He was eventually rescued by the fire brigade though he always maintained it was the Lord himself who had levitated the oak ever upwards. He took me to church with him soon after and gave a graphic account of how Jesus had come out of the closet to save him. ‘Out of the closet and up into your heart,’ raved the Pastor.
I never saw Bruno after that, he gave me his motorbike as a gesture of renouncement and prayed that it might lead me to the Lord. Sadly it blew up on the outskirts of Brighton.
Ripping through this harmless reverie, a pair of hands seized mine and started banging them together as if they were cymbals. I realised I was meant to be clapping in time to the beat and I remembered another piece of advice from my grandmother. ‘When in the jungle you howl with the wolves.’ I slapped a plastic grin on my face like a server at McDonald’s and pretended to be having a good time. I wasn’t having a bad time, I wasn’t having any time at all. No wonder they talk about Jesus filling a vacuum as though human beings were thermos flasks. This was the most vacuous place I’d ever been. God may be compassionate but he must have some taste.
As I suspected, the sumo farmer was in charge of the collection, so as soon as he had joyfully collected my bent twenty pence piece, I fled. I fled into the raw fields where the sheep continued their grazing as they had done for ten centuries. I fled to the pond where the dragonflies fed. I fled till the church was a hard knot against the sky. If prayer is appropriate it was appropriate here, my back against a dry stone wall, my feet on the slabbed earth. I had prayed for Louise every day since December. I did not know entirely to whom I prayed or even why. But I wanted someone to have care of her. To visit her and comfort her. To be the cool wind and the deep stream. I wanted her to be protected and I would have boiled cauldrons of stuffed newts if I’d been convinced it would have done any good. As to prayer, it helped me to concentrate my mind. To think of Louise in her own right, not as my lover, not as my grief. It helped me to forget myself and that was a great blessing. ‘You made a mistake,’ said the voice. The voice wasn’t a piping sly voice now it was a strong gentle voice and I heard it quite clearly more and more. I did hear it out loud and I was not sure that my
wits were still mine to command. What kind of people hear voices? Joan of Arc yes but what about all the others, the sad or sinister ones who want to change the world by tambourine power.
I hadn’t been able to reach Elgin this month although I had written to him three times and telephoned him at every hour proper and improper. I supposed him to be in Switzerland but what if Louise were dying? Would he tell me? Would he let me see her again? I shook my head. That would be wrong. That would make a nonsense of all of this. Louise wasn’t dying, she was safe in Switzerland. She was standing in a long green skirt by the drop of a torrent. The waterfall ran down from her hair over her breasts, her skirt was transparent. I looked more closely. Her body was transparent. I saw the course of her blood, the ventricles of her heart, her legs’ long bones like tusks. Her blood was clean and red like summer roses. She was fragrant and in bud. No drought. No pain. If Louise is well then I am well.
I found one of her hairs on a coat of mine today. The gold streak caught the light. I bound it around my forefingers and pulled it straight. It was nearly two feet long that way. Is this the thread that binds me to you?
No-one tells you in grief-counselling or books on loss what it will be like when you find part of the beloved unexpectedly. The wisdom is to make sure your house is not a mausoleum, only to keep those things that bring you happy positive memories. I had been reading books that dealt with death partly because my separation from Louise was final and partly because I knew she would die and that I would have to cope with this second loss, perhaps just as the first was less inflamed. I wanted to cope.
Although I felt that my life had been struck in two I still wanted life. I have never thought of suicide as a solution to unhappiness.