Appendix: Box – Bewildering

I sometimes recollect a waking dream I once had, about ten years ago,[1] in which I am waiting in the afterlife, having been there for some time, to take up my new life, the life I am having now. All the souls that have volunteered to be reborn – following the stories that Robert Frost tells in his poem ‘Trial by Existence’ and Plato tells in ‘The Story of Er’ in his Republic – are assembled on a vast grassy expanse, where first we must select the very life into which we will be born, for all the lives are already fixed in the divine plan, and all we have to do is choose the one that we want, according to some scheme as to which sort of experiences we need to have next, for all lives offer their own lessons, and our task, as we enter into one life after another, is to choose those lessons wisely so that we may grow as moral agents, and gradually come to an understanding of the human condition, and why it must have the character that it does. (And I should add that because all the lives are fixed in the divine plan it does not follow that we lack the free will that we usually think we have, for it is our own capacity for free choice and the manner in which we exercise our power of agency that fixes the divine plan in the form that it has.) And all the available lives are written out on sherds of pottery, or on little pages of papyrus or parchment, that we are free to rummage amongst. And here is my life, written out neatly, showing how I will find my dear J and how I must look after her, and how I will reap such joy in doing so. And it seemed to me that this particular life had been passed over, time and again, and that no one really wanted it, and I was worried then as to how my dear J would cope if no one came to look after her in her long illness and disability, and I could not choose a different life. After we had all chosen the life we wanted, we were all given a wooden box, large enough in fact to be a small chest, in which were saved things that will be useful, perhaps even needed, for our future lives. And we all sat on the grass, for the moment absorbed in the contents of our boxes, pulling out books or keys, or items of jewellery, or models of animals or houses that rep­resent our future realities, and we turned to each other in our delight so that we might congratulate our neighbours on their good fortune at having those things in their boxes. But in my waking dream, my box was empty, with respect to which (I do not know why) I felt embarrassed and ashamed. So when my neighbours turned to me to ask if I too had received wonderful things in my box, I replied that yes, I have quite wonderful things, when all along my box was quite empty. With a mixture of disappointment and horror, as I gazed into the interior of my wooden box, I knew then the awful reality of the hardships that would come to me in my future life, but I could not give it up, because I knew now how much my dear J would need me. So I would have to undertake the living of this life without the sort of help that oth­ers would have for their lives. And as it turned out, the help I did receive was, of course, J herself. For she gave me my instructions and directed our course. My hateful anxiety and depression, present from childhood, were under her authority, and my days ordered according to her needs and her plans. Not that I would have no impact whatever. No, of course I did. But as I have explained, J was my Captain, and I was a deckhand, and oh my goodness, I liked it like that. In my waking dream, I still have my box with me, and I look inside it from time to time, for it occurs to me that there really is something there to help me, and that in all this time I simply could not see it, and perhaps one day I will. But every time I look, the box is still empty, and I still feel the embarrassment and shame of being given an empty box. For now that J has gone, the emptiness of that box spills out over everything, rendering everything empty and useless and unwanted. The only thing I ever really wanted, that I want still, and which perhaps could not be represented by any object lodging in my box, was conversation with my dear J, that and the joy of coming home to our little house where we could be at peace with only each other, but where peace now eludes me. Like the fish that is unaware of the water through which it swims, for all those years I think I was largely unaware of that marvel­lous treasure – conversation with J – that so filled our hours together. I see it now, and as the months pass, my losing it becomes more and more painful. The closing period of this life that I have chosen is a horrible affair, and I do not want it. Oh my goodness… I hope, I hope, I so hope that my dear J is waiting for me at the gates of Paradise.[2] I have so much I want to tell her, and I so long to hear her response, and all the things that she will, I hope, want to tell me.

[1] This Appendix extracts a section from my book Another Grief Observed (Swaying Willow Press, 2015), written in response to the death of my wife, Jocelyn Almond. The title is added anew.

[2] See her poem, which I shall post in the very next blog, tomorrow.

 

65: All Things – Ending

Almost all my dreams are nightmares, and always have been. The earliest dream I can recol­lect places me in my infant’s perambulator, lying on my back, gazing at a brilliant sky in early sum­mer. Next to me, heard but not seen, were my mother and her friend Sheila, who were talking and talking and talking. I could not follow what they were saying, a feature common to reality that was simply replicated in my dream. I was myself not silent, not any more, for I was wailing in dis­tress and terror, and I was trying to alert my mother to the awful danger that was descending upon us. For high up was flying a squadron of aircraft, painted grey and barely visible against the pale blue of the sky. And from each aircraft had been despatched some piece of ordnance, sus­pended like floating down from two, three or even four giant parachutes – howitzers, heavy mortars, 25–pounders, anti-aircraft guns, armoured cars and even a handful of tanks. Gently, gently, all this menacing metal drifted towards the ground, ready for deployment on the battlefield that must lie all about us. And right above me now, spread­ing out in all directions, was the bottom of a troop carrier, which in only a few moments would crush us to death. And I wailed and wailed my warning, with all my heart I tried to alert my talking moth­er. But she just kept on talking, totally oblivious to the danger that was bearing down upon us.

Some few years later, at about the time I start­ed school, I had a sequence of dreams in which we were being evacuated in an emergency, and I had struggled to find my precious things in time as my parents bundled cases and bags into their shaking arms and headed up the short driveway at the front of the house to the main road beyond, where transportation was waiting. But I could not find quickly enough what I wanted to take,[1] and oh, what a sense of desperate panic came upon me … and which to this day has never really lifted. By the time I got outside, they had gone, everyone had gone, and I was on my own. And then the bright flash, and everything was instantly on fire. All the trees, all the bushes at the front of the house were bathed in an exquisite, incandescent glow of flickering blues and yellows and reds, as if they were made from silver and gold wire, caught in a gentle, undulating breeze that made them sway and shimmer and dance with light. I felt no heat. I was not myself on fire. I was already dead, I sup­pose, and now as a spirit surveyed the ruined world for just a little while longer. Although I was too young to have yet heard about the nuclear menace or understand is mode of operation – to know that flash fires will erupt instantly upon det­onation, well in advance of the mighty and all-consuming shockwave that will follow seconds or minutes later – I nevertheless dreamed it accurate­ly, and there is a mystery indeed.

[1] In those days, my father’s shirts came in cardboard boxes, all of which I kept, for they were so incredibly useful for general storage – ideal for jigsaw puzzles whose original boxes had torn or split, perfect for toy cars, which when stacked anticipated the multi-storey car parks of the future, just the thing for odds and ends such as Sellotape rolls, paper clips, the mirrors from cos­metic products, bits of string, bits of pencils, rulers, rubbers, scissors, staplers, exercise books, watercolour paints, brushes, little pots for water, plastic zoo animals, toy soldiers and their weaponry (ironically). One of these boxes was ideal for taking a few things on our visits to my grandparents or other destina­tions, for I hated, so hated not having something to do, or being cut off from my project of the moment. So in my dream I was desperately trying to select the few things that I wanted, that would fit into one of these boxes, and in my panic I just could not think, could not think at all, and like the panic itself, this procrastination has followed at my side, muddling my thoughts, ever since.

61: Earth – Rising

TwnPks_RkGdn_rite_med

On a spring day in 1975, I had come down to this little house – long before it was to become my little house – to pick up my wife, who was not yet my wife, from where she lived with her parents, to take her back on the bus to my parents’ house, where I was still living, to spend the afternoon and evening together, for the first time ever.

The house was very busy and very noisy that day. My parents were there, and my mother’s par­ents had come round from their little maisonette half a mile away; by brother and his friend were there, as were my sister and her friend. So to get some peace, and find a space in which to talk, we stayed in my bedroom, she on the long sofa, and I perched on the edge of the bed with my elbows on my knees, and we talked and talked. For six hours we talked, and when it was time to take her home again, I was in love, and I was addicted to her conversation. From that point, I craved her company for her conversation. Everything else immedi­ately assumed the role of distraction, whose pur­pose it became to tug the seconds and minutes out of the future until, at last, new conversations would arrive, and my addiction was for the mo­ment satisfied once again. At first, we met every day at school, then, once our courses concluded and the exams were upon us, daily contact ended, and on those days when we did not meet, I would always phone her in the evenings, and perhaps for an hour so, there came the conversations that I craved. We would meet once, each weekend when she would visit my parents’ house, and on one day during the week I would visit her parents’ house. The gaps were filled by phone calls, and by wait­ing, by seeking distractions that used up the inter­vening time between where I was and our next meeting.

And that craving, that addiction, that affliction, has never left me. Everything else, for our entire married life, was subordinate to our conversations, and nothing mattered, not really, apart from our conversations.

So now, all these months after having been cleaved so irrevocably from the conversation that I crave, I find that I experience matters just as I did then, all those years ago, when the world was di­vided into the joy of conversations and the barely endurable discomfort of waiting for conversations. So this is what I am waiting for, and this is why everything is nothing but an attempt to find a dis­traction through which time will pass until it is again time for conversation. Except now, no con­versation can ever come again. And that fact makes the distractions useless, makes the waiting pointless. What I await can never come, yet I find that I am waiting all the same. I do not really, not really want to read Orwell’s 1984, but I read it anyway in order to bring closer – according to my old habit – those new conversations that I crave more than any addict has ever craved his fix. Yet they do not come. So I endure a state of perma­nent withdrawal that will never lessen, as the daily routine of sleeplessness, nightmares, pounding heart, abdominal cramps, revulsion at everything, headaches, dizziness and weeping crash together like runners in the field trying all at once to get through a narrow gate.

I would like my new, my new unwanted life, to be wanted, needed by someone, as my dear wife needed and wanted me for all those years yet, trapped in this despair, I see no way of ever find­ing an opening I might squeeze through. That I could ever do this, strikes me as ridiculous as the notion that I might one day live on Mars, and step out from an agreeable little modular dwelling – where I still have some of my old books – under its protective dome, where it quite often gets as warm as I remember it back on Earth, all those years ago, before the illness came, and we would walk across the little field close to her parents’ house, or explore the Roman Museum at Verula­mium … and where under the dome I would sit on an old, familiar chair watching the horizon, because I know that the Earth will rise in a moment, and as the sky darkens on another Martian day, that distant, distant planet where I knew my con­versa­tions, will grow agreeably bright, hinting at a tranquil blue, and for just a second I will fancy that I can hear her voice calling to me, as she used to, from inside, for she has something new to tell me, and now I do so want to hear it, even though we are on Mars. I would want to keep hearing it forever.

But I am not on Mars, I am here, where I have always been, waiting and waiting for nothing.

[The photograph of Mars is a public do­main image originating with NASA and sourced from the Wikimedia Commons website.]

59: Panic – Recurring

Panic, panic, panic, like the torrential rains we have had these past few days, beats down on every thought, drenching every thought, negating every thought, and my heart pounds and pounds and pounds its terror, and I hear it speak in a quiet voice, Oh, dear God, must there yet be more of this?

And I have no words of comfort other than the truth, ‘There will be no more conversations, now that she has gone, now that my dear wife has gone. For she was the one who spoke to us, she was the one who always knew what to do.’

But can she not come now, from the afterlife, if only infrequently, if only once?

‘I thought she would, because she could not doubt the fact of life after death. There is just too much evidence, and she read the books of re­searchers who jolly well knew their craft, and in the face of such evidence, there could be only one rational position. So if anyone were to come back with words of comfort, it would be her, yet she does not come, and that is half of your panic. The other half is stirred by the realisation that there will be no more conversation, for the rest of our time in this dismal, cruel reality, there will be no more conversation.’

Can we not find other people to talk to?

‘Maybe. But how do we find them? How could we ever develop that intimacy that we shared for all those years? No one knows we are here, you and I, slowly losing our reason for lack of conversation that like the centreboard of a boat would hold us to a sensible course.’

Could we not continue on our old course?

‘No. Have you forgotten? She died, and for all those years, because of her lifelong illness and disability, we looked after her, and her thoughts were as free and vigorous and engaging and enlightening as they could be, for her sickness lodged only in her body. So that is why we were always so busy, you and I, preparing meals, wash­ing and cleaning and taking her out to the hospi­tal, and once in a while, so infrequently towards the end, we would have a day out at St Albans, and before that we used to visit that second-hand bookshop that had taken over the premises of a closed-down solicitors, with all those little offices, ideal for categorising all the books into major sub­ject areas – in this office, history, in this office next door, literature, and further down the long, long corridor, other little rooms for gardening, adven­ture and travel, crime, and children’s books, right at the very end. But do you remember, the owner had to close the shop when the council put up the business rates to a level he could not sustain? That was when we bought one of his tables, which we brought home in the back of our car, which to this day has been in the back room, its two shelves, and the top of course, stacked with books, so maybe the table does not know anything untoward has happened, and in its own feeble way, for it is made of wood, it thinks it is still in the bookshop, and that when I go to take books from it, and bring them back, it thinks I am a customer.’

Is there nothing, then, that will end this pounding and this panic and this despair?

‘I do not think so. We must hope that it will not last for long. We are not young any more, you realise? Not like we used to be. For that is how we felt, we felt so very young, right up until the day she died, even though others, especially those who are as yet young, would think us already old. This is how our days are now, and they are not so bad, not so bad when tabulated against all the other days that sometimes others must suffer, for the suffering here is so very great.’

I do know that, I do. And I am so very sad for it.

‘As am I, as am I, my dear heart – for that is how she would refer to me, sometimes, and that is how I may now address you, just for a little long­er, to keep the phrase alive in this little house (for it is not “our little house” any more).’

57: Dreams – Recurring

Decent sleep has always eluded me, or so it seems. Before that awful school, did sleep come pleasantly welcomed? I cannot remember. Perhaps it did. But later, and forever, no sleep that is not troubled by terrible dreams has ever come to me.

So it was last night, all night long, as one trial or torment or tribulation after another afflicted my miserable slumbers with dreams and nightmares of troubles and conflicts and perplexities. I do not catalogue these dreams. I do not even look upon them later, when awake, other than to acknowl­edge their mere occurring, for to dwell upon their content and rehearse their narratives and outcomes would etch them upon my memory sufficiently, I fear, to have them reappear at odd moments unbidden and irritating and fearful, later that day and in days to come. Some few dreams that I had years ago, or in childhood, still come back to me, every few days, every few weeks at least, and I am desperate not to add to their stock.

So upon waking with the recollections of new dreams tumbling about me, I turn quickly to some practical matter in the hope of banishing them quickly – getting dressed, boiling the kettle, checking for mail, stalking the message boards for evil to fight. And it works. Ask me now to give examples of my bad dreams, and other than those few old ones just mentioned, I cannot. My night-crumpled memo­ries are all smoothed out by the time I settle down to my reading or writing or lyre playing. I know only their broad brushstrokes. I see no Mona Lisa, but mere portrait. No details of any Guernica, but mayhem… I see now just general descriptions of arguments, frustrations, searchings, fleeings, confrontings … just the topic headings, but no explana­tory content.

But now, today, after less than four hours sleep riddled by nightmares now thankfully beyond re­call, I am tired and sleepy, and my concentration flaps about my intellectual efforts like a wet sheet tied at one corner thrashing in the wind, and hope of engaging with interesting books or writing something cannot be awakened. If this account makes any sense, that is because I have worked at it over the days, struggling to capture the sense of what I want to convey, struggling to find interest­ing words and a way to make agreeable phrases, to congeal these confused thoughts into some kind of self-supporting structure that shelters this tiny aspect of what populates my lifelong despair. Not for sympathy, not for any clear reason at all, really. I would like to put a few nails through the human condition, to pin it down so that others may say, ‘Yes. That is how it is. That is what happens to me. Here is something familiar, though loathsome…’

I do not want to be on my own.

36: Apple – Falling

It is so cold, even in the house, because I can­not afford to put the heating on this winter, and that is why my hands are perpetually numb, and that is why I have just tipped the bits of the apple I am slicing up all over the floor. I had worse disasters, here, in the kitchen, for the same reason, a few days ago, and as I stoop to recover the pieces of apple, thinking those very thoughts about the cold and my numb hands, thinking about this accident and the other ones, earlier on, I am struck by the realisation that in just a moment, when I have stood, and when I have deposited my collection in the bin by the washing-machine, that what I am doing now will be later a memory of what I am doing now, and my realising this will so engrave this moment on my memory that I will never forget it, and I will for the rest of my life, at intervals, bring it to mind, and for a second or two I will again be squatting here, groping with numb fingers for little bits of apple, all because I cannot afford to put the heating on.

I am right, for as I retreat upstairs to my bed­room – the single room that I am occupying for the duration of this winter, where I will now wrap myself in my electric throw, like an electric blanket but a throw instead, and where I will enfold my numb hands in the soft, warm fabric – I am already remembering the apple incident, and I am reliving my bending, squatting and gathering, and I am reliving my thought that I shall never forget this moment, but will recall it again and again and again all my life long days. I wish I could undo that silly, pointless, futile memory. But even having that thought serves to reinforce it. I shall remember the soft winter light on the old, worn, red quarry tiles, and I shall remember the day, nearly forty years ago, when I tried to repair the grouting that had broken away during the course of the floor’s long history, for I thought then, ‘I shall remember this moment forever.’

31: Always – Waiting (1)

Lost in memories, I can sometimes forget myself. I have no idea whose life it is I am recollecting.

Sometimes I feel that I must be a time traveller sent on a mission from the far, far future, and that is why I feel so strongly that I do not belong here – but I have forgotten who I really am, and I have forgotten my mission. I have been accompanied all my life by an impression that there is something I should be doing, but I cannot remember what it is. Sometimes the intensity of this sensation is unbearable. Sometimes I feel that I am waiting for my memory to recover, and sometimes I forget that that is what I am waiting for.

In the absence of my mission to direct me, I have always thought that my life has yet to properly begin, that it hasn’t actually started yet.