When prerecorded bells ring in the New Year Anna and Guido find themselves forced into a human chain to sing Auld Lang Syne. Balloons and coloured streamers descend from the ceiling. People are jumping about and laughing.
But as for Guido, things are happening too fast. He keeps smiling for Anna’s sake, only for Anna, he keeps up the show, being tossed around this way and that thinking (trying to catch the thoughts as they fly away from him) of all that has happened in the space of an hour, and his father, he never finished the story; perhaps he never will, but Anna has a right to know now and his words, the words he wrote, the words that were printed on his father’s press, what have they become? A superficial foottapper instead of a clarion call to revolution. What was Philippe up to?
He is silent, sitting across from her sipping red wine.
‘Is something wrong?’ she says, taking hold of his hand.
‘It’s the song, isn’t it?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
A slow number starts to play. ‘Come on,’ she says, pulling him to the floor.
They dance, or rather move trancelike to the slow music, clinging to each other, Anna’s head resting on Guido’s shoulder trying to ooze the knotted thoughts out of his tormented soul. She knows it. She looks up into his eyes. Some secret, something deep, some sorrow there – her mother had noticed, not normally wrong in that area. Violins are playing somewhere in the middle of the song making her all misty-eyed. Orchestral backing to heighten the emotions of a banal tune.
He feels her softness closing into him. ‘It’s after the chimes,’ he says. She reaches to his ear whispering, ‘I love you,’ barely audible, yet the frisson of the words, the little breeze of their sound. They kiss coming to a standstill in the middle of the floor. The music continues to play its slow sensuous notes. He’s about to say something to her, to tell her too. She’s waiting, willing him to say the words…
Suddenly there’s a commotion at the entrance.
‘Cops,’ someone shouts. The music stops. Some of the ‘dancers’ – former immovable objects – take life and scarper.
In an office, a backroom of the nightclub, Jeremiah Delahyde is sitting on a fuchsine upholstered chair, a half empty brandy bottle on the desk. The prostitute, Madeleine is kneeling in front of him. Jeremiah dangles a cannabis sachet in front of Madeleine’s face, tormenting her, pulling it away each time she reaches for it.
‘Please sir,’ she says
‘Not till you do what you’re supposed to do.’
Madeleine goes down on all fours.
‘Please sir, now.’
‘Not yet,’ says Delahyde, ‘you know you haven’t earned it yet.’
Bartholomew Smythe knocks on the office door. ‘It’s the cops, Jeremiah.’
Delahyde, quickly pulling up his trousers, rushes to the window where he lodges the sachets on the outside sill.
Bartholomew, walking into the room, looks at Madeleine as she moans and props her back against a wall.
How many times have I told you, Jeremy?’ he says angrily
Jeremiah, standing unsteadily, lifts Bartholomew’s face up by the chin and throws a glazed look into the eyes of his friend. ‘You worry too much, Barth. Remember cops are lackeys, our lackeys, Barth.’
Two uniformed officers come into the room with a young plain clothes man who flashes his ID card. They search about the place opening the drawers. The plain clothes man sniffs. ‘The window,’ he says, ‘check the window.’
The two police officers return with the sachets of cocaine.
The judge holds onto the back of a chair to steady himself. ‘A despicable pusher,’ he says, pointing to Madeleine ‘Barged in here trying to sell it to me.’
The plain clothes man glances down at the dazed girl, her head swinging a blond curl back and forth.
‘If that is the case,’ says the plan clothes man coolly, ‘then why was it hidden?’
‘You know who I am?’ says Delahyde.’
‘Yes, your lordship.’
‘Can I have it now?’ says Madeleine.
‘Your name?’ says the judge to the plain clothes man, ignoring the girl on the floor. His tone soberly imperious now.
‘Mulrooney, your lordship.’
‘Mulrooney. You were on my end line?’
‘Yes, your lordship.’
‘I called you out once?’
‘You did. You thought there were burglars.’
‘It was a hoax.’
‘What age are you, Mulrooney?’
‘Twenty five, your lordship.’
‘Twenty five and already a detective.’
‘That’s good Mulrooney. Shows ambition.’
‘Thank you, your lordship.’
The judge, swaying slightly, takes a pen and paper from Smythe’s desk. ‘The epaulet numbers?’
‘Of your officers?’
The detective hesitates, and embarrassedly reads the numbers on the epaulets of his bemused officers, while Madeleine slumps on the floor.
‘You have a family, Mulrooney?’
‘A boy and a girl. Really, your lordship I mean…’
‘Four and three … respectively.’
The judge writes or pretends to write. ‘You’re a good policeman,’ he says, ‘efficient, conscientious, I like that.’ He laughs. ‘But they are not qualities that will take you far. Are they, minister?’ Smythe is standing silently impressed by the judge’s performance. ‘I think we should show some appreciation, don’t you minister?’
‘I want to talk to you,’ says Smythe to the detective, taking his cue from his friend. ‘If you wouldn’t mind asking your officers to wait outside for a moment.’
Mulrooney nods to the two officers who, in total confusion now as to what is happening, go outside the door.
‘The New Year,’ says Smythe.
‘I want you to take something for your kids. What are their names?’
Smythe offers him a manila envelope which he takes from inside his jacket pocket, already sealed and bulging as if already prepared, something routine.
‘I want you to take this for four and three.’
‘Four and three?’
‘Your kids. For their future, capisce?’
‘I can’t take that, sir.’
‘You do love your children?’
‘And you want the best for them?’
‘Of course, but…’
‘So, don’t be afraid. It’s not a bribe. Far be it from me to attempt something like that in front of a judge, eh.’ He laughs. The judge laughs, balancing against the chair.
‘I’d prefer not to.’
‘I’ll put in a good word for you.’
‘Happy New Year,’ says Delahyde.
‘And you, your lordship.’ The detective takes the envelope, his action apparently expedited by the authoritative and dismissive tone of the judge.
‘The party’s over,’ says Smythe, ‘time to go.’ The runin with the police had unnerved him in contrast to his friend Jeremiah, who insisted on having another drink to celebrate the New Year and more drinks again to toast his cleverness in outwitting the police. The minister is annoyed with his friend, not only for refusing to heed his advice about prostitutes, but for having the gall to bring one back to his own premises. Bartholomew hadn’t paid too much attention to Jeremiah going into the office – he was busy paying off that band, the Third World. How did they get through the nets singing anarchist stuff like that? wonders Bartholomew. Could bring the tone down in his nightclub. If the Party got wind of it… must vet what that MC allows in in future. Can’t rely on anyone. Worries, worries, he has enough of them now without this, and he looks at Jeremiah, this big fool, when it comes to the opposite sex. He thought perhaps he was with one of the waitresses, but not that Madeleine junky of all people, known all over Potence, drawing attention to him and the position he’s in. His reputation. In future Jeremy can conduct his business elsewhere and be damned with him. Can’t keep bribing the police. Someone’s bound to squeal eventually. He looks at his friend opening another bottle. Jeremiah has become a liability. Sober thinking is called for – something he always prided himself on, and the priority is to get the judge home as inconspicuously as possible.
‘These young Turks, Barth,’ the judge is saying, slurring the words, ‘they need to be kept in their place.’ They hear a groan and they both look down at the semicomatose Madeleine sprawled on the floor. ‘Now, your lordship?’ she half mutters, and Jeremy laughs, and to the consternation of his friend, drinks one more time to toast their winning ways with women.
Delahyde leans on Smythe as he staggers out the door of the office. The music has stopped. The nightclub is closing. The last of the clubbers are departing.
‘We have outlasted them,’ says Jeremiah, ‘weakfleshed youths.’
‘Easy,’ says Bartholomew, brushing aside an offer of help from one of his argument assistants as Jeremiah misses the step leading out of the night club.
They stumble along the dark street through a misty rain. ‘I’ll drive,’ says Smythe as they approach the judge’s car.
‘No, no,’ says the judge. ‘I can manage.’
‘Jeremy, you’re in no condition,’ says Smythe, steadying him.
Jeremiah laughs. ‘Get in, Barth.’
Bartholomew, perhaps remembering his friend’s stubbornness from the past and hoping for a quick end to an unpleasant night, resignedly sits into the passenger seat of the Merc with its blackened windows, the judge at the wheel laughing still. No sooner is the politician seated and, even before he has the opportunity to close the door, the judge is revving hard and screeching forward, and just misses bumping into a group of young revellers who scurry for refuge to the footpath.
‘Young fools,’ exclaims the judge, but still laughing, delighting in the near miss of the collision. ‘Walking on the road, what do they expect?’
The judge slumps down in the driving seat. The car swerves.
They approach traffic lights which have turned amber. There is a young couple waiting to cross the road, waiting for the lights to change.
‘The lights, Jeremy. Slow down,’ shouts Smythe, alarmed by the speed of the car.
‘We can make it,’ says the judge, accelerating.
The lights change to red and the green pedestrian light comes on and the couple proceed to cross the road, arms around each other, she on the side of the approaching vehicle, and both of them so taken up with each other that they fail to notice the car’s rapid advance.
‘Watch out,’ shouts Smythe. ‘There are people crossing.’
The judge jams on the brakes but it is too late. He is too near them and the car ploughs into the pedestrians, striking the young woman, knocking her down while simultaneously catapulting the young man across the road.
‘Don’t stop,’ says Smythe.
The car is thrown sideways to the road by the impact of the collision. The judge opens the door and looks behind. ‘Close the fucking door,’ admonishes the politician. ‘Are you crazy?’ The judge reverses the car and revs hard again driving over the left leg of the girl. ‘Oh fuck,’ says Smythe as they disappear into the night.
Guido – for it is he and Anna who were crossing the road – is relatively unscathed except for a sprained hand which broke his fall and a cut on his forehead. He raises himself up as the car departs, seeing the face only in shadow (so like… but couldn’t be sure) all happening in a split second, but he manages to memorise the number plate. He rushes over to where Anna lies. She is unconscious but breathing. A panic seizes him. He doesn’t know what to do? He kisses her and holds her and whispers encouraging words into her ear. ‘Anna, Anna, you’ll be all right, Anna. Just hang in there.’
A passing motorist, on seeing the couple on the road, stops but the driver does not pull down his window or speak to Guido. Instead he takes out a mobile phone which Guido can make out under the street light. He gives a little beep to Guido on his car horn before driving off.
Anna is lying on her back, gently moaning, breathing in low sobs, her chest hardly rising. He sees the tyre marks – the car’s DNA – clearly visible, the intricate undulations of rubber, the anti-slippage designs indented into her left leg. He takes off his parka and covers her leg, as if not wanting the world to see what has been done to her. He looks down the dark street, afraid to leave her.
He hears the ambulance. How long was he waiting? Not long. A matter of minutes. An eternity.
‘Don’t move her, whatever you do,’ the ambulance man says, gently pushing Guido aside. ‘That’s the common mistake, lifting the patient after a crash.’ The ambulance man with long silver hair streaking down from under his cap is too knowing for Guido’s liking. He has seen it all before. He could still feel sympathy. Does he have to be so cocky? They lift Anna onto a stretcher. ‘Jesus, her leg’s in bits,’ says the ambulance man. ‘Was she run over by a juggernaut?’ ‘A car ran over her twice,’ says Guido. ‘Twice? You mean a deliberate hit?’ ‘I don’t know.’ The ambulance man gives a low whistle. ‘You get into the ambulance now, sonny,’ he says. ‘You’ve got a few cuts yourself that need seeing to.’
In the hospital, Guido watches as she is speedily wheeled past him, like time, like a clock’s hand. He sees the gurney whiz past with its iron bars (why are they so prison-like?), and Anna lying there, lifeless with tubes coming out of her as if she is some sort of alien, not his Anna, not his vibrant Anna. If only he had been on the nearside instead of her. ‘Anna, not this, not this,’ he shouts.
A nurse tries to calm him and restrains him from going after the gurney which is followed by surgeons and theatre nurses half dressed in gowns and masks, with strings untied, all moving at great speed as it swishes down the polished linoleum corridor and bursts through flapping doors into a room called THEATRE.
Another nurse gives him two tablets for shock, and a black doctor puts two stitches over his left eye which he says must have struck a stone or some sharp object when he landed.
He sits down on a plastic chair in the emergency waiting room. There are a number of people sitting around, all on grey chairs. He looks down the corridor at the red light over the THEATRE door and he thinks of the red traffic light and the human scream and the screech of brakes, and the whole lurid drama reenacts itself in his mind.
‘I’ll take her details now,’ calls a nurse from a hole which opens in the wall. For a terrifying moment Guido realises that he has no formal connection with Anna at all. She commences to enter Anna’s details on a computer. ‘Date of birth?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ says Guido. ‘Religion?’ ‘Hard to say.’ The nurse stops flicking the computer keys and looks at Guido. ‘You are a relative?’
‘No… Well yes I’m her… fiancé.’
Fiancé? Could he say the word? Yes he could say the word and, having given details to the best of his ability to the nurse, he finds himself sitting down again, this time beside a man in a sling. ‘You know what I’m in for?’ says the man looking like someone who wants to unload his life story. A prison sentence, thinks Guido. He can only half listen, so taken up is he with Anna – the shock and suddenness of what has happened not fully sunk in – as the man, a glassblower, commences on his woes, how he burnt his hand in the molten parison in the glass factory. ‘Penetrated the hole in my glove. The bastards never issued us the new ones. The skin came away when I tried to remove them.’
The words are fading. Is all this real? Is she really lying in that THEATRE? The wrong theatre. That’s it. It’s a mistake. They stopped off at the wrong theatre. He is waiting, the man is saying. How many hours to go for a skin graft? He wants to tell the man to shut up, but he keeps rattling on.
‘They don’t see those things,’ the man says disconsolately.
‘What things?’ asks Guido.
The man sighs. ‘The hidden costs.’
A fellow with a yuppie Potence accent is sitting some seats away laughing with a girl who rests her head on his shoulder. ‘See him,’ says the man with the sling. ‘Cracking jokes to make the hours move faster.’
Time passes, but not fast any more, the clock hand on the wall scarcely moving. The joker runs out of jokes. The room takes on a gloomy silence.
A woman bearing a dazed look – drugs, drink? in a tiny mini skirt half way up her bottom – is part pushed, part carried into the casualty ward by two whitecoated attendants and positioned in a seat opposite Guido. Guido, lost in his thoughts about Anna, pays her little attention. One of the attendants places a plastic bag with her personal things on the floor beside her. She slumps forward in the seat, her arms supporting herself on her thighs. She slumps forward and further forward until she falls on the ground head down at Guido’s feet, forcing him to look up.
A flustered nurse appears, holding a bandage and a scissors. ‘Oh not you, Madeleine, not again,’ she exclaims despairingly. She retreats behind the casualty door and after a moment reappears, this time pushing a wheelchair. ‘Now, Madeleine,’ she says, trying to rouse her. ‘Now, Madeleine,’ and Madeleine’s eyes open glazed. ‘Please, your lordship,’ she says in garbled speech, ‘can I have it now.’ ‘You’re going to help us now, Madeleine, aren’t you?’ says the nurse as the attendants struggle to lift her into the wheelchair.
New Year’s Eve gives way to New Year’s morning. He waits, sits for a while, his forehead taut with a smarting from the stitches, staring at a blank white wall, drinks tasteless coffee from a vending machine, paces up and down a small space. Afraid to telephone anyone, her mother, Philippe. Loti, yes Loti, he had only told her. Loti never liked those types of problems, personal, familial, that was not her scene. When he hurt his arm once as a kid (some bully twisted it up his back in the school yard) and he came home crying, she brushed him aside (gently of course), had no time; he had to fight his own corner, that’s what she was saying but not in words. Inconveniences in the grand plan of things (she was totalitarian), her Great Design, a little boy, an accident, not just his arm, his whole self. But she was not unkind – she fed him when he cried – in her own way she fitted him anonymously into the twilight times, all the protests, all the revolutions that never were, as far as Guido could now ascertain, he was a little cog in the wheel. He was okay, but no more and no less than that of a pet hamster or maybe a bird in a cage that could be looked at and fed from time to time. Encourage, but let me not be deterred, that was Loti, his mother. Never told anyone in all the years until Anna came along. Even from Philippe he kept his secret and he was so like her, more like a son than himself could ever be. He knew she liked him always, had time for him, gave him the run of the café. Like her, he had little time for the personal, got carried away with the ideology. Their attitude towards Anna showed that – two of a kind. And his father, how he was summoned from the deep well and his printing press still in use, his legacy, but the dark side, never allowed to surface. Loti wanted all memory of him banished, insisted that it be banished. In the whirr of all her activities there was no room for that type of slowing down: an engine of darkness. Activists, but he’s not an activist; Anna said it has to come from someone else, what you are. A contemplative perhaps (how can one go through life without thinking what it is we are going through, it baffles him). But why are all these thoughts crashing into his head now? Anna. He must think of her. He is afraid to move from the building, just as he was afraid to move from the scene of the crash earlier (how long is it now?) for fear she will call out for him. How would it be if he weren’t there? What would she think of him? She said she loved him that night. Is love diminished by its articulation? Are these feelings better not expressed? Safer like shells in a basket, not allowed to fall. Her expression of love has led to this, he concludes. She had wanted to bring him to that nightclub to express her love for him. We would all be better off without it, without those highs and lows. All lows now like weather depressions coming in from the sea. Like his father. Glad he didn’t tell her about him. Not now. And yet when he told her about his mother, she got confused. But it was his insistence that brought them to the nightclub. They could have skipped it.
It is well into the morning when a surgeon appears. An exceedingly tall tanned man with fair wavy hair. ‘You are the fiancé?’ he says, untying the strings of his mask. ‘I’m Mr Kemp.’
They shake hands.
‘She’s going to be okay, Mr van Thool, but the left leg… it was too badly damaged, too many small pieces, all the bones crushed into tiny fragments…we had to… she would’ve died otherwise, you understand.’
‘Wait a minute,’ says Guido, ‘you’re not telling me you cut off her leg?’
‘I’m sorry, Mr van…’
‘There was no alternative. The gastrocnemius was beyond repair.’
‘The muscle that gives one mobility. She would never have been able to move it even if it were stitched, and there would also have been, indeed there still is, the danger of circulatory problems.’
‘Hold on now, please just hold on,’ says Guido breathlessly, ‘am I hearing you right?’
‘I’m sorry. One has to act fast you understand in cases like this. But with prosthesis, you know, nowadays…’
‘I am sorry.’
Guido wrings his hands, looks around the room at the walls and the ceiling as if they are closing in on him.
‘Just like that. You cut off a person’s leg just like that.’
‘It was to save her life.’
‘Did you ask her permission before you… before you butchered her?’
‘There’s no need for that,’ says the surgeon taking umbrage.
‘When can I see her?’
‘Not for a few hours. Not till she comes out of the anaesthetic. You must be brave for her, Mr van Thool.’
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ shouts Guido.
‘Mr van Thool.’ His voice is stern. ‘She will need you to help her through this.’
‘And what if she can’t get through this? She was a ballerina, do you realise that?’
‘I’m sorry. I truly am.’
‘She won’t thank you, you know that? She won’t thank you for saving her life.’ He is sobbing. ‘What’ll I tell her mother? She’s an invalid. She lived for her daughter, for her dancing. We all did. All of us who knew her. All of us who loved her.’
‘I can arrange counselling,’ the surgeon is saying.
‘Yes, but for the moment try and get some sleep.’
Guido can’t bring himself to phone Mrs Zweig. He can’t tell her over the phone what has happened to her daughter. Yet he knows he must contact her. He established from one of the nurses that Anna would be several hours under the anaesthetic, so, no matter how reluctant he feels, he knows he is of no use to her for the moment (if ever). Even guardian angels need… oh shut up, he says to his thoughts. So rather than wait several hours for Anna to wake up from the anaesthetic – under no circumstances would he be allowed to see her before that – and seeking some physical outlet for the anguish he feels, he decides to run all the way to Mrs Zweig’s apartment. Ignoring the lift, he runs down the stairs of the hospital, the night porter eyeing him suspiciously – everyone on the alert since the anarchists went on the rampage; who knows where they will strike next? and out the main door. He keeps running past bus stops and the high glass buildings, past the traffic jams and people jams with their morning queues: cleaners and night porters from the glass works, grave looking in the early light. He runs nonstop until he arrives winded at the door of her apartment.
He is surprised to see how stoically she accepts what he has to tell her. ‘The cards,’ she says, showing no emotion. She rotates the wheelchair around, turning her back on him as he speaks, and she stares out the window, a vacuous place of release for her. A grey foreboding sky. Nowhere for her to run. Only in her whitening knuckles does he discern the tension in her as they press tightly on the steel wheels of her chair.
‘So, she’s going to be like me now. She’s going to be worse than me. At least I have a leg to scratch.’
‘If I had only been on the nearside,’ says Guido.
‘Of the car. I’m sorry. But if it’s any consolation I’ll find out who…’
For Love of Anna by James Lawless is one of the finest 5 star pieces of writing I have read in recent years.’ Deepak Menon, Amazon review. She sighs. ‘Don’t say any more Guido van Thool.’ She looks around the maroon walls of her apartment, at photographs of her daughter at various ages in poses from different ballets. ‘They’ll have to go,’ she says, ‘before she comes home.’ She heaves. ‘One thing one must never do is go around saying what one used to be.’ Her hands shaking, she takes out her deck of cards from under her rug. She shuffles them, fans them out. ‘Pick a card,’ she says to Guido. Guido hesitates. ‘Mrs Zweig I’m…’ ‘Svetlana.’ ‘Svetlana I’m not really…’ ‘Pick one,’ she insists, pushing the cards into Guido’s chest. Guido picks a card. Mrs Zweig looks at the card and looks at Guido. She moans. ‘Always the same.’ She puts the cards back under her rug and starts to rock in her chair. She moans and rocks to and fro, to and fro and her left foot begins to tap on the steel footrest.
From For Love of Anna by James Lawless. In paperback and Kindle.
‘For Love of Anna by James Lawless is one of the finest 5 star pieces of writing I have read in recent years.’ Deepak Menon, Amazon review.