Something Hard Inside Him (Part 1)
‘Lift up your shirt. Let me take a look.’
It was his ex-wife doing the talking so he did as he was told. He pointed to a place beneath his ribs. ‘I wouldn't say it’s hurting right now...but it feels sore...maybe bruised.’
She nodded and jabbed the sharp ends of her fingers into his flesh.
‘Perhaps I’ve strained something...a muscle’ he said but she didn’t seem to think so and this worried him because his ex-wife had an instinct for such things.
‘Been throwing up much ?’ she asked.
‘Anything else wrong ? Dizzyness ? Headaches ? Tiredness ?’
He thought about this and then acknowledged that yes, he’d been feeling tired, along with the occasional headache and dizzy spell, usually in the afternoon. Her next question - ‘How long has this been going on ?’ - irritated him so he joked: ‘For the past twenty five years!’ only it came out as something other than a joke - something more like an accusation.
His ex-wife stopped prodding his stomach and stood up. ‘If I was you, Robert, I’d make an appointment with your doctor. I can feel something hard in there and that isn’t good.’
He nodded, rather stupidly, and tucked in his shirt. Then his ex-wife made her way out of the lounge and into the garden, whereupon she announced to her guests that the prawns were safe to eat.
Robert’s throwing up had taken place during a barbeque held to celebrate his son’s eighteenth birthday. As the sausages and burgers sizzled his ex-wife had served, as a starter, prawn cocktails to the twenty or so guests. He ate his with a certain amount of pleasure: the prawns were large and succulent, the sauce was thick and creamy, and her lemon and cucumber decoration was, as always, pleasing to the eye. But no sooner had he digested the final mouthful than his stomach returned the appetizer with the startling efficiency of a dumb waiter. He was standing near the garden gate at the time, greedily soaking up the last of the late afternoon sun, and so managed to turn away from the guests and deposit the regurgitated prawns among a clump of rose bushes. His retching continued for fully three minutes before Don, his ex-wife’s live-in companion, crossed into the no-man’s land which had opened up to comfort his predecessor.
‘Get me a towel and a bowl’ Don - some form of civil servant - bellowed and, clearly a veteran of numerous first aid courses, began rubbing his patient’s spine. ‘There, there’ he kept saying, as if to a child, ‘let it all come out.....’ - remarkable considering that the two men had only met for the first time an hour or so previously.
When the retching stopped Robert was helped into the house and onto the sofa - not the heavy burgundy sofa he’d purchased with his ex-wife when they first moved into this house, but another, brighter model which had a flimsier, more disposable quality to it. It was then that his ex-wife appeared, clearly determined to eliminate prawns from her line of enquiry, and interrogated him on the general state of his health. Not wanting to ruin his son’s birthday any further, and with twenty or so guests in the garden waiting patiently with their cocktails, he confessed to her the long-running pain in his stomach. It was at this point that she told him to lift up his shirt.
It felt strange to be inside the house again - the house he’d lived in for five years - and, alone on the sofa, he wondered about this, about whether his body’s nervous reaction to the prawn cocktail had been a sort of psychotic terror at returning to his former home. The theory may have stood up had it not been for the ongoing pain beneath his ribs. The episode with the cocktail, he concluded, was merely nature’s way of letting him know that serious illness was just around the corner and that he’d better start making plans. Was it his liver ? Or his bowel ? Up until now, and something of a coward when it came to elementary anatomy, Robert had resisted opening his copy of Gray’s to find out which of his organs had hardened into a stone. If it was his liver then he might have to survive the next twenty or so years strapped to a drip. If it was his bowel then he’d almost certainly have to undergo a series of major operations. The thought of visiting his doctor - a prominent member of the local Baptist church - filled him with dread.
While he was thinking these things a figure appeared in the half light. It was Don. He knelt beside the sofa and laid a caring hand on his patient’s forehead. ‘You’re burning up, Robert’ he said. ‘Maybe you should go upstairs and lie down on our bed. I think you need complete rest.’
Our bed ?
Robert wondered about this - wondered, it has to be said, about Don’s intentions. But he soon accepted that the offer was innocent and wholesome and entirely without an ulterior motive. So, with the support of his newly acquired guardian angel, he padded up the stairs and into the bedroom where he’d slept for five years of his life.
‘What about if I doze off ?’
Don - caring honest Don - told him not to worry. 'We can always sleep in the cellar. Call me if you need anything’ he said before closing the door and returning to the garden.
After lying on the bed for some time, absorbing the room’s scents and odors, there was a knock on the door and Robert’s son looked in, accompanied by a girl. They made a strange couple, she with her nose ring and dreadlocked hair, he with his oversize hooded sweatshirt, baggy trousers and heavy black shoes - the fashion nowadays, so he’d been told.
‘Do you want us to drive you to A & E, dad ?’ his son asked, but he declined this gracious offer, preferring instead to rest for a while in order that his pain might settle. ‘You two go back out into the garden and enjoy the party’ he said. ‘I’ll be ok.’
The truth was that he felt rather comfortable spread out on Don and his ex-wife’s bed and wanted to remain there for as long as possible.
Robert woke at midnight. Drowsy, and slightly disorientated, he got up and went to the bathroom. It was still warm enough to sit outside and he could hear laughter from the garden. Listening closely he realized that only a few stragglers from the party were left and that his son and his friends had long since gone off into town. Feeling strangely energized, as if a necessary purgation had taken place, he splashed his face with water and emptied his bladder. The bathroom, he now saw, had been repainted. No longer the shade of spring yellow he’d once agonized over with his ex-wife, it had become dark green (a strange choice of color for a bathroom, he thought) symbolizing what ? A more mature, earthier outlook ? A bold admission of impermanence ?
He flushed the toilet. After rummaging through the bathroom units (he found nothing of interest - only several jars of vitamin pills which, he supposed, helped supply Don’s skin its waxwork sheen) he paid a visit to his son’s bedroom. The boy had been seven when they first moved into the house and Robert recalled painting this room pale blue and tacking posters of Batman to the wall. The room had retained its base color although the shade was now darker. A sexy black futon had replaced the boy’s IKEA bunk bed and sleek black shelving ran the length of one wall. A large cork pin-board, taking pride of place above his son's desk, interested him and he stood examining its array of photographs for some time. The girl with dreadlocks featured in many of them but there were other photos of his son standing or sitting alone as he battled his way through later puberty - exhibiting a fish on a camping trip; drunk (or was he stoned ?) at a rock concert; caught unawares on a deserted beach. His son looked sullen and strangely lost in these pictures, Robert thought, and just then the hardness somewhere deep beneath his ribs began to throb.
He had, of course, missed this period in his son’s life. Six years ago, after separating from his wife, he’d taken a lecturing post at the far end of the country, partly out of necessity, partly out of a desire to prove his own independence. The first two years he’d visited the house regularly, during the Easter and Christmas holidays, dutifully trying to keep alive the faint hope of reconciliation. The third and fourth year his son had paid him a brief visit. But for the past couple of years all primary contact with his son had been by phone. During this time the boy, according to his ex-wife’s quarterly reports, had steadily transformed into a tall, malleable young man whose main occupation was sitting in front of a computer whilst listening to rock music. ‘Don’t get me wrong - I’m not worried about him,’ she wrote ‘And Don is a good influence.’ After her last report, which contained a computer-generated list of suitable birthday gifts, he’d written back and promised to travel down especially for his son's birthday.
He opened the bedroom window and listened to the conversations taking place in the garden. Occasionally he heard Don laugh. He recalled his son telling him that another man had taken his place. The news was broken with such delicacy that it was clear the boy had spent a considerable amount of time agonizing over the information he was about to impart. ‘Do you mind that mom’s found somebody else ?’ his son (still short, still unmalleable, and still resistant to the lure of rock music and computers at this time) had asked him. ‘Why should I mind ?’ he answered. ‘I’m glad things are working out for her’ and he wondered now whether this had been the right thing to say. Perhaps he’d only made things even more confusing - a confusion which had led to loud music and hours spent alone in front of a screen.
Back on the landing Robert gripped the handle of another door - one which led to his daughter’s bedroom. She, an active, sports-loving student doctor aged twenty one, was, at that moment, on an exchange program in the US. His relationship with her had always been strained - more so since his abandonment of her mother. And he knew that the room was kept immaculate in readiness for her next visit during the holidays. So he shied away from entering and returned to the smaller of the three bedrooms where he lay himself once again upon Don and his ex-wife’s bed.
Part two is here