Each one of us is his own illness.
—Lars Iyer, Exodus
It was never done out of malice. He meant no evil intent. He would say things in the hope of making people laugh. He was not very good at small talk and didn’t really understand the term. He was reticent in groups, better at one-on-one conversations. His foreign language skills were poor. He could understand a page of French but would be embarrassed to read it aloud. He could get by in Spanish when he was there, in Spain, ordering coffee and orange juice and beers and food, yet had no interest in the language apart from that. His three years of studying German meant occasional sparks of memory that soon dulled into incomprehensibility again. He had lived for five years in Japan and communicated with nods, smiles and frowns. In South Africa once, he had confused an Afrikaans woman in a supermarket when asking for some biltong with the Japanese phrase, “onegaishimasu.” But it was in his native language, in English, that he failed most spectacularly.
Of the many times he had failed, four occasions stood out. In the ’90s, he was married to a woman who worked as head of fundraising for an AIDS/HIV charity in north London. He supported her work, asked his friends and colleagues for donations, sponsorships and, sometimes, he wore a ribbon on his lapel. One night, he agreed to accompany his wife to a fundraising evening. There would be music, speeches, food, drink and events to raise money. He didn’t really enjoy these things but agreed to go along. Before he arrived, he went to a pub, the Old Red Lion in Islington, had a couple of Stella Artois and then walked along the City Road to the headquarters of the charity. His wife was busy mingling and talking and he got a drink and wandered around, his wife occasionally coming over and introducing him to random people. Another problem he had was instantly forgetting people’s names after being introduced to them and he did this with skill and abandon throughout the evening. There was a band, a DJ, tombolas, bingo, inspirational speeches, and he got a little drunk, a little more talkative. Towards the end of the evening, about the time he was thinking of going back to the pub, his wife introduced him to a man who was about his age. The man was obviously in the last stages of his life. AIDS had reduced him to a skeletal figure. The man hobbled forward on sticks, the man’s hair was thinned and colorless, a face blotched with Kaposi’s sarcoma, the eyes yellow and shrunken back into the skull. His wife said the man’s name and the man slowly reached out a skinny hand and he held the slack flesh and bones of the man’s hand and said, “How are you?” And the man looked down and his wife opened her mouth and he thought to himself, “I’ve never ever said that to anyone. Why did I say that?” And the man shook his head and said, “Not too good, actually.”
A few years later, after his wife had divorced him and he had found a new girlfriend, he spent Christmas Day at his local pub. His girlfriend worked there and he and the owners had become friends. There was a dozen or so people around the table, the turkey and pork steamed in the middle, and the family were chatting, drinking wine and sherry and getting ready to pull the crackers placed beside their plates. The owners of the pub had three daughters and the girls had brought their boyfriends, there was an older auntie and uncle, himself and his girlfriend and maybe a few others. The crackers cracked, the hats were worn and the jokes were read out. These were more upmarket crackers, so the jokes were better than usual. “What’s ET short for? Because he’s only got little legs.” “What do you call an elf that sings? A wrapper.” He had been smiling, adjusting his gold paper crown, and then the auntie had said, “What do you call a man with a spade?” And he had said, “A nigger lover.” And the chatter had stopped and the owners had looked at each other and his girlfriend had taken a huge gulp of red wine and the sisters had stared at him and the boyfriends had stared at the turkey as if it would tell them what to do. But then the uncle laughed and the next joke was read out and they forgot about what he had said until the next Christmas.
The same pub, the same people, maybe different boyfriends for the three sisters, he wasn’t sure, they all looked the same. This time, it was before lunch. He and his girlfriend were upstairs in the lounge while the family were opening their Christmas presents. He was sitting on the sofa, drinking a pint of Stella Artois, slightly bored. The three sisters were 19, 17 and 15 years old and it was the turn of the youngest to open her present. Tearing the glittery paper, she unwrapped a bra and knickers set that included multi-color pens. Her auntie explained that she could customize the underwear by writing messages or drawing pictures on the pink material. The youngest daughter held the knickers in the air and said, “Oh, what should I write?” And he had replied without pause, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” The family had looked at him. His girlfriend had looked away. “Dante,” he had said. And again, “Dante.”
About five years before this, at a friend’s wedding, he was seated next to his then wife at a table of six. He knew most of the people but hadn’t seen some of them for a few years. It was hot, he was sweating and drinking rather too quickly, rather too heavily. The conversation was about marriages. Who would last? Who wouldn’t? How was marriage life different from just, well, living together? They talked about the evening to come, the music, the venue. The food arrived and they poured red and white wine and settled in to eat and occasionally talk, waiting for the best man to begin his speech. Across from him was a man he knew quite well but wouldn’t have called a friend. He watched as the man slurped up his soup, looked around for the waiter, grabbed the first main course that came to the table, cut and speared, ate and swallowed. As the desserts arrived, he had gestured at the man and said, “Are you in a hurry? You’re getting through that rather quickly.” And the man had said, “I’ve got to leave soon, I have a funeral to go to.” And he had replied, “Wedding and a funeral on the same day? Are you planning on fitting in a birth as well?” And the man had looked at him and paused and then said, “The funeral is for a still-born baby.”
Steve Finbow is the author of the neo-noir novel, Balzac of the Badlands, the noir poem/novella, Nothing Matters, the short story collection, Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom, a biography of Allen Ginsberg, Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia, and has contributed to international anthologies and journals. He has lived in Liverpool, New York, Tokyo and is now back in his hometown of London.
Image: “The Walkway” by ©Chuck Miller