Locked-in. A short story by Brian McClean

It is said that the dead do not know that they are dead. Once the corpse is placed in the grave and covered with dirt and the funeral crowd has begun to disperse, the dead person also tries to get up and go home with them, only to realize when he hits his head on the coffin lid that he has died. When I fell down the stairs, my head hit the coffin lid.

But I am not dead.

I have come to think I live in an oubliette. A forgotten room. A tiny dungeon, large enough for a single body, but not enough room to crouch in, or turn in, or sit, or kneel. There’s one in the Bastille. The prisoner is lowered into this shaft by a guardsman, and once he reaches the bottom, the rope is taken up and the trapdoor above him is shut. Food and water are thrown down to him if his survival is an important element of his punishment. It is an ingredient of mine, and so a tube has been inserted into my stomach, through which are passed the nutrients needed to keep me alive.

Before I fell, down a flight of wooden stairs in the home my wife and I shared for 20 years, I had never heard of a brain stem. I have since learned it is the vital link between the spinal column and the brain. It is the fragile rope bridge from sensation to reflection; from the machine to the ghost within. Its neurons create a rhythm of breath that starts in the womb and continues until the moment of death. Its command is implacable. You can’t decide to take your own life by withholding your breath, though you can do so withholding food.

I am unsure my brain stem will ever resume service. I would like to ask. I cannot because the brainstem controls the movement of all parts of the body. By right I should be dead. But I was rescued. A hole cut in my windpipe is connected to a breathing apparatus, and by its slender thread my life is suspended. That was December.

I woke up in March. They call it locked-in syndrome. Paralysed from head to toe, the patient is imprisoned in his own body. Usually a blinking eyelid is the only means of communication. Think Jean-Dominque Bauby transmitting the letters of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, blink by painstaking blink. I spelled cosmology, not colostomy! Except, for my sin, the impairment of my movement is total. I cannot blink an eyelid. I am the Man In The Iron Mask. Not a shard of communication ever reaches those beyond the trap door, who hover above my bed, like ushers at a funeral. And so I lift my mental pen and write across the pages of my mind.

I never had any fear of dying. I’m not fond of the idea of being sick. Or of being so sedated on painkillers that my head can no longer carry the idea of me. But being dead is no problem. I die in bliss we fall asleep. I was dead a long time before I was born, and I don’t remember having any great objection to it. I die in bliss we fall asleep.

It is dreadful to see something so beautiful as the moon through the panes of my little window. Part of me wishes to stay and watch her sacred beauty. But the other part, afraid of remembering the life I had before all this, overcomes that wish, so I imagine I am like a crab and I burrow backwards into the mud. Every now and then the taillight of an airplane passes through the corner of my vision. When I see it, I cannot help remember the smell of the airplane cabins. I remember my own travels, landing in night heat the heat of night in Athens or Tangiers my nose is filled with jasmine and oregano, cologne and the fumes of diesel.

St John’s ward carries the weight of a deep, dense silence. The smell of death hangs in the air like a clot. Through the window above me, the night sky growls like an animal watching something it doesn’t like. There is no sound, no movement, no thought. There is no clock making time faster by dividing it into seconds and minutes and hours. Time surges and collapses on me, covering my mouth and nose, smothering me. I am alive, but life is dead. My bones ache. My head is as heavy as a barrel. My heart beats like a shark bashing the solid bars of my cage with its nose. During the day, while life thrums around me, I lie motionless, like a vampire.

In all ages, murderers and sexual transgressors have been unable to die properly. They are vampires, living in a state of the undead. Dead bodies can stay warm by producing anaerobic heat and can give off a pale light. Under certain conditions they can preserve a full compliment of liquid blood, and stay ruddy and pink. The angles and length of the teeth shift in relation to skin and gum surfaces. The swelling of the lungs can cause bloodstained fluid to escape from around the mouth. Gases produced during decomposition make the mouth gape open and the swelling of the lungs causes bloodstained fluid to escape from around the mouth. There are no undead blood suckers. Only living ones.

Never again would I be able to kiss wife. She visited once after I woke in April to be sure I could not speak, and never returned. Never again would I meet with my friends, or walk the streets at night. Or reach for a book from my library shelf, or hear the Grateful Dead sing Death Have No Mercy. Never again would I bake sourdough bread or gaze at the sparkles on the sea or smell the explosion of orange scent or feel blades of grass between my toes or smell the cordite of fresh rain or eat sausage with a glass of red wine or wait in Grogan’s for pint of Guinness and listen to the hum of logs in the open fire.

Most nights, Paula cleans my body with the grace of a large boy learning the violin. And she sings while she works. Her Name is Rio and She Dances On The Sand. Tropical the Island Breeze. All of nature wild and free. She treats me to every sunny word from that golden era, the 1980s, as she thrusts my arms in the air to clean me under my oxters and heaves my body over to one side to wipe my bottom, and sometimes I will my body to topple from her iron grip, and bring an end to Rick Astley’s Never Going To Give You Up. From occasional glimpses, I see the hands attached to my limbs are gnarled and hooked into the shapes of crab claws. I will them into fists and push an expletive from the pit of my stomach. But the hands fall back inert onto their foam pads and the word is hoovered up my trachy tube without ever reaching my lips.

Aileen doesn’t sing when she bathes me. Her warmth seeps into my being and comforts me without ever opening her mouth. I’d melt into her caress like ice-cream on a warm porcelain bowl. Her body is tattooed my imagination, point by point, with a needle of longing. Each night, before she finishes, I ache for her to start again.

Occasionally, I sleep with Paula. Tonight, I will sleep with Aileen. I slide into bed beside her. I nestle my lips on the nape of her olive neck. I’m seventeen again, trembling and terrified, standing on the brink, and I fumble with the elastic of her panties. But her image is unfaithful and will not comfort me. Tonight, my mind is like a prayer wheel. On each flag in turn I place the names of all my lovers and let the winds of my imagination send my love to meet them each where they sleep.

And so my prayer wheel spins until the cut-glass blue morning looks at me indifferently though my window frame, and the shadows of its pane cut through my face and chest and leave me in pieces. I was never free, I think, except to do one thing and that is to think about my death. I am caught like a a crab in the intertidal zone between high and low tide. I burrow backwards in the sand, leaving only eyes and antennae visible, and I build my nest in my daydreams and in spent time. Away from the world. Away from hope. Damned hope. As Saint Just wrote, on the evening before he was guillotined, conditions are difficult only for those who resist entering the grave.

My lover and my wife met at my bedside before I woke. Neither had been properly introduced, though my wife had read the letter that my lover wrote. She read it on a December morning a year ago, an December morning not unlike this one. She followed me from the bedroom, I recall, and to the landing above the stairs, on the first floor of our house. She still reads it to me in the night. She’s crying through my trapdoor. Her tears fill my oubliette.

1 Comment

  1. What an amazing imagination!! Very gripping! Well done!!

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