Louis de BERNIÈREs - Liver

Of all domestic jobs it was the fortnightly drag to the launderette that I hated the most. It was our misfortune to live in a small flat where there was no room for a washing machine, and it had long been our habit to use up all our underwear before deciding that I really must go and do a wash. It was therefore always an emergency when I went to the launderette, because otherwise we would have been reduced to rummaging through the laundry basket for the least unsavoury items. It wouldn't have been too bad for me, because I went to private schools where we were expected to change our underpants just once a fortnight, and I became scrupulous about accidents and leaks, but my wife went to a state school and lived at home, so for her it would have been a true and terrible deprivation if she could not have changed all her clothes every day, sometimes twice.
     When I went to the launderette I used to be burdened by four bulging canvas bags containing all her clothes, and one small and half-empty one containing mine. I felt like my wife's slave under such circumstances, and my bitterness was mitigated only by the thought that she was a conscientious victim of the notion that everything must be ironed. Naturally, I discovered long ago that most garments will iron themselves if folded or hung correctly, but I was never able to convince my wife of this, so my three hours of exemplary tedium in the launderette were usually followed by dreadful episodes in which she spent an entire weekend dripping with perspiration, delirious with boredom, anger, and dehydration while she ironed everything in an upper room. She would emerge in a state that I would describe as psychotic and vengeful, and for some hours afterwards I would have the trepidatious sensation of walking upon glass. I would be afflicted with awful hurricanes of baseless guilt, which were probably only an exaggeration of the normal feelings of culpability which every wife likes to nourish in her husband's psyche, so that when she was ironing I would feel obliged to do something just as tedious. I did the hoovering, washed the cat's bowl and feeding mat, and cleaned the grime off the light switches.

       On non-ironing days I got into the habit of deliberately not doing something that desperately needed to be done, just so that I could do it conspicuously when she was at the ironing board. I was no doubt pathetic and risible, but I am sure that every other husband is similarly the victim of the tyranny of wifely bitterness. I realise of course that one is no longer permitted to generalise about anything, but it none the less seems to me that women are inclined to make the rods with which they beat their own backs, and do not perceive the irony of their subsequent complaints. I once proved this to my own satisfaction by offering to pay someone to come in and do the ironing. Her ladyship was outraged by the suggestion, either because she believed that I was casting nasturtiums upon the quality of her ironing, or because she would only have had to find some other way to make me feel like a dog.
     We had a launderette very close by, almost close enough for me to be able to stagger there, festooned with my bulging cargo of mutinous bags. However, it did not supply change, and neither did Patel's sweetshop and newsagent's next door. The floor was always awash, and machines leapt about in a noisy and even perilous fashion. It was also full of elderly black ladies in disconcerting and unrealistic curly wigs who sat immobile on the benches, clutching their handbags to their laps. But as soon as I entered their female domain they would patronise me in a manner that was most humiliating. They would advise me about separating the whites from the coloureds, about the correct temperature of the wash, and, worst of all, they used to kiss their teeth and make chirring sounds because they disapproved of my particular way of folding sheets. Many was the time that one of them leapt to her feet with a considerable creaking of matronly stays and corsets, and snatched a sheet from my hands. They had smiles that clearly indicated their compassion for my masculine cretinism, and their wonderment at the thought of my attempting a task that only an experienced and full-time black woman could possibly perform correctly. They could be diverted solely by adroit questions about Barbados or Trinidad, in which case they would wax nostalgic and begin to lament that the quality of immigrants was not as high as it had been in their day , and they shouldn't let in any more Jamaicans unless they were literate, and so on. With any luck a mild dispute would arise between them as to the relative merits of their various islands, and I would be left to fold my sheets in peace.
     The launderette that I more usually frequented was mainly used by Turks, even though its owner was a charming Iranian intellectual who had fled from the ayatollahs with his family after it had become lamentably clear that even the much-despised Shah had been preferable to the new regime of rustic lunatics and religious terrorists. This man, who called himself Derek because the British cannot pronounce 'Ali', was an electronic engineer by training, and felt that his life had become one appalling penance. We had a natural sympathy for each other because he hated the launderette as much as I hated having to do my laundry. 'I have been doing the service wash since seven o'clock this morning,' he would tell me dolefully.
     'I hate having to this,' I would say, and he would respond, 'At least you only have to be coming once a fortnight.'
     'I have fourteen pairs of underwear,' I would say.
     'I know, I know always how many pair everyone have.'
     Ali's advice was never patronising, and he smiled with delight if he was able to be helpful, quite unlike the black women in the other launderette who only smiled out of pity. He also took an interest in the books that I brought with me to read while my washing churned and flopped drunkenly about in the machines, and it was he who first induced me to read the works of Yashar Kemal, Ahdaf Soueif, and Mario Vargas Llosa. It was Ali who told me to button up the bottom of my duvet covers in order to prevent them from being filled up with socks and shirts that would later refuse to dry in the drying machine, and he had some fecund ideas in the area of folding clothes so that you could get twice as many into one bag. He demonstrated that you need only half the quantity of powder stipulated by the manufacturers, and he helped to fold the sheets only when asked. I found that the male ambience of his launderette left me feeling less crushed than that of the one with the elderly black women in implausible wigs, and it was good to have someone there with whom one could discuss literature and deplore the excruciating ennui of launderettes in general.
     Habitually I went to the launderette at about lunch-time, so that I would have a legitimate excuse to go to the Turkish greasy. This establishment was run by a family of Turks who had mastered the dying art of producing meals that appealed to genuine working-class scaffolders and navvies, and to middle-class folk like me who occasionally felt sentimental about the abysmal standard of fried British catering in the distant days of our first acne. In the Turkish greasy you could get properly congealed baked beans, fried bread so impregnated with lard that you felt sick even as you savoured its aroma from a distance of twenty feet, scrambled eggs that bounced and quivered like blubber in an earthquake, and meat-and-two-veg standards all swimming in a very thin gravy that tasted unmistakably of stock cubes. They also had a very marvellous manner of making coffee. The mug would be half-filled with milk and then held under a spout that injected it with piping hot steam. There would be a most edifying hissing, burbling, frothing and fuss, and the milk would emerge looking like a sinister chemical in a gothic experiment. Then a spoonful of the lowest possible quality instant coffee would be thrown on top. This was a very fine dark powder that resembled cinnamon but smelt of nothing whatsoever. Finally the mug would be filled to the brim with tepid water from a jug, and one was presented with something that resembled a cappucino, except that the rich dark flecks floating on the surface were not chocolate, but indissoluble coffee. This latter coagulated upon one's teeth and created the most alarming sensation of overwhelming bitterness in the mouth. It could make the eyes roll and a chill of pleasurable horror trip along the spine.
     It was the meat-and-two-veg that I went for, or, to be more honest, it was the meat.
     Unfortunately my wife had become a rampant and fanatical vegetarian some years after we married, having watched on television a very sanguinary programme about transplant surgery. Eventually I even had to wear plastic shoes, and she removed the leather straps from my rucksack, and the carrying handles from my suitcases, without replacing them with anything else and without informing me. Imagine how I felt when I had to turn up at the Ramblers' Association South Downs hike with my rucksack actually stapled to my jacket. I would have divorced her long ago, but the fact was that she would have got custody of the children, she would have got the flat, and she would have got most of my income in perpetuity. Worst of all, we would have quarrelled about custody of the dog and the cat, and I knew perfectly well that she would have won them too. I couldn't have borne to be parted from the animals, and that is why I continued to live with someone who had hated and despised me for nearly a decade but would not leave me because she was terrified of her own mother's inevitably acid remarks and reproaches. In my opinion, and I have realised this too late, marriage is a form of theft in which women conspire to appropriate everything that a man has, including his happiness, and in the process their own happiness is lost as well.
     Anyway, I had to go to the Turkish greasy to satisfy my occasional craving for meat. In the old days I would have asked for a double egg and chips, and this would have left me feeling pleasurably sinful, but latterly I found that I dreamed of liver. Not ox liver - it is rather overpowering, and they tend to slice it so thin that cooking transforms it into a kind of rank cardboard - but pig or lamb or chicken liver.
     I don't really know what the liver does. It cleans the blood or something, and it is supposed to be good for anaemia. Anyway, it was what I longed for when I was making yet another nutroast for my implacable wife, or when I was arranging rocket in another salad fit only for rabbits and guinea pigs, so it was for liver, bacon and mash that I asked when I ventured to the Turkish greasy on laundry days. I ate it with such desperate relish that afterwards I usually found that I had splashed the gravy and the thin yellow mustard on to my cardigan and my Royal Artillery tie.
     It was this desperate relish that got me into hospital. I had a small morsel of liver in my mouth (a mere sliver of liver, so to speak) when I felt the need to sneeze. I made that sharp intake of breath that is the prelude to a good sneeze, and suddenly and horrifyingly I had the sensation of having been switched off. I had breathed in a lump of liver that might have been designed and manufactured by a cork specialist with the specific intention of sealing my windpipe.
     I believe that there is some handy technique for unbunging the terminally choked - the Munich Manoeuvre or something - but none of the horrified Turks or round-oathed navvies had a clue what to do.
     I had risen abruptly to my feet, and the table had overturned. My liver had slithered away in a pitiable stream of gravy, and my soggy peas, alas too soggy to roll, clung tenaciously to the now vertical surface of the table. I could feel my eyes popping in my head, and I had the ghastly experience of sucking in my breath and realising that with every attempt to breathe I was merely inhaling the liver more and more irretrievably.
     It is not possible to think clearly in such desperate circumstances. I probably should have thumped myself in the sternum, or made dialling motions with my right forefinger so that the greasy's habitués would know to call for assistance. Instead I flailed my arms about, clutched at my throat with my hands, and finally fell to the floor and writhed. I felt my head beginning to explode, as though someone had pumped it full of water, and then the world turned red. It turned blue, and then black. I heard someone say, 'Flippin' 'eck, 'e's brown bread,' in a strongly Turkish London accent, and that was that.
     I did not regain consciousness in the medical sense of that expression. I didn't wake up and say, 'Where am I?' or look at the nurse all in white and say, 'If this is heaven then you must be an angel.' No, I merely became aware that I was lying in bed and that I could not even close my eyes or move my arms. It was as though I had ceased to be my body, but was temporarily visiting it. I heard the bleeps of the monitors, and all I saw was a buff-coloured ceiling with a crack in it that looked very like the route of the A12 through Chelmsford and Colchester to Ipswich. I heard the voice of my wife, speaking very calmly.
     'He's dead then, is he?'
     'He is certainly brain-dead, I am sorry to say. Without this machinery he could certainly not sustain life. It's cerebral anoxia, you see. I am terribly sorry. I'm afraid that the ambulance took ten minutes to get to him because of roadworks in Tooting, and then took another twenty minutes to get here because of a demonstration. There was really very little that could be done...'
     'There's no hope at all?'
     I wanted to shout at the doctor, 'I'm not dead, I'm not dead, I'm not dead,' but of course nothing happened. I do not know which was stronger in me, frustration or horror. It was akin to that nightmare one sometimes has when one has become entangled in the sheets, or when an arm has gone to sleep from being slept upon, and the dream is that one is paralysed and in dire jeopardy. I tried to shout, 'Help!' I tried over and over again, and nothing happened except that I felt a would-be tear fail to well up in my eyes and fail to course down my cheeks.
     'Are you going to switch him off?' enquired my spouse. I noted that this question was asked with a clear note of eagerness in that prim little voice, eagerness coupled with hope and scientific curiosity.
     'With your consent, of course. I really think that there's no alternative.'
     'He would have liked you to use his organs,' said my wife, and if I could have leapt with anguish and panic, believe me, I would have done so. I had always wanted to be buried entire. Call me superstitious, but I'd read too many stories about Ancient Egyptians or Chinese or whoever, who would not be able to get into paradise if bits of them were missing. If you were castrated you had to keep your testicles in a box, so that they could be buried with you. I did not want my body to be pillaged for parts as if it were some Ford Cortina on a rusty heap in Stepney.
     'There are some forms to sign,' continued the doctor, 'I'll just go and get them. Perhaps you'd like to spend some moments with him alone.'
     'Oh yes, yes I would,' came my wife's voice. 'Thank you so much, doctor.'
     A face, blurred, but unmistakably hers, moved above mine. For one fantastically misguided moment I thought, perhaps I even hoped, that she was going to kiss me. Instead she brought her face very close and spat out, 'You bastard.'
     'Charming,' I thought, 'here am I all but dead, and she's still calling me a bastard.'
     'A bit of liver was it? A bit of liver? You know what you are? A bloody murderer, that's what. And there's me thinking you were vegetarian too. I suppose you think you're very clever, don't you, sneaking out for meat like some nasty jackal, or whatever it is. Well, you're a murderer, and I'm glad you're dead, and I hope you can hear me, and at least there's one pig that didn't die in vain 'cause at least you choked on its liver. That pig ought to be made a saint, that's what. St Porky the Deliverer, St Porky the Bloody Marvellous. You know what? I'm going to ask for that bit of liver, and I'm going to give it a decent burial with full military honours, or I might have it set in a lump of glass or resin or whatever it is, so I can kiss it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and burn candles in front of it on Sundays, and do salaams and genuflectionwotsits and say 'Thank you thank you thank you'.'
     I always knew that my wife loathed me, but I reflected that these remarks and observations were a little extreme. Perhaps if I had choked on a portion of veggieburger she might have been more moderate in her exultation.
     I half-listened to her ranting and raving, and the other half of my mind dwelt contentedly upon the happier recollections of my life. The children. The cat pulling down the Christmas tree so that the dog could eat the chocolates, including the silver foil wrappers. My father teaching me how to make small bombs out of weedkiller and sugar. My deaf great-aunt obliviously farting at table in the false belief that none of us could hear her. Our honeymoon, when we did it so much that I actually developed a raw patch. My mother, giving me permission to give up the violin.
     I emerged from these happy memories to hear nmy wife concluding triumphantly, '... and, you bastard, I am so bloody glad you're dead.'
     I suppose that I should have felt bitter or sad to hear it, but as a matter of fact I began to feel a warm glow of twilight satisfaction. You see, I didn't suppose that they told her which café I was in when I choked, and I certainly had never told her that I was in the habit of going there while doing our laundry. I realised that she didn't even know which laundry I used to go to, and that even if she found out, Ali (alias Derek) would not know that she was my wife, and would faithfully guard our laundry until I arrived to collect it. Which I never would, now that I was officially dead and about to be used for carpentry. Which meant that my dear sweet wife would eventually go home and in the morning discover that she had no clothes whatsoever for daily wear. I had a delicious mental image of her disgustedly putting on yesterday's knickers and bra and skirt and blouse, and searching frantically through the house for the rest of her clothes. She would find none, she would realise that I must have been at the laundry. She would realise that she didn't know which laundry, she would telephone around all the local establishments, she would eventually speak to Ali (alias Derek), who would probably think she was mad, and then at last she would give up and realise that she was just going to have to handwash the same things every night until she had time to go to Marks and Sparks and begin the acquisition of an entirely new wardrobe. As I slipped away I had a most delicious prevision of her fury and frustration.
     I may be perverse, but in my opinion that was something almost worth dying for.

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