Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Darkest Hour

I was throttling an old woman the other night, quite calmly and unhurriedly, my thoughts wandering pleasantly in their customary lazy, aimless fashion, when I glanced across the room and was struck by an overwhelming sense of the utter pointlessness of everything. And as I let the lifeless corpse slip from my grasp and slump back on to the damp mattress, the now vacant eyes staring blindly into infinity, the toothless mouth fixed forever in a grateful smile, the familiar wave of black despair washed over me and I had to get out of there into the night, to the cool air, the soft rain; anywhere away from that world informed by the decaying stench of disease and death and soiled incontinence pads.

When the phantom of futility strikes at four in the morning it tends to spread itself with a mercurial malignancy from the particular via the general to the all-encompassing within a matter of seconds and one's entire perception of the universe can swiftly become enveloped in a miasma of barren despondency. A casual thought about the significance of shoe polish, say, or Shakespearean fish imagery, turns out to be the first step on a very steep downhill path to the big black nothing beyond the back of nowhere.

I'm not at my most sympathetic at that time of day and I consider her death to have been entirely her own responsibility. Although inadvertently, and undoubtedly with good intentions, she nevertheless committed the capital offence of offering that most abominable and depressingly useless piece of advice so frequently imparted by the elderly to those of more tender years, the real meaning of which is quite plainly a plea to be transported without delay from this life of misery and pain into the dark void of eternal anaesthesia. Also implicit within those three little words, of course, is an exhortation to commit suicide. She was trying to kill me, m'lud!

"Don't get old," she said and was duly despatched; but the cause of my despair came after that and from a different source entirely.

In the stillness of the night, during that darkest of hours before dawn, hopelessness can be engendered by the most seemingly insignificant of things: a whiff of woodsmoke upon the dying summer's air; the bus stop where we couldn't say goodnight; the shop where I bought my first bicycle; the churchyard where our lips first met; our secret place beneath the railway bridge; so many thousands of haunting memories littering the streets of the past, waiting around every corner to pounce and desolate me with suicidal nostalgia when I'm at my lowest ebb.

But there we were in room twenty-three of Cyril Chamberlain Court, which held for me no slushy remembrance of times past. No, it was simply a silver-framed picture on a sideboard that did it. A photograph of a girl; slim and fair and beautiful, laughing with the unthinking and inextinguishable joy of youth, and around whose once long and lovely, pale and slender neck, seventy years later, my white-knuckled fingers were gripped like a vice.