THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th. If you would like to read my new comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

When, after our thirty-year marriage, Joanie died of secondary cancer at the tail end of 2009, once the busy funeral was over, and all the many mourners had come and gone, I realised there was something very simple I wanted people to ask of me, but oddly no one, not a single soul, ever did. It was something remarkably basic and obvious, that I would have wished my friends and colleagues to say, nothing remotely sophisticated, something so natural, not to say short and sweet, I couldn’t imagine why no one said it, but indeed nobody ever did, neither at the time nor for months after until something obliged at least one of them to stop in their tracks and almost do so.

I was living alone in a bloody big house that was stuck out in the country, and which inevitably made things worse. My daughter Sarah was away at university, and of course I didn’t expect her to ask me that question, as she was grieving herself in her own particular way, and it was not appropriate for her to put to me, what my friends and workmates, most of whom were at least twice her age, I believed should be putting. My situation reminded me vividly of that of my Dad when my mother had died back in 1990. He also lived in a bloody big house, and she also had died of cancer, though in her case and unlike Joanie she had sat like some obstinate broody hen on the appalling symptoms, kept it all a close secret, and had not consulted the doctor for an incredible, and of course very hazardous, eighteen months. It is a tired cliché but my Dad really was lost without my mother, because his social life had come exclusively through her, as she was the last word in gregariousness and hospitality, whereas he was very shy and naturally reclusive. Once she died everyone apart from me, my brothers and one of his sister in laws, stopped coming to the big old mansion in that grimy village down west, and manifestly he did nothing to encourage any visitors. He didn’t drive but could have taken a bus or even a train easily enough to see old acquaintances, but instead he stayed at home and pushed the time in as best he could. He read the paper, he read his library books, he watched TV, he endured the occasional visits of one or two old villagers, but if they too were widowed or otherwise abandoned he felt no ameliorative kinship. He told me that one unfortunate old man whose wife was severely demented and agonisingly didn’t know him from Adam, bored him to death, and he made a point of offering him neither tea nor coffee in case he opted to extend his visit. The result was that my father was thoroughly bored with his long and empty days, that he frequently went to bed at 7.30, the time a six- year-old child might have, and that every night he firmly bolted the door fast against the uncomprehending and increasingly unappetising world.

It was only a few days after my mother’s death that I visited him with one-year-old Sarah and it occurred to me at once to ask him the simple question that twenty years later I would want people to ask of me. So I put to him my obvious query and he looked at me a little startled and then his eyes filled up and his voice broke for the first time in many years and very huskily he answered:

“Of course, I do! Of course, I do. What else could I do?”

He was dead some two years later aged seventy-six of a rapid stomach cancer which indeed might have been seen to be looming on the horizon. It was all too explicable given his incredible and unhealthy widower’s diet. The first thing he had done after his wife’s death was to empty her copiously equipped kitchen of all but one breakfast bowl, one tea plate which would also accommodate his dinner, one set of cutlery, and a single small saucepan. His sister in law Josie who drove through every Friday night, brought him half a dozen meat pies she had baked herself, and he ate half a one of these that he had heated in the oven every lunchtime and every evening, employing the cooker rings only to warm up some baked beans or tinned peas. And that was it. Twice a day for all of two years he had pie and beans or pie and peas, and nothing else aside from his breakfast cereal.

As for my workmates, or better say professional colleagues, though in a different social and intellectual strata from my factory worker father, they were just as extreme in their omissions. This was my third year of working in a European Literature university department, though I was not employed by the university but by a private charity, and my job was to teach the students how to structure and write their essays, theses, reports and doctorates. If you included the secretaries and administrators, there were about thirty colleagues in all, and when I went back after Joanie’s death, I expected most of them sooner or later to say something, however perfunctory, about the fact I had lost my wife. Note carefully that I am not talking about them putting the urgent question that I really wanted them to put, but just to acknowledge the fact that after thirty years, no small time lapse, I no longer possessed a wife. I should likewise emphasise there was no way in which they could have been in ignorance about it, as the department secretary I shared had sent a memo round about their colleague’s bereavement. And yet as the days and then the weeks went by, only two out of thirty went so far as to acknowledge my loss. One man, bustling energetic Danny Ross, was a lecturer I had first met elsewhere, who also had a wife and the one daughter, and he sent me a delicate and calligraphic sympathy card with a single violet on the front, and I immediately filled up as I read it very slowly. The other was the big surprise, for handsome, sharp-featured Margo De Lisle was the most flagrantly anti-social of the teaching staff, a German lecturer who was an expert on Theodor Fontane, who customarily walked around with her head down and didn’t bother with the usual niceties of casual greetings. Instead today she knocked barely audibly on my door, shuffled in, looked me shyly in the eye, and said she was really sorry to hear of Joanie’s death. I smiled and thanked her and made us both a coffee and told her that only she and Danny, who ironically taught the affectless existentialists Camus and Sartre, had offered their condolences, and no one else had spoken a word.

She looked moderately shocked. “That is certainly altogether strange.”

Of her own initiative, she mentioned the omission to a gentle and amiable man called Roy Stenhouse who taught Lorca and Fernando Pessoa. Roy had always stopped to chat to me whenever we passed in the corridor, and he now went so far as to send me an email saying that he hadn’t mentioned my bereavement in case it upset me, and he also presumed that was the case with the other colleagues who it seemed had also tactfully said nothing. Reflecting that his office was twenty yards away and he could have come and told me his explanation in person, I pondered a while then emailed back to say that I had guessed that might be the reason for all the silence. The trouble was that I wasn’t a mind reader, and like everyone else bereaved you don’t know whether the silence is because people wish to protect you, or to protect themselves, or a feasible mixture of both, or because never having met your wife they don’t, perhaps forgivably, care quite enough, or because they never read the memo, or because they have toothache. I didn’t put in the email that if I had been living in rural Ireland everyone would have come up and shaken my hand, and said with real sincerity, I am sorry for your loss, or if I had lived anywhere at all in Greece they would have solemnly approached, kissed me on both cheeks, shaken my hands and not been surprised if I had shown some open grief. Nor did I add that all these twenty odd lecturers and readers and profs were celebrated specialists in foreign literature, whose trademark, whose very essence, from Dostoievsky to Colette and Grazia Deledda and back again, was deep feeling, deep passion, love, loss, life, death and yes Death again, and that was where I and Roy Stenhouse and the other twenty odd academic mutes came into the baffling picture again.

Then a breakthrough, a timely intervention, a deus ex machina, an example of that ineffable albeit transcendent duo Time and Chance being quietly at work, as they always are, even if we are not aware of it. One night in March I was fishing through my old video cassettes (ironically Roy Stenhouse was the only other person I knew who still played his video cassettes) when I chanced upon Stanno Tutti Bene, starring handsome Marcello Mastroianni as Matteo in one of the last films he ever made, only two years before his death. The title means Everybody Is Fine which is a gross thematic misrepresentation, as old Matteo who lives in Sicily discovers, when of necessity he goes to visit his five grown kids on the mainland, seeing that they never come to visit him, and are always full of lame excuses. It turns out they never visit as they have been lying about their posh jobs and happy marriages, for one has lost his professorship, another is no longer a classical musician, yet another with an absentee husband has hidden the fact that she works as a lingerie model and sometimes has to leave her infant unattended and gaping uncomprehendingly at blaring daytime television. The point is that on his way to the mainland by train, and before he makes these infinitely bleak discoveries, Matteo is so excited about seeing his wonderfully successful kids, he is bursting to tell his fellow passengers about them. However, he has a problem that was exactly my own problem, for amiable as old Matteo looks, with his thick lenses and puffin-like gaze, no one thinks to ask him anything at all, so that with a lateral Zenlike inspiration that took my breath away guileful Matteo simply orders them to ask him what he wanted to be asked.

Ask me what Tosca does in Milan! Go on! Ask me!  Ask me how much Canio, Alvaro and Guglielmo make in their jobs in Turin and Florence, twice as much as I ever did I can assure you! And Norma’s husband, what does he do for an easy living, ask me that, and how much does he pocket in his cushy post? Go on! Ask me!

His fellow travellers are naturally touched by the earnest and excited old man, and his unfettered pride in his legendary children, and they duly put to him the questions he has ordered them to put. At once I decided I would take a leaf out of wily Matteo’s book, and do that tomorrow myself, with the one and only question I had wanted to be asked ever since Joanie had died. And while I was at it, I would go to the very top of the tree, and put my demand to the Head of Department, an affable if markedly staid Zola specialist called Professor Rex Entwhistle. He was the boss of the European Literature department, but not my boss of course, as I worked for a charity and was thus to a certain extent an independent and autonomous appendage, a detached and thereby arguably inviolable professional, because in plain and unambiguous terms Rex Entwhistle was not my line manager and therefore I was not answerable to him…

He however would be answerable to me. I caught him the next day bustling his way through the deserted corridor, and he looked at me a little uneasily now that I was a widower, and would have gone on with no more than a nod had I not indicated I wished to parley. With his fluffy stuck up hair and blameless knitted sweater, Rex exuded a very boyish aura, as if he was at fifty only a larger version of what he had been at ten. He was one of the sunniest and most compliant men I had ever met, and it amazed me that he was a devoted fan of Emile Zola who as everyone knows, must be one of the rawest, shocking and most challenging authors in all of world literature. Perhaps it was all to do with embracing your opposites, for I couldn’t really imagine Rex Entwhistle making himself a martyr over some English equivalent of Dreyfus, then fleeing to France to escape the long arm of the outraged English law.

I didn’t waste any time, but got down to business. I said briskly, “Rex, I need to ask you a favour.”

He beamed uncertainly. “No problem. Whatever I can do for you.”

“I want you to ask me a question, Rex!”

He blinked and started. “Eh? You wan-”

“Yes, I want you to ask me a specific question!”

He beamed once more, though only at half voltage. “Surely you mean that you want to ask me a question.  What you just said, doesn’t really make sense.”

I snorted in a markedly superior tone. “Yes it does, believe you me! You see, it’s a very specific question I would very much like all my of friends and my colleagues to ask. But sad to say, and it’s driving me mad, none of them ever do.”

He stared at me then moderately frightened, as if I might just be about to colourfully and embarrassingly go to pieces. Which might have been why he promptly decided to dodge things with a spurious levity.

“You must mean a kind of riddle or joke? Hah. That’s it, isn’t it? This is your particular way of telling a gag!”

I snorted yet again. “There’s a gag involved OK, but not the type you mean. No, you see it’s to do with my wife Joanie dying, as she did, of cancer after being a full ten years in remission, just three months ago. We really thought she was fully in the clear, we were very happy together for all of thirty years, and ever since she died I’ve wanted all my friends and colleagues to ask me just one very simple question. Well actually no, that’s a lie, Rex, it elaborates into maybe two or three related but very simple questions. But as I say, no bugger ever asks these truly naïve and childlike questions, and so, as far as I can see, the only way I can get them to ask them, is by ordering them to do so!”

Rex went pale. Then in a vain and rather ugly struggle, he became irritated. “You cannot order people to ask you specific things! That’s altogether crazy, surely.”

I stared at him persuasively. “Not if it drives you crazy, when they don’t ask you!  And in any case, being ordered to ask something, isn’t always a sign of craziness on the part of someone making the request. Consider something obvious and undeniable. You like me are an affectionate Dad, aren’t you, Rex? When your kids were little, surely they would often dress up as a king or queen or a wizard or a witch, and say to you, Dad, ask me what it is I’m supposed to be!”

Rex was palpably twitching at that. “But dammit, man, you’re not a little kid!”

I snorted for the third time. “I bloody well am in this case! Grief is a great leveller. It works in transcendent, meaning atemporal terms, which is why so many folk are running scared of it. So for present purposes, Rex, and as far as you’re concerned, I am like a child, albeit aged fifty-nine. So here we go, Prof Entwhistle. Get ready…”

He snapped at me in what looked like terror, “No! No, I bloody won’t!”

I frowned and swiftly blocked his path, and shouted, “Ask me exactly what it’s like for me now that my lovely wife has died. Go on! Fucking ask me, Rex!

“No! Will I hell as like!”

Ask me, you useless bastard! Ask me exactly what it’s like on the inside now that she’s gone for ever, after all of thirty bloody years. Ask me what it feels like from within, day to day, and day after fucking day. “I then paused surprisingly businesslike as he stared at me in his frozen owl-like trance.”Just think about it for a moment, Rex. You spend your days meditating on the troubling and incendiary emotions that the genius Emile Zola evokes in his millions of readers. So why can’t you take two minutes to meditate on mine?”

He gulped. “No! Like hell! You’re behaving as if you’re bloody mad! No, I won’t. It is not in my remit.”

“Eh, Rex? Your remit? Your remit, Rex! But your hero Emile Zola would have had no trouble in asking me! If he’d been here today in this university corridor in 2010, I promise you he’d have been the first to ask the question, and without even needing to be asked.”

Rex cleared his throat with evident great relief and pointed out the significant contextual problem.

“But I’m not Emile Zola! Am I? I mean-”

At that I was seized by what seemed a timely and truly therapeutic laughing fit, and I could even imagine Joanie laughing her lovely head off with me. I looked wonderingly, in real bafflement, at Rex in his chunky cable knit sweater, and with his out of date phone poking out his back pocket, and his country curate style face, like that of a genial adolescent who is still the blameless favourite of his prudish old aunts and his bluff old uncles. Then I smiled and swiftly unblocked his path, and watched him hurry off as if he had some tiger in pursuit. At last, I shouted:

“You’re so right there, old pal. I mean you’re so right, Professor Entwhistle. I promise you that Zola would never have asked you anything at all, whether prompted by you, or by the movements of the stars.”

 

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One thought on “THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

  1. The question no one dares to ask. Great piece John. wish I had been more perceptive of Dad’s situation; no doubt working round the clock and bound up in one’s own activities…. Keith xxxx

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