In the
Old Peoples'

I don't know why I allowed myself to go see her after all those years. I shy from the sickroom, as who does not, and so much had happened to me and to my life since those by now archaic days that I was not sure I would still speak a language comprehensible to this fading relic of a lost age. I had assumed she was already dead; after all, everyone else was, both of my parents, and my --- and others, all gone into the ground, so how should she, who seemed ancient when they were young, be surviving still?

She was living, if that is the way to put it, in a nursing home outside the city called The Cypresses, a big pink and white gazebo of a place set in a semi-circle of those eponymous, blue-black, pointy trees on the side of a hill with a sweeping and slightly vertiginous view of the sea right across to the other side of the bay. There was a tall, creosote-smelling wooden gate with one of those automatic locks with a microphone that squawked at me in no language that I recognized, although I was let in anyway. Tarmac drive, shrubs, a sloping lawn, then suddenly, like an arrow flying straight out of the past, the sharp, prickly smell of something I knew but could not name, some tree or other, eucalyptus, perhaps, yes, I shall say eucalyptus: beautiful word, with the goitrous upbeat in the middle of it like a gulp of grief. I almost stumbled, assailed by the sweetness of forgotten sorrows. Then I saw the house and wanted to laugh, so delicate, spindly and gay was it, so incongruous, with its pillared arches and filigree ironwork and glassed-in verandah throwing off a great reflected sheet of afternoon sunlight. Trust Aunt Corky to end up here. As I followed the curve of the drive the sea was below me, far-off, blue, unmoving, like something imagined, a sea of the mind.

The verandah door was open and I stepped inside. A few desiccated old bodies were sunning themselves in deckchairs among the potted palms. Rheumed yellowish eyes swivelled and fixed on me. A door with glass panels gave on to an interior umber dimness. I tapped cautiously and waited, lightly breathing. "You'll have to give that a good belt," one of the old-timers behind me said quaveringly, and coughed, making a squelching sound like that of a wellington boot being pulled out of mud. There was a pervasive mild smell of urine and boiled dinners.

I knocked again, more forcefully, making the panes rattle, and immediately, as if she had been waiting to spring out at me, a jolly, fat girl with red hair threw open the door and said, "Whoa up there, you'll wake the dead!" and grinned. She was dressed in a nurse's uniform, with a little white cap and those white, crepe-soled shoes, and even had a wristwatch pinned upside down to her breast pocket (why do they do that?), but none of it was convincing, somehow. She had a faint air of the hoyden, and reminded me of a farm girl I knew when I was a child who used to give me piggyback rides and once offered to show me what she called her thing if I would first show her mine (nothing came of it, I'm afraid).

I asked for Aunt Corky and the girl looked me up and down with an eyebrow arched, still grinning skeptically, as if she in her turn suspected me of being an impostor. A little plastic tag on her collar said her name was Sharon. "Are you the nephew?" she asked, and I answered stoutly that I was. At that moment there materialized silently at my side a plump, soft, sandy-haired man in a dowdy, pin-striped dark suit who nodded and smiled at me in a wistfully familiar way as if we were old acquaintances with old, shared sorrows. I did not at all like the look of him, or the sinister way he had crept up on me.

"That will be all right, Sharon," he murmured in a low and vaguely ecclesiastical-sounding voice, and the girl shrugged and turned and sauntered off whistling, her crepe soles squeaking on the black-and-white tiled floor.

"Haddon is the name," the pin-striped one confided, and waited a beat and added "Mr. Haddon."

He slipped a hand under my arm and directed me towards a staircase that ascended steeply to a landing overhung by a broad window with gaudily coloured panes that seemed to be somehow menacing. I had begun to feel hindered, as if I were wading through thick water; I also had a sense of a suppressed, general hilarity of which I felt I was somehow the unwitting object.

As I was about to mount the stairs I caught a flurry of movement from the corner of my eye and flinched as a delicate small woman with the face of an ancient girl came scurrying up to me and plucked my sleeve and said in a flapper's breathless voice, "Are you the pelican man?"

I turned to Haddon for help but he merely stood gazing off with lips pursed and pale hands clasped at his files, biding and patient, as if this a necessary but tiresome initiatory test to which I must be submitted.

"The pelican man?" I heard myself say in a sort of piteous voice. "No, no, I'm not."

The old girl continued to peer at me searchingly. She wore a dress of dove-grey silk with a gauzy silk scarf girdling her hips. Her face really was remarkable, soft and hardly lined at all, and her eyes glistened.

"Ah," she said, "then you are no good to me," and gave me a sweetly lascivious smile and wandered sadly away. Haddon and I went on up the stairs. "Miss Leitch," he murmured, as if offering an explanation.

When we reached the landing he stopped at a door and tapped once and inclined his head and listened for a moment, then nodded to me again and mouthed a silent word of encouragement and softly, creakingly, descended the stairs and was gone.

I waited, standing in a lurid puddle of multi-coloured light from the stained-glass window behind me, but nothing happened. I became at once acutely aware of myself, as if another I, mute and breathing, had sprouted up out of the balding carpet to loom over me monstrously. I put my face to the door and whispered Aunt Corky's name and immediately seemed to feel another heave of muffled laughter all around me. There was no response, and in a sudden bluster of vexation I thrust open the door and was blinded by a glare of light.

By now I had begun seriously to regret having breached this house of shades, and would have been thankful if Mr. Haddon or some other guardian of the place had come and stepped firmly in front of me and shut the door and ushered me down the stairs and out into the day, saying, There there, it is all a mistake, you have come to the wrong place, and besides your aunt is dead. I thought with panicky longing of the blue sea and the sky out there, those swaying sentinel trees. That's me all over, forever stepping unwillingly into one place while wishing for another.

I had the impression, and have it still despite the evidence of later experience, that the room was huge, a vast, white, faintly humming space at the centre of which Aunt Corky lay tinily trapped on the barge of a big, high bed, adrift in her desuetude. She had been dozing and at my approach her eyes clicked open as if the lids were controlled by elastic. In my first glimpse of her she did that trick that people do when you have not seen them for a long time, thrusting aside a younger and now not very convincing double and slipping deftly into its place. She lay still and stared at me for a long moment, not knowing, I could see, who I was or whether I was real or a figment. In appearance she seemed remarkably little changed since the last time I had seen her, which must have been thirty years before. She was wrinkled and somewhat shrunken and had exchanged her dyed hair for an even more startlingly lutescent wig but otherwise she was unmistakably Aunt Corky. I don't know why this should surprise me but it did, and even made me falter for a second.

Without lifting her head she suddenly smiled and said, "Oh, I would not have recognized you!" Did I ever describe to you Aunt Corky's smile? She opened her eyes wide and peeled her lips back from a set of dentures that would have fitted a small horse, while her head very faintly trembled as if she were quaking from the strain of a great though joyous physical effort. A mottled hand scrabbled crabwise across the sheet and searched in space for mine; I grasped her hooked fingers and held her under the elbow --- what a grip she had: it was like being seized on by a branch of a dead tree --- and she hauled herself upright in the bed, grunting.

I did the usual business with pillows and so on, then brought a chair and sat down awkwardly with my hands on my knees; is there any natural way to sit beside a sickbed? She was wearing a not very clean white smock with short sleeves, the kind that patients are made to don for the operating theatre; I noticed bruises in the papery skin of the crook of her arm where blood must have been put in or taken out. She sat crookedly with her mouth open and gazed at me, panting a little, her unsteady smile making it seem as if she were shaking her head in wonderment. Two big tears brimmed up in her eyes and trembled on the lower lids. As ever in the presence of the distress of others I found myself holding my breath. I asked her how she was and without a trace of irony she answered, "Oh, but wonderful, wonderful --- as you see!"

--- From Athena
John Banville
©1995 Vintage Books

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