Memory

Aurore Dupin is a writer. She lived with a composer in the past (and may do so again in the future).

Read carefully, drinkers

On his forty-eighth birthday I went to see my boyfriend in hospital. He was thin beyond belief. His hair was long down his back; his beard was scraggy, his cheeks sunken, his skin yellow, his pale eyes enflamed. He looked like Liszt painted by El Greco, or a very old candle, or someone dug out of a peat bog where everything had kept on growing after death. I hadn't seen him for more than six months, except once briefly on the street when he had told me he wasn't fit to be seen by me. I remembered a time years ago, on the street, when he'd told me he was dead.

He heard me coming and recognized my footsteps. "Oh my word," he said, in genuine amazement. He thought it very kind of me to have come all the way to Australia to see him. We weren't in Australia. We were in London. He was concerned about my luggage. Was it still at the opera house? Sydney, I assumed. He meant Covent Garden. Apparently I had left it there after a row we had in the bar. We've never been there together.

He offered to send a taxi for it. I said it wouldn't be necessary. Had I come straight from the airport? Where was I staying?

"At home," I said. "We're in London. You're in the hospital."

Amazement again. Why was he in hospital? He thought it was a hotel. He had been spending his time with George Best. George was coming in every day to play backgammon with him. Debussy had been by a few times as well.

It was hard to find anyone to tell me what was going on. They don't tell you, for reasons of privacy. They only tell him. But he is in Australia playing backgammon with George Best, so what good is telling him?

I had carefully not made myself next of kin, because I knew all about co-dependence now, and also that alcoholism is a weird sneaky fuck where rule number one of being anywhere near the afflicted is to always act against your natural instincts. He's ill? Don't look after him. He's in danger? Leave him to deal with it. But he has a leg broken in three places, and several nasty conditions. That's his business; you'll only make it worse. Don't shout at him, don't plead with him, don't clear up after him. Don't even feed him or put his T-shirt in with the rest of the washing. You love him? Don't do any of the normal acts of love. So I am not next of kin. I am just the ex-ish girlfriend. Of course no one will tell me anything.

This is a brief survey of how it happened. Read carefully, drinkers – this is some of what it can do, physically. I'm leaving out the general emotional and mental mayhem and destruction. Why? Because I want to. Ask me again in ten years.

1. Alcoholic neuropathy: nerve damage to the extremities. When your feet cling to the ground and your knees circle, and you're like the little wooden mannequin on elastic strings; push a thumb up under the wooden base and you topple, but your feet don't want to move.

2. The fall on an icy night (Was there a fight? Still don't know). The triple fracture above the ankle. The half-mile walk on the break. The surgery, the flesh graft, the traction, the pins, the plaster, the crutches, the soft hairs growing in the wrong direction on the pad of strange flesh.

3. Pancreatitis: the inflammation that makes you retch and vomit, retch and vomit, especially at night. You can't produce enzymes properly, so you don't digest food and don't get your vitamins and minerals.

4. Hepatitis: your liver swells and hurts and can't process the toxins you are flooding it with. Next stop cancer or cirrhosis.

5. Insomnia. Not surprising, but don't underestimate it.

6. Epileptic fits. If you have been drinking heavily and you stop suddenly, you can have fits. I hadn't known that. It was a shock when it happened the first time, in the tiny little car, at 70mph with the roof down. It was the first time he could have killed me too.

I'm bored going over all this again. Cut to the chase:

7. Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome. Imagine being blind drunk, legless, slurring, you can't remember a thing the next day. Imagine the wind changes and you're stuck like that forever. If you don't eat, but drink vodka instead, for months on end, you starve. The lack of vitamins damages your brain and nervous system. Your walking, movement, eyesight, speech and memory begin to fail. If you do it long enough you go mad. You don't know where you are or what you're doing. You are utterly at the mercy of fate, defenceless, hopeless, starving, raving, on the streets of the city. Your legs fold beneath you, words fail in your mouth, thought flails in your mind. You froth and fall. Anything could happen to you. You could die. You would die. He nearly died. In the UK, 22,000 people die each year of drink and its sicknesses. But he didn't die.

You could have good neighbours who call an ambulance twice a day for a week and in the end get you sectioned, which forces the hospital to keep you in long enough to notice that you're not just drunk, you have this condition where the wind has changed.

And inside that, the mind struggles like the God of the Old Testament to separate the light from the darkness, to bring order to chaos, as the tough, inscrutable, rational brain tries desperately to do its job, to make sense of the daily visits from Debussy.
It finds snatches of memory within itself, and patches them together into what looks vaguely like a possible truth, a reality - and then believes it. The brain longs for order. It will invent what it longs for, out of whatever is to hand. It's called confabulation: putting the stories together.

His father is now a Parisian taxi driver. Paris? We're still in Hammersmith, darling.

"What?" he cries. He's forgotten that he can't remember. "What do you mean?"

"No, you're not in Paris. Any more than you were in Australia last week."

"I was in Australia? Oh, no. Wasn't I?"

"No."

He laughs, remembering, and remarks that at least he's getting closer to home. We talk about his condition, about what's happened. I steer his stories towards consensual reality. He warms up, as it were; reconnects, slowly. Then after about an hour of pretty normal conversation, he says, "Anyway, how's your son? Still playing the saxophone?"

I don't have a son. He has a son. I have a daughter, who played the trombone.

The hospital had trouble discerning between his confabulations and more glamorous aspects of his former reality. Debussy, no. But Dustin Hoffman and the double first? Actually, yes. But then why should they be able to identify the scraps of truth? Sitting in a corridor waiting for I can't remember what, I think that we all confabulate all the time, only most of us, in any given situation, will put together more or less the same observations in more or less the same order and call it facts. Not exactly the same, of course, and we won't look at them from the same angle. What else is history?

But I know that I too have invented what I long for out of whatever I had to hand.

On a later visit a doctor came round and mentioned, in passing, that he would be like this forever now, and probably never walk again either.

Oh.

I cried.

"Why are you crying?" he asked, sympathetically. He had forgotten what the doctor just said.

I cried more. And if the lorry driver I yelled at on the way home is reading this, I'm sorry, it wasn't your fault.

But the doctor was wrong.

If I'd known that he would return to consensual reality so quickly – after only six weeks or so – perhaps I'd have spent more time with him in Australia and Paris. I would have lingered with him in that semi-real land beyond fact, where shafts of clarity pierce the murk, and join up to make unexpected patterns. I'd have taken notes and asked impertinent questions, and made friends with the madman he was. But I thought he had gone there forever. So I just started confabulating the fact of that with it being somehow all right. Of course I did. I was getting there, too.

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