November 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Golden eye

By Gail Bell
Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher.

One year, in the middle of December, I received an unexpected Christmas card. Inside, the message read: “Felix and I are both marvellously well. All his former medical issues are now settled with diet and Alexander Technique. Felix felt you would want to know. Kind Regards, Marjorie.” I squinted at the postmark: a placename in Victoria, beginning with ‘N’.

So, I thought, fitting the card over a stringline stretched across my window frame, Felix has gone home. With his Marjorie. And all – emphasised – of the things we’d once talked about (his “medical issues”, as she put it) have been corrected. I looked at the image on the card, a foot painting of a partridge in a pear tree, and tried to match its significance to the eye-catching assertion of “marvellously”.

I met Felix and Marjorie as a couple in the late 1980s, when I was new to the scene outside Sydney and long, well-planned dinner parties were the dominant social currency. Marjorie was a generous hostess with a busy interest in getting things done, and moving on. Felix was her opposite in many ways: softly spoken, naturally reticent, at times a little dreamy. I thought them oddly matched, but no more than the national average. Anyway, who was I – recently divorced and remarried – to judge?

It was a time of quick intimacies, of cards on the table and of strong belief in the power of talking things through. One evening, a year into our friendship, Felix uncharacteristically took the initiative of asking me for advice. Marjorie was in another room showing my husband the view from a new window. It was early summer, dinner was done and we’d moved from the formality of the table to the comfort of padded chairs.

“You might say I was born to be depressed,” he said, and spoke candidly of his family history: his mother’s suicide, his brother’s mood swings, his father’s descent into a bitter and entrenched gloom. At the first opportunity, he ran away from it – north, to Sydney, where he met Marjorie. The attraction was immediate and mutual, with all the first moves coming (understandably) from Marjorie, who had been married before and knew the choreography.

As a bachelor, he explained, he’d lived with his black dog by cutting himself off and waiting it out. Now, with a wife (and what a wife – so capable, so energetic, so ‘up’), he could no longer hide in self-imposed isolation. The compromise was prescription pills. “A high dose, but a small price for domestic happiness,” he said. The drug was Tryptanol, a tricyclic antidepressant with a popular history stretching back to pre-Prozac days.

He was moving closer to the question he wanted to ask, but couldn’t quite make the leap. His courage failed him and a delicate little silence fell over our corner of the room, a silence that did its disquieting work and brought Marjorie, smiling, arms forward, as she squeezed herself onto our two-seater.

“What Felix is trying to say,” Marjorie began, once Felix had moved to an armchair, “is that he’s developed a strange effect in one of his eyes and we’re trying to discover the cause. By a process of elimination.”

My husband sat in the other armchair and we listened while Marjorie joined the dots. “We’re hoping for a better understanding of how this Tryptanol works.” After the onset of the “strange effect” (not, as yet, described), she and Felix had been to the doctor, who assured them it had nothing to do with the antidepressants, and everything to do with migraine. “Which I’ve never had,” said Felix with quiet conviction. “Or epilepsy,” Marjorie added.

The next physician they saw suggested a scan and some blood-work. When nothing was found – no pathological anomalies, no masses or lesions – the physician suggested they wait and watch, and come back in three months. This softly-softly approach was too wafty for Marjorie. She initiated visits to two more GPs, three specialists, a chiropractor, an osteopath, a kinaesthesiologist and a reflexologist. In between appointments, she and Felix centred themselves at a bi-weekly meditation and relaxation class.

“So, what’s going on with your eyes?” I asked Felix. “Eye,” Marjorie corrected me. “Only one.” Felix looked anything but centred as he took the floor. “I get a slow build-up of heat in my left eye, from warm to what you’d call hot. But not stinging, if you know what I mean. This happens every couple of days, sometimes. Other times, it might be a week.”

“And the size,” Marjorie prompted. “Yes,” he said, getting a firmer hold on his lines. “The eye feels as if it’s twice the size of the other one. It’s not; I’ve checked in the mirror. Marjorie’s checked, too, and the doctors.” In fact, like my own and others’ I know, Felix’s eyes are not identical to begin with. But that is not the point, and Felix knows it. There is more to his eye than temperature and bulk.

“After that, the world changes for me – for a little while, anyway. Small gold flakes, like glitter, float downwards from somewhere – it’s hard to describe – settling on whatever I’m looking at. The gold sticks and joins together, so that if I was looking at you, you’d turn into a gold statue.” The new gold-coated world of Felix’s left eye is static. The statues freeze in their poses, gathering a deeper and richer patina of colour. His right eye continues to receive images in the normal way, though, so Felix closes his right eye, the better to observe the changing view.

“Then bits of blue come floating down and stick to the gold. If I move my head, I get those flashes of colour you see when you turn an opal in the light. This goes on for a few minutes, then the blue shakes off in flakes, then the gold starts to break off. The gold hangs on for a bit, then it fades out and – it’s all over.”

In the aftermath, Felix feels a few moments of total contentment.

His face, as he told us the story, took on a Buddha-like calm. “Do you think it could be the drug?” Marjorie asked. “I doubt it,” I said, wishing Felix would say more about the calm and contentment. I always want to know more about moments of rapture; there seems to be so little of it about in daily life, and less and less in the talk we share with others.

“We thought you’d be an expert on side effects,” Marjorie said briskly. “I know of blurred vision and sluggish pupils,” I said. “Yes,” she replied, “we’ve heard that, but this is something different, isn’t it?”

That evening marked the beginning of the end. Having found no answer at my door, Felix and Marjorie moved on. I heard that they went on many journeys in search of answers to “the eye problem”.

A lot has changed in 20 years. If I chose, I could turn up a dozen theories that might make scientific sense of Felix’s left eye. But now, as then, I haven’t the heart to pathologise his experience. I don’t know if I truly saw mute appeal in his expression, but that’s the way I remember it.

His story was a gift, like a rainbow. Felix, to me, will always be Borges’ “solitary and lucid spectator” of an intermittent, transformed, but ultimately untranslatable, world.

It’s a pity, I thought, looking at the card again. The black dog and the golden eye, both gone, both cured out of existence; all that hinting, magical colour lost.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

Cover: November 2009

November 2009

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