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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Word Thief

I thought a short story would make a nice change- and something contemporary even more so...

The Word Thief


By Ross M Kitson



Words are all we have. I think it was Samuel Beckett who wrote that and for years I considered it yet more pretentious twaddle.

Then the Word Thief came. He stole into my mind one night, concealed in the forgiving darkness and took them. And he was an avaricious cutpurse. He took the words from my memory and the sounds from my lips, utterances that were only in their infancy in the journey from cerebrum to lips.

I am, as was my wont, being verbose. The Word Thief was a clot, the size of a pin-head. A pin-head. It lodged in an artery in my brain and all that I was, all that I am, dissolved in a burst of primordial pain.

By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life. That was Girard; that one I’m certain about. What then, with my words taken, is left to learn about my thoughts?




I am sat in the back room of the nursing home, proppedup in a tall green chair. The smell of the chair is permeating my nostrils: it’s a mixture of disinfectant and plastic, disguising the faint odour of ammonia that saturates this place.

In the corner of the room is a wide television whose astonishing clarity of image can not lift the banality of the daytime programming selection. My co-residents are all bundled into chairs around the room. Most have a good twenty years on me. I never dreamt I would be incarcerated in a nursing home at the age of sixty-five.

I know a few of their names. That’s not because I am impolite—indeed in my pre-imprisonment life I was considered a perfect gentleman, an anachronism in the contemporary age of stylish rudeness. No, the reason I forget their names is the stroke. When it came four months ago, searing across my brain, it took my movement on the left side, it took my speech, and it scrambled my memory. The words and the images all flow together inside me—like a vast collection of oil paintings someone has spilt spirits upon. They flow and merge and mate, producing strange confusing offspring.

Laying there, its skin gargoyle grey. Tiny hands clutched in fists, angry at the robbed opportunity for life. Words congeal in my throat...

I focus my mind back on the present. Where was I? The others, at least those whose names I recall. Mr Wyman, Harry, sits to my left. He was a policeman in his working life and now the curse of dementia eats him away. He shrinks a tiny bit each day as what makes himhuman ebbs into the ether. Mrs Sutcliffe, Teresa, she ran a post-office. She’s had a collection of strokes—like little bullets picking off parts of her being. The latest took her eyesight, a slightly less cruel one than the one that took her cognition. She has little clue about where she is. I picture her being a very ordered lady in her working days—she has neatness even in her dotage.

Miss Green, Cecile, is being helped to her feet by one of the care assistants. This girl is a new one—at least I think she is. It may be I’ve met her twenty times but for some reason that memory hasn’t lodged; it’s trickled away like rain on a window. The girl has vivid pink hair—like those socks my pupils used to wear in the Eighties. Very striking.

Cecile was a mid-wife but I can see where the word ‘mid-wife’ will take my thoughts and so I suppress it. It’s a power-word. Words can carry that effect. I recall Dune,the book by Frank Herbert. I was never a science fiction fan but it had such vision and scope that it seduced me as a youth in the sixties. Paul Atreides, the hero, was named Muad’Dib by the Fremen. I recalled chuckling at the film when the word was used as a weapon—blowing his enemies up with a sonic beam. The irony? Muad’Dib means educator in Arabic—like myself... an educator.

Cecile is gone and my head lolls towards the television. There are two well spoken women rooting through a devastated house. Its exterior is grand, almost regal with soaring eaves and beautiful stone walls. But the interior is rotten, decayed, cankerous. She is chipping at the window frames with a key and I watch the face of the woman who has been seduced by this house looking progressively sicker and sicker.

Is that an analogy for my life? To an outside observer, even now, I have a façade of respectability. Yet inside I am crumbling. I am devastated. I am decrepit.

Can I restore myself? Can I rip out the rotted timbers and the sagging ceilings? Can I scrape out the dry rot and rebuild the supporting walls within me?

I can’t even dress myself. Is that my answer?




The new girl has brought Cecile back to her chair and is helping her sit. Cecile has dementia, mild enough so she has some recognition of her decline, but no so mild that she can live without nursing care. This is compounded by the water that makes her ankles shine like bloated slugs. There’s a fresh-from-training General Practitioner who comes each week. Unlike his predecessor, whose special interest was eating biscuits and signing repeat prescriptions without reading them, he is keen to play around with everyone’s tablets. I dread if he comes to my selection.

flash of bright pink dominates my vision. The new girl has sat next to me and is leaning to talk. She has kindness in her eyes that twinkles like the stars on a clear night. The eyes are bordered by an intricate experiment with eyeliner and mascara. She brings to mind Siouxie and the Banshees.

A power-word: a memory erupts from the rear of my brain, like a geyser spraying through the mud-flats.

It was the Seventies, perhaps Seventy-six. The classroom was alight with excitement at the latest phenomenon, the punk band the Sex Pistols. The day before the Pistols had been on Bill Grundy’s show—Today—with their entourage, one of whom was Siouxie Sioux. In what was perhaps one of the most infamous television moments ever, one of the band was goaded into calling Grundy a “fucking rotter,” amongst other expletives.

Two tiny words. It destroyed Grundy’s career and launched the punk band’s. The children in my class were ablaze with the drama—not least because none of them had actually seen it, but rather had heard about it and read about it in their parents’ papers.

The fashion hadn’t really hit as yet, but there was one in my class, a girl called Anne, who had spiked her ginger hair and come to school with bright eyeliner on.

I can recall settling them down and meeting Anne’s gaze. She was a smart girl, going through some tough times at home, and this was clearly her attempt at kicking back at her parents. There was anticipation in the air—would I rise to her rebellious appearance or not. They knew me as a liberal—they had cast the gauntlet.

The look on their faces as they watched me drag out my old record player and slam it onto the table was priceless. From my bag I slid out a single and placed it, admittedly with a touch of drama, onto the turntable and delighted in their gaping mouths as the strains of Anarchy in the UK played.

“This is the latest in a long line of youth protest,” I said. “For the next twenty minutes we are going to de-construct the rather scanty lyrics of this song. And then we are going to trace the history of defiance in modern music back to its roots.”

And it was a whole two minutes before any one of them spoke. Stuck for words—I can count those times on my hand, the one that still moves. Count off the times that words have failed me—love, death, sorrow and now this. Four. Four failures.

“Mister Cooper?” the girl jolts me back to the present.

I grimace in reply.

“Oh, crap, I’m sorry. I’m new. I forgot about your speech,” she says, her face pinking up like her hair.

I attempt a smile, but I’m unsure if it succeeds.

“It occurred to me that you look utterly disinterested in this housing programme, and given that the next thing on is something to do with junk in the loft, I wondered... do you want me to read to you a little?”

Flash. I’m nine again, hidden in my room as the rain batters at the window pane. I am escaping the monochrome life of post-war Leeds and treading thelands of Narnia. The damp walls of my bedroom, with its unenviable view of Harehills, have melted away into the lush green meadows in which Aslan leads the children once more.

CS Lewis—I adored his every word, too naïve to understand the vivid Christian allegories that permeated his pages. It was Lewis that drew me to Oxford, when the scholarship took me further than my bus-driving father ever could hope to.

The first night we made love—blistering hot. The sheets moulded to our bodies by sweat like a second skin...

“Mister Cooper?”

I’m back again. The visions of Narnia merge with the memory of the back-to-backs of Harehills in Leeds and the cobbles of Oxford. I attempt an enthusiastic nod.

“That’s great,” she says and then she’s tugging the bookcase on wheels toward me. Her pale face is crumpled in indecision as she rifles through the books on offer. I can see she is being cautious not to offend me with the wrong choice—like she’s choosing me a new suit or something.

She settles on a choice and holds it up like a trophy.

“I’m studying this in English Lit in the sixth form; I hope you don’t mind...?”

It’s Great Expectations by Dickens. My face is a contorted mask, difficult to interpret. But inside I’m singing with joy.

“I’ll just check on the others. Then we can read a chapter or two. I’m Alice, by the way...”

Alice. Lewis Carroll’s muse. Will this Alice be mine? I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then. Lewis Carroll wrote that and I can feelevery syllable of the sentence in my bones. I am so, so different now and even the memories of what I was tumble chaotically around my mind.

Lewis Carroll was a word-smith. His talent to create ran to the use of nonsense words; I recall the first time I read Jabberwocky as a child. I was convinced that something had happened to my brain; the words were magical—they implied by their sound, yet were gibberish. All the more ironic that when the stroke savaged my brain only unintelligible phrases spilt from my mouth, random phonemes insanely adhered together. I spoke in tongues—find me an exorcist.

Alice—will you guide me through this darkness, with your zest and enthusiasm, for I am petrified that this is my purgatory, my own level of Dante’s Inferno.

I am terrified that am damned and only the memories of pain come back to taunt me.




I am thinking of Pip and Magwitch and Estella and, most of all, Jaggers. I’m looking at my one good hand stained with orange ink from my bingo dabber. Jaggers would continually wash his hands in Great Expectations, as if ridding himself of the darkness that he dealt with each day. I need others to do that for me at present.

The residents are arranged in two horseshoes of chairs in the large sitting room. Harry Wyman, the ex-policeman, sits to my right. He is tapping his dabber like a truncheon. I wonder if he ever clouted me when I was a young enthusiastic Marxist, protesting against... well, against everything.

I can see Alice’s pink hair bobbing between Cecile and Teresa. There’s a little pang of jealousy in me—I want her to read again to me, rather than leave me to sit in this chamber of inanity. Of all the cruelties of the WordThief, stealing my ability to read was the most callous wrong.

Teresa, as I think I have said, is blind. Alice is diligently dabbing her numbers on the bingo card whilst another ‘nurse’ (I realise they aren’t nurses but rather women in uniforms who look after us) does the calling. This latter woman’s voice grates like a car’s gear box stuck in the wrong position.

“Clickety-click, sixty six.”

Elizabeth is the ‘nurses’ name. She’s has an odd face, and I accept that I am not one to cast stones at present. It hangs from her bones like a bloodhounds. It is as if the mundanity of her daily life has dragged it down. She makes it look like breathing is a chore she begrudges. My dear wife, Helen, would have said she was hard-faced, despite the melted latex visage the ‘nurse’ presents.

The sounds jam in my throat. A church full of expectant faces, eyes reddened with sorrow. The reading is in the bible before me but the words...they writhe like tiny snakes...undecipherable...alien...

No, I won’t think of Helen now. I can feel the sorrow aching within me at the mere prospect. I desperately try to distract myself with ‘Nurse’ Elizabeth’s screeching timbre.

“Key of the door—twenty one.”

Twenty-one, she was twenty one when we met in Oxford.

“Brighton Line—fifty nine.”

Oh, for Christ’s sake, she was from Brighton. This horrid stifling feeling is coming through me now, like the world knows my scrambled brain better than I do and its playing games.

“Man alive—number five.”

That’s how long they gave her to live and suddenly it’s too late. I’m back in the church, in Ashbourne, our home of only two years before we found out about the cancer. God was a droll bastard the way he lets us slog our guts out as teachers, dragging our feet through the thickening mire of paperwork and bureaucracy, in a valiant attempt to retire early. If I could speak I’d yell my own bingo-words out: fifty six, retired in bliss; fifty nine, cancer steals our time; six-and-oh, all alone.

It is overwhelmingly vivid, this memory. I’m stood at the pulpit, my eyes having run out of tears far earlier in that week. Two dozen friends—for we had no living family and no children—were gathered in the church. Helen’s favourite psalm was before me—I had practiced and practiced it, letting every nuance of the archaic verse roll from my tongue. And I couldn’t speak. The injustice, the pain, the sorrow, the vast void that occupied where my heart once was, dragged the words back down from my mouth. They clutched and grabbed and stifled those words, like demons wrestling errant spirits deep into the depths of the Abyss. I, the man whose colleagues used to accuse of verbal diarrhoea, was silent. Not even a sob. I was mute.

Words left me then as they have now.

And what a word to have taken her. Cancer. A word bestowed with such evil that anyone outside of health care speaks it as if it was the name of a devil, of a malignant spirit and in their own minds they cross themselves. They pray within their thoughts that it would strike down another when next it calls, hovering over life like the Angel of Death in Egypt.

It took my wife. And Death took my first born too...

Laying there, its skin gargoyle grey. Tiny hands clutched in fists, angry at the robbed opportunity for life. Words congeal in my throat...

“Mister Cooper, are you feeling alright?”

Alice’s voice exorcises the dark thoughts. Her eyes are illuminated by concern and she has a mistiness, like she’s in a film shot in soft focus. I realise I am crying. Very gently she dabs the tears from my cheeks and I want so much to reach out and touch her soft cheek.

“Shall we get you back to the lounge? Perhaps sneak in an illicit chapter of Dickens?”

I manage a nod.

“To be honest, Elizabeth’s voice makes me want to cry.”

And now I manage a smile.




Alice is sitting reading the book to me. I can feel my earlier dark mood easing. An hour ago I was attempting to eat, stubbornly refusing help as I tried to force my better hand in a coordinated fashion towards my mouth. My food is thickened feed at present—the stroke obliterated my ability to swallow properly too. One more indignity to add to the many.

Thickened feed reminds me of gruel, which is apt given that I am having Dickens read to me. My mind is wandersome today—I have to keep dragging my random thoughts back to Alice and what she is saying.

She is a pretty lass, under the armour of the make-up and hair dye. Her face conveys optimism and her eyes are piercing; she regards you as if she evaluating your soul, weighing it like the Egyptian deity Thoth. How would my heart fare on those mythical scales?

I think Alice is cursed with the insecurity of her generation. When I was young the expectations were so much lower: I exceeded most by winning a scholarship to Oxford. But I was an exception. Most of the privileged students at University were going through the motions before they took over some company or came into some inheritance. There was so little truly expected of them and, in turn, they were satisfied with their lot.

And now? Well now, no matter who you are in childhood you are raised to think—‘Is this it? What more is there? You are constantly shown how you don’t measure up by the media, shown how others seemingly like you have achieved fame and fortune. Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame is just the warm up act. Glory on reality television or talent shows or docudramas awaits all. And the press show you how beautiful you can be, with just the right amount of coin. And then the world fakes surprise at the dissatisfaction of youth when the fall comes, as it inevitably does. Most do not climb high enough to even fall.

Is that there in Alice? I see it lurking in her shining eyes. Is she dressed this way for herself or for others?

Over Alice’s shoulder I can see the doctor arrive. He looks as young as Alice, although he has attempted a beard to try and mask his youth. He wears a leather jacket and a pair of jeans and brings to mind a teacher I once worked with who was insistent that children respected the casual approach to dress far more than the formal. Alan Bates was his name, I think. My word, he clashed so much with Helen during the teachers strike in the Eighties. I thought she was going to slap him that once.

And Helen is in my mind now, but not in the tortured way she was three days ago during bingo. No, now she is a memory of light and joy, forming from the gentle sounds that drift like a Bisto trail from Alice.

The summer of love—1967. Whilst the world grew their hair and smoked themselves to nirvana, I was finishing my finals and facing the prospect of the real world once more. I was too working class for the hippy fashion ethic—my father had died the year before but his pragmatism still pervaded my life. I grafted behind the bar in the pub whilst Oxford was inundated by the flower children.

And in their midst there was Helen. I first saw her when she came into my place of work, the Eagle and Child. Like many fresh to Oxford she was eager to soak up the literary talent that had dribbled into the floorboards over the years. For me it was where I had my first pint of beer, fantasising that I was supping with CS Lewis and Tolkien.

Helen had a vitality that was to last her whole life—even after the diagnosis of breast cancer and throughout the despair of our greatest loss in the late Seventies.

Laying there, its skin gargoyle grey. Tiny hands clutched in fists, angry at the robbed opportunity for life. Words congeal in my throat...

No, I will not think of that. Helen—her smile nervous and excited, entering the pub. Her hair long and brown, held off her face with a paisley Alice band. Alice—the images are getting mixed in my mind now and it is an effort to bring back my wife’s face.

I was naïve in the way of love—three years of working every moment between studies, whilst my peers sailed their boats in Devon each holiday, had left little time for romance. I had stolen occasional kisses from local girls, enticed by their long legs and mini-skirts. But never had I felt the hooks in my heart. Never had I felt it rise as if filled with air. If Thoth were to weigh it that day my afterlife would have been assured.

Helen, bold and sparkling, came to the bar and ordered a drink. And I stood there, mesmerised, frozen, as if turned to stone by the wink of a medusa. She giggled, and blushed and asked again but it was no use—I could not speak. As if I had had this stroke forty four years early—my words were gone. And my brain was chattering away with a wide range of world-wise anecdotes and witticisms.

In the end one of my friends served her and all the time we regarded each other, half-smiles on our faces. And as she drank and I pushed my stagnant body back to work, we kept catching each others eyes.

She returned the next night as I finished my shift and then the words were more forgiving. They came from me like a torrent, bursting forth as if I had but a night to tell her all there was to know about me. And she smiled and laughed, her nose creasing in the middle like a tiny spot of old leather on a face of satin.

It was the summer of love but not one that I spent dancing in fields and taking LSD. We made love for the first time three months into our courtship, in my rented room above a tobacconists on Walton Street. And after, as we lay watching the moonlight stream in through my tiny window, we spoke as never before. We opened up our souls to one another, we too who had been joined in the intimacy of our passion.

Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within, Lord Tennyson said, but on that night I concealed nothing.

Never once during our life together did I desire another. Over the years I was propositioned by colleagues, friends and even pupils but my devotion was absolute. She was my breath, my pulse and my thought. And when I stood in that church to bury her I laid to rest much of what I am.

That summer of love is one of the memories I shall clutch to like a lifebelt in this sea of disorientation.




“Right, Alice, Mr Cooper’s up next for the doc,” Elizabeth says wearily.

Alice looks up and closes the book. There is an expression of surprise on Elizabeth’s ungainly features.

“So you’ve got time to sit on your arse and read now have you?”

Alice, to her credit, doesn’t flinch. “Well, yes. It’s my break and this is how I want to spend it.”

“Oh, aren’t you the noble one?” Elizabeth says. “Great Expectations? Bloody hell, you trying to bore Mr Cooper to death?

“No. He’s enjoying it. We’re enjoying it. Mr Cooper used to be a teacher—up in Leeds.”

“Oh? Well he’ll like dull crap like that then. Anyhow, get shifted, the doctor’s in a rush today.”

Alice conceals a smile as she helps me to my feet and assists my shuffling in the direction of the office. Teresa Sutcliffe, the post office woman, is being led out by Annette, one of the older ‘nurses.’

“Make sure that the bloods are checked on Tuesday. Last time we changed the warfarin dose her clotting went ballistic.”

Annette rolls her eyes. “Yes, doctor.”

“And make sure she doesn’t fall.”

“Like I was going to trip up a blind lady for a laugh,” Annette mutters and I hear Alice chuckle. Even Teresa haa little smile.

Doctor Thorne is sitting at the old desk in the office, his stethoscope around his neck like a mayoral chain of office. He has a dozen folders scattered over the table and is flicking through mine.

“Where would you like us, doctor?” Alice asks.

On seeing Alice, Doctor Thorne smiles like the Cheshire Cat and indicates the makeshift examination couch in the corner.

“My, that’s one way of brightening this dump up,” he says, glancing at Alice’s hair.

Alice blushes slightly whilst she helps me onto the couch. Doctor Thorne stalks over, swinging a tendon hammer playfully.

“Shirt open as well, please,” he says. 

“The patient, not you, nurse.”

I see a flicker of irritation in Alice’s jaw muscles. In my brain I am screaming to her not to put up with this ‘banter.’

The tendon hammer arcs down onto my knee with no warning. My leg jerks briskly, missing Doctor Thorne by inches.

“Wooahh! That was too close!” he laughs. He proceeds to tap away at me as if he is assessing walls in a house.

Alice has loosened my shirt and he twirls his stethoscope around and listens to my chest. Every iota of my being is trying to form a word so I could at least make the fool jump in surprise.

Doctor Thorne leans over me, making Alice step back uncomfortably. His voice is deliberately slow, loud and patronising.

“Your contractures on the left are getting worse, Mr Cooper. And your right side, your better side, is still weak.”

“Worse? Should he be getting better?” Alice asks.

Doctor Thorne shrugs. “Honestly? I think given the size of stroke he had he’s lucky to be still here. Wiped out a good bit of the temporoparietal lobe. I can try something to help with the contractures though—and we’ll need to push on the physio a bit more.”

I’m pleading for him not to mess around with my medication but psychic communication is evidently not his forte. 

Words, are of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind

Rudyard Kipling was right about that, but the ones Doctor Thorne’s messing around with aren’t to be sniffed at either.




I am feeling ghastly. The television is blaring its idiocy at me—some smug moron is shouting at a young couple about their quibbling over a baby. The crowd are whooping and cheering at their tears. Just put them in the stocks and be done with it.

Teresa sits on one side of me and I can only imagine the cruelty of making a blind lady sit and listen to this rubbish. On my right is Harry, head lolling like a broken marionette. Across the room, Alice is helping Cecile back from the toilet.

I catch Cecile’s eyes looking at me. A sense of horror arises in my chest: it was her wasn’t it? She was the midwife when...

Laying there, its skin gargoyle grey. Tiny hands clutched in fists, angry at the robbed opportunity for life. Words congeal in my throat...

I drag my mind from that image. She couldn’t have been—Cecile worked her whole life in Derbyshire, we lived in Leeds.

Alice is chatting to her and laughing, taking care not to catch her swollen legs on the furniture as they pass. 

Unreasonable jealousy is burning within me. I want Alice to forget the others and sit with me so I can listen to the beautiful phrases of Dickens drifting from her lips.Such innocent lips...

The first night we made love—blistering hot. The sheets moulded to our bodies by sweat like a second skin...

Oh good God, no. What’s happening? I’ve never even looked at another in that way. My thoughts are chaos, a shattered mirror, a thousand piece jigsaw cast on the floor in frustration. I love my wife. I love Helen. I loved Helen.

The sounds jam in my throat. A church full of expectant faces, eyes reddened with sorrow. The reading is in the bible before me but the words...they writhe like tiny snakes...undecipherable...alien...

The world is alien now. The room is twisted and warped. Its slipping away—to another place, perhaps to Narnia? Not the green meadows growing in Aslan’s wake but rather the frozen soulless landscapes of the Snow Witch. I need help. I have been poisoned. My body is apart from my mind, removed and dissociated. I am regarding it from above, floating and ethereal. In my body below my heart is hammering, heavy wet noises that surely all can hear? It is so clumsy and heavy—what judgement would Thoth make now?

Alice, help me. I am begging but the words are not there. There is always time to add a word, never to withdraw one. Who was that? I have no time. Alice, help me.

I’m watching in horror as my body lurches from the seat and staggers towards Alice. My left side is gnarled like an old tree root. My right is weak, too weak to sustain my movement.

Should count myself lucky—so Doctor Thorne says. This is all his bloody fault.

I’m back in my body and the coffee table is rushing towards me. I can’t stop myself, I’m petrified, like the day I met Helen. A medusa’s wink.

The impact is jolting through my face and arm like a cricket bat is battering against me. The room is tilted crazily and I can see drops of blood falling in slow motion from the edge of the coffee table. I’m dully aware that there is a warm wet feeling in my trousers but with disgust I realise its not blood.

And across the room, through the legs of the coffee table, I can see Cecile. She is being lowered into her chair by a panicked Alice. Cecile’s eyes are boring into my skull like a termite.

And I can’t stop it, no more than I could stop the release of urine in my briefs as I fell. The memory comes crashing into my mind with the anger and fury of a punk record—Anne with her ginger hair is smiling as the chords chop through the classroom air.

The contractions had begun too early. I knew that morning when we kissed each other goodbye and I caught my bus to my school in Roundhay. It was something about Helen that was altered, some subtle shift in her manner, some truth she had chosen not to tell me. And I rushed off, trying not to link every tiny sign to the pregnancy.

The headmaster came and found me half way through sixth form English literacy. Anne with her spiky hair was now a miniature Annie Lennox, her ginger locks cropped short. She was reading Lady Macbeth, entrancing the class, as she mimed scrubbing the blood from her hands.

The expression on the headmaster’s face conveyed a thousand words and I left my classroom and followed him to reception. Alan Bates was stood there, car keys in hand.

“The hospital rang, Coop. Helen’s been rushed into St James—she’s pretty bad, I’m sorry.”

I nodded dumbly then asked, “The baby? I mean its early but...”

Alan shrugged and indicated his yellow mini outside the doors. “Come on, mate. Let’s get you down there, eh?”

The wait at the front desk of the labour ward was excruciating. The waiting area was full of plump women and nervous fathers, discussing a multitude of trivia to distract themselves from the big event on the horizon. Wasted words, I can remember thinking. Was Helen even fit to hear mine?

A militaristic mid-wife took me through the doors and onto the ward. She directed me into an office where an exhausted looking doctor sat. He wore theatre garb and I could see flecks of dried blood dotting his trousers legs. I suddenly felt very, very scared.

“Helen... is she...?” the words were dissolving on my tongue.

“Mr Cooper? I’m Doctor Warren. I’m... your wife, she’s poorly but stable. There was a large bleed—the placenta had sheared and...”

I was sobbing. He had told me already without speaking what was coming next. My gaze fixed on the blood on his theatre scrubs, the dried blood hidden amongst the hairs on his forearm.

Lady Macbeth washing her hands compulsively. Jagger ridding himself of the darkness he dealt with.

“I want to see my baby,” I said. The mid-wife frowned and subtly shook her head at the doctor.

“There’s no need to...” he began.

“There’s every bloody need to,” I barked, feeling the grief and the anger pouring out.

The mid-wife was bristling. In those days the labour wards was still very much the domain of the woman—Amazonia in uniform. But the doctor could see my pain and wordlessly he nodded.

My baby girl was there in the room next to theatre in a tiny cot. The blanket covering her was frayed at the edges, its colour washed out and drab. The image of the room was grafted onto my brain and to this day I can still see every tiny detail—when I choose to remember.

The furthest light in the small room was cracked and flickered intermittently; the edge where the floor met the wall by the sink had a thin dark line of grime that had escaped the diligent mop of the cleaner; there was a grubby green phone mounted on the wall and there were several numbers scribbled in pen by its side and a little doodle; the air in the room was thick with the pungent fragrance of bleach.

I touched our dead baby and her skin still felt faintly warm, despite the stony colouration. I remember thinking she must have held onto that last bit of heat, just until I touched her because as I moved my hand across her face she seemed to cool. Dark thready veins were visible under her waxy skin, especially on her tiny hands which were clutched like angry fists.

The mid-wife touched my arm, her prior indignation evaporating as she witnessed my grief.

“I’m very sorry, sir. Do you want a bit longer or shall I take you to your wife now?”

There was nothing to be gained by staying and staring at the baby—it was my wife who needed me. I followed the mid-wife in a daze, stoically suppressing my tears.

Helen was dozing in bed. Her slumber was fitful, her face twitching and frowning, perhaps reliving the prior hour’s tragedy. She had a profound pallor to her. Her skin was as white as the sheets and a curious image of Ms Havisham from Great Expectations flashed into my mind.

Her eyes opened as I sat by her bed.

There had been great expectation in our life up until that moment and now it was gone, swaddled and cold in a back room of a hospital.

I hugged Helen and she sobbed silently, sorrow jerking her body.

And words failed me once more.

“Mr Cooper, can you hear us?”

I am back in the present and my head and arm are throbbing with a molten pain. My oddly angled view is full of Alice and Elizabeth’s faces.

“Oh, thank Christ, he’s opening his eyes,” Elizabeth is saying. “Right lets get him up and call the doctor to look at him.”

Should we not ring an ambulance? He went down with a good whack.”

Elizabeth frowns at Alice. “Since when are you a bloody expert? If you’d been watching him properly he would never have fallen. You need to get your pink head out of the bloody clouds, you do.”

Alice is blushing scarlet and looks like she’s about to cry. She grasps my arm to try and lift me and I scream in pain. She drops the arm like its red hot.

“Oh shit,” Elizabeth says. “Knowing my luck he’ll have broken his good arm. Thank God it wasn’t Teresa who went down. If she gets a decent crack on something whilst she’s on that warfarin stuff she’s screwed. She’d bleed to death.”

I grit my teeth resiliently as the pair lift me again and help me back to bed. I feel sick and light headed, but most of all I feel ashamed and useless. My foolishness has made my bad situation far worse.




Alice is in my room, avoiding my eyes as much as she can, which suits me just fine. My right arm is strapped up like a mummy but amazingly I had escaped a broken wrist. Nonetheless it hurts like hell and my already limited ability to care for myself is now non-existent.

I’m trying to turn and assist Alice tugging on my underpants but its all going wrong. She is rushing, out of embarrassment and guilt, and I am in a dark frame of mind. These are the same pants that I lost my continence in when I fell five days ago and they are frayed fromtheir scrub, prior to the wash.

We’ve moved on to pulling my trousers up now but as Alice tugs them I overbalance slightly and stumble onto her shoulder. She’s a strong girl, despite her size and she manages to right me, but not before my groin is pressed into the side of her face.

I’ve had enough. Little drops of sweat are on her pale face, dragging gelled pink hair onto her forehead like fluorescent rushes flattened in a storm. As Alice tries to put on my shirt I pull my bandaged arm away.

“Sorry, Mr Cooper. Did I hurt you?”

I turn my head away petulantly. I know none of this was her fault but I can not help the frustration and anger that ferments within me. Oh, Helen, to think I have come to this.

“I’ll just slip your shirt on and then maybe we can have fifteen minutes to finish the book?”

I snort and pull my arm away again. Alice lingers on the edge of my vision, chewing her lip.

“Do... do you want me to leave you a while?”

I stare at the wall of my tiny room, looking at the chipped magnolia paint and the hint of damp where the ceiling meets the wall. The moment seems to stretch out endlessly and I can’t look at Alice. My mind is thinking back to the time immediately before I fell. I’m remembering the images of me making love to Helen coming to mind as I stared at Alice. I know that I was delirious, know that the alteration in my medication had scrambled my thoughts, but that doesn’t ease the disgust I feel at myself.

In time Alice leaves. She pauses at the door and says, “I’ll ask Elizabeth to come in and finish dressing you. If it’s any consolation, I am very sorry you fell.”

Her voice sounds pregnant with tears but I continue to stare at the wall.

As we must account for every idle word, so we must account for every idle silence, wrote Benjamin Franklin. My life is one of silence and best left undisturbed.




The housing programme is on the television once more and without the distraction of Alice and Dickens I have no choice but to watch it. I had been so confident of the renovation of my life: my thoughts had begun to become cohesive again, gluing together in an organised framework, laying the foundation for recovery. Those hours spent with Alice had given me something special, a sense that someone understood me despite my enforced inability to adequately communicate.

And has the renovation stalled? I feel so wretched, so wracked by self-loathing that I am uncertain how I can move on. 

The Word Thief has robbed me of so much by taking my language—it was the cornerstone of my life.

Alice walks past, face preoccupied. She has seated Teresa in the chair just to my right. Alice casts a glance towards me and then changes the channel on the television. It is a re-run of Inspector Morse, which is a step up from housing programmes at least.

Morse drinks with Lewis, lined face animate in his discussion of another murder in the cloistered halls of Oxford. The language, the script, the dialogue, is rich and vital and a pang of jealousy arises in me that I never had the opportunity to write, to create my own words. I have spent a lifetime reading those of others, teaching them to generations of children in Leeds before Helen and I sought the fresh air of the Peaks.

Those who can, do, those who can’t...

The thought stalls in my mind as I see the pub Morse and Lewis drink in. It’s the Eagle and Child—the pub that I worked in when I first met Helen. A thrill runs through me, like a sense of predestination, or perhaps foreboding. I am desperate to tell someone, but my words are trapped in my brain.

Tears are in my eyes. What use am I when I can not use these words, when I cannot coalesce all those experiences and concepts into tiny packages for the use of others? What use is a man, a teacher, without words?

By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life, said Girard.

I can see myself stood behind that bar, where Morse orders another pint, speechless and frozen.

I had no words at that moment.

And when I stood before the church at Helen’s funeral the words failed me then. As they did the first time our bodies joined in the beauty of lovemaking. As they did when I looked at my dead daughter and silently consoled Helen after. Words failed me then as they fail me now—but words were not necessary at any of these times.

I have lived in the past, through the most emotional memories of my life, without words.

The veil of sorrow lifts from me and I want to scream out my desire to live. I shall conquer this disability and if I never speak again I shall find some other way to share my mind.

I try and catch Alice’s eye, to offer my silent apology, but she has her back turned, attending to Harry. My gaze flits to Teresa, who meets it with her blind eyes. A tiny smile dances on her thin lips and then she stands and lurches forwards.

If she falls, she’s screwed. Elizabeth’s words echo in my head.

And then it arises within my throat, erupting like a phoenix from the ashes. A bestial coarse sound. A voice.


Alice turns, face lit with astonishment.


There is an almighty crash as Alice lunges under the tumbling Teresa, breaking her fall onto the coffee table. The magazines and books slide off the surface and onto the pair and Alice is yelling to Elizabeth.

“Bloody hell, Alice. That’s the quickest I’ve ever seen anyone move,” Elizabeth says, helping Teresa back into a chair.

Alice is bleeding from a cut on her forehead, the crimson matting the pink of her hair. She is looking at me quizzically. I manage a smile with half my face.

“It was Mr Cooper, he warned me.”

Elizabeth looks doubtful until I nod and repeat, “Alice.” It sounds better this time, less like a caveman.

I can feel the light touch of Alice’s hand on my arm. “Look like your words are coming back, Mr Cooper.”

And I manage a half-smile once more—because I know I no longer need them.





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