Well, I’ve been a bit busy, so I haven’t quite gotten round to thinking properly about this! In the last three weeks we’ve celebrated MissImp: Improv Comedy Theatre Nottingham’stwentieth anniversary (I’m pretty chuffed about my graphics for our enamel badges and flyers), featuring a massive party at the Malt Cross, which is where MissImp began all that time ago, followed by four shows at the Nottingham Playhouse (two sell-outs and the rest almost sold out!). Pretty intense.
I’m typing this before the first show at our improv comedy stage for the Nottingham Comedy Festival (the really quite good Rhymes Against Humanity, followed by Beings). There’s also been some fairly epic familial and domestic dramas, so it’s safe to say I am absolutely knackered. And yet. And yet, I do have an idea for Nanowrimo. I’m two days late, and there’s no way I can start tonight, but the seed idea is a good one (if a bit self-referential and triggery), and I’d like to make space for it. I’ve not formed enough of a concept to synopsise yet, but I’ve got a title, and a cover. Basically, I’m sorted, right?
I have said goodbye many times. Each time feels like the last, that I will leave and not return. And yet, I do. I’m drawn back to this dark corner in a cold, dimly lit room. The air is chilled and hangs heavy in my lungs, weighted down with fear and damp. Your corner is the only source of light, barring the glowing edges of the doorway – though the door is tightly closed (I check, and check again, consciously reminding myself to ensure its seal is complete, hiving you and I off from the world), its shape is delineated for safety, and remains a rectangular halo behind me when I drag the chair to your side. The chair’s legs catch into the grooves I’ve scratched into the floor as I’ve set and reset my seat over and over. They’re not deep gouges by any means, but the chair’s feet now easily slip into them, complicit in the casual wearing down of the tiles.
If I were more mathematically inclined, perhaps I’d be interested in the rate of wear – how long it might take me to score them so profoundly that I’ll hear an audible clack as the surface gives way. It seems as likely that the chair leg ends themselves will be rubbed smooth and stumped by their routine slide. But I’m not so inclined; I am, however, easily distracted, and my thoughts flicker around the room, alighting on some new or forgotten feature of this activity each time I return here to you, after swearing I would not. This is some expression of grief and confusion itself, my mind cannot simply land on you, rather my brain slowly adjusts to its orbit of you, and there are many things that can perturb this course. The chair and the floor, the way tiny pulses of light toss fleeting shadows across the penumbral veil that hides much of this space, the constant beeps and whirrs which rise out of the machinery like bubbles of air from the depths and pop on the surface of the otherwise silent sea. As I said, I am easily distracted…
But the back of the chair is a familiar presence in my hand, its metal refreshingly cool and smooth in my palm, the foam padding depressed under my fingertips and faintly cracked where my nails catch on the cover, rending them a little wider as I take a firm hold. Once, the chair glided with only a faint squeak, but now it lets out an anguished squeal as those metal feet drag through its tracks. This is part of the routine: re-feeling each of the sensations that afflict me here, that make up this experience, those senses which bring me back to you – a web, if you like, on whose strings I tread, producing a trembling warning that I’m drawing near; a note to myself, if not to you, that my mind needs to catch up with the physical world and make itself ready – for the spider at its heart. The spider is not you, I don’t think, but the darkness that lurks behind my outwardly attentive self, behind the one desperately formulating metaphors to divert my mind from dealing with immediate reality. It’s that version of me I’m avoiding, the one which will come crashing down as soon as I sit.
So I delay, relishing the squeal of metal on ceramic tile, which fills this darkened room with a fresh, living sound, even as another part of me cringes at its violence. But I can only draw it out so long – it’s only a few metres, and for all my prevarication I can’t bear doing things so slowly. So I set down the chair, and fold myself into it.
I draw my legs up under me, till I’m crosslegged, knees pinned down by the tubular arms of the chair. It will set a deep ache in my thighs eventually, but for now it’s comfortable, pushing my spine upright and limiting the extent to which my natural slouch can take effect. The tops of the chair arms are bare steel now. I long ago dug my nails into the cushioning and steadily ripped them apart with agitated kneading. Now they’re just cold on my bare forearms. Like the coolness of the air, it serves to keep me alert for the moment. It’s just a little too cold to become drowsy, but not so cold that I’m caused to shiver. It’s not the temperature that raises horripilations down my arms and up the back of my neck. That’s you. That’s always you.
At last I can put it off no longer and I raise my head. You are cocooned in a roll of metal and plastic. Wires, tubes and plugs emerge from your body and disappear into the machines which cluster close around you, looming protectively over you, surrounding you like gravestones marking a plague pit. The sight of you used to make me gag – an imagined smell of decay – the machines regularly coat you with an antiseptic film which evaporates into the air. That, and the thought of where all those tubes and lines go – it’s as if you’re a living voodoo doll of yourself. I know the machines keep you alive, but I don’t know what that makes you while they’re the ones doing your breathing, eating and circulating your blood. Can you really be alive when you’re not doing any of those things yourself. Your face is barely visible between semi-opaque plastic overlays and the tight skullcap from which even more cables extend, dripping down the back of the bed and out of sight.
What I can see of you is pale, papery in the electric glow cast over from the angled lamp at the foot of your bed. I say “bed”, as it’s easier to imagine you sleeping than that you’re plugged into a medical unit which happens to maintain you best while lying down. Visiting you and pretending you’re simply asleep is the easiest way to see you, but the reality of several dozen intermittently pulsing lights and beeps takes away that fiction. I can’t even close my eyes and ignore them – an irrational sense that you might wake up and lunge toward me while I’m not looking took hold of me some time ago, and as yet has not released me. Even when I leave, I’ll be walking backwards to the door.
I don’t understand the beeps and whines and whirrs that the machines produce. I know one of them is your heart, and others your oxygen levels, a map of brainwaves, pressures and measures of the seemingly endless number of processes a body is constantly in thrall to. At best they form a soft symphony, telling me you live, in some way. But the sudden increase in the frequency of a flashing light, or an additional trill underscoring the routine beat of your heart throws chords of anxiety through me. I’m curiously at their mercy. Which sound will signal your waking? What chorus of electronic chittering will measure your decline into death? Anyone with those answers is long gone and far away.
Once I’m sitting here with you, I can hardly take my eyes off you. They flick away to the graphic displays occasionally, noting without comprehension as the green threads rise and fall, that tiny bead always racing along, sketching out your lifeline. For all that I’m repelled by the idea of you plugged into these machines, denied the basic agency of decision making and action, you remain fascinating. The machines were originally holding you in a medical coma, suppressed and held below the threshold of awareness. For your own safety of course: this being medicine, it must be in your interests. That was a long time ago, though, and whatever treatments you were receiving surely are completed. Hence my recurrent fear that you’ll wake suddenly and reach out to grab me. A ridiculous notion: the straps and tubes would almost certainly prevent you from making such a dramatic entrance into life. It’s an inescapable thought though.
The coma you were placed into ended some time ago, but you didn’t wake up. In the absence of medical staff to decide how best to rouse you, the machines gave me a simple choice – forced waking (presumably a vast dose of adrenaline intended to shock you out of your slumber, or whatever course which medicine outside of dramas might prescribe), or a state of deep hibernation. That in itself had startled me – I’d been lost inside myself, staring unseeing at you and your coterie of beeping companions, when abruptly the machine which loomed over your face had extended an angled arm with a small screen toward me. It was an impossible choice that it presented, as I had no idea of the consequences of waking you. For three days I stared at that palm-sized screen and its increasingly urgent flashing. For another day I stayed away, caught between action and inaction which ground through my guts like a serrated blade. In the end, it was fear that decided me, not any caring instinct on my part. In this state, our relationship was clear, our interactions manageable – for me. If you woke up, our current balance would shift, and ultimately I wasn’t ready for that – didn’t know what that would mean, what would be expected of me, what I would have to give, how I’d have to change. So, half-covering my eyes and mouth, holding my breath, I stabbed at the blinking orange oblong containing the words “hibernation”. After doing so, I could barely regain my breath, convince myself to inhale again, as if doing so would make it real, that I’d breathe in the consequences of my choice, take them into myself and be responsible for them. Eventually, I had to breathe in, of course. It’s almost impossible to hold your breath so long that you pass out – those autonomic functions we rely on don’t like being denied. Sometimes I wonder to what I extent I’m just a passenger in this body, which goes on doing whatever it feels it must, with no regard for the screaming homunculus within. Doubly so for you, where even your body is a puppet to these mechanisms around you.
And so, into hibernation for you. It’s like sleep, only longer, and slower. If there was another medical unit, perhaps I’d give myself over to that too, but then I’d not be sure that you still slept. That thought alone, of our positions being reversed, of you sitting beside me while I slumbered, unaware of my surroundings and possibly even myself; you leaning over me – to be under your power again… Unacceptable. So even though I sit here, pointlessly watching over you, hollow-eyed, half-starved, tremble-fingered, this is still better than having our roles reversed. I suppose that would seem ridiculous to you – you’d insist that you’d take the best care of me, that I’d never have to worry again. You’d be right – I wouldn’t worry, because I’d be so far below the level of awareness that I’d not even be able to muster that notion. It’s better that I watch you, and fret, and feel such enormous relief.
You barely breathe, even though at least one of these plastic coated machines is responsible for pushing air into your lungs and drawing it back out again, and I find myself counting your breaths again, still surprised each time your chest rises, and almost imperceptibly falls again. Before the hibernation you breathed almost normally, albeit with aid, and that regular rise and fall was like a tide which steadily overwhelmed my resistance to the chill air, dragging me into a drowsy stupor. When I caught myself nodding, that awful lurch on the verge of half-sleep, like falling over and over, I’d leave you and seek real sleep on the other side of the door. Now there is no such tide – you breathe perhaps once every ten minutes. It’s an inexorable breath in, or rather pushing in of breath as you’re inflated like a balloon, so slow that it feels like it takes forever, will never end until you’re swollen to a hundred times your size. Then it pauses, a breath held, which I instinctively try to match, for another minute before the slow, slow extraction of air from your lungs begins.
The slow motion semblance of life, on top of the medical appendages, dehumanizes you in my eyes. The human features – cheekbone, lip, fingers – they all look like they’ve been crafted from clay, squeezed between scraps of industrial waste. At times I struggle to see you as a person. I’m standing guard by a mismatched assemblage of organic and synthetic components, fusing sluggishly into a cyborg with uncertain purpose. Again, when I can no longer see you, I know it’s time for me to go. I unfold my knees from the arms of my chair – they started to stiffen and numb, and they audibly click as I straighten them out. The legs drop back into their etched furrows, and I pull it out of your glowing corner. I return it to its spot by the wall, brush the seat with one hand to smooth out the deepening dimple. From there I sidestep to the door, hit the button with one thumb and step backwards as it hisses open behind me. Immediately I press the button on the other side of the door and it hisses closed.
This is the worst moment, the one when I imagine you suddenly animated and moving like a spider, rapid and skittering till your hands, still dangling cords and needles reach through the doorway and haul me inside. The door closes and the edges brighten once more, sealed. I pick up the metal bar leaning against the wall and lay it across the two hooks I welded to the outside of the door. Satisfied, I sit back on the wheeled cot and listen to the distant sounds of thunder.
On this occasion I’m jerked out of sleep by a rattling that passes through the room. The shuddering shake of objects – bottles, boxes, cases and the ephemera that covers most surfaces – jouncing off their shelves in a rising crescendo which, by the time it reaches the wheels of my bed, is forceful enough to bounce the bed up and down till it passes, tooth-rattling out the other side of the room. It’s not a pleasant way to wake, made less so by the tidying that will follow. The floor is now the container for most of the items that were on shelves, cabinet doors hang open slackjawed and in need of attention. The tremors have grown stronger of late, but no regularity. As far as I can tell, anyway. My only time-keeping devices are the counters and blips of the adjoining room, which I always secure when I sleep. There’s no clock in here, no natural light. I aim to sleep when tired and rise when awake, but the distinction has become… vague.
There are so many causes of sleeplessness – those within, such as the anxiety which withers my soul to a fragile thing, the dreams and nightmares which extend into wakefulness and back again; and those without, the juddering quakes which periodically sweep through and upset my space but leave the intensive medical unit curiously undisturbed. Thunder hums through the walls at odd hours, and the banging and shouting… Best left unspoken of. In summary: it is not a quiet place, this, nor well suited to long term occupation.
I gather myself up off the bed. My hands and arms are thin, those bony wrists that were ever a feature in my childhood now travelled throughout my limbs – I look like a knuckled twig. I blame the food. And the lack of sleep. Both conspire to wring vitality from me. Never mind. I tug the cuffs of my shirt and jacket back down, but they’re slightly too short to properly shoot my cuffs, which would feel pleasantly debonair, if redundant. There’s no one here to witness my effortless cool. I am alone, and waking is always a stark reminder of that. No matter where my dreams take me, I always come back here, even if it remains shrouded in hypnogogia. I’m anchored here by what lies intubated on the other side of that door. Presumably the chain is insufficiently rusted to effect my escape. Maybe one day I’ll just dream my way out of here, maybe one day you’ll permit me that.
So, to rising proper. I’ve got a coolbox which I can just about manage to fill every few days, from the unreliable and recalcitrant taps that fart and whistle before pissing forth lukewarm water. The box lives under those taps, since I’ve found it better to just leave them on and endure their piped wails than run out of water. That means there isn’t a lot to go around and my ablutions are more scanty than I’d like. My clothes at least are made of somewhat filth-resistant fabric, which sounds good but in reality makes them disturbingly slippery when trying to sleep and makes me all too aware of sweating, since it absolutely refuses to absorb the liquid. Attempting to wash them is like catching ice cubes. Convenient though. There’s also a small supply of odd papery medical gowns, but I can’t bring myself to present a naked rear to my small world, and wearing two in opposing directions just looks stupid. Even here, vanity is inescapable.
Under the reluctant taps lies the only convenient drain in the place, and while I was initially loath to piss in a sink, I’ve had to get over it. It’s not ideal, but with so many of my basic human needs catered for I can forgive the lack of company, daylight, variety, peace of mind… well, it’s a long list anyway. Breakfast suffers in its monotony too. I’ve a good store of pre-packaged meals, cunningly crammed into dehydrated pouches. I don’t always have the water to spare, but crunchy pasta is enlivened by a lipful of spit.
I take my self-medication seriously, as it’s the one resource that an anteroom to intensive care has in abundance. There are an embarrassment of choices, and although I originally stuck to those brand names or descriptions that I either recognized from books and film or whose purpose I felt I could infer from their scattershot approach to syllables, I’ve embraced experimentation. Coxcythil is for today. For the last… weeks? Probably, I’ve been trying a new one at breakfast each day. Frankly, it brightens the day, and frequently shortens it. Yesterday’s selection, Disophyllicatin, produced a temporary euphoria followed by sweating and hideous shadows in the corners of my vision. I’ve relegated that to the back of the cupboard for now.
Lest I lose track, I’ve been making notes on the inside of the pharmacy cupboard – I say “cupboard”, but it’s a walk-in wardrobe of Narnian proportions – I’ve ended up with three basic categories: good, bad and neutral. The neutrals don’t appear to do much, the good provide either levity or estrangement from wakefulness, and the bad probably speaks for itself. I’ve always enjoyed taxonomies, and although I lack the training to identify the drugs by their names, I am breaking them down into their chief effects, insofar as they interest me. Thus, Disophyllicatin receives additional notes: “trippy”, “scary” and “sweaty”. It’s conceivable I could find a use for any of those traits in future, and it’s one of few activities where I can feel like I’m planning for the future.
At first I actually slept in the pharma-wardrobe since it’s almost long enough to lie down in without leading to advanced spinal curvature, and is a second set of doors I can close and lock. It’s hard being constantly fearful. Ultimately, it’s intolerable and I think we simply forget to be afraid. That, or it becomes a fresh baseline and all other internal measurements are so badly shot to fuck that I can’t tell if creeping dread is the same as feeling a bit queasy. Either that or my back still hurt badly enough that I abandoned the cupboard. At first, I’d hoped I might find more water in there, but neither plasma or saline appealed very much. What it did contain, beyond this cornucopia of chemicals was a very fine collection of medical tools, including but not limited to scalpels, drills, kidney-shaped dishes, odd prosthetics, spare teeth, tongs of a baffling array of sizes, and instruments for welding – presumably plates and screws through bone – which when turned unreasonably high proved sufficient for welding the hooks to the intensive care room doors. I suppose that’s a better explanation of why I feel safe enough to sleep out of the closet now. I know I can always go back in there though – the key never leaves my pocket. The thought of that, of course, prompts me to check and susurrus of mild panic as I recall I have more than one pocket.
Until the Coxcythil kicks in, I won’t know exactly how this day will play out. It’s possible I’ll spend much of it shuddering on the cot, or squatting feverishly over the sink (because pissing in it isn’t bad enough). With luck I’ll spend a few blissed out hours before I forced to heed your call. Not an actual call: you’re in hibernation. Nonetheless, I hear your voice as an itch that begins halfway down my spine, crawling with vicious toes from vertebra to vertebra, shoving my skin out of your way as you go, forcing your way under my shoulderblade and taking up residence in my neck. Wheedling your way through my skin and blood and bone into my ears and mind until I cannot stay away any longer. I aim to protract this period out as long as I can.
A person can begin to lose sense of themselves when alone for a lengthy period of time. I’ve undertaken a small project, taking advantage of the chemical insights I occasionally receive, as well as the endless, endless free time I have here. I’ve begun to write. Small stories, with no particular scope other than where I’m led each day. I can’t pretend they’re especially coherent, but it is the thing I can do. The cupboard has a healthy supply of paper (often determinedly fixed to clipboards) and pens and pencils. I suspect some of them are intended for marking flesh before incisions, but I try to keep that out of my mind while I’m writing. I wonder if any of them were used on you, to delineate the entry point of some tube or artificial vein…
They convulsed, and then died. It was if a wave caught them, raising them up in breathless anticipation before dashing the air from them. All around, death washed up, until he was the only living thing left in the square.
Those first days of the war were brutal. I remember watching from the window of our home as the gathered citizenry were butchered. It was a perfectly ordinary day, but aren’t they all – until they aren’t any more.
Spring had come and gone, leaving Vetapole in the first flush of summer. Green had crept out of the surrounding countryside and up the city walls, taking a firm hold of the roofs and snaring the terraces with leaves, whorls and tendrils of life. In a few days the first of the flowers would bloom, and our floral merchants and apothecarists would begin to prey upon them, the more common taking to the fields and greenhouses, while the bolder sought flora of a rarer and inevitably more dangerous kind. The more interesting flowers, quelletts, bloomed in the crevices of towers and between the roof tiles of the loftiest turrets of the city’s rings. Interesting in a hundred different ways, for their scents, their medicinal, spiritual or recreational value (depending on the vendor). Still others possessed properties in refined or raw form that were genuinely transformational. And each year the quelletts bloomed at greater and greater heights as the seeds were flung ever higher. It was a predictable cycle, but seemingly irresistible: the more desirable flowers simply refused to germinate at ground level unless they had chosen that locale. Eventually they would run out of surfaces at higher altitudes, and would be captured by the wind and whisked off to some other city. And then the trade would have no choice but to pursue them.
Many attempts at domestication had been made. My father maintained a series of hothouses in the upper floors of our home, and while he claimed success with the lesser, merely decorative species, the truly valuable quelletts stubbornly resisted his charms. In general they were content only to spread their petals where their forbears had hurled their seeds. Vicious little things; after germination, the flowers would swell until they audibly popped, launching their barbed seed pods into the air where the curious convection currents generated by our ringed city would fling them a little higher up. On detecting that they’d reached a desirable height those barbs would splay like fingers and take a tight hold before insinuating themselves into a crevice. There they would wait a season until the encroaching greenery of spring sent up their own spore scouts. On sensing the arrival of such sporaline prey, the quellett seeds erupted into activity, unfurling with a whipcrack, snatching up whatever tendril or airborne particle had disturbed its rest and beginning its germination with a little feast.
Though my father and brother were fascinated by them, I had always found them rather frightening. It might seem silly to be afraid of a flower, but I had nightmares about them for years. That’s no less silly, but that’s where they resided in my mind. It didn’t help that you might find some quellett hunter creeping up the outside of your bedroom window at some ungodly hour of the night in pursuit of the blooms. The sight of a black-clad thief pressing their finger to their lips at the child peering out through curtains was also enough to inspire nightmares. There were rules, and laws of course. The residents and owners of the building in which the flowers took root had primary ownership, but flowers are easily stolen, and our dwellings were well suited to climbing, since our economy depended in no small part on trade in the plants. A messy business, and deaths were not uncommon, either from florists falling to their deaths, or more rarely from rooftop fights.
We’d risen as a family as usual, my brother and I amicably squabbling over who got to the sink first, to the background sounds of our parents clattering in the kitchen with teas and breakfast. When dressed to a competent level, my brother – Asillo – and I shambled into the kitchen to find our father fussing with cups and bowls while our mother lounged by the tall open windows at the far end of the room. She was not a morning person, and I took after her in that. My first duty was presenting her with tea and squeezing in next to her to soak up some of the warm morning sun. Her hand in my hair is an abiding sensation of comfort and security. My father, aided by Asillo, brought the breakfast. Sticky toast, sweetham, and honey from the hive in the upper greenhouse. Early summer was always the sweetest season for me. While some families might bicker or discuss the day, our parents had been keen to encourage a peaceful first meal of the day filled with reading and a lazy pace of eating. I imagine our mother would still have been reading one of the reputedly dreadful novels she was so fond of, while my father would be deep into another botanical almanac or study on some obscure aspect of floristry. Asillo and I should in theory have been reading history or science papers for school, but we were vastly more keen on the gutter fiction magazines available on every street corner for half a penny.
“Boys,” my father announced, laying down what I could then see was indeed an almanac, which gave me accurate insight into what was coming, “today you’re going up on the roofs.”
It’s not every boy who’s sent to scramble around the ridges and gables… Asillo clapped his hands with glee, and I shrank closer to my mother. Not that it would dissuade my father. We’d spent many hours playing on the rooftops. It encourages coordination, and since they’re mostly flat, it was where many families and households spent their summers for meals and festivals. I didn’t mind the roof itself, I just didn’t want to go rooting for seed pods. Since it was not a school day I could hardly lay claim to being needed elsewhere and following breakfast we were gently shooed out of the windows.
The quelletts were not yet fully in season, but father drove my brother and I up onto the roofs in search of any early blooms. The thick glass roof of his greenhouses was hot under my hands as I clambered along past them, poking gingerly with a stick into the crevices and cracks between masonry and tile. In theory, the green nodules down the stick’s length should be enough to tease the quelletts into action, and I could hardly help flinching each time I pushed it into a gap. My brother, by contrast, didn’t care even a little bit. He showed admirably little fear of either the clawed seeds, or being several hundred feet away from the stone slabs of the square below. I was equally nimble, but a good deal more cautious.
It seems the Coxcythil is having some effect. For now I think I’d better curl up in bed. To be categorized later.
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