Literary Spotlight: David Wheldon

Literary Spotlight: David Wheldon

From WTP Vol. V #1

The Vigil

By David Wheldon

I came across Jane Shanks in a more personal way one May morning when she was twenty-eight. A tall woman, she came down the front steps of her father’s house at an active and determined pace, two steps at a time, and stood on the wide pavement looking about herself. At least, that is how I see her in my memory, framed as she was by the tall area spear-railings and the large, green-painted door with a fan-light and on the central pane, the number 7 in ancient gold-leaf.

As this was several years ago the moment stands in a slightly unreal isolation: Did she step out with her right foot or her left? How could I now tell? At any rate the door closed behind her with something of a slam which echoed in the canyon of the street. Certain sounds are memorable, somehow, and I can recall the slam of that door to this day.

So she came down the worn stone steps, two at a time, put the house-key in her pocket, stood with the railings to either side of her and looked around herself uncertainly, her determination apparently evaporating. Then she saw me.

“Dr Lawless,” she said, breaking into a friendly smile. “What a fine day! Were you coming to visit father?” She crossed her arms. Her manner was open and welcoming.

I had, of course, seen her many times before during my home visits to her father, but her presence had been shadowy, limited to opening the door and preceding me along corridors and up and down stairs; a tall, attractive figure with whom I would have spoken, but did not know how. She herself was reticent and her father would cut across my words as I began to talk with her, though I never knew whether this was purposeful or not. How different she was that bright spring morning!

“I was close by, and thought I would call round after my home-visits,” I said. “How is he?”

“Authoritative,” said Miss Shanks, uncrossing her arms. She looked at me closely. “Shall I let you in? I was only going to Carwardine’s for some coffee-beans; African Sidama; I discovered that we were about to run out. I’m particular about the quality of coffee. But that errand can wait. We have enough for today.”

“If it’s not inconveniencing you,” I said.

“Not at all,” said Miss Shanks. She climbed the steps and put her latch-key in the lock. The house was a pleasant one, a terraced Georgian town-house with a plain front and a parapet roof. Whereas most houses in The Crescent had been divided into flats, the Shanks’ house retained its integrity. Many of its original fittings had survived.

She opened the door. She stood aside for me to enter and then followed me in. “He’s in the breakfast room. On the left,” she added. “You know the lay-out, I think.”

I walked down the hall, large and lofty. The wide, shallow stairs, cantilevered out from the walls, were of stone with a starkly simple wrought-iron hand-rail. It reminded me of a stairway in the Radcliffe Infirmary where I had studied. The décor was plain and faded. Her father now has been dead these fifteen years. Back then, chronically ill, he was my patient, but I had never met Jane’s mother; she had died before I came to town, indeed, before I knew the town existed except in name. Medical confidentiality prevents me from telling you the nature of her father’s illness, but I wish to preserve Jane’s identity, and to do that, I must retain her name, as she uses it herself: Jane Shanks. She is a woman who will, I guess, always retain her own name. Though married, now, she’ll never wear a ring.

Mr Shanks was not in the high-ceilinged breakfast room, though clearly he had been. There was a  white side-plate with crumbs of toast, a folded copy of The Telegraph and a pair of rimless half-glasses stood on the otherwise bare table.

“Where can he be?” murmured Miss Shanks to herself. She stood very close beside me and I was certainly aware of her proximity. She looked at me frankly. I could not make out what she was thinking. “The conservatory. We’ll try the conservatory.”

She led the way to the back of the house.

The conservatory was a later Victorian addition. I found it exposed and disliked it, overlooked as it was by numerous windows at the back of an adjacent terrace.

“No. Not here. I left him in the breakfast room only minutes before I met you, Dr Lawless,” she said. “His bedroom. We’ll try that.”

We climbed the stairs to the first floor. How familiar was that route to me. Miss Shanks opened the dark-varnished door. “Father?”

Mr Shanks was lying in his old viridian dressing-gown on the double-bed, asleep. He lay flat on his back, on the right side of the bed, as formally as if he had been positioned there. His breast was rising and falling, and he was snoring. His arms were straight and symmetrically at his sides. His eyes were partly open; he appeared to be gazing at the plaster moldings on the ceiling. The room, filled with old-fashioned walnut-veneered furniture, was echoically attentive about him. The curtains were drawn fully back and sunlight streamed in on the waxed floorboards.

“Father: Dr Lawless to see you,” she said. “He does sleep a lot, now.” She turned to me, standing very close to me; I suddenly felt the pressure of her hip against mine as she moved. She is a tall woman, as I say, my height in fact.

Her father’s breathing was even and mechanical. His chest moved like that of an automaton.

Miss Shanks looked down at her father. She seemed to be taking in every detail of his appearance: of the disposition of his body as though it had been laid-out in preparation for burial.

“It isn’t natural sleep,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone breathe like that.” She folded her arms, only to unfold them, her arms and placed a long-fingered hand on my shoulder. I knew that the action was not for reassurance. No; she had no need of reassurance. She was curiously and powerfully self-possessed.

“It’s not if, but when,” she said, her words loud and measured.

“I’m afraid you’re right. I’m certain the end is very close.”

“How long?”

“That is impossible to say.”

“I suppose it is.”

We stood and watched him, Jane’s hand on my shoulder.

As I looked down it was clear to me that only the most primitive areas of Mr Shanks’ brain were still living, uninterruptedly giving rise to his laboured and mechanical breathing. Apoplexy: åποπληξία. A striking off. A final stroke.

Jane took the house-key from her pocket and thoughtfully studied its ancient wards. “I suppose we just have to wait. Do you have more patients to see?”

“No. I was on my way home. I have nothing apart from a little correspondence until evening surgery at 6:30.”

We fell silent.

“I don’t mind being alone here if you wish to leave,” she said. “I can read The Telegraph to occupy myself until he dies. I can usually do the crossword within twenty minutes. My record is eight, and the Monday crossword is usually slightly easier than other days.” She looked out of the window at a line of small, intricate clouds. “So I have found,” she added.

“I”ll stay with you,” I said, troubled by her equanimity.

She sought out my hand. I looked into her eyes, large, grey and intelligent. Her oval face was completely and evenly symmetrical, which is quite rare. “Well, I enjoy your company,” she said. “Very much. As you may have guessed. Though I have never been given the chance to express it.”

We stood, side by side, holding hands, looking down at the figure on the bed. The sun shifted in the sky.

“A pleasant day,” said Jane. “A bright spring day. I think we shall be in for a spell of fine weather.”

The regular, automaton-like breathing did not alter. It was as though the dying man had indeed become a driven creature. The sound had a rasping, hungry quality.

“He’d be very angry if he could see us holding hands,” said Jane. “In fact he would be completely enraged. He was a jealous man. He was very possessive as a father. Not that that works. You can’t possess another person. Not even God is permitted to be jealous these days.” She smiled and placed her cheek next to mine. How pleasing a sensation! How soft her skin! I could feel it tautening with her smile. “He was adept at finding faults in any young man who approached me. Not that many did.” She looked down at him. “And now I’m no longer in the first flush of youth. I can’t blame him, I suppose. After he lost Mother he had nothing else apart from me.” She indicated a black-and-white photograph in a thin silver frame; a slim woman in white sat in a nursing-chair, a baby in her arms. “He always sleeps on this side of the bed.”

“They were very much in love, then,” I said.

“Love? You think? No. Not much love. Possession, certainly. Habit. They never spoke to each other except out of necessity. She was a kind woman, my mother. She deserved better. She was led a miserable life. In the end she was practically reduced to silence. He thought only of himself.” Jane paused. “When he went out to his club he would lock us in, mother and I. There was only one key to the front-door mortice-lock and the area gate was always kept chained.” She paused. “You’re a doctor: who better than you to advise me. Which undertaker do you recommend?”

“That seems a little premature, Jane,” I said. “Do you have any relatives?”

“No. I am the last of them.” She increased her grip on my hand, and rubbed my palm with her thumb. A strange sensation as though she had never touched a male hand before, boy or man. “Tell me. Which undertaker?”

“Grendon and Timms. They are courteous and reasonable, so relatives tell me. They are Quakers and their services are unusually plain; I expect that you’d prefer a simple funeral.”

“I know them. At the junction of Lime Walk and Jewkes Road. I went to school with Gillian Timms.”

Her demeanour suddenly changed. “I would prefer a simple funeral. As simple as possible. You are right. He and my mother will share a grave. A simple interment. As for now—now I’ll go and make some coffee. Come down with me.” She spoke quickly. “Come on. Let’s go down to the kitchen.”

“I’ll wait here, Jane.”

“No, Leo. Come down with me,” she said. It was the first time she had used my first name. For some reason she paused in uttering it. “I want to make coffee for you. There’s nothing for you to do here.” Her voice was urgent; even impassioned. “You can do nothing further.”

She pulled me by the hand. Her grip was strong. Well, her grip was irresistible.

So we went down to the kitchen, our footfalls echoing in the stone Infirmary stairwell, Jane still holding me by the hand, she deciding the rapid pace. We walked quickly across the hall, almost at a sprint, and down the service corridor to the kitchen, Jane’s footfalls clipped and echoic.

Jane immediately ran the tap and began the rite of making coffee, hand-grinding the beans, filling the kettle and placing it on the hob, taking up an Italian espresso machine. She did not let up and there was not the slightest pause between any of her actions. “Oh, I’m glad you have come down with me,” said Jane, under her breath, her tone of voice passionate, darting a glance at me.

Then she said, “You know, we used to have a maid, years ago, when I was a girl. Hannah Berrins; a nice woman. She was actually my best friend. Well, my only real friend, if I’m truthful. I was sixteen when she was suddenly dismissed. A week’s notice, given by a curt note from my father. I found her crying one morning; a morning rather like this. She showed me the note.” Jane paused. “Hannah played the piano well—she was taught by a parish deacon who saw her potential—and she used to accompany my cello: I miss that. She was a thoughtful accompanist. Music was just about the one thing—”Jane gave another sigh, a reprise of her first, but deeper. “I think she would have left sooner or later anyway: father was always finding fault with her and pulling her work apart. Poor Hannah. She was an orphan; she spent her childhood at Saint Ursula’s. She had no family of her own.”

Then the espresso machine was on the hob, the plain white demitasses and saucers were on the table and there was nothing more for her to do; she suddenly became still, resting her well-shaped hip against the sink, looking at me, her arms folded. “We’ll have it in the breakfast room,” she said.

It was good coffee, strong and well-prepared. We sat at either end of the table looking at each other. We were content to sit in silence. It was companionable, this silence. Then Jane stood. She folded The Telegraph and placed it, together with her father’s half-glasses, on the sideboard. Reconsidering, she opened a sideboard drawer, took out a spectacle-case, placed the half-glasses within, shut the case with a snap, and replaced it in the drawer with an air of firm finality. She pushed the drawer shut. She collected the demitasses, the saucers and the single plate and took them through to the scullery. She washed them in a primitive fashion under the cold tap, looking back at me from time to time, perhaps to see if I were still there.

“I suppose we had better be going back upstairs,” said Jane, looking at me with an air of finality in her intelligent eyes. “To his bedroom.”

I could still taste the fragrant bitterness of the coffee as we returned upstairs and opened the door of Mr Shanks’ bedroom.

The silence of the room — and the impression of emptiness — were immediately apparent, though it took a second for us to realize that Mr Shanks had stopped breathing. The furnishings quickly quenched the echoes of our entrance. Jane closed the door; the latch fell in place with an echoless click. The body lay at the centre of a vast pool of stillness.

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We stood, side by side, Jane with her arm round my waist. Suddenly, and without warning, she reached over and grasped my hand and firmly placed it on her own waist: I could feel the dimples at either side of her spine with my fingers. “Further round,” she said. “Hold me.”

We stood like this for some ten long minutes. I did not ask Jane of what she was thinking.

The sun was high in the sky and an aeroplane passed overhead, the drone of its propellers breaking the silence. I noticed the beat frequency, the heterodyne of its two engines. An accidental happenstance. But whenever I am in a quiet room and hear that sound I am transported back to that moment. Jane also; she told me years later.

“What are you doing now?” she asked.

“Going home, Jane,” I said, though I’m sure my voice was undecided. I reached down for my case, opened it, and took out the book of cause-of-death certificates. I stood at the side of a bow-fronted chest of drawers and filled out a certificate and its counterfoil. Jane watched me. I felt like someone at a post-office counter. The traverse of the nib of my pen was the loudest sound in the room.

“Where’s home, Leo?”

“Mrs Grossman’s,” I said. I handed her the certificate.

“You have good writing. It’s very clear. I’ve noticed that on your prescriptions: when at the chemist’s I always relinquish them with regret. You lodge at Mrs Grossman’s?” She looked up, holding the certificate and looking at my signature.

“For better or worse I do, Jane.”

“Well, come with me. We’ll register the death and then go to Grendon and Timms; I’ll leave the door unlocked so they can come in and do what they have to, and then you can take me out to lunch at Chelmer’s in Millhouse Lane. Freedom at last.” She murmured the final phrase. Fleetingly, and rather nervously, she kissed me on the cheek and then quickly withdrew her face.

We left the room, Jane closing the door with a deliberate hand.

We walked down the echoic stairway. I followed Jane, looking at her in some awe.

“Wait for me to change my shoes,” she said, opening a cupboard in the hall. She selected a pair of glossy, black, slip-on shoes with neat bows of black bombazine on the vamps and slightly raised heels. “Will these do? Or those tan lace-up half-boots? The suede ones? What do you think?” she asked, sitting on a rush-bottomed hall-chair, looking up at me, apparently concerned for my opinion. But, without waiting for a reply, she removed the shoes she was wearing and placed them in the cupboard. She adjusted her black stockings. “I’m fond of my patent-leathers,” she said, coming to a decision, slipping on the new shoes. She stretched out her long right leg.

She looked up at me, her face secretly expressive.

I looked down at the black bombazine bows on her shoes.

“Shall we go?” she asked, standing and smoothing her skirt with her hands.

Outside, on the threshold, Jane closed the door with a slam. The sound echoes in my memory. As we walked down the steps she put her arm in mine. Her manner was deliberate. At the corner of The Crescent we turned — as though we were one sentient entity — and we looked back and up at the tall sash windows of the first-floor room that held Mr Shanks’ death-bed.


Wheldon is a poet, novelist, and pathologist. His novel The Viaduct won The Triple First Award in 1982, as judged by Graham Greene and William Trevor. Other novels include The course of Instruction, At the Quay, and A Vocation.

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