Compline: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
I am a sick man. I am a peevish man. I am a disaffected man. It is getting harder to ignore the tumour growing inside my brain. In Cwmdonkin Park the other day I was stabbed by rods of light and pain, and I groaned and had to clutch the railings for support. In the last year or so I have let my appearance decline. A woman holding a two-year-old girl by the hand edged away, and I think, Geraint, it is good that such a sick man keeps his closest friend at the farthest end of the world.
But you say how easy it would be to come to this other Wales of yours and see you – an easy matter of a flight to Buenos Aires and a plane to Trelew, where you would come and meet me at the airport! You tell me how ‘Western’ Puerto Madryn feels, with its plazas and its promenade where the young and the old sit drinking mate. And of course you must tell me again that the children have seen pictures of me and that Camilla is longing to meet me, for even though I have no intention of coming, a peevish man must have invitations to refuse.
But what if I describe my small habits and my city haunts? One night in September the city was bandaged in fog, and a powerful smell of rotten eggs from Port Talbot filled the streets of Brynmill and Uplands. Yesterday the wind blew up waves that showered my third-floor window with spray, and this morning there were puddles of brine and sand across the width of Oystermouth Road. I eat bacon and eggs in a café where the waitress likes to think she is in awe of me. She has seen me with my notebook and asked me about it, and she imagines me gripped by some great work, not understanding how hard it is for a disaffected man to write. Before going to town I call on a professor who used to show interest in my work, though I think he has found some newer writer to admire, for he gets rid of me as soon as he can. So I queue for the bus with the students and lecturers, Geraint, wondering whether you or I were so full of campus office and status and affairs. I call in at the bookshop on Oxford Street to look under ‘Fiction’ and then ‘Local Interest’ for my book, to leaf through the magazines in search of a review, and remember again how hard it is to stare at the world and miss your reflection. And so I reach the library, where I check a few books out and answer the phone, and try to convince my employers I am working. Going home I see the sky turned to blood in the vividness of the sunset, and as I sit by the window with my notebook, the evening traffic grinds past on Oystermouth Road.
Meanwhile no doubt spring has come to the Chubut valley, and perhaps the willows are in bloom. No doubt your students sit idling on the college lawns in the sunshine, the way they sit on summer mornings in Singleton Park. Are you preparing to change from your winter work teaching English and Welsh to your summer work on the nature reserves, and will you glimpse condors or distant flamingoes while driving through brackish Patagonian steppes? In my imagination I am sitting in your flat, in that morning brightness you have described to me. The children have come back from school and Camilla is on her way home for the siesta, and you are making them a lunch of salad and toast before we two walk round the bay to the Colony’s first toehold – no further, you assure me, than it is to the Mumbles from St. Helen’s Road. But I feel no surge of humility or pride in that historic place, as you do. I scratch the soft green rock with my fingers and look at those crude dug-outs where the settlers spent their first winter. The old fools, did they really imagine they could save Welsh civilisation among the penguins and seals here, at the end? Did they kneel down to kiss that land more ancient than grass, or scatter a little dust from the old Wales to mingle with the dust of the new? Walking home we will argue over my pessimism until you nudge me and tell me urgently to be quiet: a whale is striking the water with its tail, and in that moment between the breach and the thunder the world seems to listen to itself breathing.
I am going back to see the oncologist tomorrow. I have read enough to get some sense of my prospects, a choice between the pain and discomfort of therapy and the dangers of allowing this growth to go unchecked. Migraines would lead to convulsions and seizures, personality changes, decline. I sometimes think life is a convulsion, Geraint, a little twitching of the limbs before death. It would console me to have some response to the perplexities that oppress me, but I comfort myself as best I can, and surrender in silence to the silence of God.