“The boy brings me oxygen. He’s the oxygen boy. Unskilled, not caring. Not a medical professional, so he needn’t even pretend that he cares. He’s exonerated, just a driver in modern overalls, who whistles as he scoops up the latest pale grey tank from the rear of his van, and balances it with no thought at all over both forearms, and opens the gate with his elbow and his bum. And I listen for the oxygen’s calm knock on the doorstep, and I hear the doorbell ring.
He asks me how it’s hanging. I wheel myself back into the living room and park myself against the far wall. He flicks the empty with one knuckle and listens for the echo. You’re onto the dregs, he says. Must be gasping.
I watch him unscrew the exhausted tank, and replace it. I watch the oxygen boy in a way that I have never watched anyone. I took a lot in, when I first surfaced, but I couldn’t comprehend it. Like the scrutiny of a babe, brain still aching with some sweet primordial ohm, pulled from nothing into something. But now I’m finally able to see. Some sort of totality. My malady, my friend, my final visitor. In my blood, in lungs. You’ve freed my brain from something.
Righto. This word is not a word, to me it is a song. Don’t drink it all at once. He returns a small wrench to his jacket pocket, and wipes his fingers down his overalls. And then he asks me if I am alright. He says that I’m quiet this week. He doesn’t know. He genuinely doesn’t know. None of them ever have. I actually fooled them all.
His eyes are the lightest blue. I suspect that he had freckles as a child but they’re all gone now.
I am Satan, I explain. You what? These words are not words. They are a Russian novel full of Cossacks, sabres clashing, hooves sucking in the mud. I wheel forward towards him, extending a hand as I drift to a weak stop just under him. I am Satan. I explain again.
You’re on the whippits. He smells the nozzle of the empty tank as he backs away, and I have grasped him by the knee. You must listen to me and you must tell them. You must tell them, I tell him, when they are ready. To listen. They are not ready now. But you are young, I explain.
His hand inches towards his trouser pocket but I am too quick for him, and I grasp his wrist. Don’t phone her. I don’t need nursey. She epitomises to me why people cannot listen. Why they cannot really. Hear. Why they’ll never see beyond the confines of their own chemistry. Through the cosy curtains of their earthly prejudice. Do you understand?
Clear as. He tries to smile, slowly, to one side. And then he looks down at the limp and puckered oxygen mask which he just reattached to the replacement tank. When his eyes meet mine they are filled with a refreshing seriousness, and his defensive stance buckles. What’s on your mind? He asks.
I trust him sufficiently to sit back in my chair, and for the first time he seems to notice the single lily lain across the rug, across my lap. This is for me, I say, reaching it to him.
His hand doesn’t reciprocate, but I won’t back down. Eventually, when it has dawned on him that I would like him to put this on my grave, and that he may be the only person inclined to perform such an act, and that the honour will be fake but that fraudulence is all that I have, he reaches forward to snatch it quickly from me.
I’ll pop it in water. You’re bright as a button, Mr Grieves, he lies. And then there is a pause before he suggests cracking open the biscuits and putting on the tea. Yes, I smile. Let’s have tea. And I follow him to the kitchen, focused on the lily turning with a lack of care in his fingers, cast down on one side, right at the end of his swinging arm. And I stop in the doorway to the kitchen, as if I cannot advance any further. The sunlight shining through the window, through the petals, seems to sadden me enormously.
He pauses at the jug, extending his hand to drop my flower onto the work surface. You alright? I explain that don’t like the light. I see too much already and illumination merely confuses things. I close my eyes, and shunt myself backwards.
Builders? He asks from the kitchen. Milk and two? Yes, I smile, parking myself back against the far wall. A builder’s. Thank you very much.
None of them have ever known. I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth, feeling quite contented behind my closed eyes, a solid mug of tea being prepared for me. I got away with it. That’s what I can say, at the end. I can turn away from centuries of bright light, safe in the knowledge that I got away with it.
This Battenberg is still good. He seems surprised. Those words are not words but a pleasant whodunit, a locked-room mystery. A French after-theatre supper with friends, a whorl of pastis working the palate. Oh yes, I smile again. It’s perfectly. Good.
I am Satan and I give you my flower. If you are alive, alive enough to read this, I did not kill your ancestors young enough. They spawned. But I will kill you now. I will kill you with words. I will kill you. By making you. Love me.
But I must go down, digging with my mind, deep under the tasteless soil that doesn’t even yearn for me. Under the roots and through the tubers, into clay, into rock, and into liquid iron. No mummy, no daddy. I am earth itself, and I always was.”