Mort à crédit
“Maybe I’d never see him again… maybe he’d gone for good… swallowed up, body and soul, in the kind of stories you hear about… Ah, it’s an awful thing… and being young doesn’t help any… when you notice for the first time… the way you lose people as you go along … the buddies you’ll never see again… never again… when you notice that they’ve disappeared like dreams… that it’s all over… finished… that you too will get lost someday… a long way off but inevitably… in the awful torrent of things and people… of the days and shapes… that pass… that never stop…”
— Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Mort à crédit)
About two years ago, I allowed the Dark Side to over-rule my normally sunny disposition. A neighbor of ours (let’s call him T.) succeeded in provoking me into an act of overt physical hostility. Now, I’ll admit that I was, in my younger days, far too quick to resort to the expedient of physical confrontation. With age came a measure of wisdom (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and the understanding that, on the whole, violence is an admission of failure. I mellowed with age, parenthood and responsibility.
This T. was almost a caricature of the City wide-boy: the braying voice, the flash car, the expensive clothes in execrable taste, the laughably big and complicated gold watch that was reliable at 1000 meters underwater (query: if you find yourself 1000 meters underwater, is your first question going to be ‘I wonder what time it is?’ Let me give you a hint: are you familiar with the Death March from Handel’s Saul?). Obviously, I detested the man on principle. I’m a bit of a snob and he was a vulgarian.
What brought things to a head was T.’s driving. He was in the habit of speeding down our quiet street at well over the limit, with his dire music blasting, oblivious to children, cats, women with prams etc. I muttered darkly but under my wife’s stern eye, I didn’t act. Until one day, when I happened to be leaving the house and saw him screech to a halt, only just missing an elderly lady struggling across the road with her shopping. Even then, he might have avoided meeting me had he not had the unspeakable effrontery to blow his horn at the old dear. I snapped.
I stormed over to his car, dragged him out of it by his shirt-front and made it very plain that if I ever again saw him driving down our street at any speed greater than walking pace, he would bitterly regret it. My language was rather more intemperate and colourful than that.
Thereafter, he drove down our street as if on eggshells. Neighbours who had witnessed the event congratulated me and obviously spread the word. In our local pub, people came up to me and patted me on the back, etc.
I subsequently put the whole thing out of my mind until a week or so ago. I hadn’t seen T. about for some months and assumed he’d moved. Walking down our street last week, I saw a man approaching me. I say ‘man’ but it was someone so deathly ill, so wasted, hairless and skeletal as to have become androgynous. Looking without seeming to look, I noted marks to the face and neck that had the characteristic look of radiation burns. One eye was clearly dead–swollen and mishapen and pointing in entirely the wrong direction. This apparition shuffled slowly towards me on a pair of aluminium crutches, pausing every few steps to catch breath.
As I passed, the person gave me a hesitant nod and smile, to which I responded out of politeness. I had never, to the best of my knowledge, seen this person before. Of course, you’ve already guessed the dénouement .
Popping into my local pub for a drink that evening, I got to chatting with a neighbour who said, “Have you seen T. around? Poor bastard was in the hospital these last 4-5 months. Went in with a bad ear-ache that turned out to be an aggressive tumour. They did all they could for the poor sod and now they’ve sent him home to die.”
The odd thing is, I felt a powerful twinge of guilt or shame; I’m not sure which and I don’t know why. I’m not responsible for the man’s illness and I certainly never wished it on him. So why feel guilty? Do I imagine if I’d not treated him so harshly on that one occasion, he might not have become ill? Absurd. But there it is.
As my neighbour put it in the pub: ” Just goes to show you, though. One minute you’re stepping high, wide and handsome; the next minute, Lady Luck kicks you in the bollocks. That’s life, innit?”
Indeed it is. Let’s have poems on the great What: Death. Sonnets, I think.