Luke Johnson’s stories have been published in HEAT, Going Down Swinging and Island. He is a PhD student at University of Technology, Sydney and has taught creative writing at University of Wollongong. He lives in Mt Keira with his wife and son.
A Near-Death Interruption
So I hanged myself. From the cherrywood bookcase in your study. Where you used a silk cravat and volumes one through to six of The complete works of William Shakespeare, I used a length of rope and three-rung aluminium stepladder. It was not a sexualised thing, mine. That is to say, I was not waxing lyrical with my piece in my hand at the time and there was no pantyhose crotch pulled down to my nostrils or soiled undergarment stuffed into the foyer of my oesophagus. No, it was just a regular morbid suicide attempt, with all of my clothes on and none of anybody else’s. Yours, you old romantic you, was slightly more playful.
Strange word this hanged, before I go any further. Strange both connotatively and syntactically. Connotatively, it insists completion of deed, success of task, it insists death, does it not? But why? I mean, that I persevered where you perished, does this somehow imply I did not hang? Of course I hanged (syntactically the word shows all the deference of a fourteen year old wielding a can of spray-paint). Believe you me I hanged. I felt the lead in my veins rushing to fill my toes, the mercury in my eyeballs swishing side to side like the water inside two precariously-placed fishbowls. Hey, not only did I hang, but I also swung (swing, now there is a teenager who knows how to conjugate respectfully). I swung and hanged as you must have swung and hanged, without rhythm and without breath. Like a starfish. Back and diagonal. Forthways and sideways. A real swinger and hanger, me. A real chip off the old echinodermic block.
After cutting me down, hanged though defiantly alive, they rushed me to A&E, where a white-haired doctor was impatient and cold-handed and an auburn-haired nurse played pretty and flirtatious. Not flirtatious with me so much, I was in no state to reciprocate her winks and pouts anyway, but with the ambulance driver who had brought me in certainly. The two of them waited for the doctor to finish his examination, then together they lifted me off the ambulance gurney and onto another bed with wheels. ‘He must have pissed himself after he passed out,’ the debonair driver whispered intimately while she his silver-time-piece-chested lover took count of my pulse and wiggled her button nose. Oh it was sweet being at the centre of their lovesick innuendos, and I must say, father, the smell of my soiled woollen trousers did not embarrass or cause me any special concern, not after seeing what you did to the back seat of those fishnet stockings, you old dog.
After only a short period of lying around like this mother arrived at the hospital. You remember mother, right?
‘You tried to hang yourself?!’ Part question, part exclamation. As difficult to separate as the Catholicism and Spanishness. If forced I should guess the exclamation portion of it belonged mostly to tried and Spain, and the question portion mostly to Jesus and hang.
‘Is that what they have told you?’ I replied coolly. This, after all, was a public hospital in Taunton, father, and no place for me to be acting all sulky now, not in front of such noble creatures as this nurse and her driver, working on a pittance as I am sure they were. ‘Well, okay, if that is what they have told you then. Did they mention the bit about me pissing myself also?’ I could see the hurt in mother’s eyes and wanted to let the ink run. Oh, the magnificent blueness of it.
‘Is this the kind of boy I have raised?’ she responded quietly, putting her hands to her chest to fondle that cleavage-stricken Christ of hers as she was prone to doing in times of distress, like some clean-necked virgin fending off a house of vampires with nothing but her clever little talisman. ‘The kind who would try such a thing as this? To hang himself? Hang himself!’ With the second hang she turned away from me and tugged down on the Christ with such force its silver chain could only sharpen the briefest line across the back of her neck before snapping clean in half. For a moment I though she might have been weeping. Then she swung back to face me, still clutching in her tight little fist that miniature figure who would not have looked out of place between the letters S and U. ‘Not to mention poor Marcella. Tell me you are not so selfish you would attempt such a thing.’
I was impervious. ‘Must we go on about Marcella?’ I yawned. ‘The woman really should start knocking before entering a room. The sound of a knot tightening around a neck must ring in her ears like some kind of high-pitched dog whistle.’
Mother moved to slap me but stopped herself. ‘You would mock your father like this?’ she scolded beneath her breath. ‘Talking about his accident like some funny joke. In front of any-old person.’
‘Yes, father’s accident.’ I looked past mother and at the nurse, who in turn looked past me and at the driver. She may have even winked to him: code of course, for, How about a handjob in the janitor’s, my love? The two of them left the room hurriedly then and it was just mother and I. Allowing the sarcasm to inflect my voice with its nasally undertones and offbeat emphases, I continued. ‘That accidental morning in accidental August. What an accidental shame it was.’
This time mother’s hand connected well with my cheek, the Christ getting his own piece of the retribution too. ‘That you would even dream.’ The jolt of the slap frightened me only half as much as it frightened her, I think. You must remember, father, this is the woman who used to eroticise me into syrupy slumbers by smearing her own areolas with honey, her little Alberry and custard dumpling—just look at him suck himself to sleep! And now, thirty-seven years on, showing more concern for the fragile disposition of the cleaner than for her own lacteal kin—what heartbreak!
I touched the stung spot with the back of my hand. ‘Yes, poor Marcella and her poor sweet cleaner lady’s life. And poor father too. Poor you and poor me, while I am at it. And rest assured, mother, none of it is true.’ Lies, lies, lies. ‘They have confused me for one of the other boys on the ward. Hang myself? I was only trying to gratify myself sexually. I swear it. It is a Briton’s pastime. I will show you the rope burn on my penis if you do not believe me. A boy like me getting mixed up in a thing like suicide! Even when Laudie left me, even then I did not contemplate putting a noose around my neck for the purpose of killing myself. Not to mention death being the most thorough talent scout there is, mother. If I had shown potential for a thing like suicide, then believe you me, death would have sniffed me out at a very early age, set me up for life, scholarship and all. No this is just a case of pushing the boundaries of perversion too far. The apple and the tree and all that proximity talk. Oh, please do apologise to Marcella for me. What a dreadful mix-up.’
Mother looked at me, studied me. And then she huffed. And then she left the room. And smiling, I went to sleep.
An hour or so later I awakened to find in mother’s place a woman whose makeup promised to outlast her face, whose foundation alone seemed heavy enough to negatively preserve her features for at least another three hundred years, to a time when Western Europe’s frescos will be dissolved into camera-flash oblivion and the gothic clocks of Bavaria cried for like the felled trees of fictitious Amazonia. And in place of my woollen trousers, father, complementing the shift from mother’s moody toddler to psychiatrist’s prized patient quite well, I think, a sort of plastic-legged skirt with these built-in elastic-legged pantaloon thingies.
‘Your admission card says Albert,’ Tutankhamen’s lovechild insisted. I do not remember for how long we had been arguing the point. Though I do recall that at one juncture she even went so far as to show me where the name had been filled in: Albert Dean Childes, silent s and all.
‘It is an error,’ I explained to her.
‘Not according to your mother, Albert.’
‘According to my mother my uncle is the rightful king of Denmark. Who are you going to believe?’
‘Do you think this kind of talk impresses me, Albert?’
‘Hamlet,’ I corrected her. She said nothing. I went on. ‘No, I do not suppose so. Would you be more impressed if I told you the real king of Denmark wore ladies’ stockings and used lipstick in place of Vaseline?’
She stood up and moved her chair slightly closer to me. Or perhaps she did not move it any closer at all, but rather just stood up and sat down again to give the impression of having moved closer. Either way, I found myself near enough to identify each swamped hair follicle now. Her eyelashes looked like they had endured the most recent Exxon disaster. Her upper lip was a Puerto Rican mudslide.
‘I know all about what happened to your father, Albert.’ She seemed to be whispering at me.
‘You like to remind people of their names, don’t you, doctor?’ I deepened my voice, doing my best to match her gravity.
‘Now, I never said I was a doctor, Albert. If you must know I hold an Honours degree from the University of Warwick and a Masters from Somerset.’
I frowned. Felt played. Found myself yearning for mother who wore her heart and diploma on her sleeve.
‘Albert, you are not expected to be unmoved by what happened to your father.’ She put her hand on the bed, next to my shoulder, to assure me some. She seemed to know you so well, father, know all of your moves. What if she had leaned forward next and rubbed her cleanly-shaven chin against my forehead, to kiss me good night? Would I have begun sucking my thumb and wet myself a third time?
‘Unmoved, why of course not,’ I said to her. And to some degree, meant it too. It was after all quite a shock to us, father, to learn of the promiscuous double life you had invented for yourself. When we found you, the tip of your penis was squeezed out through the top end of your fist like a tongue between two pursed lips, and the pearly sequins on the fronts of your stiletto heels shone up at us like droplets of you-know-what. And whatever shade of lipstick that was, smeared around the edges of that makeshift orifice, well, mother has refrained from restocking her supply—from wearing lipstick altogether in fact. The poor woman, since your death her lips have taken the semblance of a pair of mating slugs just doused in salt. You know what else, father? I cannot help but wonder whether the whole scene was not staged for mother’s benefit in the first place, aimed at notifying her of some sexual underperformance on her part. That you went so far as to make a face of your fist. Nothing subtle about that. Tell me I am not on to something.
‘It must have been very distressing. Your mother tells me it was your aunt who discovered him.’
‘It is an affectation,’ I said to the Master of Psychology graduate with her hand upon the mattress beside my left shoulder. ‘Marcella is not really my aunt. Just a cleaner.’
‘She seems to care for you a great deal. She was here earlier while you were sleeping.’
‘Did she try to tip anything in my ear? That is how she did father, you know? She has been with us a very long time, but is completely untrustworthy.’
‘Your mother tells me you were homeschooled, Albert.’
I nodded. Silently. I did not dare speak in fear of divulging information on the chivalrous suicide vow I had made to an already-spoken-for Beatrice during our grade-three reading of La Vita Nova, father. Sure evidence of my long-term psychological state.
Continuing unprompted, ‘Your father was in charge of your education? Or your mother?’
‘My father taught me the humanities and sciences, and my mother the guidelines for a healthy soul. Neither was in charge. A person’s education is his own charge.’ I was churning it out now.
‘And your father was a professor too. At Somerset. I remember him from one of my own classes, would you believe?’
‘Some kind of professor, yes.’
‘A very clever man.’
‘With an ear for trouble.’
‘Hmm,’ she said. Then, ‘I would like permission to speak with your wife, Albert.’
‘My wife is deceased,’ I told my interrogator.
‘That is not what your mother has told me.’
‘My mother was in charge of discipline, if that is what you mean by in charge. Though she was a forgiving disciplinarian. If father sent me to her for corporal punishment, then she would close the door and beat on a cushion and I would moan in time with each stroke. She stopped smearing honey on her teats when I was two.’
‘We are talking about your wife now, Albert.’
‘Is it important?’
‘Yes, poor Laudie,’ I said. ‘She drowned in a terrible house fire, you know. It makes me too sad to mention. Sorry I cannot be of more help. I have long suspected her brother of foul play. A chap with washboard abdominals.’
She gave me a stern smile. Her nose might have fallen to ruins along with a swag of other famous decayed noses, led of course by the Sphinx (the answer is man! I thought to yell). ‘Okay, Albert, I will visit you again later this evening. We must talk seriously before I can allow you to leave. It is necessary for my report. You see me carrying my reports, don’t you?’
‘I see nothing I am not supposed to see.’
But that was not entirely true either, father. From my bed beside the window I could see the advertisement for the cheap carpet warehouse pasted on the back of the bus shelter down below. Some stand-in with a cartoonish face who had been paid to put on a pair of tights and pose himself in a manner befitting the tagline To carpet or not to carpet? That is the question. You will agree, father, it is a disgrace the way they exploit the classics like that.