by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
It had been weeks before Alan, after his unsatisfactory conversation about it with Leslie, thought to put himself in the patient’s place. What was it like being sat on by half a dozen policemen and male nurses and having your bottom punctured and some evil-smelling disabling substance pumped in? Wouldn’t he too have screamed and cursed? Would he have had to be mad to do so?
This was a man who had left the rails – the confining rails of civil society. Having done so, he was no better than an animal – in his case a wild and dangerous one. Nobody was interested in how this might have come to pass. It was something fundamental to the job: if you acted mad, you had to be restrained. The bonds of normal decent humanity had been snapped by your behaviour. A medical diagnosis of madness deliberately severed the bonds.
The former was a sad fact of life, something you just had to accept. But the latter presented insidious possibilities… it was sinister.
But life wasn’t all violent madmen. Or rather – not all of them found it necessary to resort to violence. With some of them it was just as hard to withstand their purely verbal onslaughts.
“When I am out of here – then it will start!”
Alan looked up from reading the ward book. He was only deigning to pay attention out of politeness, trying not to show too much interest.
“In a week – you will hear more of Jules Lascelles.”
Alan had just been reading the entry for the previous day and night. Mr Jules Lascelles had been admitted yesterday afternoon, c/o the police, who had picked him up from the seafront where he had been standing on a bench haranguing the crowd which he had quickly collected around him. A few young bystanders had started heckling him and Lascelles had inflamed them by his responses. They had been happy enough to wind him up in the first place, expecting a laugh, but were not so happy with the things he found to say when they’d succeeded. The police car crew had decided to take him into custody for his own safety.
He was no physical menace, they quickly concluded, but they soon got tired of him at the police station and had him sectioned and brought along to the Unit. They knew of course how to get the requisite two signatures in a hurry.
“It will begin by my raising a people’s army. Workers and peasants will flock to my cause. Then we will march on London and dictate terms to the government!”
It was like playing table tennis with a fast but erratic player. Alan was experimenting with various non-committal responses, not knowing in what direction the ball would fly off next. The ward report, written in Schank’s hand, described him as having “delusions of grandeur, won’t stop talking”. Schank had a low tolerance to uppity patients at the best of times, but already Alan had begun to feel a measure of pity for his colleague.
And for himself. He had slyly looked forward to a spot of innocent entertainment with the patient, but Mr Lascelles was no Simple Simon, happy to act the buffoon for the edification of the mob. He knew how to get inside his listener’s mind and then run amok like the proverbial bull in a china shop.
His technique, Alan worked out, was like a sacrifice-throw in judo – to provoke an idle response from his listener and then use this as a hook into the latter’s mind, under threat of making him look a fool. The only defence Alan had discovered was to make his replies so slippery that Lascelles couldn’t get a purchase on them.
Speaking perfect English, with a heavy French accent, Lascelles went over to the attack. “So the question you must ask yourself is – are you with me? Or against me?”
“I – I really can’t say…”
“Just look at yourself. The product of a good education and you ‘really can’t say’? Do you have no opinions which you can call your own?”
“I just like to think things through…”
“You don’t have to think things through. I have done the thinking for you. All you have to do is to say in your heart-of-hearts – is this man right? And if so – then have the courage of your convictions!”
Alan shrugged. “It takes me time…”
“Time? Time! How much time have you got? In a few minutes, rockets can be launched from satellites overhead, bombers can release their loads and – pfft! – we all go up in smoke! And you sit around asking for time! A precious commodity in today’s world. I shall give you precisely one minute…”
“Can’t you give me a bit longer? We’re not going anywhere this morning, you and me.”
“Listen, young man, when you hear what I have to say, you’ll marvel at my patience in giving you so much as a minute to make your decision. This is the offer of a lifetime you’re about to hear. Are you going to seize the opportunity? Or are you going to let it blow away – as all too many of you young people do?”
“What have you got to offer me?” said Alan, careful to adjust the stress so as not to sound sarcastic. He had discovered the hard way that sarcasm worked wholly in the patient’s favour.
Lascelles’ eyes flickered as he held Alan’s gaze, probing for a crack in what he’d just said. Alan reflected, not without respect, that the patient had got him playing his silly game at last. Hopefully he had made his question so slippery with its lack of stress that Lascelles would not know where to grasp hold of it in order to beat him with it.
The patient’s eyes flared with insane fire. “I shall come straight to the point. Join me! Fight alongside me! Today Britain – and tomorrow the World! I shall reward my followers generously. And you – I shall make my second-in-command!”
“That’s a very generous offer, Mr Lascelles…”
“A generous offer? Generous! I do not waste generosity on people who do not deserve it. In you I see potential! An Emperor is as strong as his human instruments – and you have the potential to be strong! Strong! I see it in your eyes. But you are not strong yet. Far from it! There is a fatal flaw in your make-up. One awaiting the day someone comes who will be your Master…!”
“Excuse me, Mr Lascelles – I must just phone upstairs…”
“What do you need to phone upstairs for? Is the burden of decision-making so great that your juvenile mind is crumbling already under the load?”
But by then Alan had got to his feet and was reaching round the office door for the phone.
“Just a minute, Mr Lascelles… yes – Ward 14, please.”
“This is the most crucial minute of your life! You have no time for distractions…!”
“Sorry – something I’ve just thought of. Yes – yes Sister… no – no code 100, but I could use a bit of 200. Yes… that would be brilliant.”
“This matter is between you and me! It does nothing but harm to bring in third-parties!”
“… One sugar or two, Mr Lascelles?”
“Tea! I spit in your tea! While the future of the world teeters in the balance – all you can think of is tea!”
“… Send an extra one down anyway. Thank you Sister.” Alan put down the phone.
Two cups of tea were brought to them by Pye. Lascelles ignored the cup placed in front of him and carried on haranguing Alan. But he was watching the eyes of both nursing assistants carefully. He would be quick to intercept any silent messages passing between them.
Pye grasped the situation and, keeping a straight face, said not a word. He turned to go back upstairs, though he took a long time about it. But go he must – he was in the middle of the Big Change with Rochdale.
As for Alan, it was comforting to know that there were two hefty guys upstairs to come and help him, should the patient turn nasty. But the interlude had given him confidence that he could handle Lascelles for a bit longer. Like a boxer having his face sponged, he relaxed for a few seconds over his tea, mentally regrouping for the next round.
It was another hour before Sister was able, or saw fit, to send Rochdale to relieve him. It was the longest hour Alan had ever spent.
…to be continued.