The Wilderness: A Novel
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memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself.
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It is not about forgetting, it is about losing and never getting back—
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not to become too attached to what is gone, and to appreciate instead what is there.
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How strange, then, was memory—that a whole interval of one's life could be blotted out like the sun behind the moon, and then emerge again so intact!
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some of the details are imagined or inflated or borrowed from other times, but the essence, as part of the story of himself, is undeniably right.
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He breaks eggs into the pan and throws the shells away. He then takes the shells from the bin and stands with them in his hand with the idea that he needs them for the omelet—he can't remember if shells are like packets that you throw away or apple skins that you eat. Packet or skin, skin or packet? Or box? Or wrapper, or case? There are so many words, and so many actions that depend on the words, that it becomes impossible, when one begins to think it through, to ever know what to do. He puts the eggshells in the bread bin instead. Think about it later, he resolves, mumbling to himself.
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he had what he now regards as his first true blankness. For a moment he forgot everything he had ever known, not just facts but the art of how to get facts. The utter blankness amounted to one solitary, stammering thought: What is it I'm supposed to do now? It was a moment, that was all, of extreme disorientation, but though it passed it did not, he felt, pass fully.
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much as I think your curiosity is wonderful, I do find it's better not to talk about these things. It's confusing, and a little frightening. It's better to address the practical issues.”
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A swarm of cells, a mass of dying strangled cells. Bramble hedges, unwholesome growth that chokes. His mind sees a garden being strangled by weeds which climb up and over the walls, suffocate the flowers, split the paving, cover the house, reach their wayward tendrils through windows and find the people sleeping and pick at the locks of their heart, unpick them until they are just dismantled machines.
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What was the point of it all again? If he had a map he would not even know where to begin to look for these countries. The inspiration these leaflets and letters had once provoked in him is felt so dimly now, and with immense shame he cannot quantify but which suggests to him inspiration cannot be worth its consequences—it is better overall to keep one's head down and say and think nothing.
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There is nothing he can do to get home, or get to Rome, there is nothing he can do for himself or for his dog to make this better. Once he would have been able to solve any problem or navigate through any city, and now he doesn't know which way is home, or how far it might be—only that he is exhausted.
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Already he cannot think what they are, where there is, nor what exactly they are talking about. He repeats the line, it comforts, it seems to have meaning even without his understanding it.
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“Death is only tragic when it happens to people under fifty. Death over fifty is just life. It's not sad. Nobody allows the sadness, you just have to get on and cope.”
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He needs the toilet; he can't remember where in the house it is and if he will need to go upstairs, and then if so, which stairs. Two sets. One has to choose carefully.
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Suddenly he feels too confused to answer. Everything seems disbanded and rolling away too fast to fetch.
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Eleanor is there and then not. He sees her hunched over and he is moved, wants to put her up straight, hold her, talk to her about the past. Then he sees pink nails, makeup, and gets the giddying sense of the stranger emerging and eclipsing her. And then he thinks he must have made a mistake because she is hardly Eleanor at all except for in outline; if he could grab her and hold her still she might remain as he knows her, but she moves, and the movement confuses him. Things are getting worse, have got worse, suddenly. Everything is quite wrong and the pills make his head ache to the point of sickness. He is possessed by a sudden boredom that greys the colours. If only he were a child, he thinks, but the thought ends there. He is furious at useless implements that he can no longer name, at Eleanor who is not steady, who is solid and then disintegrates to his mind, at the coffee machine that perpetually boils dry for lack of water, at the shifting world—the days into nights and restlessly back again, the plates in the sink in the cupboard in the sink in the pillbox, the headache in his head and out of his head, the nausea, the rage. To say that all the change is in him is unreasonable and infuriating—that he must be questioned, manoeuvred, and ultimately culpable, that all this is his fault but that despite this there is nothing he can do. Everything must now always be his fault.
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The rage comes so hard, so often—starchy, white rage with no give. Always lately there is a feeling that he must escape, and when he can't he feels hopeless. This morning's rage comes because Eleanor tells him he does not need to wash the windows, he did it yesterday, the day before, the windows are clean. Besides, it is raining, washing windows in the rain is pointless. Pointless as the naked woman and her jars, pointless as the man rolling the rock up the hill (though what man, and what hill, and where did he hear of it?). And yet the icy shine of the glass has pleased him, as has the sight of the windows harnessing the light, as, too, has his reflection appearing through his own labour
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In rage at Eleanor's charge of pointlessness he has hurled a bucket of soapy water across the garden; now, guilty and apologetic, he watches her through the gleaming window picking it up and tidying it away, just as she tidies away the fragments of cups and the burnt food and the tins of fish he puts absently in the freezer: the multitude of little arrangements she makes out of his derangements. Eleanor, his external memory, his conscience, his nurse, his cleaner, his cook. She thinks he fails to notice, but he notices. He sees her clearing traces of him from the face of things, and the way her life seems to have become little but an apology and recompense for his actions.
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Sorry, is what he seems to say to her most. Sorry about that. Most of the time he can't even be sure what he is apologising for.
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He is ashamed of his adolescent moods. The shame is never greater than this, now, as he returns to the garden after his looping, looping like a caged bird up and down the double stairs, to find Eleanor, poor, watchful, vigilant Eleanor sweating hunch-shouldered against the humidity waiting for him. He can do nothing for her; in truth he is growing afraid of her and of what she is beginning to see in him. He sits on the wall around the raised flower bed with the dog laid across his feet; he checks her name tag: Lucky. Unusual name, he can't imagine why he would have named her this, it doesn't seem like a thing he would do. But then his life doesn't seem like a thing he would do either, not at the moment.
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If they are going to the clinic tomorrow he ought to see to his timeline, in case the woman there asks. He tries to remember what that woman looks like and gets a picture of a teacher he had at school, Mrs. Webster, her image flashing in front of his eyes after half a century of absence. What musty corner of the brain keeps these images? What nudges them out?
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“I'm thinking of taking you off the medication. How do you feel about that?” He is surprised. “Am I improved?” “No—not exactly. You are fine, but the tablets can only help with so much and after that there's no real need for them.” “But I only started on them a week or so ago.” “Not quite. You've been on them for two years.” He sits in a long silence, conscious of his posture appearing too dejected for her, or too dry, or too shambled. “What do the tablets do?” he asks suddenly. She runs her hand across her upper lip and frowns. “It's complex.” He tips his head to one side and watches her touch her fingertips to her head. “The tablets make your brain cells work better—but eventually, Jake, there are not enough cells left, no matter how well you make them work.” “Why aren't there enough cells?” “Because Alzheimer's kills them. This means there aren't as many, which means there aren't enough messages going back and forth.” He nods. She talks slowly, as if picking each word from a tall tree. “The tablets can't stop the cells dying. There is nothing we can do to stop that—but—but they make the cells that remain work harder. The problem is, the disease overtakes the tablets after a while, and then, no matter how hard the cells work, there just aren't enough of them anymore for the tablets to make a difference.”
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In your brain there is a chemical called acetyl-choline, which acts as a lubricant, if you like, that allows messages to be communicated between neurons.” He nods. He likes the way her eyes fix on him. “Increasing the amount of acetylcholine in the brain increases the ability for neurons to communicate. Acetylcholine is broken down by an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. The medication you've been taking restricts that enzyme. But it only does so temporarily; after a certain point—a point I suspect you have reached—the drug loses its ability to stabilize the enzyme production.” “How interesting and extraordinary,” he says. “It's—it's like entropy. Houses can't build themselves, that's the thing. That's the thing we're facing. Can't build themselves.” He finds he is firing the words rapidly, and that they are met with a frown. He stops. “And?” “That's it.”
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“Meanwhile the neurofibrillary tangles and the plaques worsen, and the medication can do nothing whatsoever for these. What you have is neuron loss, neurotransmitter loss, the destruction of synapses—no drug can recover what the brain erases.”
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When the woman comes to his shoulder she makes him jump. He turns to see she is holding a tray of drinking things and spoons, wearing a sorry look on her face which does not in the least match his own peaceful mood. “You put the coffee cups in the writing bureau, Jake. I knew I would find them somewhere.” He goes back to the floor and the yellowed paper, sits, wonders why she can't share his peace. “Who are you anyway?” he asks, irritated. He spreads the paper flat and pushes down its dog-eared corners. The paper was once white, and now it is yellow, he thinks. Once flat, now creased. And there is the truth about life: once this, then that. “You're gone, Jake. Gone,” the woman announces at length. He pulls his legs crossed, grips his ankles, and looks up at her. “Going,” he corrects, and rubs fiercely at his leg, a patch of sore skin where all irritation and outrage now centres. “To think I've waited for you for thirty years. I haven't even bothered to try to love anyone else. And now I've got you, and you're gone.”