‘In fact,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a jolly good mind to deconstruct something.’
I expressed my concern, and asked whether he’d be better off taking two aspirin and lying down?
‘I assume not.’ He looked out through the blinds wistfully at the dead garden. ‘I deconstructed a lot of things when I was young, you know. Whole societies, cultures, belief systems. Those were in the days when a sentence used to mean nothing. I could go for days without saying anything. Just the stiletto of the absurd against the vanquished wall of Troy, and the ghosts would rush laughing from the ruins.’
I offer him an aspirin, and he refuses politely.
‘The point,’ he said, ‘the point was to laugh. We always knew that. Even the ghost of Oedipus knew that. I’ve laughed at all the Muses in my time, you see, laughed in the face of Pan, laughed at the foot of Olympus until thunderbolts rained round me—like shaking cherries from a tree. Of course it didn’t hurt. It couldn’t hurt you as long as you were laughing. That was the trick, you see, and it made Jove frightfully angry. But in fact I think he was always a little bit sympathetic to us. On account of being unhappy at home, you see. We gave him something to smile about.’
I ask him what he plans to do with the garden in the spring—anything to keep the subject from straying to Ulysses again. Wrong question, it turns out.
He gazes at the dead garden, the wistfulness glimmering now. ‘No. No, I do not think I shall do anything in the garden anymore. Oh, don’t look so shocked, I’m not dying—you have no conception of the difficulties that would involve—it’s just that I don’t think—well. I don’t think spring is coming here anymore. It’s impossible, really, isn’t it? Even gods can only be young once and then—well, young men come and go. I’ve always known there would be a day when she would decide not to come back.’
The nurse clatters into the room, takes his blood pressure and measures out the sedative. He doesn’t say anything until she’s gone. He takes the sedative quietly, lies back on the bed to wait for its effect.
I know what he’ll say next.
‘I met Ulysses, once. I never made it into the great story. I met him not two weeks from Troy. And I laughed. Of course I laughed. How else should I greet the greatest man in the world? How else should I revere him? I could see it all spelled out in his eyes—ten years! Ten miserable years and the deaths of nearly everyone else dear to him. To travel home from Troy. He took offence to land on an island where where the very gods themselves worshipped him—and then to find an old beggar who laughed. If he’d thrown me half a coin I’d have told him what he didn’t know. A strand of Medusa’s hair lay in the bottom of his hull. He never got near home until he was rid of it. He could have given it to me. But his wife loved him, and loved their son, and he never could get near home because that hair couldn’t go near love. That was her weakness. She went after those without love. Love killed her in the end.’
It fascinates me and repulses me—this story I’ve heard from him so many times. I look away, look out at the dead garden. It hurts to watch the sedative kick in.
He’s mumbling now. “But of course she wouldn’t come back. Anyone will give in eventually. It’s putting the shoulder to the stone, isn’t it? It’s rolling up and down the mountain, isn’t it? The stone wears away, doesn’t it? The mountain wears down, see? And you walk away. You just walk away. Not a prison at all. The greatest man in the world. If he had laughed at me—that would be something. If he—I laughed.’
He’s back in his stupor. I close the blinds and leave.