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Number 9: Winter 2013

About suffering they were never wrong the old masters

Jane Haynes

Private tragedy is often heralded by an untimely phone call and the news is then passed on swiftly by word of mouth. Bad news is said to travel fast. In contrast to the instant technology of the twenty first century, recall John Keats’s death at the age of twenty three in Rome at the end of February 1821, news of his death did not reach London until early March. Personal suffering tends to be silent and even the public and visible rituals of mourning have all but disappeared as has the frequency of funeral cortileges in London streets which are replaced by sinister, rather nippy-quick and anonymous black private ambulances. We deodorize, control and diminish death at our psychic peril. As Auden puts it:


They never forget
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturers horse
Scratches its innocent behind a tree.


Jay’s death brought my life to a standstill, whose familiarity was eclipsed by one early Sunday morning telephone call. The kind of call that nobody ever wants to receive, but when it comes we have very little choice but to carry on listening whilst longing to put the phone down and say, ‘This cannot be happening to me. There has been some dreadful mistake’.  I hate the sound of a telephone ringing at an unsociable hour because I always dread its potential to be a harbinger of ill-wind. Whenever my daughter, who is a systemic family therapist who worked in the NHS for thirteen years and now shares consulting rooms with me, or myself, answer the phone to each other, any pleasure continues to be eclipsed by what has become a habitual reflex, ‘Is everything OK?’ Trauma engraves its own hieroglyphics of terror in the mind long after there has been superficial recovery, or treatment. The breath seemed to have vacated my daughter’s voice as her hoarse tones informed me that Jay was in hospital with a bleed in his brain. I barely responded before I dropped the phone down and started fumbling, in jumbled circles, for my clothes and a case. I was incapable of coherent thought.