Over the next two months, I will be publishing the first part of my novel on this blog. If you enjoy it, share it! You will soon be able to buy the whole book from Levellers Press.
“They are so confident that they will run on forever. But they won’t run on.”
‘WE ARE THE VOID AND WE FIGHT FOR SILENCE.’ The man wrote these words carefully, with an ancient felt tip, on the concrete wall next to where he sat, legs dangling over the dirty undulating mass of plastic bottles, packets and carrier bags that floated on the tide. To his left, not quite touching him, sat a young dark woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform frowning at the hazy red sunrise, shading her face with one slender hand; her fingernails were perfectly manicured burgundy. She followed the seagulls with her eyes, diving and fighting, sighed, let her head drop into both hands and massaged her temples and eyes.
She was watching an advert…Do you crave truly stimulating orgasms? Love lets you go deeper. For truly intelligent passion. Buy Love, the mindful fuck.’ Sound effects, electronic bells, fade out…
The man lightly tapped her shoulder and she looked up at him, frowning with expectation: as if what he was about to say might solve everything, but she doubted it. He pointed to the words he had written on the wall; she leant over him to read them, not permitting their bodies to touch. His hand moved a fraction toward her, then dropped away. She looked into his face, still hoping for an answer, then bent her head to read the words again. She nodded sadly and returned to rubbing her face and forehead with her fingertips. The morning sun began to burn, warning of the terrible heat that was to come. Using the same felt tip, he scribbled over the words until they were illegible.
Awkwardly, he took her hand. She allowed this, but kept her eyes fixed on the piles of rubbish beneath their feet. He held her fingers softly and spoke under his breath,
‘Do you agree to that?
‘How can I agree?’
Fear shot through him. ‘I thought you wanted to?’
‘I thought I did.’
His pulse slowed, ‘You did, you did. One day we will live in silence together and we will be as free as birds my darling, trust me.’ She looked up at the gulls, her face immobile. His cheeks burned – it was a bad line.
‘But I can’t remember silence.’
‘Believe me. Come this way.’
He stood up, holding her hand tightly. She rose more slowly, dusting off her uniform. They were both sweating. He led her across the tramlines towards a derelict shop with its shutters pulled down. Outside, he coughed loudly five times. Someone inside approached and began grappling with the shutters…
Better to be dead than pumped full of Corporation excrement, the old man thought. Outside the hospital, the air burned. Inside, the man sat facing the window in the hard chair he had moved so that he could look out. He was still: gazing into the foggy yellow distance. Cold air, blowing from the floor, stirred the hairs of his balding head.
Outside his glass door, a junior medic paused for breath. Normally she liked the ex-government patients. They lived in the City Hospital, as there was no apartment space in the City for olds. The Suburbs were far too dangerous. And it was best practice to keep them under observation. Olds could become unstable and, as all psychiatrists knew, instability was a danger to the patient and to the peace of the entire City.
She glanced at the sensor and the doors slid open. She entered – XR4, old medic. The disorder was abnormal. Used issues lay beside his bed and around his chair. His slippers looked as if they had been thrown. He turned to look at her. She looked past him.
‘How are we this morning?’ Always Cheerful, a psychiatrist’s maxim.
‘Her eye passed over him. She guessed from the abnormal fixed stare that he wasn’t focused on his Iscreen. His apparent disregard for the screen upset her. Could it be disabled? It wasn’t possible. But she could feel his eyes roaming her face. She became conscious of her limbs. A lonely animal part responded. Doctor’s visuals were disabled during work hours; despite herself, she looked right back at him and felt a jolt. She struggled for air. She moved her eyes away. He hummed four sad notes. He’s disabled the audio too? (A thought, an intuition.) One only ever heard humming in unison with the Iscreen. She didn’t recognise this melody.
She was cheerful again. ‘What activities have we got lined up for today?’
‘Hot Yoga, Community Movie.’
She took his right finger and attached the blood pressure monitor. His hand was heavy and muscular. He was still strong. The delicate skin was warm. His blood pressure was dangerously high. She recorded the data on her palm control. Her eyes took in his bony bare toes. Some of the tissues around his feet were neatly rolled, not crumpled. She glanced down at the paper cup to make sure his meds had been consumed. She waited for her audio to signal the end of the five minute consultation. He was trying to meet her eye again. Time passed painfully.
‘Are you nearly finished this rotation miss?’
Patients never spoke unprompted. She was confused. ‘A new junior will take over in two weeks.’
‘You remind me of somebody.’
Despite the bizarre nature of the comment she was not surprised. Without thinking, she smiled.
Her audio beeped. Grateful, she turned away. She felt her arms dangling. She didn’t want to be watched and enjoyed knowing he was looking.
Once alone, he hummed a little and enjoyed the silence. Silence was his last friendly companion: it left his tired brain in peace. He was aware of familiar pointless emotion and the physical memory of a woman leaning heavily against him. He allowed himself to imagine, for a moment, the room where they used to sit. He gave the wall a kick. Suddenly, he couldn’t catch his breath. There was, again, that choking tightness in his chest and arms. Gagging on disinfected air, he gaped at the yellow sky. Why should all that noise bother me so much? There was something in her look
Off timetable the following afternoon, she sat outside her consultant’s office. Cold sweat dried in her armpits. Her uniform stuck to her. It was summer; she had been suffocated by the record heat on her lunchtime walk. But, inside, the Cleenair was chilly. Her teeth chattered; she ground them. Her audio beeped and she rose to enter the office of Consultant K.
K, a renowned researcher and practitioner, was Head of Psychiatry at the City Hospital; she possessed assured status and power. Part of her role was to advise The Corporation on mental health policy. She wore a shimmering white suit and a genuine gold blouse. Her slippery red mouth did not move when the junior entered.
‘I see that patient XR4 presented high blood pressure yesterday?’ Did you highlight this?’
‘Yes, no… But the patient has a history of high blood pressure so I didn’t action the reading.
‘A psychiatrist must notice the physical as well as the behavioural.’
‘Please attend an urgent review after your work is finished at nineteen o five this pm.’
‘Will do.’ She smiled, positive at all times. And rose, dismissed.
The meeting began with formalities: cameras and identities checked. Attending were the psychiatrist, Consultant K, a short nurse from Rest Ward and a mid-level manager who – disgruntled with the after-hours conference – was fiddling with his ear.
The junior was agitated. Her fear had been gathering all afternoon. She tried to think it was just the automatic response any cityzen experiences when the guards appear in a City mall, though they are never there for the professionals. She had told herself that she had followed procedure during yesterday’s consultation with the old, but knew it wasn’t true. And she desperately needed K’s endorsement, because K was one of the three seniors conducting her final review in one week’s time, which would decide upon her first real professional role.
K asked her for her opinion on XR4’s level of engagement the previous afternoon. The junior stated the data as she had recorded it, humbly acknowledging again her failure to highlight his blood pressure. K was glancing slightly to the right, reading from her Iscreen; she tapped a number into her palm control. Cleaner than life, a recording of XR4’s voice, and the junior’s, played inside the ears or all four.
‘Are you nearly finished this rotation miss?’
‘A new junior will take over in two weeks.’
‘You remind me of somebody.’
K looked at her with triumph, delighted to have the hard evidence. She asked if the junior had, by any chance, become acquainted with this particular old in a professional capacity during her training. She hadn’t.
‘Then could you explain why you have simply ignored his pathetic attempt to create attachment between himself and a professional medic? As an ex-medic he knows this is totally outside the parameters of acceptable dialogue. His disregard for parameters is a clear symptom of potentially delusional transference, which – as you know – ought to be highlighted so that a consultant can conduct a review, prescribe meds and recommend a way forward. We are not friends with the patients. He don’t help them by encouraging delusion. We must engage in personal dialogue only once we are qualified and only for professional reasons.’
‘You are correct.’
‘So, having recognised your error, what can you recommend? I suggest transfer to a ward where his heart abnormality can be properly managed, and an immediate course of appropriate mood stabilizers. Would you support this?
All transfers required the certification of two medical professionals, one of whom could be a junior, but not a nurse. The question was therefore an official request for endorsement of a senior’s medical opinion. The answer had to be acquiescence.
The junior realised with horror that she might cry – something she hadn’t indulged in since she was a teenager at the Academy. She looked over at the nurse, whose eyes were fixed to the floor. K gave her an angry smile. The junior’s mind was yellow, like the sky over the City. She didn’t have a medical opinion. Whom did she remind him of? The manager let go of his ear and loudly tapped one toe several times on the plastic floor: he was about to miss the early tram for F Block. She thought of the future. Before she had always imagined herself making decisions, discovering the intricacies of relationships between synapses, sleeping in a luxury apartment in C, or even B, Block and choosing her own exquisite furniture. Now she saw a small old woman sitting in XR4’s chair staring into the foggy yellow sky. She understood that she missed his face and – even – that she would like to touch him again. At the same time, she remembered she hadn’t even taken a swab to confirm his standard meds had been consumed. In her distress, one single thought was clear – I am alone.