CANDLE IN THE DARK
They have let me keep the candle. Oh, of course I’m not allowed to light it. Even if someone visiting me (if anyone ever did, apart from Frances) managed to smuggle in a lighter, or a match, then I don’t for one minute doubt, some sensor, or some surveillance, would immediately set off an alarm that reverberated through the whole building. Or on second thoughts – maybe not. They wouldn’t want to cause panic. It would probably just sound in the relevant room.
But they let me keep the candle. If its holder were glass instead of ceramic, I doubt they would, though I suppose ceramic is not entirely “safe”. So the candle is constantly dead, and that, in a way, keeps it constantly alive. There it sits, on the window sill (no bars on the windows, although they are of some kind of toughened glass, and will not open) – a little purple pot, with a little painting – or maybe a transfer, on reflection – of a lavender field on it, trying hard to give the impression of being home-made by some artisan chandler. It needs to be lit to “release the scent” (that’s what it said on the label, though I removed it) but there’s some fore-echo or hint of it there, especially if I put my face close to it. I tell myself it really does smell of lavender, and not of chemicals that are supposed to smell like lavender, but it doesn’t, not really. I doubt it would even if the scent were released. Maybe we will be released at the same time!
It has become almost an institution in the institution. Della’s little lavender candle. It is the kind of thing that proves I am normal. Underneath. Potentially. Oh, nobody says that in so many words, of course. I am encouraged to talk about it and about its significance, and I do, and I say the right words, because I know what the right words are, and they nod, and smile, and if they do not actually pat my head, they might as well.
They humour me or – as they see it – try their best. I am allowed a couple of those artificial candles, those pseudo-tealights with a little bulb. They are nothing like the real thing, but I say thank you, and even switch them on sometimes. I am allowed them, the same way I am allowed books, and allowed to put posters on the wall and allowed a radio. This is a very benign place of confinement, though it is not the “holiday camp” beloved of the tabloids. And of course, so we are often reminded, it is a hospital, though the word “clinic” is preferred in some quarters.
There are things I am not allowed. I am not allowed a kettle – for obvious reasons, though I have no intention whatsoever of scalding myself – and though I have a toilet, the showers are shared. I have stayed in hotels, I suppose, where apart from the absence of the kettle, things are worse.
We are allowed our own bed linen, but until quite recently, nobody was there to bring me any, so I had the standard clinic issue.
Then, only a couple of weeks ago, one of the “Friends of Eskdale House” (even the name sounds like a seaside guesthouse!) called Frances, who sees me as one of her pet projects and thinks we have a special rapport, brought me in a mock-patchwork duvet cover and pillowcase set. “Look, dear, they’re purple, just like your candle,” she said. At times she does not seem to have quite grasped that I am neither blind nor stupid. I tolerate her. I would say that at times I despise her a little, but I know that if she had the slightest idea, she would, and with good reason, despise me a good deal more. Oh, she is tolerant and liberal (though she has firm views on litter and good manners) and seems happy to perpetrate the myth that I am more sinned against than sinning. It is not in my interests to disillusion her. But perhaps I will.
The truth is, though I wouldn’t say I look forward to her visits, because I don’t look forward to anything, I would, in a way, miss them if they stopped. She brings me books (not always the ones I would have chosen, but I have already more or less exhausted the library here, not that I am always the avid bookworm of my image) and sometimes a listings magazine, so I know what’s on the radio (there’s a TV in the communal lounge, though I rarely watch it) and don’t just have to twiddle randomly or try to keep old schedules in my mind. Oh, and biscuits. I’ve wondered for a while if I ought to tell her I really don’t like custard creams much and would prefer ginger nuts. They won’t cost any more!
She came today and got it into her head to talk about the candle. I tried to steer the conversation back to the Joanna Trollope book she had brought me on her last visit. Normally, Frances is quite easy to distract, but every so often she won’t play along, even if I suspect the “alternative” conversation would have been more to HER liking, too. I wondered if one or other of the therapists had asked her to. Officially (with what they term “obvious exceptions”) conversations with the “friends “ are entirely private and entirely separate from any therapy. But we all know (not that I talk to the others much, I keep myself to myself, but not to the extent that it draws attention) that it happens. I can especially imagine Beth, she of the fair-isle sweaters and chunky necklaces, saying in that confiding way of hers that having a chat about the candle, a real chat might be the breakthrough they’re looking for.
“Have you always liked candles, dear?” she asked, in that casual, girl-to-girl voice.
I had half-expected a conversation along those lines was coming, though I probably thought it more likely to be with Beth. Though I hadn’t exactly rehearsed my reply, I had it ready. “Well, I won’t say I was obsessed with them when I was a little girl,” (that was chosen carefully, too. Frances has an aversion to the word “kid” unless it’s about goats) “Unless they were on a birthday cake” (and that was a lie – in my experience as a child, the more elaborate the candles, the more tasteless the cake, but little jokes like that never do any harm) “But certainly for a good few years.”
“Yes, they’re lovely aren’t they! That flickering light ….” she broke off, realising what she’d said. “Oh I’m sorry, my dear. I mean, I can SEE why they don’t let you light it, but it’s a shame. Still, those –“ she indicated the artificial ones, “Are nearly as good, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“It looks as good as new, though. Did you buy it for yourself, or was it a present?”
I know I am probably over-pedantic when it comes to language, though I don’t share Frances’s aversion to “kids” but I resented the use of “for”. The normal question to an adult would, surely, be just “Did you buy it yourself”? Anyway, fixating on languages is preferable to thinking about other things, though it is only ever the surface skim.
“It was a present.” As soon as the words were out I wished I had kept up the lies and said I bought it myself.
“Oh that’s nice!” She picked it up, and I bit my tongue to tell her not to. She was almost exaggeratedly careful, and if she had dropped it, the floors are carpeted (the tabloids wouldn’t like that!) and it wouldn’t have broken.
She breathed in as if she were standing in the middle of a Norfolk lavender field. If you’re convincing yourself, you’re not convincing me, I thought.
“Only tell me what you feel comfortable telling me,” she said. That’s the kind of phrase they love here. Of course they don’t mean a word of it. They’d love to hear what we’re least comfortable telling them. Or they think they would.
Perhaps next time I will tell you, Frances. Tell you the truth – the real, unvarnished, unprettified truth.
But you won’t like it. You won’t know what to say, and I’ll probably see you struggle unsuccessfully to hide a look of revulsion and betrayal, as if you were the one I’d wronged.
I like that word “wronged”. Like it and loathe it at the same time. It’s so handy and so all-embracing, and so stark and so anodyne.
I’ll start by telling you that my husband Alec gave me the candle. Not that I’ll need to explain that Alec was my husband. You know that. Anyone who’s ever read a paper or listened to a news broadcast knows that, though I’m not headline news now. You will, with some justification, look puzzled, and I will explain (entirely truthfully) that no, he didn’t get it himself, because he couldn’t get it himself, but he asked his carer, Gabriel (call me Gabe) to get it. If ever a person was well-named, or thought he was! The thirty minutes guardian angel, paragon of patience, who made Alec laugh despite everything, and was never repelled by anything. I was never entirely convinced by this “Florian Nightingale” image. I was pretty sure he’d have loved to have been a doctor, or at least a nurse, and pretended to pretend he was perfectly happy and fulfilled being a carer. But the two of you would probably get on, Frances.
I could see that Gabe was squirming and wrestling with his conscience and his image in court. Yes, Alec was a good man, a kind man, who coped well after his accident. But he was only human and many folk in that position can be difficult, and can make life very difficult for their nearest and dearest, and Della was under a lot of stress.
That was how the story went. I was under a lot of stress. And despite his physical failings, he could be a difficult man, and at some point, the word “difficult” turned to “aggressive” and the word “aggressive” turned to “threatening”. I can’t recall they ever said “dangerous” – the medical evidence just wouldn’t have held up.
I’d question this notion that a person with even a severe disability can’t be dangerous. Oskar Pistorius’s girlfriend would have something to say on the subject.
But Alec was no honed and toned Paralympian. No swift as an arrow blade-runner with bulging arm muscles. He had never been what you might call fighting fit even when he was able-bodied. He wasn’t exactly flabby, but he wasn’t exactly taut either. Let’s put it this way, he’d have stood about as much chance of being in the Paralympics as he would of being in the Olympics before the car crash – in other words, zero.
It was my birthday – that much is true, and, of course, verifiable. And he gave me the candle that Gabe had bought, saying, “You were never easy to buy things for, but you once said you liked candles.”
The thing was, at first, I was quite touched. I thought it was a nice gesture, and said I would light it later on, because it needed to be properly dark before you could appreciate candlelight.
There were long hours when that day could have ended differently. Gabe came round and gave Alec a man-hug, and a present of his own, a little box of chocolates. They joked that a health professional (I swear Gabe positively puffed out his chest at the use of the phrase “health professional” ought to encourage healthy eating, not the opposite. “I could still go out and get you a bunch of kale,” Gabe said, and they laughed again. I felt excluded but I didn’t mind. And no, that’s not “protesting too much”.
Well, Frances, you know the story. Even if it hadn’t been common knowledge, you’d have made it your business to know, because you’re very thorough and conscientious about things like that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say “knowledge is power” in so many words, but you certainly wouldn’t argue with the sentiments. Well, trust me, so far as the two of us are concerned, knowledge may be power, but ignorance is bliss!
Towards the evening (so the story goes) Alec began to lose his good humour. The birthday effect, or the Gabe effect, or whatever, was wearing off. He was becoming difficult and aggressive and threatening.
He began to insult me, to wear me down, as he had done many times before. I was already stressed and “emotionally fragile”. And when he raised his fist to me, I cracked, and broke the taboo, and struck him over the head, and he fell out of his chair and struck his head again, on the concrete hearth.
Harming a person rendered helpless by a disability (and trust me, he was, many aren’t, I know, but he was) crosses a barrier that no decent person crosses. My lawyer never denied that, just as I never denied doing it. I couldn’t. Nobody else was in the house, and we had CCTV (I never wanted it, but they ground me down into thinking that “in the circumstances” it was a sensible measure for Alec’s protection) so that could be proven. Nobody had entered or left since Gabe.
I was – that word again – under a great amount of stress. And when Alec became difficult/aggressive/threatening “something snapped”. Up until then I had led (as much as anyone had) a blameless life, with not so much as a parking fine.
There was a degree of sympathy. I never did become one of those hate figures. The press picture of me (Jenny the lawyer suggested it) showed me looking ludicrously like a little girl taking her first communion. To this day I can’t quite remember the circumstances it was taken it, though it was certainly decades after my first communion.
The words “pleading insanity” were never used, nor were “Mac Naughton Rules”. But everyone seemed to accept that I was under immense pressure, with a husband who could be difficult, and it was no wonder I was emotionally unbalanced at the time. Though it went without saying that in no circumstances could an attack on a helpless man in a wheelchair, no matter how difficult or threatening or aggressive he was, be excused or glossed over.
It was generally acknowledged that I got off lightly, but generally it wasn’t said in that nose-flaring, righteous anger-drenched kind of way that sometimes applies. Even, apparently, on Social Media (I am not officially allowed to look, though I’m allowed to email selected people under supervision on the communal laptop) though there were the Usual Suspects who think that hanging is too good for people who steal a can of beans, folk went fairly easy on me.
You know all that, Frances, and you would listen with your patient face on, and nod in the right places, but not learn anything new.
This is what I have not told you, and have not told Jenny or Beth or anyone else.
Alec was not difficult or aggressive or threatening that night. He never was, though he wasn’t always as cheerful with me as he was with Gabe.
And I will make it plain, Frances, if I could turn back time, and turn it back with knowledge, I very much doubt I would have done what I did, and for the reasons I did, and not just because it has led to be being held in confinement, even if it is benign confinement.
I doubt it, because even monsters don’t like to think they are monsters. Alec was still in a good mood. He was enjoying some of the chocolates that Gabe had given him for his birthday, and he was cajoling me into lighting the candle, saying surely, if we switched off the light, it would be dark enough now and he would be going to bed soon.
Sometimes Gabe came in at bedtime, but not always, and they were a bit short-staffed at Beech Tree Care. We had a downstairs bedroom, and Alec had a hoist, and it was not that physically difficult to do, especially when he was being cooperative, which he nearly always was.
He could feed himself, though he needed help with some things, but he sometimes dribbled. He was dribbling now. And the little stream of chocolate on his chin made me feel sick, even though I had coped with worse. I had a vision (because we had been told that his lifespan was not going to be affected) of thirty, maybe even forty years with a man who dribbled, and who needed putting to bed.
I did not turn off the lights, and I did not light the candle.
You know what I did instead, Frances. Everyone here, and practically everyone, at least in this country, who isn’t here, knows that perfectly well.
But you don’t know why.