Islands of Silence
By Martin Booth
Picador Copyright © 2003 Martin Booth
All rights reserved.
Over the last few weeks, the young doctor with responsibility for my case has been studiously examining me. He has meticulously collected blood samples and urine specimens, X-rayed and probed me, attached me to several pieces of complex electronic equipment and, from time to time, had one of the orderlies sit with me in the evening, as I fell asleep.
Or so I led them to believe. Once I was breathing gently, the orderly departed and I spent the remainder of my waking hours in my precious solitude.
This morning, armed with a black plastic clipboard, the doctor came to visit me as I sat at my window. Announcing his presence with a gentle knock on the door, he entered slowly. I sensed a certain tentativeness in his step.
'Good morning, Alec,' he said, pulling over the chair from my desk and sitting to my right.
He shuffled briefly through the papers on the clipboard and I could tell this was not so much to retrieve information as to delay his next sentence.
'I have received back the results of some of our tests.'
I, of course, showed no sign of having heard him and have to admit to admiring his perseverance. For months now, since he took on my case, he has spoken to me as if he expected a reply, yet in the full and certain knowledge that the chances of my uttering a single syllable in response were as great as the stars in the hemisphere of the southern sky.
Again, he fumbled with his papers.
'I'm afraid I have some unsettling news.'
Were I not a man of silence, I should have laughed.
'In general terms, you are in remarkably good health for your age. ...'
The farcicality of it! Here was I, old beyond my luck, being told by a man of the white cloth with a fresh demeanour unsullied by time, and possessing but a microscopic fragment of my experience of the vagaries of existence, that my days were numbered.
'Your chest X rays are clear. No sign of any ominous lingering shadows ...'
He gave me a quick half-smile of partial encouragement.
My urge to laugh passed away, to be replaced by sympathy for this young man with his cheap watch and his concerned, earnest face. He does not realise, from his twenty-eight or so years, that all our days are counting down. It is just that he has a greater store of them left than I do. Possibly.
He thumbed some more paper, unable to find my birth date. I have long since forgotten it and my now somewhat tattered medical records have seemingly shed some pages over the voyage of my life across the institutional universe.
'Your liver is functioning adequately for the time being, your circulation likewise. There are a few minor conditions, a touch of eczema on your right leg, some synovitis in the joint of your right knee, but these are to be expected in advancing years. The blister you suffered from last month may be the onset of pemphigus, but we have addressed this with corticosteroids.'
This all meant nothing to me, nor was it so intended. He was sparring, a few little taps and touches before the punch to the solar plexus.
'However,' he carried on, 'we have discovered you are suffering from atrial fibrillation. This is the irregular beating of the heart. In rare cases, of which you are one, the symptoms of shortness of breath and palpitations do not exhibit themselves. The cause of this condition is unknown and, in itself, it is not life-threatening. But that said, it can cause complications of which a pulmonary embolism, in layman's terms a blood clot, is a frequent consequence. This can be fatal or bring about permanent disability.'
He was telling me to prepare for death and cannot know that I have overcome any concern whatsoever for that condition, medical, pathological or spiritual.
'There is no treatment except anticoagulant drugs. I shall be prescribing a course of Coumadin.'
For a few moments, he noted down his recommended treatment on a buff-coloured card, scribbled instructions to the pharmacist upon a prescription pad, tore the page off and fastened it to the clipboard. This done, he placed the clipboard on the floor and leaned towards me.
'Is there nothing you want to say, Alec? Nothing you want to tell me?' His voice was as low and cajoling as a priest's to a sinner trapped in the confessional by the limp, black silk curtain and his guilt. 'Whatever you tell me will go no further. It's called doctor-patient privilege. I cannot disclose what you tell me to anyone. I cannot even note it down on your file. The only exception to this rule is if you tell me information of a crime committed. If that were the case, I am legally bound to go to the police, but, even then, I need not reveal the source of that information.'
I had been looking steadfastly out of the window throughout his prognosticatory speech. Now, I slowly turned my head to gaze upon him. He sat up slightly. There was in his face that sudden, expectant hope of the man who thought he was at last getting somewhere. It was the look that must have shone in the eyes of Christ as he conducted his first miracle and waited to see if it worked.
'Yes, Alec?' he encouraged me.
For a moment, I felt guilty that I was leading him on, teasing him.
I had so much to say to him and yet I had nothing. There is no point in repeating a lesson when the class either has not grasped it already or is too moribund to understand the problem.
As for a crime, I could tell him of the greatest crimes on earth, yet he could not go to the authorities with the knowledge. They would not be interested, for they already possess it and are aware that no solution for it exists.
Nor ever will.
It was a Saturday in spring, in a century that was still young, in a world that had heard neither cry of pain nor plea for mercy for a long time. The pastures were turning from winter's dull jade into the expectant green of the first weeks after the new equinox. Early calves and new-dropped lambs were staggering in the fields as if intoxicated by a life they did not know would end with the butcher's knife, in a room of cracked glazed tiles where the floor was slick with blood and bile, in the walls of which were fossilised the squeals and screeches of a decade's dead meat.
We were moving fast along a country road in a bright yellow two-seater Model T Ford Roadster. As we passed by blurred hedgerows or field gates, its gaudy coachwork stood out against the background of twigs, bursting buds and freshly ploughed sods. It matched the profusion of primroses growing on the banks, the occasional daffodil nodding in the breeze of its passage. In the temperature gauge mounted into the radiator cap, the needle was far over to the right. A thin line of steam leaked from an ill-fitting seal. The engine had been running at speed for a while. The two headlamps were huge, reminiscent of the eyes of a prehistoric marine creature used to living in the dark night of the ocean and now startled by the brilliance of an English sky washed by an overnight shower, festooned with the soft boulders of fair weather cumuli drifting east on an indolent westerly.
Like the vehicle, we were created for excitement, our skin young and taut, our faces eager to take life on. Every turn of the wheel, every bend in the road over the downland was designed not to avoid a ditch, obey a long-forgotten tort or create a boundary between one farmer's orchard and another's pasture, but to put us to the test. Travelling through this bright morning in the spring of our lives, with the unwholesome aroma of hawthorn flowers tainting the breeze like the odour of a broken corpse hidden in the undergrowth and the woods hazy with the first blossoming of bluebells, we were not merely seeking simple pleasures but looking for ordeals against which we could pit ourselves, yet in the sure and certain knowledge that we would surpass them all.
The streets of Abingdon were almost empty as we drove through them in the fresh first hour of sunlight. Only one person was about in Ock Street as we headed west out of the town. It was a Catholic priest in a black soutane carrying a small mahogany case rather like those in which freemasons carried their regalia to their secretive lodge meetings in their redbrick halls tucked away in the back streets of provincial cities and middle-class suburbs.
'Looks like a bat that hasn't made it back to its roost by sun-up,' Rupert remarked, then added, 'He's been giving extreme unction. Or ...' he pursed his lips into a lascivious kiss '... sucking fresh blood from a virgin's jugular.'
'Rupert! How can you possibly know that?' I replied. I was scandalised then, an innocent in a world that knew nothing of corruption.
'The extreme unction or the vampirism?'
'The extreme unction.'
'Walking about at this hour of the day? It's not Sunday. And that little briefcase. It contains his portable folding cross, stole, a little bottle of blessed cheap claret and a few wafers.' He steered the car around a puddle in the cobbles. 'A little wooden box of celestial clemency, a holy doctor's bag of divine absolution.' The rear wheel splashed muddy water against the wall of a house, but the mudguard protected the pristine paintwork of the Roadster. 'And you can tell by the serene, self-satisfied smirk on his face. He's just saved another poor bugger from Satan, snatching him back to salvation at the last breath.'
I laughed at Rupert's irreverence, secure in the knowledge that I, armed with optimism and shielded by the years to come, was more powerful than any god.
We motored down a wide valley, the road twisting in parallel with a chalk stream along the banks of which were growing a few stands of pollarded willows. Sloping fields rose on either side of us. On the skyline was a lone copse of beech trees, the verdant foliage the light emerald of newly unfolded leaves.
Both of us were dressed in white: white shirts, white trousers, white socks, white pullovers with a blue line edging the collar — white shoes, even. From the trunk behind the seats, the half-open lid of which was held down by two leather straps, protruded the handle of a cricket bat and the top of a set of batsman's pads. Only Rupert broke our conformity of uniform, for he was wearing a tweed cap with the peak bent into an arch over a pair of soft leather driving goggles. My own eyes streamed from the breeze.
After a mile or so, a large village appeared at the end of the valley, the buildings preceded by a farm from the yard of which a herd of cows was sauntering onto the road. Rupert slowed and parped the rubber bulb of the brass hooter, curled like a French horn, mounted by his side. A few of the cows turned their heads in mild curiosity; the remainder continued to amble diagonally across the road towards a gate into a meadow. The herdsman walking behind them, tapping any malingerers on their rumps with a switch, gave a cursory wave.
By the village green, along the edge of which the lower reaches of the chalk stream ran, separating the common land from the gardens of the cottages, was a barn and one time farrier's forge now converted into a garage. The doors were open, the sound of hammering echoing within. To one side was a newly installed petrol pump, painted scarlet like a Royal Mail letterbox, with a scallop shell made of frosted glass mounted on the top.
Rupert pulled up by the pump. The rear wheels of the Roadster skidded slightly as we halted. The hammering ceased and a man in greasy brown overalls came out, walking with a stoop and licking at an oily thumb. Like the petrol pump, he, too, wore the shell of a scallop embroidered on his breast pocket.
'Morning!' he greeted us. 'Jus' skinned meself, I 'ave.' He surveyed the vehicle. 'A Ford. Now that's what I call a motor car!' he exclaimed with the enthusiasm of a dedicated admirer. 'I ain't seen one of they before.' He wiped his hand on his overalls and stroked the mudguard as if tenderly caressing a docile animal which might still just bite if he were to overstep the boundary of bestial decorum. 'You'll be wantin' petroleum,' he continued, stating the obvious, then called out over his shoulder, 'Timothy!'
A boy of six or so scampered into sight. He was also besmirched with grease and oil.
While the lad held the nozzle in the fuel tank and the man swung the pump handle to and fro, Rupert positioned his goggles over the peak of his cap and walked round the Roadster, flicking off any blemishes of mud and dust with a damp chamois leather he kept under the seat cushion for just this purpose. I crossed the road and sat upon a milestone, watching him and easing my muscles. The suspension in the Roadster was hard and Rupert a fast driver. The milestone gave distances to London, Oxford, Newbury and Winchester.
Across the other side of the stream, in one of the cottage gardens, an elderly woman was hanging out her laundry. Her neighbour was turning the soil in his vegetable patch, his back arched to the spade. He dug with an easy, slow motion born of years of manual labour.
I glanced back at the car. The refuelling was completed. Rupert advanced the fuel lever. The garage owner obligingly turned the crank handle. The Roadster sputtered once, then fired. Rupert retarded the lever.
'We're ready!' he called out over the din of the engine, lowering his goggles and adjusting them over his eyes. I took my place in the passenger seat once more.
As he let off the hand brake, the Roadster rolled forwards, the engine pitch rising. He advanced the throttle lever farther and the clutch bit with a jerk. Over my shoulder, I saw the garage mechanic and the boy watching us set off much as two saved disciples might have observed the departure of their deliverer.
Once it left the valley, the road narrowed, entering a flatter landscape of water meadows, stands of beech, ash or hazel, and pasture bisected by channels. We were driving faster now, the wheels kicking aside gravel on the bends. It showered into the grass. On the edge of a wood, the road dipped, sunken between two banks, worn down into the ground by a millennium of feet, hooves and wheels.
At the point where the road came out into the open once more, a narrow lane joined it from the left, at an angle just past a corner. The engine revved as Rupert put the Roadster into the corner, not slowing, not caring, not thinking of the future that is always only a second away.
The horse was already out of the lane. The brassware of its bridle glittered in the sun piercing the canopy of a hornbeam overhanging the junction. It had blinkers on, could not see the speeding vehicle, yet its ears turned to register the approaching, unfamiliar noise. The carter, seated on the bench in front of a load of potatoes newly taken from the winter store, also heard the gathering din, but he understood it. He started to tug hard on the reins, force the horse to begin to reverse. The horse was confused by the noise and its master's command. It stood and turned its head.
For a moment, I registered the scene as if it were a tableau — the horse not quite side on to the Roadster, the carter not quite in sight behind a holly bush, the glint of the brass, the sweat- sleek hide of the animal's flank, its ear inclined in my direction, the scatter of white wood anemones on the bank behind.
Rupert saw it, too. He wrenched on the brake lever, the brake bands whining as they tried to grip, acrid smoke drifting back from the axles. He twisted the steering wheel. The Roadster rose momentarily onto two wheels as it veered. Rupert sensed the vehicle was toppling and corrected the steering, the Roadster falling heavily back onto all four wheels and hitting the horse a glancing blow. The front near mudguard bent back, slicing through the animal's chest. An artery burst. We were sprayed with warm equine blood. The glass of Rupert's goggles misted with a pink film. He could not see through them and ripped them down from his face to hang at his throat like a bizarre necklace.
The Roadster finally came to a stop fifty yards down the road. The yellow paintwork was spotted with blood which was running down the metal. The mudguard was wrenched round and doubled under the chassis, the running board twisted out of shape. From a jagged edge hung a strip of horsehide, one side slick and brown, the other fibrous and red. The front wheel was buckled on its hub. One wooden spoke had split. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Islands of Silence by Martin Booth. Copyright © 2003 Martin Booth. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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