By GAVIN CORBETT
The troubling thoughts began, perhaps, with the woman called Ruth. She had asked that “humanist” or “N/A” be written in the religion part of the admission form, and she had refused Holy Communion from the first day. Near the end she said to Salvador those awkward words that any nurse finds hard to deal with: “I know I’m dying.” Instead of ignoring her, Salvador pulled up a seat, touched her hand and said, “You are very brave.” “But how am I brave?” said Ruth, at last with some fire returned to her eyes. “I am going without any dignity, absolutely scared senseless, bitter, bitter, and I’ll tell you why: because I don’t want my life to end. Life is all that there is.”
Later, maybe even in that same week, Salvador had seen a rat near the entrance to the lane behind his house. The rat was scratching behind its ear with its back leg in a kind of crazed, insistent motion, and Salvador had been struck by how full of life it had seemed, as full of life and as sophisticated as a dog. Then the thought came to him that he himself, with his urges to scratch, could have been as base as the rat, which, after all, so it was implied by everything he knew, would have no afterlife waiting for it.
“It’s called a crisis of faith. Don’t sweat it, brother,” said Francisco over the phone. Francisco was laughing, but Francisco, who beat dents out of cars for a living, content just to make it from day to day back in Manila, found it easy to laugh at serious things.
If indeed he was suffering a crisis of faith – and yes, he believed now that he was (Francisco was lazy but not stupid and he did have a talent for diagnosis) – then the next five days would be difficult. Some days before, coming up to his annual leave, he had sensed this, had felt that five days and six nights on his own in the house over Christmas would not be good for his mind, such were the thoughts he was having. But he resolved now to do something. He would use these thoughts; he would examine them, and he would either come through, or come to terms with, this crisis of faith. He called to his saviour in what felt like a final appeal. He said, “Guide me if you are there, my saviour. I will listen for your voice in the silence.”
On the first evening of his break – Christmas Eve – he settled into his couch with a bottle of wine, an indulgence he felt was well earned. This was how he planned to spend his holidays, resting and recharging his batteries. The last few weeks had tired him greatly. He was not quite sure why he should have been so tired. It was not as if he had never worked long hours before. He thought that maybe the tiredness was connected with the new building they had recently moved into. He had mentioned this to his colleagues and they had laughed at him. But really; he thought there was something to it. The very newness of the building he found wearying: the lights seared; the naked walls glared back; the floor was too soft and giving. He didn’t know; there were lots of things. It felt like an office building rather than a hospital building, certainly different to any hospital building he had worked in previously.
Oh Salvador, he said to himself, smiling; the world does not understand you. Now, put your work aside; put all thoughts of work aside and try to relax; it’s Christmas. He checked the TV listings for the week ahead and one programme title in particular caught his eye: The Voice, on that night, at 9.30. It was the plainness of the title that jumped out at him, after all he had been thinking.
The Voice was a singing contest, it turned out, but one with a difference. Each contestant had to win the sponsorship of one of four coaches by the power of his or her voice alone. The coaches had their backs turned to the contestants and because of this they reminded Salvador of Tridentine priests. The first contestant was a Chinese teenager. There was something about him, his composure and demeanour, that was saintly; or perhaps, merely, it was in the way that his blousy linen top hung around him, like a saint of the third world. He sang, over a beat that seemed to progressively recede: “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna turn around and desert you.” The words, repeated over and over, had the quality of a message. It was as if he was saying to the Tridentine priests that after all the bitterness still, nearly 50 years on, of the Vatican II reforms, he would not forsake them, that the truth of life and death was big enough to encompass petty difference.
How will I know the voice of my own saviour if he calls out to me in the silence? thought Salvador. Because it will be a clear and forceful voice; there will be no mistaking it. Salvador thought of the five days ahead, the days that corresponded with the first days of his saviour’s time on earth. On each of these five days he will give me an instruction and I will follow this instruction: Salvador felt this.
He stood at his livingroom window and looked out at the new hospital building, looming over all the houses of the area like a spaceship.
But how truly would he know, if he heard such a voice, that it was the voice of his saviour? Now came the dark questioning again; now came that dark, vague question that had been troubling him lately. It was too easy to say or think of that word “saviour”, to believe in it. If he heard such a voice, how was he to know that it wasn’t the Devil, or Santa Claus, or some echo in his own head? No; if a voice came to him through the silence, he would think of it simply as “the Voice”, just as the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous had thought of the Virgin Mary as, simply, “the Lady”.
A voice did come to Salvador; it came later that night. And when it spoke it gave him an instruction, just as he had felt that it would. It called out while Salvador was asleep, although at the time that it came Salvador was barely under the cover of sleep; he was twisting and turning in bed, struggling with a full bladder and wishing that the painful sensation would go away so that he could go back to dreaming.
The Voice, which sounded deep and rich, said: “You will not relieve yourself of your full bladder until you go across to the hospital, fetch a bottle with a capacity no greater than two litres and bring it back here to the house. Only until you are standing at the end of your bed can you relieve yourself. You must leave the bottle at the end of your bed until the end of your leave and after you relieve yourself tonight you must not relieve yourself on any day of your leave from two o’clock in the afternoon until you wake in the night with a bursting bladder.
“You must continue to relieve yourself in the bottle and the bottle must not be emptied at any time during your leave.”
Salvador snapped open his eyes. It was the middle of the night. Except it wasn’t the middle of the night: his clock radio said it was three in the morning. Already Christmas Day, and already he had received his first instruction from the Voice. He sat up in bed, swung his feet around to the floor, shook his head. Well of course it was too much to expect that there would be no pain! These instructions would be a test!