A Childhood Tragedy, Seen From The 'Periphery'

'Peripheral Vision' cover
Peripheral Vision
By Patricia Ferguson
Hardcover, 376 pages
Other Press
List price: $24.95

Read an excerpt.

Patricia Ferguson

The author of six novels, Patricia Ferguson has also trained and worked as a nurse and midwife. hide caption

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A young boy loses an eye to a freshly sharpened pencil and is rushed to the hospital. That one accident changes the fate of the doctors and nurses who care for him, his guilt-ridden mother and his neighbors. With a story spanning 50 years, Bristol, England-based Patricia Ferguson maps the constellation of characters in her charming Orange Prize long-listed novel Peripheral Vision.

The protagonist is luck itself, in the form of unintended pregnancies, mishaps, a train collision and brushes with strangers. These types of stories with large casts all held together by chance are generally told in films by directors like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, and less so in novels.

Rather than writing a movie treatment, however, Ferguson uses some of the tricks that only work in fiction. There are layers of text, from medical records and letters, to information on the eye's structure and the mechanism of vision. Ferguson — who has five previous novels under her belt, although none previously published in the U.S. — sews together all of these fragments, like Dr. Beaconsfield trying to reassemble George's shattered iris.

When Sylvia, a doctor approached by a much older, one-eyed George about creating a better prosthetic, discovers a shocking connection to another character, she wonders, "whenever I come across a coincidence like this I think, yes, but what about all the coincidences we never actually, you know, see?" The details of the way the men and women in this story relate unfold slowly, some becoming clear only in the novel's last pages.

Ferguson holds much of the action off screen, approaching some of the most dramatic scenes from, well, the periphery. How the pencil actually got into George's eye and the circumstances of a character's death all remain a little blurry. It's not so much the trauma that's interesting, it's how people choose to, or choose not to, respond to it. Ferguson brings the story together in such a masterful way that even the Fates would be impressed.

Excerpt: 'Peripheral Vision'

Peripheral Vision
By Patricia Ferguson
Hardcover, 376 pages
Other Press
List price: $24.95

Chapter 1

Sylvia's Baby, 1995

On marital love, on love when the baby is sleeping lightly in the very next room, Sylvia had views, more to the point feelings, but didn't in the least know them, however, having adopted, well before gestation, a firm habit of not examining too closely anything her own body told her.

"Are you terribly tired tonight?" Adam might ask her, mock-roguishly, for this had quickly become code.

"Yes," uttered flatly, of course meant No, whereas "No," even spoken consideringly or wryly or doubtfully, meant Yes.

Yes to Adam's request, first, that she sit naked astride him, yes to his second, that she give him what he invariably called a little encouragement, and yes also to listening to him telling her once more that she was a thunderingly good [expletive].

Tell him to [expletive] off, Sylvia's body these days smartly told Sylvia, when Adam got to first request, or even beforehand, when he was still being roguish. But Sylvia wasn't taking any notice.

She was too tired for one thing. And she was also in the awkward position of having everything she had ever wanted. Ever since she was fifteen, when she had broken her right leg falling off the wall behind the cricket pitch, she had wanted to be a doctor; as soon as she started medical school she knew she wanted to be a specialist, a consultant; all through her twenties she had increasingly wanted a husband and children, and done various quite difficult and discouraging things in order to get them. Now she had everything on the list.

She was so highly successful that she had long ceased even to consider herself unusual, had long ago lost the sensation of lone perilous hand-to-hand climbing, of narrow toeholds, and dizzying near-misses, and avalanches just avoided, that had caused her so many nights of neurotic insomnia during her major exam-taking years.

So she wasn't taking any crap from her body, which so incontinently wanted out.

"No, not really. Axe you tired, Adam?"

Adam was quite a bit older than Sylvia, at fifty-three. He had lived in the far grander house near her own for several years, as half of a perfectly nice couple, with both of whom Sylvia had been on lightly amicable terms, until the wife had run off with a much younger man, a friend of a friend of her own grown-up son's.

Adam had been beside himself with grief and despair. He had had several loud drunken arguments with his estranged wife, he in the street, she leaning out of the upstairs window of her lover's little house in a backstreet of the neighboring town, until policemen had arrived, and threatened him with charges of disturbing the peace. Adam, disturbing the peace! Adam, who until those terrible nights had not so much as a parking fine on his civic conscience!

After several months of anguish and poor work performance Adam had gone on holiday by himself, bicycling ferociously around Northern France, pedaling uphill all day until, after eating a huge meal at whatever place he had reached by nightfall, he fell exhausted into whatever hotel bed. His wife had detested bicycles. She also hated strenuous exercise, going anywhere without booking first, and garlic. Adam's deserted-husband holiday was a combination of everything his wife had not let him do for nearly twenty-five years.

On the fifth morning Adam was aware, as he shot out into the sunshine, and began toiling away toward the heat haze already ahead in the middle of the smooth black road, that he was happy. That he wasn't missing her; not even defiantly thinking to himself, Look, I'm not missing her! But really, actively thinking about other, nicer things for large stretches of sweet French hilly pedaling time.

On the long ride toward home and reality he had stopped at a pleasant little market town and bought presents. This too had been something of a first. His wife had often told him he was rubbish at present-buying. For years he had left it all to her. Even her own, even her birthday. Perhaps that had been a mistake, thought Adam now, carefully locking his faithful bicycle to a lamppost outside the covered market. Within he bought cheese.

He tried and bought fourteen presents of beautiful French cheeses. Some were wrapped in waxed paper, some packed in stout little wooden boxes. One was studded with peppercorns, another veined in delicate blue. He bought the firmly resilient, the softly deliquescent, some with hardened calloused rinds, some cloaked in damp mushroomy velvet. He chose cheeses aromatic, milky, honking with garlic, sending out violent messages of complex and tempered decay: smells moldy, fruity, acidic, and downright fecal.

His wife would have hated them all.

He had packed them all singing to high heaven in his one roomy rucksack, and set off for home with a light heart.

He took a selection to the offices of the law firm where he worked, and was gratified by the squealing consternation of the secretarial staff. More than one he took with him to the dinner parties he was now being invited to, as that desirable social entity, the unattached male. And one, a nice pure goat's cheese, unpasteurized, enticingly wrapped in red-and-white-checked waxed paper within its neat snug wooden box, he on a sudden whim one hot summer evening took to his closest neighbor, that nice Miss Thing.

Sylvia, opening the door in clean white shirt and small white shorts, saw a familiar face wearing an unfamiliar tan. Adam too was in shorts. Dark soft curly hair peeped out at Sylvia from the neck of his light summery blue shirt. He looked what he was and at that moment felt, a healthy, virile, fit, and powerful man.

True, he was old enough to be Sylvia's father. But Sylvia's own father had happened to be a great deal older than fathers generally are, old enough, almost, to be her grandfather; if the touch of white over Adam's ears put her in mind of fatherliness it was the potent delightful father of her early childhood who strode whistling across her unconscious: that hero.

"Sylvia!" smiled Adam on the doorstep, for it was only her surname he had had trouble remembering, "d'you like cheese?"

"Love it!" said Sylvia, gratefully. She had had an abysmal afternoon.

She was involved with fundraising for the hospital she worked for. Somehow, without in the least volunteering it, she had become the focus of the campaign to raise enough money for a new and even more precise ophthalmic laser. Photographs of her smilingly being presented with outsize checks made of cardboard appeared almost weekly in the local press, for the Friends of the Hospital were many and energetic. They organized things they liked to do, did them, and summoned Sylvia. Already that summer she had attended a donkey gymkhana, presented prizes at a flower and produce show, made two after-dinner speeches about lasers at two separate dinner-dances, and repeated the gist of these speeches all one afternoon during an interminable river boating party.

All these occasions had ended with the smiling presentation of the outsize cardboard check, furious applause, and the local press photograph. Sometimes, to her intense embarrassment, Sylvia was also given a bouquet, again commonly of outsize proportions, and sometimes a big smacking kiss on the cheek, should the hander-over of the outsize cardboard cheek be male.

This afternoon's jaunt had been the Friends' Summer Picnic. It had been held in the garden of one of the Friends, a stately home-style creation of artfully cascading waterfalls faked so long ago that they looked almost like the naturally occurring real thing, a famous avenue of pleached limes (Sylvia was more than once informed), an enormous lake full of water lilies, and a plaintive silver band, hired for the occasion.

All afternoon Sylvia had eaten scones, drunk tea, listened to the plaintive band, and traipsed up and down the avenue of pleached limes. All afternoon she had had exactly the same conversation with a series of gentle elderly faces. Talk, talk, talk, laser, laser, laser.

And all the time she was conscious of their attitude toward her. Sometimes she could almost hear them thinking it.

Look at her! Just look! So young! Just a girl, and a doctor, a consultant! Isn't she wonderful! Isn't she lovely!

It was largely this unspoken commentary that made the presentations, the bouquets, the applause, so excruciating. Sylvia did not think of herself as young, wonderful, or lovely. What woman would, aged thirty-three? Sylvia looked in mirrors and saw a professional, intelligent, and immensely competent grown-up. She knew she was all these things. And yet somehow she had been sold to the Friends, these generous worthy old folk - or was being sold by them, it was quite hard to tell, really - as a dear little thing, the ingénue, to smile for the cameras. It was not her professionalism they wanted her for, she had realized almost immediately; it was her pretty face.

Doctor Sylvia, the local paper always called her. Not Sylvia Henshaw, or Dr. Henshaw, certainly not Miss Henshaw, which would actually have been correct, since she was a surgeon; but always the infantilizing, the telly-fied, the tabloid comic-strip Doctor Sylvia.

Sylvia had no actressy impulses. To be admired for being small, for being delicately put together, for having curly hair and a neat freckled little face, was all very well, of course, in private, but to be publicly admired and cosseted for them was very hard to bear. It went against all her deepest instincts. She felt, too, a fraud. They thought she was a dear little thing; she knew she was not one; therefore she was a fake.

And at the same time she did not in the least want to baffle or disappoint anyone by insisting on being herself, being significantly professional, intelligent, and competent. And the hospital needed the laser; patients needed it.

She had come home from the Garden Party headachy and exhausted with politeness and pretending, pulled off her neat little blue silk suit, and showered off Doctor Sylvia before stepping still damp - it was a humid evening - into the clean white shirt and small white shorts. Barefoot on the cold stone floor of her kitchen she had opened a bottle of red wine and just swallowed her first big swig when the doorbell rang. She gulped another before she went to the door. So she opened it a little flushed, her hair still damp, and there was Adam, brown and healthy and proffering gifts.

"Sylvia! D'you like cheese?"

"Love it!" she replied, and on an impulse added, "Why don't you come in?"

And that had been that, really.

From thinking of her vaguely as that rather nice-looking young woman round the corner, pleasant enough, Adam had within minutes found himself unable to breathe properly, with desire; small movements beneath the not-quite opaque white shirt tremulously promised little brown-nippled breasts, and the freckles he could see on Sylvia's slender arms and legs tormented him with wondering how far up they went, and whether there was any part of her that did not have a tender sprinkling of them, and how he was to settle the question.

While she, freighted with five cups of tea, three scones, and an equally indigestible overload of collective sentimentality, thrilled to the diverting spectacle of a decent-looking man half-choked with honest lust.

And even more piquant, he was that nice Adam, a person she had been exchanging neighborly pleasantries with for several years! It was strange, she thought, how his being someone else's husband had made him almost invisible. As she exclaimed over the red-and-white-checked waxed paper and the delicate goaty creaminess within she could feel his awareness of her every move.

With her back to him as she got him a glass she could feel his gaze, and was aware herself of the long lines of his body, his great muscled calves, his tanned splendid forearm resting on the kitchen table. His square hairy hand delicately hesitating over one of her glistening garlicky olives.

For a little while they had talked of neighborly things, of hosepipe bans, of the pub across the road which was being refurbished, of the heat, of Adam's French holiday.

"Must be off," he had said abruptly, standing. She stood up as well. The top of her head just reached his shoulder.

"Oh, must you?"

"Well, unless ... would you ... would you like to have dinner with me?" For it was the electrifying thought, as he sat helplessly staring at his neighbor, that he could simply ask her out if he felt like it that had propelled him to his feet.

He was a free man! It was freedom that had made him see Sylvia's nipples through her shirt, it was freedom that, when she turned round, clamped his eyes to her little white shorts, and made him need so sweatily to know whether or not she was wearing any knickers underneath them, it was freedom that, for a long and rather agonizing moment while she prattled about hosepipes, had made him so thickly tumescent that he had been as afraid as any helplessly erectile adolescent that he was actually going to have an orgasm in public, behind the kitchen table; freedom had brought all these Lord of Misrule things about.

Time to step up, time to act on freedom, to stop it acting on him.

"Spinners'? At eight?"

"Oh, lovely," said Sylvia, "Yes. Yes, please."

Part of her own excitement at the time had come from the fact that for the first time in ages Sylvia felt lucky. She felt able to manage Adam. As if she had an Adam-instinct, just this moment discovered.

Adam-instinct told her that while his serendipitous arrival just as she was ousting dear little Doctor Sylvia with knickerless barefoot wine-swigging had served her gloriously well, he would now be even more beside himself if for the evening she took the opposite course and went for demure. Appeared as neighbor, neat friendly Miss Henshaw. It would be reassuring, yet at the same time deliberately teasing. He would be floored.

And so it proved. For several months the ease with which she could floor Adam had enchanted Sylvia. And their combined age of eighty-five years gave them plenty to talk about.

Of course there were a great many adjustments to be made. Sylvia's mother, Adam's estranged wife; his children, her friends; even his mother (who really was eighty-five), all these people needed to be protected from the truth, then allowed to guess about it, and finally confronted with it; they needed to be soothed, consoled, reassured, convincingly lied to if absolutely necessary and to some extent introduced to one another. All this took many more months, at the end of which Sylvia let her own house and moved into Adam's far more extensive double-fronted Georgian splendor, and stopped using any contraception.

Sylvia had studied obstetrics as a medical student. She had delivered twelve babies herself, and as a Junior House Officer had completed a six-month gynecological rotation. She knew considerably more than most educated middle-class women about the hormonal changes of the human reproductive cycle. She was enjoying a great deal of sexual activity, and she was not using contraception.

Yet how did she react, when she discovered her pregnancy?

She was stunned.

All that day, when the line had so clearly gone blue, she had trembled, and felt her heart beating fast all the time as if she had been running.

What, me?

It did not seem possible to Sylvia now that she could have behaved so thoughtlessly. Literally thoughtless: no thought had gone into her decision to ditch the diaphragm or not bother about getting any more spermicidal foam when the little can was empty.

Oh, forgot again, but never mind, this tiny smear of the stuff will do. ... Diaphragm's got a bit past it actually, I need a new one, no point using that one ... It's my safe time of the month ... Oh, let's not bother, it'll be all right ...

She thought she had decided only not to decide. It had not occurred to her consciously, somehow, that this might be the same as deciding to try to get pregnant. At no point in all the long months of gestation was Sylvia able to recognize the fact that she had been trying to get pregnant, and had merely succeeded in doing so.

No, it was all a mistake.

For a few agonized days she even thought about abortion. She stopped doing so when she realized where the agony came from. She had not intended, of course, to get pregnant, she told herself and Adam and her mother and her friends, but now that it had happened (somehow!) she was quite happy about it, really.

Excerpted from Peripheral Vision, by Patricia FergusonCopyright © 2008 by Patricia Ferguson

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