On a bench in Enghave Park, we just gave up. As I sat and watched him limp off in his black half-length coat, I felt a deep urge to shoot him in the back. I wanted to see him collapse and lie unmoving in the gravel. A parody of a human being, though I was the inhuman one. I could barely make myself treat him with respect – just hit and bit and spat and kicked. In the year since the accident, I’d destroyed an antique magnifying glass, our door, a book of Milo Manara’s drawings and several of his sweaters. Returning to the shop we’d left empty-handed, I bought a harmonica and a jigsaw puzzle for our son.

We were spending Christmas together, for all our sakes. He gave me two bottles of red wine and The Hosier and Other Stories by Steen Steensen Blicher. Me, five years ago: aged twenty, doped up on love and sex, my head on his chest as he reads me ‘The Gypsy Woman’ in our bedroom, which looks out onto the overgrown garden. His voice isn’t cracked yet. It’s composed, and rather lighter than you’d think to look at him – he’s tall and dark and broad, my M, with a thick beard and a vaulting forehead. He read me ‘The Gypsy Woman’ one evening when we first got together. But he doesn’t remember that now. The memory exists in me alone, and he must have bought the book because he knows he likes Blicher. He asked me to open my presents before dinner, as though eager to see my reaction. Or maybe he wanted to spare his family? Maybe he was thinking that far ahead. I sat at the kitchen table and tore the paper off the first, then the second bottle, leaving the book till last in the hope that it would rescind the insult of the wine. It was disappointment that tightened my throat as I thanked him. My father-in-law put his arm around me and led me upstairs, into his office. There, love, he said, and I cried into his soft shoulder. There, there.

I go down to the water and follow it. Quarter past seven on 24 December – there’s nobody else on the street. Out above the sea it’s blue and spitting. At the fort I see a family with five children, speaking a language I don’t understand. As they climb the steps towards me, I sit on a bench and rock to and fro to the sound of my own breath. They don’t slip on the wet steps, their faces bright against the darkness and their black hair. Did she give birth to all five? I’ll never be able to kill myself, I realise. This is the closest I’ll come, but I’m still a long way off. By the time I get back to the others, the roast duck is on the table and nobody asks where I’ve been. M is pleased with the gloves and the extravagant whisky.

The neuropsychologist at Department 123 concluded one of our brief and useless meetings by quoting a Chinese proverb. You leave grief’s garden holding a gift, he said, but he didn’t answer when I asked what happens if you prefer to stay.

That day in Enghave Park marked five years, six months and fifteen days since I took a job as a receptionist at the architecture firm, since the first time I saw and fell in love with M, nine years older, across a high-ceilinged model-making workshop; two years and seven days since I gave birth to our son; and one year and four days since his father hit his head – first against the taxi’s windscreen, where it left a cobweb break in the glass, then against the asphalt, with such force that his brain ricocheted inside his skull. The worst part isn’t the blow, they told me later. It’s the recoil. I had a missed call from the man who found him. The sheer thought. The screen on my phone lighting up in my bedroom, him lying on the wet roadway as I continued to sleep. The sheer thought.

The officers used my name a lot. Maybe that is something you learn at police training college. My name like a hand reaching into the dread and holding me upright by the collar: Put your clothes on, Caroline, and come downstairs, Caroline, we’ll drive you to the hospital. Put your clothes on and come downstairs. I was too shivery for socks. The feeling of my bare feet in trainers in December, my breasts, soft from nursing, sticking to my stomach beneath the woollen jumper. The two men were ordinary, clean, dressed alike in dark blue turtlenecks with gold buttons at the shoulder. One of them asked if I was going to vomit. The other sat in the back seat and took my hand. I’d been to the hairdresser’s that day, and when M and I had sex afterwards I’d briefly felt as though there were some third person, heavily perfumed, with us in the bed. In the waiting room at the trauma centre I could smell the products in my hair again, feeling the prayer rise inside me like steam and sickness. To fill the time with something other than horror, I recited it ceaselessly. Don’t let him die / I’m not finished learning / I’m not finished loving, I prayed, Don’t let it be him / Let it be someone else. Could I transmute that body? Swap it at the last second for some random stranger’s? He lay naked under a sheet on the hospital bed. That was his urine in the matt plastic bag, the smell of the party still on him. Kissing his forehead and cheekbone, which glittered with asphalt but hadn’t yet swollen as it would do overnight, I scolded him softly. You promised me this. You promised me that.

The next few days, as I sat and watched M among the machines, I was afraid of more than simply losing him. Over the years I had fused myself with him, as surely and unobtrusively as a Siamese twin, and in his motionless body I saw my own decline. I didn’t doubt the vital organs were his. I was the parasitic twin, the growth. If he left me, it wouldn’t be long before I dried up like a child’s umbilical stump.

As soon as the consultant removed the drip which kept him asleep, a quivering began beneath his eyelids, his legs stretched spastically and his mouth tasted itself. He coughed, frightened, his muscles trembling and twitching. I imagined his journey out of the coma as an increasingly painful ascent through dark water. Putting my face close to his, I whispered without conviction that he shouldn’t be afraid.

His hands fumbled for the tube in his nose supplying his brain with extra oxygen, and the nurse had to bandage them. The hands I knew so well (even now I can see them before me, doing anything, and everything), compressed into two bound lumps. It upset me to see them waving in the air in front of his face, like cat’s paws or tiny boxing gloves.

The officers came to the ward and dropped off a plastic bag with the cut-up woollen coat. Inside, apart from his phone, I found an orange dummy, the nutmeg (an amulet) and a note I’d long ago secreted in the smallest of the inner pockets. The paper had rubbed thin and soft along the cross fold, and I envied the hands that had made those creases at a bar in Amsterdam four years earlier.

Someone had written his name and welcome on a board outside room 93. He slept a lot in those first weeks, and his waking gaze was blurred by sedatives. The therapists had built him an oversized playpen, a fence of blue mattresses held in place by two low cabinets. I lay down next to him and burrowed under his arm, trying to distinguish his sweat-scent from all the rest of it. Chemicals leached through his pores, his skin flaked with eczema and his breath smelled metallic. He was a thousand worlds away, caught in vivid, swirling hallucinations. He was in Berlin. He was in Santiago. He was a guide at the science museum, nineteen years old again, then twenty-eight. There were animals everywhere. He caught fresh fish and ate them on the shores of a lake, offering me a piece of cod, and the birds had broken their wings. They had to be taken to the animal hospital. I was a dirty whore, I was his Japanese intern Natsuko. Recognition would shoot without warning across his face like leaking current, before it was gone again and I could be anybody.

For years his old apartment had been rented to a Czech family. Every so often they invited us to dinner. I remember dishes like chicken in orange sauce, yogurt with red berries and strudel filled in the middle with a sweet poppyseed paste. When Kristina became pregnant with their second child, they found somewhere bigger and M put the apartment up for sale. The contract had been signed a few days before the accident. The young woman who lives there now has a limp handshake and a silver lamp in the window where M’s wiry basil plant used to stand. Her father kept messaging me while M was in hospital. I’d told him that the previous owner of the apartment was in a coma, yet day after day he continued to send me lengthy messages about keys to the attic and a gate I didn’t know existed. We’ve got to sort this out, he wrote, and I decided to let them see me. There were the same stairs where I’d slipped and fallen a few years earlier. Nothing had actually happened, but M had come home from work, and to be on the safe side I lay down on his bed. The problem was that I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed so hysterically and continuously that he phoned the emergency doctor, who asked to speak to me, and after that I fell silent and went to sleep. It was only shock. The whole family answered the door: the limp, blonde-haired girl and her parents, their faces flecked with paint. I gave the father a handful of keys I’d found at home – I can’t throw keys away, keeping them all without exception in a sugar bowl on my chest of drawers. The mother remarked that they looked like keys to a bike lock, and I had to admit she was right. They didn’t ask about him. I said he could sit upright on the edge of the bed for nearly a minute. No need for the tube any more. I said it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Thanks, said the girl’s father, we’ll try the keys. I craned my neck to see the empty room behind them. The floor was covered with plastic and where M’s bed used to stand, a work light cast its garish beam across the walls and ceiling.

Once he became more aware of where he was, and they let him make short trips outside the ward, we took the lift down to the foyer and I pushed him into the hospital chapel by way of experiment. A high-ceilinged room that smelled of resin. Get me out, he shouted, get me out of here. I took it as a good sign. He – unlike me – had always been an avowed atheist, and whenever we visited a church on our holidays, he would stay smoking in the sunshine while I let myself be sucked in, wandering aimlessly through the spongy silence that accumulates in places like that. That’s how I want to remember him: waiting in a strip of sunlight on the other side of the road, patient and proud and very, very beautiful.

I never stopped desiring him. Even after the baby came, love politely stayed nearby, and whenever we could we slipped away to be alone with it. His parents took care of our son while we went on long drives up the coast, where we’d turn off into a forest and do it among the trees or in the car. Our first night without the baby we stayed at a hotel in Granada. I remember the almond tart dusted with icing sugar, the fine rain that settled on my face as we wandered around the palace gardens.

On Christmas Eve I decided to let the child see him. Our son lit up and laughed at the sight of his father, but when M reached out for him and accidentally grabbed the boy’s throat, I screamed so loudly that he began to cry. Taking the shrieking child to my parents outside, I told them I’d take the bus home, and that I’d be back in time for dinner. By the time I returned to the room, M had forgotten our visit. His short-term memory was in pieces, the minutes slipping through him like water. Nothing stuck. Is that you? he asked, and I said it was. When the tray of duck and sauce and potatoes arrived, I helped him lift the fork to his mouth, and I made sure he didn’t drink so much squash that he threw up. The occupational therapist called his condition non-critical. His brain overlooked his body’s satiety signals, but there was nothing to indicate that M was overeating. In the ten days since the accident, he’d lost so much muscle mass that his T-shirts were loose across his chest. When he was finished with the main, I peeled the lid off the plastic tub of rice pudding and put the spoon in his hand. Can you manage? I asked. He nodded. Merry Christmas, I said, kissing him goodbye. I love you. Say it again: I love you.

M did his rehab without complaint, and if there was a group singing session or a games night on the ward, he always took part. After a month at the hospital, he was covering short stretches on a walking frame and could recall for increasingly longer periods of time where he was and what he was doing there. An accident, he said hesitantly. Did I have a car accident? A fall? He treated his carers with a distant politeness and took pains not to get them confused. Dorthe, Louise, Gitte, Yvonne, Vibeke. I felt deep gratitude to the strong and gentle women who looked after him, and although they occasionally talked down to him, I couldn’t blame them. There’s something unmistakably childlike about a person who’s hit their head. An innocence, or just a lasting wonder.

Gradually, as I came to know the patients on the ward, I arranged them in a hierarchy of presence. At the bottom were those who still hadn’t left, and would probably never leave, their vegetative states. Kevin’s mother watched enviously as I came trundling down the corridor with M. She sat by her son’s bed and waited for him to cough. It helps me remember his voice, she said without self-pity. On the door of the wardrobe hung a picture of a young man with a broad face smiling shyly into the room. The driver coming the wrong way down the motorway had died at the scene; his two friends got away with scratches. Kevin’s mother envied me, while I envied the relatives visiting patients with broken legs and bad hearts and infections – even cancer. Somewhere between Kevin at the bottom and M, who seemed to be able to do something new every day, was a group of people who couldn’t get out of their wheelchairs but could make gestures. People whose communicative abilities were reduced to signals of disgust and enthusiasm, or whose facial expressions were wiped clean, everything hanging slack or tightened into a knot around the nose. The variations were endless and brutal. A Turkish man made a particular impression on me. He was more than six foot six and because he was non-critical like M, but didn’t have M’s metabolism, all his jumpers crept too short, gradually revealing a soft, hairy belly. The man travelled the ward’s rectangular corridors in short steps, his gaze fixed on a point in the air ahead. His arms hung straight and his fingers were curved, as though he were asleep. The only time I saw him even remotely animated was when a physiotherapist offered him a cup of hot chocolate from the machine in the lounge. Then he grinned, drank it in three gulps and immediately asked for more. I was told later he’d worked at the vegetable market – an accident at work, it was – and I couldn’t stop seeing the truck bed hammer down on the roof of his skull, transforming Mehmet there and then into a man-child whom his wife regarded with such immense helplessness I had to look away each time the family brought their food into the shared kitchen. The children had each other. They could hide in their own world, fight and play in the halls. She was irrevocably alone.

We got onto the 1A bus at Lille Triangel. I stopped short and tugged the snowsuit down over the child’s tummy, taking off his elephant hat. We were outside the world. It was a simple time. I had no expectations of the days. The bus glided past the Citadel and along Store Kongensgade, past the shiny and expensive things, and at Magasin the tourists arrived in groups, before we wove through the city towards the main railway station. As the bus turns off Tietgen Bridge and continues down Ingerslevsgade, you get a few seconds’ glimpse of our courtyard gate. After the accident I’d been back to the flat just once. The plan was to fetch books and clothes, make sure the lights and hobs were switched off, empty the fridge and take out the bins. My mother waited in the car, and I pressed my face into a T-shirt he’d worn. Longing enters the body like no other emotion. It swoops and spreads so fast you think you’re about to cleave from head to toe. I stood in our bedroom and breathed through the threadbare cotton until the smell of him was indiscernible from the smell of the room. I pushed the wire drawer back into place with my foot and shut the wardrobe, made the bed. In the kitchen I washed up glasses and wiped down the table. I filled three IKEA bags with clothes and books.

The Friday it happened, M had left work early. He walked into the salon while I was still sitting with the heavy collar around my neck and the gown hanging from my shoulders. The hairdresser asked him to take a seat on the sofa behind me. I caught his eye in the mirror, feeling awkward about my new hair, which she wouldn’t stop fiddling with. It hung down over my face in smooth hanks. There’s a picture of me taken at a cafe where we went afterwards and which we left to go home and screw. I remember he took me from behind, but not if he came that way, or how I did. I took a picture of myself in the living room with PhotoBooth. You only see me from the neck up, but I know I’m naked, that he’s in the bathroom as I’m sending it to my sister, writing: new haircut! I saw him for the last time on the landing. The black beanie, the coat. He could really thunder down a set of stairs. I closed the door and went back into the bedroom to get dressed – black turtleneck, high boots. I picked up the handbag he had given me in Granada. Blue and soft, it bulged with the packets of rice pudding, the freezer bag of blanched almonds and the cherry sauce I’d bought that morning. The rain was fierce, and I tucked the bag under my jacket to protect the leather.

It was still raining when I called him shortly after midnight, on my way home in a taxi. I could hear the party behind him, and he sounded cheerful and sober. His blood alcohol level is written down in the medical notes somewhere in a folder in his new apartment, but it doesn’t matter any more. It makes no difference. I don’t know if we said we loved each other, but why shouldn’t we have said it?


Ludmila Ulitskaya | On Europe
Tasked with Designing the Vienna House