The two female voices above my head gently volleyed their subject back and forth. Short strokes passing turn to the other, neither the questions too probing nor the answers too comprehensive, like a heartbeat. Systole. Diastole. One of the voices was my wife, I think, but I wouldn't swear to it, neither was overly-concerned. The slow regular metronome beeps of the heart monitor seemed to punctuate their conversation, each beep a bullet-point of my life waiting for details to justify its existence.
I first became aware of my condition, as it were, one day at Frinton-on-sea or Southend or somewhere. Charlie, my youngest, was splashing in the water, emitting shrill giggles of pleasure. The wife was beside me, sunning herself behind huge dark lenses. The wave rolled in and lifted him before pulling him down. I saw it all happen, even watched for a while, like a YouTube video. The events developed behind a sheet of glass. Running, mouths open, arms flailing, a limp child. Then I had to drive. Fast. The wife’s mouth was wide open, her eyes streaming. I focused on the road. At one set of traffic lights a Citroën pulled up beside us, the new one with the windscreen that goes up over the roof. I was involved with the campaign. Fabulous visibility if you want to look up, otherwise it was like driving a greenhouse. The hospital carpark was quite empty so we found a space in no time; it’s the little pleasures, eh? They took the kid in really quickly, say what you like about the health service but there’s nothing like a four-year-old with purple lips to get them in action. I took the opportunity to go out and check my emails.
When the doctor came out he said it had been touch and go. He was still pretty shaken up but he would be fine. I could have told them that; the waves had shaken him like a martini. I was probably relieved. The tide had taken him quite deep and he had taken in a lot of water. I knew then that it was the first time I was aware of it because I knew that it wasn't right, something was missing. I realised that I should have felt something but I couldn’t focus on what it should have been. I looked around and did my best to emulate the faces of the people around me. There was a buzz in my pocket, Facebook. I told myself it wasn’t important and checked the faces of my wife and the doctor before pulling the device from my pocket; a puppy meme. Puppy memes are the new cat videos. Their faces changed but I couldn’t mimic this look. Something had changed. I still remember the events but I couldn't tell you what it was.
That night the wife stayed with the boy in the hospital and I took the remaining one home. I explained to him that mummy wouldn't be coming home for a few days because his brother had nearly died and mothers like to be there when these things occur. He took it quite well, but why wouldn't he. I ordered pizza and let him play on my tablet until long after his bedtime.
When the kids came along life changed its soundtrack from laughter with friends at the pub and cosy nights of quiet bliss to noise. Crying from the baby, screams from the wife. I tried to make things right. I bought teething gels, employed babysitters, bought her lingerie but the lingerie gathered dust, the nights out were spent waiting for a crisis call and the baby continued to scream.
I started to live a permanent state of fury, losing my temper for reasons I couldn't explain. The wife told me I wasn’t being sensitive enough to her needs. I could have argued that I was too sensitive to her frustration. Love amplifies pain. When someone you love has forsaken happiness for obligation, the only viable act of self-preservation is detachment. I started drinking to muffle the pain but that just made things worse. Alcohol allows you to say things that an otherwise active part of the brain would filter. The same part of the brain that is wholly underdeveloped in bigots and zealots and people who speak too loud on public transport. Thing is though, once things are said they cannot be unsaid and women collect pain, like dogs collect fleas ready to be shared on contact.
Our childless friends stayed away. Babies evoke jealousy and sympathy in couples but mostly a fear of contagion.
My days became a cycle of flying cutlery, apologies and a cold back growling 'fuck-you!' before snoring back into the next loop.
Work required one-hundred and ten percent. The wife demanded undivided attention, the kids needed complete care. I got what was left.
Thankfully, the fatigue brought with it a warm muffled haze of exhaustion. The pressure of work became a haven, the relationships were similar but at least I wasn’t supposed to care about any of them.
I think in the beginning it was a conscious thing, I actually turned down the volume and the more I did the more it stayed down.
I worked in marketing and I was very good. Advertising requires a finger on the pulse, an understanding of the Great British consumer. Empathy. I had that in spades in the beginning, I always knew what people wanted but as the time went on, I lost it. I used to be able to walk down the high-street and pick out anyone from the crowd, I could tell you their drivers, their desires and where I could seduce them into sales. Then they became faceless mannequins, units of consumption. Curious thing was that I got better at my job. When you strip down all the frilly edging, people just want. They want new stuff, they want what you have, they want what you can’t have and they want more. I, on the other hand had trained myself not to want, not to need.
As the kids grew up, the wife grew old and I wore my ties a little tighter. When they went to school she went back to work. After bedtime stories she told me about the flaws in her colleagues and I did my best to say the right things before she left me on the sofa to wait for the alarm to signal the beginning of another cycle.
The room is empty now, just me and the slow regular beep of my existence. I open my eyes, a slight change in light but little else. I remember events in spartan detail, step by step like history revision notes. Some of the events bleed into others but mostly just bullet-point information.
Work was still going well. It was me that came up with the “Buy these biscuits, they’re better than the cheap ones!” campaign. It became a cult classic, people said it was post-ironic. I couldn’t see it myself. A big faceless company wanted to sell more biscuits so we got some celebrities to tell them to do it. Simple.
My trips to the doctors began after an incident one Sunday, I could tell you the time and date as well but that would be showing off.
The kids were protesting about something and the wife was trying to out-protest them when a blue Hot Wheels car came flying over my shoulder and landed with a plop in the chip pan. I first looked down at my shirt, one of my favourite Fred Perrys. Then an explosion of tears from the youngest boy and the realisation that the car was bobbing around with the potatoes, slowly sinking. I plunged my hand in and snatched at a potato but eventually grabbed the car, its plastic pieces were a little soft but it appeared undamaged. Fortunately, the screaming stopped. I turned holding the toy in my outstretched palm to see the wife and kids staring. I couldn't remember them looking at me like that before. No yells, no demands just silence. I followed their gaze to my hand and the car. The oil was running down my arm and dripping from my elbow onto the floor. I had saved the car and now she was going to bounce on my balls for a couple of drips on the kitchen mat; fucking typical. The eyes followed my hand as I put the car down on the table. I remember thinking that some of the red paint had transferred to my hand but it was blue. The black plastic of the wheels had begun to harden on my fingers, some had fused. I looked up at them all and offered an empty apology and intention to replace the bloody thing. The Fred Perry would come right in the wash.
All feeling evaporated like sweat replaced by a refreshing anaesthesia. Food and sex lost their flavour and watching films and reading books was an indifferent waste of time but I found myself absorbed by documentaries so it wasn't all bad.
At some point walking became an issue. My relationship with the earth became tenuous until one day I took a tumble down the stairs. Some bones had articulated beyond normal tolerances and one was making its exit through my forearm. Getting up had been impossible. I pulled out my phone with my good arm to pass the time. The kids started playing video games in the living room the moment they came back from school. I was reading an article on the Guardian online about interest rates when the wife got home. She made a terrible fuss. The kids were sent next door to the neighbours. I didn't get to finish the article.
The ambulance crew kept asking me where it hurt which became a bit of a pain. They seemed to be a bit preoccupied with huffing, calling control, huffing some more and asking me where it hurt again. I managed to finish the article before we arrived though.
That began my residence of the University hospital as an object of interest and research. The doctors were a little baffled, they tried dozens of cocktails of drugs for the pain; to cause it. They gave me so many cat-scans that I felt like I was stuck in a drain.
There were so many theories, acquired congenital analgesia, late-onset autism, early-onset Alzheimer’s, Asperger’s. My favourite was one who believed it to be a rare bowel disorder that had caused my pain receptors to overload, I actually laughed. Because as the beep turns to a long flat tone, I don't give a shit.
This is the second part of my Love and Marriage Trilogy a dark and harrowing study of what it means to survive the til death doing us part.
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