Coming Home to Die
“I’ve heard,” Mary said, looking at the large oxygen cylinder, “that cats go away to die, whilst dogs come home. Which are you?”
Catherine was clearly laughing but it sounded more like the noise of breath escaping from an organ bellows, “On the contrary, I’ve never felt more alive. I’ve come here to get married.”
“I’ve left everything,” Mary said, without registering the slightest surprise, “my husband, my children and grandchildren, my cat. Even my shoes.”
Leonard looked at her feet, which were securely shod in suede loafers.
“Brand new.” Mary smiled, “As is this,” she said, tugging her cardigan, “and this, and this, and this.” She pulled at various garments in turn, “Everything. I’ve been buying an item a week for the last year and hiding them in a brand new suitcase in the shed. There’s not a single clue that I’m not still there.”
“The shed is the last place I would have hidden something from my husband when he was alive.” said Catherine.
“My husband hates gardening. He prefers the internet. Which is where I discovered this place. I had to be much more careful to hide that.”
“Catherine found her husband on the internet.” Leonard said, pronouncing her name the English way. From the moment she had arrived in the country she hadn’t insisted on the French.
“Like one of those Philippino bride sites but for husbands?”
“We met on a forum dedicated to the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski.” Catherine said, referring to the great Polish director who spent his last years in France. Her own accent had been receding since she arrived, and she had made no attempt to resist its departure.
“She thinks,” said Leonard conspiratorially, leaning in towards Mary, who had now given up on her suitcase and settled in next to him on the sofa, “that he is a young Polish builder.”
“Well, he said that he was a Polish builder. I told him the truth about myself, and I see no reason why he would have lied to me in return.”
The late summer of 1947 was the first time that Harry Stamp had been abroad since the war. In 1944 he had swept through the north of France briefly on a trail of liberation that caught him up in the race to Berlin with the Russians, but he had never been able to take in the slow, elegant pace of life in the south until now. For the two years since the war ended he had feared relaxation in case it brought slumber. Being awake was the only way to free himself from the paralysis of REM sleep. Zhukov was closing on Berlin from the East. He didn’t stop for sleep. Zhukov’s progress wasn’t slowed by the treacle of dreams. In his own dreams Harry saw the faces of German women on the streets of Berlin pleading with him. They were reaching their arms out to him through the palpable thickness of his sleep, but it held him fast and he could never get to them. He was close enough to feel the wind from the cloth of a uniform as a teenage boy from the Red Army brought his arm down around a woman’s shoulder and led her back, carried away on the interminable ant trail of Zhukov’s men. He could never get closer to her because he could never quite stay awake for long enough.
Despite his urging, Harry had felt his Triumph motorcycle slowing beneath him as he snaked further south through France, as though it wanted to acclimatise him to the pace of life on the coast. Finally he had stopped squeezing his thighs against the engine, and in Lyon he had swapped his demob trousers for shorts. Two years after the war ended Harry had stopped racing. There was no Zhukov to beat back from the Eastern suburbs of the city. There was just the still, salty heat of the weeks before the Mistral, and palms barely swaying enough above him to cool the surface of his coffee. Not even the wind from the cloth of a Red Army uniform.
Sitting at his table with his coffee it struck him that everyone enjoying this becalmed decadence was in a pair. True, the middle-aged women in the distance walking their dogs along the edge of the beach were alone, but the languid youngsters with their Gauloises and coffees were all matched up. Not just in twos, but in couples, as though there had never been a war; as though a generation had come back from the dead.
The scene was so neatly painted out in pairs that for several minutes his unconscious mind had registered her as an illusion of the sun until finally it relented and he saw that three tables away a woman was sitting on her own. At once he was captivated. He would tell himself for the rest of his life that he was entranced by every tiny detail of her, but that was because her aloneness, the fact that made her register at all, had already been lost in the pre-sensory gap.
Wearing big-framed tortoiseshell sunglasses and a red scarf that shielded her head from the sun, she was sitting sipping a pastis that she had mixed from the bottles in front of her, bottles that she had clearly brought with her. There were no empty tables but the waiters made no attempt to move her on, and Harry wondered as he watched them shimmy round her whether she might not be an illusion after all. He watched the curl of her hands around the glass, and the way her arm seemed to telescope back into her shoulder, and he thought it was as though she were trying to collapse in on herself and cease to occupy space altogether.
He couldn’t have done, because she was wearing sunglasses, but Harry was sure that he met her eyes, eyes that questioned him. Didn’t plead, didn’t beg, just asked the question, “Can I leave now?” He left his coffee that was still too hot to drink and uncurled her hand from the pastis glass. For the rest of the day the tables stayed empty. People ebbed and flowed around them as if they were an illusion, the glass of pastis slowly warming as the coffee cooled until both were in a luke-warm equilibrium with the sea air around them.
Harry placed Catherine on the back of his motorcycle and her hands tightened round his waist as he rode faster than he had ever ridden before back towards England.
The sound of the oxygen had become so much a part of Catherine’s life in the past few years that on a conscious level she had forgotten what it was that made the slow hiss, and sometimes her eyes would stare wildly as though she had been caught in a reverie as she imagined the noise was the sea lapping at her feet.
In the days since she had been at Huntermere Manor she had startled Leonard several times with these sudden feral seizures. At first he had wondered if she might be having a stroke but the doctors could find nothing wrong with her. After a day or two Leonard remembered what his father had said about friends who had been in the trenches with him and the way that they would be suddenly taken out of themselves to a place where polite society couldn’t follow. “Leave them be and they’ll come back, son. That’s all you can do.” And so he left her be and carried on, and eventually she always came back.
Catherine had never told Harry why she hated her life by the sea. In the ten years they had been married before the motorcycle accident that killed him, she was sure that he had never even heard the word Vichy. Now from time to time she became aware of the sound of the oxygen and thought that she could hear the sea. She looked through what peripheral vision she had left to confirm where she was, and saw Leonard carrying on with his business as if she were an illusion.
She had told Piotr everything about the war. The sensation as she tapped away at the keys was a constant surprise. She thought that she ought to have felt the warmth of a blush crawl under her skin from her fingers to her face as though she had been speaking the words, and sometimes stopped typing to check for signs of heat, but she never felt any. She told him about M. Vuillard, who used to bring her the suits of the council bureaucrats, which she would sew in return for bottles of pastis. She told him about the way Vuillard would sit on her sofa whilst she sewed on a chair by the window to get as much of the light as she could. He was absolutely still as he squinted to make out her figure where the sun shone through the fabric of her dress. Absolutely still but he always refused a drink in case she should see his hands make the glass tremble. She had been unaware of all the other eyes that had been watching her, the hands that had shaken with rage.
She hadn’t felt any embarrassment as she recounted the war to Piotr, just as she had felt no embarrassment in writing about her and Harry’s lovemaking, about the way he had tried to create a new home for her in his bed where she would always be safe; about the duty that she sometimes caught in his eyes, and, afterwards, the pride at a duty discharged. Not haughtiness, but the pride of a young boy who has stopped on the running track in the middle of a race to pick his mother a flower and brought it to her with a smile.
She wondered if she would begin to feel her cheeks redden now that Piotr was coming. Would her heart beat faster when she talked to him face to face? She wondered if she should try talking to Mary about him, to see if talking about him gave a foretaste of what it would be like to talk to him. While she wondered, Mary raised the subject herself.
“What makes you think this man, if he is a man, is anything like what he says he is? Hasn’t it occurred to you that he might just be trying to fleece you? You hear about it all the time.”
It hadn’t occurred to her once that Piotr might not be a Polish builder who genuinely wanted to marry her. She had no idea why, because she did hear about such things all the time, and she was very much aware just how ridiculous the idea sounded. She was also aware how bad her judgement had been in the past. She had mended M. Vuillard’s clothes without question, and she had lost the first twenty years of her life. She had got onto the back of Harry’s motorbike without question, and she had lost the next ten years keeping up the performance of gratitude to him. She had said yes to Piotr without question.
“Of course it has! But I’m too old to worry about risks now. Anyway, you’ve left everything you have behind. Isn’t that a risk?”
Suddenly Catherine thought she heard the lapping of the sea at her feet, and for a moment her eyes went feral. As she came to she realised that she had, in fact, taken a large risk in agreeing to meet Piotr. Their conversation had been so easy, so fluid, that it hadn’t occurred to her that they had never actually spoken. She could hear every cadence in his prose, every timbre in his voice, and knew them so well that it had never dawned on her that she didn’t know them at all. And if she didn’t know the sound of his voice, then he didn’t know the sound of hers, and yet she imagined that it would be in his head as clearly as his was in hers.
She had told him, of course, that she was permanently dependent on oxygen. She had told him everything after all. But in the effortless interplay of words in his head she couldn’t imagine that there would be space for the hiss of her air. She considered it constantly interrupting them, and imagined that it was the sound of reality continuously farting between them on the sofa. She let out a sudden wheeze that was half a laugh and half a sigh of despair.
New to Huntermere only a few minutes earlier, and with no time for Leonard to explain to her, Mary was so alarmed that she screamed for the nurse. “Nurse! Quickly, it’s Catherine!” As she heard the words she was horrified. She hadn’t screamed “Help!” She had used Catherine’s name, because in the few minutes since she had been here she had formed a strange attachment to the curiously naïve old lady with the slightly displaced accent.
Weaving around the side of a mountain in a train and watching a valley open up like the first bud of spring is one of life’s most magical experiences. How much more was it so when the image appeared through the misty net trawled by a steam train? Mary could barely contain her excitement as she saw the dazzling greens of the flood plain pushing their way through the greys and browns of the steam-soaked hills. Oaks and plane trees seemed to have been placed in perfect sweeping arcs to tease her eyes towards a vanishing point on the horizon where something was hiding. The vast canopies whipped by the windows like endless layers in a game of pass the parcel and still they wouldn’t give up their secret.
The plain was empty of almost everything except the velvet grass so that what trees there were seemed to have been placed there as if by magic to conceal something. Mary’s hands and nose were pressed against the window. From outside the eleven points of white of her fingers and nose were the only things visible of the carriage. The little schoolgirl could have been travelling with anyone or no-one. Inside, her mouth was open and if the expression hadn’t been hidden by her closeness to the glass her mother would have scolded her for gawping, but she was completely unaware of the face she was making.
Tree after tree flew by, Mary’s little lips opening and closing like a goldfish with each one, and still there was no hint what they might be hiding. The rhythm of the tracks changed imperceptibly, her head was taken an inch or so to the side and as if a hand had reached out of the sky and swept away the last layer of wrapping she glimpsed the twin gothic turrets of Huntermere soaring into the sky. Totally unaware of herself she let out all her pent up breath, misting the window around the points of white pressed against it, and with it a tiny scream of joy.
Her mother grabbed her hand and pulled her back into her seat, telling her not to behave in so unseemly a fashion. Suddenly she was aware of her whole family sitting around her: her mother, her father, an aunt and two brothers, and her podgy white skin went red.
Leonard put his hand on her arm, and Mary, seeing that far from needing assistance Catherine was now chuckling, went bright red.
“I’m sorry.” Mary said as the nurse approached the three of them seated in the corner of the old drawing room.
“It’s OK.” The nurse smiled, “Catherine, you’ve got a visitor. Do you want me to tell him to wait, or do you want me to send him through?”
“Let me come and meet him.” Catherine said.
Mary was startled at the spryness with which Catherine got out of her seat. She had to stop for several moments to get her breath back, but the movement itself was effortless. The nurse let Catherine go at her own pace and supported the oxygen tank as it wheeled beside her.
As she put her head through the door she saw him standing in front of the reception desk. His hands were tucked into his pockets giving his shoulders the look of a shrug, although there was no impatience in the pose. He didn’t move but she knew that he had seen her. She realised that possibly their months of conversation had covered everything that she wanted to say. Maybe that would be the best of all. He would never have to incorporate the ridiculous noise of her oxygen into the precious spaces created by their words. What would happen then? Without her words would he simply forget she was there at all and go about his business around her as if she were an illusion?
He came half of the way to meet her and waited patiently for her to come the other half.
“You are exactly as you described yourself.”
“So are you.” Piotr said, and she could sense that he meant it gladly.
Maciek Mackowiek was the Chairman of the Krakow Party. Children were all slightly afraid of him, partly because of the way their parents lowered their voices when they talked about him, and partly because of the distended nose and trellis of thread veins that years of drinking too much lemon vodka had given him. Since 14, Piotr was the only one who wasn’t frightened at all. This was partly because he had no parents to whisper, and partly because as an artist the spongy texture of Mackowiek’s nose fascinated rather than repulsed him.
Chairman Mackowiek had spotted the boy’s talent for painting on a tour around the orphanage, and while it was probably true that he was also fascinated by the young boy’s beauty, and possibly a little touched by his rootlessness, it was primarily for his ability that he had first invited him round to his apartment. Now that he was 17, Piotr’s burgeoning manliness certainly took up more of Mackowiek’s time as he watched him paint, but he was still captivated by the way such large hands could be so steady, and produce such fine brushwork.
The pictures were all the same, just as they always had been, portraits of General Jaruzelski. Although they were copied from official photographs, Piotr insisted on having natural light for his subject, and his easel was permanently set up in Mackowiek’s large, south-facing window. All the local Party officials had Piotr’s portraits on their wall, and they even adorned some of the walls of officials at a national level. Chairman Mackowiek himself had the first of all these paintings on his own wall, next to a photograph of his younger self reaching out his hand to shake that of General Zhukov as he swept towards Berlin.
Shortly after he started his visits, in 1978, Piotr had taken with him a whole series of paintings he had copied from newspaper photographs of the newly elected Pope John Paul II. Everyone he knew did nothing but chatter like a chorus of birds about this wonderful event and Piotr was bursting to show the pictures to his new patron. All week he couldn’t contain himself at the thought of telling him. Over and over he played the scene of congratulation in his head, and marvelled at the way that in this imaginary scene the old man’s nose grew even larger and more spongy as he swelled with pride.
When the day for his visit finally came, he ran up ten flights of stairs two at a time and threw himself, breathless, against Chairman Mackowiek’s door. He stood dumb as his paintings spilled out onto the floor, as though they took the place of words.
Mackowiek’s nose swelled just as it had done in his daydream, and his thread veins went purple and seemed to pulse. Piotr beamed. Chairman Mackowiek looked as though he would explode, and made himself take a series of small, shallow breaths. He put his arm around the young Piotr’s shoulder as he bent down with him to pick up the pictures. He leant in conspiratorially and in the quietest voice Piotr had ever heard him use, he said, “You mustn’t paint this again, Piotr. You are an artist and art requires a worthy subject. A subject like General Jaruzelski. He is a great man, a great general just like General Zhukov. One day he will lead our country and then think how proud you will be of all your paintings.”
Piotr had understood only enough of what Chairman Mackowiek had said to know that he mustn’t take him any more pictures of the Pontiff, but he hadn’t understood why, and he continued with his paintings of Papa at the orphanage. Because there was a cleaner he couldn’t even hide them under his bed because he knew that he mustn’t be found with such subject matter, and so he threw each one away the moment it was finished. Now, in 1981, that Jaruzelski had become Prime Minister he didn’t feel proud of his paintings. The people who had once smiled and talked to him on the street no longer smiled, and walked past him as though he were an illusion.
“Come and meet my friends.” Catherine said, hearing how strange the words “my friends” sounded and enjoying it enough to repeat, “my friends are just through here.”
“Not yet,” said Piotr, “now I would like to paint you, while it is still light.”
He set up his easel and pulled the curtains aside to give him light. The sun funnelled up the flood plain and through the window, catching the fine weave of Catherine’s dress and making it translucent.
Looking out over the empty green velvet of the grass, interrupted only by the occasional tree, she felt in an instant that she understood completely. It was not the fact that she had mended Vuillard’s suits, but the fact that she had mended them in the window, that had mattered so much. That she had smiled as he watched her, at the way he didn’t want her to see the shaking in his hand; smiled with the pride of a young boy who has stopped on the running track in the middle of a race to pick his mother a flower.
Many people had done something, but they had done it behind the shutters that kept out the sun, as though keeping out the light had kept out judgment. Catherine felt an intense wave of anger that blended with nostalgia for every lost year and, as soon as it had arrived, it was gone, carried away it seemed on the hiss of the oxygen, as though it were wind escaping from the bellows of an organ into the infinite emptiness of a cathedral vaulting, and she felt nothing but lightness.
Catherine stepped out of her dress, removed her underwear with an effortless movement, and lay on the bed in the chord of sunshine.
Piotr sat on the bed beside her and pressed his finger to her lips to silence her before she began. He knew that her health meant they would never make love, and he wouldn’t let her apologise. A moment like this should never be interrupted by words like sorry.
He thought of his earliest paintings, of squinting even in the natural light to make out the detail on a photograph, and for minutes he let his eyes take in her body until he felt giddy with its richness. Not the ridiculous richness of Chairman Mackowiek’s nose, but a wonderful, deep, luminosity that made her body so much more than the subject of art. Made it the object of love. He felt as though his breath was so uneven that it would twist and turn until it escaped him altogether but he raised his hand with a perfect steadiness and placed it on her forehead. Spreading out the tips of his fingers, he took in every crease and every contour of her brow, the oily textures of her Mediterranean skin, the dips of her pores, and the crinkles of age spots. She closed her eyes. He kept his open, not blinking once as he ran his hand over every inch of her flesh with the steadiness of a single movement.
Piotr returned to his easel and began to paint, making his hand retrace every movement it had made over Catherine’s body. Because the canvas was only two-dimensional the effect was often comical as he increased and decreased pressure to represent depth, but Piotr didn’t see the lines on the paper. He saw only the three-dimensional lines of her body, and as soon as he had finished he tossed the canvas away and declared that he would paint her again in the morning when the light was different.
For a while he sat beside her on the bed, feeling her presence encroaching on his. Since he had been in England his daily routine had been the same. He would be invited into the house. The lady would have left a kettle and teabags for him, cubes of sugar with tongs, and his own little jug of milk for him to make himself as much tea as wanted throughout the day. As he worked, his hand steadily tracing the outlines of the windows and the cornicing, he would occasionally glimpse her as she went about a day that was mapped out to leave him the space to work without interruption or disturbance. Without him ever feeling that he was being watched. Sometimes he would smile and she would look away embarrassed.
Catherine looked at him, and he was aware that he could dictate the flickers of her eyes with the tiniest movement of a hand. For several minutes they played out this ballet as they sat together on the bed. He would move his arm as though in a brushstroke and her eyes would follow it. He conducted her gaze and she in turn caused his hands to dance under the direction of her eyes.
Mary watched them come back to the sofa. She was fixed by the way that their movements were totally interdependent, as his arm guided her to her seat, and she sat with the exact same motion she had used to stand up, in perfect reverse except that her shoulders gave way to his hand without a thought. As though it were a movement they had always made.
“So,” Mary said, “you really have come here to get married.”
“Yes, we are going to be married,” said Piotr.
“Why here?” Mary asked.
“I have cancer.” Piotr said. Catherine knew, of course. He had told her everything after all. She went to hold his hand. She wondered for a moment if Mary might have seen his proud Polish brow, unmoved by tears, and thought that the hand should be withdrawn and his independence left unthreatened, but without a falter she curled her fingers around his wrist, “I have come home to die.”
Mary was aware for the second time that she cared about Catherine and it startled her. “Silly old woman” she said under her breath, and then she realised it was the first time she had used the word to think of herself and instantly she felt embarrassed and out of place.
She had come here because for a moment as a child she had felt totally alone and totally free. Silly old woman. She thought about the past year, about buying an item of clothing each week for a year so no-one would notice her bring them home, and hiding them in the shed. And she realised that the one place she could be totally alone and totally free was with her family.
She asked the taxi to stop once on the way, had the driver get out and throw her suitcase in a skip, and arrived home before dinner was on the table.
“was wondering whether you wouldn’t rather have orange juice tonight.” her husband was saying to her as she walked in, and he waited patiently for an answer before bringing it to her in a glass. The cat muzzled at her legs to ask for milk and it was as though she had been there all along and her absence had been an illusion.
Catherine and Piotr lay on top of her bed. The only sound was the hiss of oxygen, and Piotr imagined that he was a boy in Krakow Cathedral listening to the air from the bellows of the mighty organ carrying the notes of a fugue heavenward. Her fingers curled exactly around his hand, which remained steady, not giving at all to their grip. It seemed as though the gestures that had been with them all their lives had not been altered at all, and yet their bodies were each molded into positions that would have been impossible if the other had not been there.
ODE TO JOUISSANCE