This afternoon, as I came awake from one of those thin, un-refreshing hospital naps, a strange woman was standing over my bed. She was unusually tall—maybe six foot—with a sad, too-long face and a wonky right eye.
"Mr. Muller?" she said. "I hope I didn’t disturb you. My name is Vivian Champ. I’m a post-trauma counsellor."
I shifted slightly, dragging my body up towards the head- board and causing a gust of fuggy air to rise up from the sheets. Vivian’s right eye veered about like a restless marble, making her left eye seem peculiarly still and glaring.
"Are you going to give me a bath?" I asked her. (Bathing is a rare and exotic privilege in the modern American hospital regime. In the entire fortnight I have been at the Beverly Memorial, I have been steadfastly refused anything more than a once-a-day wash-down with a chemically moistened cotton- nylon napkin.)
Vivian cocked her head and laughed a tinkling, girlish laugh. "No, Mr. Muller. I’m just here for a chat. How are you feeling?" There was a short silence while I riffled through a selection of nasty responses and decided, finally, that I couldn’t be bothered with any of them.
"I’ve brought something you might want to listen to," Vivian said when it had become clear that I was not going to reply. She produced a cassette tape from her handbag. On its cover there was a line-drawing of two hippy types sitting cross- legged, with their eyes closed. The title of the cassette was Meditation Chants and Prayers for the Sick.
"What about a cigarette?" I asked. Vivian smiled at me tolerantly. She wasn’t going to be provoked. Smoking is the ultimate no-no here. They’d sooner you shot heroin—they’d sooner you had a bath—than that you partook of tobacco. Early on in my stay, I made a big stink about the no-smoking thing. I threatened a hunger strike. I yelled and made my eyes roll back in my head. I reduced two nurses to tears. But none of this got me a smoke. They’re hard bastards, these medical people.
"I don’t have anything to play it on," I told Vivian, gesturing at her tape.
"Don’t worry," she said. "I can arrange a Walkman for you." She bit at her lips, allowing me a glimpse of her mottled teeth.
"Thank you," I said, "but I’m not interested."
"Why is that?" Her right eyeball seemed to become more agitated.
"What do you mean, why?" There was a nervous defiance in her tone that I meant to squash.
"I’m just not interested. I want a bath."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I sense a lot of anger from you. What do you think you are angry about?"
"Look," I said with a high, fake laugh. "I appreciate what you’re trying to do for me, but I don’t want the tape."
She nodded again. "You know, you’ve been through a very difficult experience. Your main enemy now is stress."
I had had enough of this ugly person. "No," I said. "No. My main enemy now is you.
Vivian stiffened and blinked. "This is obviously not a good time," she said. She put the tape down on my bedside table. "I’ll leave this here for you in case you change your mind." Then she turned and left. I watched the great, fleshy pistons of her but- tocks chug lazily up and down in her nylon slacks as she loped from the room.
Depression and irritability are common symptoms among cardiac patients. My doctor told me so the other day, after I had thrown a stale bagel at one of the Asian trolls who bring me my breakfast. Naturally, I resented his banal diagnosis. Maybe this has nothing to do with my heart!
I wanted to shout at him. Maybe I’m having a nervous breakdown!
All summer I have been feeling fretful, off-kilter—lurching back and forth between deathly exhaustion and manic energy. Work has been a big problem. My pending task is to write the autobiography of Reginald Boon, former king of daytime tele- vision. But last year, shortly before I signed on for the Reg work, my agent managed to sell some producer the film option on my memoir, To Have and to Hold,
for fifteen grand. And then, when the project got taken on by Curzon Studios, he got me hired to write the screenplay for another twenty. This was a pretty good haul for a book that’s been sold five times over in the last eight years and a screenplay that, unbeknownst to the studio, has been sitting in my desk drawer for just as long. But thirty-five thousand dollars, when you come down to it, is a most unsatisfactory sum—not nearly enough to allow me to turn down the Boon project and just sufficient to discourage me from doing any work on it. The first draft of Boon was due two months ago, at the beginning of July. Since June, cush- ioned by my ill-gotten and rapidly dwindling gains, I have been stuck, revving helplessly, on the tenth sentence of Chapter One. I cannot write a single word. No, that’s not true. I can write endless, scabrous fantasies about Boon’s family and friends. I can compose scads of pornographic limericks about his boy- hood in Idaho. I just can’t produce the lighthearted, anecdotal look at the life and times of one of TV-land’s greats that is required. Most days, this summer, I have spent collapsed on my sofa, flicking through furniture catalogues and eating cream cheese straight from the tub.
Then there was the other thing. One morning, two weeks ago, shortly after I had returned from breakfast at the local mall, I received a parcel in the mail from my youngest daugh- ter, Sadie. This was an odd occurrence, because Sadie had not communicated with me—postally or otherwise—for many years. Also, she had been dead for approximately four months.
She died this past May. She killed herself with Mogadons and paracetamols mashed up in Bailey’s Irish Cream. A neighbour had been looking after her baby daughter, Pearl, for the night, and when this woman came round the next day to drop the child off, she looked through the letterbox and saw Sadie’s blueish leg jutting out from the kitchen onto the hallway lino. Four days afterwards, Sadie was in the ground, buried next to her mother in Highgate Cemetery.
The family made it clear I was not welcome at the funeral, which was fine by me—I wasn’t so crazy to attend in any case. (My sister, Monika, rang later to tell me how it went, and apparently the man who did the service referred to Sadie throughout as "Sody.") Pearl, now an orphan (her father having absconded shortly after her conception), has been taken to live with her great-aunt Margaret in the north of England.
If I am sounding lachrymose or self-pitying, I apologize. The last thing I want to do is whine. Since it happened, I have been busy as a bee, calculating my blessings and registering all the small mercies that were afforded in this instance. Sadie might have done herself in in any number of vulgar or grotesque ways. She might have been a jumper. Or a slasher. She might have hanged herself from a light fixture after listening to Satanic messages in pop songs played backwards. As it was, she merely mixed herself a muddy cocktail using a plastic pestle and mortar borrowed from her daughter’s Little Miss Chef set. So, lest there be any confusion, let me acknowledge right here: It Could Have Been Worse.
The address on Sadie’s parcel had the wrong postcode, and the postmark was blurred. Judging from the proliferation of scribbled emendations covering the parcel’s brown paper, it had been on a brutal odyssey through the California postal system. Luckily, I had never seen Sadie’s adult handwriting before, so I didn’t realize straight away that the parcel was from her, and I was saved from having a freak-out in front of the post- man. My first thought, as I stood there at the door signing for it, was that I had been sent a bomb. I experienced a brief, Technicolor vision of exploding fertilizer, raining nails, costly facial reconstruction. And then I saw British stamps, and relaxed. Oh,
I thought. Just hate mail.
I have been receiving tokens of animosity through the post for eleven years, ever since I was first accused of killing my wife, Oona. In 1970, during a marital spat, Oona broke her skull on a refrigerator door handle and died. I was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and spent a short time in prison before being found innocent on appeal. The hate mail comes, as one might expect, from people who approved of the first verdict and were disappointed by the second. Mostly, it is frothy- mouthed, green-ink rants from ladies in Hemel Hempstead. But every now and then I receive oozy, suppurating objects— animal organs, bodily excretions, et cetera. For several months back in 1973 , someone in west London express-mailed me a weekly lump of human shit—his or her own, presumably— each one tremulously wrapped in cling-film and silver foil. For five years or so another anonymous enemy kept up a monthly consignment of offal. And there is one tenacious individual who, for nearly a decade now, has specialized in soiled sanitary towels and crumpled paper handkerchiefs caked with snot. I have no strong evidence, but a vibration tells me that the individual in question is my wife’s younger sister, Margaret—the one who now has charge of Pearl.
Margaret has always hated me. When Oona and I were newlyweds and Margaret was still a social-work student, she used to come and stay with us in London. She would sit knitting in corners, playing the snide country mouse—"Shop-bought flowers! How grand!"—and moaning about the fact that she couldn’t get laid. Later, she press-ganged Bill into marrying her, and the two of them went to live in righteous poverty on the outskirts of Leeds. Oona and I once went to visit them on our way to Scotland. Bill made us macaroni cheese for dinner, and afterwards we all had to do the washing-up together while Margaret and Bill sang "Green Grow the Rushes-o" in rounds. To complete the festive evening, we huddled around their crappy black and white television to watch a general- knowledge quiz hosted by some tweedy English mo. As a special treat, Margaret cracked open a family pack of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. That’s what Margaret is like.
Even though the flow of excrement and other anti-gifts has slacked off somewhat in recent years, I still keep a stock of latex gloves in the kitchen for disposing of the odd Valentine’s pig- heart or yuletide phial of vomit. And it was to the kitchen that I went on this occasion, bearing the package gingerly before me. I quickly located the gloves container at the back of a drawer, peeled off a pair and snapped them on. Then I took a knife from the magnetic rack on the wall and began carefully to slice the package open.
Inside, I found three scruffy, ring-bound writing pads and a large white envelope labelled "For Pearl." I sat down, aware that my breathing had become humiliatingly shallow and rapid. Then I opened the envelope and shook out its contents. They were:
a lock of blond baby hair
a plain silver ring, inscribed with the words For SM with love, MM
a pair of baby bootees
When Sadie died, she did not leave any letters or notes or lip- stick scrawls on mirrors to tell everyone why she’d done it. Just herself, palely loitering on her dirty kitchen floor. The absence of any accompanying gloss was a great disappointment to my wife’s family. They felt, apparently, that Sadie’s omission had denied them "closure." Personally, I was relieved. The way most people behave when they know they are about to expire is pretty shabby. It’s always the nastiest tyrants who get taken with a mawkish enthusiasm for "coming to terms" as soon as they know they’re going to pop their clogs. Then everyone has to play ball while they lie around in darkened rooms, wheezing fake confessions and clutching their enemies in conciliatory death-cuddles.
I thought Sadie had done exceptionally well to be so efficient and laconic in death. But now, as I trawled through the pathetic items in the envelope, I felt the familiar prickings of parental disappointment. She had, it seemed, succumbed to the sentimentalities of leave-taking after all. And Christ, isn’t life hard enough without that sort of hokey melodrama?
After a while, I opened one of the pads. It appeared to be some rather primitive species of journal. The first page was dated 31 December 1970 . Dear Diary,
I read, Tomorrow is the beginning of the new year and Doctor Hume has told me it is helpful to write down my feelings and ideas, so today I am starting a new tradition. Doctor Hume has yellow hair and green eyes and is quiet gorgeous. Sophie says she fancies him. But first, let me tell youI am nine years old, I have brown hair and brown eyes and my middle name is Sibella after my grandmother on my mums side.
my grandad is called Paul. The other grandad is dead and granny Ursula who is my dads mum lives alone behind sainsburys on finchley road. her flat is quiet pokey and she often gets sad because she needs light. My sister is Sophie and she is thirteen. Her middle name is Monika after my aunt. She is very old for her age and quietobsessed with boys and clothes. Sometimes she is nice to me and tells me her secrets but quite a lot of the time she ismean and la di da and says o! you wouldn’t understand!
we live in chalk farm which is near to dingwalls market.Mum who is called Oona died in september and there is quite a controversy about that. now we live just with dad who is called William Muller. He used to be on television. he reported current affairs for a program called
2 4 /7 but heis not working at the moment because he has alot on his plate. He is not as strict as mum. tonight we are going to
stay up and see fireworks and watch Drakyula on the telly because even though it is frightening it is a classic. Dad is under alot of strain because he has to meet with lawyers all the time. It is hard for me to make a judgment about dad because I am in the middle of it all. That is why I am having sessions with doctor Hume.
I put down the book. I would like to be able to describe my feelings at this juncture, but I can’t really remember them. My actions were as follows: I got up from the table. I took off the latex gloves. I wrapped the latex gloves in a plastic bag and threw them in the bin. I went to my bedroom and changed into my tennis gear. I went back into the kitchen. I ate a slice of roast beef from the refrigerator. I left the house and drove to the Santa Monica Tennis Club, where I met Art Mann, my afore- mentioned agent. We had completed two sets—both of which, despite strong intimations of nausea, I had won—when, at some point shortly after 11 a.m., I had a heart attack.
Heart disease runs in my family, so I had been anticipating this attack for a good twenty years. I had always imagined it as a sharp, knifey thing—the sort of pain that comes with a staccato violin score: eek, eek, eek.
In the end, though, it wasn’t that way at all. It was more like a woozy pummeling in the chest area, with some slow, rhythmic surging and ebbing of pressure in my left arm. The musical accompaniment was not violins, but harp glissandos—the stuff of dream sequences: mwooah, mwooah, mwooah.
My collapse occurred in the early stages of the third set. I missed a shot, staggered a little and quite suddenly found myself crawling about the court on hands and knees, feeling unpleasantly wet. (Sweat and some pee, I’m afraid.) Finally, I vomited—producing gobs of that morning’s bacon and pan- cake that sizzled horribly on the hot court tarmac.
My memory grows fuzzy after this point, but I have since been informed that my heart actually stopped for a bit. One of the coaches at the club—some alternative-medicine mo—had me laid out on the court, biting the little finger of my left hand, to get it started again. History doesn’t relate what Art was doing while this was going on. I assume he was on a cell phone trying to find out if there was any way we could sue the tennis club.
The next time I became fully conscious, I was in a Cardiac Unit wearing an oxygen mask. Several electrodes on little suckers were attached to my chest, and there was a doctor who looked about seventeen years old standing over me, giving instructions to a nurse. Off to one side I could see Art hovering about, eating a bag of fat-free pretzels.
"You had a heart attack," Art said, spitting shards of pretzel. "But it’s okay. You’re going to be fine."
"No talking, please," the doctor said sharply.
"Excuse me, Marcus Welby," Art shouted then, "this man is my client and my close personal friend. I’ll talk to him any damn time I want." After that, to my immense relief, they ejected him from the ward.
I’ve been at the Beverly Memorial—or the Bev Mem, as it is jauntily referred to around here—for a fortnight now, and I can honestly say it is the filthiest hospital I have ever seen. For years, I have been handing over fiendish monthly sums to some pissy insurance company in preparation for just such a contin- gency as this. And what do I find, when I finally cash in my chips? A fucking petri dish! Sinister seams of dirt glint at mefrom the nooks and crevices of my complicated mechanical bed. Whenever I shift to plump a pillow or pour myself a glass of water, I can feel pieces of grit trapped in my bedclothes, like soil lurking in the folds of a leek. In the ward lavatory, grey sludge coagulates on the funnels of the liquid-soap dispensers.
I am not one to leap to paranoid conclusions—particularly ones that involve God—but I have to admit that during my stay here the thought that I might be receiving some sort of divine retribution has crossed my mind once or twice. Hospital itself—the wretched communality of it, the enforced proximity of other people’s leaking, cratered bodies, the yellow shafts of sunlight clogged with floating particles of sick people’s skin—would have been trial enough for me. (I am a man who has spent his entire adult life squatting, tremblingly, a few inches above lavatory seats just to avoid resting on other men’s arse-prints; I don’t even like to touch a door handle in a public bathroom for fear of all those crotchy hands that have grasped it before mine.) But that I should have ended up in a place like this—where patients trudge through the corridors with wafers of lavatory paper stuck to the soles of their slippers and even the nurses look as if they haven’t changed their knickers in a while—seems too custom-made a nightmare to be the work of mere ill fortune.
Apart from my girlfriend, Penny, and Art, I have received no visitors during my incarceration. A couple of friends have sent flowers. Some have even had hideous wicker cradles of "Tele-fruit" delivered. But not one has seen fit to make an actual in-the-flesh appearance. My sister, Monika, offered to fly over from England in the first week, but I told her there was no need. My mother has called once to let me know that since I am a smoker, she doesn’t think it appropriate to extend sympathy for my current condition. My one extant daughter has made no contact whatsoever. Like her deceased sibling, she has refused to have anything to do with me for nearly a decade—a policy that has occasionally been relaxed in times of financial need, but which is otherwise unbendable, even, it seems, by the news of my near-demise. Not that I mind. I am rather curious to know what she said when Monika told her I had had a heart attack. (My sister is far too discreet to volunteer that sort of information, and I don’t want to look pathetic by asking.) But I have no desire for some kissy rapprochement.
Oh God, no.
Sophie has always intimidated me. I was awkward around both of my daughters—embarrassed by their little pink bodies, appalled by their pukings and snottings, convinced that if they cuddled too close to me I would get an erection—but I was especially nervous of Sophie. She was, by anyone’s standards, a daunting child—creepily self-possessed and knowing about adult matters. When she was four she asked me, with a dour little face, if I loved "lots of ladies" or "just Mummy." Much later on, when she was found out doing unpleasant things at Mar- garet’s, people blamed it on me—the traumas I had inflicted on her. But the truth is, Sophie’s oddness predated all that and was entirely her own.
By the age of seven, she was talking about sex non-stop—not the giggly scatalogical references that one might have expected from a child of that age, but unsmiling, rather bleak observations on desire. "You want to make love to her, don’t you?" she once remarked to one of our dinner-party guests as he was eye- ing a bosomy young woman across the table. "You would like to roll and roll and roll in bed with her, wouldn’t you?" We pre- tended to be amused by all this, Oona and I. We had an idea that we were both worldly people—that this little de Sade in kneesocks who had sprung up in our midst was proof of what a broad-minded household we ran. "What is that meant to be?" Oona would ask briskly when presented with one of Sophie’s pornographic, kindergarten scrawls. (Oona always spoke to the children in the military, C.L.A.P. mode—Clear, Loudly, As an order, with Pauses.) "A vagina? Well, it’s a rather feeble vagina, darling. Where are the labia?" But we were not worldly people. Sex when we were growing up had been a vast, smutty enigma—an enigma whose depths we were still not entirely cer- tain of having plumbed. Sophie frightened both of us.
Soon after she started secondary school, some classmates of Sophie’s spray-painted the front garden wall of our house with the words sophie lives here. ring the bell. £5 per screw.
Oona immediately called the school to complain. I made (empty) threats to go and find the boys and give them a good kicking. And Sophie? She giggled softly and wandered out of the living room, leaving us to rant. When I went to look for her a little later, I found her out in the street, calmly emending the graffito with a stick of chalk. She was adding two zeroes to the £5.
To occupy my arid hospital days, I have been watching a fair amount of television and sleeping a great deal. I have also been reading Sadie’s journals. This was not my original intention. When I first got to hospital, I instructed Penny to get rid of them—wrap them up and send them on to Monika in London. Baby Pearl could be given the tchotchkes when she was old enough, I thought. And as for the scribblings, Monika could do what she liked with them. I was furious, to tell the truth— repulsed by the whole manipulative, TV mini-seriesness of the situation. If this was my daughter reaching out from the grave to mess with my conscience, I was having none of it.
But then, after Penny had gone off, I was stricken with doubt. Perhaps Sadie had included a message for me some- where in the legal pads. Perhaps she had even enclosed a letter. I had not inspected the package very carefully, after all. Such, presumably, were the sappy second thoughts that Sadie had been counting on. Old Willy might be a shit, but even he wouldn’t be so bastardly as to just dismiss his daughter’s pre- suicidal wishes without some agonizing. In a panic of remorse, I rang Penny at my house and told her I wanted to see the journals once more before she sent them off.
She brought them in that night. There was no note, of course. I held up each pad in turn and shook it vigorously over my blanketed lap, but nothing fell out. Then I went to the last page of the third journal to see if it contained anything pertaining to Sadie’s suicide. Again, there was nothing. Her final entry, a week before her death, was not remotely portentous— just an account of meeting an ex-boyfriend. Not exactly perky but not the sort of thing that suggests an imminent decision to do herself in.
Still, I did not hand the journals back to Penny. I told her to come back and pick them up the next day. And then, when she dutifully returned the following afternoon, I put her off for another twenty-four hours. This went on for two or three days until I had to acknowledge that I was keeping the journals. I had begun reading them, you see—staying up until one or two in the morning and waking again at five, specifically to plough through my daughter’s splodgy, felt-tip hieroglyphs.
At first, my progress was very slow. I found that I was unable to look at the journal for much more than ten minutes at a time without getting pissed off and developing pains in my gut—terrible, fluttery pains, like the first, prophetic murmurings of a bad clam. But I have slowly grown more resilient. At this point, I am able to read for quite long stretches without so much as a wince. I have even stopped humming loudly when I get to particularly uncomfortable passages.
The early stuff is not without historical interest. I am disinterring all sorts of long-forgotten details about my life. I am also remembering Sadie. She was a slight, skinny thing at ten— still basically a boy—with an odd, froggy sort of face and many whimsical rituals: folding all her clothes, from her knickers to her hairband, into geometric patterns on a chair before she went to bed at night. Going to sleep with her arms folded piously across her chest, like the girls in Little House on the Prairie.
In the afternoons, after school, she used to play for hours at something called "french skipping"—leaping in and out of two parallel lengths of elastic tied around chair-legs and singing a strange song about a daddy who bought a donkey. "Donkey died, daddy cried. Inky pinky ponky." She had a crush on Elvis. She was against putting pepper in scrambled eggs on the grounds that it looked like bugs eating daisies. She had a tortoise who fell into the garden pond and drowned. Amazingly, she loved me.