Lying in hospital after suffering a heart attack that threatened to kill him, Australian writer Robert Dessaix chanced upon Philip Larkin’s poem Days.
It prompted him to consider what his own days had been for. Whom and what had he loved?
Dessaix’s memoir, What Days Are For, which he will discuss at this month’s Adelaide Writers’ Week, is full of musings and recollections from his life and travels. The book struck a chord with Writers’ Week organisers, who have also dedicated the 2015 event to Dessaix.
The following extract is from the first chapter of What Days Are For, which begins after the author’s collapse on a pavement in Sydney’s Darlinghurst.
His face beams down at me like God’s from a dome of bright light. Everything gleams. Every blond hair on his tanned forearm glistens as he fits my mask. It’s a glossy, muscled forearm, used to hefting bodies. I’ve always been very taken with forearms, and this is a singularly lustrous, sinewy example. ‘So, tell me, Robert,’ he says gently, somewhere high up there inside his dome of dazzling light – am I already dead? No, not yet, soon – ‘have you had a good day?’
A good day? I give a muffled laugh, batting away the pain blossoming in my chest. (Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Tom Lehrer, wasn’t it?) They’re losing me, these two paramedics in their fluorescent jackets, and they know it – even I know I’m teetering on the edge of a big moment – and all the one with the burnished forearm can come up with is ‘Have you had a good day?’ It’s surreal. The doors of the hotel foyer hiss open and a man, a woman and two teenaged children burst in out of the cold, squawking with late-night excitement, catch sight of the trolley, the body and the yellow jackets and hurry off towards the lifts.
‘You know,’ I croak, as if it were a serious question, as if he really wanted to know, ‘I have. I’ve had a very good day.’ And I have. I’ve walked the dog by the river, I remember, I’ve reread my play script aloud to myself in the sun, flown off with it at dusk across the sea to Sydney, mooched about (I’d have liked to frisk) in the gritty trashiness of Oxford Street (still rumbling and screeching out there beyond the plate-glass windows) . . . oh, and other things as well, I’ve enjoyed lots of other things, now I cast my mind back. Would he want to know the details?
‘Well, that’s wonderful,’ he says, still gleaming, ‘that’s what matters.’ Really? This sounds unlikely. But before I can pick an argument with him, they are trundling me out into the night, I am spasming with cold, a siren is screaming, I glide through doors, there’s a lot of shouting, I slew left, I slew right, there are dozens of jarring voices, I feel clawed at by all the voices, but for some reason (and I know it’s strange even as it’s happening) they are all like noises-off. My mind is focused on the gleaming forearm and the voice from up inside the dome of light: ‘Have you had a good day?’
Nobody, by the way, during this not so much interminable as boundless night asks if I’ve had a good weekend, let alone a good life. None of the voices jabbing at me ever asks what I think I’ve achieved in the course of my life or if I feel it’s all been worthwhile (on the whole, all things considered). Nor do I ask myself these questions. Nobody cares at a time like this – why would anybody care? – about what I’d like to achieve if they can keep me going for a bit longer. Not a syllable, naturally, about whether or not I finally got to the bottom of things before the curtain started to come down, as I rather hoped to do – indeed, half-expected to do; surely it was just a matter of a week or two of the right kind of fallow time – but never did. (On the contrary, the older I get, the less sense anything makes.) Needless to say, nobody checks to see if I finally finished the Proust, as I vowed I would before I died, or learnt Sanskrit or the tango or made it to Bhutan. The only question anyone asks me is whether or not I’ve had a good day.
Well, on reflection, that’s not quite true: coming to on this gurney or that, during this night that now seems beyond all thought of a beginning or an ending, I find myself being asked a few questions about who I am, whether or not I have private insurance and if there is somebody they should get in touch with. Imagine if at my age, after a lifetime of intimacies, there were absolutely no one! What would that say about me?
‘Yes, there is,’ I mumble, ‘but tonight he’s on a ferry in the middle of Bass Strait.’ At some point I seem to remember signing something: in the eerie, arctic cold of some brightly lit white room (it’s like being on a film set) I stretch out my hand and sign a form.
When more lucidly present, I become surprisingly talkative, sliding into my gracious-guest role, even offering a little light conversation. ‘So, how are we going here?’ I ask affably at one juncture, unaware I’ve already had to be resuscitated twice and am now bleeding to death. So much brilliant light everywhere. So many voices. But no faces, I can’t see any faces. ‘A little way to go yet,’ someone says with a chuckle. Nicely put. Could mean anything, and does.
What I am mostly doing is drowning in vibrantly coloured dreams. I am pixilating woozily. Despite the shock and pain, I am in quite a good mood. And every now and again my jangled mind flies back to that sleek and shiny forearm and the voice from far above me: ‘Have you had a good day?’ For some reason this utterly banal line has wormed its way into my quick (or what is left of it). As I am wheeled into a vast, whirring machine – whir, CLANK, ‘Hold still!’, CLANK, wheeze – it strikes me that I . . . but no, I can’t hold the thought . . . thrum, buzz, CLANK . . . it strikes me that . . . What? I’m in a lift now, I’m whooshing up into the sky. I zoom past a twisted Jesus nailed to the wall, looking pretty much the way I feel. I come to rest. Soft voices fade into the distance. A rubbery silence cocoons me. At last I’m alone in the dark.
Extract from What Days Are For, by Robert Dessaix, out now. Republished with permission from Dessaix and Random House Australia.
Robert Dessaix will be the guest at a free Adelaide Writers’ Week session on Monday, March 2, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden. Writers’ Week runs from February 28-March 5.
Gillard and Dessaix join Writers’ Week line-up
Five Adelaide Writers’ Week books to read
Writers’ Week: Hugh Mackay’s The Art of Belonging
Margaret and Gough Whitlam: the love story
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