Ode to Anton
There is a farting old man lying in my bed who was once my lover.
After breakfast, I will prepare the garden for winter. Then I will come inside for a cup of tea and yell:
‘Get up, you lazy bugger!’
‘Don’t be like that, please,’ Marcus will reply.
My name was once Elizabeth Cunliffe, preceded by ‘Associate Professor’ and followed by an alphabet. I taught Russian language and literature at a leading university. I was an acclaimed authority on the short fiction of Dr Anton Chekhov. I lectured for a year at Moscow State University and visited the Chekhov estate at Melikhovo, which the Soviets had turned into a museum.
I sat in awe at the desk where Anton wrote short stories by night, and I explored the district where he doctored gratis to the peasants during the day.
Anton would have loved our story. Pretty junior lecturer from the Russian Department meets distinguished Professor of Philosophy. His lovemaking is slow and thoughtful. His proposal is prefaced with a well-chosen quotation from Lucretius: ‘We are each of us angels with only one wing….’ It is only one-half the original. She embraced him and said yes. They marry. Years pass. He has a stroke. She gives up her academic career which is at its height and retires to nurse him at home.
Now her name is Lizzie, preceded by ‘hey’ and followed by a demand.
When we met, I was twenty-five and Marcus a young fifty. He drove a Rolls Royce, spoke Greek and German and knew Aristotle backwards, inside out and upside down.
Now he walks with a frame, rots in bed till midday and jokes that he does his best a posteriori thinking on the lavatory.
Marcus can still talk, though not to me. He has a friend, an eminent philosopher with a formidable reputation, a colossal beard and an impressive snort. The man visits often, squats on the bed beside Marcus and the two argue, correcting each other’s use of quantifiers, and disambiguating statements where the intended meaning is perfectly plain. They burst into quotations.
One shouts ‘Hobbes was right when he said, “The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”’
The other replies, waving his arms, ‘but remember Hegel’s words “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”’
And I stay in the garden, fretting over Marcus’s damaged wing and its impact on my life.
Anton, you died young, bless you. Only forty-four when consumption took you from the world. God, I’d love to have known you, to have sat with you in a garden and talked about life.
You knew the misery of old men. Like your dying Bishop, distant from his fellows, desperate for a comforting hand, held in awe by his timid mother. And your illustrious medical lecturer, close to death, struggling with a mean-spirited wife, yearning to connect with his grasshopper daughter.
And you knew about marriage. What was it you wrote in your notebook? ‘If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry?’
I click my shears. Favourite rose first. Miracle of the summer past, with velvet petals deeply mauve, almost black, and rich in aroma. Snip. Snip. Snip.
Anton, you loved your gardens. Their beauty was your consolation in a troubled world. You designed and yourself planted the grounds at Melikhovo — and worried who would tend them after you were gone.
A gooseberry bush would be nice in this sunny corner. I will dig in compost and manure.
Tell me, who is the man who vegetates in my bed, slopping tea and talking about antinomies and antitheses? What does he feel?
Oh, Anton, you who observed people with the objective eye of a doctor but saw into their souls like an artist…tell me about my husband. I know his face, his voice, his moods — but nothing of what’s inside him, his feelings, his thoughts. His sense of himself or me, or of him and me.
And this, tell me. How does Marcus feel when he stares into the hollow face of death? And watches his life slipping away from him? And me?
I throw down my shovel and go indoors. We must talk.
Marcus is sprawled on the couch, his thin frame twisted, an imploring look on his gaunt face.
‘Please,’ he mutters, ‘sit with me for a while.’
Aversion arises, like reflux in my throat. It’s all gone too far. It’s too late.
‘Gooseberries,’ I think, and step back, ready to retreat to the garden.
He grabs my arm with his bony hand, pulls himself to his feet, presses his face to mine and shouts: ‘Please Lizzie. I want to know what’s happening! I am dying alone! How do you fucking feel?’
I stare at his contorted face. His lips are stretched so tight they have almost disappeared. I take his hand and attempt a smile.
‘“What fine weather today,”’ I murmur. ‘“Can’t choose whether to take tea or to hang myself.”’
‘You heard me.’
‘Another Chekhov quotation?’ he asks. The left side of his face warps into a half grin.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘A lesser known. And what of you? How do you feel?’
‘Me? I feel, ah…. “like a donkey with a stick in my mouth and a carrot up my arse.”’ He bellows with laughter.
‘No, Chekhov! Got ya!’
‘Crazy old bugger.’
I whack my husband playfully, take his arm and help him into the garden.
We sit together in silence on a macrocarpa bench.
From my new gooseberry patch wafts a pleasant scent of compost and manure and freshly dug earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Costello studied foreign languages at the University of Canterbury, worked as a radio creative writer for seventeen years, then trained in psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapy and spent 24 years in private practice as a counsellor in Dunedin. He has won the HER Magazine bi-monthly contest and been published in issues. Another story features in PINK. About a dozen of Bruce’s stories appear in on-line journals including Snorkel, Flash Frontier, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Fiction 365, NIB, Cyclamens & Swords and Alfie Dog Ltd. He was shortlisted in the 2012 Victoria Cancer Council Art Awards.