The Cotard Delusion

by Rebecca F. John

Dear Elsie,
         I need to tell you why I wanted to live.

As 1951 surrenders to the first breath of 1952, these are the only words Albert Burton can summon. He sits hunched at his kitchen table, spelling truths for his wife with a near-invisible hand. How he is able to grip the pen, to touch it to the paper, he does not understand. How he was able to click on the standard lamp Elsie inherited from her grandmother, he cannot guess. Because Albert has been dead for exactly seven days.  

He knows Elsie cannot see him as she used to. She tries so hard it hurts them both. She speaks to him as though he stands before her still, but her husband is only a shadow now: an accidental gutter of light; a remembered scent. Tonight, the lamplight spears through some chink in the afterlife to shine on the ball of his right shoulder, the hinge of his unshaven jaw, but it can locate no more of him to reflect in the AGA’s shone cast iron: all that fleshy strength has withered from his bones. It is a lonely business, haunting your wife.

He strikes through the dear.
       It is too formal an address for the woman he married the day he returned from France, the holes in both his legs still bandaged and weeping; the woman who sleeps now with her arms clamped around a pillow for comfort; the woman who always pouted when he failed to kiss her goodbye; the woman who planned to grow his children. He has left her with nothing more than the fading spritz of aftershave on his unwashed clothes.

          I need to tell you…
But already he has exhausted all the sense he can muster. He was 32: he hadn’t thought too hard about his existence, even when he was buttoned into some other dead man’s uniform and the sky was being blown to jagged pieces. Albert had been a carefree soldier from the start. He’d put himself in sight of the enemy to gain minimal ground. He’d slopped through heavy mud to retrieve the blasted hunks of men already turned cold and stiff. And though he soldiered well, he did so in the staunch belief that he would not be hurt. He’d never so much as broken a bone, he’d say, throwing out his arms to flaunt the easy vigour of his body. And he hadn’t. He was lucky. But he was never careful.

I wanted to fight.
He strikes through that, too. From the moment he was called up, Elsie had begged him to find a way home. She signed off each letter with the same quiet plea: Call it off, Albert. He knew what she meant. She wanted him to feign, or find, injury. She wanted him declared unfit for duty. But Albert was incapable of a deceit that did not allow him his heroism.

He paces around the dining table, the pen still inexplicably caught between his fingers. He should at least be able to gift her his words. It is too difficult, though, to concentrate on the matter of life when death has claimed him and all he wants is to ask her why he’s not been buried yet, and why she doesn’t recoil at the stench of his rotting flesh, and why he is still here – half ghost, half some other unexpected ghoul.

His own decay is forever in his nose, his mouth. It is a muscular scent, too close to stagnant water not to be swallowed with every in-breath, and though there is no need now for the incessant rise and fall of his chest, Albert cannot seem to shake the habit. His fading body is desperate to pump itself back to life. And perhaps that is why he remains caught here, in the darkest corners of his home – because he has not yet submitted to hopelessness. He can’t. Not until he has told Elsie. Not until he has shown her how violently he wanted, he wants, to live.  

He resumes his seat and stares at the wedding photograph angled beneath the lamp. In it, he and Elsie stand pressed into each other on the steps outside the registry office. They are plumper faced, brighter eyed. They are smiling in a wild way, overwhelmed by the commitment they have just made. It was the last time Albert wore his uniform in life. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that he is clad in it in death. He balls his failed letter into a bumpy globe and plucks a fresh sheet of paper from the writing box.

My Elsie,
          I don’t want to go, but I must.

And truly he must. He knows it. He has been skulking around their house, wearing the same clothes, replaying the same conversations, steadily diminishing since the day he died. Elsie has tried to engage him, to talk him out of the spirit world. She has continued to cook his favourite meals and set them on the dining table, as though he could still eat them if he chose to. But she would not want a spectre standing forever at her side. That is what she feared through every minute he spent on the continent. And she was right to fear it. Her man did not come back. Not that it was the fighting that took him in the end. He was not destined to die a hero. Life, he thinks, so often refuses men their worth. And didn’t they all deserve more, every man who returned home? They were not the men they had been before.

And it’s more cruel than any awful thing I’ve known.
The words, at last, feel honest. Albert knows now where he will go. These past days, fear has kept him from that chill place, and not just for himself, but also for his wife. Without her husband’s presence to turn to, to talk to, to reach for, Elsie too might grow cold.  

As he touches pen to paper again, he hears her wake and descend the stairs. So thin and pale has she grown, that when she enters the kitchen she looks wraith-like and, for a brief moment, Albert thinks that she has joined him in death; that she has relinquished her body to follow him into the unknown. The thought withers as she pulls out a chair and sits across the table from him, a book clasped to her chest: her reading is a new and consuming habit. She cannot simply choose to die because he has. How selfish of him to imagine she could.

“Albert,” she says.  
He does not answer. She would not hear him if he did.
“It’s time to sleep.”
He nods and stands.  Yes, it is.

I needed to stay, to see all the small things.
As Albert steps through his rusted front gate and onto the moon-washed street, he traces an index finger along the scar that cleaves down his temple and behind his right ear. His recollection of the explosion is scrappy. Long before he died, the doctors had told him that his memory might not be what it once was; that he had sustained a serious head injury; that his legs would recover, but it wouldn’t be pretty; that it might be years before he was back to fighting fitness. Albert had laughed at the phrasing. He knew he would never again be fit to fight. Elsie finally had what she’d wished for, and only months before the war ended. She could never have imagined he’d spend six slow years dying.

Albert cannot see his boots as he marches along Millwood Street. The houses, the gates, the lampposts, the post box all sift the fog into a looping twine. He listens to his footsteps echoing off the pavement. One two, one two. He falls heavier on his left side, the ruined leg. Again and again, he tries to balance the force with which his feet drop, but he makes no headway. He walks two more streets before remembering that he should not be able to hear his footfall. Being dead, he is learning, is a state of surprising inconsistency. His capacity to touch, the apparent working of his lungs, the audible two-beat of his feet must be some construct of his battered mind. He could almost imagine himself to be alive, were it not for the stench of his decaying organs and the increasing transparency of his body. Albert is fading into the afterlife, flesh first, but he is fading too slowly. He must help the transition along.

His letter to Elsie is folded into his pocket. He will not go until it is finished.

I wanted to watch you wrinkle in on yourself like some happy old witch, and touch the lines on your face and know what they felt like.
She will not appreciate such a need at first, but as she reads on she will recognise that it is all those simplest things he is mourning. She will smile then at being called a happy old witch. Elsie always has known how to laugh at herself.

I would have woken before you more often, so that you didn’t have to start the day alone.  
I needed to see every different kind of morning, and enjoy more cloudless nights.  
I wanted to sit down to your dinners for decades.

The desires are endless. His imagined pulse is quickened by them, by the desperation to fulfil them. He can’t conceive of how he wasted so much time. Elsie had always warned him against it. Her anger, when she returned from the shops and discovered him still rolled in bed on a Saturday lunchtime or skimming the newspaper when he’d claimed to be clearing the shed, was clamorous. She would rant until they were both moved to laugh. She would whip at him with the nearest implement: a drying shirt, a tea towel, an umbrella. “You’re going to wake up old one day,” she’d threaten, tossing her eyes. And how wrong she had been. He prays she will not remember those words with guilt. Elsie had packed his life full of hope and laughter and arguments, and he had loved every part she had in it.

I wanted to listen to you talk until there was nothing left to say.
At the hospital, in those protracted, wire-hooked weeks before they sent him home, Elsie’s letters had been staid, intended to calm. In the days she has spent chasing his ghost around the house, too, she has so often whispered her words that Albert aches for her to scream. Kindness, he knows, has quieted her through the trenches in their marriage, but he did not marry a quiet woman. He married that woman who, on the day of his return, charged through the docks, batting children and wives and aging mothers from her path, roaring for him. He married a woman whose voice was full and strong and always worth listening to.

I was going to hold your hand through every minute of the labours that would bring our children, however hard you squeezed.
At the closed café on St James’ Road, Albert turns left. He knows the way well enough. Since he lost his mother, he has visited often. Tonight, though, he slows as he approaches. He does not want to step through those curved black gates and away from his wife. He does not want to finish his letter. Rather, he wants to pause outside the lit window across the street and observe the family within. He wants to climb the cherry trees and sit amongst the five-petalled flowers. He wants to keep walking until he reaches the open-fired warmth of home and go inside and step into his slippers one last time. But he does not have the strength. These empty wishes belong now only in his letter.

Despite the severity of his injuries, the doctors had stayed hopeful. That he had not died on the field, that he had lived a number of weeks past the incident, that he had regained speech and movement so quickly, and travelled home – all this, they said, indicated that Albert would make a full recovery. And perhaps they were simply offering comfort to a man who had seen enough pain. Or perhaps they were trying to reassure Elsie. But Albert had known even then that they were wrong. He wouldn’t make it. The worst part was, Elsie had believed their practised words.

Even seeing you cry was worth living for.
He lasted six years more before he passed, in the cradle of his sleep, he assumes, given that he had no awareness of it. Sepsis must have wormed through him in the end. He’d feared it all along. Despite what the doctors had said, he never had felt right. Elsie dragged him around the house like a lonely child holding a flat party balloon on a string then. She took to reading obsessively, having no one to converse with. It was a distraction from her grief, from his lingering spirit. But she wouldn’t have to nose through those pages for too much longer, Albert thought. Balloons withered away in no time. And he would, too. After all, what was he without his body but a messy collection of dreams and memories?

At the cemetery gates, he stops and wraps a hand around the moulded wrought iron. This body, this putrefying body, still needs the support. Though surely, since he is dead, he could have flown here if he’d chosen. There is no reason for him still to be constrained by corporeality, by the surface of the road, the weight of the air. He leans back against the gate and, removing his letter from his pocket, studies it: the hand is unsteady. He retrieves his pen and hunkers down to add to his list. The simple, the happy, the sad. He needs it all back, even the ugly parts. He needs another chance. He needs to make a better go at it.

I wasn’t the best I could be, he writes.  

Touched by the slightest breath of wind, the paper quivers in his lap. The hour has rendered it grey and Albert wants the moon to glow brighter, so that he can see it properly.  He needs now more than ever to take in every last detail. Exhaling slowly, he watches his phantom breath twist towards the stars.

I expected to reach an age where nothing was expected of me but stories.

Dawn prowls the sky like a hunting cat: stealthy and silent and beautiful. It is carnation coloured and crisp in the nose. Each headstone, each laid flower is crowned by glistering frost. Albert presses his letter into its envelope. January the first has broken too soon. He had wanted more time. But he could not let Elsie begin another year trailed by his fetid corpse. They had promised each other much more than that.

“I’m not going to be one of those wretched women,” she’d warned him, sitting, ankles crossed, at the bar, “who lets her man get away with all sorts and keeps smiling and pretending she doesn’t know.”
“Then I’ll be on my best behaviour.”
“Perhaps you won’t,” Elsie replied. “Perhaps you won’t always manage it, but what I insist upon is the truth.”
Albert sipped at his whiskey. He’d been trying to impress her, ordering whiskey. He’d considered it a man’s drink. “Sometimes the truth is worse than ignorance,” he said.
“Sometimes,” Elsie agreed. “But not for a lifetime.”

And that’s what he has given her – his every truth. But for one. What he has not told her is how hard he has tried to escape the war all these years. What he has not said is that it has always been there, in every bump and breath and blink. A door would slam and he’d drop to the ground, arms over his head, awaiting bullets. He’d hear a truck blattering down the street and the urge to grip his gun would swell through him. The hot stink of roasting meat would propel him back to France, to striding again amongst the torn bodies of horses and mules and men, desperate not to vomit on their remains.

Albert had managed to hide it in afternoon naps and feigned forgetfulness, because he didn’t want to admit that a stumble into some sound, some scene, some sight, would send his mind spiralling into his own history. His dips out of time remained his own. They were, perhaps, the beginning of his death.

He unfolds his letter one last time. Always, there is something more to say. But he does not manage to pen another word before a far-off crunching catches his attention. He turns and sights Elsie, her head bent, her long coat bunched in her fists, stomping uphill towards him. As if feeling his eyes on her, she lifts her head and stares straight at him.

“Albert Burton!” she shouts. “Come down here.”

Albert does not move from the headstone he sits against. He must, he thinks, have lost his way again. He must have dropped into his past, because she is using her true voice, not the one reserved for a dying man. She is shouting. She is beautiful.

“Albert! Answer me!”

She blows her loosening hair from her brow. She is coming fast. Elsie is coming and, though she has been his wife these last six years, Alfred feels anxious. He cannot grasp how she has found him, or why her voice has returned, or what she expects of him.

He cannot answer her. He is as hollow as the dead of night. He is a ghost, nothing more. As she nears, he notes the flush in her cheeks. He sees too that she is carrying a book: the flapping of its pages lacerates the dawn silence like the wingbeats of a hundred startled birds.

“It’s so cold. You’re going to make yourself ill.”

No, he wants to say, I can’t. But he has no functioning throat or tongue or lips. He has come steadily undone. In the sharp morning light, in that peculiar pivot from night to day, he might just be a flimsy trace of who he used to be, but surely she cannot go on pretending he is still there, still whole, still the husband she vowed to love until death. Until death, but not beyond.

Albert fumbles with his letter. Now is his chance to leave it for her, here, on his mother’s gravestone.  He places it on the arched granite beyond his left shoulder, as carefully as Elsie had shifted her grandmother’s lamp closer to the window.

“Glass against glass,” she’d said, hands on hips. “So there’s nothing I can’t see.”

And she’d meant that. She must have. Because she is before him now, kneeling on the hard earth. The book is laid open beside her. The title words are unfamiliar: The Cotard Delusion.

“Speak,” she says. “You can, Albert, I promise. You haven’t gone.”

Albert opens his mouth. Cold air swoops in and causes him to cough. How foolish he has become: a dead man who thinks he needs to cough; a dead man who believes his wife can see him still. But this time he doesn’t want to fight. If his Elsie has asked it of him, then he will speak. He closes his eyes and breathes deep.

“I didn’t want to,” he says. The words are dry and cracked as autumn leaves, but they are words. They have escaped his mouth and flown into the day. They are the first he has spoken in an entire, desolate week.

Elsie smiles. She smiles so hard that tears well and brim and fall over her cheeks. “You didn’t,” she says. “You never did. You’re here, with me.”

Albert shakes his head. If anything, she must be here with him. He couldn’t possibly have waded back into life through determination alone, but she, she… Beyond her, raspberry clouds roll down the sky. The morning is opening fast now, and it is shining on Elsie. Just Elsie. He can see nothing else. He does not glance at the book on the ground as its pages turn on the air. He does not notice his letter, drifting off his mother’s gravestone and skittering away.

“I wanted to come back so badly,” he gasps.

Elsie leans forwards and cups her palms over his bent knees and, through his trousers, incredibly, he can feel a light warmth: her skin.

“And you have,” she says. “You have.”


Illustration by Paul Nash - Totes Meer, 1941. Lebrecht Music & Arts Photo Library / Alamy

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