Andrei Navrozov is the author of The Gingerbread Race (Picador, 1993) and Italian Carousel (Peter Owen, 2002). He is at work on a trilogy of novels entitled Awful Beauty, Earthly Love and Incredible Trust.

Spreadeagled Pinocchio

It was a year ago it all ended. I had been ill for months, from drink in the kidneys, from iniquity in the fortune, from words in the brain. Women came to nurse me, a wounded Gulliver recovering after the great fire of Lilliput. They crawled over the spreadeagled figure, just like the frontispiece I remembered from childhood. One immersed herself, naked but for a loincloth of raffia leaves, in the suppurating gash on my neck. Another, armed with a microscopic swab of cotton wool, worked at the sweat on the forehead bead by bead. A third, perched precariously on an eyelash, studied the dilated pupil through a brass spyglass the size of a nit.

Why did they bother? What did they care? Was it because women like their apocalypse in homeopathic doses, the murder suicide on the same page as the recipe, the whiff of bergamot just below the top note of napalm? Was it because they believed they loved me, as if the sound of that syllable, rich in labials, had not popped like a soap bubble, as if all the meaning it ever owned had not collapsed like a dynamited latrine in a comedy flick? Whatever the reason, their ministrations were, in the words of a Russian proverb, as compresses on a corpse, their dressings smaller than penny stamps, their salves less than topical and their unguents touchingly insufficient. Had I the tears, I might have cried with gratitude, but the tears, the love and the money were long spent. The poor are notoriously ungrateful, and only more so when the poverty is of the spirit.

Though destitute and an ingrate, I accepted the attention of my nurses. More than that, I nursed it, I fed it and I stoked it. I welcomed it like a disease, a hypochondriac's fulfilment. Like an invalid, like the wheelchair debris of an unpopular and forgotten war, lurching from mangled vanity to second-class valour and on to the terminus of self-denial, between toy-spoonfuls of make-believe medicinal syrup, I would ply these sympathetic volunteers with stories of awesome feats and narrow escapes, of voices that had been a little like theirs and were now but ghosts, of smiles reduced to rubble and ashes by the bombardments of an incurable sorrow.

They could hardly know what to say in reply; their experience of the sickbed of desire was negligible. They were quiet as Victorian children, enterprising as drug dealers, cheerful as country sparrows. But all this solicitude sat ill on the filthy, dishevelled bed in which a decadent spendthrift, a rake whose progress had run its earthly course, was at last dying of hopelessness.

And so their efforts were in vain. They massaged my temples and took my temperature, poured French brandy and lit purple Silk Cuts, two at a time, checked their electronic post and responded to telephone messages from concerned friends, absented themselves on the sly to buy groceries in the King's Road and to get some fresh Chelsea air. They professed their love, and of course I pitied them for this infinitely kind delusion, since love, even as they understood the word first heard just a few half-terms earlier, was not to be squandered on impotence.

"Well, can you or can't you?" one of these young women had taken to asking, and with the passing of time her question, shamelessly bedside yet apparently intended as something of an existential brain-teaser, acquired an oracular significance beyond anything by Sophocles or Shakespeare. I had completed a volume of poems in Russian, but unfortunately she could not read Russian. I had told her several stories, to which she responded with something like terror in all the right places and something like laughter in all the wrong ones. I had even shown her fragments of the novel I thought I was writing, manuscript pages smudged with slime of every conceivable kind; tears, saliva, mucus, cognac, tea. "So can you or can't you?" was all she said.

Their beauty, her own and the variegated others', was everything a man might want in a diverting companion. A naughty nurse was the phrase that time and again came to mind. It tweaked, it touched and it challenged, and for a patient who aimed to forget everything he had known, including the definition of beauty, its presence was therapeutic. It worked to open his eyes rather than to encrust them with eczematous plaques; it cleared the lungs in a gulp of wintry air instead of causing bronchial congestion; it steadied and it allowed him to keep writing.

Well, could I or couldn't I? It is customary for the variously afflicted, sufferers, penitents, defendants, to undertake a review of the literature in search of significant precedent. Failing eyesight? See lysosomal storage disorders, osteogenesis imperfecta, doll's eye. For lung trouble, go to bird fancier's lung, cryptococcosis, interstitial diseases. In cases of vestibular dysfunction, check out drug-induced neuronitis, acute labyrinthitis, vertigo. As for accidental exposure to awful beauty, there was little I could find apart from Teen, Cosmopolitan, Grazia. That, and a bottle of Hine Rare & Delicate on the bedside table. No, beauty was not even mentioned in the Gospels.

So could I or couldn't I? Could I forget all I knew, rise from that awful sickbed, say my own confession to the end, and tell them that they had all lied? Or was I forever condemned to live the instant replay of the accident, dragging my verminous memory behind me wherever I went, a coward, a hypocrite and a liar just like the others, an Italian marionette in search of an author, a naturalist's bid for heightened reality? Let the women decide. I wish that their judgement be every word as terrible as my illness.



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