The Quantity Theory of Insanity (8 page)

BOOK: The Quantity Theory of Insanity
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‘No, I’m interested in what you say. The patients here do seem to be different to those I’ve met at Halliwick or St Mary’s.’

‘Oh, you think so, do you? How’s that?’ Busner swivelled round to look at me over his glasses.

‘Well, the art work they do. It’s different … it’s … how
shall I put it … rather contrived, as if they were acting out something. Like Tom’s behaviour.’

‘An involution?’

‘That’s it. It’s a secondary reference. Their condition is itself a form of comment and the art work that they do is a further exegesis.’

‘Interesting, interesting. I can’t pretend that it isn’t something we haven’t noticed before. Your predecessor had very strong views about it. He was a psychologist, you know, very gifted, took on the art therapy job in order to develop functional relationships with the patients, freed as far as possible from the dialectics of orthodox treatment. A very intense young man. The direction the patients have taken with their work could well have something to do with his influence.’

Busner started stuffing his case with paper filling, as if it were a giant pitta bread. ‘I’m off, Misha. I shall see you in the morning, bright and early, I trust. I think it would be a good idea if you really sorted out that materials cupboard tomorrow.’

‘Yes, yes, of course.’ I got up, scraping my chair backwards and left the office. In the corridor the long lights whickered and whinnied to themselves. The ward was quiet and deserted. But as I passed the door to one of the utility cupboards, it suddenly wheezed open and a hand emerged and tugged at my sleeve.

‘Come in. Come on, don’t be afraid.’

I stepped in through the narrow gap and the heavy door closed behind me. It was dark and the space I was in felt enclosed and stifling. There was an overpowering odour of starch and warm linen. I almost gagged. The darkness was complete. The hand that had grabbed my wrist approached my face. I could feel it hover over my features.

‘It is you,’ said the voice, ‘don’t say anything, it’ll spoil it.’ It was Mimi. I could smell the tang of her sweat; it cut right through the warm, cottony fug.

The hand led mine to her breast which seemed vast in the darkness, I could feel the webbing of her bra and beneath it the raised bruise of her nipple. She pushed against me, her body was so soft and collapsed. Her flesh had the dewlap quality of a body that has had excess weight melted off it, leaving behind a subcutaneous sac. Her jeans were unzipped; she pulled at my trousers, a cool damp hand tugged on my penis and pressed it against her. We stood like that, her hand on me, mine on her. She led me forwards and hopped up on to what must have been a shelf or ledge, then she drew me, semi-erect, inside of her. My penis bent around the hard cleft of her jeans, the skin rasped against ridged seam and cold zipper. There was something frenzied rather than erotic about this tortured coupling. I clutched at her breast and tore away the two nylon layers. I plunged rigidly inside her. She squeaked and waves of sweat came off her and tanged in my nostrils. I ejaculated almost immediately and withdrew. There was a long moment while we panted together in the darkness. I could hear her rearranging her clothing. Then, ‘till tomorrow,’ a light touch on my brow. The door split the darkness from ceiling to floor, wheezed once and she was gone. After a while I straightened my clothing, left the linen cupboard and went home.

It wasn’t until I stepped out of the tube station and started the ten-minute walk back to the house where I lived that I noticed the outdoor scent. The smell of the ward and the hospital had become for me the only smell. The cold privet of the damp road I trailed along was now alien and uncomfortable.

At home I boiled something in a bag and sat pushing rice pupae around the soiled plate. Friends called to ask about my first day in the new job. I left the answerphone on and heard their voices, distantly addressing my robotic self. Later, lying in bed, I looked around the walls hung with my various constructions, odd things I had made out of cloth that may have been collapsed bats, or umbrellas. The wooden and metal struts filtered the sodium light which washed orange across the pillow. I fell asleep.

I dreamt that the man I had seen in the treatment room, the man taking notes in the chair while Jane Bowen crouched in the corner, was doing some kind of presentation. I was in the audience. We were sitting in a very small lecture theatre. It was enclosed and dark, but the descending tiers of seats, some fifty in all, were stone ledges set in grassy semi-circular banks.

The man in black stood in the centre of the circular stage and manipulated a kind of holographic projector. It threw an image of my head into the air, some four or five feet high. The image, although clearly three-dimensional, was quite imperfect, billowy and electrically cheesy. Gathered in the audience were all the people I’d spoken with on the ward: Busner, Valuam, Mimi, Jane Bowen, Tom, Simon, Jim and Hilary. Clive stood in the aisle, rocking.

The man in black took a long pointer or baton and passed it vertically through my holographic head. It was a cheap trick because it was quite clear that the hologram wasn’t a solid object, but the audience annoyed me intensely by sycophantically applauding. I began to shout at them, saying that they knew nothing about technology, or what it was capable of …

*     *     *

Morning. I had difficulty finding the hardened coils of my socks. And when I did there was something hard and rectangular tucked into the saline fold of one of them. It was a piece from The Riddle. I had no idea how it had got there, but nonetheless I murmured automatically, mantrically, ‘I’m solving The Riddle …’ Suddenly the events I experienced on Ward 9 the day before seemed quite bizarre. At the time I accepted them unquestioningly, but now … Busner and his game, the concave Bowen, the foetal Valuam, Simon’s unfeeling mother, Tom with the mimetic disease, the encounter with Mimi in the linen cupboard. Any one of these things would be sufficient to unsettle; taken together …

I rallied myself. Any psychiatric ward is a test of the therapist’s capacity; to embrace a fundamental contradiction, to retain sympathy whilst maintaining detachment. The previous day had been bizarre, because I had failed to maintain my detachment … it was said that if you empathised too closely with the insane you became insane yourself. Busner himself had had a period after the collapse of his Concept House project in the early Seventies when he had spent his time strumming electric basses in darkened recording studios, mouthing doggerel during radio interviews and undertaking other acts of revolutionary identification with those classified as insane. It was only fitting that I should start to fall victim to the same impulses under his aegis. Today I would have to watch myself.

I took the long route across the Heath and passed by my father’s sculpture. I have no idea why he gave this specific one to the municipality. He had no particular love for this administration zone. And certainly no real concern with the aesthetic education of the masses. Not that the masses
ever really come here. This is an unfenced preserve of the moneyed, they roam free here patrolled by dapper rangers in brown suits.

It is a large piece, depicting two shins cast in bronze. Each one some eight feet high and perhaps nine in circumference. There are no feet and no knees. No tendons are defined, there are no hairs picked out, or veins described. There is just the shape of the shins. It was typical of my father’s work. All his working life he had striven to find the portions of the body which, when removed from the whole, became abstract. With the shins I think he had reached his zenith.

I walked on towards the hill from where I had viewed the hospital the previous morning. The idiot was tucked up in a dustbin liner underneath his bench residence, his face averted from the day. His chest was sheathed in a tatter of scraps, reminiscent of Simon’s collage. I looked ahead. The hospital had today achieved another feat in distortion. Flatly lit, two-dimensional, depth eradicated, there was a strip of city, a strip of sky and interposed between these two the trapezoid of the sanitorium.

Sanity smells. How could I have forgotten it? No one can lose their reason under the pervasive influence of the nasal institution. It is too mundane. The doors of the lift rolled open and the pad clamped across my face. All was as the day before. Tom sat behind the nurses’ station, and his violet eyes focused on mine as soon as I emerged in the short corridor that led from the lift.

‘Colour-coded this morning, are we?’ Tom’s accent is a strange mixture of clipped pre-war vowels and camp drawl. I looked down and noticed that I had pulled on a particularly bilious V-neck.

‘Not intentionally.’

‘Dahling, never is, never is.’

I left him and went over to the materials cupboard. Opening wide the two ceiling-high sets of double doors, I gathered up felt-tip pens and isolated them. Then I did the same with the crayons, the charcoal sticks, the pastels, the stained enamel trays of impacted watercolours, the few squiggled tubes of exhausted oils, the sheets of sugar paper, the rough paper, the rulers, and the encrusted brushes. Amongst the jumble were lumps of forgotten clay, grown primordial.

At length Tom came over. He had draped a stole of pink toilet paper around his shoulders and smoked a roll-up with quizzical attention. He stood akimbo and regarded me without speaking.

I started work on the works themselves. They were jumbled up, like the materials. The layered skin of some exercise in papier mâché had been torn by the rudely carved prong of a wooden boat. Crude daubs of powder paint on coloured sheets of rough paper had run into one another and finally impacted over the ubiquitous spiralled vessels. I prised all of these apart gingerly. I only discarded the hopelessly battered. On the rest I imposed order.

As I worked, the association area remained empty. Except for Tom, who paraded back and forth from the nurses’ station to the great windows, to the serving hatch and back to my side, trailing his flushable fashion accessory and a second mantle of smoke. From time to time he paused and struck an attitude of such ridiculous campness that I was driven to stifled giggles. He came back just as I was reaching the higher shelves.

‘I wouldn’t …’ he said.

‘Wouldn’t what?’

‘Touch the work up there.’

I dragged over a plastic chair and stepped up on to it. Now at eye level I could see that the works up here were the top of the range. Simon’s collage, Hilary’s miniatures, Jim’s tableau and a couple of others I hadn’t seen before. One was particularly striking. It was an abstract, constructed entirely out of pieces from The Riddle. The red acrylic squares had been glued together to form a box, open at the top, within which four more pieces had been set, up on edge, facing each other.

Standing on the plastic chair, eyes level with that top shelf, I had a momentary double-take. I whirled round and, too late, heard myself saying something stupid. ‘Well, well, this seems to be where the top dogs put their stuff …’

Tom tugged at my trouser leg. I descended and he gathered me into a huddle in the corner of the great flat room, which was now washed with scummy light. My hand rested flaccidly on the ventilation grill. Tom said, ‘Get out of here Misha.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Get out of here. This is a shit place, the people here are shit people. They’re fucked up and weird, more weird than you can imagine. They’re far more weird than mentally ill people. Mentally ill people are light entertainment compared to this lot.’

‘What do you mean? Explain yourself.’

‘Well, consider Simon, for one.’

‘What about him?’

‘You were there when Valuam assessed him?’

‘Yes …’

‘How many doctors have to examine a psychiatric patient before admission?’


‘And …?’

‘Well, I suppose I thought that since Simon had plainly been in and out of the ward a great deal it was rather glossed over. Fair enough, really, if a little irregular.’

‘Wrong. Simon’s mother holds a teaching appointment with this ward … she regularly arranges to have her own son sectioned.’

‘It does sound a little irregular.’

‘Irregular! The whole thing is some weird fucking busman’s holiday maan …’ Tom’s arm tightened round my waist ‘… but that needn’t upset our love Misha, we can screw together like Mec-ca-no …’ I pulled away from him ‘… Bitch!’ And turned to see Jane Bowen, regarding me quizzically.

Later that morning, I started drawing up some group worksheets. These are an invention of my own. Large sheets that three or four people can work on at once. I would lay down a basic pattern of lines which the particular group could embroider on, using whatever materials they pleased, or ignore. I worked steadily, with concentration. Two patients who I didn’t recognise were sitting at a table in the association area. They were striking some kind of a deal. From where I sat I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. Every so often one of them, a little ferrety man wearing a yachting cap, leant out from the table to shoot me a stare. It occurred to me as not unlikely that the deal they were discussing with such attention to detail was, in fact, meaningless.

Eventually I heard a murmur of voices that suggested agreement. I turned to see them exchanging stacks of pieces from The Riddle. The acrylic squares had been threaded on to a cord or wire of some kind, through a hole pierced in the corner of each piece. The two men both had necklaces entirely constructed from the discarded elements of the pop psychological pastime.

The group worksheets took me all morning. No one paid any attention to me any more. I could see now that the atmosphere of the ward was as sodden as compost. It only took a matter of hours for any given individual to be enmeshed, and start to decay. I was yesterday’s novelty.

Busner wasn’t about. Valuam and I exchanged strained salutations, sometime in the empty mid-morning. He had a snappy little check number on today. His footsteps were even more like clockwork, more pathetically authoritative. I thought to myself, what exactly am I doing on this ward? I don’t need the money. I’m not sure that I altogether believe that my particular skills can help the patients. Busner’s cynicism had certainly had the effect of dampening whatever residual idealism I had had – I wonder if that was his intention?

BOOK: The Quantity Theory of Insanity
6.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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