It was three weeks ago. The summer had been holding on for months and there was nothing different at all about the morning. I dragged a razor across my chin, and tried to find out something unknowable by gazing at my face in the shaving mirror, as usual. Next minute I was on the floor with an elephant perched on my ribcage.
I recall the sound of a heart monitor beeping. For a long time that was all I heard, and it never occurred to me to open my eyes. Strange, but I felt an overwhelming tiredness. People talked by my bedside, while I drifted in and out of sleep.
‘I told him, look after your health,’ my wife was saying to her friend Dora.
‘I know, they don’t listen,’ Dora whined. ‘Tee Jay is the same! So big!’
If only I could escape, I thought, I’m trapped. The weirdest sensation came over me, something I’ve heard about but never thought I’d experience, I felt as if I was floating above the bed, looking down from the ceiling on the two women beside my tube-tethered body.
‘Gilbert wouldn’t listen,’ my wife confirmed.
I looked across and drifted to the open top of one of the ward’s tall Victorian windows, and out into the air over Paddington. I flapped my arms and was propelled upwards at dizzying speed. After a few seconds I slowed and stopped. Towards the horizon in front of me was a bank of white cloud like ploughed snow.
I turned to look behind and there was the sun, more radiant than I had ever seen it. With no discomfort to my eyes, I was able to see the boiling surface of our star and amber flares waving slowly all around it, which reminded me of the flaming canyons in the old coalfires of my childhood.
I wondered if I could fly to the sun, but reproached myself for being so reckless. I’d never find my way back to Paddington. This is madness, I thought, I’m risking a new, final destruction. My heart raced.
Once again I heard the heart monitor’s beep, this time faltering, and then its alarm.
I woke to a rocking, rumbling motion, being wheeled. I guessed I was being taken to theatre. There was still not enough energy to open my eyes, but I could smell acrid antiseptic and laundered cotton, the pale green type. People dug lively fingers, some with long nails, some with short, into my moribund arms and legs as they lifted me from the gurney onto a table.
That must be the anaesthetist fumbling with my hand trying to get a line into it. I feel more intense fear of dying than I have yet felt, now that I have to rely on somebody’s competence, somebody who is incapable of stabbing me accurately in a vein.
At length he gave up with my right hand and switched to the left. Intense throbbing pain before the sharp was in plastered into place in the back of my hand. I blacked out, and my last thought as I faded was, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’
I woke shaking, in a silver tunnel facing a light more intense than the sun above the clouds. I was terrified. In flashes of fear and speculation, I wondered if what hid before me in the glare might not be preferable to what I had left behind. I didn’t want to be just a puppet in a game of doctors and nurses. It was the bitter story of my life, I felt, to be a toy in somebody’s game.
I didn’t want to continue where I’d left off brushing my teeth, just for another day in a sentence of drudgery, leading perhaps to helpless old age with all its indignities. But I was far from eager for some sort of endless sunbed session at the other end of the tunnel.
Maybe if I approached the light, I would be able to discern what was on offer for new customers like me. I could guess what my mundane life promised, but as to what delight might await on the other side, I hadn't a clue.
I took one step towards the light.
Then I thought it might be a trap. For all I knew there might be a horrible creature waiting to devour me in a last moment slowing to infinity, a singularity, a black hole of pain. The opposite thought followed, an infinity of pleasure, Nirvana, the endless orgasm. Neither of these possibilities held much appeal. Pleasant and all as an orgasm may be, there is still a lot to be said for a nice cup of tea.
I took one step back, away from the light.
A rapid falling. Tingling of the stomach as when speeding downhill. Shivering. My eyes were closed. The sound of the heart monitor returned louder than ever, beeping steadily now, and I fell deep asleep.
I saw a redhaired woman, the image of Botticelli’s Venus of the scallop shell. She was wearing something made of leaves on top and a grass skirt. Her breasts touched my arm, as she leaned over me to tell me her name.
She took my hand with unbelievable force, and dragging me along with her, zoomed upwards so fast that all of the world turned into a blur.
'How can you lift me, Claire?’
'It's just a knack.'
All I could think was she had beautiful thighs.
'Would you let me lie with you?'
My voice was impossibly light and words spoke themselves without asking my permission, and lost themselves before they were heard like all the forgotten words of childhood.
'No,' she said. 'It wouldn't work. You need to get the knack before you do that.'
'Where can I learn the knack? I want the knack.'
When she slowed I saw a tropical rainforest below, reaching to every horizon. Slowing still more, she set us down on the porch of a tree house. The branches below looked steady, but the whole tree must have been swaying, because the tree house was creaking slightly. The air was hot as the air from an open furnace.
'Come in,' she said standing in the doorway, holding a screen door open.
Inside was shady, with only a very small window on one side. There was a table with scientific equipment, a microscope, test tubes and some books. They were thick with dust.
I sat down on a settle bed while she sat on the table. As my eyes adjusted to the light I noticed a parrot standing on a shelf, and I gasped. It was turning the pages of a book, holding them down with one foot and moving its head as if reading.
'Oh that's Jackie, I've taught her to read. She's a voracious reader now, mostly the novels of--'
'Dick Francis!' said the parrot. 'Pity he stopped! Poor wife!'
For the first time I noticed Claire’s eyebrows. They were brown, though her hair was red. I took the time to look her up and down, the way the skirt kicked up a little at the back as she stood up from the table to see what the parrot was reading.
'Am I in Heaven?'
'Gilbert! Don't waste your time asking questions.'
'How long have I got? –Sorry.'
Checking my senses, I listened for the sounds of the jungle. I was sure I could hear life buzzing everywhere, the muffled pawing of jaguars, the susurration of snakes, the whooping of howler monkeys all combined in a marvellous symphony. Streams of jasmine vapour turned to violet in the air and I drank them in. A mosquito droned. Claire was shooing the parrot from the bookshelf in order to look for something.
I couldn't help laughing at the parrot. It flew to the window sill in a huff, and stood there with the light glancing off its blue and yellow plumage. As I started to laugh I immediately felt immensely tired, heavier than I should be. My feet and hands were pulling themselves away from me. I noticed that the parrot was shabbier than I’d thought, almost mangy-looking.
There was a loud crack, like thunder. Our tree must have been hit, because the floor started to crumble. I saw the next lightning flash through my eyelids. The thunder boomed again.
Falling. Helpless. Alone.
'Hang on, Gilbert…'
I couldn't breathe.
The beeping resumed, the blessed metronome. It sounded as sweet to me as the "divine high-piping pehlevi" of Khayyam’s nightingale. I felt a woman’s hand in mine, warm and real.