Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Bitter Martyr by Mark Gartside

Once the decision was made we could all relax and get on with it. There was a lot to organise: the clinic, my will, a final psychiatric evaluation. The travel arrangements alone took a while: for someone in my condition, travel is difficult and painstaking. My parents refused to help with them, so they were left to my oldest friend, Ian. Now, with two weeks to go, all that was left was the waiting.
“We should have a party,” I said to Ian. “Get everyone together. Say goodbye, celebrate my life, that kind of thing.”
Not that there was much to celebrate, at least since the accident. Diving into shallow water after a few too many; spinal injuries; paralysed from the neck down. It was a stupid thing to do, of course, but not so different from what happens up and down the country every weekend. I was the third of my friends to dive in that night. Third time unlucky, I guess. Anyway, that was why I’d decided to take advantage of Switzerland’s liberal laws on assisted suicide. Watching other people grow up, stop smoking, start careers, run marathons, get married, have children; watching their lives blossom and grow was impossible to bear. If my life couldn’t contain those things I didn’t want it. I’d heard all the arguments about the sanctity of life, about how I could learn to enjoy what I had, about how disability was just different ability. Well, that if that works for you, then fine. But it doesn’t work for me. I hate my life. I hate remembering all the things I can’t do any more. I can’t even kill myself – believe me, if I could, I wouldn’t need a Swiss clinic to do it for me. The funniest objection I’d heard was all the religious nonsense about interfering with God’s creation. Well, in the unlikely event that God exists, I’ll look forward to meeting the bastard so I can ask him why he did this to me, before giving him a kick in his holy balls.
So why not have a party? In a strange way I wanted to fill the next two weeks with as much as I could. Life seemed better now. At least I had something to look forward to.

People started to arrive around seven in the evening. It was a pretty sparse crowd. I don’t come from a large family and I didn’t have that many friends left. We had decided not to tell people it was a funeral; Ian thought it wasn’t fair. People know how to behave at a wedding, a christening, a normal funeral. They understand what to say to whom and when to say it, they know when to look solemnly dignified and when to cheer, in short, they know the rules. Attending a funeral whose object is there is different. How on earth do you behave? In the end we said it was a summer party.
Besides, I couldn’t stand the thought of my friends drunkenly trying to change my mind, then reminding me why I wanted to die by staggering off to dance or cop off with someone’s sister.
I am paralysed from the neck down, unable to move any part of my body save the last two fingers of my left hand, which I can twitch if I concentrate. I don’t do it often; it’s not really worth the effort. Twitching two distant fingers is not all that rewarding. The extent of my paralysis means that I am fed everything that passes my lips, including liquid. In a way I think my mother likes it, as it reminds her of when I was a baby, eating and drinking only what she provided. My father rarely does the feeding, except when it involves drinking alcohol, of which I am allowed a small amount. I would like more, but it has a liquefying effect on my bowels and a strong diuretic effect, leading to some unholy messes, so it is carefully rationed. My father puts a straw in a bottle of weak beer and holds it to my mouth. Normally, we watch the cricket this way. It is the only sport I can watch; the gentle pace seems not to remind me too much of the physical activity I can no longer do.
At the party, Ian had agreed to slip a little bit of something stronger in the beer bottles. A Liquid Last Supper, if you like.
A lot of people made it to the party, despite the short notice. I think they thought that the fact I was throwing a party meant I was feeling better about life, so they made space in their calendars and turned up. Chris and Susie arrived, recently returned from honeymoon, glowing with holiday tan and newlywed bliss. Conrad and his boyfriend, a stick-thin boy in tight white jeans whose name I forget, cooed and fluttered around Ed and Jess and their two sets of twins. Conrad thought the older twins, two boys, would look divine in Prada. Ed laughed uncomfortably while Jess smiled cow-like at the attention. She had never shifted the baby weight, poor thing. I knew that Ed was sleeping with his secretary, a single-mum in her late forties with a sun-bed tan and a botox habit. Poor Jess was destined to a life relegated to the background, her only salvation caring for her ungrateful rug-rats. Perhaps she’d want to come with me to Switzerland.
My parents did the rounds, my mother barely holding it together. I chatted to whoever came my way, finding out about the latest divorces, affairs and promotions. Each person that passed was kind enough to hold up the bottles of beer that Ian had improved and I slipped deeper into a blissful inebriation.
Elaine came over with her and Ian’s son, Alfie.
“It’s Alfie’s bedtime,” she said. “He’s just coming to say goodnight.”
“Oh. Goodnight, Alfie,” I said. “Sleep tight, old chap. Make sure the bed bugs don’t bite.”
Alfie hid behind his mother’s legs. I’d known him from birth, but he was going through that annoying phase toddlers have when they hide from everyone. Even from Ian, I’d noticed.
“Uncle Eric,” he said. “Can I have a ride in your chair?”
Alfie loved my wheelchair. Since he was small (as soon as he could reliably hold onto me, as I couldn’t hold him) he had sat on my knee while I drove him around. Ian had tried to stop him, fearful that I would be offended by Alfie drawing attention to my disability, but I didn’t mind at all. In fact, it was about the only thing I really enjoyed, the only thing that didn’t bring the familiar bitterness and resentment burning to my eyes. Whenever I was with my friends I was always aware that they were not in the chair, that it was me who had paid the price for the lesson to teach us all to be sensible, me who had been sacrificed for their salvation. It could have been any of us, but it was me, and I resented them for that. Would I have swapped with one of them, if I could? You bet I would. Even Ian.  But Alfie – well, how could I resent him?
We whizzed around for a few minutes, Alfie making engine noises, his lips buzzing against my cheek.
“Can I come again next week?” he asked, when we were back with Elaine.
She shook her head. “Not next week, Alfie. Uncle Eric is going on holiday.”
“What about when he comes back?”
“He’s going for a long time.”
“Can we go and visit him then?” Alfie’s earnest face turned up expectantly towards his mother.
“I don’t think so, Alfie. He’s going a very long way away.”
Alfie’s face registered a fleeting disappointment. “Oh,” he said. “Well, enjoy your holiday, Uncle Eric.”

By ten o’clock I was dangerously drunk, although it wasn’t easy for other people to tell. It wasn’t as though I suffered a sudden loss of co-ordination, grabbed the karaoke microphone and started singing and dancing badly. I called out to my mother to get me another drink.
She came over, her face drawn and tired. She leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Eric, you probably shouldn’t drink anymore.”
“I’m fine.” I could hear my words slurring. 
“Eric. You’ve had enough. I’m going to take you to your room. You need a change of clothes.”
“Why? What’s wrong with these ones?” My mother’s eyes flickered to my crotch and I glanced down. The apparatus that drained my bladder had somehow failed. I had wet myself.
I closed my eyes, shame heating up my already flushed face. Who knew how long the stain had sat there, politely ignored by everyone I knew?
“Forget it, mum. I don’t care.”
“Come on Eric. There’s no need to be undignified.”
“Don’t be undignified? Why do I care? I’ll be dead in a week.”
Even at that stage, after all that had happened, I think she still thought it might not happen, but as I spoke terrible defeat filled her eyes.  I watched the hope ebb away from her. I didn’t care. The doctored beers were really taking hold.
“This is the last party I’ll ever attend, mum. So stop trying to ruin what’s left of my pathetic life.”
Tears rolled down her silent face. She’d changed in the last few years, had mum. Aged. I’d not really noticed until now.
“They don’t know it’s your last party.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Don’t they? Then perhaps it’s time they should.”
I shouted out, calling Ian over. He looked at my mum, his forehead creasing with worry. “Ian, get everyone around. I want to say something.”
“Are you sure?” Ian was understandably reluctant. He knew what I’d been drinking.
My mother was shaking her head. “No,” she whispered. “Don’t let him, Ian. He’s drunk.” 
“Shut up,” I snapped. “Hey! Everyone! I want to say a few words.”
A few people heard, tapping others on the shoulder and beckoning them to gather round. Gradually they assembled and fell silent. I noticed my mother had left the room.
“Well,” I said, “thanks for coming.” My words were very indistinct; even I could tell they weren’t clear. I’d have to speak up. There were a few puzzled looks on the faces of my friends and a few surreptitious glances in the direction of my piss-stained trousers. Derek and Emily interrupted their argument to listen. I knew what they were arguing about – he was very jealous and she was a flirt. They always argued at parties. Next to them, my cousin Charlie had his arm around my school friend, Nicky, a chubby hockey player. He whispered something in her ear and they both laughed.
“Charlie,” I said, my voice savage with bitterness. “I don’t know what you’re laughing at. I’ve not even told my jokes yet!”
What little chatter there was stopped.
“As I was saying, thank you all for coming. Some of you may have wondered why Ian and I organised a party at such short notice and without any apparent reason. Well, there is a reason. It’s my funeral.” I paused and there were a few confused looks and some nervous laughs. “It’s not actually my funeral, as I’m not dead yet. I will be this time next week, though, so that’s why you’re here. A chance to say goodbye. I wasn’t going to tell you, but, what the hell, you’re all grown-ups.”
Ian put his hand my shoulder. “Eric, mate,” he said. “Let’s call it a night, eh?”
I ignored him. I took advantage of the silence that had blanketed the room and carried on, fuelled by booze and made eloquent by a wave of self-pitying anger.
“I’m booked into a Swiss suicide clinic, for next week. Nice view of the Alps, apparently. Hopefully some tight-skirted Swiss Miss with big tits handing out sponge baths. Might as well go out in style, eh!” I wallowed in the shock. I could feel the silence.  “Now, if I hadn’t said anything, then you’d have woken up next week and received a letter from me telling you what I’d done and explaining that I didn’t want you to feel bad for me, I was in a place where I was finally happy. Well, it’s rubbish. I do want you to feel bad. Bad for me and bad for you. Because you lot are the reason I’m doing it. I can’t live with the jealousy. It's not the jealousy itself that bothers me – after all, we’re all jealous of someone – but that I’m jealous of you, of your crap little lives. I’m even jealous of Ed, stuck in his sordid affair with his sloppy secretary. Christ, I’d even take Jess’s life in place of my own. Can you imagine how that feels? To be jealous of Jess?”
Of course, no one answered. They were too busy looking at their feet. A small voice was trying to tell me this was a bad idea, but I ignored it. If I’m honest, I was enjoying myself too much.
“So I blame you all. And I hate you all. Do you deserve it? Probably not, but then who cares about deserve? Did I deserve this? To sit in front of everyone I know, covered in my own piss with everyone politely ignoring it? You think I want another fifty years of this? Another fifty days?” I looked around my friends and family. It’s strange how quickly an atmosphere can change. One minute it’s party time, the next people are blinking back tears.
“You know, the funny thing is that now I know I’m going to die, I feel a lot better. I almost want to cancel the appointment, but then I know I’ll be right back at square one. Ironic, isn’t it? The only good thing in my life is knowing I’m going to die.”
I wasn’t finished, but I felt someone pulling my chair backwards, wheeling me round to push me from the room. In my mind’s eye I could still see the stunned faces of my friends. As quick as it had started, the fire in me went out. My chin slumped to my chest. I twitched my two working fingers.
My mother’s still-soft lips pressed to my ear. “I’m sorry, son,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

 About the author

Mark Gartside grew up in Warrington in the late eighties and nineties, which left him with an abiding love of Rugby League and dimly-lit pubs. He started writing two years ago and has written three novels, two for children and one, Whatever Else Is True, for adults. His entry to the Whitechapel Competition, The St. Michael’s Ripper, will be published in an anthology by Mythica later in the year. He also had a story published in Stories for Children Magazine in March 2010.  He recently signed a 2-book deal with Macmillan who are publishing What Will Suvive in the Spring of 2012, with book 2 in 2013.

Photo credit: Joanne Q Escober