Authors: Nigel Dennis
and in affectionate memory
HE scream, the rigid fall, the convulsions, were past, but the epileptic was not yet aware that they had ever begun. He was in his own bed in his own room in his mother’s house, but he had lost all knowledge of place, time and self. His eyes were open and the white ceiling of the room was reflected in them, but he did not recognize either the
or its colour; his mind was dead, and his senses alive so faintly as to be useless. It took many minutes of blank staring at the ceiling before a sense of its whiteness awoke in him—and this first, tiny stir of the power of recognition was so stunning that his eyes closed themselves and he dropped again into total stupor.
Mrs. Morgan, who had noticed from her chair in the corner that her son’s eyes had opened, came over to the bed on tiptoe; but by the time she leaned over him, his eyes had closed again, and she returned to her chair, twisting her hands nervously, frowning and sighing miserably. She wanted more than anything to wipe her son’s face: he had fallen in the driveway and his left cheek was scraped from forehead to chin and smeared with gravel.
A sparrow dropped on to the windowsill and began to chirp. The sharp little sounds reached into Morgan’s sunken world and were included in it without recognition. When the sparrow flew away, taking the sound with him, Morgan’s eyes opened again. He saw the whiteness above him, and was able to feel curious as to its meaning. His eyes turned
to left and right; he saw two walls, a picture, a window backed by a mass of trembling green leaves; he had no idea what any of these things were, but he would have liked to be
able to give them a name. The raised parts of his blanket also made him curious: he had no idea that they followed the shape of his body, because he had still no idea that he existed; but he knew there was something familiar about them. He also felt that there was something large and awkward
his thoughts—and at once the thing, whatever it was, moved, and he suddenly felt pain, not only from his chewed and swollen tongue but all through his body: every joint and socket ached as a result of his convulsive attempts to tear his whole frame into dislocated fragments. The pain also stimulated his curiosity; nausea followed the effort to think; he closed his eyes, and opened them again, asking questions to which he had no answers because his memory was still in hiding—questions which existed without words, but which meant: What is this? What am I?—the most primitive and most sophisticated questions of life itself. The questions hung in vagueness for a spell, wordlessly repeating themselves without insistence, in vacuo. The eyes continued their moody, inconclusive staring at the white ceiling, like the open shutter of a camera without film.
All at once the whiteness was blacked out by an object which Morgan succeeded in recognizing as a face. He stared at it for a long time; there was some grey disorder at the top of it, and parts he faintly knew were eyes, nose, and lips that seemed to gesticulate, while murmurous, pleading sounds fell on him like woolly balls. This hovering spectacle of a face quickly became more familiar; at least he knew that it was not beyond the bounds of reason. He continued to stare into it, fixing his glazed eyes on his mother’s with a lack of comprehension that had exactly the look of deliberate indifference. He began to understand that the sounds that accompanied her were made by her and in his account: this was such a huge step forward in his return to life that he felt nauseated and resentful. All of a sudden he recognized her—that is to say, her face suddenly
stirred up emotions that he knew involved his mother—and having thus discovered the identity of something outside himself (it might just as well have been an old boot), he began to realize who he was himself. With a sudden rush, his memory awoke; instantly he reached the conclusion for which he had been searching—not his name, who he was, who she was, where they were, but the one conclusion that included everything:
I have had an attack.
Now he had all the clue he wanted. He knew at once that the cumbersome pain that seemed closest to him was his unfortunate tongue, that a blanket covered him, and that the other sickening ache ran from his shoulders to his insteps. Once his sentiments had woken up a shocked look replaced the vacancy in his eyes: he was crushed with depression and disgust. His mind, articulate at last, kept putting the same questions: Not again? Not another one? Again? Again? Another?—and on finding the same merciless, humiliating answer, a head in a black cap nodding repeatedly, a furious anger swelled up against the evidence: hatred for his smarting, ugly tongue, his idiot headache and despicable, cracked joints, a sharp contempt of himself for having permitted such degradation, an equally sharp contempt of life itself. A few obscenities came to his mind, and he spoke them aloud, vaguely knowing that they would be socially permissible at such a moment. He groaned, and turned his face to the wall, clenching his fists, and daring his pains to stop him from turning and twisting as he pleased.
He heard his mother speak. She was holding in her trembling hand a medicine glass filled with whiskey. An arm slipped under his back; he caught a glimpse of the baby face of his mother’s secretary as she raised his neck and head. Breathing in gasps, he tested parts of his tongue against his teeth to find out where it was least raw. and after jamming it into one cheek as far out of the way as possible he gulped down the
whiskey and said, “More, please.” His mother, her hands still trembling, poured another glassful: after drinking it he fell back on the pillow, and immediately dropped off into a deep sleep.
Mrs. Morgan drew down the shade and opened the window. The secretary brought in a bowl of water, and Mrs. Morgan washed her son’s cheek with a flannel. Then the two women laid their heads together and whispered. “No, you go on,” said Mrs. Morgan. “Do the letters, and tell Jakey to remember to take the station waggon for the box…. You’ll have to do the ordering, too… And tell Carmichael about the beans.” The secretary left the room on tiptoe: Mrs. Morgan sat in her chair and waited for her son to wake up.
The big house fell into the quietness that always followed one of Morgan’s fits. The secretary, the maids, the cook, the chauffeur, the gardener all worked in such silence that the sounds of the birds in the park and of the cars dashing along the highway beyond seemed rudely noisy. Mrs. Morgan sat straight up on the hard chair for a full half-hour; then, signs of impatience appeared and she began to toy with her hands, spreading the fingers apart, turning the two rings, nervously rubbing her palms. The expression of half-stunned despair that had been on her long, bony face changed so completely that she gradually became what she normally was: a strong, energetic woman who became exasperated when circumstances kept her from work.
There was a gentle tap on the door, and the secretary
. Without a word she handed Mrs. Morgan a new book that had just arrived in the mail. It was called
Mrs. Morgan gave her secretary a warm smile. The secretary responded with a squinty look of sympathy. Then she tiptoed out. Mrs. Morgan sighed, put on a pair of large, horn-rimmed spectacles and settled down to read.
Half an hour later her son stirred, groaned, and began to fiddle with the edge of the covers. Mrs. Morgan rose, and pressed the bell; the secretary appeared again, and the two women stood over the bed.
Morgan saw their faces when he opened his eyes. He was eighteen years old, and for the last six years he had awakened from fits to find one face or another hanging over him. He often dreamed of these faces: they tortured him with the
of shame and hatred they provoked in him. No matter in what ways the hovering faces varied, they always bore the silent, resigned air of lay figures, or of people who cannot pray because piety has failed them too often. He knew the hurt, sad faces of his mother and her household; the nervous, even silly faces of bewildered friends; the hysterical, terrified faces of chambermaids and landladies; the stern faces of efficient strangers—which showed a powerful determination to do
and an equally powerful indignation at not knowing what to do; the various long, short, clean-shaven, bearded faces of doctors and specialists, marked with unnatural gravity and custom-tailored tact. Sometimes all these faces came together in a group and became a part of his most humiliating, best-hated memory—of lying on a New York street-corner and looking up into the blank, open-mouthed faces of a group of fascinated rubbernecks. He could still hear the sound of scurrying
as latecomers dashed up and pushed their way to the front of the circle so as to get a good look.
“Not such a bad one this time,” he said to his mother drearily.
,” said Mrs. Morgan, wincing and looking miserable again.
“Oh, did it…?”
dear boy: oh, don’t be silly … be so careful!”
“Oh, who cares about the face!” he said crossly. “It always heals in no time.” How like women, he thought, to pick on
just the silliest, most trivial part of the matter. “I suppose, now,” he added, “I won’t be able to go fishing with Georgie.”
His mother and the secretary exchanged quick, worried looks. “Will I?” he asked hopefully.
“That was yesterday, Jimmy dear…. Don’t you
“Yes, you know. You caught the big trout and Georgie fell in. And you had supper with him at Fairbanks.”
“I guess that’s right,” he said, sighing.
“You’d better go to sleep again,” said Mrs. Morgan. She was always almost more horrified by the lapse of memory that followed an attack than by the attack itself. Not to know what you had done yesterday struck her as a condition bordering on lunacy, as shocking as not knowing what you were going to do tomorrow.
She fiddled again with the shade and the window. Still humiliated and disgusted, Morgan dropped back to sleep. When he woke up the room was nearly dark, and he heard the whistle blow at the local canneries. He was alone, and the household was returning to normal; he could hear noises coming from the kitchen, and in the hall his grandfather was saying in his peevish, baby’s voice: “But it was fifteen minutes slow, so I advanced it thirty.” “Oh, father!” snapped Mrs. Morgan in her sharp voice. “How can you be so exasperating!”
The boy’s mood changed quickly when he heard the old man being reprimanded like a silly boy. He was no longer
in humiliation, and as soon as he knew this he felt better. The optimism and energy of his years came back; he began to feel a quite condescending sympathy for his stupid tongue and rickety bones, as though they were blundering acquaintances rather than parts of his own body. The fact that another attack had come meant, now, that another attack had gone. It meant that he was a free man, and that he would remain free for days,
weeks, perhaps even for a few months. He was aching all over, and a crust of blood was drying on his face—it meant that for some time to come nothing threatened him; he was invulnerable. Once more he felt that he had won another victory in a fight so endless that he was almost nonchalant in accepting it as normal. When his mother came in with some soup and toast, he said:
“Is it not passing brave to be a king,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?”
“Your poor tongue; but try and drink it while it’s hot,” his mother said.
Two days later Morgan was at his tutor’s cabin. He slouched on a wicker-bottomed straight chair, his long legs stretched into the middle of the small, square porch. His eyes were abnormally vague and half-closed; out of the mist of lethargy and boredom that came from the drugs he took, he looked sleepily through the wire-screen, over the fields and hedges to the point where the trees began and climbed the low hills in a thick wood. The tutor was a very young, progressive man, fresh from college; he had never taught before; Mrs. Morgan gave him the cabin rent-free, plus a small salary, so that he could write his thesis in the afternoon and teach her son in the morning. In the safety of the countryside, the tutor was growing his first beard, which made him like a character in an old woodcut. He was the tenth, or eleventh—no one quite remembered—tutor that Morgan had had, and he was on his last legs. It was the beginning of June, he had only been here a month, and his thesis was only half-written; but the thought of continuing to address the drooping, indifferent figure on the other side of the table for the rest of the summer was enough to make his heart race. Morgan’s fit had given the tutor two days’
breathing space, during which he had resolved, tugging his morsel of beard, to try again to behave patiently with a boy who was entering maturity with a serious handicap. The tutor held in his hands Morgan’s last composition, which was written in wild, angular handwriting. It was about the relationship between Julius Cæsar and Brutus, and from the tutor’s point of view it was a total failure.
“I thought,” said the tutor, with a genial, nervous chuckle, turning the pages of the composition, “that we’d talked all this over enough for you to get Shakespeare’s idea. But just the same, all you do in this, really, is to say again that Brutus had no right to stab his best friend. The whole point of the drama is that Brutus stabbed Cæsar
of being his best friend.”
“Oh, I can see that all right,” said Morgan, leaning his head on his hands, and flopping the upper half of his body over the table. He saw an ant bustling on the tabletop and began to chivvy it with a toothpick.
“The significance of it all is,” continued the tutor, upset by the ant, “the dramatic significance is that when it came to choosing between a personal relationship and the good of the state, Brutus chose the good of the state. He murdered Cæsar for Rome’s sake; he set the welfare of many higher than his personal bond with the dictator. The way you write about him, Brutus is merely an unprincipled, disloyal friend.”