Swimming to Ithaca - Chapter One


Thomas Denham watched his mother dying.

The historian in him had expected the event to have a significance of some kind. It surprised him to find none. Oh, there was tragedy of course. Agony, misery, fear, all those things for him and his sister, but above all, presumably, for their mother. But at the time, in time, there was no significance. Nothing he could get hold of, understand, absorb into his personal world. There was no meaning. Deirdre Denham, née Boltby had lived. Now she was dying. The fabric of time and space that had opened for a few years to allow her existence, was now closing. She would vanish. That was it. It was like a nameless peasant dying in the background, while kings fought over the future of their kingdoms.
A young doctor came and examined her, and afterwards took him aside. ‘Not long now,’ she said. She might have been talking about a train they were waiting for. ‘She seems unconscious, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hear what’s going on around her. So.’

So? So what? What was he meant to do with that piece of knowledge? The doctor strode away to her next appointment with death. She looked about sixteen. He thought of asking whether she was fully qualified yet, but didn’t. Two things you daren’t antagonise: the waiter in a restaurant or the staff in a hospital.

The terminal ward was a warren of rooms linked together by the meanderings of a long corridor – it was euphemistically called the Simpson Ward but all the patients knew what “Simpson” meant. They weren’t fooled by euphemism. ‘I don’t want to go into the Simpson Ward,’ his mother had said during the early days of her treatment. Irony stalked the corridors of the hospital: Simpson was the inventor of anaesthetic, the man who had first tried to take the pain out of sickness.

Thomas rang his sister. They had visited in shifts during the later stages of the illness, changing places like soldiers on sentry duty. Paula had been there most of the previous night, when their mother was still more or less awake, and had gone home in the early morning when Thomas appeared. But now it seemed that the moment had come for double turn. ‘You’d better come now, Paula.’
There was a silence on the other end of the line. Not silence in the abstract, but a silence; something positive.

‘See you soon,’ he said, and replaced the receiver.

He went back to his mother’s room and sat by her bedside and watched the slow rise and fall of her chest beneath the covers. She wasn’t old, but the illness had made her so. She had become thin and haggard and wrinkled, wasted by both the disease and its treatment, with a scrub of grey hair that had regrown after they had abandoned the chemicals that had made it fall out in the first place. ‘Mother?’ he called softly, but there was no reply.

There are easy deaths – something short and sharp, like his father’s – but his mother’s had not been like that. It had taken eighteen months. Or four years. Or a lifetime. Like any piece of history, it all depends where you want to draw the start line – eighteen months earlier when they detected metastasis in bone and brain? Or two years earlier was when breast cancer had been diagnosed? Or you might date it all from the moment when that first cell somewhere in the pliant tissue of her left breast had mutated from the benign to the malignant. When would that have been? Undatable, so not historical? Or you might go further back, to an unperceived moment when sperm first nuzzled into egg within the claustrophobic fallopian tube of a Sheffield college teacher’s wife one rainy October day in 1923. Death begins from the moment of conception. A life is the history of a death.

At one point during her illness his mother told him, with something approaching pride, that she had finally returned to the weight that she had been at her wedding; as though there were an upside to the disease after all, a hidden benefit. Later, much later, just a week or so ago, she had said something else. Lying in her bed in the hospital, cold despite the heat, her hand lying on the sheet like the claw of a bird, she had said to him: ‘This is a punishment.’

‘What on earth do you mean, Mother?’

‘I believe that we are punished for what we have done. This is my punishment.’

He had been dismissive. ‘Don’t be silly. What do you have to be punished for?’

For a moment she had seemed about to answer. But then she had just closed her eyes and he hadn’t pursued the matter. Why, he wondered, had she cause to fear punishment? The idea of punishment as a reason for this suffering revolted him, yet later he thought, why not? Medical science could not give a reason aside from the obvious organic ones – this mutation, that carcinoma, that metastasis – so why not invoke the callous judgement of some irascible and inhuman god? So the question remained: what had she ever done to deserve punishment like this?

He met Paula in the waiting room. Her face was strangely mask-like, as though the skin had been pulled taut against the gale that was blowing through their lives. ‘She’s unconscious now,’ he told her as they embraced.

Paula pushed him away. ‘Unconscious? Oh, God. Since when? Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I did, just then. The doctor says that she still might be able to hear what’s said to her.’

‘Hear? Oh my God.’ She seemed to find unconsciousness a disaster, but surely it would be a blessing, wouldn’t it? She hurried into the room and sat down beside the bed, holding the claw of her mother’s hand, whispering to the figure beneath the blankets. What was she saying? They weren’t in the habit of opening their hearts to one another, not this family. They talked, oh yes, they talked all right. But they never talked about what was at the heart of things, possibly because the implicit assumption was that there was nothing there, really, no heart of things at all to have anything at. Just life and you got on with it. Or death, and you got on with that too. Matter of fact, be it the Yorkshire plainness of his mother’s side or the London pragmatism of his father’s. ‘I’m not a man of very deep emotion,’ his father had told him once. And, on another occasion: ‘Never get yourself on the wrong side of an unequal relationship. I badgered your mother into marrying me and it’s not been an easy relationship ever since.’

Had that been a joke? But no, it was serious – one of the few bits of advice his father had ever given him, apart from an awkward little lecture on sex, when Thomas was about twelve. ‘I know all about it, Dad,’ he’d wanted to say during that agonising conversation, but of course the truth was quite otherwise: he had known nothing about it, nothing beyond the basic mechanics, gleaned from an encyclopaedia, of penis and vagina. Not that his father’s dissertation did much good – everything that Thomas knew, he had learned from Gilda.

Thomas watched his mother die, accompanied to the brink by her daughter. At around two o’clock – morning or afternoon? – the faint rise and fall of her chest stopped and she was dead.

Paula wept. This was unusual. She was an efficient woman, in matters of the heart as in matters of career. She had a husband and two children, and a house in Kent and a flat in London, and a successful career in journalism. She wrote a column giving advice to people on how to conduct their emotional lives. Weeping didn’t seem to come into it; and yet there she was, weeping.

Thomas watched his mother die, and found that he couldn’t weep.









Simon Mawer 2008 - 2022. This website is written and maintained by the author.