A new short story by Sean Lusk
I have not asked you why you set fire to yourself. You made a cruel smell. It was not just the petrol, the whiff of barbecued flesh, though that was bad enough. This town is not a war zone, or not quite, though the world is changing in ways I confess I do not understand. People say that I am detached; a cool woman. For some it is an accusation, for others something to admire. As I wrapped the foil blanket around you, smothered the flames, held you still until the ambulance came I could not help but think of religious scenes, though I had no idea if you were martyr to a cause. The word immolate swam into my head and lodged there, getting us nowhere.
There were formalities to go through. I will not trouble you with them. The police, my party, people concerned in one way or another. There have been attacks on Members of Parliament lately. Perhaps you did not know? I tried to explain to them that it was you who had suffered severe burns, who required intensive care, not I. For my part all I’d lost was a jacket I’d never much liked and the skin on the palm of my left hand. It will soon grow back. I have a thick skin. People have always said so.
What did I know about your motives, I was asked? Nothing. Had I ever seen you before? Never. Did I know anything about you? Only what my constituency secretary noted on the file: an immigration matter. I do not jump to conclusions, though your name is not a common one. I might well have dismissed the whole matter as an unfortunate incident and thought little more about you. I am interviewed by the police, the local radio, asked if I knew you. ‘Know,’ I say, because you are still alive. ‘Do I know him? No, I don’t know him, have never seen him before.’ And as to motives? ‘No idea. It is tragic,’ I say. Tragic is a word we use more freely these days: a tragic waste, a tragic incident, a tragedy for all concerned. What sort of tragedy this is I do not yet know – only you know, and you haven’t said. My constituency chairman calls on my mobile, offers me superfluous advice about what to say, asks if I am alright. ‘Yes, I’m fine.’ Fine. Party HQ phones, makes its own suggestions. I don’t listen. It is trending, I am told. Hashtag #manburning. Someone took a photo of you ablaze. In another you are there in my arms, wrapped in that shiny blanket that has finally had its day. It has made me heroic. What I wanted to do was turn my back and walk away. That I did not makes me human, just.
I visit you in the hospital, where I am well known if not especially well liked. The General Manager greets me. You are, it seems, conscious and comfortable, but your burns are too severe to give great cause for hope. She apologises that you are not well enough to give your consent to media. ‘That’s not what I’m here for, Helen,’ I say to her.
Why did you come? What is it you wanted to say? Do you think there is eloquence in this? Write me a letter, make a speech, spit in my face, daub my office with graffiti but don’t die without speaking first.
A nurse is adjusting the drips at your bedside. She looks up but does not speak.
A quiver of the eyelids, a ripple of recognition.
‘How are you?’
You make a noise, a bubble of sound caught deep down in your blistered throat.
‘Why did you come to see me?’ I ask you, quietly. ‘Why did you do it?’
The nurse asks me if I’d like to be left alone with you and for some reason I say yes. When she has gone I lean over and let my hand hover above yours, as if I believe in healings, in the sanctity of touch, though you cannot be healed. Not now or ever. Miracles. Your charred body glistens with whatever gels and balms are slathered upon it. You are uncovered, except where a cloth has been placed over your genitals. It is not enough for modesty.
‘You came because you were desperate, I suppose. Were they going to deport you? Or make you homeless? It must have been something more than a school place or an incomprehensible benefits form. Did you write to me? Did I reply? Is it because you are poor? Hungry? Have you lost your job? Are you the victim of a hate crime?’ You do not answer. ‘Or did you come meaning to pour petrol over me and decide, instead, to pour it over yourself, to strike the match? Are you a madman? A terrorist? You see, I have no idea.’ I sit back, look around. This is an unusually silent ward, the faint sound of rubber wheels squeaking along linoleum floors beyond its walls. From somewhere there is the sound of a child’s sob, a hushing-up. You are being treated with reverence and I do not object to that, whoever you may be.
Punching my way through memory I try to find some connection to you. Was there a letter concerning the case of the Babbasevs? A family reunion, or (always more likely) a rending apart? My secretary will remember, will know whether we ever got a reply from the minister. For my part I have no recollection. There have been too many cases, and I have taken to shedding the old to make way for the new.
‘This is my life, you see, Mr Babbasev, asking questions, failing to get answers. So I will persist, if you’ll forgive me. I don’t always know why I carry on, but I’ve got used to it, that feeling of being… Writing letters for my constituents, getting answers from ministers. Sometimes, rarely, getting something done. We are not a tyranny, that much I can say. We do not burn people at the stake for believing in the wrong thing. We did once, and not so long ago, but not now. So I do believe in progress, Mr Babbasev. Or I did.’
Something starts to beep, something connected to you. I look around for help, not knowing what to do and afraid to touch anything that might make your jeopardy greater still. No one comes, the beeping stops and the silence deepens. I stand because my knees have begun to ache. Even my phones lie still and silent in my handbag. I turn them off whenever I come to the hospital. I turn them off more and more frequently lately.
‘I was having a crisis of my own when you came and set yourself on fire, as it happens, Mr Babbasev. Yes. The woman who came to see me just before you on Wednesday was distressed because her children had been taken into care. I shouldn’t be telling you this, breaching a confidence, but I will not name her and I trust you not to speak of it. She sat before me tearing herself into small pieces, and in some half-imagined state I thought I actually saw her pull her arm from its socket, wave the bloodied limb in my face. That’s how it felt to me, you see. I asked her the questions I had to ask about her children, her partner, about her drug-taking, seeing if I could reach my own conclusions, wondering what I could tell her, how I could give this woman whose prospects were, let us say, little better than your own, that thing she wanted.’
You move your lips, make a sound. I put my ear to your mouth but am too late to catch any word.
‘What is it she wanted? She wanted hope. That is the market in which we all trade, is it not Mr Babbasev? Now there’s a market failure for you. Hope. There’s a whole universe of information asymmetries. My apologies: I’m an economist, or I was. I can’t help myself.’
‘I told the woman that she would get to see her children again, that they would be well looked-after. I told her there had been no errors of process as far as I could tell, that she had no immediate grounds for her family to be returned to her. I thought it was important to be honest, Mr Babbasev. But I was not being honest. If I were honest I’d have said that she should never have allowed those things to happen to her children, that they would never be able to forget what had been done to them in that home of hers. But then what is the point in speaking the truth when the truth is nothing but pain? So you can hear how little I know, Mr Babbasev. In fact, I know less and less, though I have, as they say, seen it all.’
You seem calmer now than when I first arrived. Still. At peace. I think it possible that you have died while I have been speaking to you, but the monitor above your bed continues to show your heartbeat, that regular spike on the steady line that must one day lead to death for us all. I walk around your bed, look more closely at you, but even if we had met I would not recognise you in your seared condition. Your eyes are untouched as are your ears, and they are rather beautiful as it happens.
I look around at the other beds. You would hardly think there’s a crisis in the NHS when you see a ward as quiet as this.
‘I don’t often get a chance to talk like this, you see Mr Babbasev,’ I say, resuming my seat. ‘It is an unjust world. It always has been, I suppose. We believe we can eliminate injustice, or temper it at least, but I think it can only be moved about from one place to another, like floodwater. What I’m trying to say is that if it was injustice that brought you here, I understand. I sympathise, even. Though it is hard for me to make your case when I do not know what your case is.’
You make a noise, louder than any of your other noises.
‘I don’t know what I’m saying, really, do I? I’m exhausted, trundling away, week after week, year after year. Come the next election I’ll stand down. I know they want someone different anyway, the party, but they haven’t the heart to ask me. They’re decent people. Well, most people are, if somewhat deluded, don’t you think? I believe they feel sorry for me, Mr Babbasev. They wonder what I’ll do if I’m not in parliament. But my life won’t be empty. There are the boards of charities to sit on; plenty of places I want to see – the Shetlands, for instance; I’ve never been there. There are friends to visit who I’ve neglected for years. And I wouldn’t want the House of Lords, not that they’d offer me that. What am I saying? I think I’m saying I wasn’t worth your flames, Mr Babbasev, whether they were for me to witness or for me to be consumed by. I’m not important enough. I’m not the person to make cause out of your charred flesh.’
There is the slightest shift in the air around your bed and three young people appear, standing in a row opposite where I sit. There are two boys, one with wisps of hair on his chin and the other with a look of innocence that is, even without all the other miseries of the day, heart-breaking. There is a girl, a young woman, really, her long hair impossibly black, her skin startlingly pale. Her expression is of quiet resolve, as if she will not let this happen, whatever this is. I reach down for my bag, thinking it is time to leave. I don’t know why.
The girl looks directly at me and without a word challenges me to explain my presence.
‘I am Mr Babbasev’s Member of Parliament,’ I say, extending a hand across your suppurating legs. It is the most pointless introduction I have ever given, and there have been a few. ‘Mary Plant. I was with him when he…’ but I don’t know what to say it is that you have done.
‘We are his children.’
‘Yes. I’ll leave you.’
‘You will stay,’ says your daughter.
In the circumstances it seems disrespectful not to comply with her request. Your two sons and daughter watch you with the steadiness of three birds sitting beside each other on a branch as you take your quick, shallow breaths. Every so often one of them looks at me.
‘I must ask,’ I say at last.
‘We do not know’ says the girl.
‘Is your mother –
‘I am sorry.’
‘So are we.’
‘It was not a political act, Miss Plant.’
‘We must ask you to do something.’
‘In our tradition you must perform a healing.’
‘I don’t think I –
‘We will help,’ say your children in harmony. ‘We will help you to heal.’
It is almost as if it is not you but me they wish to mend.
Your condition remains critical. There is no explanation for your act. We have repainted my constituency office and I have arranged for a counsellor to come to offer what consolation she can to my secretary and the two volunteers who were in the office that day and witnessed what you did to yourself. As for me, I am not in need of help.
Because no one knows why you set yourself ablaze interest in your story has ebbed. My compassion or heroism or whatever it was is now forgotten. Worse, I am implicated in a riddle and suspicion has fallen upon me. I have become in some way the cause of your misfortune.
Your children come to my office the following Friday and bring with them a tall, cadaverous man bent with scoliosis or some other disfiguring complaint. His hair is a dark and tightly curled cluster atop a head so wizened it looks like something left out for vultures to pick at. He is dressed in a long black jacket of the type that chimneysweeps wore a century ago and his eyes are pale grey and impolite. Your daughter translates for him, though his language sounds familiar, as if he is speaking in some ancestral tongue now lost to us.
‘He asks that you open all of the windows, Miss Plant.’
My secretary and the volunteers watch baffled as the bent man, your three children and I walk around the office opening windows. The first appointment of the morning is already here, a shopkeeper unable to pay his rates. He will not appreciate the delay.
The bent man reaches into his pocket and takes from it eight tiny pairs of finger cymbals. He holds one set between his forefinger and thumb and makes a sound, sweet and pure in the Duluxed air. Then he hands a pair to each of your children, to me, to the three members of my staff and to the shopkeeper. To my surprise the shopkeeper takes them willingly, imagining, perhaps, that this is an entertainment laid-on for those who must be patient in the exercise of their democratic rights.
The bent man slumps onto the floor in the exact spot where you set yourself aflame a week ago, reducing himself to a low pile of black cloth. When he rises there is, to my alarm, once again a flame, this one set upon a small brass dish in which some leaves smoulder. From their smell of musty innocence I recognise them as sage. With a gesture he implores us to make our cymbals ring and then he leads us – all eight of us – around the office, and we follow unresistingly.
From each window he shouts into the street: Heyata! Heyata! in his archaic tongue, his voice like parchment, cracking and long-forgotten.
A wind gets up as it does at this far end of the High Street, though not usually so early in the day. It blows in through the open windows, snuffs out the flame in the dish and blows what were neatly stacked piles of flyers from last year’s election into the air, making a blizzard of my face. We go to close the windows, my secretary, the shopkeeper, the volunteers and me, and set about picking the leaflets up off the floor. When we look up your three children have gone, as has their strange friend.
I apologise to the shopkeeper and my surgery begins, only a few minutes late. He says he has no wish to detain me, that his rates are manageable on the whole. My next client has been having trouble with a planning application but has just that morning decided that his three-storey extension will be an eyesore, that his neighbours are some of the kindest people imaginable and he has no wish to upset them. The next to come are a group of constituents who wish to protest about my stance on Europe. I had been dreading their visit because I know how upset people can be over this matter, and how intransigent, but to my great surprise they tell me that, in preparing for their visit, they read the speech I gave in the House last month during Second Reading and are persuaded that my position is not only reasonable, but correct. Finally, the woman I told you about, the one whose children had been taken into care, comes to tell me that she has been rehoused, has separated from her partner, is clean. She knows it will take time, but she has been given hope. I have helped her, she says.
I do not believe in miracles. It was an easy morning, that is all. A run of good luck. It doesn’t often happen, but by the law of averages it must come about from time to time.
Your condition remains stable. You are speaking now and have asked to see me.
‘I want to thank you,’ you say, your voice a rasp, a wisp.
‘For saving my life.’
‘I think it’s the people here who’ve done that, Mr Babbasev. All I did was wrap a shiny blanket round you. Put out the flames.’
‘You are a good person.’
‘I cannot imagine anyone letting a man burn to death in front of them.’
‘But I am sorry.’
‘Also, I want to thank you for getting me looked after so well by the doctors.’
‘That has nothing to do with me. It’s the NHS.’
‘They do not treat everyone the same.’
‘Oh but they do, or they should. That’s just the point of it.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Naturally, it’s troubling for the doctors when an injury is…’ I wonder whether I should I say this to you, but I do think it needs saying. ‘Self-inflicted.’
‘It was not self-inflicted.’
‘I saw you pour the petrol over yourself, strike the match.’
‘I had to do it.’
‘Your government made me do it.’
‘You could have spoken to me Mr. Babbasev.’
‘The flames spoke.’ You raise your bandaged hands, gesture down your body. ‘This speaks.’
‘I don’t think –
‘Will they deport me now? Now I am –
‘I don’t know.’
‘They will let my children stay?’
‘I don’t know that either, Mr Babbasev. We cannot know what will happen. We can only try.’
‘And will you try?’ You stretch your fluxed face into something resembling a smile. It must be painful for you.
An elderly man wearing a blue dressing gown approaches your bed, his feet tugged along the polished floor by a pair of monogrammed slippers. ‘You’re that Plant woman, aren’t you?’
‘I’m Mary Plant, yes.’ I extend a hand which he ignores.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m here to see Mr Babbasev, who’s recovering from a very nasty accident.’
‘Accident, was it?’
‘Do you have something to say to me Mr –
‘I’ve nothing to say to you, or anyone like you,’ he says, shuffling away.
I turn back to see sympathy in your extinguished features. ‘Well,’ I say, picking up my handbag, pulling on my coat.
‘Will you help my children, Miss Plant?’
‘I’ll do my best, Mr Babbasev. But it may not be enough.’
‘Everything will be right now.’
‘Please don’t expect too much.’
‘I have made it so everything will be right.’
‘Yes. You know this. You know this, too.’
‘Is this something to do with the witchy man with the tinkly bells that your children brought along this morning?
‘Only good things will happen to you from now on.’
‘Ah Mr Babbasev,’ I say, with a laugh that dies before it reaches my lips, ‘how will I ever know?’
As I leave I switch-on my phones to see that I have missed five texts requesting that I call the Chief Whip’s office urgently. I start to dial but stop. At the nursing station I drop all three phones into a yellow plastic bag marked “hazardous waste”. Downstairs, past the WH Smith and the flower shop and the Costa Coffee, I reach the hospital doors which open with their usual gasp and am discharged into the late afternoon where I find I cannot take another step. I stand, letting the drizzle fall on my upturned face while all the worried people make their way around me, trying to breathe. And here I stand, wondering who it is that will be forgotten and who, in the end, will be forgiven.