The Quantity Theory of Insanity (9 page)

BOOK: The Quantity Theory of Insanity
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Around noon a middle-aged patient called Judith had a partial fit in the short corridor that led from the association area to the women’s ward. At first it seemed as if she was simply having a rather heated exchange of words – albeit with herself. But this escalated into hysteria. She vomited as well. Mimi and another nurse arrived very quickly, while I was still standing, poised between the inclination to pretend I hadn’t noticed and the desire to show that I could cope. The nurses smoothed Judith’s limbs, set her on her
feet and led her away. The vomit and distress was somehow accounted for and absorbed.

I was conscious all morning of wanting to avoid Tom and Simon. I didn’t really want to see Jim either. I ate lunch alone in the dining-room set aside for staff. I couldn’t understand why I was meant to be there. None of the other staff from the ward were. Later on it transpired that it was someone’s birthday and they had all gone for a drink in a pub across the road.

In the afternoon I got the patients who turned up to try and do something with the worksheets. Some of them were interested, some were immersed in their own projects. Clive turned out to be a surprisingly effective group leader. He dragooned three rather sheepish depressives into snaking wet trails of paint up and down the large gridded sheet. Their regular actions formed swirl after swirl. He stood back and surveyed them at work like some sort of gaffer. Looking at Clive, his jaw working, rocking as ever, I remembered that he was meant to have been discharged today. I wondered why he was still on the ward, but his pop-eyes, his shiny elbow pads, dissuaded me from asking.

Neither Tom nor Jim appeared for the afternoon session. The model flyover stayed on its shelf. Simon cut and pasted his collage. He had lost interest in me as well. He had reverted to the exaggerated, scab-picking parody of surly adolescence. I wondered where Mimi was, with the faint, sickly lust of an adolescent. I wondered if she had thought me a wimp, or chicken, for not helping out with Judith.

The afternoon ended and I was headed for the lift. This time it was the door to the cleaning cupboard that swung open an invitation. Her buttocks pulsed and scrunched against a plastic sack of soda crystals. Once again it was
sickeningly brief. But this time before she left she made me eat two small, green, candied pills.

‘What are these?’ I said.

‘Parstelin – it’s a compound preparation of the MAO inhibitor tranylcypromine and trifluoperazine. It’s not recommended for children.’

‘Why should I take them?’

‘To understand, dummy. After all, since you aren’t mad, they won’t have any effect on you, will they?’ Her voice was offhand, light, mocking. It was no big deal.

‘S’pose not.’ I dryly swallowed them.

‘Don’t eat any cheese, or drink Chianti. You might have a bad reaction if you do.’ She slid out through the gap in the door. One breast, delineated by soiled nylon, and again by ridged cotton, was outlined against the doorjamb for a moment, and then gone.

The rest of the week passed on the ward. I carried on with the worksheets and seemed to be making some progress. Increasing numbers of patients came to the afternoon art therapy sessions and stayed to try their hand. I started to get on well with the quieter patients. This was a mixed blessing. On more than one occasion Hilary held me prisoner for over an hour with talk of her friends, and the mechanics of her exact rendition of them as watercolour images. Likewise Lionel, the mysteriously psychotic accountant, was intent on sitting down with me on Thursday afternoon, a companionable arm about my shoulders, and together we leafed through glossy sales brochures for office equipment. Each article was a revelation to him; one he viewed purely aesthetically. ‘Look at this one,’ he said, gesturing at a modular workstation
done in mushroom, ‘lovely, isn’t it?’ It was all I could do to mumble assent.

As for Bowen and Valuam they murmured at me cordially and passed by. There was no apparent reason for contact and Busner remained absent. I suspected that his juniors were prejudiced against me because of my father and all the sentimental crap Busner mouthed when I arrived on the ward, but I didn’t particularly care. And at lunch I talked to auxiliaries or nurses.

Every night Mimi rendezvoused with me in another cupboard. I never knew which one it would be but somehow she always knew where to catch me just when I was about to finish clearing away the art materials and leave the ward for the night. Our couplings remained brief and stylised. She resisted my unspoken pressure towards some intimacy with offers of more green pills, which I took, hoping they might bring us together. On Friday she gave me four more after I had taken my normal two and told me to administer them myself over the weekend.

On Saturday night I went to see a film with a friend. We normally met up every month or so and at least half our time was, naturally enough, taken up with relaying a cursory outline of what we had been doing in the intervening period. On this occasion I was more circumspect than usual. I had the suspicion that what had been happening to me on the ward, especially my relationship with Mimi, was something that I shouldn’t talk about to outsiders. It wasn’t that it was wrong exactly – it was rather that the experience so clearly didn’t apply.

I was also very conscious of the green pills that lay in the soft mess of lint at the bottom of my pockets. My finger sought them out as we talked, and to the probing digit they
felt preposterously large and tactile, the way objects in the mouth feel to the tongue.

We were sitting in the cinema. I was idly watching the film, when I felt for the first time what must have been an effect of the drug. It was remarkably similar to the sensation I had had on the ward, when I was standing up on the chair looking for the first time at the patients’ artworks on the top shelf of the materials cupboard. It was a feeling of detachment, but not from the external world; this was an internal detachment, a membraneous tearing away, inside of me.

After the film we went to get something to eat in a kebab joint. As we entered the eatery through an arch, band-sawn out of chipboard, I felt the rending inside me, again. For some reason I found myself unable to discuss the film. Abstracted, I started to casually shred the flesh from my splayed baby chicken with my hands. I had amassed quite a pile before my friend reacted with concerned disgust. I shrugged the episode off.

At the end of the evening I said goodbye to my friend and returned to my house. Sitting in the yellow light from the road, coiling and uncoiling my sock, I resolved, quietly and with no emotional fuss, never to see him again.

It’s funny. It’s funny – but after that it became easy to dismantle the emotional and spiritual framework of my life. Relatives, friends, ex-lovers; it became apparent that their relationships with me had always been as contingent as I had suspected. It only took an instance of irregularity, one, or at most two phone calls unreturned by me, an engagement not attended, for whole swathes of human contact to lie down, to fall into short stooks.

After a few weeks on Ward 9, and a generous handful of
mutant M&Ms, everything began to resolve itself into the patterns I had always dimly thought I apprehended. The violet swirls, purple beams and glowing coils that lie within the world of the pressed eyelid – the distressed retina. I seemed to have acquired an air-cushioned soul. I felt no resistance to doing things that would have plagued my conscience in the past, at least that is what I felt. I had no precise examples of these things other than taking Parstelin itself. My liaisons with Mimi? But they were just knee-jerk experiences.

Why have I isolated myself like this? My only human contact now comes within working hours and mostly with the patients on the ward. I have no idea. I can make no claim to being depressed or alienated. Indeed I seem to have suffered from less disaffection in my life than most of my contemporaries, perhaps because of my father’s death. Yet I felt more at home on the ward than I ever felt … at home.

The patients have thrown themselves into the worksheets with a vengeance. There was something about the size and complexity of the job that really appealed to them. The method also gave them the opportunity to blend together all their different styles. When they were working quietly on the sheets in the late afternoon one could almost be in a normal working situation. All their idiosyncrasies and psychic tics seemed smoothed out by their absorption. Clive no longer rocked at all. Hilary, having integrated her miniatures into Simon’s new swirl of encrusted mâché, was content to work on backgrounds. Her bag-on-a-stand swished around her, a fixed point which delineated the circumference of her enterprise.

There was one thing missing in all of this: Busner.
Despite the fact that I now seemed to get on with all and sundry on the ward; despite the fact that I felt accepted; despite the fact that when the lift door rolled back and I found myself at the head of the familiar, short corridor that led to the association area, I no longer felt the atmosphere as oppressive; on the contrary it was cosy, from beneath the covers. Despite all this there was Busner’s profound absence. An absence towards which I felt a surprising ambivalence.

Busner is the Hierophant. He oversees the auguries, decocts potions, presides over rituals that piddle the everyday into a teastrainer reality. And he is a reminder of everything I wish to bury with my childhood. A world of complacency, of theory in the face of real distress. My father and Busner would sit together for hours at the head of the dining-room table and set the world to rights. Their conversation – I realised later – loaded with the slop of banality and sentimentality that was the direct result of their own sense of failure. Their wives would repair to another room and there do things that
had
to be done, while they carried on and on, eliding their adolescence still further into middle age. The awful oatmeal carpets of my childhood and the shame of having been a part of it all. When I think of Busner now he is a ghastly throwback, threatening to drag me into a conspiracy to evade reality.

Where is he? Valuam told me over bourbons and tea that he was in Helsinki, reading a paper to a conference. Valuam dunked his biscuits and sucked on them noisily, which is something I wouldn’t have expected from this little scrap of anal retention. We talked a little about my art therapy work, but really he had no time for it and pointed instead to the success he was having with a new anti-depressant.
‘Seemingly intractable states, verging on total withdrawal, now with noticeable effect.’ He was referring to Lionel, who now no longer sat by the windows staring blankly down on to the chronics’ balcony, but instead paced the men’s ward like a caged lion, desperate to get back into business. Where was Busner? I didn’t believe Valuam; I kept expecting the door to the utilities cupboard to swing open and to find crouching there, sweaty pills in pudgy palm, the discredited guru, waiting with affectionate arm to jerk me off, for old times’ sake.

Monday morning, again. The sun cannot penetrate a low sodden bank of cloud and the light wells from behind it, oozing up from the ground through a thick spongy pile of ground mist as I foot my way across the sward. The air around me distorts to form rooms and corridors, and rooms within them and sliding partitions which I never come up against. The ward has come out to meet me today; I feel its shape around me, its scuffed skirting boards at my ankles, as I move towards the idiot’s bench.

He is lying under it, caulked in free newspapers. Pathetic small ads show intaglioed across his neck. In the confined space he rolls over and clonks his shin against the bench leg. His face is exposed for a moment against the greasy collar of his anorak. His eyes have swollen up and exploded in a series of burst ramparts and lesions of diseased flesh. I feel my oily tea slop up from my stomach, the nausea is as clear and pure as pain. I vomit with precision and vomit again until my nausea has no function and I can look once more.

It’s not clear what has happened to the idiot. Has he drunk some bleach? Some oven cleaner? Or is it a disease of a rarefied kind, a human myxomatosis designed to eliminate
the crap from the fringe of society, to stop the piss-heads copulating and producing more of their degenerate kind? Whichever. The fact is that it’s evident that he hasn’t been dead for long – his corpse is still moving into rigor. He has died in the night and I am the first to happen along. It is my responsibility to alert the authorities. And now I feel the presence of the Parstelin in my blood stream. It replaces the sense of nausea as – for the first time – a positive rather than a negative attribute. The drug provides me with another fuzzy frame of reference, within which the idiot’s death is no responsibility of mine. Someone else will report it, someone else will find him. I glissade down the hillside on my fluffy Lilo. The arguments from my conscience are remote, like memories of a television debate between contesting pompous pundits, witnessed several years ago …

A long morning in the hospital. On the ward there is an uncharacteristic, brisk efficiency. Valuam trots hither and thither with a clipboard compiling what look like inventories. For some reason he is dressed casually today, or at least in superficially casual clothes. It was always obvious that he would iron his jeans and check shirts, and also that he would wear sleeveless grey pullovers. Not for the first time it occurs to me that there is a strange symmetry between the sartorial sense of the psychiatric staff and that of their patients. Valuam with his strict dress which looks hopelessly contrived, Bowen with her bag lady chic, Busner with his escaping underwear. All of them match up with the patients in their charge …

I am working on something of my own which I hope will provide some inspiration for the patients. It’s a worksheet, about six feet square, on which I have done several
representations of the hospital. Each one has been executed using a different technique: pen and wash, gouache, oils, charcoals, pencils, clay. This morning I spend time cutting the stencil for a silk-screen print.

Patients,
en route
for therapy sessions, or dropping out of the medication line, pause by the tables I’ve pushed together in the dining area and ask me about the work. An auxiliary, a middle-aged Filipino woman, stops her swirling, watery work with tousled mop and zinc bucket on the ward floor to discourse at length on swollen ankles, injustice and the vagaries of public transport. I listen and work distractedly; the image of the dead idiot imposes itself on me startlingly. It slides in front of my eyes from time to time with an audible click: the ridge of greasy, nylon quilted collar, the scrubby, scrawny neck, the long face, the exploded eyes …

BOOK: The Quantity Theory of Insanity
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