Death & Texas
By Clive Sinclair
(Excerpt of a novella)
Among Mayo's mail comes a letter from the Royal Neurological Hospital. Opening it she reads that an appointment has been made for her to see the in-house speech therapist. A second speech therapist, and a second opinion. Unlike her friend this one takes no prisoners. She dismisses any talk of anxiety as so much mumbo-jumbo. "I assure you," she says, "that the only thing damaging your throat is MND." She asks Mayo if swallowing is a problem. Mayo admits that it is. The speech therapist ticks some boxes. Mayo meets Jackson after the appointment at the cafe in the British Museum. He fetches her a bowl of tomato soup.
"That woman made Ming the Merciless seem like Pope John XXIII," she writes. "According to her the depredations I have already suffered are irreversible. My voice will never return." She puts her head in her hands. Then she writes: "Without hope what is there?" She has more tests, and another consultation in the Neuromuscular department. Jackson leaves the car in the parking lot under Russell Square. Crossing Southampton Row, a mere hundred metres from their starting point, Mayo suddenly starts gasping for breath and grabs Jackson’s arm. Leaning against the window of an Italian restaurant she writes with shaking hand: "I’m having a panic attack."
The Consultant is all smiles as he opens his door to admit both Mayo and Jackson. "I have read your book," he says to the former. "I don’t think there’s a doctor worth his salt who hasn’t. What an eye-opener it was. Now, whenever I have bad news to deliver - not an uncommon occurrence within these walls, alas - I pause for a moment and ask myself, ‘How would Dr Mayo handle this?’" He holds his breath. "I have to tell you," he says, "that is exactly what I am thinking right now."
Mayo cups her hands to her ears, as if to say, ‘Get on with it’. "The good news," says the Consultant, "is that your extremities are unaffected. But other indications clearly confirm my initial diagnosis: you undoubtedly have MND. For the moment it is confined to your throat. And for some patients that is where it remains." Mayo raises her hand like a traffic policeman. "How many?" she writes. "Most of them?" The Consultant looks at Mayo with an expression of surprise and nods absentmindedly. "As you are aware," he continues, "the muscles in your throat control more than your voice. Without them food and drink can no longer be swallowed safely. Your dramatic weight loss indicates that this is already a problem." Mayo raises both hands, then writes: "No, no, no." Followed by: "The problem is anxiety." "I have no doubt that you are extremely anxious," says the Consultant, a little flustered, "but for the moment I am more concerned with issues I can address, aspiration for example." Turning to Jackson he says: "I am not talking about social climbing, you understand, but the possibility of chest infections if food or drink ends up in the lungs instead of the stomach. Has Dr Mayo had any bad coughs recently?" "She’s just getting over one," says Jackson. "In that case," says the Consultant, "now is absolutely the right time to introduce Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy: PEG for short. I’m sure Dr Mayo has already familiarized herself with the procedure, so I’ll keep the explanation brief. What happens is that an endoscope is inserted in the stomach, a likely place found in the lining, and a small incision made from the outside. All that remains is for a tube to be fed down the mouth, through the stomach, and out the belly. What is visible is no bigger than a pencil. The whole process takes less that half an hour. Afterwards liquid feed - containing all the animals, vegetables and minerals a person needs - is delivered with a syringe, though there are other methods. Once a PEG’s in use the risk of chest infections is minimized, weight loss reversed, and quality of life greatly enhanced. What do you say, Dr Mayo?" But Mayo has been sitting for some time with her hands placed firmly over her ears. "I know it’s a Rubicon to cross," says the Consultant, turning once again to Jackson, "and I’m not saying Dr Mayo needs to do it today, or even tomorrow. But it’s as well to do it soon, while her respiratory muscles are still strong. At least get her to think about it." In the hospital’s Victorian vestibule Mayo has another panic attack. "This hospital is my Alamo," she writes. "And the Consultant my Santa Anna."
Over the next few weeks the panic attacks become more frequent, and Jackson begins to fear that they are not panic attacks at all, but symptoms of weakening respiratory muscles. He becomes a proselytiser for the PEG. It seems self-evident to his layman's mind that a nutritionally sound body would be better able to ward off infections and other evils than something half-starved. "I do not want the disease engraved upon my flesh," she writes. Or: "It will mark the beginning of the end. Is that what you want?" To be honest, Jackson is not sure what he wants. Sometimes he worries about his lack of sympathy. Is it envy? Is there some secret pleasure to be derived from watching his wife suffer so at the height of her success? Could it be déja vu? Has seeing it all before hardened his heart? Or is he simply relieved that it is happening to her rather than to him? Of all the possibilities Room 101 Syndrome seems the least self-incriminating.
He tries to persuade Mayo to put her experience as a patient on record. "It seems my thesis was spot-on," she writes, "mortal illness finds you out. And I have been found wanting. I’m sorry if I’ve let you down, Jesse, but it seems I lack the necessary generosity of spirit to do what you suggest. I know the prognosis is good, but I cannot rid myself of an image I once saw in an episode of Star Trek, of a brain in a bell jar. I’m terrified that I’ll end up trapped in a useless body, able to communicate only by blinking my eyelids. What compassion remains is not for sharing."
Meanwhile, Mayo’s agent wants her to fly to New York for the American publication. She is desperate to comply, even though these days it takes all her strength to get to Crouch End, where her speech therapist lives (the friendly one). Usually she makes the journey alone, but this morning Jackson is at the wheel, for husband and wife both have been invited for Sunday lunch. An Israeli couple are already there when they arrive. Like their compatriots the Israelis are not very good with boundaries. The subject of MND arises while they are eating their vegetarian quiches. The speech therapist, like Mayo, will not accept that a PEG is a vital necessity. "Once we have the anxiety under control," says the speech therapist, "normality will follow." "Sure thing," says one of the Israelis, "my father lasted for more than three years after he was diagnosed with MND, and was damn glad for most of them." The speech therapist looks aghast. Mayo, for her part exits the room, having first pushed the Israeli out of her way. Later that night she writes: "Three years? Was he really trying to make me feel better?"
She decides that the excitement of a trip to New York will be the perfect antidote to her morbid self-absorbtion. "It will take me out of myself," she writes, "allowing the pair of us - me and myself - time apart in which to recharge our batteries." She assures Jackson that she will return from New York a changed woman. As far as Jackson can see she already is. The youthful woman he married has been replaced by a bent, fleshless creature, barely able to climb the stairs in her own house. And yet Dr Mayo’s locum declares her fit to travel. She must have been bullied, thinks Jackson, or bribed. What else could have prompted her to declare so confidently that a week in New York would lower Dr Mayo’s extremely high levels of anxiety, improve her self-confidence, and generally do her the world of good?
Driving his wife to the airport it suddenly occurs to Jackson that she may not be flying to New York at all, but to Zurich, where facilities exist to hasten the end. But it is to an American Airlines check-in counter that an attendant pushes her wheelchair-bound charge. "Take good care of her," says Jackson to their agent. Three hours later the agent telephones Jackson. "What's up?" says Jackson. "Flight delayed?" "Not exactly," says the agent. "We were already in our seats when Cecelia suddenly starts to gasp for breath. 'I'm having one of my panic attacks,' she writes. But it's me who does the real panicking. Her face - already white - has gone whiter still. Her eyes have started to roll like cherries in a fruit machine. I'm absolutely convinced she's begun to die on me. I call a stewardess. The stewardess cops one look and dashes off to inform the pilot. The pilot refuses to take off with such a distressed patient on board. I can hardly blame him or abandon her, so I get off too. The authorities want to send her straight to the nearest hospital, but I make a bit of a fuss, and now we're waiting for an ambulance to take us to the Royal Free. The best thing is to meet us there."
Jackson is horrified to see how much his wife has deteriorated in only five or six hours. She has a drip attached to her arm, and an oxygen mask to her face. "It seems the pilot saved her life," says the agent. "The doctor chappie tells me there are so many carbon whatsits in her blood she would have been a corpse before we even reached Newfoundland. He also says that the disease is far more advanced than she thinks, and that her lungs are completely buggered." Then the agent, who has never before displayed any kind of emotion in Jackson's presence, gasps, "The poor darling," and begins to sob without restraint. Jackson stares at him, and wonders how he does it.
The following day Mayo improves, and even manages to shuffle to the window, which affords a view over the Vale of Health. "Now perhaps you'll agree to a PEG," says Jackson. A date is set, but then cancelled, because Mayo's condition has deteriorated dramatically. She lies supine, struggling - literally struggling - for breath. To Jackson it looks as if his wife is wrestling with an angel he cannot see. She manages to write: "The disease is squeezing the life out of me." Later she scrawls a two-line note, which takes Jackson nearly forty minutes to decipher. It reads: "I don’t know if there’s a God, but if there is one the bastard certainly knows how to make the punishment fit the crime. Tell Kinky Friedman I’m sorry for what I did to his hero." Finally, with an effort too painful to witness, Mayo pens a sentence that - try as he might - Jackson just cannot unscramble, not now, not ever. Thereafter her strength deserts her completely, as does life itself.
Many weep as Rabbi Siskin conducts Dr Mayo’s funeral, but her husband is not among them. He recites the Kaddish with dry eyes, nor are tears in evidence as his fellow mourners hug him and wish him - according to tradition - long life. Instead grief infiltrates Jackson’s psyche in a series of horrible images, images that illustrate his late wife in misery or in extremis, images that he can neither control nor erase. There are other legacies, too, Jackson discovers, such as the house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, and Dr Nunes Pereira’s cursed journal, in which the eye-witness accuses Davy Crockett of cowardice in the face of death. Letters demanding that it be made available for professional and public scrutiny have not diminished in number with its owner’s death. Jackson responds to none, and has half a mind to make a bonfire of the bloody thing at the bottom of the garden, but cannot bring himself to join the infamous league of book-burners. Finally he secures a safe-deposit box in the vaults below Harrods, places the libellous document within, locks the door, and considers tossing the key into the Thames.
"I’m looking for a date," says Rabbi Siskin’s voice on Jackson’s answering service many months later; "Quentin Tarantino’s latest is not exactly the rebbetzin’s cup of tea, but I thought it might be yours." "I hated Death Proof so much I was intending to give it a miss," says Jackson, calling back, "but for you I’ll take a risk. Why the hell not?" They meet in the bar of the Charlotte Street Hotel, where both order large bourbons. "Hope you won’t be offended," says Rabbi Siskin, "but I’ve asked another friend to join us." "It’s not a shidduch, is it?" says Jackson. "Hardly," says the cleric, "he’s a yeshiva bocher." "It must be an unusual yeshiva," says Jackson, "that has Inglourious Basterds on the curriculum." They touch glasses and chorus: "L’chaim."
"Before he shows up," says Rabbi Siskin, "why not take the opportunity to tell me how you’re coping?" "The nights are long and I think too much," says Jackson. "Among other things I think about what it means to have two dead wives. Friends who have children tell me that the biggest difference is not between none and one, but between one and two. I guess it’s the same with dead wives. Answer me this, rabbi: which of the two am I supposed to repossess in the afterlife; the late Mrs Jackson – because she was the first - or the late Dr Mayo – because she was the most recent? Do I really have to choose, or do we all become Mormons in the next world?" "It could be worse," says Rabbi Siskin, "you could turn into the Pope."
The only connection Shlomo Felberbaum has with the Holy Father is a skullcap. Although he sounds like he’s swallowed the Bronx whole, he orders a scotch on the rocks, and gives his address as Jerusalem. Joining in the conversation he says: "In Plato’s Symposium Aristophanes proposes that mankind once had a third sex, in addition to common or garden men and women. These androgynous types were shaped like balls, had four arms and legs, two sets of genitalia, and moved like tumblers. Following the precedent set by Adam and Eve they got a bit too knowledgeable for their own good, found themselves on the receiving end of Zeus’s temper, and ended up split down the middle - literally. Ever since they have been yearning for their other half. After the division their private parts were not compatible, which meant – as Aristophanes puts it – they sowed their seed upon the ground like grasshoppers. Taking pity on them, Zeus fixed things so that the male could generate his seed inside the female. And this we continue to do in hopes of recreating our original state, of making one of two, of healing the state of humanity. Tikkun olam, as we prefer to say. Eternity should provide you with ample time to discover which of the two ladies – assuming it is not someone else altogether – is the perfect fit."
"Are there many Jewish Platonists in Jerusalem’s yeshivas?" asks Jackson. "More than you’d think," says Felberbaum. "We may be orthodox, but we are also heterodox. For example, among the many students at my yeshiva is Christoph Waltz’s son, Leon, who is delighted by his father’s belated success, but constitutionally incapable of watching him perform in a Nazi uniform. I have promised to be his eyes tonight."
"That’s a coincidence," says Jackson, "my late wife – my late second wife – was a friend of Christoph, or rather of his ex-wife Jackie, when they lived in London, and as their family doctor, saw the three kids - including Leon, of course - through mumps, chicken pox, and all the other ailments children are heir to." It’s a great pity neither Jackson nor Felberbaum is a woman, thinks Rabbi Siskin, otherwise it would indeed be a perfect shidduch.
All three are crazy about the movie. "Have you seen Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be?" says Felberbaum. "Of course," says Jackson. "Don’t you think those last scenes in the movie theatre were almost a frame-by-frame remake of its climax," says Felberbaum, "discounting the shooting and the raging inferno, of course?" "Didn’t it bother either of you," says Rabbi Siskin, "that the Basterds were led not by a Jew but by Brad Pitt." "Certainly not," says Jackson, "and I’ll tell you why. Because the Brad Pitt character is really Davy Crockett reincarnate, and Davy Crockett (you’ll recall) was martyred by an evil dictator, and therefore turned into an honorary Jew. Why do I say Brad Pitt is Davy Crockett? Well, for a start he is described as a ‘hillbilly from the mountains of Tennessee’, as was Crockett. And for seconds the movie opens with ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’, the tune played as a requiem in John Wayne’s Davy Crockett film. Okay, let’s say you’ve bought that. How then can Tarantino transport Crockett across the time-space continuum? One big clue is the extraordinary casting of Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill, the other is giving the Jewish heroine - Shosanna Dreyfus - the pseudonym Emmanuelle Mimieux as a nom de guerre. Or rather not extraordinary at all when you recall that one of Rod Taylor’s biggest roles was as the time-traveller in The Time Machine, and that Yvette Mimieux was his lovely co-star. Because of Tarantino’s chutzpah it is emotionally satisfying to see Hitler and Goebbels whacked before their due date. Indeed, for those few minutes you are prepared to believe that someone has really gone back in time and changed history."
What Jackson doesn’t mention are the few extraordinary never-to-be-repeated minutes he alone experienced in that dark auditorium. The movie was well into its infernal crescendo. Beautiful Shosanna lay dead on the floor of the projection room of her own cinema, her plot to annihilate the entire Nazi hierarchy still in the balance. But then the old movie theatre began to burn, and as it did so, the gigantic features of Shosanna replaced that of the Nazi hero on the silver screen, except that it wasn’t the face of the actress Melanie Laurent Jackson saw, but that of Cecelia Mayo, risen from the dead, and addressing not only Adolf Hitler but also the Angel of Death, her voice restored, resonant and defiant: "This," she cried, "this is the face of Jewish vengeance."
Copyright © Clive Sinclair 2010
Clive Sinclair is the author of thirteen books, a few of which have won prizes. His most recent is called Clive Sinclair's True Tales of the Wild West. He holds a doctorate from the University of East Anglia, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.