Somebody Loves Us All, by Damien Wilkins
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Paddy Thompson, speech therapist, newspaper columnist, is fifty and happy. His dark period is behind him: a failed marriage, a career crisis. Now he lives with Helena (‘the best thing that ever happened to him’), helps kids with their speech problems, and has moved his mother into the next-door apartment. His life feels sane and settled.
So what are these new signs of upset? One of his clients refuses to speak. Helena is under stress at work. His newspaper column has run out of puff. Paddy buys a bicycle. He feels, with a typical metaphorical flourish, that ‘one of those great wheels of life had begun a revolution’. Then his mother presents him with the biggest challenge of his life. What follows, in this wonderfully expansive novel, takes Paddy deep into the vortex of family love.
The book, boldly and exuberantly, asks large questions about how we express ourselves, not only through speech but also through gesture, action, and silence.
From: Somebody Loves Us All, by Damien Wilkins
That Saturday Tony Gorzo didn’t call him. ‘Speech Marks’, Paddy’s fortnightly column, had one dedicated fan or at least a reliably responsive reader: Gorzo. He rang Paddy every second Saturday to talk about the newest one. He never missed a column. Usually Gorzo rang in the afternoon, occasionally at night if he’d been out of town or busy during the day. There was a period when the phone would ring and Helena would call out, not bothering to answer it, ‘It’s Gorzo for you.’ She said Paddy had a groupie and it was sweet. She’d never met him.
Paddy imagined Gorzo had an alarm on his phone or his watch, some method of alert, which told him to ring the man who’d saved his son from life as a retard. It was Tony’s own terminology, and not true. Paddy had helped Jimmy speak again after a serious accident. He was a speech therapist. But Gorzo granted him powers, gifts. And to be honest, it was nice hearing from such a person.
There was no make-up call during the week either. And on Friday evening, Paddy went with his friend Lant to the bike shop and bought a bike.
Maybe Paddy got the bike as a replacement for Gorzo? It seemed unlikely. More momentous surely was the fact that his mother, following a persistent campaign led by Paddy and urged on by his two sisters, had moved into the next-door apartment, having finally sold the family home in Lower Hutt where they’d grown up. After all this time, he was back more or less living with his mother. Was this the opening of the period in which they’d end up mothering her? It looked a way off. Teresa was fit, active, mentally sharp, a young seventies. Yet one of those great wheels of life had begun a revolution, he thought—wheels, bikes? The last bike he’d owned, he remembered, his mother had given him. It had belonged to his poor father. Anyway, just then Gorzo’s silence loomed larger than Teresa’s presence.
He wheeled the new bike into the apartment and leaned it against the wall by his downstairs office. What was that poem’s lovely ending, the boy staring at his bicycle, ‘consoled by the standing of its beautiful silence’. One of Paddy’s clients—the mother of a boy he was seeing—brought him poetry. Yet looking at his bike, he was not consoled. He thought he’d made a mistake, and he considered taking it straight back to Penny Farthing. He was no cyclist, not in thirty, nearly forty years. And to bike in this city? After each ride, it seemed, you were compelled to write a letter to the editor: To all the jerks behind the wheel, what am I, the invisible rider of the apocalypse? Do I not appear as a Christmas tree in front of you? Cyclists lived lives of great and impotent rage. They were righteous. Worse, they were right. They were the planet’s future. He knew it and he doubted he was one of them.
Helena stood at the top of the stairs. ‘Look at it,’ Paddy said to her. ‘Look at it go.’
He started explaining what the shiny machine was capable of, touching the gear levers, pointing at the disc brakes, trying to remember the sales pitch. In fact there hadn’t been much of one. You were steered to the bike which best suited your needs and abilities. It was Paddy who’d tried to talk the bike shop guy into conceding something pricier might also work in his case. No, Mr Penny Farthing told him flatly, actually looking Paddy up and down—from his toes that slightly turned out, through his thick middle, the girlish bottom (the adjective affectionately supplied had been Helena’s), and up to large and sloping shoulders, appraising the full package—I wouldn’t bother if I were you.
Helena approached. She was about to do her charitable best. She smiled but she was dead tired, almost an exile in exhaustion. It seemed perverse of him to give her a new subject on top of all she was processing with her work. They’d not spoken much through the week. He’d sent her sympathetic looks. She’d apologised for being a drone, a worker bee. Actually, he said, a drone was different from a worker bee. The drone didn’t gather nectar or pollen, or construct the hive, and on evidence she was doing all the above. He’d had a brief apiarist phase as a kid. Drones had bigger eyes than worker bees and didn’t have a sting. They could help adjust the temperature of the hive by shivering or vibrating their wings. He went on a little longer in lecture mode until he saw Helena’s nodding had become virtually a comic miming of rote attention. She was a queen bee anyway, he said. What, she said, clicking alert again, the single female among all those males? I’ll pass. As a queen we feed you and dispose of your waste, he said. And what do I have to do in return? she asked. Basically, he told her, reproduce. At which point she’d emitted a grunt and left him.
In front of the bike, she was wary, blinking. Her first husband, Max, who was German, had done something with sports—Paddy couldn’t recall the details—possibly a swimming instructor? He suspected physical activity in men was a shady area for her, with its whisper of discontent, odd regressive energies. What was Paddy playing at with the bike? What did it mean? In the three years she’d known him—he saw the calculation—he’d never even jogged, though they’d enjoyed walks together. They knew the hills. On Mount Victoria, they’d stood under a tree full of baby tui zipping around, playing a game of tag. The birds swooped among the branches, touching each other’s beaks and then flying off. The craziness was surprising. They’d both thought tui would be solemn, importantly themselves, almost emblematic. Stately singers too. But here they were, thrilled and careless. Almost tuneless.
Finally Helena said of the bicycle, ‘Is it the same one Jeremy’s got?’ She stood off a few feet as if it might start up on its own accord. Helena didn’t much like his friend, his oldest friend, which was why she always called him by his first name. To everyone else he was Lant. This was a pity, not that puzzling, but it had advantages. From time to time, Paddy had the pleasant, silly sense of being competed over, and an idea too that, with them both as intimates, he was tolerant, wide-ranging. Yet he knew he only had this pair, really. They were everything to him, without being equal of course.
Lant’s involvement in the bike purchase was something he’d hoped to keep from her. Silently he conceded it was a strike against the project. Two men plotting physical activity was on a scale of untrustworthiness altogether different. He was influenced by Helena. He’d always been influenced more strongly by women than by men. Absolutely. He thought this was the way of the world and not just how countries such as, well, Italy worked. It was the world’s not very great secret. And it was also one reason why he’d kept Jeremy Lanting as a friend. As a sort of balance, a statement about possibilities on the male side of things. He hoped men weren’t hopeless. Resolutely he didn’t want to join a men’s group.
‘Lant’s is similar,’ he said. He sounded to himself defensive, or defensive disguised as light, and not well. ‘This is the one that best suits me. They tested me on it.’
‘They filmed me on it, riding.’
‘Where’d you go?’
‘Nowhere. It was done with software on their computer. I sat on the bike, turned the pedals, and they filmed me.’
He asked if she wanted to sit on it, touching the sleek seat, which looked something like a sailor’s hat, also rather cruel.
Under her gaze, the bike—an expensive one though certainly not top of the range, that was denied him—so thin and light, began to look flat, lacking a dimension, like a drawing of itself, the effect enhanced when he raised it an inch off the floor with just two fingers. They were both wishing this insubstantial apparatus away. His cartoon bike.
She went upstairs again while Paddy went into his office, from where he could still see one of the bike’s amazingly narrow wheels.
Above him he heard Helena clicking her tongue in frustration. She’d be at her laptop, the papers spread across the dining table. For the sound to travel was quite something. It was as if she was signalling him—not to come up but simply to understand the reasons why she’d been unable to respond properly downstairs. They’d never liked to leave anything hanging between them, at least until recently. The clicks were speech patently. He went to the door of his office and called up the stairs, ‘All right on the upper deck?’
She called down, ‘Grumble, grumble.’
When they both had work on, this was their evening pattern, to retreat and then reunite, sharing supper, though Helena had been working later than usual, coming to bed after him. Her language school was up for a review by the Ministry, who were reacting to rumblings from the new government. Everything was in order but she worried. The culture was punitive, the knives were out. A couple of rogue schools had put everyone under the same harsh weather. On the TV news they’d shown a man running to get into a black Mercedes, holding a newspaper over his face. Hers wasn’t a rogue school but a model one, he told her. Yet the stress still played out and perhaps finally she wasn’t wonderful at delegating. Helena held the whole enterprise in her head. It was her baby. That was a little chink in her armour. Her pride, or her voraciousness could it be called?
And in his head? His baby?
Two names he was thinking of: Tony Gorzo, naturally, and Sam Covenay, Friday’s low-light, and his first appointment at Monday’s clinic. Sam had been coming to Paddy for six weeks of speech therapy, with zero progress. From the time he’d had braces fitted on his teeth, Sam had more or less stopped speaking. He’d driven his parents insane until finally they said he could have the braces removed but the boy didn’t want this either.
So was this the reason Paddy had bought the bike? To get things moving? That idea came to a crashing halt. In Middlemarch—probably his favourite novel alongside The Magic Mountain, which Helena had read in German—there was the salient warning. He knew the quotation almost by heart, having used it a number of times in presentations. That we all get our thoughts entangled in metaphors and act fatally on them. Everyone does this, ‘grave or light’. That was his chink, he believed.
Forget the Covenays then.
At his desk he tried to come up with a topic for his next ‘Speech Marks’ column, and immediately felt everything had been said. This was entirely normal. This was writing. And yet after eight years in the newspaper, what was left? Was this the meaning of Tony Gorzo’s silence? The reader had voted. Finito. Or, Greek, Omega. Columns of course had a natural life. His fellow columnists, though he’d never met them, demonstrated this truth. One year you’re witty, geisty, on the button, and the next you’re writing about how you hate jazz or the colour of the houses in your neighbourhood. Was he that bad? His column, a merciful follower might consider, dealt in facts, in ideas over personal opinion. Had the facts run out? This made no sense either. The world’s data was infinite. One’s ability to process, or just hang on, provided the limits. His thinking was somewhat manic, he knew. Over-available for capture.
The crook in the black Mercedes wasn’t someone Helena knew, or even knew of. She was of a different class altogether, having read Thomas Mann auf Deutsch—a for instance he’d supplied when she looked in danger of using the term industry colleague as they watched the news and the man appeared a second or third time smelling the newspaper.
He looked up and saw the blank space on the wall where a picture had hung and here were the Covenays again. Alan Covenay, the father, had the picture. He ran a framing business, and was supposedly fixing it. The picture was a cartoon portrait of Paddy in fact, a gift from the newspaper. For years the cartoon had sat on the floor in the spare room of the house he rented after his divorce from Bridget. It wasn’t until they’d moved into the apartment that he considered it again, or Helena did.
Helena’s idea was that the cartoon created a natural talking point for Paddy with new patients. ‘You could say to the kids, guess who that is?’
‘They might not believe me when I say it’s me,’ said Paddy.
‘So that’s the talking point,’ she said.
‘How we fall apart as we age?’
‘How we change, which is what you want them to do.’
He wasn’t sure that was what he did want them to do. Did you say to the child with autism, I think you need to change?
‘I think we can all change, learn, grow,’ she said. ‘I see it every day at the school.’
‘Grow?’ he said. ‘I think we can grow paunches.’
She’d laughed, but unhappily, he thought, as if his flippancy had trampled briefly, harmlessly, on an important belief. He believed in it too, though not unproblematically. He didn’t care for the coercion that often figured in the wish. It was the old psychiatrist and light bulb joke: the light bulb has to want to change. But where, for instance, did that leave civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, animal rights, environmental activism, any of the major progressive movements on which public opinion needed more than a prod? There was an argument for force. He’d had it with Lant over the years. Yes, yes, but there was also the collection of light bulbs that came each week to sit with Paddy in his office. Over a period, under a bunch of gently does it trial and error operations, suggestions, of games and fun, they turned on, these bulbs. They began to shine. He’d seen the light. I seen the little lamp.
Lant had a coercive solution for the Covenay kid. ‘What you do is this,’ he said. ‘You walk over to him, you say, “I’m really fucking sick of this and so is everyone else”, and then you reach down and pull his ear as hard as you can, lift him up by it. You’ll never see recalcitrant vocalisation crumble so quickly. Elective mutism? Elect this.’ Jeremy Lanting was an educational psychologist. They’d worked together in the public system when he and Paddy were both starting out.
The other slightly manicky thing was that Paddy could hear voices, very faint, through the wall, and he strained to make out more in the murmur. His mother’s radio left on? That was something she’d done for years, even before their father died—left the radio on to deter burglars. But perhaps this wasn’t it at all. Paddy had been having trouble with his right ear recently. The sounds or interference came and went according to different stimuli. The noise was a hum, a pulse, and sometimes a soft sort of boom. Weirdly, he saw something: a person leaving a room, shutting the door after him. It occurred to him that this was his father. Occasionally he’d had things like this with his father crop up.
Apparently when he was a boy Paddy had been a frequent and vocal sleepwalker, arriving in the living room late at night, sitting beside his parents and taking up some obscure debate, trying to draw them in. ‘Don’t you see?’ he asked them urgently. ‘Don’t you?’ Evidently his father was terrified when this chatty zombie joined them. He couldn’t do a thing, froze and stared, until Paddy’s mother led the babbling sleeping boy out. He remembered none of it—did any sleepwalker? Plus he knew nothing about this when it was going on. It was never reported to him. He had to wait until he was an adult. He’d brought Bridget around to Lower Hutt for dinner. It was before they were married. Teresa told the story for no reason he could think of except this. Strangers i.e. non family members visiting the house could provoke her into saying things that were oddly disloyal and aggressive e.g. you’re marrying into a line of possibly unreliable males. The sleepwalking wasn’t especially funny in the narration though Teresa might have believed she was being entertaining. Visitors made her speed up. Anyway, listening to his mother Paddy felt his father mocked. The big idea about his father was extreme kindness, gentleness, forbearance. They loved his memory for that. The shadow was ineffectuality. That his son’s sleepwalking could paralyse him was a direct hit. One interpretation was that Teresa was keeping the family clean of foreign taint, preserving the genetic stock, though presumably stock had to replicate itself to earn the name and how did she imagine things could go forward if she was blowing off potential mates? Not that it presented at all like this. Bridget didn’t say a word afterwards. It was his sister Margie who’d always thought their mother sneaky and undermining. Certainly she had the shy person’s combativeness when in situations that challenged her nature to lift a notch. She’d never been a good host. Too busy testing for the fittest.
Since Teresa had moved next door, he’d been far more prone than usual to such reconsiderations. Her very footsteps, though they went unheard—the building’s soundproofing had holes but the flooring was highly absorbent—still sounded, still wandered in his direction. He listened. He found this out about himself. He was listening when he was in his office. Almost snooping. It was unexpected.
In his office he stood up and found on his shelves his yellow-stickied copy of Middlemarch. He read a few bits, flicking through pages, and several of the stickies fell out, having lost their adhesiveness. He’d always read with this system, fiction and professional journals and books. His flagged library amused Helena. The stickies had notes written on them. He’d thought it useful but as a system it was obviously flawed. Anyway, it was good enough to turn up the passage with the quote about metaphors. Casaubon, the dry religious scholar, about to marry Dorothea, defeating her other suitor, Sir James Chettham, and securing a match he’d hardly dreamed of—a lovely young brilliant woman whose only aspiration seems to be to learn at his knee and to help him with his big life’s-work book—is surprised he doesn’t feel greater excitement—‘delight’ is the word—when outwardly his situation appears so good. This, Eliot says, feeling ‘more tenderly towards his experience of success than towards the disappointment of the amiable Sir James’, is because he has fallen victim to metaphor. Casaubon, the antisocial bachelor, believed he had money in the bank, that he’d been saving up his pleasure for just this sort of day: ‘a compound interest of enjoyment’. But nothing is saved. Casaubon feels blankness. The emotions, Eliot suggests, are only present in the present, made on the spot. It’s an empty vault you open. You hoard air. This was how he’d deployed the moment in presentations and addresses. Children with speech problems weren’t saving themselves for a later and miraculous fluency. It was best to unlock the vault now.
Then there was this from the same great book: ‘Few things held the perceptions more thoroughly captive than anxiety about what we have got to say.’ That could make said vault rather stiff to open.
Later the same evening—the evening of The Day the Bike Arrived—Paddy didn’t believe it was coincidental—Helena told him that at his request she’d once covered first husband Max’s body in a Vaseline-like substance and pushed him down a gentle slope of ice somewhere near Zurich. Paddy hadn’t heard this before. At night she’d treated his burns. She’d been twenty-one, twenty-two, working as a maid in Max’s father’s hotel, overseas for the first time. Paddy, too, had worked in a hotel, though under very different circumstances, the details of which he’d never fully spelled out for Helena.
‘All that from just a BA in German literature,’ he said.
‘BA Honours,’ she said.
Her thesis was in a box somewhere in their lock-up, hardbound in black: ‘Sorrows and Sensations in Nineteenth-Century Verse Drama.’ He’d held it out to her once and she’d laughed, wouldn’t take it from him, told him to put it back in the box. He saw her pride. Also she’d travelled quite far from all that. Not that there was any suggestion she’d sold out or anything daft. But she felt complex things about her past, he thought. This was part of the project of being together as late-in-life comrades, to gradually, over time, without hurry, find out such information. Or wait it out more likely. He wasn’t going to push.
‘I can’t really remember.’
‘At the hotel, did you have a maid’s uniform?’
‘Have we headed into some fantasy of yours?’ She had a playful look in her eye, which he was glad to see. Lately he’d missed it. They hated crooks with their faces hidden by newspapers, but they also hated the Ministry of Education and poured curses on its procedures. Dodgy operators scamming in China and South Korea were evil, so was the word compliance. ‘For the record, I wore a black skirt. White shirt, black skirt.’
‘The classic look.’
‘Well I had orange streaks in my hair.’ She touched her hair in a remembering way. She wasn’t wistful often and when it struck, you were affected.
She was greying now, from the front moving back. It was one of his jobs, to put on the slippery plastic gloves and rinse out the dye until the water ran clear—to be her hairdresser! It gave him a wonderful sense of loving to see the back of her neck, her ears. At forty, almost overnight, he’d lost most of his black and a good deal of the hair itself. Better that than the slow years of thinning. You mourned it and then you got on with things. If a miracle cure came through, you laughed at it and tried it. Noni juice, he recalled, from a fruit and vegetable shop in Newtown. ‘Orange streaks? Was that popular at the time?’
‘Among Bavarian chambermaids, you mean? I believe it made me stand out.’
‘Chambermaids, what a word. It makes me think you were locked up in a cellar in a remote chalet, fed through the bars of a cage.’
‘I’m pleased Max never thought of that.’
Later in bed, he was aware of Helena shifting onto her back, her position for talking. He’d already been there for forty sleepless minutes.
‘Tony Gorzo still hasn’t called,’ she said.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Not how it works.’ In the paper he’d checked the death notices.
He asked Helena about her work, the weekend, but her answers were quickly trailing off. She mumbled something about Dora, her daughter—usually a topic to be slightly wary of.
He listened to Helena’s breathing. Was she asleep? She could switch off this suddenly, it was a great skill. Plus she’d been at the laptop throughout the week.
‘What will you do, wear a helmet?’ she said groggily.
After a moment he understood the change in topic. The bicycle.
She sat up and took a sip from her glass of water beside the bed—she needed constant brief sips, as if dehydrated by lifting an arm, moving a leg—and then lay down again. There was more to it. Helena had a chronic reflux problem. It sounded stupid even to him but when she first announced this problem, he felt his love increase. She chewed grey tablets the size of small biscuits and kept glasses of water in all the rooms. In the middle of the night she often woke suddenly, sitting bolt upright with a gasp, her hand pressed to her chest as though she’d been shot. She’d then take a couple of controlling breaths, a sip of water, and lie down again. When it happened the first few times Paddy was with her, he also sat up in alarm, thinking that someone was in the room. Who is it? he said. What’s happening? Who’s there? In a way, he supposed, he thought it was Dora doing this to her.
‘Of course, I’ll wear a helmet,’ he said. He kissed her, told her goodnight, and she was sleeping by the time he turned his back.