A Common Assault

Alan Bennett

‘Che cos’è la sua data di nascita?’ I turn my head sideways on the blood-soaked pillow. ‘9.5.34.’

Expressionless, the doctor in the Pronto Soccorso writes it down as a thought occurs to me, and I raise my head. ‘Domani il mio giorno natale.’

Hardly a joke, in the circumstances it merits a smile, but from this mirthless young man nothing is forthcoming. I lay my head down again. At least I seem to have stopped bleeding.

Birthdays were never made much of in our family. Mine, as I told the Italian doctor, is on 9 May and my brother’s too, though he is three years older than I am. The coincidence is always good for a laugh, particularly when it dawns that we must both have been conceived during the old August Bank Holiday, sex confined to the holidays perhaps, or unconfined by them. But that I should have had my beginnings in the cheerless surroundings of a boarding-house bedroom has always seemed to me a melancholy circumstance. Morecambe it would have been, or Filey, linoleum on the floor, jug and basin on the wash-hand stand, and the room smelling faintly of the methylated spirits my mother always brought for the pad on which she heated her curling tongs; meths for me, a lifetime later, still the smell of the seaside.

The kind of establishment we stayed in turned out its boarders, rain or shine, at ten in the morning and there was no coming back between meals, so it would have been done at night, the act itself stealthily undertaken, mindful of the strange bed and my two-year-old brother sleeping beside it and conscious, too, of the thin walls and the adjacence of other boarders, not sleeping perhaps, whose glances would have to be negotiated over the next morning’s sparse breakfast. Other people were always very much a consideration in my parents’ lives; mine, too, I suppose, so much of my timorous and undashing life prefigured in that original circumspect conjunction.

We were both born at home, my brother’s an awkward birth requiring forceps, with my mother’s screams said to have been heard down the street. I still have the bed, the polish at the foot of it scraped and scratched by my mother’s feet during the initial stages of that reluctant arrival. Had mine been a difficult birth, the persistence with which untoward events occur on and around my birthday would, though I am no believer in astrology, make a kind of sense. But I seem to have come into the world with no fuss at all, my mother recalling only the bedspread, embroidered with flowers and butterflies, and how the midwife, making the bed after an examination, would always exclaim: ‘Butterflies to the bottom!’

Neither my brother nor I ever had a party, the fact that our birthdays coincided not doubling the festivities but serving to cancel them out. By the time I was of an age to care about this, the war was on and parties and presents, like oranges and bananas, something that had been discontinued ‘for the duration’. In later years, things were to improve slightly but unless we made a point of getting our own presents, we’d build up a backlog of gifts ungiven that stretched back years. We were not particularly poor so there was no sense of deprivation about it; whatever deprivation my brother and I felt was ceremonial: it was not the actual presents we missed as the want of occasion. Other people made more of their lives than we did. Wanting birthdays, parties and presents was just another instance of the way our family never managed to be like other families. Even where birthdays were concerned we could not achieve ordinariness.

We sometimes tried, though. My parents’ birthdays came within a week of each other and so, like ours, tended to coalesce and we would buy them a joint present. Dad was shy and undemonstrative, so that, whatever the gift, the actual giving of it was guaranteed to put him off: he could never simulate the show of surprise and gratitude such occasions required. His coolest reception was for a coffee percolator, a present which ignored the fact that they had never drunk fresh coffee in their lives and weren’t going to start now. Dad rightly detected a hint of social aspiration in the gift, the message being that it might be nice if we were the kind of family that did drink fresh-brewed coffee. Dad would have none of it. ‘Faffing article’ was his way of describing it and in due course the jug part ended up in the cupboard under the sink where it came in handy when washing his hair.

Presents were fraught with peril, the subtext to ‘Many Happy Returns’ so often ‘I think you’re the kind of person who’d like this (or I wish you were).’ Even the longed-for bike I got when I was ten came with the same sort of message: not the dashing, speedy bike other boys had, or a racer with drop handlebars like my brother’s, mine was big, heavy and safe and, since it was still wartime, probably made out of the reconstituted iron railings that had been recently stripped from suburban walls in order to aid the war effort. Clumsy, upright and dependable, it was the kind of bike one went to church on, and I duly did.

Cut to twenty years later, and I have just learned to drive and am about to buy my first car. The general view seems to be that I need something solid and dependable, opinion favouring a Morris 1000 (‘Your sort of car’). But in the nick of time I remember my old bike and switch to a scootier primrose yellow Mini. With my next car I went even further and got a Triumph Herald, and while it didn’t quite have drop handlebars, it was at least a convertible.

It was only when I reached 50 and started looking back that I began to think there might be something inauspicious about my birthday, and tried to count the occasions around that time when I’d strayed close to the edge of life, even been at death’s door or somewhere in the vicinity. There had been the time in Sardinia in 1966, when I suddenly collapsed after vomiting blood. The island was still quite primitive, but was just beginning to be promoted as a holiday resort, chiefly by the Aga Khan, who had built a grand hotel but hadn’t yet got round to providing a hospital. In the meantime, the only medical centre was a semi-monastic establishment run by the Frate Bene Fratelli, an order of Franciscan friars.

Dying, like much else in Italy, is something of a spectator sport and the steps of the monastery were lined with sightseers awaiting the arrival of the more spectacularly sick. As I was borne in on a stretcher, black-shawled ladies gazed down at me, raised their eyes to heaven, and crossed themselves; I was obviously a goner. In more sophisticated medical surroundings I would, of course, have been in no danger at all, as all that had happened was that a duodenal ulcer had burst and without knowing it, I had been losing blood. Dramatic as it is, this is seldom a life-threatening condition (though my father had nearly died of something similar) and in normal circumstances a prompt blood transfusion will restore the drooping patient. But these were not normal circumstances. Diagnostic equipment was primitive and the chief weapon in the therapeutic armoury of these delightful monks seemed to be prayer. It was some time, therefore, before my complaint was diagnosed and when the remedy was agreed to be a blood transfusion, it was still a long time coming, the monks seemingly reluctant to fill what was so plainly a leaking bucket. So, for a few days, my life steadily drained away while the monks told their beads and somebody else told the Daily Mirror. ‘Fringe Boy in Deathbed Drama’ was the first my family heard of it.

At the lowest point of my fortunes my two companions went out into Olbia to find some supper. I was feeling ghastly, but it only came home to me how desperate my situation was when one of them kissed me. Since she had never kissed me before, she plainly did not expect me to be there when she returned. It was the kiss of death.

There was another portent besides. Finding me alone, two novice monks chose this moment to give me a bed bath. I was lying on the bed, stark naked and virtually drained of blood, when one of them lightly lifted my dick (which, in the circumstances, was the size of an acorn) and let it drop again. ‘E,’ he said, the simple monosyllable given a melancholy falling inflexion, eloquent of pity and resignation. That, at any rate, was one message. The other was more implicit and more sinister: namely, that he was unlikely to take such a liberty were the body he was washing not, in effect, dead already.

Fortunately, that night they began to transfuse me and I eventually received 12 pints of blood, given mostly by sailors from the nearby naval base. It was customary, at any rate in Sardinia, for blood donors to follow their blood to its destination, perhaps to see that it had gone to a good home. So, over the next ten days, I would wake to find a mute Italian sailor by my bed, smiling and twisting his hat in his hand and nodding reassuringly. I was even visited by would-be donors, those who had tried to give me blood, but who were from the wrong group. In those days I don’t suppose there was all that much to do in Sardinia, visiting the hospital quite a high point. Nowadays, they probably go water-skiing.

I wasn’t struck down again in the same way until May 1980 when I inadvertently took an aspirin. I remember looking in the glass and thinking that my face seemed to be acquiring an interesting artistic pallor, when I suddenly passed out, the aspirin having made my stomach bleed. That, too, was around my birthday, but in the intervening years the connection between birth and death had been maintained when I spent my 40th birthday at Russell Harty’s father’s funeral. Russell had been sent round by his mother to give a neighbour the not unexpected news that Fred had died. ‘Oh dear,’ said the neighbour, ‘I am sorry. Mind you, I had a shocking night myself.’

On my 50th birthday I was filming in Ilkley. Nothing untoward occurred until the evening, when I was taken out to supper by Michael Palin and Maggie Smith. Came my salad of mixed leaves and there, nestling among the rocket, were several shards of broken glass.

Very mixed,’ said Miss Smith.

‘No,’ said the waiter. ‘It’s a mistake.’

I reached the 1990s without mishap, though Miss Shepherd, the lady who lived for 15 years in a van in my drive, died at the end of April 1989, after which the undertaker rang up wondering if 9 May would be a suitable day for her funeral.

‘Why not?’ I said. I was only surprised that I hadn’t thought of it myself.

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[1] Lest I should be thought to be manufacturing these coincidences, I have since been in hospital twice more on my birthday: in May 1998 with appendicitis and in May 2000 with something similar.

[2] ‘One walks about the streets with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches,’ T.S. Eliot wrote to Conrad Aiken (31 December 1914).

[3] An incident I later incorporated in the short story ‘The Laying on of Hands’.