Lucille could track her existential dread by the fluctuations of her bowel. She had odd pet-names for these fluctuations: sometimes it would be the ‘Bo Diddley’ week, when she was gassy and bloated, then it would be ‘John Coltrane’ week when she was suffering from bouts of diarrhea and sweating; I do not even want to inflict on you ‘Thelonious Monk’ week. I can tell you all this as I was Lucille’s GP for 36 years. You can tell (I presume a certain level of intelligence in my readership) from the phrasing of the last sentence that I am no longer Lucille’s GP. But I am getting far ahead of myself. I risk flouting the principle associated with Anton Chekhov (Again, I am presuming my readership are familiar with Chekhov), known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’: the principle that every narrative element should be necessary, i.e. “if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there”. But in this case, please replace gun with Lucille’s bowel.
She often spoke of her health (both physical and mental) as like a balloon. It was usually at this moment that my eyes would begin to glaze and the branches I could see from my surgery window suddenly became something of interest to me; any other time I would scorn those damn twigs as chancers and charlatans! I don’t like trees. But from the very fact that I am writing this right now (I’m not wearing trousers), I must have soaked in Lucille’s analogy about the balloon. Don’t get me wrong, every so often, Lucille would say something that grabbed my attention, it was not all monotonous dross; she often spoke about ‘drawing with scissors’, a strange analogy she would draw at long length and hit me with emotional weight. She somehow would always be my last appointment of the day and as she spoke with this look of profound fragility emitting from her posture and facial expression, that wonderful moment when dusk sets in and the air has that warm stillness, would flood into the room. The analogy revolved around an image that haunted her sleep of Henri Matisse sitting in a wheelchair in his studio, having been given three years to live, the studio now empty, all his work locked away in the vaults of French banks. He was in the midst of a bitter divorce with his wife, and lawyers were fighting over his valuable work. Matisse breathed heavily in his chair, which was in the exact centre of the room and he spun awkwardly in the chair taking in the void that was now his artistic output. Surrounding him on every side was a war-zone, as German troops clashed with their French equivalents. In the depths of his despair, Matisse reached over to a side table that was sprayed with various bits of paper and materials, the table just beyond his reach and his forehead begun to sweat with the frustration. With a sigh he swiveled in his chair to move closer to the table and the tip of his finger was able to tease a plain piece of white paper onto the floor where he could pick it up. He managed to pick up the large pair of scissors on the table, and cut a single man out of the paper. His limbs were flailing and limp. The man became the centre of Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus, which marked a new period in Matisse’s career; death and war lurking in the background.
“And what does this all mean Lucille?” I would often ask this.
“Is it not clear? I thought I had explained it with suitable length and clarification”
“Yes Lucille, I suppose it is”
“It breathes, it responds, it’s not a dead thing” She would then quote Matisse. Matisse’s mind processed colour at such a speed and with such depth, that eventually his body (his retinas) could not keep up. The very essence of his being, his creativity, was finally beaten by the body’s finitude and natural disintegration. The rest of his body followed suit and his artistic quintessence was finally shut off and destroyed. It became buried in the vaults of his mind, his physical being unable to carry out the necessary movements and processes to convert this quintessence into being. “It breathes, it responds, it’s not a dead thing”. It was if someone was going from room to room turning off the light, like a lonely janitor closing up a school that would never see another child, a shell to be left as an altar to education and growth. I understand how this image could haunt Lucille, I believe she feared that very process, the heavy reality of being, and I believe that’s why she found such solitude in the balloon and perhaps the bloated bowel. But it was not until Lucille passed from a nuisance to a void that I noticed this nuance and detail.
I’m not sure what it was that brought me to the realization that Lucille had stopped attending appointments. It was common, if not procedure, that patients would come and go; of course, they were sick and then they would get better. I obviously treated families and watched families grow and then deplete, and then grow again: it is just how life is. I had become accustomed to this stark reality and it had undoubtedly begun to erode any sentimentality I may have once enjoyed. But Lucille was the type of patient that would come to me with the slightest ailments, she would be sitting outside my door at the smallest sneeze or fart, so the realization that she had not been to see me for over a month, disconcerted me more than I ever thought it would. Lucille was always a nuisance. I joked with my secretary about her and made crude jokes to my wife about her, in pathetic heartlessness. I derided her for her meek, modest appearance and the slow labored way that she spoke. But it wasn’t until she disappeared that I really appreciated her emotional richness and honesty, and finally understood why she irked me so: she represented everything I was trying to hide, every weakness I sought to conceal. I cringe as I remember the way I would rush her along and push her to conclude and wrap up by clapping my hands and rubbing my knees. I did not give her the time that she deserved. I did not want to make this concession to my secretary; I am narcissistic enough not to want her to see my vulnerability, but I ummmmmmed and hmmmmmmed late into the evening with Lucille’s file open in front of me. Colleagues twisted their heads round my door to say goodnight and I did not turn from my desk and just offered a strange shaking hand, neither wave or hand signal. I breathed heavily and leant back in my chair, over and over; I breathed heavily and leant back in my chair, over and over; you get the idea. It was unprofessional to call Lucille at home; I really had no reason to call her, other than to calm my guilt. Perhaps she had just gone to another GP who may have given her more time than I did, or perhaps she went to a psychiatrist who may have been better placed to treat her. Perhaps she had been blown away by a strong wind. Eventually I picked up the phone with a clammy hand and begun to slowly punch her number onto the keypad, the 5 worn by my fingers over the years. Strangely the five was more eroded than the others, and I thought there must be more fives in local phone numbers, and I considered for a second whether to research this theory but the end of the ringing tone interrupted my thoughts. An answerphone crackled and the following message came from the phone into my ear:
The balloon. The bowel. Here’s me getting all maudlin, building up to this narrative crest of the wave, and I nearly broke Chehkov’s rule. The balloon, why isn’t that why we’re all here? Lucille would use the balloon to explain all her symptoms. She would arrive at the surgery in a jumper covered in balloons, each a different primary colour. With the balloons she could explain the fluctuations of her bowel (that’s where the connection is, sloppy): she would blow up a balloon till it burst to explain bloating and abdominal pain, she would blow up the balloon and slowly let out the air to explicate flatulence, etc. When she was feeling depressed she blew only a small amount of air into a white balloon, so it was limp and saggy, like an aged breast. She would explain it great detail the wrinkles in the balloon and how they represented her fears, and how the shapelessness of the balloon signified her uncertainty and dread. I have to admit I found it all a little contrived and overdone and I would roll my eyes until they were sore. But now, I see that there was something about the way she talked about joy, about the weightlessness that happiness brings to life, explaining the feeling through a red balloon filled with air and the way it would daintily move in the air; it was the only time I heard hope and strength in her voice. But the Doctor in me would prevail and I would ask: “But what does this have to do with your bowel Lucille?” Aha! The balloon is the beautiful deus ex machine (Again again, I’m am presuming some knowledge of Latin in my readership, and to warn you, I shall use two more Latin phrases in the rest of this piece, but due to writer’s guilt I’ve added footnotes), allowing me to retain some shred of experto crede.
“Can you not see Dr? Is it not so very poignantly clear?” I shall apologise for the late showing of the captatio benevolentiae and more the inevitable resignation of my authorial pretensions.
“Yes Lucille, I suppose it is”.
Jonny is a writer based in East London, and has recently had fiction published in Ambit Magazine and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He can be found online @jonnykeyworth and http://www.jonnykeyworth.com