‘The real life is led in silence —all the things that lead you away from the silence are not so lovely. But those things from outside led you here. That is the gift of balance. What follows and, perhaps, hardest of all, is an acceptance of that silence. This comes later. After you’ve banged your brains about with strong ales and abused the bishop in your sleep.’ Abbot Terence Legrange (1565- 1603)
I was admitted to hospital last Wednesday with a serious viral infection that needs intravenous treatment five times a day. The spare bed is in the isolation unit on the HIV ward, as the nurse said: ‘there’s a lot of money in HIV.’ The ward is pristine, a conservatory filled with aloes and a piano where a man jabs with one arm at a Chopin score (the other is attached by the cannula in his arm to a drip). The chef is paid for by Elton John. I want to rush out and buy his CDs to boost his royalties. The staff are intelligent, inquisitive and compassionate. They have become good friends in the quick way that illness allows. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye.
I’m in isolation and this room fulfils all my anchorite fantasies: a balcony with a stretch of blue- lilac sky, Canada geese flying low over satellite dishes and chimneys, a view of Georgian houses and wild spiky plants more at home in the silver light of the Sierra Nevada than West London. A Nepalese woman brings me a cup of tea and bacon sandwich every morning. I’ve even got an en-suite bathroom with my very own penthouse apartment, a slice of London real estate. I love the NHS. I’m so pleased to pay my taxes! What could contaminate this idyll and the opportunity to write without distraction— the door is alarmed because of the dangers of infection so there’s no sloping off – the man next door is what’s stopping me.
I am full of petty hatreds, people who I perceive have done for me, cyber-cunts, fellow writers grinning from their book jackets and now this hatred is focused on my neighbour. All life’s little loose ends from the big book of negatives coalesce around a single hate figure. The figure changes, he or she is a wax doll or just a man next door doing what he always does, stopping you in your tracks. That man next door might even be you, often is when you are your own distraction, but here he’s real.
The man is also in isolation separated by a membrane thin wall. He’s being treated for tuberculosis and roars like a bullock, shouts for endless cups of tea. He’s out of control. Variously described as ‘socially disadvantaged’, ‘disabled,’ ‘with a very low intelligence’ … ‘a user’…’an ex-celebrity…’ I want to know how disabled he really is, will that teach me to hate him less. Is it a mobility issue? Is his mind impaired? The Jesus in me (and now with bare chest and greased body and full black beard I’m looking more and more biblical) wants to give up on hate and reduce psychic disturbance with a simple click of the thermostat to a manageable hum.
But I can’t stop. The telly is blasting away all day and night, attempts to get him to turn it down are met with stupid counter arguments that end in exasperation. ‘What are you going to do for me? How will that help me? I don’t want you to say sorry I want you to do it right… let me leave it on until 1.30am…’ There’s no sense we’re here to recover, our bodies repairing ourselves magically at night. Sleep is essential but being denied me.
I’ve banged on the walls, stuffed toilet paper in my ears but neither of us are allowed out of our rooms. My objections are snobby. Why can’t he watch the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing Brahms or a nice perplexing art house movie like Last Year at Marienbad with quiet dialogue and mysterious strings. No, he’s addicted to Ice Road Truckers, endless shows where tyres screech round bends in the road, where audience laughter which happens at five second intervals (drip fed like his meds) explodes like tyre screeches. I even mistake the beep of his drip for a game show buzzer.
What I try and understand is why he craves such noise. Why has he rejected silence? Cop shows, pistol shots, car chases, reality roars of hungry, hyped-up crowds. An unhappy childhood, abused by his uncle, knocked off his wheelchair by sadistic ex-coppers. There is a reason why he doesn’t want to be alone with himself, a fear of inhabiting his own head, terrified of looking under the stairs. But that still doesn’t make me love him.
I see him as a manipulator, exploiting staff good will. The bright Filipino who calls outside the door ‘dinner’ was told to ‘FUCK OFF…’ followed by a bad-tempered fart that set my drip shaking. He drops things on the floor, rolls marbles at night, can only sleep to the televised sounds of really big trucks puffing up hill.
I lie in bed and practice mindfulness. Try and listen to the blood in my body, feel the softness of the pillow, remember how I have been an unruly neighbour, a pregnant woman once telling me that my guitar playing was going to cause a miscarriage. I try and understand this capacity for hate, this guy who’s had a hard time and now like me has fallen on his feet. Room service. Proper meals. Telly all day and night. And I know he has nowhere to go. He wants to stay here and have milk in his porridge every morning and share his custard creams and Black Forest Gateau with his family who show up at meal times. Like me he is happily institutionalised. All it has taken is five days in soft green pyjamas to measure the dimensions of this cell, to appreciate the limits of the lino floor and the alarmed door.
Illness plucks you out of the current of life, gives you a moment, an aside where you can see clearly just how pointless so much of life is. The real life is happening in the hedgerow, beside the motorway traffic, but cars rush on and soon you will too. Modern life rejects stillness, is frightened of absorption in anything other than the thin spider-thread of day to day reality: the bus ride to work, the meal in the evening, too tired to speak, too deadened to turn off the telly. I can see why the man next door shuts it out. I do too.
I have a vision of myself, this new loving being, a bird with iridescent wings pecking at my ribcage bursts from my chest and settles in the branches of a London plane tree to dry its dripping feathers. I will sing outside his window, blending his favourite TV themes with something ethereal. I will turn his face to the silence. But then my ex-wife gets wind of what’s going on and calls, ‘Hey Golly…still excitable…I’m sending my husband in with a new herbal cream. He absolutely swears by it… a little patch of eczema on the back of his head…one application… all gone.’ I hang on to the vision.