These visions of being a deserting Confederate soldier were really interfering with my work day.
Well, I say ‘visions’… That implies I went into a trance and mystical images visited me, foretelling events in my dim, dark future. I always thought the future was meant to be bright and it was the past, especially in my case, that was supposed to be dim and distant and dusky – on the edge of radiance but always with the shadow of night terrors.
And I say ‘visit’… That makes it sound like they came bearing gifts of grapes and three week old magazines with the coupons cut out, and we sit around with our cups of tea going cold whilst staring out of the window commenting inanely on the weather for just long enough to say they’ve been but not long enough to say it made a difference.
And… well… I say ‘work’… Everything in here is hard work. The brilliant, in intensity not wonderfullness, white. The slop that attempts, and fails – though can’t be blamed for its failings – to be classed as food. The minutes that hold their breath long enough to become hours.
But I seemed to be phasing out. I seemed to be daydreaming, my mind wandering around outside the confines of my head, even going so far as to exit the asylum – probably on the Number Five bus. It was my only escape, my only way out. It was my only chance to feel free of the strait jacket you wear even when you weren’t wearing one. The daydreams, however, had ceased to be mundane journeys to town, grocery shopping, bed with a beautiful woman – the things you had to think about to keep yourself sane… in the asylum…
They were becoming… odd.
Apart from films and vague memories of history lessons with Mr. Benson at school, I know not-a-lot about the American Civil War. Not being American means it’s talked about, but takes a back seat to the many wives of a certain portly king and how one of his ancestors received an arrow in the eye as a thanks for leading the country against the invaders in 1066.
So why would I be imagining I was a Confederate soldier on the run from both my comrades in arms and those I was sworn to defeat?
I know exactly why.
Every so often you meet a person who is so completely convinced about their own story, no matter how ludicrous it might sound, you can’t help but be swept away. You’re drawn into their surely make-believe world until you almost end up convinced yourself. In here, there’s a lot of people who live in worlds of their own creation, bubbles that are reinforced with despair to ensure they never pop. But you know that’s all they are. Protection against the forces of darkness, or of reality.
But Mark Richards was different. Somehow. He wasn’t necessarily more eloquent, weaving his surreality with words. Nor was he excessively manic, his fears or phobias becoming a facade of fact.
It was in his eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul, apparently. In an asylum, usually, those windows are locked tight, with the shutters shut and the curtains closed. Not so with Mark. His eyes were bright. They were alive.
We were friends. He was insane but appeared not to be, if you ignored his stories. I was not insane but appeared to be, if you didn’t ignore my own. We both had our curses. In my case, it was the deaths. In his, there were hunts and rituals and Isis and Osiris. And faceless enemies.
In both there were suicides. His father, my sister.
We were friends.
Did I believe him? You’d think I’d be mad to. Insane even. But I’ve said I’m not. I told you that already. Look past the things you know about me, those that haunt me, what I can do, that coin… that damned coin. See beyond.
OK, so I still look crazy. Fair enough. As does Mark. But it doesn’t mean that we are. Yes, it doesn’t mean that we’re not either.
Mark told me he had only a month left. But for what? He wouldn’t say. He just kept telling me that she was coming. She had a name. Sylvia Dee. His wife? Daughter? Mother? Postman’s next door neighbour’s third cousin’s chiropodist? No idea. But he was afraid of her. As thirty one days counted down, Mark became drawn. He wasn’t eating. His blackouts increased. He would flinch if anyone came in and would watch them intently, just in case they were someone else hiding in the sheep’s clothing of an orderly or patient.
Mark believed Sylvia Dee, her name always spoken together, never as simply Sylvia, was watching him. She was manipulating him. If he wasn’t gone by the end of that month, then terrible things would happen, not just ot him, but to everyone.
Fear can be contagious. In an asylum, where everyone is dumped in a recreation room to fester and ferment, contagions spread quickly. Mark’s fever was a wildfire that burned all in its path. Patients were no longer patient. They were anxious. They were afraid, and they didn’t even know why.
That was how you were with Mark. You believed him, and you shared his dread.
When he was gone, the apprehension disappeared like breath on a window. It faded to only a few drops of condensation that disturbed the clarity of the glass. But where had he gone? It wasn’t like it was overnight, when he might have been carted out by Connors, or released in the wilds to fend for himself. Or even that Sylvia Dee had turned up early and spirited him away.
No. It was during the day. He was there and he wasn’t. People don’t disappear. They really don’t. He wasn’t in the room. To my knowledge, he hadn’t gone to relieve his bladder or bowel, not that it takes days to do either. He had just gone.
And then I started to see myself as a Confederate soldier, circa 1860, with fear and blood and smoke and noise following me around like dogs desperate for me to open a tin of meat and feed them. I could even smell, could taste the air. It was acrid and bitter at the back of my throat.
Nothing odd about that, you might think. You’d be right. It’s just the musing of a madman. The thing is, Mark Richards had a thing about him. You kind of believed what he said, as crazy as it was. And the curse? His own version of my affliction? It had lasted, he said, about a hundred and thirty odd years. It had started during the American Civil War.
That Number Five bus has taken my mind on some strange journeys. Now it’s taken me back to a battle that shaped a country.
Really interferes with my working day, that.
I reckon.Learn More
Have you heard of the black stump?
It’s not like the fabled black spot of the pirates, immortalised in Treasure Island – although if you came across it, your time might be ticking away just as much as if the palm of your hand had suddenly had a black hole appear on it, sucking your life away until you didn’t even exist anymore.
The black stump.
You’d expect it to be capitalised. Bee and Ess. But it’s not.
There’s one outside the window. Not right outside, just a bit further away. All on its own, as if the other trees had fled in fear or simply didn’t want to be associated but such a deformed, maimed exhibit. IT’s only a few feet high – a little over waist height at most. Charred and black, the top disintegrated by the lightning bolt that destroyed the rest of the stump’s trunk, probably a million years ago. Well, possibly not that far back, but it was before anyone that currently resided in the asylum had arrived.
It was a spectre, haunting the edge of where any dare to go. Promising untold horrors if you were ever foolish enough to stray beyond its marker.
The black stump.
It was black. Completely. Not a hint of browns or greens or greys, or anything treeish remained. And, as mentioned, it was a stump. The other trees that adorn the vista beyond the bars on the window are behemoths in the world of flora. This was a maimed shadow of what was surely its former glory.
But the black stump’s power lay not in what it was, but rather in what it had become.
To colonial Australians, it signified, effectively, the end of the world. It marked the edge of what was known and what was unknown. Safe and scary. Okay and ohhhhh no!
Here, we were probably not so distant from them. The black stump was a sentinel, guarding against unwary travellers, warning them to step no further. And if you did, you’d quite possibly suffer the same fate as the stump itself. A lightning bolt from the heavens, striking you down, leaving nothing but your smoking shoes.
Not that we get to go out often, of course. Or are allowed anything more than simple plimsoles.
But that one time. That one time.
I hadn’t been here long. A few weeks. I was still the new boy, not yet Reverend Sin, yet to find my feet or have them swept from beneath me. I can’t even remember his name. And no-one knew how he had managed to be outside in the first place.
But he was.
Apparently he knew of the Antipodean reference. It obviously translated very well to here.
But he would be the one. He would be the courageous adventurer who tamed the savage beast. Yes, that savage beast was the burnt remnants of a long dead tree, but the significance was the same.
Unfortunately, it seemed the Institute’s very own Indiana Jones was actually scared of his own reflection. The bravado was a facade to disguise the fear. He’d hoped, if he pretended to be brave, some of it would actually rub off on him.
We all watched him. We could see him shaking from the Recreation Room. His hands were moving as he was playing an invisible piano impossibly fast. His legs were wobbling enough to make him stumble on more than one occasion. The orderlies saw him too, but, rather than stop him, they enjoyed the entertainment. He wasn’t going fast enough to warrant them initiating a chase.
As he approached the black stump, lower case bee and ess, his advance slowed and his trembling increased. He was walking through treacle with ten thousand volts coursing through every sinew. His eyes were glued to the stump as if to look away was to invite an attack.
After forever, he drew level. Even from our distance we could see his face was almost purple. His breath was laboured. His whole body one enormous shiver.
Then he stepped beyond.
He left safe and entered scary.
And he collapsed.
He didn’t move and, for a long moment, nor did anyone else. Then everyone did.
The sounds of crying mixed with those of cursing as the orderlies reliased they should, perhaps, gone after him a little sooner.
It was fear, abject and total, that killed him. A legend reached out and stopped his heart without the need of a heavenly dagger.
But it could have been something else.
It could have been that, beyond the torched carcass of the tree, no-one could actually go. The world ended as literally as his heartbeat had.
It could have been the black stump.Learn More
Wendy Wotsit, in another life, may well have been the female equivalent of Billy Graham. She had a tone and a presence that commanded respect and had a voice that swept over you like a tsunami, washing away all fear and self-loathing.
It was a pity she was doolally. As dippy as one of those funny little weighted birds you used to put on the edge of a glass and wait for it to swing enough to take a sip. She also had a personal hygiene problem – well, she didn’t. She didn’t mind that her B.O. was Bloody ‘Oribble one bit. It was everyone else who had the problem. Wendy Wotsit was more than happy with her odour. Sometimes she’d talk to it. Preach, almost.
Like it was a disciple.
Wendy Wotsit was so called for two reasons. One, her name was Wendy. It kind of seemed natural to call her that, then. Two, she couldn’t remember her second name. Just as she forgot to wash and I had discarded my surname somewhere along the rocky path to lunacy, Wendy’s wotsit had wandered off too. But that was ok. That was fine, actually, as something else had come along to fill the gap. Or someone. Or, rather, to be precisely precise, someones.
Wendy Wotsit loved to talk. She loved the sound of her own voice. But she wasn’t the only one. On a Sunday, because it had to be a Sunday, Wendy would hold court. She was a messiah in the midst of misery. Her messages of hope filled her followers’ collective heart with visions of life in the ‘real’ world – dreams of walls that were more magnolia than glaring.
Until she lost her train of thought and stood staring into the distance, even when the furthest she could see without her spectacles was roughly just short of the tips of her fingers.
Her followers, those who were enraptured by her words, would wait, though. They’d know that, eventually, she’d pick up her lost thought, figure out what order they were meant to go in and get right back into the swing. Then, when she was finally done, they’d follow her (as followers are prone to do), as she’d wander around the recreation room aimlessly. Her path would cross itself more times than an Easter bun, but they’d sweep along her like ducklings following their mother. And she was mother to them, even though every single one of them was over the age of seventy. She was easily twenty years the junior of the youngest, but still they would be lost in her sway.
I couldn’t blame them. Everyone in here needed some semblance of hope. They all needed to believe that the asylum wasn’t the sum of their lot.
I think I, out of them all, was the only one who dared not dream. My dreams were filled with the cries of the dead. One day, I was sure I wouldn’t wake up and I’d heard them haunting me for all of eternity.
Wendy Wotsit, when she could hold her lucidity in her hands and smooth it over her children like a soothing cream to fill out the cracks, was a preacher to her flock. When she couldn’t – when her lucidity went off searching for her surname and her hygiene – she existed in a flurry of forgetfulness.
I didn’t have that luxury. I dropped my surname like the grenade it was. My mind stayed right where it was meant to be, rattling around in my head, banging on the bars of my self-inflicted prison.
I envied Wendy. I really did.Learn More
I prefer the big fat bad round drops that almost hurt when they hit you in the face. The ones where you could almost dance between them. Much more satisfying than the miserly mizzle of the thin and weedy “can’t be arsed” variety.
Connors doesn’t care – he’ll use either for his own peculiar form of water torture.
Sorry, that’ll be ‘therapy’.
He figured that, if you were being particularly contrary, stick you outside, strapped into your jacket and attached to a small post that had been hammered into the ground for this very purpose, and you’d quickly change your mind. He wouldn’t do it when the sun was shining, oh no. Strangely, he didn’t when the ground was covered in three feet of snow and foot long icicles were hanging from the branches of the few trees we could see. He missed an opportunity there, I think.
No, he waited until it was raining. He believed that standing in a downpour with no way to take cover, the rain soaking through your clothes until it made every nook and crannie slick, was the best way by far to knock off that ‘UN’ that had so sneakily attached itself to ‘cooperative’.
It was worse when it was cold. Then the water would seep in through your pores, wriggling like maggots into your bones to chill you from the inside. You’d be shivering for about a week afterwards, your body shaking to try and free itself of the sub-zero infestation. You’d feel that, no matter how much you tried to dry yourself off, you were trapped in a liquid bubble that kept you drenched. Granted you often had to use your bedsheets as towels seeing as the best you were offered otherwise was a few squares of paper that aspired to be cardboard. And your clothes weren’t replaced. So you either slept naked in sopping sheets or you slept in sopping clothes in sopping sheets, the soppiness increasing exponentially to keep you wet until a week on Thursday.
Of course, as things often do, it didn’t always work in the way Connors would have liked. John Willow, for example. He was a beast of a man. Angry always. Called Silverback behind his not so silver back. You could almost expect his knuckles to be dragging along the floor. It took four orderlies, with two in reserve, to subdue him when the Silverback was feeling ‘grumpy’, and even then cattle prods sometimes had to be employed. He was found across the grounds, the uprooted post still attached to his strait jacket by the thick strap. He was dead. Hypothermia. His brutishness hadn’t been enough to protect him from the bitter cold and the onslaught of the rain, not after it had taken him two days to yank that post from the ground before he could make his getaway.
Then there was the lovely Mr. Adams. There was never a more gentle soul. He was gracious and kind and, most times, not even slightly insane. Then Friday afternoon came around, roughly half past three, and he would be a quivering wreck that would screech and lash out at any who dared come close. The schoolboy louts who’d waited for him did that. He still walked with a limp and couldn’t properly move the left side of his face.
He was found strangled. The strap was wrapped twice around his neck and was pulled so tight it had embedded itself in the skin and had to be pulled away rather than simply released.
The strap was shortened then. And the post concreted in place.
Every so often, when a storm is brewing, I cause a fuss. I hunt around for a little ‘UN’ to stick on to the ‘cooperative’ that I normally am (unless I really need those drugs) so I can be trussed up like the Sunday roast and shoved outside to face the onslaught of the elements.
The thing is, it’s OUTSIDE. The thing is, it’s FRESH AIR.
The thing is, when things were normal and I could walk along the street and dance between the raindrops without hearing the screams of the dead echoing in my head, I LIKED the rain.
The thing is, Dr. Connors, I like it. Even the drizzle. You know, the rain that gets you really wet.Learn More
There’s a town in the old mid-west – that’s out there in the US of A, y’all – called Surprise.
They say it’s called Surprise because the founders would be surprised if it ever became more than the meagre scrabblings it began life as. They’d be surprised if that one-horse town, little more than a one-trick pony, would grow from a few houses, a post office and a saloon – complete with swinging doors fitted to an entrance big enough to accommodate your stetson, your gunbelt and your swagger – into a thriving metropolis.
I’ve never been, so I can’t comment. The Surprised, as I’d guess the residents of such a place might be called, may believe their beloved town has reached the heady heights of city-hood. They may believe it hasn’t changed at all and that one horse should have been taken out back and shot, the remains being dragged off to the glue factory. Then, at least, it would be worth something.
My own place of birth, which may aspire to being more than a mere town – although its true title is Great Grimsby but it still has ‘Town’ in the name of its football team – began as the refuge for a Danish prince and his protector. It became one of the biggest fishing ports in the world. But that was then and this is now. The people of Grimsby, joined so closely with the resort of Cleethorpes they could be Siamese Twins that could scratch each others’ backsides without even moving off the sofa, either think it’s an OK place to live or it’s a hole in the ground that forgot to swallow. Or they don’t think anything at all and simply exist.
I suppose that’s the same anywhere. It’s great, it’s OK, it’s a dump… or it just is.
Anywhere, of course, except here.
Dr. Connors’ personal Paradise.
The residents’ private Purgatory.
I can’t say it’s a dump. It’s not. It’s fastidiously clean. It’s so crispy white you could cut your eyes if you looked up too quickly. But the food is slop. The orderlies – most of them anyway – are arrogant or apathetic. And Connors reigns supreme.
So it’s not a dump, but it’s not OK and it’s certainly not ‘great’.
Its founding father didn’t hope to turn the one-trick pony into a thoroughbred racehorse, nor was he protecting the heir to a foreign throne. He wanted to help, to cure… no, he wanted to dominate. The latter, though, doesn’t appear in the ads.
The asylum, the institute, the home away from anywhere and everywhere – home away from hope – isn’t anything really.
It just is.
Why am I not Surprised?Learn More