The epigraph is taken from the minutes of the Geographical Society meeting of November 194- and refers to the death of Geoffrey Clifton at Gilf Kebir and the disappearance of his wife in 1939.
Summary – Chapter One, ‘The Villa’
The novel begins with a woman in a garden and she senses a shift in the weather. She goes into the house and then goes upstairs and into a room which has trees and bowers painted on the walls and ceiling. A man lies on the bed and he turns his head to see her as she enters.
It is explained how she washes his ‘black body’ every four days and begins at his ‘destroyed feet’: ‘Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.’ She has nursed him for months and knows his body intimately, and thinks of him as such: ‘He is her despairing saint.’
He looks up at the foliage painted on the ceiling and she pours calamine lotion on his chest where he is less burned and can touch him. He whispers and she peels a plum for him, and he whispers again and drags her into ‘that well of memory’.
She asks how he was burned and he answers that he ‘fell burning into the desert’. He says the Bedouin saw him fly down and then saw the sand on fire. They strapped him onto a cradle and ran with him across deserts and dry riverbeds.
The Bedouin had seen other planes come down in the war since 1939 and he says he was perhaps the first person they had seen stand up out of the wreckage (and the helmet on his head was on fire).
She asks him who he is and he says he does not know. She replies, ‘you said you were English’. She reads to him at night as he cannot sleep. She lies beside him if he is cold, but can place no weight on him without giving him pain.
The narrative shifts back to the time of his rescue and how he was anointed when he had oiled cloths placed on him. Every day a man unwrapped his layers and examined his skin. He also chewed soft dates and placed them in the patient’s mouth. At this time, the patient did not know who these people were or who he was. When he was in the hospital in Pisa later, he thought he saw the man beside him again and he was chewing dates.
Back in the present, the nurse reads and occasionally glances down the hall of the villa that used to be a war hospital. This is where she used to work before the war moved north (and is now almost over). Only she and the patient remain at the Villa San Girolamo now and reading is ‘the only door out of her cell’ at this time in her life.
There are vegetables in the orchard to live on and she gets essentials by trading with sheets and soap. The books she reads him have sections missing and are compared to the villa as some rooms cannot be entered. In the library, there is a bomb crater that allows ‘moon and rain’ in. She hears a scurry in the ceiling ‘like a mouse’ and looks up from her book again.
Analysis – Chapter One
This first chapter has numerous absences, such as the names and identities of the main protagonist, the eponymous English patient, and the nurse. This lack of initial exposition is in keeping with the style of the rest of the novel as information about these and other characters is either withheld or leaked out only gradually.
The significance of reading is introduced at this early stage, as it is the only means of escape the nurse has at this moment in time and is also a pastime she shares with the patient. References to literature, reading and language run through the whole of the main narrative and this highlights the literary aspirations of this novel as well as heightening the importance of language in terms of how we live and to the main characters.