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Healing the State of Man

Sarah Lewis

When I finally get in I’m trembling with exhaustion and you’re already there. I say, “I’ve been waiting three years for you to die and when you died I expected you to be gone.” You laugh and say, well I couldn’t just leave you, could I? I stare at you and you stare back at me and when I sit down to make the phone calls, to your mother, your sister, our friends, you’re standing by my side as I let them know you died, 8:34 this morning, he slipped away peacefully, just went to sleep, it’s for the best, he won’t be in pain any more. No flowers. No flowers because of that night we stayed up, me with red wine black lips and you with morphine eyes, sitting on the floor, our backs against the sofa and we wrote

In Memoriam:

So. Farewell

then Daniel Salford

computer geek extraordinaire

time to reboot

turn off

but not back on again


No flowers.

   At work I asked the sub-editor to make a pretend Private Eye page so we could hang it in the bathroom but the next day it didn’t seem so funny and I put it in the drawer in the kitchen with the string and lettuce seeds and batteries.

That night, after the phone calls, I sit on the edge of our bed. I worry about how I’ll make sure there are enough little pastry mushroom things when everyone comes here after the service, I worry about the cocked-head sympathy that will make my insides clench with fury. I worry about your mother and her excited grief and I bet you she’ll insist on sitting shivah, even though your creased Tao Te Ching sits so patiently on your bedside table. I think about telling her that at your barmitzvah you read the service with your wide child’s face and a joint hidden under your skull cap or how, a few years later, you pawned the engraved watch your grandfather gave you and used the money for an hour with a dominatrix called Anna.

For a long time I wonder where all these things are, now they are not in you. You sit down next to me and tell me that it will all be okay and you take my hand as I have done for you so many times over the last three years, as I did that day in the doctor’s office.

We sit there, the dead-you and the still-here-me, and you tell me that when we first met that was it for you, there would never be any point to any other woman. And then you laugh and tell me that I, on the other hand, was a fucking stubborn bastard and even after you got me into bed on a number of occasions I still wasn’t getting the message. I shrug guiltily and say, “I didn’t realise you wanted more than that. I thought we were just having fun,” and I don’t say it but I think of all the extra time we could have had if only I was paying attention. All the extra time if that day in the doctor’s office never happened, when he said we’ll do everything we can.

He said the survival rates are low but everyone is different so it doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. He said it started in your stomach but we have found it in your liver and in your kidney and in your lungs. I was pneumatic. Air seeped from my chest to fuel my arms, one to hold your hand, the other to cover my mouth to plug the leak in case I deflated and sunk to the floor, an empty human skin suit. I forgot about you for a second and saw a future me, the brave widow, beautiful and refined in black with gracefully smudged eyeliner, and then I saw the real me, crumpled in tracksuit bottoms and a thin old t-shirt with a faded slogan. The Daniel-shaped hole, my outstretched hand with nothing to hold. He said, I’m very sorry and we will do everything we can but in reality we are looking at weeks to months.

When your mother arrives the next day she fusses into the house wearing clothes with the labels freshly cut out and she sets about covering the mirrors. I say, “Elsie, I understand you’re upset and I understand that this is what you do but it isn’t my religion and it wasn’t his.” And, I say in my head, it isn’t really yours either. When was the last time you went to synagogue? She says, Oh my dear, grieving is not for the dead, it is for the living. I can see you standing behind her mouthing the words as they come out her mouth. You come round and whisper to me, She’s been practising that one for a while, I can tell.

You slip your arms around my waist, just like the first time I met her when she said with a cursory smile, So this is the shiksa who’s stolen your heart? and you said, Oh mum, remember that year I spent in Thailand? In a monastery? With the monks? I saw myself then with friends clutching bulbous glasses of wine as I rolled my eyes in despair saying, “I just don’t know what to do, my mother-in-law hates me because I don’t believe in the right book and she calls me Yiddish names I don’t even understand what they mean”. But before I got too carried away she looked at me conspiratorially and said with a wink, Well you know, Jew to Bu and back again is quite a common thing, I’m sure we’ll have you converted in no time, dear.

On the way home you apologised for her but you were laughing and told me about your formidable matriarchal grandmother, who buried the family gold before escaping the Nazis and coming to England to fix fighter jets for the WRAF. After that she was a model for people who made clothes patterns, showing off knitwear and smart skirt suits to make at home, and once even for some couture house wearing sparkling black and gold. She married a young man from South London who kept them in comfort but never explained how. Together they delivered in to the world your terrifying mother and a various assortment of bickering siblings and when she finally died, you said, at the age of about 420 with more fake parts than the bionic man, she was buried under 100 velvet red roses, even though the rabbi nearly choked at such casual dismissal of tradition. The family gathered not for the usual days of mourning but instead played five-a-side football in your mother’s back garden, the early spring sun warming your backs, and ate small sandwiches and drank sweet champagne and the cousins and aunts and uncles and toddlers and middle aged and old told stories and shared pictures and laughed and cried and wished as good and as long a life on everyone there.

When I die, you said, I don’t think you should have a party for me. Just you weeping hysterically over my grave, head to toe in black, and with crotchless panties underneath please. I said, “Good god, you can’t die and leave me on my own with Elsie!” And we joked about it because then it was meaningless, a pretend black dot a million miles from now and anyway, death only happens to other people. If we had known then I wonder, would we have rushed home and clung to each other instead of going to work every day, seeing our friends, complaining about the washing up, would we have stitched ourselves together like two sides of a tear?

Elsie has seen the book on the living room table and she is sitting quietly looking at it. I don’t want her to open it. The book we joked is worth almost as much as our house and I do not want her to see what we did to it that day we went for a walk in the Downs. We went along the High Weald and accidentally stumbled across the Bluebell Woods. In the distance we saw a guided tour. I worried that we should pay and do the walk properly and you raised a defiant fist in the air and said, Fuck them! What the fuck is a Weald anyway? Fascists! and grabbed my hand and dragged me off in the other direction. You found a small patch of forget-me-nots and I said, “How did you manage that in all these bluebells?”. You pulled me to the ground, insisting you are like Fidel Castro, you have spies everywhere. You said, no flower walks free unnoticed!, and we lay on our backs all afternoon watching the blue sky roll past, threading little purple flowers into a necklace. I wore it proudly like a Mayoral chain for the rest of the day and by the time we had found a country pub and the landlord had served us one more past closing the little petals had begun to brown and curl. You grabbed me gently by the collar and said, Now listen here you fucker, I’m marking you as my territory, that necklace makes you mine, and don’t you ever forget it, okay?

We tumbled home, stopping to double over as we laughed and paying that grumpy taxi driver three times as much as we should have done. Outside our front door I sat on the low brick wall and panted, “No more! I can’t go on any more, I just need to sit here, just for a minute”. You crossed your arms and told me I was drunk and needed to get it together, that we had to get in because you needed to fuck me. And you stood there, wobbling slightly, one hand outstretched and a smile as wide as the universe. I jumped up on the wall, throwing my arms out to get balance and said, “Have I told you about Plato?” You rolled your eyes but before you could answer I had begun, tight-roping up and down the red bricks and reciting with great melodrama: “After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart… so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.”

You called me a soppy twat and told me to get down, reminding me that Plato had some questionable views on having sex with children. I told you that was absolutely not the point. “The point,” I instructed, “is that you are my long lost hermaphrodic other half and I have wandered the Earth since creation, since Zeus separated us, looking for my exactly fitting you”. You grabbed me from the wall, bundling me into your arms, my back to your tummy, and half walked half carried me to the door, dropping little kisses on my neck. Inside, in the drunken darkness I grabbed a book off the shelf and lay the weeping chain of flowers in the centre pages. I close the book and you are insistent. You blame it on the flowers, their early spring pollen flowing like sugar and their fecundity humming in our ears. In bed, I stare at you and you stare at me and then it’s just us, here, doing this thing and even after all this time together we stare at each other in breathless shock that the whole of everything could’ve just happened here, just like that.

It was months later when we found the book stuck in the gap between the two sets of shelves. When I realised it was your early edition Huckleberry Finn I was so horrified I lost my footing on the flat wooden floor and I had to put out a hand to steady myself and the bump that had been growing since that night. We opened it in fear and found the damp and dead forget-me-nots had pitted their revenge for our cruel and untimely picking, staining page after page with small purple circles and streaks of smudged ink.

Your mother sits at the table and holds her mouth firm, the fine lines around her eyes are held steady. She says quietly, I bought this for his 18th. We searched everywhere for it, we had it sent from America in the end and back then that was quite a thing. When he was a boy he must have read it 50 maybe 100 times. We bought him copy after copy because he read them so much they fell apart. I interrupt, “Because you never educated him properly. He always breaks the spines!” She smiled and I prayed to you not to let her open it, that if you had any power in your not-here-ness to make her forget about asking to keep it for her memories, to hide from her how we so carelessly disregarded such important things in life in lieu of just-us one ale- and pollen-sodden night. Then Molly stirs. And as Elsie gets up to fuss over her granddaughter I put my head round the door of the nursery, and there you are, tickling and teasing her and waking her up. Just in time.

Other people, when their lover dies, or their mother or sister, say, It sounds like such a terrible thing but it was a relief when they went. After all those years and all that struggle there was nothing but a guilty relief and freedom and choice and space. I never felt those things. There was only a missing bit, a different space, where once there was forget-me-nots and torn hermaphrodites and you. It was like giving birth all over again, but the exact opposite of creating Molly who bit by bit was created from something and nothing and appeared one day as a fully formed human complete with thumbs and knees and every day I felt that something and nothing pouring into me and swelling my belly and making a real life person. With you it was backwards, and I watched as that something was sucked from you bit by bit every single day until one day you appeared, fully formed, perfect, stillborn. If ever I never believed in a god it was then, when I watched you breathe and waited a whole five minutes to watch you breathe again and then the doctor put a hand on my shoulder and delicately left the room. Not because of the terrible injustice of it all oh woe is me only the good die young, but because I didn’t see a furious torrent of you pour away in glorious Technicolour. If your soul really were to rejoin the universe, to go back to god, back to the something and the nothing from which you came, I would have seen the bed glowing bright white hot with the intensity of you, the walls and ceiling and windows raging. I would have seen the sunlight trembling. But instead there was nothing. A hollow breath in your hollow chest and then. And then I was alone.

Back home the phone rings, and Elsie passes Molly to me and goes to answer it. Our daughter is hot from sleep with damp strands of your thick black hair clinging to her forehead and she holds on to me with small fists and soft chubby arms. I watch your mother dealing with the funeral director and I notice how alike you look, how indignant you both are in your posture. You punch me in the arm and tell me not to dare compare you with her. I sit Molly down with a glass of milk and as she slowly wakes up she asks where you are. Elsie looks over and I feel a feeling in my stomach and I am pleased she is here.

When the people have gone and there are plenty of little mushroom things left over, I get the book down from the shelf and put it back on the coffee table. I pull the sheets off the mirrors, leaving them where they fall. When they planted the tree this morning at the woodland burial ground, I scattered wild flower seeds on the freshly turned soil and told you I expected nothing but forget-me-nots to bloom in the spring. When Molly asked where you were, I could only reply with the truth.  I said, “I don’t know.” Today I still don’t know, but I can count three things that Daniel Salford has left behind: a book, a tree, a small girl called Molly. Three things is not enough but I don’t know how many things would make it better.

In our bedroom you sit on the bed next to me and we look at each other for a while.  You tell me you will never leave and I say you have to go. We hug. You are dead but your skin is hot and it smells so sweet of you. You say you’re going to say goodbye to Molly and I ask if I can tell you about Plato, just before you go, and you get up and head towards the door and say that it’s okay, you already know the story.

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  • TimN says:

    Good writing, Sarah. As I read it my father is in discussion with the Macmillan cancer nurse in the kitchen, discussing the possibility of chemo — but the reality is his liver cancer is very, very far gone.

    And I’m sure you know that Plato’s story from the Symposium you mention actually refers to the love of men for men… 🙂

    • TimN says:

      Actually, no: I’ve looked this up now. As you know, Sarah, I’m given to pompous and often incorrect pronouncements, and I’m wrong about the Symposium in this case while you are absolutely right. Aristophanes imagines the four-legged four-armed creatures to be man/man, man/woman or hermaphrodite, and woman/woman. So whatever we were before Zeus chopped us in half is what we spend our lives looking for.

      Anyhow, as you can tell: you’ve provoked thought with your writing, which is great.

      My father is resting at the moment.

      • Sarah Lewis-Hammond says:

        So sorry to hear about your father, Tim. Macmillan are fantastic, as are the Martlets. I hope he’s comfortable and you’re all coping .

        Re: Plato. Funny story! I read a child’s story about 25 years ago that featured the four-legged four-armed creatures and it stuck with me my entire life. It wasn’t until about 8 or 9 years ago when I was living with a friend studying a philosophy MA that I finally found out they came from Plato, and then I read the relevant passage and my whole love life, or failure at, made sense. Now my quest is to find the original kid’s story. It’s never bloody ending.

        • TimN says:

          Ah, thanks. Yes, well: we’re all still here which is something to enjoy and be grateful for.

          Well, Plato was a bit of a fascist of course. At least you’ve managed to find your other half! A lot more difficult than finding a kid’s story, I guess. Or maybe you should (re)write it…


  • Frances Lindsay says:

    I have read this story 3 times at least and every time i find something in my eye.