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The Silent Sentry

Fiction by Chris Paling








The Silent Sentry
Chris Paling
Jonathan Cape Ltd.
London 1999
248pp
£9.99
0224059033




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Books by Chris Paling

Maurice Reid poked a pencil through the closed blinds of his office and squinted through the narrow slat. ‘I don’t understand it,’ he said, ‘I just want to cry all the time.’ Wincing at the bar of light, he withdrew his pencil. ‘I can’t help it. I think I’m going tonto.’

Maurice was standing in his small office which, had he opened the venetian blinds, would have afforded him a view across the south end of Portland Place. Hidden from his sight was an eight storey block of West End apartments, the windows of which were heavily draped. The one break in this grey, weathered uniformity was a brightly lit dentist’s surgery in which a green-gowned man was leaning over the horizontal figure of a young woman.

‘We’re all falling apart one way or another.’ Sitting at Maurice’s desk and scrolling through a block of text on his computer screen was a tall man in his late twenties. He was dressed entirely in black with quiffed hair and teddy boy sideburns. The man’s Christian name was David but, prompted by his aloofness, his colleagues tended to label him by his surname which was Warde. Like the buildings opposite, the view into Warde’s world was heavily draped. His green eyes were characteristically narrowed; he looked like an aristocrat who abused drugs. Warde had a tendency to appear always to be on his way somewhere else, his shyness masquerading as arrogance, which was safer. Warde was one of the few people who could make Maurice laugh, and Maurice was one of the few people Warde ever took the trouble to make laugh. Like Maurice Reid, Warde was a radio producer. Unlike Maurice, who was slightly overweight and prone to lethargy, Warde was whippet thin and his concentration span was short. His hyperactive mind was currently engaged in attaching Maurice’s desktop computer to the Internet.

‘There.’ Warde punched the return key with his index finger and the screen flooded from top to bottom with richly coloured graphics.

‘What have you done now?’

‘Just key whatever you want to search here and…’

‘How do you switch it off?’

‘Double click on this.’ Warde clicked the mouse and the screen returned to Maurice’s favoured backdrop, a sober view of Loch Lomond at sunrise.

‘That’s better. Much better.’ Maurice looked up at the photograph pinned on the notice board above his desk: his son, Will, at his fourth birthday party looking towards the camera wearing a red paper hat and a troubled smile. ‘I took Will to the circus yesterday and cried all the way through it.’

‘Circuses are sad.’

‘They’re not supposed to be.’ Maurice took up a pen and scribbled on a yellow Post-it note. “Will. 6.00. Polly/bitch supper.” He peeled it from the pad and stuck it beside his computer screen. ‘I think it was being with him, grubby little specimen. Bloody sticky ice-cream hands all over my trousers, twenty quid for two hours’ worth of whingeing – then on the way out he wanted a hat with flashing lights on it.’

‘And you bought him one I suppose?’ Deposed from his position at the screen, Warde was now pacing backwards and forwards across the short distance of Maurice’s office with his hands punched deep into his pockets.

‘Of course I did. It was desperate. Absolutely desperate. I mean I fully accept it could just be the way that I’m seeing things, but I reckon everybody is on the edge, everybody: screaming point. Never mind road rage, this is life rage. You just had to look round the audience to see that. People in the cheap seats, straining to look round the pole things, screaming. People in the expensive seats, craning forward to get the most of it so they didn’t feel cheated. And me in the side seats with my boy feeling sorry for everybody.’

The act of life itself burdened Maurice Reid. Since Will had been born, the gravity of his mortality had begun to weigh him down and this had a bearing not only on his demeanour but also on the way he carried himself through the world. He did nothing lightly because he no longer felt anything lightly, which made him good company for anybody (particularly female) who enjoyed long evenings of soul-searching. At parties and other social occasions he was often avoided. Apart from his failed marriage, Maurice was relatively successful with women. They found him sensitive, tortured and interesting, and also reasonably good-looking in a well-worn way. Those who knew him well (better, perhaps, than he knew himself) soon discovered that his interest in them and their traumas was one of his defences. It was also a strategy of self-analysis: he was drawn by pain because he recognised it, felt it, and therefore found it endlessly fascinating. Most men bored him rigid.

‘It’s you,’ Warde said. ‘You’re having a compassion attack to make up for all your past cynicism.’

‘No, I still feel cynical. I wish I could…I just wish I could believe in something. I just think that life is so bloody sad nowadays. That’s all. That’s why I want to cry.’

Warde opened the door. ‘I don’t see what you’ve got against the Internet. There’s no point in being Luddite about it. I mean we’ll all be using it sooner rather than later.’

‘Listen. I’ve got better things to do with my time than e-mail a bunch of maladjusted morons who find it easier to talk to a screen than a human being. Anyway, I think anyone who can use the thing should, on that criteria alone, be excluded from access to it.’

‘You just don’t want to talk to anyone.’

‘Exactly. And shut the door on your way out


‘I just want to cry all the time,’ Maurice said. ‘I think I need help.’

‘Sit down,’ the doctor said, shuffling a pack of bulging manila envelopes. ‘It’s Mr Reid, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sit down.’ The doctor gestured and Maurice sat at the chair placed side on to the end of the desk. From the lower angle he could see out of the window to the whitewashed stockade of wheely bins. Maurice wondered what was in them: bloodied, bent hypodermics, soiled dressings, incontinence pads. Bins nowadays put him in mind of his own inevitable decay; the slow certain slide into senility.

‘Let’s have a look at you then, shall we?’ The doctor looked Maurice up and down as if he could divine the root of his problems by a cursory appraisal of the state of his clothing. Maurice was wearing a creased powder-blue linen jacket over a white T-shirt worn one day too long, black Levis and balding brown suede shoes. What attracted people to him was the concentrated concern his face seemed to transmit. His ex-wife said it was the kind of face that could have earned him a living as a young, idealistic doctor in a TV medical soap. At whatever age you encountered him, you would always see in Maurice Reid’s face something of the child that had run into his mother’s arms after his first day at school: in his eyes, wonder at the world mitigated by confusion at its cruelty.

In the eight years that Maurice had been registered with Doctor Soames, he had visited him only on five occasions. Once with the flu, once with piles, once with a strange lump on his penis which vanished shortly after the visit, once for anti-depressants after the break-up of his marriage (during which he had cried unconsollably for twenty minutes), and once, inebriated, with a yellow rash on his neck (two weeks after the visit for anti-depressants), at which time he had expressed the fear that he was turning Japanese. Whenever he went, Maurice always enjoyed the old man’s surrogate paternalism, his crumpled-suited kindliness. Maurice had long ago decided that doctors held the secret of eternal life but never prescribed it for fear of the side effects. Hence their air of melancholy.

‘Slip off your jacket.’

As Maurice slid out of his jacket, Dr Soames watched him closely, his brows knitted tightly, his head a little bowed. Maurice waited as Soames continued to stare.

‘You’re thirty…six?’ Soames stood Maurice’s envelope on the desk and read long-sightedly from it.

‘Yes.’

‘Do you drink?’

‘Of course.’

‘How many units?’

‘Oh…twenty, I don’t know, thirty, I don’t know, fifty-odd units a week.’

‘On the theory that one always doubles a patient’s own estimation I would say you’ve probably got something of a drink problem.’

‘No,’ Maurice said, ‘I doubled it for you. I was going to say twenty-odd, then I remembered you always doubled it so I doubled it myself.’

‘Smoke?’

‘No thanks, I’ve given up.’

Soames smiled wearily. ‘Drugs?’

‘A bit.’

‘Cannabis, heroin…crack cocaine?’

‘Cannabis.’

‘Roll up your sleeve.’

Maurice revealed his vein-marbled forearm. Soames leaned forward and slipped a black cuff up his arm, enveloping him in a bucolic aroma of pipe tobacco. A ledge of dandruff slipped from his wiry hair into Maurice’s lap.

‘How long have you felt this…depression?’ Soames inflated the sleeve and watched the pressure gauge.

‘It’s not depression.’

‘No?’

Air escaped and, as it did so, Soames lost interest in his gizmo. ‘That seems fine. You say you’re not depressed?’

‘No. It’s sadness. I know the distinction probably sounds a bit…’

‘Undo your shirt.’

Maurice obliged. ‘…unusual. But I think it’s more of a general world-weariness than depression.’

‘I see.’

‘Yes, it’s…’

‘Quiet please.’ Soames listened to Maurice’s heart. ‘Thank you.’

‘More a sort of existential…’

‘Yes, well I can hardly…’

‘Of course not. I wouldn’t expect you to.’ Maurice rested his elbow on the desk and leaned his chin on his hand. ‘Listen, can I tell you about a dream I had last night?’

‘Please do.’ Soames sat back and began crimping the short hairs on his earlobe between his thumbnail and first finger.

‘It was, I don’t know, evening I suppose. And I was walking along the top of a sea wall, on my own. And suddenly I was confronted by a tower- a mountain – a sudden incandescent mountain of water. Poised but shifting as though it was just waiting with its awesome, awesome power: hundreds of feet high and a mix of blues and transparent greens, sort of translucent, like…like glass I suppose. And then it teetered and crashed all over me and I held on to something; something metal. And I passed out. And when I woke up it was morning and I was dry but the path I was lying on was still puddled. But the sun was out and I walked for a while until I could find a taxi. And then I went home. And that was it.’

‘Yes.’ Soames said, slipping Maurice’s envelope back into his pile: a delaying tactic. ‘So, sadness you say. And a propensity towards tears?’

‘All the time. Nearly. Unless, well, unless I’ve had a few drinks. Then it’s not so bad. Most of the time. Except the following day it’s worse.’

‘Are you married? Remind me.’

‘Christ, no. I mean I was. But I’m not now.’

‘Separated?’

‘Divorced. And separated. Not from the same woman. Well, not really separated, just apart. At the moment, anyway. I mean she’s in…it’s not important. I’m divorced from Polly, separated, I mean living apart, from…what was the question?’

‘And your job. You’re working are you?’

‘Yes. Sort of.’

‘That’s right. I remember. You produce, don’t you? Radio?’

‘Mm.’

‘Yes, well that may explain it, then.’

‘Might it?’

‘Change. Revolution. The arrival of the market economy. It’s no different I imagine, from what’s happened to those of us in the Health Service. Free-floating anxiety, that sort of thing, is it?’

‘Absolutely, but I never imagined that would have anything to do with it. I mean you get used to change, don’t you?’

‘Like alcohol. food, and, ah…sex, change is good in moderation. One can have too much of it.’ Soames sucked the end of a drug company biro. ‘I could offer you counselling but I can’t see you going for that.’

‘Oh, I don’t mind. I’ll try anything.’

‘The alternative is…well, the new generation anti-depressants might help a little, but basically nobody has yet found a cure for sadness.’

‘Counselling. Put me down for that.’

Soames opened a large desk diary and rocked backwards and forwards until he fixed the focal length of his eyesight onto the page. ‘We have something of a waiting list. You’re not intending suicide are you?’ He didn’t look up.

‘Not immediately.’

‘Then I can’t put you down as a priority.’ He closed the book and smiled. ‘Bear with it. We’ll be in touch.’

‘Thanks.’ Maurice stood and slipped his jacket back on, Soames looked at him.

‘Sadness is not necessarily a bad thing to feel. Believe me. Sadness, if you identify it correctly, is the converse of happiness. Depression is quite a different issue. Would you like me to prescribe you something?’

‘No. That’s fine. Thank you.’ Maurice wanted to hug Dr Soames. He wanted to take him home and put him in an armchair by a raging fire, make him a milky drink and fetch his slippers.

‘You could try a course of vitamins – cod liver oil – that sort of thing. It won’t do you any harm: except I always find they make me belch foul fishy smells for much of the morning.’

‘I’ll try them.’

‘Give it a week or so then come back and see me. If you do start to feel any worse come straight away. And don’t worry about the drinking. Don’t feel guilty about that as well.’

‘OK.’ Maurice hung by the chair for a second. ‘Well, thanks.’ He went out as Soames tried to read the next name on his patient list by holding the paper out at arm’s length and squinting.

‘Incidentally,’ Soames said just as Maurice reached the door and opened it. ‘How is your sex life?’

Maurice closed the door. ‘Non existent, really.’

‘What about erection. Can you maintain an erection?’

‘What, now?’

‘No, in the usual…ah, course of things.’

‘I’ve not really tried. There hasn’t been much call for it recently.’

‘Pop in to see the nurse on your way out. We’ll have a specimen from you. Won’t do any harm to check you out.’

Maurice went back to the reception desk and joined a short queue of curiously dank-smelling elderly women in tweed coats. Most of them were collecting repeat prescriptions which seemed to provoke a reflex in them to recall to the receptionist the symptoms of the condition that had first brought them there. When he reached the front of the queue, Maurice was sent back to the waiting room with a plastic number, green, and told to wait for the nurse. He picked up a two-year-old copy of Cosmopolitan to divert his mind from the worry of giving a specimen.

The nurse was young and antipodean, fresh in a very white smock and very very clean. Her den was papered with inoculation posters and postcards of Australia. The old wooden shelves were stacked with boxes of swabs and small bottles. Maurice was given a small plastic jar with a waxed paper label on it. ‘There’s a Jints beside the reception. Knock when you’ve finished.’

‘Jints?’

‘Jints lavatory.’

‘Ah.’

The nurse waved a biro in the direction of the waiting room. Maurice slipped the bottle in his pocket and went out. Twenty minutes later, red-faced with exertion, he came back and knocked at the nurse’s door.

‘Mr Reid, I’d just about given up on you.’ The nurse smiled and held out an envelope for Maurice to drop the specimen in to. She was attractive, no nonsense, Maurice would have liked to take her to the cinema. She didn’t look the sort who’d be happy to waste her evenings in a pub.

‘Sorry.’ Maurice closed the door behind him and took out his warm jar. ‘There.’ He held it out proudly.

The nurse put the envelope down and took the jar from him. She looked at it and coughed, though it could have been a stifled laugh.

‘Is there not enough or something?’ Maurice said wretchedly.

‘It was a urine sample we were after, Mr Reid.’

‘Urine,’ Maurice repeated, swallowing dryly. ‘Urine. Yes. I see.’

The nurse put the jar on the counter, it would have been inappropriate simply to have thrown it into the bin. But two cc’s of sperm was of no use to anybody, however much labour had gone in to providing it.


Copyright © Chris Paling 1999
Extracted from The Silent Sentry by Chris Paling.

This item may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Silent Sentry is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency. For rights information, email <davidm@rcwlitagency.demon.co.uk> – please mention The Richmond Review when making rights enquiries.

The Silent Sentry by Chris Paling is published by Jonathan Cape Ltd.

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