Sunday, 22 November 2009
Exercises on Free Writing
A cliché had finally become reality. Ever since he had shaken off the last ounce of dependence on his parents, Dunny’s tardiness had acquired a certain notoriety. There was, for example, the time when he went for a job interview at Matthew & Matthews, the legal firm where he would eventually work until the end of his days. However, the fact that his chances of being employed at the company were almost blown by Dunny himself before getting a second lease of life, goes to prove how lucky he was. Having arrived at his appointment so late that one of the directors mistook him for one of the candidates for the cleaning job, Dunny blurted out all kinds of excuses, blaming everything and everyone. The executive took his CV, shook his hand and sent him home. Little did Dunny know that his resumé would sleep at the bottom of a dozen more.
But as mentioned before, luck was on his side. Little by little the other twelve applicants became unavailable to take up the post. There was the man who liked underwater fishing and was killed by a stingray. There was another one who worked at the Treasury and was followed home by a self-employed aerobics tutor not happy with his tax return. The civil servant ended up in hospital in a coma. A third candidate was badly hurt in a brawl at an Italian restaurant when he tried to claim back the thirty pounds he had paid for a ‘tasteless meal with a service usually found in a Third World country’. In vain he pleaded with the maître d’ that it was the last meal he was having with his son before the latter went abroad to study. He was still beaten up to within an inch of his life by the irate headwaiter.
That was how Dunny got the job that would many years thence make him a partner at Matthew & Matthews and he proved to be such a valuable asset to the company that his schedule was arranged around his time-keeping habits.
And now he was late for his own funeral.
As soon as he entered the room he saw Peter and Paul discussing football as usual. They could not even stop talking about the subject at his own wake! Dunny was sure that Paul was taunting Peter with the success garnered by the team he had supported since he was a small lad, Manchester United. Whereas Peter would probably reply that Arsenal’s young Gunners were the future of British football. Like two handsome, mature deer locking horns during the rutting moon, neither would cede ground. As soon as they saw Dunny, they both looked at their watches, waved at him with serious faces and fell back into their debate straight away.
Unable to touch people and to be touched by them, Dunny mingled with the mourners. It was an odd mix of well-wishing (‘I hope ”the other side” treats you better!’), hidden sarcasm (‘so, will you be in charge of legal affairs “over there”?’) and concern (‘they killed you, man, in the end, they killed you, too much work’). But above all, there were people, many people here, whom Dunny had not seen for several years, even decades.
Penelope was sitting quietly in a corner of the funeral parlour, having a glass of wine. She looked nervously at everyone and everything. Her eyes would take a quick tour of the room, only to rest for several minutes on an inanimate object: a window, a chair, the wooden box.
Penelope had been Dunny’s first love. Intrigued as to what had brought her here he approached her.
‘Hi, Pen, long time, no see.’
‘Oh, Dunny, sorry, I’m so sorry!' Her sobs had attracted the attention of other well-wishers.’
‘Sorry about what? For what?’ His bushy eyebrows arched pronouncedly.
‘I don’t know, I guess that… oh… I don’t know… I don’t think I ever loved anyone the same way I loved you. And I never told you.’
‘Well, it’s a bit late now, isn’t it?’
Penelope looked in Dunny’s eyes. ‘Yes, I know it’s late. Maybe it sounds too cheesy, but I wish I could go with you.’
‘But Pen, our relationship was so long ago, we were in our teens, I died at 64. What happened in the meantime?’
‘Crap. That’s what happened. I just bounced from one lousy relationship to another. The cycle never stopped. As soon as I heard you’d died, I wasted no time. I just… I just did not want you leaving without knowing that… that… there are some people you leave behind who love you.’
‘Thanks, Pen’. Dunny turned around and proceed to the other end of the room wherefrom he could see the hundreds who had gathered to mourn his passing.
His sons stood out amidst the congregation. They had taken after his cockiness, his self-assurance and his nous for business. The elder had his own insurance company whilst his brother was a private contractor in charge of one of the government's flagship academies. Dunny scanned the parlour looking for his widow. The view that greeted him on spotting her froze whatever warmth there was left in his dead body. Denise was talking to Dunny's best friend, Simon. They were sitting close together, maybe too close. Something was up. Dunny walked to the other end of the room. A dark cloud passed over his face wiping out the smile that had adorned it a moment before. As he walked he felt the full weight of his lifeless body on his weak knees. Denise seemed to be whispering something in Simon's ear to which the latter replied with an embarrasing giggle whilst looking at the watch on her right hand. They both looked like two adolescents against the backdrop of the autumnal sun rays streaming through the window.
Then Dunny looked down at his widow and his best friend's hands. Simon was gently squeezing Denise's fingers whilst his right hand cupped her left one. 'No, fuck, no, no, no', muttered Dunny under his breath. He quickened his steps towards the couple. They had not caught sight of him yet. His arrival took them by surprise and they both lowered their heads in unison as if they had choreographed the movement.
'Dunny, mate... I'm sorry that you had to find out this way' Simon was the first to speak.
'What do you mean you're sorry? What the fuck do you mean? You... you are... you were my best friend. How the fuck could you?'
'Don't blame Simon, Dunny. I don't think you could lay the blame on just the one person' Denise's voice sounded calm and assuring. 'Sometimes there are situations and circumstances you just can't predict'.
'How long have you two...?'
'Since before Jack was born'. It was Denise again who had rushed to answer the question.
'Does that mean that Jack...?' Dunny's voice notched up a couple of decibels.
'Both John and Jack are your children, Dunny, if that's what you're wondering. I did not got to Simon for semen, I went to him for emotional support, the kind you were so reluctant to give me. If you're interested, our relationship did not start as a fancy fling, a shag in the middle of some bushes. After I had that second miscarriage I was broken. Inside, I was broken. And what was your response? A pat on the head and a peck on the cheek. Like a dog, Dunny. Like a fucking dog. Simon stepped in involuntarily. And you know what? He has the utmost respect for you...'
'Oh, really, by screwing my wife! My widow, rather.' Dunny began to move his arms frantically and his face became a slideshow where the rictus of anguish and despair played a macabre dance, the horror of which was too much for Simon to watch.
'Sorry, Dunny, I will leave you alone with Denise. I guess that it's better if she explains it all.' Simon dashed off across the room to where his estranged soon-to-be-ex-wife, Letitia, stood.
'Simon rejected me flat out the first time I tried to kiss him.' resumed Denise as soon as the two of them were alone. 'We both realised that I was feeling very delicate and maybe my actions were a consequence of that second successive miscarriage.'
'So, what happened? Did he change his mind and started to chase you?'
'No, I did the chasing. And it was not hard. He had his own problems at home. Letitia was reprimanding him for not wanting to be more of a career man as you were, for not pursuing loftier ambitions. Sometimes Simon and I thought we had married the wrong partner.'
'Denise, but... why did you not tell me? Why did you not talk to me?'
'Oh, Dunny! How many times did I try? Only to be told that "Do you imagine how much work I've got on?", or "If you want to push ahead and become a partner, you won't do it by sitting on your fat ass, you have to be there, you have to be the first one". I gave up.'
'Did you do it at home? Where...? When...?'
'Is that all that matters to you now? Where I fucked Simon? Oh, for God's sake! Men! All you bloody care about is whether he stuck his dick inside me in our marital bed or not. For the record, we never had sex in our house, Dunny! No, we used motels, B&Bs, you name it. But, no, I did not shag your best mate in our bed.' All of a sudden Denise's tears came down in a torrent. 'You were so good with the kids when you were there, but you weren't there very often! And that was the problem! You were not there, Dunny! You were always home late because you were always working until late! You're even late for your own funeral!'
Dunny walked away briskly. He felt as if he was in a nightmare, as if his death was not real. Yet it was real. The heart attack had been real, his rehabilitation, recovery and surprising demise had been real. Locking himself in the toilet he took a long look at himself in the mirror. His dark skin was becoming ashen. His erstwhile strong complexion was already losing its muscular definition. The years of toiling at Matthew & Matthews, followed by a strict exercise regime at the firm's gym and a twice-weekly visit to the exclusive club's sauna had not been enough to save him from what would later become human decomposition. When he came out of the restroom he saw Denise still sitting on the windowsill, her red hair competing amicably with the dying embers of the evening sun. It was clear to Dunny now that the affection between her and Simon had been there for much longer than the actual affair, probably when they first met. Could he have seen it coming? Were there any signs he had missed?
It was Beth, the nurse who had looked after him at the cardio unit whilst he was recovering.
'Beth, hi, how are you?'
'Dunny, I've come to apologise.'
'Apologise for what? You were excellent. Without you I would have died sooner.'
'Dunny, there are things you don't know. That's why I've come to apologise.'
'What do you mean, Beth? What things?'
'The PFI, Dunny...'
'Sorry, you lost me, Beth. The PFI, what's that?'
'Dunny, you didn't need to die. But the company contracted to deliver your cardiac rehabilitation programme pulled out due to a dispute over payment. You and others were literally left to your own devices.'
The frown on Dunny's face became a grimace. 'Was that why suddenly Susan, the doctor, stopped coming?'
Beth nodded silently.
'Was that why I was moved to another ward?'
Beth looked away, her eyes quietly filling up with tears. When she spoke again, the words came out like the lava of a hot, raging volcano underscored by her thick Dublin accent.
'Dunny, I have been a nurse for more than thirty years, but I have never seen the level of incompetence I am seeing now. Susan was part of the downsizing strategy carried out by our contractor. When we raised the matter with them, their response was that they had to operate on a market-oriented action plan. We became a factory, with set targets. When we mentioned the number of patients who would suffer as a result, they asked us to provide numbers. There were probably two dozen people in your ward. That was not their concern, they replied. An occupied bed was not a profitable bed. That was their healthcare strategy: quick in, quick out.'
'Money, Dunny, dirty money. Budgetary shortfalls must be met with a reduction of ten percent of the NHS workforce. That's the message from the management consultants the government employs to conduct their little researches.
'What did Susan say?
'I didn't see her when she left. But I'm sure she was as pissed off as I was. Am.
Dunny made his way to his coffin. Two lines of well-wishers had opened up ranks and were filing on either side of the carpet leading him to his final resting place. 'I didn't need to die, I didn't need to die.' The repetition of these words could not masquerade the deep feeling of regret at not having lived his life differently.
'You were great, Dad!'. John's voice caressed Dunny's shoulders. 'But still, I could never beat you at rugby'.
'Thanks for teaching me how to play chess, Dad'. Jack's low whisper, combined with his short golden curls made Dunny's eyes moist with paternal pride.
Simon's grey ponytail swung from side to side, his face was a mosaic of expressions.
'Take good care of Denise, Simon'. His friend opened his mouth as if to reply, but on second thoughts he just assented mutely.
At the end of one of the lines was Dunny's widow. He looked in her eyes and she in his. No words were exchanged. No words were necessary now.
Dunny climbed the set of steps that led him to his final domicile. Slowly, he crawled into the wooden box and crossed his arms over his chest. His last thought before closing his eyes was: 'Always late in life, but never too early to die'.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 24th November at 11:59pm (GMT)