A Lapse of Concentration
Memory, like sharpened knives, pierces through the fogginess of my brain. The owner has not changed a single thing in twenty two years. It’s like I’ve never been away.
The gas fire spitting beside us is welcome despite the fact that it’s April. The door is constantly opening and shutting, letting in the twilight air laden with smells of chips and a hint of grass; frost is to come later in the night.
Each time the door opens, the loners at the bar all turn expectantly, keeping alive the illusion that they are, in fact, here to meet someone, rather than putting down another hour of alone time in the company of other solo drinkers. On discovering the latest arrival is yet another human with whom they have no connection, resignedly, they turn back to face their drinks. They heft the pint glass, measuring how many minutes left in this one. It is essential that lone drinkers pace their measures; too hasty might suggest they are alcoholics, too slow be taken as an indication they have nothing to do, and nowhere else to be.
Simon and I sit at the table for two. Half concealed by a dark-red partition, we are ostrich like in our behaviour, believing if we can’t see, then neither can we be seen. The order is the same. Pint of Heineken, glass of chardonnay. But this time, I’m with someone else. I can’t help wondering how my life might have turned out differently had I stayed with Jake. Rakish Jake who cared only for himself, but who I loved, and perhaps still do. “Just a lapse of concentration,” he’d said, in this same seat, in this same pub twenty two years ago. “It was only sex. Nothing meant by it. Don’t take life so seriously.” His breezy response when I’d confronted him about the affair.
Now the bar misfit regulars are reading, or pretending to read, the headlines of the day. There is no TV is this pub; no hint of plasma screens or matches blaring. It’s a pub arranged for the intimate, the secret chats, the assignations. Almost a cliché; if one were having an affair, this would be the place to meet.
But we are not having an affair. Yet we behave furtively, secretly, almost ill at ease with each other. As if we have something to hide. After twenty two years together, you’d imagine there wouldn’t be any bits and pieces of each other likely to cause embarrassment. But life is full of surprises.
We’ve come home, back to Ireland, to Cork, because I’m not well. The instinct is to return to where we came from. We are as awkward as teenagers on a first date. It’s why we seek out the shelter of hiddenness this partition holds. We need to try and figure out what we’ve been told, then make a plan to tell the boys, friends, my ageing parents.
It’s what we’ve always done; made a plan to deal with things. ‘Things’. Small, daily, objective things, which can be planned and dealt with. Not big life and death issues beyond our control.
Tonight I envy those men at the bar; their absorption in the selfishness of their cocooned loneliness. I imagine they cannot, nor will not, be bothered with other humans. Such a luxury. To wallow in the mire of my own self-pity, my own death sentence. To feel, above all, so sorry for me, that I could drink myself senseless, get so drunk as to be sober again.
But I have the burden of intimacy. The immensity of caring for another so must shelter and shield him from the intense agony of my fears, my limitations, my mortality.
Despite the fact there are less life years looming ahead of us than behind us, we assumed the best was yet to come; that we had much left to do, and all the time in the world left to do it in. As if, up until now, we were just practising, trying out different ways to get the hang of this living business. Any day soon we’d have it mastered. Then we’d settle down and live. Do all the things we’d dreamt of in whispered, sibilant, middle of the night affections. We promised to live to the full, as soon as. As soon as we retired, the children were through college, the mortgage was paid. As soon as. The excuses as long as the day. As long as the life we’d wasted up until this moment.
Now we sit in this pub and puzzle out the jigsaw that our life has been reduced to. Simon shocked, bewildered, not understanding what it is we have done to deserve this. Sweet Simon, simple in his grief, his terror at the familiarity of his world being thrown away on the result of a few tests. He cradles his pint in hands at once too large for the pint, and too small to hold the illness of his wife.
I love the old door, leaded coloured glass with lavatory written on it. The dignity of the old word in keeping with the old paint, old seats and tables. Paintings on the wall. Oils, I think, though I know nothing of art. A river through a bog, glistening wet, a slash of blue through an interminable brown of dead rushes, and green, stunted, bent out of shape trees. A representation of my own life. A wet path in the midst of a dried bog.
Tumours, they say, are opportunistic— is this why I’ve got one? The cells, sensing the emptiness inside, moved in to fill the vacuum. I’m not needed anymore. My sons do their own thing, grunt monosyllabically in answer to my queries as to their welfare. As long as there is food on the table, clean laundry, and occasional sex, Simon is happy. All of which leaves me to my own devices. Meeting friends occasionally at Film Club, and working part-time in the library, exchanging books for the pensioners who haunt the shelves, and who age chapter by chapter.
Simon would be so hurt were I to tell him my life is wet and muddy in the middle of dried barrenness. Simon believes we are on track to live the dream life. Last year we converted the loft to give us a bit of private space. We have the caravan on the Suffolk coast to give us our weekends out of London. We aspire to own that little cottage in the south of France. Then this has to happen.
He mutters to his pint. “Out of the blue? How could it? How could life throw this at us now, at this hour? Where did we go to wrong? What should we have done differently? Is it so wrong to dream, to want a little bit more, to think it need not always be the same day in day out drudgery?”
There are no answers to offer, so I mutter ehems and ahams to denote listening. I love Simon. I must love him to have stayed with him all these years. Or was it just easy? To go along with him, stay alongside him, have his company. Stable, safe company. We’ve muddled along, learnt to accommodate each other, learnt to ignore the peccadilloes that once irritated. We are, I assume, like most couples; plodding along, skimming pebbles of small talk along the surface, never plumbing the depths. Afraid of discovering we’re all full of holes, and that there is nothing behind the facades we daily inhabit.
Tonight Simon’s company irks me. He is almost spitting with outraged injustice at the cards we’ve been dealt. As if we’ve both been given this diagnosis. It’s charming he cares so much, that he is upset on my behalf. He’s cataloguing all the changes for him, all the things he will miss. He can, now on his third pint, visualise how badly off his life will be when I’m gone. When this cancer finally has me beat. His words. It conjures up monsters wielding sticks, finally subduing me into submission, in spite of whatever resistance I put up. Simon has me dead and buried while I sip on my second glass—I never could keep pace with his drinking—and murmur more consoling inanities to keep him calm. I’m sitting beside him, but there is a gulch between us. I feel dizzy.
Here they serve wine in little carafes. A full glass measure that, like the word lavatory, adds a sense of dignity, confers civility, and other worldly charm on the simple act of going for a drink. Pity about the smoking ban. I long for the smell of smoke. The pall of dense exhaled fumes curling ceiling wards like my thoughts, curling, rubbing off the ceiling, only to duck and dive before crashing to the floor.
Incision is what the surgeon said. He will make an incision, about this big, just about here, and excise the tumour and some of the invading glands. He made it sound like Star Wars. Clinical, cold, science fiction words. It felt as if the words were masculine words, aimed at Simon more than me. As if to take the emotion out of the situation, and keep it all in the male world of manly words; controlling, in-charge-of-the-situation, words. Never think in terms of soft, white flesh. Warm, inviting flesh. Voluptuous. That’s how Jake once described my breasts. Pomegranates, he’d called them. Neither he, at that time, nor I, had ever seen a pomegranate, but it sounded so good. Jake, who always had a way with words, and half the time never meant what he said.
Now my breasts are reduced to glands that must be excised. The incision just above my nipple. Just there. There, where Simon kisses me. My body and how it looks make me the woman I am. Voluptuous or not, breasts are important to me. I’m about to lose one.
Simon wants another drink. It helps him get his head around it all. Helps him try to face what cannot be faced. He lumbers toward the counter already defeated, his shoulders sag under the burden.
I watch the solo drinkers at the bar, remembering when I was last here. As if it was yesterday. As if it was a life time ago. We waste the time tonight just as I did then, pretending to talk things through over a drink, all the while saying nothing of worth about what we think or feel. Then, as now, the impossibility of honesty. Full disclosure reserved for strangers with whom there is no investment; nothing at stake.
Simon plumps down beside me again, slurping the amber liquid in the pint glass. The sound grates. He reaches for my hand, misses and ends with his fingers splayed on my thigh just above the knee. I steel myself not to flinch.
“It will come ok,” he says, and gives me a squeeze. “You wait and see, we’ll muddle through somehow. We always do.” He swallows more of his drink, draws the back of his hand across his mouth, and gives me a lopsided grin.
Jake’s face floats in my mind’s eye, one eyebrow raised questioning and mocking in that endearing and annoying way he’d had. If he were beside me now, he would enfold me in his muscular arms, and murmur manly promises of support and strength. I think of how deliciously simple it would be to crumple into those assurances. Until his next lapse in concentration. I shiver and blink his memory away.
Simon removes his hand from my leg, and drapes his arm across my shoulder while he cuddles his pint with the other hand. He snuggles into my hair as if the ethanol will fumigate me of the marauding protoplasm. Close to tears, his speech slurs; alcohol always makes him maudlin.
“You’ll be fine,” he says, his breath damp and hot in my ear. “They’ll get it all, nothing to worry about. And everyone will support you. Be here for you.”
I look at the bog picture, and wonder what I will feel once I’ve been excised.
Having gone round in circles living in London, Sierra Leone and Dublin, Mary Rose McCarthy is now back where she started in West Cork. She writes in an attempt to make sense of the world.
Image: flickr / Ronald Saunders