- Helen Dunmore - Orange Prize winner - Short stories - Writ in Water
Helen Dunmore
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Writ in Water
 

They make him a plaster saint of poetry, with his eyes turned up to heaven. But it wasn't like that.

Winter. Rome at last. The terrible voyage from England was done. We'd found lodgings and a doctor. All he had to do was to get well.

By day the noise of the fountain was almost hidden. There were women selling chickens and fresh milk, children playing, pails clattering, the creak of wheels and the clop of horses' hooves. We used to count the different sounds, and he always won. But at night the fountain played clearly. Bernini's fountain, with its fantastic coils of marble and gushing water.
"Our Roman water is pure, not like the filthy water in Napoli," said our landlady, with a toss of her head. Signora Angeletti was slippery with the truth, but she was right about the water. I made sure there was always a full pitcher by his bed. Fever made him thirsty.

They've burned everything in our lodgings. The table we ate off, the bed he lay in. Even the shutters that I swung open at dawn so that he could gaze down the steps to the piazza and the life of a new day. They stripped our rooms. It's the law here. The Roman authorities are terrified of consumption.
"Please move aside, Signor Severn. We have our duty to perform." But the ceiling remains, the one he lay under. They couldn't take away those flowers he gazed at every day until he died. Sometimes he thought he was already in his grave, with flowers growing over him. He dreamed of water bubbling out of the earth, and violets in damp, sweet grass. "You should be painting, Severn. Why are you not painting?" When we first came, when he was strong enough, he would sit in the winter sun and watch the artists in the piazza. "You have more talent than any of them, Severn."

I still have this little sketch of him: see. There were others but they've been lost. Maybe someone has taken them, I don't know.

When you draw something, you never forget it. It was night, and there was one candle burning. That was enough light to draw by. It was a still, mild night, even though it was only February. But Spring comes early in Rome. It was the last night of his life.

The flame of the candle barely moved. The fountain was loud. He was asleep, cast up on the pillow like a shipwrecked man. His hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat.

I shall never forget that night. He'd tried to prepare me. Warn me. "Have you ever seen anyone die, Severn? I have. I nursed my brother Tom."

Sometimes, after a fit of coughing, he would lie so still that I thought he was already dead.

"I must warn you, Severn, if you persist in nursing me you'll see nothing of Rome but a sickbed and a sick man. Believe me, it's better to give me the laudanum." There was a full bottle of laudanum. I gave it to him drop by drop, as Doctor Clarke ordered. "Give me all of it, Severn. You don't understand what it is to die as I am going to die." But how could I allow him to destroy his immortal soul? I did not trust myself. I gave the laudanum to Dr Clarke, for fear I'd weaken.

He asked me to go the cemetery. He wanted me to describe the place where he was to lie. I told him about the goats cropping the grass, the young shepherd guarding his flock, the daisies and violets that grew so thickly over the graves. "It's very quiet," I told him. "You can hear the breeze blowing through the grass. There's a pyramid which marks an ancient tomb." He lay back and closed his eyes. After a while he asked me whose tomb it was. "I enquired," I told him. "His name was Caius Cestius, and he was a great man of the first century." "A great man ... A very rich man at least, my dear Severn, if he had a pyramid built for his tomb. Is it large?" "Large enough." "Does it cast a shadow?" "I suppose so." His cough caught at him. I propped him with pillows. "You should not talk," I told him. He moved his head from side to side, restlessly. Then he said,

"You must understand that I will not regain my health now, Severn. I have studied enough anatomy to know that."

We lived in our own world all those weeks. The next cup of broth, the next visit from Dr Clarke, the beating-up of pillows, the lighting of fires and measuring of medicines. Some days I hadn't a moment to call my own. Some nights I did not undress.

I was glad of it. He lay with the marble egg given to him by Miss Brawne in his hand. Women keep such an egg by them when they sew, to cool their fingers. He held that marble hour after hour, day after day. It soothed him as nothing else did. He wanted to know why he was still living, when everything was finished for him. This posthumous life, he called it.

He was sorry after he said it.

"My poor Severn, you have enough to do without listening to my misery." We had a piano carried upstairs so that I could play for him. He loved Haydn.

"Don't you hear that they are the same, Severn: the piano, and the fountain? Listen. But what am I thinking of? You cannot listen to yourself play, any more than a blackbird can hear itself sing." I was there as the days wore him down. His other friends, Dilke and Brown and Reynolds and the rest, they were far away in England. Now we fight over his memory like cats. But it was to me that he spoke. I wiped the sweat off his face and washed him and changed his linen. I told him about the sheep that roamed over the graves. He smiled. He never tired of the sheep, the goats, the shepherd boy and the violets. The next day he would ask again, as if he'd already forgotten.

But I don't think he forgot. Words were like notes of music to him. He liked to hear how they fell. "Sometimes I think I am already buried, with flowers growing over me," he said, as he stared up at the ceiling where the painted flowers swarmed.

Signora Angeletti became suspicious. She waylaid the doctor, asking what was wrong. Was it consumption? "I am a charitable woman, but I must think of my other lodgers." I didn't know the laws of Rome then. She feared that they would strip her rooms and burn everything. I suppose she was right, but she was compensated. She lost nothing.

I heard the patter of Signora Angeletti's voice from the mezzanine. We were in her hands. No other boarding-house would take us now: he was too obviously ill.

He understood Signora Angeletti very well. She gave us a bad dinner, not long after we came, and he threw it straight out of the window onto the Steps. A crowd of urchins came from nowhere and scrabbled for it.

"She won't serve us such stuff again," he said, and he was right. She had given us rubbish, to see if we were willing to swallow it. I wished I had his firmness. I was nervous with Signora Angeletti, and she knew it. In those ways he was more worldly than I was.

Yes, they make him a plaster saint of poetry, with his eyes turned up to heaven. They fight over his memory, shaping it this way and that. But I remember how he rocked with laughter when that dinner splattered on the marble steps! "My best plate!" screamed Signora Angeletti. But he said, "If that plate is the best you have, Signora, then I am very sorry for you."

After that the dinners were always hot and good.

I've told the story of those months so many times that they hardly seem to belong to me. If I say that they were the high point of my life, you will misunderstand me. You may even accuse me of cruelty. A man lay dying, and I say it was the high point of my existence? How can I recall those months of agony and dwindling hope, except with a shudder?

I remember the nights chiefly. We set the candles so that as one died, the next one would light from its burning thread. Once he said that there was a fairy lamplighter in the room. The flame would burn down until it seemed about to collapse on itself. He watched intently all the while. When the next sprang up and began to bloom, he would allow himself to close his eyes.

When I was very tired the room seemed to sway and the noise of the fountain reminded me of our voyage from England. Sometimes I fell asleep for a few seconds and really believed that I felt the motion of the ship under me.

I remember one incident which I have never written down, or spoken of even. I was in the small room which was intended for my studio. I thought of his words. "You should be painting, Severn! Here you are in Rome and you do not paint at all." I was standing at the table, going through my sketchbook. It contained a few studies which I hoped might be worth further work. I had sketched the cemetery for him. The pyramid of Caius Cestius, with the young shepherd sitting on the grass. But I had never shown him the sketch. How can a man say to another: "Look, here is the place where you will be buried. Just there, where that shepherd sits and dreams." I decided to be buried there too, beside him. My heart grew easier then. I felt no more estrangement from him.

As I turned the pages of my sketchbook, a cruel truth hit me like a blow. The reason I could not paint was not so much my cares for the invalid, as my fear that I would never paint well enough. Here I was in Rome, the heart of the painted world. Here were my masters all around me. Nothing I achieved could ever equal one of Bernini's marble coils.

The noise of the fountain grew louder. It was drowning me. It told to give up, stop pretending that there was merit in my pitiful daubs or in the travelling scholarship I'd been so proud to win. Rome would wash me away, as it had washed away a thousand others, leaving no trace. I seized hold of the leaves of my sketchbook, meaning to rip them out so that no-one would ever guess the contemptible folly of my ambitions.

At that moment I felt a touch on my shoulder. A clasp, a warm, wordless, brotherly clasp. The fingers gripped my shoulder and then shook it a little, consolingly, encouragingly.

I knew straightaway that it was him. God knows how he had dragged himself out of that bed and come to find me. I could not imagine how he'd guessed at my anguish. I said nothing. His clasp was enough. After a moment the grip of the hand tightened, and then left me.

He was going back to bed, I thought. But there were no retreating footsteps. I looked over my shoulder. No-one was there. He could not possibly have moved so fast. I hurried to the bedroom and there he was, deeply asleep. I stared at his face and I knew that he was dying, not weeks or months in the future, but now. How had I not recognised it before?

I sat down by the bed. My sketchbook was still in my hand. I got up again, noiselessly, and fetched what I needed from the little room. I was ready to draw him now.

The noise of the fountain. The sound of a pencil moving. His breath. A long, dragging pause. Another breath. You can live an entire life between one breath and the next. That's where my life was spent, in one night, in one room. The rest is memory.

 
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