Magazine
Latest Issue

Andy’s gift

Andy got himself for Christmas. But would his wife be pleased?

By Michel Faber   January 2001

He woke up one morning to find himself alive. If he had thought about himself at all in the last five years, he’d considered himself dead. Occasionally he’d peek out at the world, and for his peekhole he’d use the shrieking idiot the nursing staff called Andy.

But today he had dropped in to the idiot’s head to have a look, and there he was: alive as anything. It was a hell of a shock.

He sat up, immediately aware of the institutional pyjamas he was in.

“Morning, Andy!” said the old man sitting in the next bed.

“Morning,” he responded vaguely, looking at his bedside cabinet, which had nothing on it but flowers and orange juice.

“Ha! Good for you, Andy boy!” said his neighbour, as if impressed.

Andy turned to look at the wall behind his bed. A rather alarming plastic bas-relief of Father Christmas had pride of place there, connected by a barbed wire of tinsel to identical Father Christmases behind other beds. Blu-tacked under Andy’s Santa were photographs of a woman and three children, in various poses. A child’s painting, rather tattered and signed Robert, was almost hidden behind the bed head.

A nurse strolled into the ward and said hello.

“Andy said good morning just now,” the old man immediately informed her.

“That’s nice,” she said, obviously not believing it. She strode over to Andy’s bed and without warning pulled back the covers. Briskly uninhibited, she glanced at his crotch and the white undersheet.

“You been a good boy tonight, Andy?” she cooed.

“What?”

She seemed surprised that he had spoken.

“Not pooed the bed?”

“I should hope not,” he said. “What do you think I am?”

She stared at him open-mouthed, stuck for an answer. Then she ran away.

It turned out that he had been a drooling imbecile for five years. He had contracted a rare disease, survived it, but lost his mind. The hospital had waited as long as the rules allowed, just in case he found it again, but after a month or so he was shifted to a nursing home. He had lived there ever since. He gathered he’d been very difficult to care for, gibbering convulsively whenever the nurses tried to shave or wash him, waking the other patients up at nights with dog-like howls. His howls, in fact, could be heard several streets away. Despite stiff competition from all the other mournful cries that had rung around the walls of the home, they had earned him a legendary status.

Calm now, he asked for a mirror.

A nurse brought a shaver and a mirror, which she handed over to him hesitantly, as if he might bite them. Only a couple of days ago, she and a burly porter had had to restrain him when a Christmas singalong provoked him to a frenzy. The memory of his feral strength was fresh in her mind.

“Thank you,” he said.

He was disturbed by what had happened to his face. It was very much older in one way, with hard, rubbery folds and wrinkles, but obscenely young as well, like a chimpanzee infant.

The nurse watched him as he shaved, struggling to carve out a familiar face.

“Your wife…” she began.

“What?”

“Your wife is coming today. It’s her visiting day.”

He thought this over for a second; suddenly he remembered his wife very well.

“Have you rung and told her the news?” he asked.

“I’m afraid not,” replied the nurse. “We tried to, but there was no answer. She’s got a surprise coming, hasn’t she?” She snorted, blushed and left abruptly.

andy’s wife arrived after lunch. She was at his bedside before any of the nurses noticed her.

“Hello Andy-boy,” she said as she sat down on the end of his bed. Yanking her shoulder bag on to her lap, she rummaged in it. “Brought you some doughnuts. And a can of soft drink.” She reached past him and put the treats on the bedside cabinet. She ruffled his hair, squinting and pouting.

“How’ve you been behaving, eh Andy? Not causing too much bother? Not being a naughty boy at breakfast? Mustn’t be a naughty boy at breakfast.”

She seemed very content, steaming ahead without really noticing him, like a primary school inspector breezing through a class of cheerfully preoccupied children. It seemed a shame to tell her the truth, but as a nurse was running up to the bed he thought he’d better get in first.

“I’m all right now, Brom,” he said quietly.

“Yes,” panted the nurse, squeaking to a stop on the polished linoleum. “It’s a bit of a miracle, really. We’re keeping an eye on him for a few days, letting a specialist check him out, but… well…” She smiled.

Andy’s wife smiled too, a grin of infinite foolishness and shock, as if she were the victim of a surprise birthday party on the wrong day.

“Really?” she said.

It was her husband, rather than the nurse, who answered.

“Really,” he said.

“How wonderful, darling,” said Andy’s wife. She reached across the bed and embraced him awkwardly, like a member of the royal family embracing a deformed child. An excruciating silence followed.

“Well,” said the nurse, feeling herself being sucked into its vortex, “I expect this will take a bit of getting used to. On both sides.” Counselling over, she walked off to do a bit of nursing.

The embrace broke. Andy and his wife settled back into their previous positions like pool players after a shot. Bromwyn stared straight ahead of her, at the narrow corridor at the far end of the ward.

“I’m sorry if I don’t seem delighted, Andy,” she began.

“Have you been calling me Andy these past few years, Brom?” asked Andrew, who didn’t like to be called Andy.

“Sorry. Yes. Sorry,” said Bromwyn, who didn’t mind being called Brom.

he stayed in the nursing home for another two days, reading Reader’s Digests, raising the eyebrows of medical experts. Every capability he’d ever had seemed to have come back to him, although when the time came for him to leave, he was advised not to do the driving.

After some embarrassing farewells and best wishes for the new year from the nursing staff, Brom drove Andy home. A staunch non-driver during all the years he’d encouraged her to learn, she’d got her licence barely six months after his mind had gone. She drove mechanically and without undue concern for the other traffic, like all experienced drivers. He found this oddly unbecoming.

The old neighbourhood had scarcely changed. This seemed to him an indictment of the sort of neighbourhood it was. He had moved here, reluctantly, for the sake of his job, which of course no longer existed. His wife had found work, though. It was all she talked about on the way home.

At the front door of their house she could not find her key. This flustered her. Key found, she insisted on going in ahead of him. At a glimpse, the house seemed cluttered and untidy: young boys’ mess.

“I’m sorry the place is in such a state,” said Bromwyn, but she sounded irritated, not sorry. He knew damn well he was unwelcome, that he had come back to life at much too short notice for her, but he found that her feelings were of no interest to him.

The house was a single mother’s house now. Everything of his had been removed. He didn’t much mind. Nothing he had ever owned had been quite what he wanted anyway. He guessed correctly that his den had been given to the eldest of his sons, and he approved: Robert would be nine now, an age at which a boy deserved a room of his own.

Andy wasn’t looking forward, though, to meeting his children.

His wife seemed hellbent on taking him through a guided confessional tour of what had changed, and why. He told her he could wait until later for all that, and suggested that she make them both a cup of tea.

The kitchen bench was littered with the mess made by children who had been too young to serve themselves last time he had seen them. He cleared a spot to lean his elbow on as his wife made the tea.

“Now,” she said, her back to him, “Is it two sugars or one?”

“Two,” he said absently. They sat at the breakfast bench and drank their tea in silence-which, as far as he could recall, was not unusual for them, although of course it felt that way in the circumstances.

“I have to clean up,” said Bromwyn at last.

“I’m not stopping you,” he said.

She looked with irritation at his elbow leaning in the middle of the plates. He understood that he was in the way, got up, and walked into the living room.

He sat down in the old armchair and picked up a newspaper to see what sorts of things the world was up to these days.

meeting his sons was not as much of an ordeal as he’d thought it would be. The eldest was in fact ten (a miscalculation on his part) and seemed uninterested in him or, for that matter, in Bromwyn.

“See you later, Dad,” he said, and went to his room, as if five hours or five years were all the same to him.

The younger boys were curious, shy, and friendly, as if he were an interesting visitor. They asked him how he got well.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Nobody knows. It’s a mystery of science.”

They seemed to like that. They asked him, too, what it was like to be mad. The 7-year-old asked, “Can you still make that noise you made when you were mad? You know, like woo-woo-woooo?”

“Sure,” he said, oblivious of his wife going rigid with mortification behind him. Craning his head back and opening his mouth as wide as possible, he did an impression of his old howl.

“What do you think?” he asked his son.

“Mmm,” said the 7-year-old. “It was better before.”

“Sorry,” he said, amused.

“That’s quite enough,” said his wife, sounding older and very careworn, which she was. She had seemed quite carefree when she’d breezed into the hospital a few days ago. He could no longer see in her the young woman he had married, the young woman with black hair and dreamy eyes and an inviting, satiny neck. If he had lived with her these past five years he’d probably still be able to see her the way she used to be, but he couldn’t. She was an older generation.

that evening, the family watched television, the way they’d always done. Later in the night, when the children had gone to bed, Andrew and Bromwyn watched television as a couple. They changed channels a couple of times, caught the second half of a murder mystery. Having both missed the start they were on equal footing, and were able to talk a little, conjecturing who the murderer might be. He felt marginally closer to her, but knew it wouldn’t last.

In bed she lay beside him like a folded-up deck chair. He stared at the wrinkles on her neck.

“Do you want to make love to me?” she asked. He could tell that if he touched her she would recoil.

“Not tonight,” he said. It was true. His erection, hidden away in his oversized pyjamas, was not for her. It was for women in general.

Eventually his wife turned over.

“I’m falling asleep,” she announced thickly. “Good night, Andy.”

“Good night.”

At about 2.45 by the unfamiliar alarm clock on his side of the bed, Andrew got out and put on his dressing gown and slippers. Carefully making his way along the black corridor in case he tripped on something, he finished up in the living room, trying to look out through the gauzy curtains. It grew in him how good it would feel to be outside.

He stepped out onto the veranda, leaving the door unlocked. There was nothing in the house he would mind a burglar stealing. The night was indigo with a full moon. Static trickled up and down his neck. The world was as still as a forest that had been cut down. He felt like a small bird, hopping uncomprehendingly from stump to stump in the darkness.

Andrew set off down the street. In the dark the neighbourhood was not as familiar as he’d thought. He didn’t know if he’d be able to find his way back.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to letters@prospect-magazine.co.uk

More From Prospect