March 31, 2018 by ChrisJamesAuthor
Spoiler alert: this post is very wordy. While I try to be as erudite as usual… *** waits patiently for you to stop laughing*** …this picture of ice frozen into a plant in my garden is the only picture, so you might want to fix yourself a cup of your preferred beverage and settle down for a few minutes with this post, thanks.
Fiction writers have a mental exercise to keep their imaginations in good working order, which is this: every time you talk to someone, anyone—the checkout person at your local supermarket, the receptionist at the office you’re visiting, the cab driver taking you to the airport, the doctor uttering the ultimate reassuring line of, “Don’t worry, it’s normal for men of your age,”—you build the background of their lives and write the scripts of their futures.
At first, this exercise requires effort and concentration; after a few years, it becomes second nature. When I meet anyone I’ve never seen before, in whatever social setting, at once my imagination feeds off the clues they give in the speech patterns, physical ticks, and the disinterest/impatience they display, to cast their background: their loves, their hates, their regrets, desires, wants, wishes. I invent their history, their families, their friends, and the schools they went to. I guestimate their temperament and the length of their temper; I imagine those life-defining moments of terror or joy or despair or realisation. Then I extrapolate and script their future: if they’re young, I imagine if they’ll have a family and where their career might lead them, and whether their life will be one of warm fulfilment or of wasted effort for little reward…
While my ideal job would be full-time fiction writer, until that happens the job I actually do nevertheless makes me quite a lucky guy. I work mostly with young people half my age who exude youthful vitality and determination, and who have yet to see their dreams shattered and their hopes crushed (notwithstanding the 2% of them whose dreams will be realised and hopes fulfilled, obviously). In addition, as we work in a business environment I can observe them as they cultivate their preferred style of corporate disguise: whether, at one extreme, they hide their lack of self-confidence behind a shell of feigned professionalism, or whether, at the other, their ego inflates beyond the confines of the office, if not the city, in which they work. For most of them, the result is somewhere in between, but I get pleasure from watching them develop as time passes—to imagine their pasts up to that point and write the scripts of their futures—and their vibrant youthfulness triggers recollections in me of a time in the not-too-distant past when I too could put in a 16-hour day and come straight back for more.
However, two weeks ago I suddenly found myself obliged to go into hospital for an unscheduled pitstop, at once going from being one of the oldest people in my immediate environment to being one of the youngest. The timing of this mini-drama was less than agreeable: on the Saturday two weeks ago I’d returned from two days of giving lectures in Prague and was due to give another lecture in Krakow on the Monday. On Sunday, therefore, I clenched my teeth and insisted I could not afford to go into hospital, but fortunately calmer heads prevailed.
Abruptly, from imagining the futures of people half my age I found myself building only pasts. The patients in the same room as me, and those on the rest of that ward, were nearly all in their sixties or older. Indeed, one poor fellow must have been around 90, and suffered the appalling indignity of being cleaned in an open corridor. I couldn’t help but imagine him as a younger man, full of vitality and achievements and satisfaction. But the next day he and his bed had vanished, so he ended his days in the cold, impersonal environment of that hospital ward. Other patients appeared to be there mainly as a result of lifestyle choices: decades of tobacco and alcohol [ab]use, and years of less-than-healthy diets. Finally, it seemed, we all have to pay the price of youthful indulgence, out of sight of those on the outside who remain fit.
But there were lighter moments. One morning, a doctor approached me and asked if I’d mind some trainee doctors practising on me. I apparently had the perfect complaint for them to learn how to prod a patient’s stomach to just the right depth to ascertain if the patient is in pain (I was). There followed a line of around 15 young men and women who each took turns to dab my stomach until I confirmed that it hurt, but not too much. Given that I am fortunate enough to live in a country with a health service that will save my life and not present me with a bill that will bankrupt me at the end of it, I regarded helping the trainees as the least I could do.
My reason for spending a week’s pitstop in hospital transpired to be not as serious as I’d first feared on that Sunday night two weeks ago, and the doctors looked relieved to send me on my way after seven days’ fasting with antibiotic, saline, and mineral drips having given my insides a thorough rinse. But, as is my habit, I have taken with me the images of pain and regret and resignation and, ultimately, acceptance. For so few of those patients could I envisage any outlook beyond more pain and suffering, with only memories of happier times to comfort them. I suspect this is the bleak future that awaits us all, including those vital, beautiful young people with whom I work. Time is the only god, and it’s a fan-bloody-tastic god, too.
Thanks for reading, and happy Easter.