THE VIRGIN & THE WHALE
"He insists upon keeping his room at this temperature," says Mrs Blackwell, almost whispering.
'He' is a figure who crouches by the fire with his back to them. He is resting on his heels, knees tucked up almost beneath his chin. He has not so much as glanced in their direction. There is something bird-like in the way that he is perched by the fire. He is wearing only striped pyjama bottoms tied at the waist with what looks like a piece of twine. Elizabeth moves closer. She is shocked to see how desperately underweight the man is. The firelight reveals ribs staggered up his back like the rungs of a ladder, skin stretching taut with every breath he takes. He still has not looked at them, although Elizabeth is sure that he is acutely aware of their presence.
Mrs Blackwell advances a few tentative steps into the room. "Paul. Paul dear, it's me. Paul?" Her voice has lost all of its authority. She sounds to Elizabeth like an anxious young girl trying to coax a kitten out of a tree.
The figure by the fire turns a baleful gaze on to his wife and Elizabeth takes an involuntary step back. Any resemblance between the man in the photograph she has just seen and this one is purely coincidental. This face is close to skeletal. In the firelight his eyes are dark caves. He has a heavy black beard that envelops his face and throat; tangled, knotted, all but obliterating the place where his mouth should be. The hair on his head is also long; longer than she has ever seen on a man. It hangs in clumped strands, framing his ravaged face.
"Paul, I've brought someone to see you. This is Mrs Whitman."