by Peter Robinson
‘... non so quel ch’io mi voglio,
e tremo a mezza state, ardendo il verno.’
Laura had more or less finished her shopping. She was queuing to pay at The Emporium, a health food store with a fancy emerald green frontage that betrayed one of the premises’ earlier incarnations, though Laura, not being a native, couldn’t tell what. On the point of closing down, and selling off the last of its stock at ridiculous prices, the Emporium still had a cardboard box full of tea tree soap. Laura jumped at the opportunity. She would buy four bars. The change put safely away, she glanced at her watch. It was just 1:30. The day was sweltering hot, a Friday in the middle of summer. Stepping back into Bold Street, she narrowed her eyes against the glare. Laura put her sunglasses and straw hat back on. This was not what she had expected of England, and especially not the North.
Stood on its slope with her back to the bombed-out shell of St Luke’s Church, kept up at some expense as a Blitz memorial, Laura gazed a moment down towards the Pier Head. It was her first visit to the city made famous by Gli Scarafaggi. Yes, that’s what they were called in Italy. Laura knew it was the translation of a spelling mistake. She knew they weren’t called The Beetles. When she’d asked where she could buy things in Liverpool, Patrick’s mother told her that Bold Street, where the Bluecoat Chambers were, had, during the city’s heyday, been one of its poshest places to shop. Laura could pick out a few remnants of the place’s former glory. There was its painting materials business that served the nearby Art School, its three bookshops, and a post office with pigeon-slimed classical façade. Now among them were the ethnic groceries’ fascinating smells, the old LP outlets, formica eateries, sad cafés, and, most of all, the empty premises that signaled the most recent migrations to more salubrious rural retreats of the city’s prosperous classes.
Laura was standing there, half-lost in the heat, when a middle aged man, his beard flecked with sick, lunged forward and slurred a request for his bus fare home. He had grasped her firmly by the hand. Despite all her carefully cultivated feeling for others, Laura shivered.
‘Remember that social worker, years back, who was killed?’
Unsteady on his legs, the chap was giving off a telltale reek. Laura allowed his swollen pink hand with its cracked and dirty nails to keep possession of hers; but before she could even think of a reply, the man said -
‘Oh dear,’ said Laura. ‘I am sorry.’
‘I’m not very drunk, though, am I?’ he added, with tears in his eyes and as if to repent.
Laura pressed a few coins into his hand.
‘God bless you ... God bless you,’ he said, without taking his eyes from her unusually sun-tanned face.
‘She never should have left me,’ he sobbed, his hand still clinging on to Laura’s.
Alone again on Bold Street, under the estate agents’ signs with their partnership names and phone numbers, Laura glanced into the two large plastic shopping bags. She was mentally checking her list - arnica to rub on Patrick’s needle bruises; a pair of blue cotton pyjamas; a new toothbrush; enough fresh fruit to fill his bowl; a Raymond Chandler omnibus; the vitamin B tablets ... That was enough. That would surely do for now. It was time to give up and get back to his bedside. The fashion boutiques had given way to Oxfam and Save the Children there on Bold Street. Laura found herself surrounded by the racket of the road works required for finishing its pedestrianization scheme.
She decided to take a taxi. She knew she couldn’t really afford one, but the buses here were just too confusing.
‘Walton ... Walton General ... Hospital,’ she told the driver after he’d wound down his window and leaned towards her.
Now with the shopping bags on the seat beside her, Laura was sitting back in that cab being taken down Prescott Road towards the Old Swan. She was watching the blackbirds and sparrows drop down to their worm-filled ground. How oddly things had turned out!
The two of them met first in Cremona, Laura’s home, where Patrick would come on business trips for an import-export company. Looking back on those first meetings, it seemed clear enough something of the sort was bound to happen. Though he’d never made a secret of being married, Patrick had evidently become infatuated with her. She could tell by the hangdog look on his face, and the way he paid far too much attention to every last thing she said. Laura was by no means infatuated at first, but she was certainly flattered by his attentions - attentions that were easy enough to play upon and, simultaneously, resist. But the third time he visited and pressed his suit that bit more firmly, she allowed her growing temptation to have its way. Ah yes, but shouldn’t she have known? After all, Patrick was a married man -and a hopeless liar. His wife Jennifer found out, and Laura’s one-time lover, the man with whom she was now in love, had tried his best to make a complete disappearance from her life.
Her black cab trundled on along broad avenues of the city, the place full of those little English houses made of brick with cared-for bits of garden at both front and back. What had most surprised Laura about Liverpool was how much greenery she was surrounded by. It was hardly like her idea of a town in the grim industrial North. There were so many wide stretches of parkland with sycamores and beeches in full summer leaf. There were strips of green down the sides and middles of those boulevards, ones often lined with plane trees themselves. Before she came here, Laura just assumed it must be a seaport like Genoa; but acquaintances said the people were quite different from the Genoese - who were closed and with so dry a sense of humour you could mistake it for cynicism or spite. No, the place Liverpool most resembled was Napoli with its accent that even Laura could scarcely penetrate, its traditions of song writing, and famous comic vein - traditions that Laura imagined must have taken root here for much the same reason.
And as that black cab rattled on, she found herself remembering what looked at the time as if it would be their final parting.
‘Carissimo,’ she was saying, her face a smiling picture of ambiguous warmth, ‘mi pare che questo per te sia un vero calvario.’
Patrick was standing before her, looking acutely uncomfortable.
‘Carissimo,’ Laura repeated, and embraced him. There was an utterly unbearable sweetness to her gesture. Patrick smiled weakly, turned, and, without looking back, went through into passport control.
She had driven all the way to Bergamo. She was waiting for him in its tiny check-in lounge: full skirt, a Chinese jacket, shoes with a single strap across the foot fastened by a tiny button. Ever the nervous traveler, Patrick was giving himself plenty of time to catch that Stansted flight. So his anxieties about missing the plane had provided them with the best part of an hour to talk.
Laura’s face could not conceal her emotions. It was their perfectly tuned instrument.
‘Why didn’t you come?’ she asked, though not exactly aggrieved.
‘I explained in my letter,’ Patrick coolly replied.
The letter was the latest in the series of conflicting signals he’d been sending, and at the sight of her there in the airport his resolution completely evaporated. He just didn’t know what he wanted. Laura was quite irresistible. She had freckles across the bridge of her nose, laughter lines about her eyes, a vague curling up of her top lip when she smiled - a smile that revealed the pink gums above her ever so slightly gapped front teeth. Her long ear lobes were like a patient Buddha’s, and with sleepers in them, as Patrick had noticed the very first time they met.
Pulling himself together, pushing away his quandaries of frozen yearning and burning regret, he had written to her - saying, well, saying what he could: if he came to see her even that once more there would be too much pain.
But the course of true love, as they say in English, never did run smooth - and Laura found her own painful feelings of attraction and rejection reawakened one spring morning when a postcard arrived from Patrick asking if he might come to see her for a day or two. He needed, the postcard said, to talk.
And it was as if her prayers on those lonely nights of biting her pillow had miraculously been answered. Patrick’s wife, a social worker as it happened, had convinced herself that after his briefest of flings with Laura, no matter now hard he tried, Patrick couldn’t forget his foreign affair. But what this meant, her Englishman wanted to explain, was that his wife would never be able properly to forgive him for what, after all, had been a dreadfully small lapse in fidelity. So after those years of silence, here he was telling her that his marriage was over - and, despite the old equivocal behaviour towards her, would Laura be willing to give it a go?
Though she naturally treated his declaration of love with a certain reserve, Laura didn’t need asking twice. But then, yet once more, it seemed her chance of love was to be snatched away - this time, by death. No sooner had they got together than Patrick started to complain of recurrent headaches. One morning he climbed out of bed, vomited, and collapsed on the floor, his hands clutching the back of his skull. At her local hospital, the doctors found something that shouldn’t be there in his brain. Patrick was given strong medicines, the kind that Laura was against on principle, and sent back to his city to have the operation they said was absolutely essential if he were to save his life.
Of course, she had to be there when he went in for surgery. That had it more difficult for everybody, for Patrick’s parents, his estranged wife trying to lure him back, and for the friends she didn’t even know. Still, she couldn’t not be there. After his ten days in hospital for the operation itself, and then the painfully slow stages of his return to minimal functioning, the strain had begun to tell. It seemed she might still have to leave and go back to Cremona. Too many changes were happening all at once. There was just too much to endure. Perhaps Jennifer would even get him back after all.
She thought of the adopted stray cat sunning itself on Patrick’s parents’ concrete patio, the warm light tinting their garden, emphatic on the damp wood fencing beyond an emerald green lawn speckled with daisies. The convalescent day’s empty ease was unraveling on the flowerbeds where a broken branch had settled. It lay cushioned on the clump of nettles that Laura had promised to cut down. She was going to make soup of them. Patrick’s father was a retired psychotherapist ... As his inexplicably angry comments washed over her, Laura could do nothing but stare, on the verge of tears, at a bowl of rose petals imperceptibly aging on the front-room window ledge.
She remembered the day of Patrick’s relapse. His day had contracted to a worsening headache’s dual hells of shivering fever, sweaty chills, and nothing else. In fact, the doctors didn’t know what it was he’d got. Better to be on the safe side, they said. Because they happened to have a spare bed, he was admitted to the Pain Control Unit, put on intravenous penicillin, the butterfly values taped to his wrists. That would knock those symptoms on the head. Not that it was meningitis, they eventually discovered, but an inner ear infection tracking back towards the site of his operation - the wounds hardly healed and leaving behind all kinds of collateral damage. At night a sticky liquid would ooze from his right ear to stain the pillowcase with horrid, dried-blood-coloured spots.
As Patrick lay there with that burning head, that suspected meningitis, asleep under the morphine, Laura sat patiently, silent by his bed. She had never had the occasion to spend so much time in a hospital before. Each morning, the men would relate their histories of the night. Laura, arrived early, might be watching a magpie peck at the mossy concrete on the rooftop of the Outpatients Department opposite. Beyond it, she could see an urban skyline of neat red brick gables, a fly-over, and tall church spire.
‘Pain is pain: it wears you down,’ said the Royal Airforce Band cornet player from his sedated sphere, ‘like water running over a stone.’
‘Oh shut the fuck up,’ murmured Alex, but quite loud enough to be heard.
Alex was sitting in his bed, the pillows piled behind him, a sheet pulled over his legs, and that morning’s opened Mirror laid across them. He must have been about forty, had been in pain for twenty years. He was from Belfast where he’d caught a stray shot meant to kill a soldier. Once, while he was being bed-washed by the nurses, Laura glimpsed the scar tissue of its entry and exit wounds. The bullet had grazed his spinal cord, and, despite that many operations he had lost count, Alex remained paralyzed and in pain.
‘Papish bastards,’ she heard him mutter one day as he read his newspaper; and Laura made a mental note to keep her silver crucifix and rosary well out of sight.
Alex had tried everything to ease his suffering. Booze was the mainstay for years. Neat gin or vodka worked the best, he said. But then he found he was in effect an alcoholic too and had to go to the meetings to wean himself off the demon drink. He’d even experimented with banned substances, but the side effects were so much worse. What really saved his life in the end, he said, was finding that, notwithstanding the state he was in, one of the young women from social services was offering to marry him. That’s how Laura found out he had a wife and children back home in Ireland. Alex was keen to get his slow drug-release implant fixed so he could return to the life that, in spite of everything, fate had allowed him to make.
It was only a day or two later - Patrick off the morphine - that Alex began a two-week acquaintance with Laura’s boyfriend by giving him a wink and a glance in her direction.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re a lucky man!’
‘You could spend your holidays here!’ somebody chuckled beside her.
Laura had paid the taxi driver and, laden with the plastic bags of shopping, pushed her way through the sprung doors into hospital reception. All around were the shaved heads and bandaged limbs of patients - some pushing their IVF supports round on wheels with the drip needles still in their arms. Laura headed towards the corridor that led round to the lifts for the various wards. There was a continuous flow of traffic going by her as she walked: unsteady feet, stretchers, wheelchairs, doctors with the white tails of the coats blowing up behind them, and the visitors like herself, finding their way, looking faintly embarrassed to be in the best of health.
During the two weeks that Patrick was up on the ward, Laura had come to appreciate how the Liverpudlians who worked there managed the routines of pain and its control. Each morning one of the orderlies would write on a white-board ‘The Daily Joke’. Though she had to admit her English was not quite up to understanding them, she thought it a funny idea. Patrick told her about how the night nurses would give him a cocktail of two pain-killers, not supposed to be used at the same time, but which when taken together helped you get a good night’s sleep. That Saturday evening, since to all intents and purposes there was nothing wrong with him, some of the nurses were planning to spirit Alex out of the ward for an evening in the pub down the road …
The lift up to the Pain Control Unit was empty for once. As it juddered to a halt and the doors opened, Laura grasped her two plastic shopping bags and, stepping forward, found she was engulfed in a great crowd of people. They had been silent as the lift doors opened, but now were laughing loudly and smiling at each other. What was going on? There were three camera crews, some photographers with flashguns, and journalists holding microphones. Stationed in amongst them were the wheelchairs and stretchers of immobile patients - all with their eyes trained eagerly on Laura. Some of the walking wounded had placed themselves strategically as if to catch a sight of her. Among them Laura could see the faces of nurses and even some junior doctors she’d come to know during Patrick’s stay on the ward. Momentarily bewildered, she looked around for the bandaged head of her young man.
Patrick was standing at the far end of the corridor, as far from the lift as he could get, with Alex beside him in his chair. Alex was clearly doubled up in stitches. Patrick had a hand over his half-paralyzed mouth. He seemed to be laughing too, laughing till it hurt. But Laura just couldn’t see what was supposed to be so funny.
On that very day Her Royal Highness, the one with the freckles and russet curls, would visit the unfortunates who fell within the scope of her charity’s care. That was why the orderlies, the nurses, the news people, walking wounded, those on trolleys and in chairs had been waiting in a hush of expectation near the lift.
Then suddenly, just as the boys were explaining, Her Royal Highness came sweeping in with her whole entourage around her. Mingling with the gathered crowd, she stooped slightly forward, turning her head just a little to one side.
‘And how have you been keeping?’ she asked an old lady who could hardly contain her excitement at being addressed by such a celebrity.
‘Yes, indeed, it’s your health matters most’, Her Royal Highness was saying to another.
But now the two temporary friends were taking cover in the side ward. While Patrick was climbing back under the sheets, Laura took the liberty of drawing the curtains round his bed. Then she perched herself up on the coverlet beside him. And at that moment it seemed to Patrick more than likely this was how he would remember the woman embodying his second chance at happiness. That hubbub of excitement dropping down to a hush as her lift arrived, its doors slowly opening to reveal … only an upset for boom-mike and camera, no glad-handing princess, a cliché on lips. No, but there, momentarily bemused, with full plastic bags beneath the world’s eye and smiling, smiling the smile that showed the gums above her slightly gapped front teeth, there she was, Laura in the flesh, her very self.