Norman Thomas di Giovanni

    The Go-Between by Marcial Souto

    Charlie, a writing pad in his left hand and a pencil in his right, waited for his mother to open her eyes.

    In her wheelchair, she screwed up her mouth and, though she barely moved her head, her brow wrinkled in pain. Her frail, pallid hands shook.

    A row of trees could be seen beyond the window, their trunks chequered with the sun's first rays. Birdsong and a breeze greeted the new day with a shy counterpoint of voices.

    Charlie felt the nurse's firm hands on his shoulders. She had just spoken on the telephone.

    'The ambulance is on its way,' she told him. 'And your aunts as well. Don't you worry.'

    At last his mother's eyes blinked open and stared at a spot on a level with the boy's chest.

    'Clare,' prompted the nurse.

    Charlie shifted the pencil to the hand holding the pad and with his free hand he reached out.

    'Tell me,' said his mother.

    Charlie withdrew his hand, which took back the pencil, and began to draw.

    One night, two years earlier, when Charlie and his parents were returning from their summer holidays, the brakes failed in their car and it suddenly shot off the highway and turned over. By the time the smashed door on the driver's side was wrenched open, Charlie's father was dead. His mother lay unconscious and covered in blood. All Charlie suffered were scratches on his forehead and shoulder. The next day, his aunts took Charlie to visit the hospital, where his mother spent the following eight months.

    Charlie drew two circles, from each of which hung three small hairs.

    'Closed eyes,' said his mother. 'I was asleep. I passed out. Yes, I feel dizzy.'

    Charlie drew two more circles and connected them with lines that made a gentle upward curve.

    'Telephone. Somebody called? Somebody was called?' As his mother got the words out, Charlie drew two dolls.

    Those first days she appeared to be asleep. She did not move and was fed by a drip.

    Aged nine, in the company of his aunts, Charlie visited the hospital every afternoon. Afterwards, they took him to the cinema and bought him ice cream. Unlike them, Charlie never cried.

    One afternoon, while he stared at his mother, she opened her eyes and smiled. Charlie stood frozen to the spot, but his aunts flocked to their sister's side without remembering to mask their tears.

    A week later, Clare began to speak.

    Each of the dolls that Charlie had drawn consisted of a small circle (a head) and five lines (the torso and limbs). The stick figures seemed to be holding hands. Charlie made an arrow that went from the telephone to the two dolls.

    'They've rung my sisters,' said his mother. 'Am I ...?'

    Charlie and the nurse stared at each other.

    'Clare ...,' said the nurse.

    Little by little Clare's condition improved, and her doctors and nurses - who had never held out much hope - were surprised and even proud. Three months later, they got Charlie's mother out of bed and put her in a wheelchair.

    Clare went up and down the corridors and visited other patients on her wing. She felt happy and strong. Charlie and his aunts saw her for long periods, and the three sisters had lively conversations.

    After eight months, the doctors said Clare could go home. But, a few days before, the two aunts had received the sudden news that Clare had only another year to live.

    Charlie drew three more stick figures and beside them two small circles, over which he made a big box with a tiny disk and a cross on it.

    'Doctors and an ambulance,' said his mother.

    The fingers of the sun scratched at the windowpane.

    Clare returned home to her flat with Charlie, now ten, and a nurse. At first Clare went from room to room in her wheelchair, chattering away and giving orders. Every afternoon, her sisters paid a long visit, often staying until nightfall.

    But over time Clare began to complain about street noises - passersby, motorbikes, car horns, even aeroplanes thundering far overhead.

    In the end, she shut herself up in her bedroom all day, the blinds drawn, her head buried in her hands. Occasionally she let out a whimper of pain.

    'They're going to take me away.'

    'We don't know that yet,' said the nurse. 'That's for the doctors to decide.'

    Clare dismissed the nurse's words with a gesture. She looked at Charlie.

    Charlie hastened to tell his mother the same thing by means of a drawing - a T for time.

    'Yes, I'll have to wait and see,' Clare said.

    After consulting Clare's doctors, her sisters decided it might be best to take her somewhere quiet, where no noise would disturb her. They shifted her from the flat in the town centre to a small house on the edge of a park.

    Charlie looked at his mother in silence, the pad and pencil ready in his left hand. His mother rubbed her eyes with her fingertips and from time to time shifted in her wheelchair to make herself comfortable. On her bedside table were a number of crinkled sheets of paper with Charlie's drawings on them.

    'I refuse to go. I won't be able to stand the noise.'

    'But it's necessary, madame,' said the nurse to no avail.

    Clare neither heard nor saw her. For a long time the nurse had ceased to exist for her.

    Clare's only contact with the outside world was Charlie, who functioned as a sort of go-between, or interpreter. Nor did she hear him either on the few occasions he tried to speak to her, but she compensated for this with an insatiable appetite for his drawings. She accepted no other form of communication.

    Charlie drew a circle and in the upper part of it put in two dots, between which he sketched a vertical line that nearly touched another. This last was emphatic and ran horizontally. A serious face.

    'You want me to obey?'

    At first, in the new house, Clare was quite active. She went back and forth in the wheelchair and sometimes, in the late afternoon if it were not too cold, she went outdoors to sun herself and look at the trees and sky.

    When Charlie bicycled back from school, he had to recount to his mother all he had done that day and tell her exactly what he had to study for the next.

    Little by little, Clare managed to persuade her son to share this news by means of drawings, thereby fostering his artistic talent, which one of his teacher's had been eager to encourage.

    In the beginning, Charlie's drawings were rich and detailed. He used colour and lines of different intensity to depict the minutiae of everything that happened to him in the course of his day and everything he observed - birds, trees, dogs, school games.

    Ever more enthralled, Clare lived almost exclusively for the news that Charlie drew for her on his writing pad. She no longer heard what the nurse told her, nor was she really interested in Charlie's spoken words. All she wanted was his drawings. The floors of the house were always carpeted with old sketches on crumpled sheets.

    His mother's demand for drawings to keep her abreast of the world outside forced Charlie to dispense with colour and complexity and to use more stylized forms. This allowed him to depict events and objects with the greatest possible economy. The sun, formerly a circle that varied from pale yellow to burning red, was now a simple ring or (when, owing to Charlie's haste, the ends of the circle did not meet) a sort of snail. Trees, once complex structures consisting of thick trunks and branches that bristled with leaves coloured according to the season, were now half a dozen sticks - one vertical (the trunk), holding up four or five spread in different directions (branches), under curlicues (leaves). Children, previously shown in detail, were now simple scarecrows - a ring (head) and five sticks (torso and limbs). Charlie's school, once a white building with an orange tiled roof, was now a square with a triangle on top.

    Falling in with this simplification, Charlie's mother's thoughts began turning more abstract as well. Everything in her world was uncomplicated now, and she had no need to concentrate overly in order to solve a problem.

    As she had done in the flat, Clare now became more and more reclusive in the new house and finally shut herself away in her bedroom, where she heeded only Charlie's drawings, simple depictions of an equally simple world.

    Clare's complaints began soon after the sun came up. Charlie, who slept in a room next to his mother's, and the nurse, who slept in a room on the other side, heard her at the same time and at the same time they rushed to her side. Clare writhed in her bed and babbled incomprehensibly. Finally she opened her eyes and spoke clearly, saying she wanted to be in the wheelchair.

    She asked Charlie to repeat everything he had drawn the day before, and then the most important things that each of them remembered. In the end, appearing satisfied, Clare went all thoughtful, her eyes lost in space.

    Charlie and the nurse waited without a word. After a minute or two, Clare shuddered. Her face wrinkled up and her mouth twisted into a grimace. Then, relaxing, her head struck the bedstead. She had lost consciousness.

    The nurse phoned for an ambulance and for Clare's sisters. It was the third time in the last month she had witnessed this scene, and she was well aware what could happen. This attack, or the next ...

    The doctors had told Clare's sisters that after the accident, when she had been operated on, they had found a brain tumour. They said Clare would not live for more than a year and that her condition would steadily decline.

    Charlie heard a car stop outside and then voices. He went to let his aunts in. At the same time, he heard the distant wail of a siren, and a minute later an ambulance stood before the door. His aunts and the doctors entered the house together.

    Clare no longer required Charlie as a go-between. Her sisters and doctors appeared to her as they were - stick figures with a circle for a head. As she was being taken off in her wheelchair, Clare had a last look around the house. All was straight lines, curves, squares, rectangles, circles. Lowering her gaze, she noted that her wheelchair was a veritable catalogue of all these shapes.

    At the kerb, the ambulance was clearly the rectangle that Charlie had drawn, and the sun was a shining snail that inched along the fingers of the trees.

    Before she was lifted into the ambulance, Clare looked up. The sky was a clean sheet from Charlie's pad. On it appeared and disappeared a perfect circle - Charlie's face.

    Then the sheet was gone and another unfolded overhead. Less bright, it was the spotless sky of the ambulance roof.

    Unblinking, Clare awaited an explanation, a drawing. Little by little, it drew itself. On the smooth, shiny surface, which was almost the surface of a mirror, emerged the circle of her own face.

    Here was her true image. For the first time, Clare saw herself as she was; for the first time, she recognized who she was. This, without a doubt, was her - as tidy, as simple, and as accurate as the drawings that died every morning on Charlie's writing pad. Clare closed her eyes to savour this perfect moment.

    As she did so, a hand removed the sheet and crumpled it up.

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