Clock ticking. Temperature below the acceptable minimum and not even the slightest sign of the heating being turned on. The chair is lumpy and smells of someone else’s urine, someone else’s sweat. Body odour in the atmosphere. Over-boiled cabbages emanating from the kitchens. And cleaner’s bleach liberally applied to each and every surface in the bathroom.
Over on the far wall, the television is burbling. It is turned to the channel with the chirpy advertisements for cat food and cereal bars, websites for comparing insurance quotes and endless sales on cheap leather furniture. The programme is an inane quiz show where contestants have to deliver a half dozen answers before finding the obvious connection between them all. It goes like this:
Question 1 – which long running radio soap opera has been broadcast since January 1st 1951?
Question 2 – along with arpeggios and broken chords, what forms an essential part of a musician’s practice routine?
Question 3 – the torture device originating from 14th century Germany was known as the iron… what?
Question 4 – random-access memory is often shortened to which acronym?
And so on and so forth until the blethering idiot that they’ve no doubt picked from the wilds of rural Lincolnshire or a god-forsaken spot in the Outer Hebrides has a whole board filled with clues but still isn’t able to associate them with the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
Noise here is constant. Muttering of conversation about last night’s dramatic ending to Emmerdale. The drone of a vacuum cleaner up on the second floor or the clacking of a washing machine in the laundry room; the thump of sodden garments mercilessly flung against the spinning drum. There is often a workman’s drill or a carpenter’s saw from the neighbouring construction site. And the TV is incessant in its twenty-four hour goal of filling the void; the silence that might otherwise be allowed to drift in.
The Crosspatch ponders the proverb – speech is silver and silence is golden. Shimmering precious metals in wedding rings and fancy cutlery sets. Carriage clocks and decorative jugs, rare coins and cold, hard bullion. In here, though, nothing even comes close to resembling such slivers of luxury. Nothing with even a sheen of bronze or copper, or an intricate sculpture in burnished wood. Instead, it is tacky plastic toys from last year’s Christmas crackers, calendars from the Chinese take-away, postcards from somewhere depressingly sunny with palm trees on the front.
As he considers that, someone is shuffling towards him. There is a furtive, guarded look to his expression as always. Hunching and twisting, squirming and fidgeting. Uninvited, he takes the chair opposite. A nod by way of good morning. A narrowing of his eyes to scan the room. He has a length of string clutched in his hands which he is winding round and round like some sort of brainless perpetual motion machine.
Growling, the Crosspatch mutters to himself – misery does not want company.
He is suspicious about the woman in the shamrock green cardigan. Chestnut hair furled up into a bun that is fastened with an oriental clip. Neutral expression of her mouth – not quite a smile, not quite a frown. A calmness in her eyes as she looks everywhere but at him. And the practised poise of her body as she sits there with her legs crossed and her back perfectly straight.
Vigilance is required at all times to spot the watchers. They are agents of the establishment sent to sniff out insubordination and non-compliance. Cunning, crafty, conniving individuals who are skilled at blending in. Pretending they are just one of the crowd whilst upstairs, mental notes are scribbled down inside their minds. Shorthand abbreviations like SB for ‘suspicious behaviour’ and STH for ‘something to hide’. Looping letters in a punctilious script form words which are underlined in places to remind them that ‘so-and-so requires further observation’; ‘a fishy dealing between X and Y’.
They are adept at spotting every tiny, subtle change in the atmosphere. They see the details beneath the skin. And have listening devices that are capable of scanning the frequency of your brainwaves if you let them. Meddlesome eavesdroppers. Intrusive and invasive like Japanese knotweed. He has developed techniques to keep them out, though. Mindfulness, they call it. Building up a barricade of static thoughts and promulgating an outer blankness that masks the turmoil of within.
A conversation doesn’t have to be spoken out loud. Not always. Not in this place, at any rate. It can exist in the understanding of two individuals without the essence of it being uttered through physical speech. So, mouths don’t open in the dialogue between the Bob-and-weave and the Crosspatch:
BW, stealthily – ‘She’s a snooper and no doubt about it.’
CP, grumbling – ‘Come to see what further misery she can lump on us before lunchtime, probably.’
BW, in response – ‘Or sizing us up to see who needs a trip to the chamber.’
It is a fabled room up on the third floor full of nuts and bolts, wires and cables. They say that you come out with your hair standing on end and a tingling sensation in your nether regions. That they use a special kind of drill to extract the obstreperous part of your brain. That once they’re done with you, you forget how to smile and you are left with a fogginess in your gaze.
The thought of it makes him angry. A lump of ill temper that tastes of charcoal and is difficult to swallow down without a slug of water to help it on its way. He feels his hands balling up. He reckons that the muscles on his face are twitching. And his foot is tapping on the floor. All tell-tale signs of discomfort that will make it into the snooper’s book if he’s not more careful. ‘Bob-and-weave agitated by the fact of a watching presence.’ ‘Suggest inclination adjustment session.’
He pulls himself together and draws his piece of string tight so that it cuts into his skin. Fist over fist, he winds it round like a windmill.
Dead in the saloon during the mid-morning lull, the Cardsharp pulls up a stool.
Inner voice – ‘howdy!’ – the Crosspatch and the Bob-and-weave narky and shifty as they look at him.
A barmaid is circulating. Wolf-whistle to get her attention but she’s playing hard to get. Pretty scrap of a thing in a tight-fitting dress. A bit starchy, perhaps. Midnight blue. She could do with undoing some of the buttons to show off a pinch of that cleavage. And she needs to put a touch of war paint on her face, he thinks, since she’s looking kind of pale. A little overworked, too. Like a carthorse that’s been whipped over four score furlongs pulling a heavy load and nothing in its belly but carrots and withered old hay for sustenance. He whistles again to no avail. Merely a look that tells him she won’t be coming over just because some bigshot clicks his fingers.
All right, then. What else? Turning to the other two, he tries to work out what’s new. The Crosspatch has the same dull glower as usual. Stubble on his cheeks which looks about a day old; a gravy stain on his shirt that shares the same temporal provenance. The Bob-and-weave is about level eight on his scale of paranoia. Doing his best to hide it but there’s a vein thrumming on his forehead. His body is slithering about like an electric eel trapped within a barrel of tar. But the string’s new though, so he asks about it:
‘What you got there, Bob?’
‘Tha’s useful, that.’
‘You can tie things up with it. Pull it into a knot. Make a kind of bracelet. And all sorts.’
Shiftily – ‘or strangle someone when they’re not expecting it’ – which is a typical Bob-and-weave kind of retort.
‘Yeah. That ‘n’ all. ‘s long as it ain’t me you got in mind for yer strangling.’
Nothing but a hugger-mugger glance to his right.
‘What? The primping young filly over there with the clipboard?’
‘What you got it in for her for?’
‘She’s a snooper, isn’t she?’
He glances around to check on the progress of the barmaid but thinks better of wolf-whistling for a third time. She’s getting round the clientele as quickly as she can, after all. And it seems like she’s the only one on shift. Depositing everyone’s favourite tipple in front of them in those plastic tumblers along with tiny morsel bar snacks to be swallowed down whole. He watches the curve of her as she bends over. Thinks about making some misogynist remark about her skinny excuse for a backside. Instead, turning back to the other two, he proposes a game of cards.
‘What’ll it be? Gin rummy, blackjack, cribbage, whist?’
The Crosspatch with a trenchant bite – ‘Why don’t you surprise us?’
OK – ‘Maybe I will.’
The cards dance in between his fingers as he shuffles them. A blur of motion in rich-patterned pasteboard. There’s the Ace of Diamonds which portends an important message on the horizon. The Seven of Clubs which represents confinement. The Jack of Spades is a curmudgeon who’ll betray you in a heartbeat. Not that he puts much store by the boneheaded rules of cartomancy or other such distractions – crystal ball gazing, palm reading, seeing the future in a swirl of tea.
He decides on Gin Rummy, and he’s winning from the off. A set of tens. A dazzling run from two to five. Very sparse amount of deadwood when the others knock down first. So, he thumps them time and again. Only wishing that they could play for something other than matchsticks. But the Crosspatch and the Bob-and-weave wouldn’t stretch to coins or anything as valuable as a cheeky cigarette.
‘This is the time for repentance, my brethren. Gambling and idle pastimes are a sin which rank alongside uncleanliness and the worship of false profits in the eyes of the Lord.’
The Crosspatch maunders. The Cardsharp spits – ‘Well a fine howdy do, that is. And good morning to you and all, Reverend.’
‘Good morning, my lost sheep. I have come to spread the blessèd word as always.’
Something muttered under his breath from the Crosspatch that is peppered with unchristian sentiment about busybody windbags disturbing the fragile peace. But he ignores it. A higher calling infuses him. An inner strength. A sense of purpose which drives him forwards. Ever onwards until all of the heathens and heretics have been brought into the light of the Lord.
‘The shadow of desolation still hangs over you,’ he says to the Crosspatch.
‘If you turn away from temptation, He will guide you along the path to salvation.’
‘There is more rejoicing in His kingdom over one sinner who repents than for a thousand million untainted souls.’
Everything reflects the imagery of His almighty purpose. That stain in the carpet from the capsized careen of cauliflower soup reminds him of Jonah tossed overboard and swallowed by a huge whale. It is a story of second chances; redemption inside the belly of the beast. In the mould that creeps up the walls in the corner of the second floor bathroom, he can see the outline of a woman, petrified for wilfully ignoring an angel’s commands. She is Lot’s wife in algae rather than in salt. And there, through the young helper who has returned to them from his so-called University, is the parable of the prodigal son. He is lured by the sin and vice of the city. He drinks and smokes and lays with women who be not his wife. But for his homecoming, they shall kill the fatted calf. So, even the Crosspatch can find salvation. It is the Evangelist’s mission to guide him on his path. Perhaps, though, today is not the day.
The Cardsharp, on the other hand, is immune to his charms. He mocks him. Calls him ‘Reverend’ when he is being polite and ‘God-botherer’ when he is not. Every quoted verse has a gravel-toned apostate comeback. For example, Philippians chapter 4 verse 6 – ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ – is met with a quote from Jack Daniels chapter 7 verse 12 – ‘And if God does not your request fulfil, commit yourself instead to the spirit Whisky who, alongside cola and ice, compromises the holy trinity of oblivion.’ He is a disciple of the devil and the Evangelist won’t let his immoral voice rise above the din.
Anyway, for today, the Cardsharp is mollified by the arrival of the Catechist. The offering of wine and wafers has had to be modified for the congregation, obviously. They are not yet worthy of the body or the blood, and so water and tablets have been supplemented in their place. It is to train them in the proper ways. A preparation for the point when they will be ready to comprehend His ultimate sacrifice on the cross. But the Cardsharp is not aware that the switch has taken place and greedily knocks back his cup as if his very life depended on it. Next to him, the Bob-and-weave is eyeing his suspiciously.
‘What’s wrong, brother?’ he asks.
‘We shouldn’t trust anything that they bring us to eat or drink.’
‘But this is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins.’
‘That is only what they want you to believe,’ the Bob-and-weave whispers. ‘In reality, it could be a poison or a sedative or any other malicious substance that they are using to unlock our inner thoughts.’
‘There should be no thoughts that we keep from God, brother.’
‘It is not God that I am worried about.’
Abruptly, as if he is possessed by a wriggling demon, he writhes through a sudden spasmodic motion of twists and turns. His length of string binds up his wrists. His eyes turn inwards in their lids.
The Evangelist, equal to the task holds out a comforting hand – ‘Fight it, brother.’ His voice resounds like Moses imparting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. ‘God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will provide a way out so that you can endure it.’
The seizure ends. The Bob-and-weaves points to the woman.
Eyes flickering in the manner of the serpent. ‘She is the false prophet!’
‘Indeed,’ says the Evangelist. ‘The devil may take many forms.’
‘A pentagon, perhaps?’ – this is the Sophist’s opening remark as he joins them from elsewhere.
‘No,’ replies the Evangelist, testily.
‘Or a square?’
‘If you have come over solely to make light of the good word…’
‘But I was of the opinion that the purpose of the good word was exactly that – to spread light and happiness.’
‘You know full well what I meant.’
‘The problem, though, is that I often don’t.’
For the Sophist, the world is painted in black and white. An object either exists as the object that it is supposed to be, or it does not. The mould, then, in the second floor bathroom is caused by a fungi that grows in multicellular thread-like structures rather than being the mysterious work of the Lord. The capsizing of the careen of soup that left its vomit-coloured mark on the carpeted floor was the effect of thrust being applied to an unstable trolley. And the return of the prodigal son is a consequence of his University studies abruptly ending when he was caught smuggling answers into a politics exam on the inner wrapper of an innocent bottle of water.
X + Y = Z
Two hydrogen atoms attached to one of oxygen makes water.
There are fewer nurses looking after them than there used to be – not less.
And the mathematical possibility of a divinity existing somewhere in the heavens is approximately equal to that of finding an emperor penguin waddling about in the Sahara desert.
There is logic in everything. The light that flickers on when the switch is flicked does so because the electrical circuit is now complete. The fact that most of the residents migrate to the East side of the dayroom originates in the downwards slope of the floor towards that geographic orientation; a benighted workman somewhere in the past ignoring the truth of the spirit level, or being too lazy to care. The mould in the bathroom grows because of the presence of moisture in the air and the inadequacy of the ventilation due to the fact that the windows have been painted shut. And the television is purposefully left on all day in order to distract them from what is really going on in this place.
For he, of all of them, best understands the nature of their reality. Their status as quasi-prisoners even if the official line from the director down through his entire hierarchy of staff is to refer to them as ‘residents’. The nature of their ‘residence’ being as guinea pigs and case studies for the doctors to observe and experiment upon at will. The drugs that tether them to their fantasies. The ‘chamber’ upstairs where a short, sharp electric shock can be administered in order to expunge an inconvenient memory. He has worked it all out. And in this reality, 2 + 2 = 5.
‘Snooper!’ spurts out the Bob-and-weave in a froth of spittle whilst pointing to his right.
Reacting to it, the Evangelist intones the beginnings of an exorcism – ‘Lord, by your holy grace, evict the demon that resides within the breast of this poor sinner.’
Meanwhile, the Cardsharp chunters – ‘Well, howdy and no mistake’ – as he attempts to attract the attention of the nurse who is just finishing off her round.
The Crosspatch bites his lip and breathes in heavily through his nostrils.
It is a scene made ever more entertaining by the fact that the inhaled oxygen filters down to all their lungs. The pain of teeth pinching against lip, string cutting into wrists and fist pummelled against demon-infested chest is felt by all of them. And voice-box staggering into overtime, contorting and mangling through all their different accents, the words emanate from their shared mouth. The five of them inhabiting the single human body of flesh, bones, blood, mucus and ever-tangling thoughts.
Observation phase complete, the Psychologist decides that it is time to confront him. The snap back of elastic as she approaches. The ratcheting groan of exhaled air as the accordion’s bellows are concatenated back together. Cards shuffled back into their box. Bible firmly slammed shut. The Sophist’s chalkboard rubbed clean so that the Crosspatch is left to face her by himself. For now. At least, until the dice is rolled again and another one of its sides lands upwards. 2 – 4 – 5 – 1. Ace of Diamonds, Seven of Clubs, Jack of Spades. Corinthians, Numbers, Judges, Revelation. Sometimes two or three of the facades expose themselves at once. Rarely all of them. Occasionally only one.
Their conversation as recorded in the case file afterwards goes like this:
(Note: she redacts the occasional, more colourful use of language by the Cardsharp and summarises the overflowing soliloquys of the Evangelist in the interests of professional brevity, but otherwise, it is a truthful transcript of events.)
Psychologist – ‘Good morning. I wondered if we might carry out our session now?’
Crosspatch – ‘If we must. I suppose it is better to get it over with.’
Psychologist – ‘You are in low spirits again?’
Crosspatch – ‘I am still trapped in this place. As we all are.’
Bob-and-weave, spurting to the surface – ‘D… d… devil! W… wolf in sheep’s clothing! Sn… sn…’
Crosspatch – ‘He thinks that you’re a snooper.’
Psychologist – ‘A snooper?’
(Note: A long-winded explanation here about their various assumptions and suppositions regarding the personnel of the Non Compos Mental Health Unit. Warders and spies, cowboys and tavern wenches, friars, evil scientists and overlord directors. It is condensed into the words ‘they think I am something that I am not’.)
Psychologist – ‘But you must remember from our previous conversations that I am simply a therapist assigned to assess your emotional wellbeing in order to implement a regime that might lead to the easing of your traumas.’
Crosspatch – ‘You mean that you want to eradicate the schisms between our natures?’
Psychologist – ‘That is one way of putting it.’
Sophist, waking from his reverie – ‘Which would logically amount to murder.’
Psychologist – ‘No!’
Sophist – ‘You want to send us up to the chamber.’
Psychologist – ‘Now you know that the chamber is nothing but a myth.’
Bob-and-weave – ‘Murderer!’
Evangelist – ‘The devil is within you!’
Cardsharp, slurred speech as if he has been drinking half the morning – ‘Well, that’s a fine howdy-do of a manner in which to treat a perty young lady.’
Sophist – ‘You others must listen to the truth of logic and reasoning…’
Evangelist – ‘As the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want any higher mumbo jumbo of statistics or argumentation than His one true gospel!’
(Note: All active at once, the conversation becomes difficult to follow. The memorandum records it as a bedlam of accusations aimed at her as well as internally at the other aspects of their nature. They argue about which of their perspectives is closest to the truth. They slam fists down on the table; threaten strangulation through a sharp tug of their piece of string. The Evangelist evokes each of the apostles by name and the Sophist expounds on the principals of deductive reasoning. Names (God-botherer, Barfly, Sourpuss) are flung about. Tempers are generally frayed.)
Psychologist – ‘I think we should all just take a deep breath and count to ten.’
The Crosspatch mumbles something inaudible under his breath.
Psychologist – ‘Now, that’s much better, isn’t it? We can almost hear ourselves think.’
Crosspatch – ‘Fat chance of that. Not with the drilling and the vacuuming and the incessant whir of the TV set.’
Psychologist – ‘Well no…’
Crosspatch – ‘And then there’s you burbling on, of course, with your Ayurvedic breathing and your trust circles and all of that.’
Psychologist – ‘I am only attempting to create an atmosphere where the different threads…’
Sophist, interrupting – ‘Of course, when you talk about mending the split between our six personalities, what you mean is that we should all conform to your reality.’
Psychologist – ‘I never said that.’
Sophist – ‘But if you follow the line of your statements to their logical endpoint that is what you end up with. All of us folded into you.’
Psychologist – ‘You misinterpret my words.’
The argument erupts once again.
Bob-and-weave – ‘I knew you were nothing but a snooper.’
Evangelist – ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour!’
Cardsharp – ‘To hell with the lot of you for all I care.’
Sophist – ‘Through rational thought, we can all see where this is heading towards.’
Crosspatch – ‘Will someone turn down the volume on that blasted TV!’
The patient, a foetal ball curled up on the bed, refuses to even look at him. There is a conversation winding along. The same conversation that winds along day by day by day. After a year of trying to break the surface, he has discerned the six voices – Crosspatch, Bob-and-weave, Cardsharp, Evangelist, Sophist, and Psychologist. He has worked out their motivations and their various perceptions of the world. And he has even understood, in a way, the continuous loop of their stories. But after studying the patient for a long, hard year, he still has no idea of how to break the chain.
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