Monday and all ready I am weary of corpses.
It’s not that I hate my job or anything – I don’t hate my job; embalming dead people for a living isn’t exactly riveting, but it keeps me off the dole. That said, I feel ridiculous in this black suit; it reeks of embalming fluid, and death.
The streets of Blackburn are heavy with the tread of rubber as I saunter home from work; a pale winter sun failing to burn through the hurtling grey clouds. The roofs and pavements won’t have long to wait for rain. I walk with my hands in my trouser pockets, a thumb and forefinger rubbing the black pebble I found at St. Bees Head last summer.
I decide I should cut through the hospital and visit Michael. I’m overdue a visit anyway and he’ll only start turning up at the flat if I leave it too long. I don’t mind visiting but I’ve always found hospitals such strange places: all that pain, death and suffering concentrated in one place; all that negative energy. Perhaps it brings out the worst in people – especially the insane.
I take a left turn off Haslingden Road into the hospital entrance; first right passed the single-storey gate house; first left following the service road passed the administration offices; a short cut through Paediatrics into the Psychiatric Department; then left again into Ward F2.
Perched on a bed in the dormitory, in second-hand pyjamas is my step-brother Michael Shard.
Michael bears a vague resemblance to a younger Einstein, except for the bald patches on the back of his head where his hair has fallen out. His humour is paradoxical: it has the same quirky, sometimes impossible logic as riddles. He writes jokes down in an old school exercise-book; they tie your brain in reef-knots but make perfect sense to him. Life, he claims, is a constant battle to understand the ultimate riddle. ‘”When you’ve solved that, you’ll find yourself; that stranger we meet coming back.”‘
Before I can let out a greeting, apologise for not visiting, or even sit on the bed, he speaks; his voice thin and measured. “Imagine we were sat on a beach – somewhere like Harris in Scotland – with grey-black shale-sand and the wind bringing the roaring breakers in, and I said to you: Do you know about them upstairs?”
He says this coolly, with his usual laid-back ease, and I listen intently, unsure exactly what he means by them upstairs: the patients in the ward above, the dearly departed in heaven, the malevolent forces in the brain? He offers an explanation: “The different people that the body acts out to the head.”
This throws me completely.
Unsure how to take the conversation further, I say nothing. Something clatters on the floor of the ward above. Loud repetitive rapping. Silence.
Someone shuffles down the corridor. On the other side of the dormitory, a small Puerto Rican kneels by his bed, a bible clenched between knuckle-white hands:
…The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains…
“Strange places: mental hospitals.”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Michael is vacant for a moment. Then: “They say the face is an index of the mind – your passport into foreign lands. The nose, the eyes, the ears and the mouth, similarly, comparably, build up a graphic picture of the mind – the forehead is something completely different. It is the face that identifies the person, not the body it is attached to.”
I offer my own theory. “It’s interesting that an excess or deficiency of certain brain chemicals can produce schizophrenia: hallucinations, voices. People with schizophrenia have an altered perception of reality, and merely look at the world differently – without the protective layer of skin most people have; though because they appear abnormal they are shunned and cast out by society.”
Unspeaking, Michael’s eyes are wide. Someone is shouting. I go to the corridor. A scream as a cup of hot tea smashes on the floor and a female nurse emerges from the day room clutching a scalded hand. Three male nurses rush out of the office into the day room. There is a commotion. A red-haired man is shepherded toward the seclusion room; he looks resigned, accepting almost.
The tension dies.
Michael sits cross-legged and cranes his face toward mine. “Are my eyes bloodshot?”
I peer into the whites of his eyes, where tiny capillaries bulge at the surface. “Yeah.”
“I was concussed yesterday.”
“When I came to, the doctors explained that I’m sensitive to sunspots: celestial irradiation – I’ve had bouts in the past without knowing the cause. I’m afraid it’s one of the symptoms of leading an unusual life.”
“Unusual?” I puzzle.
“Obviously one this society can’t tolerate to the extent that they have to place me in here under some legal refrain.”
“So you don’t have much faith in society?”
“I’ve only ever knocked on society’s door once – they wouldn’t let me in.”
In the corridor, a scrawny anaemic-looking man in a green t-shirt trundles into the dayroom.
“Would you rather be left to your own devices then?”
“I’d prefer not to be bullied into taking injections, and then have to feel humiliated afterwards. If I was left to my own devices, then I’d be able to conquer myself – I’ve done so in the past; I used to own a radio station, my grandfather gave it to me, it never got off the ground though – it only had two records; I was also the manager of a hotel, which suited me because I didn’t come into contact with anyone – I just handed people their keys, but they sacked me because they had a lot of complaints about the way I ran the place.” Though I have known Michael most of my life, I can’t recall him working at a radio station.
He pauses, considering something. “Have you had a look at the menu for this ward?”
“No.” I’m perplexed by the sudden change of subject.
“On Monday of the second week, we have soup, beef burgers with gravy and onions, chipped potatoes, then for afters we have strawberry fool.”
My laughter booms across the dormitory. Michael is surprised by my reaction to his joke, as out of place as someone laughing at a funeral. I stifle it.
For the first time since entering the ward, I am aware of the sting of disinfectant – the antiseptic reek of suffering. I imagine the place at night, men tossing and turning in sleeplessness, the sounds of their restlessness tolling like a bell buoy, far out to sea; the air stale and stuffy, the moonlight pooled in big squares on the shiny linoleum floor; and somewhere the whispered ranting of some poor bugger wrestling with voices.
“When I listen to the music on the street – the music of the media – I notice a certain kind of energy that people give out; I don’t like to give out that kind of energy – the sequences of living, the pre-programmed structures of success – the flux of organs, nerves and membranes, in regard to living with someone, as opposed to being alone. Though sometimes, I listen to people talking on the radio about lifestyles that seem quite appealing.”
“So, what would you rather to be in life?”
“Original. I’d like to be able to paint, and I’d like to write a book; I’d like to be the host of a party and hand out all the drinks; I’d like to do a lot of things. I think life would be more valued – more human, by meeting and talking to interesting people.”
“Why don’t you – lack of confidence?”
“Confidence is a word I would retain for my next injection, and instead of the usual dose, I’d ask for a seven percent solution of confidence.” He laughs.
Through the window the whine of a battery-powered laundry van Dopplers as it ferries spoiled linen to the incinerator. On one of the other beds, the Puerto Rican lies sedated, twitching as if convulsing with some unseen electric current.
Wordlessly, Michael goes to the bathroom.
On the locker beside his bed there is a copy of Black Beauty, and a well-thumbed edition of 1001 Children’s Jokes. I reach for a small blue exercise book and thumb through it. In a large almost child-like hand, his skew-whiff thoughts are set down: variations on proverbs, juxtaposed with obscure words perhaps of eastern origin, words he might have conjured up, or mis-remembered; I can’t discern which.
I replace the book afraid he might return.
A small female nurse with a short bob and freckles appears and asks me where Michael is. I tell her he is in the bathroom. She smiles wryly, and asks me to wait in the corridor.
I sit on the window-ledge and take out my battered copy of Under the Volcano, and begin to read:
‘… Why then should he be sitting in the bathroom? Was he asleep? dead? passed out?’
Some minutes later, the nurse returns with two male nurses and Michael is guided out of the bathroom. After some gentle persuasion, he follows her into the clinic. Judging by the look on his face it is under protest.
The radiator under the window burns my legs. A gangly man in flared jeans and a white t-shirt walks up jauntily to the next window and gazes out. As if by some conditioned reflex I look over my shoulder.
“There’s nothing like scaring them is there?”
Without waiting for my reply or my reaction, he saunters off with a vague look of satisfaction on his face. Perplexed, I return to my book.
Twenty minutes later I slide off the window-ledge. Michael returns in a borrowed bed-robe, a hand out against the wall for support.
“What’s the matter?”
“They gave me an injection.” He winces, as if remembering the pain.
I realise how unintentionally I betrayed him. “I’m sorry; I told them where you were.”
“It doesn’t matter; it’s not your fault. I have no choice – only to put it off as long as possible.” His face has a look of vulnerability and affliction – fear almost.
Suddenly I feel like an intrusive stranger, ill at ease in an alien environment. And it’s there: that strange, foreboding sense of something waiting; something that will trap me in this room if I stay too long; like a giant invisible sundew plant “Listen, I better get going.”
“I’ll come and see you next week sometime.”
“Yeah, all right.”
I leave him, marooned on his bed, protected only by the curtains he can draw if he desires privacy.