by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“You know, I thought you were a homo.”
“Alan – I can’t help what I am.”
It was night and it was hot. Distant flashes silently lit the sky. They lay on top of their sleeping bags with nothing but a single army blanket covering the two of them. Somehow they had drifted into a loose embrace. It felt clean and clinical – not like the time Alan was patted dry by the girl on the beach.
He’d initially felt an impulse to turn over with a wrench, to shut his shell like a mussel. But an even stronger desire resisted it, making him unwind and blossom, lying bud-burst and tingling. Like a tropical bloom, an offering to the night.
The thing he had to fear, he knew, was nothing he could shut his shell against. If he did, his goblin would be on the inside with him, engulfed in his soft parts – the proffered exorcism rudely shut out, possibly for good. Maybe in time it would become a pearl. More likely it would devour him from the inside.
“So here I am – lying in a homo’s arms. I wouldn’t have been able to do it once upon a time.”
“Is it any worse than lying in a nigger’s arms, or a yid’s arms?”
“You know what I mean…”
“Or a schizo’s arms? Or a mongol’s?”
“It’s not the same…”
“It’s all just name-calling.”
“No it isn’t. You’ve got to be discriminating. I mean – to show some discrimination…”
“What about a woman’s arms now? A bird’s arms? No… that’s not the same. People approve of that. All the films tell you it’s every man’s ideal – every real man. It’s what you ought to like. But only on your own terms, mind – not the woman’s.”
Alan felt a pang of memory.
“These are all just expressions for the underdog,” continued Gerald. “The uppity one.” He fell silent.
“I was almost thinking of reporting you. A homo shouldn’t be around the kids.”
“Abusing the kids? – Can’t think of anything more disgusting.”
“There’s women on the ward too. Why should a homo be any more of a risk to the kids than a hetero – of the opposite sex? Some of them can be pretty voracious…”
“I know that,” said Alan with feeling.
Gerald turned his head towards the boy in the dark. A flash lit up his face in profile. Alan hadn’t been boasting. Gerald turned his head back again and took a painful breath. “Well, I’m not surprised. A good-looking boy like you….”
Alan emitted a snort, as if expelling a bad smell.
“You’d be amazed who’s got a crush on you,” Gerald continued. “Half the female staff at a guess, if not more. Of course – you don’t take any bloody notice.”
Alan was silent.
“The way Assistant Matron looks at you…”
“And I shouldn’t be surprised if Matron doesn’t have a soft spot too.”
“Now you’re really pulling my leg!”
Gerald didn’t answer and they lay in silence for a minute. He was thinking – have you never thought why you’re so damn scared of the old spinster? Something in you has detected an underlying agenda, cutting across authority, grade, status…
“You know who does have a crush on me,” murmured Alan quietly.
“Yeah – who?”
“Oh yes – doesn’t he just!”
“And do you know – I could smash him. When I first realised it, I was disgusted. Utterly, utterly disgusted. I just couldn’t handle it. To think that I could be wanted – like that – by somebody like that…”
Gerald took a while to reply. “But you know, Alan – isn’t that a beautiful thing?”
“What’s so ruddy beautiful about it?”
“Over sixty patients in the ward. And there’s one – just one – who can talk like a grown man. There’s an adult mind in that poor shrivelled body. No education – but he can think like you and me. And he can fall in love…”
Gerald sighed. “Now who do you suppose he’s got to fall in love with?”
Alan lay in the dark, face burning.
“Well…” Gerald continued, “there’s several of us he might have done. But he picks you.”
Alan groaned. “Why me…?”
“He joins the queue.”
With those four words Gerald opened a door for Alan. The trapdoor to his junk-loft of shame – and out it all came, tumbling down on him.
He saw it all now – all too clearly. He despised himself. He rejected himself. Which was why he was rejecting others, regardless of the pain he caused. He who in his turn felt trivialised and slighted by the girls he knew. Girls with whom it was his delight to fill his mind. Whether or not they’d applied to him for the privilege.
Gerald grunted “He wouldn’t be the first patient to fall in love with his nurse.” And turning over he went to sleep.
In the electric dark Alan came face-to-face with his goblin, his hidden cherished hated pet. It was crude and simple. Avoidance of pain.
It was his guardian dark-angel, his life’s priority. Not physical pain – that held few terrors for him. The other day when he needed blood for a chemical experiment – as a catalyst for producing oxygen from hydrogen peroxide – he had coolly taken a scalpel to his own skin.
His fundamental strategy was one of forever seeking ways of avoiding mental pain. To seek ways out of hell. Rather than say yes to the possibility of the pain of rebuff – to go onwards knowing it was lying in wait for him – he preferred to say no to himself and to others. To hide in a concrete bunker commanding a viewpoint. The view that basically he wasn’t worthy of anybody’s acceptance. People were right to rebuff him, as they were inevitably going to. So why bother to expose himself to it?
But on the other hand if something so pitiful – even someone so utterly beneath his contempt as Jackie Robb – did not deserve to be dismissed out-of-hand… then wasn’t he, Alan, every bit as deserving?
Sometimes it takes a stranger to expose you to yourself. To show you the obvious, before you are able to unsnarl a blockage in the attic of your mind and rearrange the lumber differently. Or chuck it all out.
When Alan awoke next morning and put his head outside the tent, in the ice-green smell of a cobwebby dew, he was a century older. The Long Man of Wilmington stood challenging him across wide open meadows. Standing in his doorway, inviting him in – if he dared.
The doorway to hell. And the door back out again.
…to be continued.