A simple premise; a bold promise
To present one story per day, every day—providing exceptional authors with exposure and avid readers with first-rate fiction.

Literary Executor

No longer is she able to devour the paper. Rather than the column inches of print, now she might peruse the colour supplements for the pictures. Neither can she tackle the crossword which unfailingly fired her mind of a morning. She always attributed many of her writing prompts to the wordplay in the cryptic clues. These days no part of the newspaper can prompt anything but despair across the breakfast table.

Hunched in the chair there, idly rubbing the newsprint with her fingers. Up and down the blocks as if they might be braille. But it’s not letter blindness she has. There’s nothing awry with her cognition. Perfectly capable of reading, in that she could intone the words. Just there’s no guarantee she’d apprehend the meaning of half of them.

She had once been in the habit of moistening her fingers in order to turn over the page of a book. A gentle, intimate liturgy. A communing with the page just completed and an entreaty seeking leave to enter the following pages. A libation to the printed word. Savouring their substance and bouquet. Ingesting them.

The ink is adhering to the pads of her fingers. I thought with all the new print technologies it was supposed to stay on the paper. Here she is lifting words from the page, but unable to preserve their integrity. They recede, compressed into the whorls and whirls of her digits as she brings the tips of them together. Like grating a linguistic stock cube. Now she’s dabbing them on to the white tablecloth. She’s printing herself. For identification purposes?

When she was writing, she forever resented having to pause even to eat. Evenings on end sat alone here picking at my meal, while hers was going cold on the plate as she was upstairs consumed by words at the typewriter. She wouldn’t even permit me to bring it to her in the study. Only mugs of coffee, which didn’t take up much room on her credenza and which she could drink one handed, while still effecting a wordflow with the other. In the end I cottoned on to the fact that I was better off cooking for one during such paroxysms of creativity. She used to shed so much weight during these writing binges. Word purgative.

During the lulls book-ending such relentlessness, she would sit masticating her food endlessly. Each chew chiming with some rumination on her upcoming project, or the edit of the current one. The rhythm of her jaw would pace her thinking through a certain narrative problem, or the search for ever more limpid, flawless prose. Digestion only ventured, once all lettered elements had been triturated into sustenance for her readers. Like a mothering bird. Funny, one might imagine that such sensory joys as can be wrung from food, might appeal to the literary mind. But for her, food has always been purely functional. She still chews interminably even now. But not apropos pacing out anything. Her thoughts stretch off into an unfeasible beyond. She lacks for any climactic epiphany to jolt her into swallowing.

For words are being wholesale swallowed from her memory. A creeping, cruel predation that lays her bare. Divesting her of both who she has come to be and the means of protesting such an assault. My honeybee, who forever nourished drone me with her nectarous language, now stripped of her honey store of words to pollinate meaning.

She tugs the sleeve of my dressing gown. Her face is urgent, the mouth paying lip service to the formal mechanics of speech. The tongue is lolling somewhat limply, but other than that everything else appears to be girding itself to the task of articulation. Apart from her recall of course. Not so much a stillbirth. More a failure of conception. So nothing issues. No bulletin from the chamber. Armed only with a tattered crib sheet of the mind to draw on.

Her cheeks flare in and out with the exertion. Her throat quivers with the vestigial familiar anticipation of forming utterances. “I’m-…” Thank god self-recognition indices haven’t evanesced from her palette. That she still fiercely accords who she is, even if she can no longer adequately express that person’s wants, needs and desires.

Her mouth is flapping open uselessly as she grinds back into her memory for the word that no longer lodges there. The irreclaimable word that has done a midnight flit. The effect resembles that of a goldfish, which with its famed lack of memory is particularly mocking of her plight. Though the most pernicious cruelty is that she, a writer, is being progressively plundered one by one of her vocabulary cache. That each time she reaches back into the Scrabble bag of her brain for fresh words, she comes out empty-handed and blank.

“Like me” she manages to stammer, before wildly grabbing the newspaper and pivoting it round to show me. I look at it nonplussed, uncertain what I should be focusing on. She stabs a picture with her finger repeatedly, the report of her furious drumming bouncing back off the table. Of course as her febrile motion blurs any possible field of vision over the paper, I still have no idea as to what has so vitally grabbed her attention.

Gently I snare her pecking finger and hold it away from the paper. She glares at me, entirely aware as to what I’m doing, yet detesting her predicament that impels such a manoeuvre. I extract the newspaper with my free hand and glance down at it, trying to stroke her finger I have in my grasp within the other hand. She’s not having it however and wrenches free to cinch a picture on the page. Then she withdraws it to stab it at her breastbone. Repeatedly, with less percussion but no less force, than when she was assailing the table. The printer’s ink smirches her nightie.

It is a picture of former boxer Mike Tyson. The caption informs me he is in London on a speaking tour. A former glorious province of my wife. My mind boggles at what this pugilist, solely able to pronounce with brutal fists, could possibly expound on, but then quickly elides over to Muhammad Ali. A man who could veritably express himself with wit, charisma and charm, now reduced to a shuffling shambles by his Parkinson’s Disease. Was she conflating the two punchdrunkers in her mind and intending a comparison of herself? She who no longer floats like a butterfly, nor stings like a bee? Another rope-a-dope on the ropes? Albeit without any extraneous head trauma. My wife’s renewed imitation of single-fingered pulmonary resuscitation drew my attention back to this morning’s conundrum.

“What, a boxer?” She shakes my suggestion away with her head as if it were a wasp. “Champion?” as I try and reach out for her, but she parries both my gesture and my word choice away with a vehement waft of her hand like they were offensive smells. “Heavyweight?” offered with a weak smile and a self-incriminating point of my finger. The queen is not amused, “Me, not you.” “Do you mean Muhammad Ali by any chance?” Her face is quivering with exasperation. “Okay, so we’re talking Mike Tyson right?” (my mind flashes over to Ali’s baiting of an opponent who deliberately referred to him as Clay, “What’s my name? What’s my name Uncle Tom?” as he pummels him like a cat pawing its dead mouse prey. But now I’m the one becoming grievously tangled up in these conjunctions). She gives a tight nod. Tyson it is then. We don’t have a son, or any children for that matter. So it won’t be any play on words. Or a disintegration of them rather than a distention.

I can’t ever recollect having a conversation about the man in the entire forty years of our chit-chat across this table. Certainly not in deeper discourses either. I conceive the word ‘rapist’ but I know that can’t possibly be it. Would she have ever known he was a convicted felon? Never much of a sports fan, but she made sure to keep up with the names of the movers and shakers throughout modern culture. Notwithstanding how she strenuously avoided specific reference to any of them in her books, instead aiming for the timeless generalities of the human condition. Like this one now perhaps. What a metaphor her own disorder might make, for that next book which would never be forthcoming.

“Tattoo? Maori?” (The Haka? My mind was flying with a catherine wheel of combinations). “Warrior – you’re a warrior like him!” Her wan gesture of surrender intimated how far wide of the mark I was. “Ear! He bit off another’s ear didn’t he?” I was really excited with this possibility, but her hands clamped themselves across her ears in despair rather than protection. “Yeah, it says he’s giving after-dinner speeches”, reflexively flinching back on my chair for the oncoming eruption. But she just splays out her palms and puckers her face into a ‘so what?’ dismissiveness.

Now I’m starting to tense up, for I’m running out of ideas for solving this our own domestic acrostic. I’ve exhausted my Mike Tyson sump of knowledge. For the first time in our marriage, I’ve been charged with finishing her sentences like a proper synergic couple. But the task remains beyond me.

At a complete loss, I could only offer the universal shoulder shrug for “I haven’t a clue”. She dropped her head and broke off eye contact. I knew from recent custom that meant she wasn’t angry at me, but was sinking into her own despondency. She acknowledged our crevasse of impassable meaning with a jagged sweep of pointed fingers across her throat. The universal symbol denoting “cut”. Taken from the movies, yet one with great resonance for me and therefore one I always quailed at her resorting to. Since it echoed my lugubrious suicide attempt many years ago. When I took a carving knife to my gullet.

While I did enough damage to myself, tracheotomy, tubes, speech therapist, the works, she had merely scoffed at my anatomical ignorance not knowing where the jugular veins were actually located. Chiding me for my derisory breadth of reading. How in the Latin, there was a clear derivation from the word for ‘yoke’ to that of ‘throat’. I protested that my inherent squeamishness had led to my poorly researched downfall, but she swatted it away with her customary piercing analysis. I had assaulted my windpipe, the seat of the larynx (which I had just missed putting beyond commission by a whisker), because I could not verbalise openly and honestly.

At the time I knew she was livid with me for my senseless act, but couldn’t quite grasp the reason for the depth of her fury. She continued to hector me at my bedside, how it was no surprise to her that I should choose such a moment to undertake this act. Here she was, at the height of her literary success and I was trying to pull the rug from under her feet and return her home to tend for me. I hadn’t made such a connection myself, but before I could ponder it, she leaned over my prone form in the hospital bed. “If you pull a stunt like this a second time, I won’t call the ambulance but just let you exsanguinate. Have you see something through to the end for once in your life. I possess a more than serviceable book on anatomy…” She didn’t have to worry. Having travelled down that miserable road, I wasn’t about to revisit it. The only thing I cavilled at was her use of the word ‘stunt’. But knowing that every word was chosen for its precision, its acuity of meaning, it was a word I would have to live with daggered in my heart as much as any physical scar tissue around my throat. Only now that it’s probably been excised from her canon, maybe finally I can pluck Lady Macbeth’s blade from my breast. Perhaps I can even chance wearing open neck shirts once again. As I gaze up at her, she is pulling her nightie tight across her throat, covering the decolletage.

Her ensuing book was about suicide. It made no reference to me and seeing as we’d spun a cover story for all our circle about me undergoing a simple tracheotomy without the self-inflicted aspect, still to this day no one is aware of my folly. The book was a huge success. Given her present unfortunate disposition, I wonder where she stands on the issue now. She’s slammed the door shut on any such possible exit strategy, by her reaction to my feeble attempt. Right at this moment however, I think she possibly relives those dark days far more than I ever do.

“Brute?”, my final gambit. She didn’t bother even looking up at me before slicing me off at her throat. But the gesticulation was without antagonism. It didn’t linger with any hint of relish. This time singularly derived from the movies. It’s a wrap. Charades are over, until the next round at least. She’s had enough of this unfathomable conversation, whatever it’s about. The paper abandoned in a neutral corner of the table, while her conscious volition is counted out.

My mind drifts back to happier associations, before the entire dailies ended up on the cutting room floor. How she would always insist on sitting in the front row at the cinema. I never demurred at the chance to stretch out my long legs, but she would always curl hers up underneath on the seat, folding herself into a fetal position. The film washing over her like amniotic fluid. What with the general spectacular nature of it all, twenty foot high screen projections of the actors and the like, she always said film was the one art form, other than the ballet, which she could enjoy like any normal audience member. It was all so fantastically far-fetched, that she never found herself dissecting the nuts and bolts of the script, nor challenging the choice of words in the dialogue.

She was ever partial to French films. Being no mean speaker of the language, she was never in need of the subtitles. I wonder how devastatingly the French vocabulary has been eroded by her condition, but as I can’t converse a single word in it and French film seems to have died on its feet in this country, we have no way of putting it to the test. Perhaps I should suggest it to the doctors at her next consultation.

The silver screen truly had been the venue for her dreams, since she often used to say that her actual dreams at night were never visually imagined, but oral narratives. Stories her mind related to her purely in words. One part of her brain talking to the other. Many’s the night where her unconscious mind would whirr away and she would wake the next morning with a chapter fully formed and requiring immediate transcription on the typewriter before breakfast. Before coffee even. But now her aphasia penetrates and persecutes her even at night. In her sleep, she pants, growls and slaps the mattress, not at hounding monsters on her tail, but the formless eructations of her mute narrator. The two of them standing either side at the lip of that crevasse, unable to throw a line one to the other. Night as day for her. A restless mind unable to declutch the cogs grinding at nothing. The torment grew so bad, that I too became fully wrung out by morning. I’ve had to relocate to the lounge settee to rescue sleep.

“Do you want a drink?” I inquire. She shakes her head. ‘No’ is not a word yet expunged from her lexicon. She is just too broken to shape it properly this morning. I speculate whether the words vanish in reverse order from which they were originally sealed in the vault of learning? Then ‘no’ would be one of the last to perish, the word proclaiming a self still able to be defiant, even if it wasn’t fully aware what cause it was agitating on behalf of. Like any good, self-possessed toddler. ‘No’, a word solely preserved by force of will. An ill-will, like it’s an ill-wind blowing through this house. When that word disappears, we’ll know it’s definitively taken Sheila along with it. Then the word won’t be much use to me either.

“Thanks” she belatedly gets out of her mouth. I nod. She is slurring her few remaining words now, (maybe she was referring to Tyson’s lisp, but I elect not to exhume the fumbling quest). She, the undisputed nonpareil of the live reading, capable of holding a whole room in the palm of her hand through her precise rhythm and diction. Revealing the reverberations of a word, even as her enunciation made evident the precise shade of meaning she had imparted to it. She could pick up one of her own books now and fluidly slot the correct phonemes to the letter combinations and accumulate sound impressions of words. But unless those are words retained in her repository, they would resonate nothing with her. The characters and sounds bear no relationship to the words they exhibit. They can’t prompt anything. Casting her adrift without moorings. Or bearings. Thus is her own writing, those delicious crisp workings of her mind, sundered from her grasp and from any recognition. Her own bloody words, uniquely coined and arranged by her, now gouged back out in great swathes. It’s like an auto-immune response gone into overdrive. It’s just too spiteful … for words.

The initial fissures tended to be among the nouns. The very genus of words she forged a career and a name, out of lancing and lasering to yield up their true disclosure. Rounding up, penning in and interrogating them to within an inch of their miserable, slippery lives, until they had no room for evasion. Nowhere else to slide off into ambiguity and obfuscation. She depth charged language, making it so elegantly plain and simple. Shining a powerful beam to light up words’ dark, penumbral hearts. Well the light’s almost been extinguished from this shining illuminati. My perpetual motion wife is running out of juice.

Naming things. Classifications, trying to tie up the individual with its family. The physical object relatedness and the linguistic correlations. Each now completely uncoupled. She still knows how everything connects up, only she cannot divulge them, point them out nor challenge them. Whereas verbs, the doing words, emanating from one’s own sinew and muscle, largely persist untouched by the synaptic cull. Save those clearly subservient to the noun from which they had emerged, for they also wither and die on the vine. Yet indisputably words of action and thrust are still mainly in place for my pocket dynamo. All her energies intact, but no real way to harness them through communication attaching them to others. No agency to lay claim to these actions, just floating like driftwood. Her body seizing up because she’s unable to direct it with any intention. To compel it towards any objective.

‘Love’ is one such word. Presumably established very early in life, cooed and clucked by a mother everyday to the newborn cradled in her arms. So by my theory of course it ought still to persist in place. Noun and verb both. But not a word she was wont much to vocalise, except when she hefted and weighed it on her tongue for a moment, before hurling it as twenty-four carat mockery, ejected like a spitball. Oh she wrote about it at length. “The great casuist, the dissembler word of all words as dissemblers”, if I remember the quote correctly. She would effortlessly penetrate the veracity of any declaration of love, peel off its metaphor-coated sepals (“he loves me, he loves me not”), demonstrate its symbolic, token rates of exchange and then nail it to a bedroom door like Luther’s Theses.

For her, love was absolutely a muscular act. Not just sex, but a throwing of the body wholesale into enacting its everyday proofs and reinforcement. And of course she expected the same bodily assertion from me. Her love, definitively and ever a verb, seeking out every nook and cranny of inattention, of holding back, just like she did with all utterances. Every move I made, every word I offered up as proclamation of my commitment, subjected to syntactical rigour and casting for its blemishes and shortfalls. If I didn’t push back, I would be smothered, so it was the most compelling and vivifying embodiment of love imaginable. No, not imaginable, realised. Actualised. And then and only then we could press on through to the mental level.

And now while her body remains lithe and still able both to demand and yield, it seems that without the sharp anchoring of what love isn’t, she is all adrift and unable to navigate by affectivity alone. Our non-verbal communication left high and dry in the dock. And as crippling as that is to witness, there is a part of me glad for the remission. My bruised and battered body grateful for the let up in intensity. Perhaps I simply wasn’t worthy of her stellar being. Trying to trail along in her cynosural slipstream.

I stare into the depths of her eyes. She holds my gaze. In the past, we would have instinctively read what was ricocheting and rocketing between the two. A perpetual dialogue like a Mobius Strip. I can gauge the surface levels, of fretful hurt and pain. But beyond that, the subtler shadings are closed seams to me. To both of us. And I conjecture what is left, beyond the anguish of forsaken memory and self. For a woman who flayed the illusions from the hide of those words and concepts which mere mortals were happy to mask themselves behind, now thrown back on her true inner being with no word tiller. She has plunged into that state in which she would unwittingly cast us all.

“Lost everything. Gone” she blurts as she snaffles up the paper once again and brandishes it loosely at me, so that Tyson billows in my face. I cover up. Rope-a-dope.


Marc Nash writes literary and experimental fiction. His debut novel is “A,B&E”. He lives in London.


To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page