by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

Alan opened his book again. Don’t argue with the patient. If you can’t think of anything to say – say nothing…

That seemed to work. There was a long period of silence. Any minute now, felt Alan, Mr Osbourne would get up and go back to bed in disgust. But all of a sudden he spoke up again, as if he’d only just paused to take a breath.

“Well – aren’t you going to ask me who I am and what I’m doing here?”

“No,” said Alan. But Mr Osbourne was going to tell him anyway.

“I’m the illegitimate son of a certain royal princess, who shall be nameless. I must protect my mother’s reputation. It was all hush-hush. When I was born, I was smuggled out through a hole in the bottom of the Royal Yacht into a waiting submarine.”

Понимать / понять, слышать / услышать…

“I was brought up in an orphanage in South London. I had a miserable childhood. I think people secretly knew who I was and they were jealous of me. The security services are out to get me. They are in league with scientists on Proxima Centauri who are worried about mankind’s conquest of space.”

Слушать / послушать, прислушиватся / прислушатся…

“They know I have a very special sort of brain – and they want to get hold of it in order to understand how mankind has been able to split the atom. They want to stop us of course before we blow up the world.”

Увывать / увыть…

“Of course I fully sympathise with their concerns, but I ask myself – why me? Won’t somebody else’s brain do? But no – it’s got to be mine. So they’re determined to get hold of my brain while I’m asleep.”

Ходить / идти…

“Now the other day I discovered something very sinister. Very sinister indeed. The Centaurians are in league with the earthworms!”

Отходить / отойти…

“Now you and I don’t give them a second thought – but the earthworms form a sort of distributed intelligence all over the earth – a kind of super-brain sprinkled about in their burrows. We think of them as insensible – but they know… Collectively, that is. They know!”

Рассказывать / рассказать, видеть / увидеть…

“The Centaurians have got in touch with them and they’re working hand-in-glove. That’s what the messages are all about. They know I’m here and they think they’ve got me cornered.”

Исчезать / исчезнуть, пропадать / пропасть…

“They’ve got a plan to come in the night when I’m asleep and crawl up my nose – or in my ears – and take away my brain piece-by-piece.”

Alan looked up. “Don’t worry, Mr Osborne, they won’t do that here.”

“Please, Nurse – please don’t let them!”

“There’s no chance of them doing so. They can’t get in here.”

“Can’t they…? If only I could be sure that was true, I’d be so relieved.”

“I won’t let them touch you.”

“Thank you, Nurse – thank you…”

“I’m going to be here all night. Sitting right here – outside your door. Watching you. That’s why it’s called the Observation Unit.”

“Oh, I’m so grateful…”

“So… why don’t you lie down again and try and get to sleep?”

“I think I will. I’m feeling quite tired now.”

“Anything you need, just say the word and I’ll be here.”

Mr Osbourne got to his feet, holding onto the back of the flimsy chair for support.

“Nurse – do you think I could ask you a favour – have you got any cotton-wool?”

“Cotton-wool? – yes I’m sure we’ve got some. But why…?”

“I want to put some in my ears. Just to stop the earthworms getting in.”

Alan hesitated, then rose to his feet decisively. “I’ll go and get you some.” He went into the office and got a roll of cotton-wool out of the general cupboard. No harm in it, he thought. It might muffle the sound of the pipes and help the patient get to sleep.

“Here you are, Mr Osborne – that should be enough, shouldn’t it?”

The patient duly stuffed his ears. Alan took his arm and gently steered him back to bed. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Mr Osbourne tore off more cotton wool and began stuffing it up his nostrils.

“No,” said Alan, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea…”

He had a mild struggle with the patient, during which Mr Osborne had to take the cotton-wool out of one ear to be sure of what he was saying.

“If you put cotton-wool up your nose, you won’t be able to breathe properly.”

“I can breathe through my mouth.”

Alan wanted to protest – what if the earthworms get in there? But it fell to him to fly the flag of reason. “I really can’t let you go to sleep with cotton-wool up your nose. If the Night Superintendent comes and sees you…”

Mr Osborne relented. Night Super scared him just as much as she did Alan. But he begged his young minder to be extra careful and watch out for earthworms trying to get up his nose. Alan nodded vigorously.

“…Or cockroaches.”


“Yes. They’re in the business too. The earthworms use them when they’re in need of haste. And ruthlessness.”

Alan felt a quick thrill of fear. That was more of a possibility. Not of a cockroach actually getting up Mr Osborne’s nose, but of him seeing one scuttling along the skirting during the night. It wouldn’t exactly reassure him that Alan was caring for him with adequate zeal.

Alan had seen them upstairs at night, when all was quiet. He knew they were in the kitchen. There was a brown ring round the top of the sink. Soddy had told him that it was the work of cockroaches – apparently the filthy little beasts defecate continuously and leave a trail of faeces all along their regular runs. It didn’t say much for the efficiency of the cleaners – but the kitchen wasn’t an operating theatre. It would be a zealous cleaner indeed who always thought to clean round the top of the sink just under the draining board.

“Rest assured, Mr Osborne. I won’t let a cockroach come anywhere near you.”

“Thank you, Nurse. I’m so glad you’re here.”

Alan resumed his seat and the two of them settled down, one to sleep and one to watch. Alan now began to understand the stories about people who went to bed in diving-suits. In the still of the night he began to feel distinctly sorry for them. Once an idea worms its way into your mind, it’s difficult to get it out. Like trying to get rid of athlete’s foot once it’s got a foothold.

Once more Alan opened his Russian primer.

Замечать / заметить…

… issy bissy is he busy busy is he is he busy is is he busy is he is he…?

Drat the fellow! Fancy him managing to slip the suggestion into his head that the pipes were talking! Their random rustling was now beginning to form distinct phrases in his mind.

… hissy busy sin sylph is its insular mystery…

Mr Osborne recommenced snoring. Every few seconds Alan made a point of raising his eyes from his book in order to glance at the sleeping form in the dim light of the cell. He felt obliged to keep an eye open for cockroaches. Not to mention earthworms. He owed it to Mr Osbourne – after the reassurances he’d smothered him with.

… sniffy prissy sisyphus is scarcely missing simpering silly sister…

Just because the patient is suffering from delusions, it doesn’t justify you stooping to insincerity. To do so is to lose your own grip on reality. Only by Alan keeping his side of the bargain could Mr Osborne hope to achieve any lasting victory over his fears and delusions. And that – in varying measure – goes for us all.

… risible ridiculous sinning mussulman sitting stiffly in cissy shift…

Everyone’s fears are in some respect illusory. None of us can properly gauge the true likelihood of all the dangers besetting us at any one time. To do so would require an information-gathering capacity far in advance of the most sophisticated scientific experiments – and those only took place in laboratories, under tightly-controlled conditions. Artificial worlds, every bit as contrived as the synthetic world inhabited by Mr Osbourne.

… stiffly wishes mystery fissile fish…

Life is far from scientifically controlled. It is uncontrolled – unprotected – open-ended. Open to the sky – and to being invaded by any aliens that might be lurking out there. Resting on the ground – and at the mercy of its burrowing denizens whenever they choose to emerge from the soil beneath your feet.

… sintering thistledown whistling in dismal distances…

On the other hand, someone like Schank, Alan knew, would resist any counter-intuitive suggestion the patient tried to put forward, shutting his mind to it. To sit watching for cockroaches, he would maintain, was to let oneself be drawn, if ever-so-slightly, into the patient’s bizarre world.

… missing existential inference subsisting in subliminal sensation…

It was to pay danegeld to the forces of illusion. But that was not a reasoned response. Not even a reasonable one. So many people replied in this hostile fashion to any ideas which were foreign to them. It was the basis of all bigotry. It lay at the root of the world’s most intractable problems.

… stitched suture insinuating itself invisibly in synthesised sheets…

If only they would embrace reason! If only folk would adopt a scientific approach to intrusions of the unexplained into their lives. Yet all he heard from people around him was “you scientists blow up the world!”

sixty six sickly pixies picking pink pips for victuals in discrete situations of visibly pustulating fissures…

To the layman, science stood for surrender. It stood for weakness, for a perfidious propensity to see the problem from the other man’s meritless point of view. It also stood for chemical corrosion – for toxic hazard – for dangerous notions that could poison the world as you knew it, burrowing into the very foundations of your life.

… desirous of discussing dissonance in scintillating syllables…

Mr Osbourne continued to snore. Next morning, no doubt, he’d again tell the day staff he hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night. Alan’s eyes fixated on the patient’s open mouth, as the blankets covering his chest rose and fell in a sea-swell.
Wouldn’t it be awful if he swallowed a cockroach!

…to be continued.


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