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Letter From America: The Mausoleum

...It was heartrending to see such a man sit in the dim quietness of his darkened house day after day with nothing but his memories to keep him company, and no one to break the silence with a kind word...

Ronnie Bray writes movingly about the deadliest of all human enemies – loneliness.

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I smelled it as I went through the door.

You have probably smelled it at least once, perhaps when visiting an elderly maiden aunt who had lived in one house all her years. It was familiar and bewildering at the same time but not musty or damp like some old houses, yet try as I could I couldn’t immediately put a name to it. It was like sliding down into a grimy spider-infested cellar and stumbling across the strongbox in which superannuated memories are cached, then looking into the face of an old neighbour whose name you can almost taste on your tongue, yet whose name you cannot for the life of you remember.

It was when he ushered me into his reception room that I discovered the sources of the primitive familiar yet unfamiliar scent. The smells were emitted by a dusty collection of huge taxidermed animal heads, each mounted, and labelled by specie and the place and date of its bagging. They had all seen better days, but were not finished discharging basic essences to waft throughout his house.

He had shot them himself, and those he had not killed with his big game rifles he had shot in a much nicer way with his antique Kodak-Rajah. Where no head took up space were hung photographs of exotic creatures commingling betwixt scenes of his quondam military life. It was noticeable that there were no pictures of places, people, or events that could be described as recent.

The display case of medals testified that he had served in almost every place where the Union Flag had fluttered in the wind. His furniture was mainly from exotic and dangerous places in which he had served. It would not be accurate to say that the whole world was represented by something in his house, but it is fair to say that much of it was.

Although I was a complete stranger, in the following hour I learned a great deal about him. It is sad that our first encounter was also our last. My purpose for calling on him would be swiftly fulfilled, and then I would proceed to my next appointment. It was heartrending to see such a man sit in the dim quietness of his darkened house day after day with nothing but his memories to keep him company, and no one to break the silence with a kind word.

I was working as a technical representative for Dolphin Showers Ltd, and he had answered an advertisement to have a representative call and give him an evaluation and price for fitting an electrical shower over his tub. Whether or not I took an order for a shower I do not recall, but I do remember my sadness at what I felt was his tragic plight. Although he did not say, it was evident that he was deeply unhappy because of chronic sustained loneliness.

I saw a faded picture of a lovely young woman on the Japanese sideboard. The likeness was antique, well foxed, and the style of the maiden’s hair and dress implied it was taken in the early years of the twentieth century. I looked for other photographs of the fair maiden, but there was none.

I considered the dissolution of the romantic alliance, concluding that tragedy had overtaken the lovers, shattering their future. If a wedding had taken place a portrait of the bride and groom would have been prominent in the room.

I did not speak of or inquire about the issue, for although in the passing of years when the pangs of lost love lessen so that they do not wrench out our still-beating hearts, and whatever of life’s balm visits us to dress our disappointments, heartbreak does not always die, often never fades, and I did not want to stoke the anguish of his suffering.

I sensed that he felt the pain of his love more acutely because he had not only been deprived of his true love, but had served King, Queen, and Country, and marshalled thousands of men in life or death in all kinds of territories and his decorations showed that he had distinguished himself as a fearless and gallant hero.

Amid the din of skirmishes, raids, bombardments, advances, and retreats, he had stood in the smoke and din of battles. Away from the battleground he had been surrounded by his fellow soldiers, training future generations in the arts of soldiery, performing ceremonial duties, and processions, that sometimes were sad, grey, and sombre, and were at other times gaudy and clamorous.

He had been surrounded by hullabaloo and animation of armed conflict in sunshine, rain, snow, fog, and hail, singly and in incredible combinations. He had been at the heart of the action. In fields, arid deserts, on glacial mountains, in deserted cities, and flung about on heaving seas, and then his world fell silent, his soldering came to an end.

His comrades departed at about the same time as he was discharged, each to his own corner of the world to wait serenely that time when would come the dying of the light. He would answer one last bugle call, but he would do so alone. His were no longer at his side. They too had dwindled into the awful silence and stood no longer on every side of him. The quietude in which he was immersed came as a sudden shock, and was unnatural, intrusive, and disagreeable.

Enforced repose exaggerated his isolation, froze his soul, and left him in despair inside his hushed home. I felt I was visiting a memorial whose docent was an exhibit that breathed, spoke, moved, and sighed as if it were a living thing, yet was not.

When he paused from speaking he became one with the inanimata in the chamber of Thanatos, as if he was absorbed in his museum over which a dark curtain had fallen, rendering what had been a place of hope, laughter, and love a cheerless anteroom within which he waited for the sinking of light beyond the horizon of life as the fire of his days faded and prepared him to yield himself to the darkness of death.

He had been silent and motionless for a long time before I realised that he was sleeping. Not wishing to break the spell, I rose gently, left the room, slipped down the hallway, and went out of the front door, closing it quietly so as not to intrude into his reverie. Perhaps it was only in sleep that he achieved the peace that was denied him when awake.

Although that meeting took place thirty-five years ago, the tragedy of his situation haunts me still. Whether a person has had a full exciting life, or has spent his days in a humble place, no one should end up alone and depressed at what old age and fleeting years have stolen, nor be mocked by the gifts that the procession of our existence has delivered to us.

Lonely souls die in the darkness. Not the darkness of night, but the darkness that surrounds the friendless, the comfortless. O Henry uttered an incisive phrase that speaks the fearful words that those condemned to die alone recite in their hearts, when, on his deathbed, he called to his attendants,

"Turn up the lights, I don't want to go home in the dark."

There is a darkness more tormenting and evil than absence of light. It is the Doleful melancholy that engulfs human hearts when friends, family, and loved ones, are wanting when the chill descends, the heart trembles, fear rises into their throats, and they know they are slipping away without any to hold their hand and breathe words of comfort and reassurance.

The stillness after battle that entirely characterised his life at this time brought to my mind these words from Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional,

"The tumult and the shouting dies,
The captains and the kings depart."

The Brigadier knew better than most what this meant, for in him dwelt the impairment and decay that squats in the vitals of the forgotten as surely as vultures descend on carrion. The kind gentleman would, I feared, soon be on his last great journey, alone, wrapped about with sable night. It is wisely said that old soldiers never die, they simply fade away. And who can not be sad because of it?

As I drove off, I wondered whether he would whisper her name when the darkness roared in his ears just before he entered the silence that lies the other side of death? I dared to hope that he would do so before she approaches, arms held out to receive him, her still youthful face garlanded in light and smiles.

Copyright © 2008 ~ Ronnie Bray


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