UNDER THE KNIFE
Strong men in short-sleeved overalls roll me away. I try to recollect forwards rather than backwards, the green pall of operation gowns enveloping me and a knife shining in the hand of a masked assassin. A remake of The Mark of Zorro (1920). But events are catching up. I’m stripped, my arms put in a white shift, and wheeled around and around in swashbuckling circles, until the trolley stops under a fluorescent ceiling. ‘I’ll have that’, a voice says. I see forceps but not the swab, a nurse’s sky blue eyes, and a needle hanging from my arm. The fragile patina is being cracked and scraped away. I feel the first incision, a soft relief, and go under.
With surgery the matter is out of your hands, you sign your consent, but not an assent. Compliance is consolidated by the injection of hypnotics. You don’t know what you’re doing or what’s being done to you. The disengagement of the will has its compensations. You can’t accuse yourself of cowardice, or being seduced into the event, anymore than at your conception or birth.
I hadn’t anticipated that I wouldn’t consciously participate in the operation. When sensual feeling, and the memory that goes with it, is withdrawn, you might as well be dead. I woke and the shock of lost time hit me with such force that I wanted to scream, ‘Give me back my life’. I had experienced the ‘sleep and forgetting’ that Wordsworth attributes to birth in his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, real life as a pre-existence. And as sure as day follows night, we sleep and forget our dreams, but not our conditioned reflexes.
As my eyes accommodated to the light, the blur hovering around me clarified into gowned creatures. ‘I’m back’, I blurted as a smiling face came into focus. ‘You were never away’, the nurse said. Far from being reassured, this confirmed my feeling that the gap between what was and what had been had narrowed to such a point that I scarcely existed anymore, and the present was a memory. I was struggling to wake up from the void I had been plunged into, but since it had left no traces of memory it couldn’t even be forgotten and reinvented. That is, put in the past.
Trying to go asleep and repeatedly failing induces panic. Trying to wake up is the same only the other way round. My breathing quickened, I flayed my arms around like a penguin in distress until the straps that tied me to the bed loosened. Thinking I was in pain, a doctor injected morphine. Rendered helpless again, I was frozen in a past animated by gestures whose meaning was misinterpreted. As the sap of consciousness attenuated in my veins, the ceiling loomed above me, decorated with a candelabrum. I had just time to count thirty-six candles before falling into a dead sleep.
On my second waking the nurses with their needles were replaced by the ungloved hands of auxiliaries. The straps were unbuckled, but I didn’t feel free. The past was catching up with me. I slid out of bed but, listless, limp, my feet went from under me. I was given sedatives. But I still wanted to escape. I dissolved the pills in my mouth and I spat them out with the water. The deception revived my sense of self.
What self? Was my body returning to me, or was it the other way round? Either way, my body and mind were in a Descartian divide. I gave into it, and the body began to stir, leading me in a dance back into the past controlled by conditioned reflexes. And gradually I returned to life, going through the motions, eating and performing my ablutions, thanking the auxiliaries who didn’t reply. But all my actions seemed like imitations, shadows of a former existence. That made me wonder if I was indeed present, or only as was, and time past was real time.
I sat up
and saw that I was now in an open ward. A vast space punctuated by beds
enclosed by screens. I could only see one patient. A black boy who had
family all around him. I had told nobody about my operation. I
didn’t think I
would be able to face visitors, after the humiliation of being reduced
vegetable. Now I had time for second thoughts. Had I been putting my
a test, hoping that when I disappeared from circulation they would come
to my bedside? If so, I was being punished. Despite being fed soup and
at regular intervals, I was ravenously hungry.
I saw the boy dig into chocolates and if I hadn’t been so weak I would have got up and gatecrashed his party on the off-chance of being offered a choice from the box. My jealous greed moderated when I notice he was on a drip. But if he could gobble down cream caramels there couldn’t be anything seriously wrong with him. Resentment welled up into rage, and if I could have committed a crime to spoil his feast I wouldn’t have hesitated. But I wasn’t near enough to throw a heavy object like the chamber pot. A spoon left behind after my last soup would have merely caused confusion. I’d have had to apologise, saying the missile had slipped from my hand. I would never have forgiven myself.
At the next soup I asked for a mirror. Looking into it, I was surprised my face was just the same as it always was. I licked my lips and pouted at myself, sticking out my tongue, and replicated the smiles and grimaces that I had habitually used to confront the world. The face in my reflection, I thought, was the one that was familiar to others, who were living in my past. No mirror could catch my face of the moment, a minor monster contemplating an attack on a sick black boy. An auxiliary, noticing me smiling, remarked, ‘You must be getting better’. It was the kindest thing I had heard since I woke up, and it brought tears to my eyes. ‘Maybe not’, she said.
When a nurse appeared and took my hand to read the pulse, I had come to my senses. Politenesses were exchanged, which were mutually gratifying. Although I was a living automaton of the self I once was, nobody looked at me strangely. I may have been absent on leave, but my stand-in was performing credibly. I swallowed the pills the nurse gave me and dozed off like a good boy, dreaming of the operation.