Weston, hands deep in the pockets of his suit – a deep charcoal grey – new shoes squeaking on the teal floor, briefcase at his side, hair slicked back with wetlook gel, overcoat draped on his arm, he glances from behind his glasses at the nurse, the sister, with something like concern, she is telling him about Jack.
“He’s really very fragile, he needs a lot of rest at the moment. The doctor will be round to check on him at one, and he naps after that, so you can only have till then.” she trills, all efficiency. Weston notes uninterestedly her compact body under her clothes, swishing beneath the stiff fabric. He senses a silence that needs to be filled,
“Till one, right, of course.” More silence. “And, forgive me for asking, but how will I be able to communicate with him, I mean will I..?” Weston trails off.
“Oh. For a moment her composure is disturbed and her face softens as she contemplates how best to deal with Weston’s question. Well the stroke was really quite severe. You see, doctor, he’s no longer able to talk properly.” Weston just smiles back, knowing this all already but savouring her discomfort, savouring the anticipation, traversing this long hallway. They pass through what must be the twentieth set of double doors and the nurse stops.
“Well this is him. If you’d be more comfortable, doctor, I can have a nurse sit in with you, some people find that easier, especially the first time.”
“No, no. Thank you sister but I’ll be fine, honestly, Jack and I have always had a great rapport.” She smiles, giving a half-nod, and opens the door into a small room painted magnolia, a clunky bed in one corner, a grey moulded plastic chair, a television showing an elaborately dressed native American lecturing another man, naked to the hip, bronzed. A table bearing a vase containing slightly limp flowers and a radio and in the middle of the floor, in a wheelchair, facing the TV, was Jack. The first thing that Weston notices is the smell, a magnified version of the smell in the corridors and reception, damp, musty, faintly faecal, he stops himself from wincing a little.
“Well now Jack, how are you this morning?” The sister busies herself around the room, not expecting answers. “Doctor Cadaver is here to see you. You remember your son in law don’t you?”
“Yes, Hello Jack, you’re looking well, very well, good to see you again, it’s been too long, far too long.” Weston grinned. Jack’s face, slack and grey did not move, apart from the eyes which flickered in Weston’s direction, alarmed? uncomfortable?
“Well I’ll leave you to it then.” the sister exclaimed, and Weston beamed back at her, a big shit-eating grin.
“Thank you, sister.”
“Remember, the doctor will be coming round at one.” And she leaves, Weston glares at her meaty calves and solid-shod feet as the door glides shut behind her.
“Well Jack.” Weston turns his grin on the man in the chair and opens his hands as if in a benediction then claps them shut. “Here we are.” Weston strides around the room, goes to the window and away again without really having looked out of it, runs his hand along the bed sheets, and returns to Jack’s side, hovering over him, feeling almost too much to begin, he runs a hand through his stiff hair, turns away again and throws his coat onto the bed, placing the briefcase on top of it. “Now Jack,” Weston says brightly, moving back towards the wheelchair which he half turns. He moves to the TV and switches it off. He pulls out the grey chair and puts it down facing Jack, but doesn’t sit on it, instead as he speaks he wanders round the room, hands in his pockets, face tilted slightly upwards. “Jack, we can’t have you sitting in front of the television all day, watching those old repeats, that Yank trash, now can we?” Weston pauses a second, of course he had not, could not have planned the trajectory of this morning, but now he sees an avenue for it to go down and the thing begins to feel tangible, up till this moment, he is now able to admit to himself, he had been wondering if, or how much, he would be able to go through with it. Now there are no doubts, no grievances – why, he had even worried what his reaction to even seeing Jack, like he is, in the wheelchair, would be. Well there’s nothing, not a thing. “You do look well Jack, of course when I said that you did a moment a go it was just a pleasantry, more for the nurse than you. Odd how we slip into these routines, even if we’ve never done them before isn’t it? How we seek to appease people to avoid… what? Embarrassment? Well, I expect you’re past all of that now aren’t you?” Weston now faced Jack, hands on the back of the plastic chair, leaning into his face. “But looking properly now I have to say that it’s true. You look a little like Auden in his later years. Do you know that portrait of him? It’s quite famous. I expect you don’t know it. Somewhat out of your field of expertise eh Jack?” Weston drums out a sprightly rhythm on the chair and turns away for another circumnavigation of the room, his eyes on Jack all the time, the locus of his movements, his sun. “Now, Jack,” Weston relishes the name in his mouth, pronouncing it sickly, sycophantic, a name he never used, never calling the man anything before now, Weston is just turning the tables on every conversation they’ve ever had, so much to atone for. “You have all this free time, so much time with nothing to tie you down. I envy you Jack, in my way. You know, I never envied you before today, and I thought, coming in here, that I might pity you. But, ah, no, not really. You seem to have it pretty good here Jack. But you shouldn’t waste your time with the TV, I don’t know who has authorised that. I’m sure it’s not what you want. When the nurse told me you spent most of your day watching that rubbish I was disappointed, saddened to hear it Jack, I have to say. Of course, they haven’t the staff to read to you. I had thought about bringing you some books, but I anticipated this. A shame, a real shame, I wish, in a way, that I had more time to spend here, there’s a great deal that you should have read by now Jack. A great deal. And now you have the time but not the capacity. Time has turned against you, it’s the great irony of disease, you used to never have enough, I never have enough, but now, now you have too much, you have all this time but nothing to do with it. Boredom. The doctors tell me boredom is a great killer Jack, and all that TV, it must be boring you to death, if you’ll excuse the pun.” Weston was standing facing away from Jack now, hands folded behind his back, he looks at his watch, there isn’t time to dwell, and he realises a certain irony in this, he must move on, there’s still a lot to get in, the TV stuff was all adlibbed, a little flat perhaps, but the tone was right, it was a stable base to build from. “Well Jack,” he says, turning to face the man in the chair, he looked nothing like Auden, his face was much too thin, where had that come from? The skin grey, bristles crisp against the chin, colourless hair splayed out, slept on awkwardly, striped cotton pyjamas, open enough at the neck to show a glimpse of stiff chest hair. Jack stares back at Weston, jaw slackened, the lips moist, the teeth bitter yellow and Weston stares at him, looking for some sign of recognition, perhaps he’s hearing nothing, taking none of it in, but, Weston considers, how much does that matter? He’ll never know either way, but Weston still scrutinises the face, realising how little he ever looked at it before today. A moment later he feels self-conscious of the attention he’s giving Jack with his eyes – could this be a moment of pity, even the slenderest guilt? Weston does not dwell upon the thought but continues immediately, with renewed enthusiasm for his project, he must get this part right or it won’t all come together. “I didn’t just come here to chat to you, no no no. I came here to give you something Jack, I have a gift for you and it’s somewhat related to the matter of your excessive television watching. You know, when I phoned up to make the appointment to see you and the nurse told me how much time you spend watching TV I was most concerned Jack, most concerned. I even offered to bring in a VCR or a DVD player for you and some films that you could watch. I’ll wager there are a great number of very good films that you’ve never even heard of, let along seen. I was willing to allow you to borrow from my personal collection Jack, but sadly it seems that this is against regulations for one reason or another I wasn’t permitted to do this. But by chance, by happy chance – you might call it serendipity Jack – the nurse informed me that you have a radio in your room, and that it has a cassette player. And here it is.” Weston opened his hands at the old plastic machine like a gameshow assistant and proceeded to press the eject button, the cassette door glided open and Weston slammed it shut again. He paused, grinning over at Jack. “Music is a balm. I think you’ll agree with me on this, though I don’t remember you ever being a great fan. But there has never been a better time to start, am I correct?” Weston strides over to his briefcase and snaps it open; it’s an affectation he is pleased to take on, the suit, the wall street hair, it’s a dated idea, but a look that Jack will identify with, Weston imagined that Jack thought of him, disdainfully, as some sort of intellectual yuppie and here he was playing to the stereotype, however correctly. From the briefcase he takes a cassette tape and holds it up in front of Jack, he puts it into the machine but doesn’t yet press play. “Are you familiar, Jack, with ‘September Song’?” Weston here grins at Jack, as though giving him time to answer, “Perhaps you are. Perhaps. who can say? It’s a famous song, a classic standard, dozens of recorded versions are extant, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a song you are familiar with. But Jack, let me ask you this, is it a song you’ve listened to in much detail, is it a song you’ve thought a great deal about, a song you’ve invested time into?” again Weston pauses, letting the question breathe a little, “Probably not, Jack, I would say probably not. You’re not the type of person, you don’t have the right character to make an investment like that in something as flimsy as a song like this, I think I can safely say that. I wouldn’t be too surprised if you could hum along with the tune, perhaps sing the refrain. Ah, before your illness too, of course.” Weston taps his head as if in forgetfulness, though he’s behind Jack now, on another meandering circumlocution of the room, so the gesture goes unseen. “But if you were to know this song intimately, if you were to know any song intimately, if you could debate its merits and shortcomings at length, then I would be a great deal surprised Jack, a great deal surprised.” Weston sighs, checks his watch again, plenty of time, he pauses at the window, looking out this time at the courtyard below. In the centre is a planted area in the shape of a rectangle, rhododendrons, winter-dormant now, with crisp-brown petals and stalks in the grey soil. Around the plants the remainder of the courtyard is concreted over. Two benches stand facing each other from opposite sides and a faint drizzle falls on them and the concrete and on two nurses huddled in their coats, smoking cigarettes and sharing a packet of smoky bacon crisps. “Of course, there are things in your character that you concealed, things you kept hidden; from me, from Oolan, even from Elaine, from everybody, that’s perfectly natural. Everyone is the same, you can’t even call these things secrets really, that would be inaccurate I think – a person’s private character must remain just that, it takes a great courage to let people know even a fraction of that part of you, it takes a rare kind of temperament. It is crass to say that it is a quality that artists have, it is one of the failures of modernism to suggest such a thing, a great hubris, though art, whatever that may be, can be one such outlet. But such things do not concern you do they Jack? And of course, that part of you will never be known now, Jack, it is as if it has already been eternally forgotten, you never found the correct medium did you? No. As I say, it would surprise me greatly if ‘September Song’ was something you had ever given any thought to – and if it is, well, I’ll never know either way now, will I?” Weston turns to look again at the man in the chair beneath him and grins once more, unable to help himself. “Well Jack, you’ll forgive me I’m sure this little digression. I say all this because ‘September Song’ is a thing that I have, in fact, given a good deal of thought to. You might even say that it was an obsession at one time. Let me relate the story to you Jack, I think it’s one that you’ll enjoy hearing. I first encountered the song when I was very young, my father – I don’t believe the two of you ever met did you? – was something of a collector of jazz records and Artie Shaw was one of his favourites. Do you know Artie Shaw? I expect you don’t, he was a little before your time I think, very popular at one time though, a band leader, a composer and a clarinettist. My apologies if you know all this, this must sound very patronising if you do, but with you unable to help me I feel I owe it to you to fill in all the details. If you will permit me another slight digression here Jack, I’m sure you will – while driving down here I was contemplating your current plight. I think it’s a shame you’ve had so few visitors, a real shame. The nurse told me that only your sister and her children have been so far, myself excepted of course. A great shame. But you see as I was mulling over your current situation I came to the realisation that you are something like a blank space, Jack. Your personality has been eroded, all that exist now are fragments, and without you to tie them together, they no longer contain the same resonances, do you follow me Jack? What I’m saying is that the truth about you has become subjective, open to interpretation, suddenly now, with you in this state, if I say you are something, then you become it, since you are unable to disagree – or agree – with me. So if I tell the nurses that, oh, I don’t know, you were a great fan of the work of Monet, then what reason would they have for disagreeing with me? And if I brought in a Monet print and asked if it would be ok to hang it above your bed – well then, you see, it seems to become the truth that you are a lover of Monet. For why would I lie about something like that? But that’s a very simplistic example Jack, of how you are a blank space. Let me outline it for you in a slightly more complicated way. Lets say I was to visit your house now – oh, by the way, Oolan has given me her key, so I may pay a visit to the place, I understand you’re keeping it till you die, a good decision I think, but that’s by the by – if I visited your house and sifted through your belongings, there would be evidence for a life, things you have owned, treasured, the detritus of existence. Perhaps you see already what I’m getting at Jack. Lets say I’ve never known you, but somehow I gain access to your house now. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the kind of life you lead, the kind of man that you are, but on its own the evidence is difficult to decode, how am I, never having met you, to know which things you thought most important, which most beautiful, which had sentimental value and for what reasons. I could make a judgement, but it would be based as much upon my prejudices, my own likes and dislikes as anything else. And if somebody else came along the next day and went through your house similarly, they might conceive of you as an entirely different person. Do you see what I mean? Now lets imagine an alternative scenario where I, like before, am somebody who has never met you, and for whatever reason, you, by which I mean you before you became ill, decide to give me a tour of your house to show me the sort of man you are. Now, there are things you would show me, things you would be able to tell stories about, some things you would spend a lot of time on, others very little time, indeed there may be things that you would conceal from me, not wanting them to influence the way that I thought about you. After you had finished, well, it would still be up to me to make my judgement, and yes, it would still be based upon my own prejudices, my own idiosyncrasies as before, but the fact of your autonomy over the situation changes everything, the fact that I encountered you among your possessions is crucial to my impression because what I will be judging is less the things themselves and more your reaction to them and your reaction to me. What I would focus on would be the way you told me things, what you chose to elaborate on and what you were reluctant to discuss. I hope my meaning is becoming more clear to you now Jack, because you see, now that you are in this state, the possibility of that autonomy, that control over how people judge you, has disappeared. And, perhaps I am out on a limb a little here Jack, but see what you think; it is that autonomy that makes us human. You’re a little like a book by an unknown author. You are a non-person now Jack, you’re not a man anymore.” Weston pauses for breath here, feeling the excitement rising in him but trying to quash it, not wanting to rush things. “This situation puts me in a unique position, Jack. Unlike all the staff here, I knew you before you were ill, so whatever I say to people here about you, they’re likely to believe me. To them you are just a cipher, just a body.” Weston pauses again, gazing at Jack whose face remains inert, his body limp like papier-mâché stuffed with mincemeat. “I think that they enjoy hearing stories about you, anecdotes, anything, it makes you seem more human – otherwise you might as well have been born like this. Though one might say that anyway, this is all your life has amounted to, this is all you’ll ever become Jack. You are a blank canvas and whatever I throw at you will stick.” Weston rounded the wheelchair again and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, thinking he might be peaking too early, he needed to bring things down again, he was proud of having retained his composure so far. Doubtless this was just a role he was playing and the more he concealed himself within the role the better –and not just for himself – he wanted to desperately for Jack to think that this was Weston’s true self, that the years of politeness and small talk were just a façade, rather than the other way round. “So Jack, that is why I have to explain things to you in this patronising way,” he resumed, “though if somebody, an acquaintance of yours, a relative, happened to tell me that you knew all about Artie Shaw then I’d probably believe it, it’s not particularly a position of power that I hold. You are an impenetrable chasm of ignorance now Jack, and forevermore will be. Anyway, as I was saying, my father was a fan of Artie Shaw, and so it was Shaw’s version of ‘September Song’ that I first heard. Now this version is just an instrumental, and though I admired the tune enough for it to become a childhood favourite of mine, it held no deep significance for me. A few years later I chanced upon the Sinatra version of the song and I was awestruck – here was the familiar melody of my youth coupled with a lyric concerning ageing and death, the contrast was bittersweet for me – it remains, though perhaps only for nostalgic reasons – the definitive version for me. In my teens my affectation for the song only grew and I began to seek out other recordings of the song, I was voracious. In charity shops, at record fairs, I purchased a large number of recordings of the song, most of them rather generic, a lot of middling versions by middling jazz singers, but a few gems emerged, and even those average recordings fleshed out my understanding of the song, you see, you can’t come to understand the true status of a song, a standard, without hearing the various interpretations of it, however banal. Indeed it is often the most generic versions that give us the fullest understanding of the function of a song, for they represent it in its most accepted form and are the furthest from novelty. Thought the novelty versions are not without their value too – I acquired a punk version of the song by a mostly unremembered American band which lambastes the sentiment of the song. You see Jack, ‘September Song’ is, as you would expect, mostly sung by older men, but this band is composed, I think, of people in their early twenties, young men with a grievance against the world, a naïve grievance you might think if so directed, but a genuine one nonetheless. The conceit of their version is a similar one to Sid Vicious singing ‘My Way’, are you familiar with this record Jack? Perhaps you are, though I suspect you’re just a little old for punk, a little too old and a little too culturally conservative. Well, as Vicious does, this band, I believe they are called The Creationists, invests the song with a new youthful energy, strips it of all its doleful swing, all of its pathos and grandeur, turns the singing into bitter yelps of frustration and resentment. It is a curios thing. They seem to be positioning themselves, in terms of their sound and their image at least, as year-zero pioneers, makers of a new and radical cultural age, they want to burn down the old bastions of the past – hence the cover of ‘September Song’ a piece of music that celebrates the old rituals of courting, settling down with a partner and waiting for death, a song about the autumn of our lives. But the irony is, and whether it’s an irony that this band comprehend I cannot be sure, that in disrupting the song in the manner that they do they actually breathe new life in to it and give it a relevance that it perhaps lacked at the time. You see, if you listen to other versions contemporary with The Creationists’, mostly recorded on big band tours by elderly crooners, then the song sounds flat and dated, mostly irrelevant, even to their similarly elderly audiences. So what I’m saying, Jack, is that the novelty version sets the parameters, it shows us how far the song can travel from its original conception. And ‘September Song’ has travelled farther than most. I have heard versions in several languages, versions recorded with orchestras, jazz bands, the punk band I mentioned a moment ago, quite a few country versions, a handful of Hawaiian-style versions, Elvis sang it, most of the rat pack sang it, Louie Armstrong sang it, there is a version by Lou Reed even – you are familiar with Reed I presume? He sang ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, which must be a record you know, - and recently I even succeeded in tracking down, on the internet, a reggae version that had eluded me since my early twenties. Something of a disappointment to hear, but of course at this stage it is the having of the thing rather than the quality of the song. Let me tell you Jack, if the internet would have been around when I began my search, I could probably have achieved in a week what back then took me several years, and for a lot less money too. I think that I have purchased, or downloaded – now Jack, I don’t want you to think of me as one of those musty collectors who has to own the original vinyl of a song, I am quite happy with copies, digital versions, re-pressings, the song itself is the important thing to me, not the object carrying it – virtually every recording of ‘September Song’ that there is. And that’s what I have here for you on the tape. I’ve gone to the trouble of compiling here my very favourite versions of that song, not an easy process, but an enjoyable one, and I did it all for you Jack. Shall I put it on for you now? Very well.” Weston moves back to the radio and pushes down the play button and a mournful voice sings the opening lines of ‘September Song’
As the Autumn weather turns leaf to flame,
I haven’t got time
For the waiting game.
Weston gives a blissful grin, “Ah, yes.” and swishes his hands in time with the music. “Jack, this is Robert Wyatt, a man who spent much of his life in a wheelchair – he sang with The Soft Machine, once had a hit with ‘I’m a Believer’ – can you imagine that? Well, this is actually a fairly recent version; I think you can tell that if you listen closely. Wyatt plays it very straight, he looks for the genuine pathos, the true humanity of the song, you see, what dates many of the older versions is the schmaltziness of them, you don’t get the feeling that the singers really mean or even fully understand what they’re singing, they’re just doing the song because it’s the sort of song that singers like them are expected to do and they embellish it with vocal tricks and oversinging. But not Wyatt, he sings it as plaintive as possible, the arrangement serves a similar purpose, it’s by a man called Pascal Comelade, very downbeat, very evocative. He even cuts out the first section of the song, which you’ll hear in some of the other versions on the tape. He has a wonderful voice, don’t you think? The words sound genuine, fatigued, you really think that the days he sings about are becoming more and more precious and that the ‘you’ he is addressing is Wyatt’s own true life partner. But authenticity, the need for authenticity is the great modern disease Jack; I think you’ll agree with me here. I’ve put the Sinatra version on next, yes, here it is, and we can contrast the two. You see, Wyatt seems to make the song personal; it’s really a song that deals with a stock character – listen to what Sinatra is singing here:
When I was a young man courting the girls,
I’d play me a waiting game
If a maid refused me with tossing curls
I’d let the old earth take a couple of whirls
While I plied her with tears, in lieu of pearls,
And as time came around she came my way
As time came around she came.
Sinatra wants to make us aware that he is playing such a character with the song, he makes it perfectly clear. Listen, he sings ‘One’, where Wyatt sang ‘I’ – and listen to the arrangement, it’s overblown, dramatic and so is the way it’s sung. You might almost say that Sinatra, now that he is an old man is simply using the song as another vehicle for courting, but with a different spin to the songs of his youth – it’s a little like an updated version of Marvell’s poem – do you know the one I’m talking about? – ‘To His Coy Mistress’? Well, I suppose not, but the thrust of it is this, the speaker in the poem tries to woo his reluctant girlfriend into bed by reminding her of the brevity of life, and I think you could make a case for saying that Sinatra is attempting a similar conceit. But who do we feel the more sorry for, which version convinces us more? In the very simplest terms we might say that Wyatt’s is the more poignant as he recognises the heaviness of death, the sanctity of love etc – he sings it like he means it, he’s not disguising anything, he’s not using the song for any ulterior motive. But I think this would be a reductive conclusion, Jack, an overly-simplistic reading. To begin with, we might greater sympathise with the character that Sinatra plays.” The music stops and Weston pauses a second, glancing over at the radio. “Ah yes, now this, Jack, is the Artie Shaw version – actually he recorded the song a number of times over the years – but this I think is the best example. Now, where was I? Yes, now, Sinatra’s character is unaware, or at least only ambiguously aware of his impending ageing and death, we might sympathise with his ignorance. Or, to go further, if we accept that he’s using the fact of his ageing as just another tactic for getting a girl, if the song is just a device to him, then we as listeners have to question his capacity for serious contemplation – his capacity for real long-term happiness even, this could well be a character that ends up alone – and is that not far more tragic, far more deserving of sympathy than somebody who recognises their imminent fate? What do you think Jack?” Weston looks down at Jack whose face is still the same crumpled ball as ever, “it’s not a simple yes or no question, or at least I don’t think so. No. It’s a question that gets to the heart of aesthetic appreciation in this century. For me, at least, the Sinatra version, purely in terms of the song, is the more rewarding, though I like the Wyatt version a great deal too. And of course, the great irony of the situation, the great irony of all this authenticity discourse, which is more often than not just an elevated form of class prejudice or race prejudice or most often of all of homophobia – but I won’t get into that, you’re not interested in all that Jack - the great irony is that Wyatt is playing a role as much as Sinatra is, a very different kind of role, but a role nonetheless. Are you with me Jack? You know, I’ve thought about this a great deal, this song, and I often wonder to what extent my enjoyment of the Sinatra version of ‘September Song’ is bound up in the Sinatra mythos – in short, would I like it as much if it was some unheard of singer doing it? I suspect that I wouldn’t, but it’s not a suspicion that troubles me, no no. Jack, it’s hard to conceive of someone ever being as famous as Sinatra was – it’s the same with Elvis, the world of music was simply smaller then and operated in an entirely different way. But that’s beside the point, the point is that what we hear when we hear Sinatra sing are, for better or worse, some of the building blocks of popular culture as we know it today – the schmaltz, yes, that’s what so many people criticise, and you can see the bastard offspring of that schmaltz running around today, they are everywhere, like tiny rhinestones fallen from Elvis’ suit – the inauthenticity. When Sinatra recorded ‘September Song’, he probably recorded another dozen songs that week, probably sang live a couple of times – when he recorded the song he’d probably already sung it hundreds of times before in concert – how could it be authentic, what would it even mean to question the song’s authenticity? These are not idle ramblings Jack; these are key concerns of mine. If you want to properly understand your conception of something, a song, you must unpack all the details, however trivial, and do you know what I’ve come up with? It took me a long time to reach this conclusion about ‘September Song’, because in some senses it seems to defeat what the song is actually about, it seems paradoxical – are you ready Jack? I reached this conclusion while listening to the Sinatra version; it’s fitting I think, and the Sinatra mythology, the legend, whatever you want to call it, that played a key part. You see Jack, there is a great irony in the song, in the performance of the song, even in the conception of the song; are you familiar with the Latin, ars longa vita brevis: art is long, life is short? It’s a relatively common idea, Shakespeare explored it at length in his sonnets – the idea that one can be immortalised through art. I have problems with the idea that I share with many recent critics, but I won’t go into them now for you, the existence of this notion is key to my understanding of ‘September Song’, and it’s through this idea that I came to understand the song as I do. You see, Jack, when whoever is singing it sings, ostensibly they are telling us about the brevity of life, their own life, and the need to latch onto a kind of stability and happiness that, in the song, is embodied by the ‘you’, the singer addresses, it’s a call for acceptance of your fate, a sad acceptance, a resigned acceptance, but an acceptance nonetheless. I think it is this aspect of the song that has caused it to endure for so long, to be interpreted in so many ways by so many different people. I think it is this aspect of the song that The Creationists are attacking in their version; they will not go gentle, if you will. But Jack, if you recall the maxim I mentioned a moment ago: ars longa, vita brevis, then you will perhaps already have guessed what I am about to say – it is simply this: the very fact of the song being sung and recorded ensures, especially for big stars like Elvis and Sinatra and even Wyatt, a kind of immortality, the kind of immortality that concerned Shakespeare in the sonnets. Every time I put one of these records on, that person sings again, they live again, they are brought back. This, I think, is something Sinatra understood and it allowed him to sing the song with such panache, allowed him to use the song as though it were just another courting song, allowed him to use the fact of his death as a device for wooing the audience, because Jack, when Sinatra sings ‘you’ it is not to some imaginary girl, no, but to the listener, I think you have to understand that to understand the significance of this recording. I dunno if you’ve heard about this, Jack, but people go to stadiums to watch footage of Sinatra singing live, they sit there watching a giant TV screen and they clap and Frank sings ‘New York New York’ and they clap again and he thanks them. He does an encore. This is an age of simulation, Jack, what possible meaning can life and death have to a man like that? You know what Colonel Parker said when heard that Elvis had died? He said: “This changes nothing.” These were mortal men Jack, but they got beyond that, but I don’t want you to misunderstand me here, I’m not saying you have to be on that level of fame to be part of this phenomenon, no, Elvis and Sinatra just happen to be particularly useful examples of it, and Sinatra happens to have recorded my favourite version of ‘September Song’. I’ve often wondered why this song has been the locus of so much of my thought, I seem to have returned to it with renewed vigour recently and the conclusions I reach are sometimes contradictory. You may have noticed this, Jack – earlier on I said that the concern for authenticity is the modern disease, but just moments ago I call this an age of simulation. Do these things contradict each other? I’m not sure that they do. I think the great number of people that attend the Sinatra video concerts see him as being somehow realer than today’s pop stars, they see him as singing proper songs, having good diction, having style, class, the discourse of authenticity operates upon so many complex levels which are taken up or discarded by those using them, at times in contradictory ways. I don’t think many of the people attending those concerts would have much time for the punk version of ‘September Song’, for example. So, Jack, we live in an age of simulation, but people so often choose to ignore it, they do so for a number of reasons; to simplify to the extreme, it makes their lives seem more manageable, more easy to grasp, more meaningful.” Weston pulls his hands from his pockets, wipes his brow with the back of his right hand and then looks at Jack while tapping his bottom lip with the knuckle of his right thumb. “Have looked at the view much, Jack? Shall we take a look at the view?” Weston goes behind the wheelchair, grabs the handles and, tilting it slightly, pushes Jack so that he is right up against the window. As he pushes he looks at his watch and realises that he’s perhaps dwelled too much on the song, too much of it was about his own concerns, perhaps the thrust of his meaning has been diluted. But what does it matter? How does he know if Jack is even hearing a single word he says? Standing next to the wheelchair Weston looks out of the window, the courtyard is now empty. “Well then Jack, there you are. This is it; this is what it amounts to, in the final analysis. This is all you’ll see of the outside world until you die, this concrete box.” Behind him, Weston hears the click of the door and the swish of it being quietly opened. Without looking round, without appearing to notice he continues. “It’s all too brief a time we have, Jack, but you’ve lived well and this is not an ignominious end, not by any means, it is in fact a rather noble finish, a…” Weston hears a polite feminine cough behind him and turns around swiftly on the ball of one foot. In front of the door he sees a young nurse, thin, almost frail looking, white skin, curly black hair, slender arms, tiny wrists. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I was just asked to check in to make sure everything’s ok with you two and to remind you that the doctor is coming round at one.” She sounds nervous in front of him. Weston takes a couple of steps towards her.
“Well thank you, er,” he steps forward again and leans down towards her breast to read her name tag, “Claire. We are fine; Jack and I were just admiring the view. I’m sure it’s a wonderful garden in the summer.”
“Yes, the residents enjoy it. Perhaps if you visit again when the weather’s better you could take Jack out there.” She gazes up at Weston’s beaming face, a little apprehensive.
“Yes, yes I’m sure he’d like that, but, “ Weston glances back at the wheelchair, which is still facing in the opposite direction, Jack’s blank eyes gazing out at the opposite wall, which contains a number of windows that show rooms identical to his. Weston leans in towards the nurse, speaking in a whisper, but not so quiet that Jack cannot hear, “I fear he may not make it long enough to see the flowers here bloom.” Claire looks at him quizzically, a little confused by this remark, but Weston keeps smiling at her, his eyes locked on hers while she tries to avoid meeting his, scrutinising various bits of carpet and wall. “Well I appreciate your concern, Claire, I thank you for it. Was there anything else?”
“Yes, actually, Doctor…” Claire trails off, either having forgotten Weston’s name or is reluctant to say it; he lets her dangle for just half a second before coming gallantly to her rescue.
“Thank you. The sister just wanted to ask whether Jack’s daughter will be visiting at all? It’s in the register that she scheduled a visit but then cancelled, is that right?” Weston sours his grin, but inwardly thanks her for the question.
“Yes, that is correct, Claire, she did schedule an appointment a few weeks ago, but she won’t be visiting Jack, not ever, I’m afraid. I’ve tried to talk to her about it but she’s adamant, there’s no way.” Weston pauses, returning the grin to his face, Claire doesn’t seem to know how to react, just about managing a choked out “Oh” but Weston continues, electric with the sense of the moment. “Yes. You see Claire.” Weston moves his face even further towards her, she seems repulsed, but either too afraid or too intrigued to move she stays stock still, her feet planted together, “Jack,” he pauses again, as if unsure how exactly to word what he has to say, he tilts his face suddenly up to the ceiling and keeps it there as he says: “… did something to her, when she was younger. Long before I ever met her, something terrible. She won’t ever tell me what, not until he’s dead, she’s scared of what I might do to him if I ever found out.” Weston returns his face to hers, which is whiter than ever, his grin has disappeared and his voice drops and becomes gravely. “So you see Claire, I’m visiting in her stead. Jack and I always got on. I consider it an act of goodwill. But I’m afraid you’ll have to tell the sister that his daughter won’t be visiting. Is that what you wanted to know?” Claire snaps back to attention at Weston’s question, flustered,
“Yes. Thankyou, I’ll tell her. Thanks.”
“Oh, Claire, there was something I wanted as well.”
“Oh, yes?” she looks uncertainly at Weston,
“Well it’s like this you see, I come in here today and I see Jack watching the television. The problem is that Jack always hated TV, I think after his wife died he got rid of their set. He could never stand television.”
“Yes. So I think having to sit here watching it must be torture for him. Claire, are you familiar with this music?” Weston gestures towards the radio, which is now playing a Hawaiian version of the song. Claire looks blank. “It’s ‘September Song’, a classic, a standard. Claire, Jack was always a great fan of music, and this was his favourite song, he was forever playing this tape when I went round, he said he found it very comforting. So I went to the trouble of going round there earlier and picking up the tape to bring here for him. I think it would be in Jack’s best interests if you removed the TV from the room and just played the tape for him, all it would take is for somebody to come in every three-quarters of an hour to turn it over. Would that be ok? I know the song means a great deal to Jack.”
“I don’t think that would be a problem, I’ll go tell sister.”
“Thank you. Goodbye Claire. It was pleasant to have met you.” Weston beams at her again and she manages the trace of a smile as she leaves. Weston watches her go and stands for a moment in contemplation, her bare arms, slinky hips. He affects a cough, clears his throat and turns back to where Jack is still sitting, the same motionless slump. “Well then Jack. Now there’s a girl for you. A lovely figure. I wonder if you still feel desire. Is that something you still feel Jack? Of course there can be no physical manifestation, but the mind does not often recognise our bodily limitations when it comes to matters like that now does it?” Weston, back next to Jack, turns and grins at him, winking like a leery uncle. I don’t suppose it matters. If you feel any desire for her it can only be one frustration among thousands, just one more thing that you’ll never be able to do again. Of course, even before your illness she would never want somebody like you. You always dressed too cheaply Jack, you didn’t talk well enough. A girl like that, you have to take some interest. I scared her then, but she’s nothing to me, you realise that, don’t you Jack? If I wanted to, I know how to talk to a girl like that. I think that’s a crucial difference between the two of us. You could never talk to her. And to her now, what are you? Just a body, just a lump of ugly, diseased flesh. You are just a job to her, she resents you, I’m sure of it. I can usually tell these things.” Weston turns away from Jack and back to the window, the rain is falling a little more heavily now, a few spots have blown onto the windowpane. “Now where were we Jack? We were talking about the view, yes. Look out there. Do you see those windows? Behind each of them is another person like you; another incapacitated man or woman waiting to die. If you wait here till night-time and they switch their lights on and you have your lights on in here – I notice there are no curtains in these rooms – if you wait here then, perhaps, someone else on the other side of the courtyard will be waiting there in front of the window, sitting in their chair just like you. And your eyes might meet. Of course the possibility of all this happening is, as with everything that’s going to happen to you for the rest of your life, completely out of your control, but if it were to happen, Jack, then I think that would be the most potent form of human communication you are ever likely to experience again. Yes.” Weston pauses here, biding his time before embarking upon the most important part of his visit; these are the words that he has rehearsed over and over, weighing them for impact, carefully choosing the avenue of attack. “You know, Jack, what I said to the nurse there was correct. Oolan won’t be visiting you, not ever. The reason she hasn’t visited you since Elaine died is that she can’t stand you. Oh, here’s something Harry, this is something that I have to say, without wanting to appear cruel, amused me greatly. I heard that since Elaine passed away, you’ve become quite the little churchgoer. Been quite the man about the parish. Pals with the priest. I hear they even let you dish out the communion one week. Well, Jack, now there’s a thing, that’s really something. Jesus came into your heart, you were reborn, was it something like that Jack? Do you remember the beautiful reading Oolan gave at Elaine’s funeral? Very moving. From William Blake, not that you’d be interested in knowing that. But there will be nothing like that for you, Jack; neither of us will go to the funeral. And you know what? It’s a cliché, but it is times like these when you realise who your friends really are, it’s true. Has the priest even been to visit? Well, I know he hasn’t. If you didn’t know before now then you must have come to the realisation, Jack, that you were a disliked man, you had no real friends. Well where are they? And there’s no God, Jack, don’t be so fucking stupid.” Weston pauses, pleased with the cadence of that last sentence, steeling himself for what is to come. ”Actually, you know what, I did tell a tiny lie to the nurse a moment ago, Oolan has told me everything you did to her, she hasn’t omitted a thing. And you know, Jack, she has had to physically wrench me from the phone, or hide my car keys to stop me getting to you, that much is true. God knows, Jack, I am a small man, a weak man.” On ‘weak’ Weston eyes brim a little and the word catches in his throat, but he holds it back, keeps going, eyes fixed on the rhododendrons below. “I have held back in front of you, made small talk, pretended things were alright, pretended I relished your company even, and I think you believed me. But Jack, listen to me now Jack, if you’d have seen her on those nights, if you had any idea. But of course you have no idea what you did to her, you haven’t the slightest clue – if you were capable of knowing then you would never have done those things in the first place. It’s fitting you’ve ended up this way Jack, I think it’s very apt.” Weston forced a grin. “I think it’s a fair reflection. But Jack, I am a small man, but not so small as to make all this about me, I’m not here for some ridiculous man to man conflict, I’m not here for revenge. You realise the position of power that I’m in here Jack, don’t you? I could do anything. I could put my dick in your mouth; I could knock you to the fucking floor. But I’m not like that. I am not so small, Jack, to have not questioned the ethics of this situation. I’m talking to a disabled man, someone who can’t reply, can’t refute what I say, can’t interrupt either physically or verbally. You can see how this situation would reflect badly on me if somebody unaware of the context were to be watching. Believe me, Jack, this behaviour is not spontaneous, it took a great deal of contemplation, I struggled with my conscience, you can believe that can’t you? I feel that now I’m only doing what is completely necessary. It’s something you’ve had coming to you for some time. I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time Jack, but the problem is you were never a very good listener were you Jack? But, hey, that’s all changed now, that’s one good thing that’s come out of all this, don’t you think? I like to think so. As I say, I think I think it’s fitting that you’re going to die like this.” Now Weston, turns the chair away from the window and crouches down so that his face is level with Jack’s, eyes locked on each other and Weston thinks that he sees the tiniest flicker in Jack’s ruined face. “Well Jack. Here we are. And would you believe, I told that nurse another little fib? It’s just a small thing Jack, but I think I better tell you. When I said you probably wouldn’t last to see the rhododendrons down there bloom, I wasn’t being entirely truthful – I said that for Claire’s benefit. Jack, believe me, I’m not here to make you think that you don’t have long left, quite the contrary in fact. I got talking to your doctor on the way in, a very nice guy, very genial. Well, when I introduced myself as doctor I guess he thought I was medical, you know. I found it a little ironic, because do you remember those jokes that you made when I finally got my PhD? You found it hilarious to ask me medical questions, to ask me what operations I’d performed – and the funniest of all was ‘But who in their right mind would go to a Doctor Cadaver?’ Well, Jack, that one never got old did it? But the irony is that he told me everything earlier. He said I wasn’t to tell you, but I think it’s best that you know the truth about what’s going to happen to you, about your condition, don’t you Jack?” Weston smiles again, still looking hard into Jack’s eyes. “You see Jack, you will see the flowers outside bloom, and you’ll see winter again in this place. The doctor predicts that you’ll live for several more years like this. But Jack, if you think you’re in pain now then you’re mistaken, he said that your condition can only grow worse, your future is nothing but pain, intense pain. Soon, quite soon really, just a couple of years away, the pain will be so great that, if you could speak, you’d be begging for someone to slip you an overdose, you’ll want so desperately to be able to end it Jack, but no one will help you.” Midway through Weston’s sentence the tape clicks off for the end of the first side. Weston rises and moves over to the machine, slowly and deliberately he turns the tape over and presses play again. The tune starts up, this time a singer with a French accent tackles the opening lines, and Weston goes and crouches down in front of the chair, his face set hard, looking disgusted at what’s in front of him “Nobody cares enough to take that risk for you Jack.” He rises again and puts his hands in his pockets, exhilaration howls through him, he can’t help but smile. “Well then Jack, I think that’s about all, I think I’ve said everything I came here to say. I can’t say you’ve been very good company, but then I don’t think I could ever say that about you.” Weston shuts his briefcase and gathers up his coat from the bed. “I hope you enjoy your tape Jack, you’re going to be hearing a lot of it from now on.” Weston goes to the door and opens it a little way, “Now Jack, perhaps I’ll come again, in a few years time, in the summer, and take you for a turn around the garden. We’ll see. Whatever happens I know I’ll be thinking of you, perhaps you might take a few moments each day to think of me as well, I’d appreciate that. Well, goodbye then Jack.” Weston looks once more at the old man in the chair, had he deserved all that? He shuts the door, suppressing a smile and begins to walk down the white corridor.
Half way along he encounters the nurse and a man who is introduced as Doctor Benson, the man treating Jack. Weston grins deferentially at the man. Benson is a little smaller than him with a chubby face and a pleasant Irish accent, he looks up at Weston with a genuine sympathy.
”How did you find it today? I know it’s difficult for a lot of people, especially the first time, though you stayed for quite a while.”
”Oh, well Jack and I have always got on very well, as I think I said to the sister, we have a rapport, you know. Talking to him today I found myself almost able to fill in what Jack would have said, it wasn’t so different. But tell me doctor, how much of what I’m saying can he understand, I mean, how much has it affected his brain?”
“It’s hard to say, er, Doctor Cadaver, hm. A specialist has been visiting Jack a couple of times a week to work on ways of establishing communication and she says that he is able to respond to her in a very rudimentary way, using very slight movements of the eyes for example, to indicate a yes or a no. So we think that his mental faculties have not been too drastically affected.” Benson looks down seriously at his clipboard, “But I’m sure he took in more than you think he did, doctor.” Weston isn’t sure whether the Benson is just saying this to comfort him.
“And, er, how long would you say he has?” Benson appears surprised by Weston’s candidness, but he retains his composure neatly.
“Well again it’s difficult to say, he’s in a very fragile state at the moment, so he’s particularly susceptible to illnesses, his immune system has been significantly weakened, so any disease would be a big threat to him. That said, he could just as easily last another year, or longer. Cases like Jack’s are very difficult to predict.”
“Well thank you doctor, not exactly reassuring knowledge, but it’s good to know the truth. And it’s pleasing to discover that Jack is in the care of such a genial man. I am pleased to have made your acquaintance.”
“Yes, pleased to meet you too doctor.” Benson seems a little put out by Weston’s gregariousness, but he extends his hand and Weston shakes it firmly.
”Well I won’t keep you any longer, I’m sure you have a great deal to be getting on with. Goodbye doctor. Sister.” Weston nods at them both and walks away towards reception. He sidles along, hands in his pockets, a big grin on his face, he doesn’t care now. On the way out, he notices the nurse, Claire, standing on reception. He slows his walk, looking right at her. She returns his gaze and Weston beams at her, the biggest smile of the day, he almost winks. To his surprise she smiles back at him, big and genuine, her cheeks colouring slightly. He almost goes over, but the moment is so perfect, it couldn’t get better. The door clink open in front of him, he lets an old lady, her hair and coat soaking wet, go past him and steps out into the drizzle, clicking his heels on the wet tarmac. Shielding the match from the wind he lights up a cigarette and takes a couple of joyous drags and looks up at the sky which is the colour of newspaper, and at the people bustling round the carpark like pinballs, slaves to the wind. He half finishes the cigarette before flicking it away, watching the slender arc it describes in the air, going back over the events of the last hour in his mind. It could not have been more perfect. Claire’s smile was like an approval from God himself. Well, how could it be anything else? To his surprise, a faint wisp of sun seems to be struggling through the cloud, and if the sun, though only the winter sun, is going to shine today, then who else could it shine on but Doctor Weston Cadaver, who, too blissful to drive, leaves the carpark and walks out in the direction of those few little shafts of sunlight that however uncertainly over the damp pavement.