Friday, 19 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 9-Tess

I slept badly last night. I kept dreaming strange dreams. The last one sticks in my mind. It was about a house--a dream house that Lydia and I often talked about having, up in the mountains. It was a large wooden house with lots of windows, maple floors and cream walls, making it always light and airy. I was leading someone up to see it, describing how happy and lucky we were to have it. Somehow we had children, lots of them, and we had left them with a babysitter. It was dusk and most of the lights in the house were blazing as we approached it from down the hill. The house was silhouetted against the darkening sky like a Magritte painting and the air smelled clean like pines. As I turned the key and entered the house, I looked over to my left and saw the babysitter on the couch at the far end of the room. She was wearing terry cloth slippers and her feet were up on the sofa. She was watching television and didn't say anything but only flicked her cigarette on the floor, smiled a sickly smile, and blew smoke in my direction. I was as angry as I have ever been in my life. I yelled at her, embarrassing whoever I was with. The girl said nothing, but stood up, flicked some more ash, and blew more smoke. The acrid stench defiled my house. I went berserk and went over to grab her and shake her. When I reached to take hold of her shoulders, my hands felt nothing. She was not there, and I awoke in a cold sweat, my hands flailing above me in the hospital bed. I am no psychoanalyst, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the sickly smug smile is the smile of death, the death which has come into my home without invitation and shattered it forever. I smell the unmistakable odour of cigarette smoke in the corridor of the hospital and I lean on the nurse's call button. She comes immediately. "Is someone smoking?" I ask brusquely. She blushes. "A workman. I've already told him to put it out." I start to say something but then stop. "Oh...never mind. Thanks." She asks if I would like my breakfast. It is seven o'clock and Tess is due to come at nine. I thank her again and say yes. I can make it into the bathroom on my own, just barely. What I see in the mirror gives me no cause for hope. The point where my eyes and nose meet is a dark bluish purple, and that whole area is swollen as if I am wearing a mask. The bridge of my nose is cut where I struck something, perhaps the steering wheel. I look a mess. I can only hop. My right leg is in a cast. It has been a week since the accident, and the doctor has taken the leg out of traction to allow me some mobility. I make a half hearted attempt to clean myself up. At nine I am ready to receive visitors. I hear voices at the door, and I steel myself to see Tess. I hear her ask: "In here?" The door swings open. Eyes don't lie. I must really look awful. She confirms this with her first statement. "Evan." She reaches out to hug me, but realises with the cast that this is impractical. She steps back, and her honesty overcomes her bedside manner. "I could lie and say you look alright, but you look terrible." This comes from a tough woman, but she also has a heart of gold. "I'm sorry," she adds quickly. "Are you okay? Inside, I mean." She couldn't have started any better. The combination of brutal honesty and compassion is my first step on the road to recovery, and it has broken whatever ice could have been between us. "I'm hurting, Tess." There is no point in lying. She sits on the side of the bed, and again cuts straight to the center. She grabs hold of my hand and grasps it tightly. Her hand is warm and her grip is strong. It is a working man's hand, feminine only because of her long nails. "You really loved her, didn't you Evan?" I nod. We sit in silence for a few moments. "I'm glad you came," I offer. "You're family, Evan. Not that you'd want to be, I don't think." Tess has always been the glue which held her family together, but I can tell that the cracks are starting to show. Her books say as much. Talking of her clan is a welcome diversion from my problems. I tell her so. She hesitates, but I show that I am serious. "Go on, start from the top. It'll do me good to think of someone other than myself. I've been alone almost a week now." The irony of this statement hangs in the air for a second. We both know it, but we are at a loss what to say. I push on. "How is Aunt Lillian?" I ask. Lydia and I had not been to Valhalla in three years, shortly after Aunt Mary's death. I knew Aunt Lillian had had a stroke about two years ago, but had heard nothing since. "You know Lillian is in a coma," Tess began. I shook my head. She continued. "After Mary died, we all wondered how she would handle it. After all, they had been together almost seventy years. She's a tough old bird as you know. Anyway, out of nowhere a suitor suddenly appeared." "A suitor?" I cut in. "Yeah, Can you believe it? Some fellow they had met at a fundraiser. Of course the family was suspicious of his intentions, and I think we were right. He was nothing more than a gold digger. She of course thought otherwise and fell in love with the guy." "How old was he?" I interjected. "I don't know. About seventy maybe. Anyway, a lot younger than she is. This courtship went on for about six months. I visited Aunt Lillian twice at 1819, and believe it or not, she looked really good." It was hard for me to imagine this little woman with the WC Field's nose and the stern countenance being the object of any man's affection. Still, if it made her happy. Tess continued. "Then suddenly Lillian had a stroke, quite a bad one. She went into a coma and required nursing help round the clock. Eliot--that was this guy's name--Eliot hung around for a few months and then slinked off. I think he figured out that he had no chance of marrying her and he cut his losses before the lawsuits started to fly." She paused. "And she's been in a coma ever since?" I asked. "No, that's the funny thing. And I do mean funny. One night she suddenly woke up and began screaming. The nurse came running in and Lillian told her: 'I'm so worried.'" "This was out of the blue. The nurse, who had never heard her speak and was shocked at this sudden development, asked her: 'What are you worried about, Miss Lillian?' and Lillian said: 'I think I'm pregnant, and I don't know who the father is.'" I laughed and my ribs hurt. Tess, who had told this story with a straight face, smiled too. I suddenly appreciated again the true value of friends, who do not change whatever the situation--good, bad or indifferent. This was the first time I had laughed since the accident. I looked at Tess. She looked her age, but this was a compliment. Like a sergeant earning his stripes, she had earned her wrinkles. I read where the best way to avoid wrinkles is not to smile or show any emotion whatsoever. I am in the other camp. I reckon each wrinkle represents a joke told, a tear cried, a human experience which should not be packed away like fine china. "So, she's okay now? Aside from the immaculate conception, I mean." "Actually, no. She dropped back into a coma a few days later and has been unconscious ever since. The doctors say there is little hope of her ever coming out of it." Tess shook her head disgustedly. "I'll tell you one thing about the medical profession in this country, apart from situations like this." She indicated to the room we were in. "They have spent more money in the last two years on nurses and fancy machines and specialists than the two Aunts spent together to live since the War! And she can't appreciate one bit of it." "Is she on life support?" She nodded her head disgustedly. "There is no hope of her ever recovering." "What does the rest of the family think of this?" I could imagine the late night discussions amongst the various factions to decide what to do. "It's ripping us apart. Uncle Johann, my mother's brother...he wants to cut her off, and he is already talking about how to split up the estate. They want to break up Valhalla into subdivisions and sell off lots. And 1819...well you know yourself that it could be made into six or seven decent size apartments." "What does Stokely think?" "He blows hot and cold. You know, ever since he moved to California he has gradually been detaching himself from the family. After the divorce, which wasn't such a bad thing by the way..." "You never liked Nadine, did you?" "Stokely always seemed to be attracted by these...airheads. Remember Clare?" I nodded. "Anyway." I didn't feel like criticizing Stokely's love life, especially when he wasn't there to defend himself. "So now he's into his company. It takes up most of his time. He didn't even come East for Christmas last year. This will be the first Thanksgiving at 1819 in two years, and I bet he would have cancelled ...if it hadn't been for you." The law of entropy. I suddenly thought of the law of thermodynamics that all matter tends towards disorder. The nuclear family gradually dissipates over time, and various bits and pieces go spinning off, leaving destruction in their wake. Keeping a family together in the face of this immutable law of nature requires constant effort. "What would you like to be done? What can you do?" I asked. The two questions were not necessarily linked. "As usual, it is a question of the filthy lucre. With inheritance taxes, and the fact that the taxi meter keeps on running on medical expenses, I don't really see any alternative, much as I would hate to lose Valhalla. 1819 I am not so worried about. That house is way too big for any one family. But Valhalla..." Her voice trailed off. I would also lose if Valhalla left their family. "Tess. I wanted to ask you. Will you come up with me when I get out of here? To Valhalla, I mean. I want to scatter Lydia's ashes in the Mobjack. Together with you and Stokely." She blinked. I could tell she was touched. "Of course. You know, I remember you saying out on the Hampton that you wanted to be buried there. I just didn't think..." "That Lydia was included? She made me promise I would. That was where we met, remember?" "October of my junior year. The weekend the Old Woods burned down. I saw that picture we had taken the other day when I was cleaning out a drawer. Do you ever do that?" "Do what?" I asked. "Clean out old drawers. You'd be amazed at what you find." The import of what she was saying suddenly struck her. "I'm sorry. That was insensitive of me." "It doesn't matter. I know that is going to be the toughest thing over the next few months. Cleaning out old drawers." I looked out the window. "It does me good to talk about it. I've got to come to terms with her being gone. I have no choice." "How about your life?" I was trying to change the subject, more for her benefit than mine. "Oh, I'm getting along," she said. Suddenly she put her hand to her head. "Oh, I almost forgot. I brought something for you." She reached into her purse, a big woven Indian bag that looked twenty years out of date. She pulled out a book. "My latest book. I thought it might pass the time." She handed it to me. I looked at the title. Keeper of the Flame. "What's it about?" I asked. "It's about...immortality in a mortal world. How's that for being cryptic?" She smiled. "I shouldn't have asked. How can you expect somebody to explain a year's work in a few sentences?" I opened the inside cover. She had written something. Some say that books are written for oneself. I know different. Books are written for friends, past and present. My love and my memories are for the two of you. Tess I was in too fragile a state to let her know how much this touched me. I think she understood. A simple thanks was all I could muster. We spent the rest of the morning talking about this and that--her books, my alternative career plans to finance, life in modern America, money, her non-existent love-life. We let each sentence lead us to new topics, and I found that this aimless meandering did me a world of good. When I was alone all my thoughts inevitably led back up the same road to Lydia, a road which was now a dead-end. At 11:30 we heard a commotion outside the door. Someone was being scolded for contravening hospital regulations. "Sir! Sir! You can't bring that in here! Sir!" The nurse was getting quite cross, and it was obvious she was being ignored. This could only be one person. Tess and I caught each other's eye, and with knowing looks we both blurted out in unison: "Stokely!"

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