by Andrew Lee-Hart
There are faces peering down at me, they are trying to say something, but their voices are muffled as if I am underwater, and then the sounds slowly fade away without having made any sense. Are they Angels or Demons that have come to take my soul away? So often I awake in this confusion, as though because sleep was so hard to achieve, my body is unwilling to relinquish it and must keep fighting, but now the night is over, and day is already begun.
I remember the first time that I saw Fiona; she was standing in front of me in the queue at Woolworths, I smelled a wisp of perfume that, for a moment, took me back to my youth, and then I casually turned to look at her; her red hair and pale skin and those piercing intelligent eyes, and already I was picturing her naked. She looked older than me; I discovered later that she was forty-nine, just on the cusp of being fifty, but she exuded sexuality and passion through every movement that she made. She was not classically beautiful perhaps, but she had something of an angel light about her, and I felt a powerful feeling of lust as I stood close enough to touch her and share her breath. Our eyes met as she finished paying and then she gave me a backward glance as she unhurriedly left the shop so that I was able to catch up with her and then we walked down the street together, her hand on my arm.
Can we ever re-capture the past? I long to be in New York again; the busy streets, the sun on my back, and the noise, most particularly the noise of talk and cars, going on all day and night. If only I could be transported back there as a young man, excited to be on my own for the day with no responsibilities or place I had to be. I cannot even remember what I eventually did on any particular day; just the excitement of setting off through the Big Apple. The bustle of the city was so familiar to me through film and television so that I was expecting to see Woody Allen or Kojak walking towards me.
I often think of the past as I get older, but my memories are becoming distorted and fantastical, and I am scared of completely forgetting my past. I remember so little of New York; what I was doing there, where I lived, and I cannot even remember anybody I met, but I must have had friends and colleagues. Now all I have left are a series of images; a police car parked half on the pavement, spotting the jewellery store Tiffanys and seeing a young woman walking out looking very happy and that endless street full of people.
If our brain is a recorder can we not play the best bits over and over again? The nights of passion? The time I first heard Dylan singing Mr Tambourine Man as a fifteen-year old illegally drinking in a pub and then meeting him thirty years later and not knowing what to say to him, the women who have become so important to me, my wife and then Fiona and most of all walking down that New York street one June morning, being at the centre of the world and with endless possibilities before me.
How did that happen? It was as if I conjured you up, and there you were, a handsome young man standing next to me in Woolworth, who knew exactly what I wanted.
Yes it is as if .. as if it were a film or an erotic novel.
Oh much better than that.
I remember the feel of sweat on her back, her skin glued to mine, and the smell of her. And between bouts we talked of Keats; it was that I remember most, talking poetry as we lay together naked, our limbs intertwined so that I was not sure which were mine and which Fionas. Those times in bed which seem to last forever, but are over in a moment, and then one day it is all gone; no more passion and no more intimacy, we are back alone, which is how we started.
The first person I saw die was called Edith. I worked in Byron Care Home in those days; I was only a young man, having done a few dull jobs after leaving school three years previously. But this job I enjoyed; I was good at it; having infinite patience with the people I cared for and always ready to listen to their stories and complaints. The home was not far from where I lived in the Cookridge area of Leeds, so I could walk to work, and although the wage was not great, it was enough so that I could give something to my mum every week and afford to go out and buy the occasional record.
Each morning, starting at seven oclock, we would get all the residents up; bathe them, dress them and then take them down to the dining hall in time for breakfast, there were usually around twenty people, although the less able would stay in bed to have their coffee and toast. That morning I was working with my colleague Laura and together we walked into Ediths room, she smiled up at us; she was a friendly and polite lady who had been a nurse for many years so knew what was going on.
We cant hide anything from you we used to say to her because although her body was failing her mind was sharp.
Edith wished us good morning and we started to help her get up. Laura had been at the home for a couple of years; she was slightly older than me and very beautiful with her dark skin and quirky smile, and a deep reserve that few ever penetrated. I loved working with her, spending so much time at such close quarters with someone so lovely and graceful, although to her I suspect I was just another young member of staff who would leave once something better came along, all that training wasted.
We are just going to turn you on to your side Mrs Cooper Laura said as we got in position, facing each other over the bed. As we turned her, Edith made the faintest of noises, a slight groan, and Laura, in a slightly strange voice said.
Quickly Andrew, get the matron. And then I knew she was dead. Suddenly, in the briefest of seconds she had gone.
Later I walked out into the garden, frost crunching on my feet, and there was Laura sitting on a bench looking out into space, I sat down next to her.
Are you okay? she asked, and then she hugged me. She felt warm, and I felt her bare arm on my back. She started to shake and sob.
Oh my love I said to her, my beautiful love. And then I kissed her on the lips and after a moment her tongue sort out mine and she put her hands on my face, the most loving kiss that I have ever experienced.
We got married eventually and had two daughters, Tracey and Mary, who are both lovely girls and who I am very proud of, but it is that memory in the garden that lingers, as if we were the only people in the world, and who could be a more beautiful Eve than Laura? Whatever happened since, my straying and our rows, the thought of her in that garden, pressed against me, will stay with me for as long as I have memories.
I feel as if I am drifting away whilst my body and mind tries desperately to fight it. I can hear someone talking faintly and the sound of something beeping, but then my mind wanders and memories tumble through my head in no particular order; my dads funeral where I was unable to cry but desperately needed to urinate, a holiday in a caravan with Laura and the kids, and reading poetry to them, and an image of the Hudson River, the sun glinting off it and dazzling me so that for a moment I am blind.
A friend played me a Bob Dylan album when I was sixteen; we were sitting in his front room having done some homework, and he put on this record, Blood on the Tracks, which I think had only just been released. The voice was strong and strange, unlike anything else that I had ever heard before and the songs were both funny and sad, it was as if I had been waiting all my life for such music.
Hunted like a crocodile/ Ravaged in the corn/ Come in she said and Ill give ya/ Shelter from the storm.
This is great I told my friend, words not being able to convey all that I felt, and he put it on again.
Then a few days later I was in a pub with a girl from school, we were trying to look grown-up as we were too young to drink the beer that was in front of us. I casually walked over to the Juke Box and there was a Bob Dylan song, Mr Tambourine Man so I put some money in and selected it.
Listen to this I commanded, and she tried but soon she was talking about her history essay and bitching about a friend, whilst the song carried on, casting a spell of words and voice, I put it on three more times before one of the regulars complained and told us to lay off that hippy shit, and wondered aloud how old we were.
I dont remember the girl, not even her name, or whether I saw her again, but I do remember the sound of Dylans voice in that pub, carrying over the sound of Yorkshire voices and the traffic outside. I started to buy his albums, and even now, when I need something nourish my soul, it is to Dylan I turn.
And I have a memory of meeting him; talking in some kind of building or studio. Where was I? How did we meet? All I remember is him sitting opposite me and drawing, I cannot remember his voice, just sunlight reflecting through his hair thick, curly hair and the thought that this man is my hero and is sitting opposite me and I have no idea what to say to get his attention, to make this as memorable for him as it is for me.
We were standing together in Leeds City Art Gallery, Fiona and I, looking at an exhibition of paintings by Stanley Spencer.
Do you see the religious in everyday? She asked me, like Stanley obviously did? Jesus walking down the Headrow? Or angels in Roundhay Park?
I shrugged, no, religion has never been part of my life, even as a child. My parents did not go to church so neither did I, well apart from weddings and then there was my dads funeral. Are you religious?
I go to church sometimes, I want to believe that this is not all there is. It seems a bit of a waste if there is nothing more to life.
But dont you feel a hypocrite, going to church when you are having an affair with a married man?
Religion is not all to do with condemning and guilt, Jesus was human and we all need romance, and sex. If we find love, does it matter where it is.
And very gently she touched my thigh with the tip of her finger.
And then I remembered being in Harrogate, feeling lonely and sad. Laura was at work and the children at school and so on impulse I had caught the train to the spa town which I had visited as a child a few times with my parents and more recently with my own family. I wandered around feeling oppressed and on the verge of tears, unsure why I felt that way and wondering how long I had been feeling like this. And then squeezed between two shops there was a church, small but the door was open, so I walked inside. The building was empty, but there was music playing from somewhere, something religious and old and it felt in keeping with my mood as I looked around at the stained glass and then at the altar.
I sat down and perhaps I prayed or just went into a trance. The music sounded clear and seemed to echo within me.
My soul thirsteth for thee,/ my flesh also longeth after thee/ in a barren and dry land where no water is.
I thought of my children sat in school, day-dreaming maybe, or being inspired by their lessons, in the same school that I had struggled through many years previously. My life had been plain and dull, and I had a longing for something better, but I was not sure what. I realised that I was crying softly to myself. Perhaps there would be a better world, a world that was accepting and kind. I stayed there, crouched on that hard, wooden pew, until I heard footsteps and an apologetic looking vicar started pottering around at the front, which brought me to myself. I got up, and left, catching the next train back to Leeds. I think that it was soon afterwards that I met Fiona.
Sometimes at night I would read to the children, even after they were old enough to read to themselves. When I left school I had been given a collection of poetry by Wordsworth which ever afterwards I kept by my bed, and one evening when we were sitting around after dinner I went upstairs and brought it down and started to read to my daughters; they were only eight and ten then but some of the poems were simple things and even though I am unlearned and do not read much, I could see that they were beautiful and worth knowing.
A lovely Apparition, sent/ To be a moments ornament/ Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair .
I remember recently, just before I became ill, Tracey asked me.
Did you used to read poetry to us when we were children?
I did not think you remembered.
We were sitting in her house, where she lives with her girlfriend Diane, all the windows open because it was unseasonably warm for April.
Read to me again and she handed me an anthology of poetry from their book shelf and for the rest of the afternoon, until Diane came home from work, we alternated reading poems. And then all three of us cooked a vegetable curry and ate at the small kitchen table, the words of the great Romantic poets still echoing in my head.
I am glad that I gave my daughters a love of poetry, rather than just a love of Bob Dylan and a fascination with American films and television, although Mary did tell me that she is saving up to go America with her boyfriend. It is odd how our obsessions come down to our children, and perhaps not the obsessions we want; not my capacity for hard work or my practical side, but a love for American police shows and comedies, and apparently Romantic poetry.
I feel infinitely weary and close my eyes, and then I hear Bob Dylan singing and it is as if I am part of the song and it is taking me with it. I wish that Laura was with me to share this and to lie next to me. But then I was always on my own, but Laura, and the other people in my life have made it more bearable and at times better than that. I am overwhelmed by the sounds in my head, and suddenly light cascades into me making me gasp and choke.
Laura looks over the man who was once her husband. They called her in that morning at seven when he was already dead.
We didnt want to wake you.
She is still beautiful, even in her early sixties, her skin dark as if she belonged in Italy or even the Middle East, a princess somehow transported to this cold and wet city. She strokes his arm, cold and dead, the nurse, just a young girl, clearly local with her broad Leeds accent watches her intently, wondering if she will cry.
He was a good man Laura says, maybe to the nurse or maybe to herself, he never left Leeds or earned much money, but he was a kind man, always loyal to me and the kids.
Are they coming?
Yes, they will be here today. Neither of them live in Yorkshire now; Tracey is in Glasgow, Mary in Derby, but they will come up soon. It was so sudden, he only came in with a chest infection, I thought he would be out with a couple of days, that he was making a fuss, not that he ever did. I should have known that it was something more.
The nurse would like to have hugged her, or even just patted her arm, but she looked so austere that she did not dare.
He talked last night. He kept mentioning New York. Had he lived there?
Laura laughed, No he never went to New York, I think he would have liked to, but he had to leave school at sixteen when his dad died, and then he worked in a care home for most of his life, where we met. He had ambitions; to be an architect, to travel, to meet Bob Dylan, but life was too busy and too expensive. She smiled in fond remembrance, he did live in his head quite a bit, even I was not sure what was going on sometimes.
Laura left the ward, and the nurse started to prepare the body of what had once been a man, wondering who Fiona was, who he had kept mentioning. We all have secret thoughts and fantasies, and she hoped that he had been loyal to the tall, beautiful woman who tried to hide her emotions, but could not manage, not quite. But most of all she hoped that he had been happy, she did not think that he had been, certainly he had had a hard timing dying calling out for Fiona and for God and then for his children, but then few people were happy when it came down to it. Even she, despite her kind boyfriend and having a reasonable job helping people, felt dissatisfied and dreamt of travel and a perfect lover, and something even more than that, although she was not sure what that was. She sighed and got on with her work and wondered if she had food in for tea that evening.
The sun beat down on his head as he walked along Wall Street, so familiar and yet so strange, he felt young and full of curiosity like a child as he observed everything about him; the myriad sights, the smells and the noises that saturated him. There were people all around him pushing and jostling, and he could hear taxis hooting and voices shouting in that American accent that he so loved. He wondered where he was going, but then he realised that it was his day off and that he could go anywhere and do anything that he wanted to. The crowds parted as he hurried onward and then somebody took his hand and held it tight.
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