by Bodwyn Wook
Mining the book shelves, ‘down-sizing’, getting ready for that antepenultimate move to a ‘cozier’ home ‘just for the two of us’ that inevitably will dump you both into ‘assisted’ living and, afterward, you into then-widowered and unassisted but no doubt iatrogenetic care-home dying, you hold bemused the odd much-underlined volume on sufism that somehow has been abiding for apparently donkey’s years on the bottom shelf.
‘Where in the devil can this rubbish have gotten here from?’
You suspect for a terrible half-second your wife of these forty years of some atrocious concealed episode of lèse-majesté long ago with some dreaming half-addled buffoon of the academic margins, but know immediately such suspicions, as well as ignoble, are simply rubbish. Marital old age may be indeed rather more comfortable than exhilarating, but it is that at least and so you simply know, of course you do, that Pamela had nothing whatsoever to do with this wretched revenant being in the house, of the old-time Thatcher-era ‘New Age’ movement. Pamela, clever girl, has never been one to tolerate any sort of denial, and so you toss the absurd gidget into the basket for the up-coming WI jumble sale at St Polycarp’s.
And yet you were with your friend who loved to delve into just this sort of esoteric chat when he got the lethal diagnosis of myeloma that would kill him within the year; how many times had you, indeed, put off the reading of your lecture at the polytechnic onto some graduate student in order to drive him to chemotherapy?
Your friendship had been, well, ancient. It took wing on the dark eve of those mad thatcherite halcyon years when one could still hope, through some fanciful semblance or the other of personal mental and moral ‘development’, that the world nonetheless might be made to become a better place. Middle age now opening out before you both seemed as full of delicious prospects, ‘in its own way’ as one of you said to the other, as youth. Hence, your own gambit had been Zen; it was requisitely opaque and thus conveyed an intuition of detachment both satisfactory in itself and yet wholly suitable to be alluded in passing at the infinity of dreary faculty house-parties that had wrung out the long years.
Your friend was all over the psychopompic field in those days, dosing himself on sometimes quite scholarly treatises on siberian shamanism as well as Leary’s absurd extrapolations on — in both senses, or so you had suspected — LSD. He never married, he was ‘just that impossible’ as Pamela had said more than once of his marital non-prospects; but, he was sweet-natured and shared her doubts about the decency of eating meat and vivisection, and so she had never minded their fortnightly argumentative sessions over the many years, ‘over ‘tea and wads’ as their mutual friend had put it.
What you did not know even at the time is, after he had been studying esoteric islam for going on twenty years and after the cancer treatment was well-along, that he had a kind of crisis of worldly re-valorisation that he kept all to himself; it was compounded of the boundless anglo-american idiocy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of an horrific report of some yobs on a railway platform kicking an old homeless man to his death in front of an on-coming train. In the way of these enantiodromias, it had come over him all in a rush in the clinic waiting-room that the sensible bodily world all around him was an irreducibly unmitigable horror; he realised that the sheer volume of physical agony going on everywhere, and now rising up in his own flesh and bone to drag him away from the very memory of any earlier brief pleasure whatsoever in life, was pelting along at exactly the same rate and volume as it had been on the day of his birth.
The world was, as well, perhaps now no worse, he thought; a circumstance not ironic as much as that much more unendurable.
Accordingly, that night — he was rather farther along in islamic meditation than you ever knew — he said to the djinn and angels that were by now his steady companions that he would at death be perfectly willing to accept complete and absolute obliteration and annihilation of the whole phenomenon of his existence, if only the world and all in it, all that had ever been, was now or ever shall be in these hylic realms, would be transformed and re-composed on an entirely other order of being:
A world without any undue ecstasies in it any longer, to be sure; but, one in which one no longer powerlessly should have to behold incessant waking nightmares as with ones eyelids clipped off. Only let it be that he never had been, that he would enter on death un-remembered by any-one at all in the world, and all would be well.
‘Make it so,’ he intoned gravely whilst seated on his Baluchi prayer carpet and grinning back at the mental image of Mr Patrick Stewart, grinning in at hime — and, straightaway, toppled over dead.
That night whilst knotting your tie for attendance of some interminable brawl on the subject of ‘New Dimensions in Diversity’ at the polytechnic, Pamela wanted to know your opinion of the necklace of emerald cabochons you had gotten her for her birthday on approval — hers, you had meant — and somehow you quite forgot to tell her all about the shocking news that afternoon of your late friend’s cardiac misadventure; his name never again came up thereafter, neither between Pamela and you; and, nor between you and your own thoughts. You remember similarly to-day nothing about any of this unsingularly un-diverse evening, except that Pamela was delighted with the emeralds; and, now, remember nothing at all about a friend’s long-ago too-sudden demise; the very scrawled gift inscription to you and Pamela from him over an illegible signature that you just now noticed, on taking the creased and battered paper-back book back from out of the basket for a second look-through, means nothing and brings absolutely no-one to mind:
‘This must have been from some fool of a graduate lecturer that we had for tea a couple of times’, you mutter.
Which, after all, is as it should be, for the main business really of all of middle age of course is the denial and ignoring of death. This is best to be accomplished by frenetic engagements in faculty politics and lengthy discussions of the many flaws of all of the party manifestoes; earnest discussion of the many crises in popular culture and ‘global warming’; and, possibly, the strenuousities of some ultimately wearisome extramarital affairs…you having had only one of these for yourself and, to-day, thinking that you were just a bit, well, silly for having dived into it at all, despite the shy treasured remembrance of a certain alien musk.
Thus, your elsewhen friend got his wish, at least as to his own demise and the extinction of any living memory of him, and the medical view was that his heart failure was simply a rather unforeseen consequence of the NHS chemotherapy; there being no family, his remains were cremated and the ashes are somewhere to-day in the bowels of some trust hospital, languishing in a plasticised paper box with a bar-code.
Thus, he got his wish and now, ten years on and all-not-remembering anything at all about it, not a bit of it, you toss the peculiar mis-placed item of esoteric eastern lore back into the jumble.
[all rights reserved
[13 July 2013]