“You’re going through a tough time Steven” somebody commented.
“It could be better” I agreed, not really in the mood for talking.
My interlocutor was Stan, a man of about my age who had been admitted to the ward three weeks ago with an acute relapse of psychosis. He was stable again now, and I had been impressed with his articulate understanding of mental illness, society and the ward. He seemed curiously at peace, even though his family rarely visited and his early promise at university had been annihilated by schizophrenia and lengthy periods of hospitalization. His ‘romantic life’ had disappeared at roughly the same time as his success, and no doubt this had made him sensitive to my current plight.
“I’m afraid they don’t really understand places like this” he said. “It’s embarrassing and frightening to them.”
“I suppose you can’t blame them for wanting to be somewhere else” I said.
“Yeah. Love and morals only take people so far. Then it’s ‘what about the children’, and ‘I deserve a life too’. “
“You don’t think she’ll be back then?”
“Who can say? I’m only glad I don’t rely on things like that any more.”
“So what will you be doing when you leave?”
“I’ll go back to the village.”
“C——- Village. It’s one of the religious communities up on the H—— hills.”
“Oh, one of the therapeutic communities?”
“I suppose you could call it that, but it’s really a way of life rather than therapy. About half the people who live there have never had a mental disorder, they just like the idea of working as part of a large family. It’s back to basics, of course, and ‘close to nature’ in a way which sounds cheesy, but really isn’t. You ought to come out and see for yourself.”
The tea trolley trundled around the day room, interrupting our conversation, and my mind began to tick. I was in the mood for radical changes, as people always are when a crisis breaks the mould of routine and complacency. Could C—— Village provide a solution for me? I knew that these places sometimes took whole families, and my imagination began to soar in a wildly evangelical direction. Could I persuade Carol…..?
I swivelled 90 degrees and observed the svelte figure of Carol weaving through the coffee tables towards me. She had clearly spent the morning in the bathroom as usual, with freshly tinted hair, sparkling teeth and the intermingling aromas of shampoo, anti-perspirant and patchouli oil intoxicating all in her wake. But as momentary eye contact was lost, my visceral admiration wavered, and I detected that her bonhomie was far too extravagant for the circumstances. She always performed for new audiences like Betty Grable at a big break audition, effortlessly switching her binary personality from 0 to 1 for maximum effect, but this time something was different. As she sat in front of me ignoring everything I said and beaming sideways at perfect strangers, I noticed an extra special esprit in her manner which I hadn’t seen for many years. After 15 minutes of unreal politeness, awkward vacillation and routine fencing, I looked at the right ear which was turned towards me, and enquired:
“Where are the kids today?”
“Sorry?” she said, pulling her attention away from the pink-shirted charge nurse at the end of the room.
“Where are the kids today” I repeated.
“Oh, one of my friends from work has taken them to see Star Wars XXIV at the Ritz.”
“I see. Is it Andrea?”
“Sorry?” she said, abandoning her non-verbal rapport with a tweedy young doctor in the doorway.
“Has Andrea taken them to the cinema?”
“Oh no. It’s one of the others – nobody you know.”
“It would have been nice to see the kids.”
“It would have been nice to see the kids!” I insisted.
“For goodness sake, there’s no need to shout!” she shouted. “I just thought it would be better if they enjoyed themselves for once. It’s no fun for them in here.”
“I didn’t choose to be in here.”
“Didn’t you?” she sneered. “ Quite a few of your work-mates seem to have been in and out of places like this, just so they could cop out. Why not you?”
“For God’s sake, I had a genuine breakdown! It was because I was having to cope with all that low grade corruption and filth and endless stupidity that I couldn’t take any more.”
“Well, in the end it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s genuine or not. You’re still here.”
“It doesn’t make any difference?”
“No not really. “
“But I was fighting for something that was right and fair. Something less wasteful and less rotten…..”
“If the world’s as mad as you say it is” she interrupted “the only sane thing to do is to adapt to it, otherwise you’ll be driven mad yourself.”
“You’ve always been anti-social Steven. That’s your big problem.”
“Well……. if society means a collection of performing narcissists, mindless bureaucrats, animalistic thugs and shameless freeloaders dancing together over the cliff – yes, I’m very much against it.”
“Anyway” she said “I’ve got to meet Bil ….er…my friend at 4 0’clock to pick up the kids.”
“Bill who?” I enquired.
“Look, I can’t explain now” she said “I’ll write soon, but I’m going away for a few days break.”
“I’ll write soon.”
“Take care then” I said, no longer wanting to hear the truth. “And have a nice time.”
For a few moments she looked shaken and contrite, her eyes shining like mine, shared memories holding us in our seats, but then she was gone. And gone for good (or bad), I could no longer tell the difference. Only the perfume, and the image of her catwalk back remained.
My ‘aberration’ had certainly superimposed a liberating fantasy on the world, but the reality itself stood unchanged, leaving me balanced between the anaesthesia of collapse, and the alienation of recovery. I sat in limbo, sensing society waiting outside the ward, and fearing its incursion. I hid within the hospital, far away from my hometown and the embarrassments contained there, waiting for the past to heal and the future to happen. The unit, of course, remained gloriously untouched by my pyrotechnic delusions; its armour-plated system destined to kill the patients with disabling kindness, long after my nightmare was over.
So, time passed in the nondescript day room while people with parallel scars on their arms dived for broken crockery, others returned from the E.C.T. suite with glazed looks and cups of tea, and new admissions combined their paranoid delusions and hypo-manic flights of ideas into a bedlam of noise and threat. Staff chased fleeing patients, and sometimes patients chased fleeing staff, while opportunist anorexics made for the nearest toilet to regurgitate pellets of food under cover of mayhem. Snooker balls went through windows, and a 1950’s drug trolley squeaked around the ward four times a day, dispensing manna from neuroleptic heaven. Hours of boredom were punctuated with flashes of bloody violence, and intra-muscular injections peppered supine buttocks with daily regularity. Then I began to receive my first visits.
“Good morning, Dr. J—–” said a voice at my elbow.
“Morning” I replied, wondering who the pin-striped stranger might be.
“I’m Dennis G——. I represent Legal, Accident and Slow Recovery Ltd., a firm specialising in employer’s liability.
“Yes. Forgive the intrusion, but I think you may be entitled to substantial compensation for the stress which led to your recent…hem…difficulties, and I would like to offer our firm’s services.”
“So, you’re an ambulance chaser?”
“That’s not a term we would use ourselves Mr. J—–. We see our job more as defending the rights of the little man against large, negligent organisations.”
“Very noble” I commented “but I’m afraid it goes against my principles to suck money out of a system which is already riddled with users and charlatans, so I’ll have to pass on it.”
“Surely your family…..”
“No, sorry, please don’t wheel out your manual on persuasion techniques. I’m certain.”
“Well, if you’re absolutely sure you’re certain, I’d better call back another day” he said “Perhaps when your wife, or doctor, is present?”
“Look, the fact that I don’t want to pursue the easy money of litigation doesn’t make me mad. Maybe I don’t want the stress, or need the greed. Maybe I just don’t want any part of a society which is turning into an anarchic shambles.“
“Of course. Very well” he said, in a manner and tone usually reserved for unreasonable children. ‘Bye for now Dr. J—-.”
I watched his blue and white chalk striped suit disappear down the corridor, and wondered if ‘tosser’ ran all the way through his body, like ‘Brighton’ in Brighton rock. I also wondered where he’d got his information from, and why people seemed so determined to destroy their social organisations with individual avarice. It was like bees eating their own hive. A few days later, a ‘Legal, Accident and Slow Recovery Ltd.’ standard letter arrived:
Dear Dr. J—-,
Further to the interest you have shown in pursuing a compensation claim against your employers, we would be very pleased to act for you in the matter, and look forward to receiving your advices in due course. We hope you don’t recover too quickly from your injuries, and assure you of our best attentions at all times.
D. G —–.
When I did wake up, I was still disorientated, and the room hung around me like a pointillist painting, with dots of colour forming half-familiar images on a dazzling white canvass, forcing my eyes firmly closed again.
The word brought the room vaguely into focus, and now I could make out three people looking down on me, in my white sheets in a white room with white light.
I was back.
For a while I felt bewildered and numb, with my memory mercifully dim, selective and distant. I was drained rather than refreshed, and my mind seemed to stall whenever it met the past, and the problems preserved there. Drugs had obviously put out the fireworks, but when I tried to refocus my mind, uncover the causes of my collapse and get things back in perspective, I struggled. It was difficult enough for the therapist to help me revisit past events, but it was impossible for him to change the world which had created those events, and would create them again – if it got the chance. Therapy could only help me ‘adjust’ to things I thought were wrong. In a sense, it could only help me fail.
Punching the air like a triumphant quarterback, I revelled in the emptiness of the unit and the cathartic moment. At last I was free, and the quivering front door appeared in the distance like an approaching star gate, but when I got near enough to touch it, all I could see was a massive grey portal towering above me at an impossible height. Devastated, I wondered why fate had dealt me such a cruel blow at such a late stage; until a spectral hand rested on my shoulder and made my soul jump through my throat:
“I need a cigarette now!” roared a familiar voice in my ear.
“Then I’m afraid you’re going to be bloody disappointed for once” I said.
“What! I need a cigarette now! Now! Now!” she yelled.
“Not now” I whispered.
“Now! Now! Now! Now!” she chanted, as I turned my back, and waited for providence.
“Now! Now! NOW! NOW! NOW!…… BANG!”
My head jerked around and I saw that the lady was no longer there. Instead, a huge effigy sparked and flashed, sending plumes of white fire into the air, filling the corridor with acrid smoke and thick soot. The door swung open and I fled.
Silently, I watched the flames licking the gable ends of the empty unit, the windows cracking and the walls going slowly black. Resisting the temptation to bring a toasting fork and loaf of bread, I contented myself with warming my hands on the inferno, singing one chorus of ‘Roasting Chestnuts on an Open Fire’, and walking past the nearby telephone box without delay. Richard and some of the other stragglers stood next to his customised bubble car with Roll Royce grill, looking like stunned survivors of a broken Chinese terracotta army, and decidedly ill. Saying nothing.
From then on it was easy. My magical powers were unstoppable, and as I strode through the frozen streets my imagination performed effortless miracles of reform and revision. The moon became full and bathed the town in friendly light, a warm breeze began to thaw winter’s grip, and curtains were opened revealing cheerful families with smiley faces. Children played without being cruel, adults waved without design, and dogs approached with wagging tails and no bite. I replaced every cheap and nasty concrete carbuncle with wonderfully restored period buildings, emptying Swiss bank accounts to pay for it. I removed all signs of graffiti by organising chain gangs of graffiti artists to lick the buildings clean, and I ensured that every scrap of litter was returned to the perpetrators, through their letterboxes.
All those who continued to fill the town with their pets’ dung, woke up to find the excreta occupying their living room carpets, and every criminal was automatically victim to the same crime themselves until they stopped. There was no more career unemployment with twenty-five year old men skate boarding all day, no more compensation for being stupid and falling over a matchstick, no more sick pay for professional hypochondriacs, and no benefits for those who only used their walking sticks when somebody was looking.
People stopped climbing over each other in their thirst for toys, they accepted they weren’t always right, they grew up and had a sense of history, tradition, nationhood and community. They gave up wearing baseball caps and living off their parents until they were 40, they stopped talking about things instead of doing them, and they promised to forget about money for at least ten minutes every day. They rediscovered the idea of God, thought about how feeble and short-lived human beings really were, and put arrogant sneers and smart suits into smart perspective. ‘Fat cats’ were put on crash diets, and golden handshakes for corporate failures were re-routed to state pensions for ordinary heroes. ‘The Age of the Ego’ was reviled, outlawed and forgotten.
Well, that was the long-term plan.
Taking a look around, I was pleased to see that the unit was now quiet and peaceful at last. Like no man’s land after a terrifying artillery barrage had ceased, the world stood still, and a profound silence baffled the senses. The clocks had stopped, the T.V. sets were dead, the activity board was blank, and there was not a person to be seen. It was obviously time for a well-deserved break and so I sat downstairs drinking champagne, eating truffles, and watching the manager’s favourite Marilyn Monroe video; until the feeling slowly returned that something was still wrong.
Something remained unresolved.
“Open the door” a voice rasped.
There was indeed a violet coloured door on my left, and with heart bounding, breath shortening and flesh creeping, I moved reluctantly but inexorably towards it. In best horror movie style, it swung open of its own accord and I was pulled into a dark chamber by invisible hands. The flickering light was provided by three or four black candelabra set on crumbling stone walls, before which I perceived a large Jacobean table surrounded by a dozen satanic forms. Looking like a group of gigantic ravens they wore sable cloaks, and peered at me through leather masks with hard, black eyes.
“Good grief, what a ridiculous getup” I said irreverently.
“Silence!” boomed the head honcho. “You are here to be sentenced for the most heinous crimes known to HealthTrust law. Now, kneel before your masters!”
“Piss off you pretentious sod” I responded. “And take off those masks, so I can see my accusers.”
Stripping off their masks with a synchronised flourish, the satanic beings revealed a row of hideous, slavering animal faces.
“Ah… ha! I thought as much – the senior managers making a rare clinical visit” I said “What can I do for you?”
“Silence microbe! We are here to dispense omniscient justice!”
Although I should have been quaking in my boots, I couldn’t help noticing that the weird animal faces were actually more recognisable than the managers’ everyday physiognomy. Their true personalities shone through the grey, anonymous uniformity of their normal appearances, and I gazed with growing interest at the mean-looking weasel, the breast-beating baboon, the assortment of over-promoted aardvarks, and the strange hunched creature from the Island of Dr. Moreau, who said:
“You are charged and convicted of (a) insisting that patients take more responsibility for their own lives, (b) arguing that paper work is less important than effective clinical care, (c) suggesting that managers are overpaid, out of touch poseurs, and (d) implying that staff who receive £1,200 a month for not being at work should be sacked. …….This is unspeakable blasphemy of the highest conceivable order, and you are therefore sentenced to the most ghastly punishment it is in our power to inflict.”
“And what is that?” I enquired.
“You will continue to work at the hospital’s Psychiatric Rehabilitation Unit until the day you croak”
“Aaaaaarrrrrrcccchh!!! No! No! No! Not that, you vile fiends” I shrieked in despair and outrage.
“Yes! Yes! Until the day you croak!” the drooling managers chanted, beating their fists on the table, and wetting themselves with delight.
“Please don’t make me angry” I warned in a deepening voice, my pupils involuntarily dilating, and my shirt splitting open to reveal a barrel of bulging green muscle above modesty-preserving elasticated trousers. “Oh, too late! Now it’s your turn for a bit of natural justice!”
Seizing the oak table with irresistible force, I whirled it around my head and watched the managers hanging onto it like bats in a tornado. On and on I span the table, seeing their puke pebble-dash the walls and their dribble splash the floor, thinking of the time and money these prize buffoons had wasted, enjoying every little moment of their overdue comeuppance, until at last I flung the table down into a dim, slimy corner; the perfect resting place for their ilk. But the managers had been carefully selected for their mindless obduracy, and I watched with interest as the table scuttled out of the room, propelled by pairs of cockroach legs, scurrying for freedom, pausing only briefly at the coffee machine.
“Hang on a minute” I said.
And there was just time to stick on the address:
Flip Chart Heaven,
Pie in the Sky,
Never Never Land.