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!
On St Stephen’s Day, while he prepared his breakfast, Salvador let a spoon slip from his hand. It rattled on the hob, setting off an eerie ringing tone. He peered down at the element, and at the hole underneath.
The ringing got louder, but less and less shrill. Then the Voice said: “Salvador, I want to show you how Christmas has lost its original meaning for many people today. For too many, this second-most important of holy feasts is all about materialism. It is about the thrill of receiving, not the joy of giving. Today, I want you to join the throngs of shoppers. Have you heard of the electronic games console the RazorKlam 4? It is the latest fad among young people. I want you to try and find a RazorKlam 4.” Salvador put his hand on the element to stop the noise. It is the day after Christmas, he thought. There will be no throngs of shoppers today, and every RazorKlam 4 in the city of Dublin will have been sold by now.
But he felt he could not risk disobeying the Voice; he felt guilty even doubting it. Who was he, humble Salvador, to question this Voice? He repeated the words “humble Salvador, your servant” in his mind, like an incantation, in the hope that they might be heard.
As he walked into the city along Dorset Street a wind blew in the opposite direction. There was little traffic on the road, and the bare trees in the centre resembled broomsticks. His head ached because he was not wearing a hat or muffs and also because he was dehydrated from not drinking fluids. A convenience store was open on a corner and he went inside to buy paracetamol. All the medicines were stacked in shelves behind the counter. When he approached the till he felt he was intruding because the man behind the counter was deep in conversation with a woman. The woman stepped aside as the man turned his face to Salvador.
The woman was from eastern Europe, thought Salvador. The man, he guessed, was an Arab.
“What can I do for you?” the man said.
“Paracetamol,” Salvador replied.
Salvador said, almost without thinking, “The latest RazorKlam machine.” He smiled at the man so that he would be in no doubt that he was joking.
“Sorry,” said the man, joking too. “Sold out.”
“Are you really looking for a RazorKlam?” came the voice to Salvador’s side – the eastern European woman. Salvador turned to her. “Well, yes, actually.”
“Because if you are . . .” She hesitated. “Come with me.” She walked with great purpose out of the shop, but Salvador did not follow her as he had yet to pay for his paracetamol. When he did, he asked the man where the woman had gone.
“She lives above the shop. She’ll be back in a minute.” After a short time, the woman reappeared outside. She looked around for Salvador, then saw he was still in the shop and came back in. She was carrying a cardboard box. The flaps were not closed on the box, and Salvador could see that packing material and wires had been stuffed roughly into it. The side of the box read “RazorKlam 4”, but Salvador still felt it necessary to say, “What’s this?” as the woman presented it to him.
“Special delivery from Poland. My mother-in-law sent it last week. Take it from my sight. My husband is turning into a zombie and I want him back.” The man behind the counter let out a loud, raucous laugh. “You’re crazy Marta! Your husband will leave you for this!”
“Take it away, take it away,” she said, directing Salvador towards the door with a sweep of her arm.
Salvador – gripping the box from underneath with both arms and resting his chin on the top – moved off warily, with a sideways shuffle, looking back at the woman as he did so.
“Happy Christmas,” she said. “Enjoy.”
Out on the street he could barely believe his luck. But, he realised, it was not luck that had brought him into the possession of a RazorKlam.
Lifting his eyes to the skies, he called out, “Oh Voice, in mysterious and ever more wonderful ways you are revealing yourself!” He walked home with the cold wind at his back.
The next day, noon passed . . . then one o’clock, then two o’clock, then three o’clock . . . and Salvador still had not received instruction from the Voice. He was beginning to feel . . . not doubtful, but anxious. The RazorKlam sat in its box as he had been given it the day before.
Perhaps, he thought, it would be no harm if he played with it a little; the Voice, after all, had said nothing to suggest that he shouldn’t. He took all the parts out of the box and connected the machine to his television. But there was something missing. Of course, yes – stupid fool! There was no game with the machine. He closed his eyes. At that moment, the Voice rang out, clear and booming. “Imagine your own game,” it said.
Imagine your own game! What could it mean? The most enigmatic of the three instructions yet! Salvador stared at the blank TV screen. He could not conjure up anything. He thought of cars racing, guns blazing. He thought of the Arab man in the shop. A title came to him: “Caliphate of All That Is Not Possible”. He got up from his couch. Maybe I will find the game outside, he thought. Maybe this is what the Voice wants me to do.
He walked out to the main road and under the lee of the new hospital building. There was only slightly more traffic than the day before. The sun was low in the sky ahead of him and to his left; it shone so strongly in his face that he had to shade his eyes. He continued up the road, into the sun, until he reached the turn for Berkeley Road. He turned left and walked as far as the next corner, crossed the street, and stopped for a moment by the little triangular park. He was at the back of the hospital complex; or, seen another way, at the front of it, by the old hospital building. He looked about him in all directions.
Tinsel glinted in the windows of houses on the other side of Berkeley Road. Behind the hospital pillars a white, crowned figure stood in a glass case. Reams of barbed wire stretched along the top of a hard calp wall. Caliphate of All That Is Not Possible: had he said those words or had the Voice said them? What do you want from me today, Voice? he asked. What am I looking for? A speeding bus set a loose drain cover clanking. What is this game I must imagine?
By the following afternoon he thought he would go mad. The children had been playing with their scooters and footballs nonstop since Christmas morning it had seemed. He turned the volume on his television up and wished the children and their parents could see that this was what he had been driven to. He still could not hear the television above the screeching. “Shut up,” he found himself hissing. He pressed mute on his remote. “Shut up,” he said, loudly, and as he did so he thought he could hear another voice intoning the same. He inclined his head like a dog and waited.
The Voice came again: “Salvador, I want you to gather up the RazorKlam 4 and take it upstairs with you to the front room.” Salvador did as he was instructed but could not think what the Voice had in mind. As if responding to his thoughts, the Voice said: “Take the RazorKlam 4 to the window and open the window.” Salvador pulled up the blind, opened the window, then let the RazorKlam down on the radiator. In the street, the children were chasing each other in figures-of-eight on their scooters.
“Okay,” came the Voice. “Now. Lift the RazorKlam 4 in your hands again.” The Voice paused, as if thinking about what to say next. “Okay. The blond child with the pudding-bowl haircut – he is the ringleader. He incites the rest of them. The next time he passes under your window I want you to throw the RazorKlam 4 at him.”
Salvador propped the RazorKlam up in the open window, but the moment the child came near his house his fingers tightened. He kept his eyes on the child, locked into his figure-of-eight circuit; he would pass under the window in another few seconds. “Hit the god-damned child,” said the Voice as the boy approached again. Salvador flung the machine out with both hands. It smashed on the asphalt mere inches behind the child. He and the rest of the children immediately stopped what they were doing. Salvador pulled back from the window, but not before, he was sure, one of the children had spotted him.
He had taken completely the wrong approach with the Voice, he realised.
Waiting for the Voice had been exhausting. He should have made space for Doubt to argue its case; should just have gone about his day unconcerned about whether he would hear the Voice or not. Today, the last day of his Christmas leave, he would do just that. Besides, it was already four o’clock, and he could not sit around all day wondering. He decided that instead of agonising over himself he would turn his mind to the plight of others. He walked in the dark and the soft rain to a homeless shelter near his house. The shelter looked surprisingly hospitable. It was decorated in red and white lights: like the inn in the cold desert night, thought Salvador. The lady in charge told him that they had enough volunteers for the evening, but that if he insisted he could wait around in case there were emergencies. After a moment she said there was always cleaning to be done anyway.
Salvador took a seat by the side of the canteen. At a quarter to six, he watched as an orderly queue of homeless men and women started to make its way past a counter. From behind the counter, volunteers gave the men and women plates of ham and fries, slices of fruit cake on saucers, and cups of tea. All of the volunteers were female. At the back of the room, from the top of a plinth, a huge statue of the Virgin Mary watched over proceedings. The statue did not have a stern or pained face like many Virgins, but a kindly one. The room was infused with motherly love, and everyone, including Salvador himself, felt its warmth.
Much later in the evening, just when Salvador had started to wonder if the Voice had forsaken him completely, a man with a neat beard approached him. Introducing himself as the shelter manager, he politely told Salvador that his help was no longer needed. Salvador said that if it was okay, he would prefer to stay. The man glanced over the guests, who were now all loudly talking among themselves. “If I can be frank with you,” the man said, “there’s a woman here who’s slightly mentally disturbed and she’s threatening to make a scene if you don’t leave.” Salvador trudged back up the road towards Phibsborough. He felt downcast, terribly so. The day was almost over and the Voice had not yet made itself heard. Oh well, he said to himself; I suppose I will just follow my usual instruction for the day: to relieve my bladder only when I am bursting in the middle of the night.
As he turned the corner into his street, he saw two men ahead of him on the footpath, chatting by an open door. One of the men glanced over his shoulder as he sensed Salvador approach. The man turned a little more the closer Salvador got, and soon was facing him squarely. It was clear he was not going to allow Salvador to pass until he had spoken with him.
“Was it you that threw that yoke at my son?” Salvador was stunned. He did not know what to say. After some hesitation he feebly offered: “It was accidental.” The man kicked hard up into Salvador’s groin. Salvador lurched forward, doubled over, disbelieving. The man stepped aside, evidently to let Salvador fall on his head, but Salvador kept his balance and staggered on up the path until he reached his front door. He had been in enough discomfort already with his full bladder; now he was worried that his bladder had ruptured. He went straight upstairs to his bedroom. To the side, in the dark, his clock radio read 00:08: a whole day gone without hearing from the Voice. He knelt at the end of his bed, grabbed the bottle and stood up again. Cold fluid splashed against his wrists. He could not wait; he had to ease the agony now. He did not care; he did not care. He relieved himself, though a sharp pain rose at the same time. As this pain seemed to crest he collapsed on his bed in his clothes.
The next morning Salvador found himself under his sheets, still in his clothes. His groin did not feel as sore as he thought it would feel, although overall he felt somewhat weak. He lay awake in bed for a few moments watching colours explode in his eyes, then turned to look at his clock radio. Half past eight. He was due back in work today and already he was late. He got out of bed with no great urgency and stumbled down the stairs, needing to steady himself against the wall. In the bathroom he sat down on the lid of the toilet until his balance came back. He felt empty. He felt more empty than he had at the start of his holidays.
Was it possible to feel empty and then more empty? Yes, it was. If you lost something inside yourself you did not think could possibly break away and then you did not replace it. He rolled his head around his shoulders.
But what was this? What was this on the ceiling? There, above him, in the corner. Lip. Eye. Beard. Hair. Crown. Blood. A face, in brown and yellow.
A feeling of awe so profound took hold of his body that he almost dared not breathe in case he spoiled the favour being bestowed on him.
Slowly he slipped his phone out of his pocket, and he took a photo of the face.
There was a message too, from his superior. Had she rung to give out to him for being late? No; the message had been left days before.
“Salvador, is everything okay?” she said. “I hope so. Some of the others are saying they saw you wandering the corridors in the middle of the night. We’re all a little concerned.”