The first time I ever see a moth he’s pinned down by two of Dry Rot’s boys. At least I think it’s a he; the women have taken to masculine dress and gait to cut down the rape statistics.
Dry Rot’s here, of course, four feet away from the three men struggling in front of me. A short, stocky man of shadow. By far the most striking aspect of Dry Rot’s appearance is his shrapnel piercing: a line of holes in his person stretching from the root of his left ear, hooking under his chin and striving for, but not quite reaching, the right ear. These holes are kept patent by rings made of shell fragments, cracked bullets, and any other metal originating from spent ordnance.
“Good evening, Dr. Bonadventure,” he says. His voice carries even though he speaks without effort. Easy to see how he became a leader of men.
“I’m not a doctor,” I say, and focus on the moth. At close range he’s certainly a male, scruffy even by Zone standards, sweating, raw friction burns on both forearms. His neck is a tube of writhing worms, veins standing out with his vain struggle against Dry Rot’s muscle men. I lift my oil lamp to his eyes–should use a pen torch but we are conserving–and the iris points north, leaving an excess of white. Pupils reactive, which is good. I move his head around a bit, confirming a unidirectional gaze.
“Room twenty-seven, and be gentle. He’s no use to anybody if he gets a septic wound and dies.” I look to Dry Rot as they drag the moth up the stairs. “Are you going to come inside? There’s food. ‘All offices are open, and there is full liberty of feasting from this present hour–‘”
“Whoa, doc, don’t get all lyrical on me,” said Dry Rot. “Rain check, okay? Give the boys my share.”
I am real.
This is not a Dream.
I am Anslem Bonadventure, and I live in Middle England.
I have to think these thoughts everyday or… something. I’m not sure what.
Sometimes I say these thoughts out loud, when things get really fragmented.
I say, “I am real.”
It rings hollow like the ministrations of a prostitute.
Dry Rot wears a trench coat, and there are two items he carries everywhere: a sawed-off double shotty and a shrunken human head, hole in the crown to accommodate the chain with which it dangles from his belt.
The mouth is frozen in a grimace.
Though I persist, he will not tell me whose head it used to be.
I’m halfway up the stairs outside the Institute when I hear Dry Rot’s voice.
“Doc, you better take a look at this.”
I turn around and he’s pointing at a small group of people gathering near the Institute wall. Their laughter is already raucous and they point upwards. My stomach churns; I know why they’re doing it, who they’re looking at. Third story window, Patricia, nude and in the mood to give a show. I try to ignore the catcalls and finish my cursory on the moth, but it’s too late and I’m distracted.
“Thank you, Dry Rot, and since you declined my food that will be all.”
I sweep ahead of the boys and make my way into the darkness of the Institute. My lamp barely lights me a path.
“Anomaly Induced Suicidality.” For this, McMahon adopts his lecture voice. I shift from arsecheek to arsecheek on the saddle. “That’s what I called it. Nice descriptive name, easy to remember. The colloquials didn’t adopt it, though. Instead, they called the victims moths. Evocative, I”ll grant.”
Colloquials is what McMahon calls people he considers uneducated, which pretty much includes everybody who is not called McMahon.
He clips the electrodes to the shaved temples of the patient. The electrolyte gel makes the scalp glisten in the dull kerosene lantern light.
“It was much commoner in the months following the event that created the Pit. Previously normal people would just lose focus and start walking towards it, neglecting to eat or drink, no matter how far away they were. They crossed London as if it were an apparition site like Lourdes or that bleeding windowpane in Seattle or wherever. I wrote numerous papers describing the phenomenon.”
I know this already. He made me read them all two years ago, but I say nothing. I keep my feet in the pedals and idle while McMahon connects the analogue multimeter to the capacitance unit. The latter is a mass of wires cobbled together with lithium and sulphuric acid batteries as a starter unit surrounding a core of giant capacitors. It is something out of a mad scientist movie from the thirties. No phallic Van der Graaf generator, though.
“It took a year for me to realise that death was the culmination of their melancholic pilgrimage. The dissociation is complete: they are unresponsive to their names or noxious stimuli.
“The colloquials oversimplified as usual, said it was like a moth to flame. Appropriate imagery, considering the photic activity of the Pit, but flawed. Start the pedals, Anslem.”
I start to cycle, watch the dial flicker with the dynamo-generated current. I’ve been told digital readouts exist, but never seen one. There is no crackle, no sparks to indicate the amount of voltage generated, but McMahon nods his big head, and I know I’m doing well.
“Faster, Anslem. We don’t have all day now, do we?” He adjusts the bit in the patient’s mouth. The struggles are futile and comical to me. I bite my inner cheek to stop a guffaw from rising and pedal faster, my thighs and calves taut and hot.
“The moths are not attracted to the flame like their entomological namesakes. True, they move towards the radiation of the pit but it does not attract them; they are repelled by the darkness without. The bleakness–faster!–the bleakness of life outside the Pit literally drives their true selves beneath the surface, and all that is left is the instinct to escape into the only source of light and beauty.
McMahon flips the switch, and this time there are sparks. I breathe like I just did the hundred in nine.
The twitching starts in the forearm muscles just beneath the strap. It spreads from here, and I have a fleeting fear that the bounds won’t hold, but it always does. Within seventeen seconds, he is convulsing all over. The bit has his mouth maximum width so he cannot scream or bite his tongue. Foamy saliva spills down his face, and his back arches. I’ve seen patients die because the seizure flexed their back too suddenly, severing the spine.
“Hmm. Burnt the scalp. Would you look at that,” says McMahon just before the barbecue smell reaches me and I retch.
This is a real event, not a dream.
I am an apprentice when this happens.
In the darkness beyond the range of my lamp, unquiet minds scream, some silent, some vocal. I need no light to get to Patricia’s room, but my calves and knees ache by the time I get there. Six flights of stairs, and I’m puffing.
From outside Pat’s room I can hear the din from the street. A passing thought: did Dry Rot stay to catch a glimpse of Pat’s flesh? She laughs, drives coherent thought from my head. I unlock the door, step in, lock it behind me, leave the key in the hole in case orderlies decide to investigate.
She is backing me, the curve of her spine deepening into the cleft of her buttocks. Inoffensive cellulite sacculation. I see the dome of each heavy breast alternatively from each side as she shakes them for her audience.
“For fuck’s sack, Pat–” I blow out both lanterns. I feel like flinging them to the floor, but oil is expensive, and I might start a fire.
Beyond her, outside the window, men strain, crane their necks. They know she is still there. For her part, Pat looks back at them. Wistfully?
Without looking at me, she says, “I’m meant to be a mad woman, Anslem. I thought I might act like it.”
I say nothing. I seethe because strangers have seen her pubic hair, because Dry Rot has seen her naked.
“You haven’t been here in two days,” she says, and clutches my crotch, borderline painful.
She pulls me to her, and I seethe in a different way.
This is a dream.
I know it’s a dream, but I also know it’s real, the way dreams feel real when you’re in them. It’s the McMahon Institute, and I’m inside the room of one of the clients. It’s time for the morning rounds, but I cannot find anyone to accompany me.
The converted cathedral is too quiet, so I decide to search for other staff members, but I cannot make it to the door. I am paralysed.
I look outside the door, but all I can see is me looking in on myself. Then I’m back inside the paralysed me and the round has started. I am the only patient and the orderlies are all former patients of mine, dead ones, moths, schizophrenics, depressives, bipolars, borderlines, sufferers of cyclothymia.
McMahon is there, too.
He explains my malady to the team in tedious polysyllables. I scream but no sound comes out.
I wake up in my bed, and I’m relieved. I sit up, look out the port in the door, and there’s McMahon with a gaggle of psychotic nurses and orderlies.
Then I wake up for real, with Pat asleep beside me. It’s still intermittently dark, but quiet and cold. The Pit is giving a light show and the room is bright with reflected light from just below the horizon of burnt-out skyscrapers. Goosebumps cover Pat’s breasts and her nipples are erect, but not from passion. A pustule discharges lazily down her shoulder.
I check the lock on the door, look outside to be sure that I’m truly awake, then dress up.
The lesson I have learnt from knowing Patricia is this: women are for life, not just Christmas.
If the Institute were still a church, this would be my congregation: Seine, brought two summers ago, whose umbilicus whispers the deep secrets of the cosmos; Ali, who cannot stop crying and knows not the reason; Ben, in goggles and handcuffs because of repeated attempts at gouging out his own eyes; Ordell, still as a statue, catatonic for close to five years, can’t wipe his own arse without help; Singh, who sets fires; Alice, who is manic and thinks she is the Holy Virgin; Dean is chaotic, undiagnosed, dangerous; Christopher, who beat his mother to death for calling him Ernest, which happens to be the name with which he was christened.
And so on.
This is my flock.
The moth is on the table, and I fill the syringe prepared for him. A nurse called Owen stands by just in case the patient gets violent, although it’s difficult to imagine what a sixty-kilogram man can do against straps that have held down hulks stoned on Angel Dust.
Owen is balding and soft spoken, from the West Coast in the US somewhere, volunteered to come into the zone. He’s not so big, but his arms are like tempered steel. Owen is by far the strongest man I have ever met. I always wonder what guilt he is washing away by being this close to the Pit. Most of the indigenous rich have left the UK after all. He has a girlfriend we all call ‘Noddy’ behind his back on account of a nervous tic she has. She’s sweet, if a little desperate, and the tic is funny as hell because it makes it seem like she’s agreeing with everything you say.
The moth doesn’t struggle.
The fluid in the syringe is a mystery to me. I selected it out of a batch of six thousand different ampoules sorted by shape and colour. I do what McMahon taught me.
We have no antipsychotics, no antidepressants, no mood stabilizers, no sedatives. We have no Electro-Convulsive Therapy. We improvise, though.
For shock treatment, we have the contraption that McMahon designed that generates electricity from a modified dynamo.
We have alcohol. Hooch, actually, but it does the trick.
A while back, some hooligans found a stash of medication and brought it to the Institute, every single box without label. The only way to find out the effects is by trial and error.
“Waste not, want not. Use the suicides.” McMahon, the pragmatist.
Through his ‘trials’, we discover which ones are tranquillisers, but it is hard going, and we lose quite a few to catastrophic reactions. Could be strychnine in the boxes for all we know.
I go intramuscular for this one, depress the plunger, empty the syringe. Owen and I wait and wait, but nothing changes, so we call the orderlies who take the moth back to his room. I’m filing the ampoule under “delayed action” in the ledger when we hear shouts. Outside, the moth is on the floor, eyes wide open, still. The orderlies stare at him like they’ve broken mama’s favourite china.
I turn to Owen. “Are the phones working?”
“Are you kidding? After the light storm we had last night?”
“Fine. Send a messenger to Mrs. Harker. Tell her we have a place for her daughter.”
The first time I see the Institute, I am frightened for two understandable, but, as it happens, irrelevant reasons.
There was the centuries-old cathedral for one. I’m standing there, left hand squeezed bloodless by my mother, looking up at these spires and the workers trying to secularise it, barring the windows, building extension wings, breaking off headstones from the tasteful cemetery beside it, and it makes me want to piss in my pants. It is a lovely summer day, and the street garbage and turds are both well illuminated and dry, less chance of stepping in them. The cathedral looks as if it has wrapped leftover darkness from the night around itself, and I wonder why God would live in such a loathsome place.
My irrational fear: that I will be lifted off the ground by an unseen malignant force and allowed to drop on the spiky, wicked-looking spires where I will hang impaled for eternity.
And then I see McMahon for the first time, and a drop or two of urine warms my shorts for real this time. I already know of him, like everybody does. The way my mother tells it, McMahon is a crazy old coot, perfect for managing crazyfolk. She says she one day sees a six-five crack addict charge him, but the man doesn’t bat an eyelid, just stands there in harm’s way, speaking into a Dictaphone. When the attacker is a foot away McMahon pulls out a taser and stuns him, casual-like, still speaking into the recorder. There are many legends about McMahon–I have spread some of them myself–but in person he is ten times as scary.
He is bearded, wears glasses that lack frames and are smudged, is thin, but looks wiry. His eyes are fire opals, and his gaze is impossible to hold in its intensity. I last twenty seconds before my soul shrivels up, and I study my sandal-clad feet.
“I see you received my message, Mrs. Bonadventure.” He sounds like a lion with human vocal cords.
“Yes, doctor,” says my mother. She pushes me forward. “This is my Anslem.”
“Anslem Bonadventure,” says McMahon. “Good old reliable binomial nomenclature. A surname is excellent genetic branding. This new thing of having single names is just tommyrot, don’t you agree, Anslem?”
I think for a minute, then I say: “What if the single name were a combination of the two previous names?”
McMahon’s mouth goes through some contractions, and he grits his teeth and turns to my mother. “Can he read?”
He purses his lips and looks behind us. My father stands on the street, docile and euphoric from the crushed opiate mother mixed into his food. In the undrugged state, his rage is uncontainable. My brother and I have spent many a night huddled together beneath the burnt-out bus outside our house, shivering from frost and fear.
It costs food or favours to have a relative in the Institute. My mother can barely feed the family from what we grow and exchange from our plot of land, and she is too old to trade favours with orderlies.
She has my younger brother and me.
She trades me.
McMahon gestures, and three burly men walk up to my father and lead him inside. I try to hold on to my mother, but when McMahon calls I go to him without hesitating.
When I look back, my mother is gone. I never see her again.
Christopher embraces violence with a religious, ecstatic fervour. I am not ashamed to be afraid of him, but McMahon just operates the lever to the holding unit, yanking Christopher to the back of the room, and walks in as if visiting a relative.
Christopher lives only to cause unspeakable carnage to biological systems and expresses admiration for Cain of the Pentateuch for the purity of his method and his unadulterated attempted genocide.
“Genocide?” asks McMahon.
“There were only four alive,” says Christopher. He rattles his chains at us as if we should know. “Abel was the potential founder of a whole race. Genocide before the fact. Efficient. Not fun, but efficient.”
Under hypnosis, Christopher has equally perplexing opinions about Adolph Hitler and Genghis Khan.
We hold meetings on Wednesdays, us Middle England dwellers.
I attend because McMahon used to attend, but I find it purposeless. It’s chaotic in the extreme, and occasionally violent. The meetings are an attempt at imposing civilisation upon London, to install a form of government.
It doesn’t work. Roving gangs like Dry Rot’s band and Nish Calcutta hold the real power and have done so since Temuchin forced unconditional peace many years back. The next level of clout is with the Workers’ Guild, and their volubility accounts for most of the noise in the Elephant and Castle underpass in which we hold the meeting. The workers made London function again, all of which is thanks to a petite, but intense, woman sitting in their midst called Montague.
She is disinterested, making notes on her forearm, and even from across the room I can see equations and diagrams. This grey-haired bonfire of intelligence built a wind farm along the south bank of the Thames, rigged buses that run on both solar energy and fossil fuels (the latter smuggled from Outer England), built the Electro-Convulsive Therapy machine from McMahon’s design, and I hear she’s working on a locomotive that will run on garbage, night soil, and a steam boiler. The Workers’ Guild started with some hangers-on and grew from there to a collective of thousands, all of whom worship Montague as Our Lady of London.
I fear Montague like I fear McMahon; I see the same disturbed light in both of their eyes. As if she can read my mind, she looks up at that precise moment, pausing from her scribbling and pinning me to the spot. Her eyes are a faded shade of sky-blue, almost transparent. I feel hot all over and leave the meeting, hasty, pushing outraged neo-communists out of my way.
Outside, I can still hear the sound of the meeting but the words are indistinct, and it reminds me of boiling water. There are patches of asphalt still in the same spot they have occupied for three decades. I have read that the underpass was necessary because there were so many cars in the days before the Pit that they would knock down people crossing the road. I find it difficult to imagine.
Across the street, hanging upside down on a guardrail with her feet, is a child, a healthy one. I haven’t seen a human under fifteen in a year, mostly because their parents keep them under lock and key where they develop rickets and die, which is considered a superior death to abduction and murder by the sporadic proto-cannibals that crop up from time to time. The fact is most kids I have seen have been diseased with corpse-white lesion–heavy skin, bow legs and Victorian-age black teeth, but this girl has long, thick black hair that dangles on the floor as she swings back and forth, white teeth that gleam as she smiles from her solitary play, and baby-fat in her cheeks.
“Hey,” I say, and, all feline agility, she lands on her feet and sprints off. I run after her because I want to know how she lives in Middle England and remains so clean, so pure. Who were her parents?
She’s fast. I catch flashes of her hair as she turns corners down alleys, and when I reach them she’s already at the far end. Then I realise I’m in the wrong place because there’s no graffiti, and a blinder steps on to my path. The child is gone, and I’m in an alley surrounded by buildings so tall the sunlight has a hard time filtering in. Weeds reach for the sky through the cracks in the concrete, waving in the wind, brushing against my ankles. I’m breathing heavy, and I know the blinder can hear it because he starts towards me.
Blinders. Right, well, what happened was a few years back there was some highly addictive chemical on the streets. I forget what it was called, but you sniffed it twice in quick succession to get a hit. Three days later the molecule works it way through the thin plate in the roof of the nose, gaining access to the optic nerves resulting in irreversible blindness, but not before first damaging the frontal lobe and turning victims into chemically-lobotomised zombies of unpredictable behaviour.
I turn around, and there are more blinders behind me. I wonder now why I followed the child, what I was thinking. It’s difficult for me to decide if I’m in danger; you never know what a blinder will do. I turn back to the single blinder, but now there are others behind him and I am boxed-in.
Because I am not a man of action, I dither, and the first of the blinders reaches me. It’s a female, and she holds my shoulder and does nothing else. She looks like a normal, poorly adjusted, starved woman from Middle England but when I brush her hand off she bares her teeth. The others take this as a cue and become frenzied, scratching, striking, yanking my hair. I do not fight; I don’t know how, and a part of me thinks I deserve to die in this nondescript walkway.
But this is not to be.
We avoid the third rail when we walk over the tracks. It is a common superstition among Londoners, unconscious and instinctive. Dry Rot has his sawed-off primed, and he waves it in short jerks each time we look round a discarded coach.
We are looking for a violent psychotic who has been terrorising this area with his poetry and his punches. I do not want to participate, but Dry Rot has the idea that I should determine if said psychotic is truly psychotic or just a violent verse peddler pissed-off at life. Two dead, thirteen wounded, perhaps moribund, no description except that he’s white, male, powerfully built, and likes poems.
“What happened to McMahon, then?” asks Dry Rot.
“Your mentor. He usually comes with me on these forays. What happened to him?”
“He said I was ready,” I say.
“That’s not what I asked you.” Dry Rot stops and the twin-muzzles swing my way.
“He’s gone,” I say. “I didn’t know you two were so close.”
“Gone how?” says Dry Rot, muzzle dropping, not so threatening.
“Away! Back to Outer England! Fuck should I know?”
“I mean, how did he leave?”
“Hot air balloon, from the roof of the Institute.”
Dry Rot chuckled, and continued forward. “I always knew he had an out.”
An hour later we find the poet with his head staved-in, lying across the tracks. Bloody, discarded clubs lie all around him, some broken with the force of impact.
I am real.
On this day I feel more real than other days, but it doesn’t decrease my need for affirmation of my own reality.
“This is not a dream.” It is still important to me to explicitly state the difference between the now and an oneiroid state.
The reason I don’t die at the hands of the blinders is someone drops a rope ladder to me from above. She screams something at me to get my attention and rattles the rungs against the alley wall. I escape because this noise also distracts the blinders enough for them to let go of me. I climb up, looking down to see them drift apart as if nothing happened. No anger, no recriminations, no demonstration of frustration.
Above me, the ladder leads into an open window, and all my muscles ache as I climb in.
This high up I can see the remains of the BT tower, London Bridge, hovel clusters around the Thames, the crushed dome of St Paul’s cathedral, and a sickly miasma coats Middle England. I miss McMahon; he would have had something to say about the cityscape.
“I knew you’d return,” says the woman as she helps me into the room. “How is Patricia?”
I finally look at the woman, and I do not know her. She has a sallow complexion, like she’s not seen the sun in decades, her grey hair is straggly and dirty, her face is full of eruptions and pockmarks, she has no teeth to speak of, just some rotting ivory attached to the upper jaw. She wears a bulbous beige gown, for she is pregnant, and she stinks.
“You must be mistaken,” I say, careful not to make eye contact.
She pulls out a card from behind her, glances at it, and says, “No mistake.”
Every surface in the room is covered with cards. Little two–by–four inch cards with crowded, tiny writing in dark red ink. I start to wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t have stayed with the blinders. I snatch up one of the cards and read:
Social ritual: when asked about the weather it is customary to whine about it, or agree with the opinion of the person asking. There is no actual interest in the weather; they just want a safe topic with which to start off conversation.
Warning: if you notice an obvious deformity, do not draw attention to it, particularly if it may have been worsened by lack of funds for medication.
I sample some of the other cards and look to the woman. “What’s this?”
She looks to a card. “Reminders. I forget things easily.”
“You made cards to remind yourself to shake hands with people?”
“I didn’t make the cards. You did. The Man.”
I now remember who she is. Man is so-called because she has no short-term memory and refers to all men as ‘man’ and blends them into one. I am amazed that she is still alive after all this time.
After several false starts, I make my way out of her room against her protests. My skin crawls where she touches me, trying to hold me back. In the end I have to push her, and she screams about her baby, clutching her belly. I descend the stairs in a flurry of cardboard cards, and without guilt; she has been ‘pregnant’ for at least four years.
“Start simple,” says McMahon. “Silas Marner. The Last of the Mohicans. The Man in the Iron Mask. In that order.”
I find it difficult to keep up with McMahon as he walks ahead. I am trying to make notes of his words and match his stride at the same time.
“Then try The Invisible Man.” McMahon takes me past the prostitutes on Shaftsbury, past some broken sculptures to Trafalgar, and into an ancient museum. I am afraid because narcotics are sold here, and mother warned me away from it many times. McMahon walks past armed guards like they don’t exist, and I scurry after.
“Are you buying, doctor?” says the seller.
“Don’t be absurd,” says McMahon. “Where do you get your supplies?”
“Why? You wan’ get cheaper stuff for me?”
“You have a laboratory?”
McMahon snaps his fingers, and I hand him a sheet with molecular diagrams on it, which he hands to the seller.
“I need you to mass-produce these.”
“You gon’ buy?”
“No. You’ll make them from the milk of human kindness that flows from your heart. Or from the guilt of selling poison to Middle Englanders. I’m not concerned with the reasons. Just tell me when to send the orderlies for the first batch.”
“Are you joking?”
“I can’t run a mental institution without tranquillisers. We discussed this in the meeting, and it was agreed that–“
“I din’ attend no meeting, doctor, and as for tranquillisers,” the seller pulls out a machine pistol and pushes it in McMahon’s face. “I have plenty of them in the magazine right here.”
But despite his bravado, he caves, and within a month, we have some burgundy pills and vials that calm the unquiet minds in the Institute and allow us to take some shackles off. By this time, McMahon has me on Dostoyevsky and slips me some papers by Kraepelin. My father dies of blood poisoning around this time, but I neither mourn him nor think of returning to my mother.
I meet Patricia.
I am her third customer, and she is still energetic enough to return pelvic thrusts and fake moans with reasonable realism. It is November and cold enough for icicles to form beneath one’s nostrils. I’m looking at her face, which bears the clearest skin, with only one or two visible boils. Sheean, the armed chaperone, coughs behind us. I am being asked to hurry up, the last thing I want to do. When I don’t oblige, Pat does something and I finish in seconds. I feel certain my grey matter is leaking out of my ears by this time. As I dress, I ask Sheean if I can be alone with Pat next time.
“I’m not a risk. You know who I am, where I work.” On the other side of the bed Pat cleans up, listens, says nothing. I am in love, of course.
Sheean fidgets; she doesn’t want conversation, she wants me out the door before the next caller arrives. She says something non-committal and ushers me out. For weeks, I cannot pay attention to McMahon’s lessons and think only of Patricia who says absolutely nothing. Then one day on Christmas week, Sheean fobs me off on Man. Her conversation is bizarre, and I often wonder if she belongs in the Institute.
I imagine all those other men being with Pat, while I languish with stinky, incoherent Man. I complain to Sheean, who offers me a Christmas present.
“If you can pull it off, I’ll let you take Patty for Christmas night. You have your own room at the Institute, right?”
“And in return you want…?”
“Painkillers, lover boy. For the deep, intractable pain I feel here.” She takes my hand and places it on her left breast.
I don’t really have a room of my own, but I don’t correct the misconception. I get the painkillers, the easy part. I give them to Sheean outside the Institute at night, and she gives me Pat’s wrist.
I have a plan.
I place Patricia, veiled, wrapped up against the cold, on a stool close to the entrance. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” She nods, or shakes her head; it’s hard to tell in the lantern light. I am already delirious with desire.
I hurry through the nave, oil sloshing inside the lamp with each stride. There are billets on either side of me where the aisles used to be, housing the orderlies. Towards the end, at the apse, we keep the worst-behaved patients in several fortified rooms. I go down to the basement and open a cell and coax out the catatonic patient inside. He requires little prompting, and automatically obeys–mitgehen we call it–my gentle prods. I navigate him to the apse, but none of the rooms is free. There are cards outside each room stating who is inside and for how long.
A whistle drifts down from the bell tower, startles me, the acoustics in the cathedral a mess since McMahon took over. I operate the mechanism and open one cell. Christopher lies inside, a straining knot of muscle, bone and froth. I encourage the catatonic, and he shuffles into the cell, stops in the middle.
“Play nice,” I say to them.
I spin, intending to close the door mechanism and race to get Pat. Instead, I swivel straight into McMahon.
Several things happen at once.
“Anslem, what are you doing?” asks McMahon.
I’m looking at his eyes and reaching behind me for the switch to close the door, but instead hit the release switch for Christopher.
For the first and last time, I see fear on McMahon’s face, and all I can think is that the man is human after all. His eyebrows rise a fraction of an inch, and perhaps his pupils dilate, far less than what I would do in his position, but a definite fear response for sure.
The universe shatters into fragments of perception: pain, loss of balance as I am pushed from behind; pain, impact with the floor, two incisors gone, just like that; vision, a monster reaching for McMahon with frightening speed; touch, drops of spittle on my face, splashes of blood all over me; sound, screams from McMahon, growls from the inmate, wet sounds; illumination, I realise instead of locking the door I have unleashed hell.
I leap up and pull a lever that yanks short the chain, but Christopher drags an unconscious McMahon with him and bites down again and again.
Good lord, there is so much blood, so much.
I’m surprised that it doesn’t all disintegrate into a dream, and that I don’t just wake up or come to.
I am still Anslem Bonadventure.
“Real,” I add after a pause.
I should say something.
Patricia is standing behind me, expecting me to eulogize. McMahon is a giant despite his diminutive stature, and he deserves… something. While I struggle to conjure up something from Voltaire, the final anchoring rope loosens and the balloon floats away. I have dropped too much ballast from it, and I watch it take McMahon off into heaven.
I stagger and choke some tears back. The wind threatens to throw us off the side of the roof. I feel guilty because my grief is not nearly as much as the lust I feel for Pat.
The guilt does not affect my performance.
Owen cleans the wounds with the hooch from our distillery and packs each one with mould, our only source of antibiotics.
It’s dark now, and the Pit is in the middle of a fantastic eruption. Scintillation counters are going wild and the radio crackles, but there’s no visible light. On nights like this, the staff sleeps in lead aprons. If this were a comic book, superheroes would be born.
“So what about the little girl? Blinders get her?” Owen asks.
“Disappeared.” I wince as he presses down. “I’m beginning to wonder if she wasn’t some sort of hallucination.” It’s out of my mouth before I realise what I’m saying, and to whom. I trivialize it, bury it in crude jokes involving the sex lives of armadillos but I know. I know because of the pause. I noticed he stopped moving for a few seconds when I said it. He laughs and makes an appropriate leery response.
But he’s thinking now.
Sheean takes Patricia’s decision to stay quite well, considering. All I have to do, she says, is supply her painkillers for a year.
I can’t force Pat out because she knows about McMahon and has hinted that she will tell someone of consequence about the bloodshed. The Institute is infinitely better than any life she has outside. I forgive her the blackmail for this reason and supply Sheean’s painkillers. I fit their absence from the pharmacy into my explanation of McMahon’s sudden exit. It’s not difficult to convince the staff that he was an addict. They believe because they want to believe, and because McMahon was a shit.
Two weeks later, Sheean is killed in a brouhaha with some fringe cult that worships prostitutes by drinking their blood.
“Montague’s here to see you,” says Owen.
I’ve been good. Last couple of weeks, I work my arse off keeping the Institute in order, making sure Kentucky Fried Owen notices how balanced I am, how very sane I am. Superhyperfuckingsane. But he’s telling me that a woman who castrates me in my dreams is waiting outside.
“You coming?” he asks, holding open the door.
“Sure,” I say, too casual. Does that sound like I’m stressed? Like I’m hallucinating? Does it?
I step out of the cathedral, and there’s Montague with like a thousand workers. And Dry Rot, face carved from teak, pointing his shotgun right at my chest.
“What’s going on?” I ask. I know, though. I’m just trying to play some final, last-ditch hand while I struggle to maintain control of my bladder and rectum.
Montague speaks fast, with a squeaky voice. “I was with McMahon the night he… disappeared. It took time, but I was able to accept him up and leaving, abandoning what we had. Men do this. It didn’t fit my impression of him but one learns to modify one’s schemata with experience.
“But then there was you, Bonadventure. Weak, pathetic, putting-on-daddy’s-shoes Bonadventure. I knew you lied about the addiction, of course, but I just didn’t have enough information to tease out your reasons.”
Owen moves behind me, part of the whole thing. He’s being careful, quiet, but I could have told him not to bother; I’m not going to resist.
“I saw an old friend today. She had something about you written on some cards,” says Montague.
“Man,” I say.
Montague strikes me across the cheek and I see bright spots dance across my eyes. Stronger than she looks, this one.
“Her name is Annabel Greenville. I know about Patricia and Sheean, Bonadventure. I don’t know why you killed McMahon–“
“Hey, wait! I didn’t–“
“It’s not important anymore. What is important is that we’ve donated your living body to science. Please don’t struggle. I don’t wish for violence.”
Dry Rot steps forward. “I do.”
He fires at my right kneecap, and I black out before I hit the floor.
Patricia has done this to me.
What I find out is she thought I arranged McMahon’s death, for which I can’t blame her since she didn’t witness it. Not that it spooked her, but she figured an insurance policy was in order.
She went to Man.
She thought as long as I was happy with her, I’d never have to visit Man. So she wrote cards outlining what had happened to McMahon, painting me as a murderer, with simple instructions: If I showed up, the cards were to go to Montague.
If you are reading this card, my life must be over or in danger. Anslem Bonadventure killed McMahon and forced me to be quiet about it.
And so on.
I didn’t even know she could write.
This is not a dream, but it could be a nightmare.
There is a bit in my mouth, and the spit accumulates in the back of my throat. The straps are tighter than I remember it being for the patients. My head is shaved and I’m naked.
Owen is cycling.
I am removed from the pain of the shock treatment; after an incandescent moment of agony, I drift away, and the person on the slab is in a distant alternative universe.
When I return, I will be different. There will be no Anslem Bonadventure running things at the Institute, and whatever remorse or love I felt towards McMahon will have dissipated in the stream of electrons running through my cortex.
I hope I get a comfortable room.
Tade Thompson lives in London. He has had some of his short fiction published in both small press and webzines. He is currently working on a novel and is a collaborator on a one-shot fantasy graphic novel. He needs more exercise.
The story is a conflation of many themes triggered when he noticed that his local bank building used to be a church. “The McMahon Institute for Unquiet Minds” is about psychotherapy/psychiatry replacing religion in secular society, the recent murder and dismemberment of a young woman by her husband during a holiday, and the abandonment of the so-called “middle England” demographic in the UK. Tade drew a Venn diagram and this story was at the intersection.