by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Sister called Alan into her office as soon as he had walked in the door.
“When you’ve got your uniform on, Mr Hall, you’re to go over and help out in the ECT Unit. They have a session on today.”
“Are they short-staffed over there?”
“No more than usual. They only have sessions twice a week, so they don’t have much of a permanent staff. So they borrow ours.”
The ECT unit was a large room containing 24 couches – featureless sea-green oblongs in padded Rexine at a convenient height for sitting on. There was one staff member per bed – lower orders like himself – plus a number of others for ancillary tasks, like wheeling the equipment trolley and the oxygen cylinders. It reminded him of nothing so much as a blood-donor session. But hopefully minus the blood.
Gradually people began to drift in. Individuals of all ages, escorted by ambulance-men. ECT was a day-unit – the people who came here, usually for a course of six to 12 treatments for chronic depression – were outpatients. They would be brought by ambulance straight from their homes to attend one of the sessions, they would receive their treatment and the ambulance would take them back home again.
“Why is it called ECT?” Alan had asked Poonawala on one occasion. “Surely it stands for Electric Shock Treatment? Can’t they spell?”
“No, it stands for Electro-Convulsive Therapy.”
“You mean people are put in a sort of electric chair and wriggle about with smoke and sparks coming off them?”
“It’s not quite as bad as that. You’ll see.”
And in due course he would.
The out-patient Alan got to attend to was one of the people you don’t notice in the street. She was coming along for fortnightly sessions and this was her third. She seemed not so much anxious about it as passive.
He helped her onto the couch and eased off her shoes. A mild, slightly acrid scent of feet and warm leather arose from her nylons. Perhaps it was only someone like Alan, a non-smoker and under 20, who would have noticed it.
Almost certainly she’d have taken a bath before being brought to the Unit. She was old enough to have been in her twenties during the war. When Seagate was on the invasion coast and sudden death was raining daily from the skies, the biggest worry on everybody’s mind was the state of your undies when they got you to hospital. People put on fresh knickers each day, if they could, and kept themselves far cleaner than they had ever done in peacetime – in the officially sanctioned two inches of bathwater.
But it was a closely personal smell, one which few people would ever be privileged to savour. Your husband – your shoe-shop assistant – your undertaker. He, someone of no consequence to her, had been required by this medical procedure, this rite of exorcism, to enter into her personal space.
She lay back on the couch, taking a deep breath. Alan adjusted the pillow beneath her head, covered the lower half of her body with a thin blanket and bared her arm for the needle. Shoes were the only thing that came off – patients had their treatment in their day clothes.
It was a bloodless procedure, clean and clinical. A day was about to be surgically removed from the patient’s life. Days don’t bleed – not when you’re chronically depressed. At most they exude a greyish pus.
Alan sat at the foot of the bed, trembling slightly. He was more anxious than the patient herself. She, so Alan had been assured, would remember nothing of this day. He knew that what he was about to witness was going to be remembered for the rest of his life. Some magick ritual, savage and stone-age, like the evidence from trepanned skulls, thousands of years old, of a violent assault on demons in the head. Trepanning was simply what you resorted to when your surgical tools were flakes of flint – and you hadn’t discovered the bloodless convenience of electricity.
A small procession of white coats and associated equipment was passing from bed to bed, a peripatetic firing-squad, coming gradually closer. Now they were at Alan’s bed and they silently surrounded it, equipment trolley on one side and oxygen cylinder on the other.
The doctor murmured a few words to the patient, asking her how she was, with all the feeling of a speak-your-weight machine. It’s doubtful if he even registered her answer. Then he inserted a needle into her arm. Within a few seconds she had become unconscious. Rapidly the doctor unscrewed the barrel of the syringe from the needle still lodged in her arm and attached a fresh one. A different coloured liquid was slid into her body. Her chest was now moving rhythmically and easily, no mundane cares to impose themselves upon her breathing. Her face was at rest and her eyes closed.
The doctor took a horseshoe of bent Perspex, from which wires trailed and white bandage had been wound round the ends. The appliance was slid over her head like earphones, but against the temples, not the ears. Its compelling transmission was for her brain alone.
“Don’t touch the patient,” cautioned the doctor. Nothing would have prevailed upon Alan to do so.
The doctor switched on the shoebox-sized instrument which rested on the trolley beside him and counted firmly to three before switching off. During that brief interval her face snapped smartly into a Gorgon’s mask, a rictus of effort and agony. Switching off, her face instantly lapsed back into its former expression of repose. Quite clearly no consciousness had mediated the process – she had been nothing but a marionette on a wire.
The nurse with the oxygen mask concluded the rite. As Alan looked upon his patient, he realised with a shock that she had stopped breathing. She was, to all appearances, quite dead. Oxygen began to hiss and the bulging rubber mask was pressed over the patient’s face, covering it entirely. Her chest rose with pumped-in gas. The nurse removed the mask and the chest collapsed again. This operation was repeated three or four times – which was all that was necessary to kick-start the patient’s life processes. The firing-squad moved on.
“Watch her carefully and call me back if she stops breathing,” said the nurse. “Tea will be round in a moment.”
She paused and peered at him. “You look as if you need a cup yourself. Is this the first time you’ve done this?”
“Well I’m awfully sorry but they’ll tell you that the tea is for the patients only. I suggest you go along to the canteen first before you go back to your ward.”
Alan sat with his patient, holding her hand, watching her slowly come to life. In the films, Frankenstein was always animated by electricity in the temples. Now he had actually seen it done. To Alan’s relief she stirred, taking control of her body once more, shifting into a slightly more comfortable position. Half a minute later she gave a brisk but deep sigh, as a child does on emerging from a nightmare, or an episode of sleepwalking. Within a minute she was sitting up, groggy, her head in her hands.
A cup of tea was brought, ready milked and sweetened in the huge enamel pot. “Try to get the patient to drink this,” said the auxiliary.
Eating and drinking are such base activities that they are barely under conscious control. Even his brain-damaged boys in Ward 14 could make the effort to swallow when spoonfuls of food were pushed in their mouths. Quite soon, sitting with his arm around her shoulder, he had got her sipping her tea.
But before it was finished she began to weep like a silent rain at dawn. An understandable neurological response to the palaeolithic savagery of the treatment.
“Where am I?” she whispered. “How did I get here?”
“Drink some more of this,” said Alan – she did so. “You’re at the clinic. You’ll soon be home and you can go straight to bed and sleep it off.”
She began to weep louder. Panic bled into her voice. “I don’t know where I live…!”
The stark horror of her situation unfolded itself for Alan. This very ordinary woman had gone to sleep in possession of her faculties, knowing where she was and how she’d been brought there. She had woken up a stranger in her own head, dumped down like an errant time-traveller at an unknown location in space and time.
It didn’t matter that she couldn’t remember where she lived. Because there was no way home. Bereft of all hope, her avatar would crumple and perish as her numb body was taken back to the house from which the ambulance had collected her – a house she wouldn’t recognise, to people she didn’t know. Tomorrow she would wake up reborn as another person, in familiar surroundings, remembering who she was – all memory gone of this day and her despairing end.
Everything would be as it had been. But a worn slate might be blown from the roof of her mind, letting daylight trickle through into the darkness of the attic.
That was what you went to hell and back for. Hopefully it was you that came back.
…to be continued.