“Trust the process, young man! Structure. Stricture. All things that bind concentrate the essence.”
Doctor Bermuda steepled his hands, leaned forward over the desk. The patient man stared, with a mixture of horror and fascination, at the Doctor’s fingers—short and brutally squared-off as if someone had been at them with a pair of bolt-croppers, stained as if with iodine up to the first joint. The air was close in the dusty, cobwebby little office and the smell of hessian sacks (that seemed to emanate from the ancient wooden coat-stand in the corner of the room, an item of furniture so piled about so thickly with mackintoshes, blazers, gabardine coats and Inverness capes that it resembled a tepee) made the patient man so drowsy he fought to keep his eyes open.
The Doctor rummaged about in a drawer in his ancient leather-topped bureau. The patient man noted, amongst the various objects within, a letter-opener the size and shape of a stiletto gleaming dully. Other things: a confusion of perishing rubber tubing; something wrapped, perhaps, in brown paper, that rustled. The patient craned his neck to try to catch a better glimpse of the drawer’s contents, but all at once the Doctor gave up, and squeaked the drawer closed.
“Your matter requires further cogitation,” he said, delving into the inside pocket of his shabby tweed jacket. He produced a small stoppered bottle and, with the air of one shyly showing a new acquaintance a conjuring trick, placed it on the table between them.
“In the meantime, two drops, thrice a day.” The Doctor’s bearded face split into a grin, showing off his ragged tombstone teeth. He wrinkled his face to inveigle his smeared spectacles further up the bridge of his nose. “Underneath the tongue, whilst breathing the air from a draughty east-facing window.”
The patient looked doubtful. Picking up the small brown bottle and giving it an experimental shake, he watched the way the thick syrupy liquid within clung to the inside of the glass.
“Well,” he said eventually, “it’s got legs.”
“It has?” the Doctor cried out. He cowered back in his chair, hands thrown up in front of his face. “Hans! Hans! It’s hatched! Hans!”
At this, the pale shuffling creature the Doctor referred to as his “amanuensis” (though the patient had never, once, seen him write anything down) emerged from beneath the coats piled around the giant coat-stand, oversized bony wrists jutting in a way the patient man always thought painful from beneath the greasy sleeves of his ill-fitting suit jacket. Once summoned thus, however, all Hans could do was place a long-fingered hand either side of his sallow sunken cheeks, clutch at the sides of his head, and begin to scream.
The patient man stared dully at the Doctor cowering on the opposite side of the desk, at Hans shrieking like a cut-price Munch. He lowered his head with an air of resignation, and slipped the little bottle into his pocket.
“I’ll just leave you two to it,” he said. The sound of Hans’s shrieks followed him out of the building.
The patient man suffered from various maladies. He liked to think that it had all started in a dream.
The dream went like this: one morning, upon waking, he rolled over and reached for his lover—a successful, if narcissistic, painter of dilapidated urban scapes with something of a following amongst the fashionable set in the city in which they lived—drowsy with comfort and warmth, the smell of their mingled sweat and dead skin in his nostrils. His lover’s nose quivered, on the edge of a sneeze, and then he yawned, wide and slow. The man who was to become patient watched as his lover’s yawn grew wider, wider, wider still, a python’s maw; the patient watched as the skin of his lover’s face tore open like thin fabric, the muscles and flesh peeling back as the yawn grew greater, greater, until it shucked the lover’s skin completely, moulted free of its confines and revealed the grinning skull beneath.
The volume of his scream tore the patient from his own sleep; he found himself quite alone. Though it appeared to the patient man he was now wide awake, upon rising he was struck by the unassailable notion that still he slept, and he blundered through his morning routine clumsily, as if caught tremulously in the frayed edges of his own dream. He wanted to ask his lover about this, but he was nowhere to be seen, and the patient man was, he realised, late for work.
It wasn’t until he returned from work that evening that he noticed the empty shelves, the dusty ghost-spaces where shared possessions had once sat, and, taped to the door of the wardrobe, a note, a single page from a spiral-bound notebook.
His malady—which started the very day his lover had left—at first manifested itself as a queasy pull at the bottom of his stomach, then the occasional bout of blurred vision: moirés blossoming as he watched, like sped-up footage of something growing in a Petri dish. Though this phase passed, he soon found it difficult to concentrate, taking to pacing endlessly, the threads of thought and conversation fraying as he tried to hold on to them; he wept easily at birdsong and found himself subject to migraines, but without any of that condition’s entertaining visual distortions, just a cold spike of agony sheering through his skull as if every single cell of his brain were somehow simultaneously suffering from toothache.
Standing in a supermarket, weighing produce in the grocery aisle, he caught sight of his face in the fun-house reflection of the scale. As he watched, livid patches of purple blossomed across his skin. Within seconds he was blinded by hideous knots of twisted flesh, grotesque swellings slitting his eyes shut, threatening even to clamp closed his nostrils as the flesh above his top lip ballooned. His throat closed, inexorably, leaving his breath whistling through a tight, sphincter-like opening; whenever he tried to move his head, this too closed, and his lungs slammed shut like a door. At first hot and ripe under his questing fingers, the disfiguring pustules almost instantly gave way to the pressure of his digits with a blessed yet obscene release, spurting hot jets of thankfully-unseen pus and diseased lymph at horrified shoppers, who backed away amid gasps of awe. By the time the ambulance arrived, however, his face had returned to its normal proportions, the swellings had subsided, and the dramatic display had left no physical trace; the paramedics sent him home with an admonition to be more careful about allergies in the future.
Weeks of sleeplessness followed. When at rest, his thoughts raced. Everything seemed coated in a filmy, somehow greasy light, pressure like one experiences before a thunderstorm throbbing in his head. When he tried to concentrate—for instance, when he put in one of his increasingly half-hearted appearances at his place of work, or on the phone to relatives—concepts like language and meaning skittered away like marbles across a hardwood floor. He took to mumbling to himself, mostly trying to reconnect the dots between his memories of the person he was and the new situation he found himself in. He felt simultaneously unbearably hot and freezing cold, shaking so that his teeth maraca’d together whilst he sweated profusely. His skin took on a death-camp pallor; he began to find a quantity of hair on his pillow, though he was unsure that it was definitely his. He drank, but it only made him morose and vomit-y, gave his sweat an oily sheen that smelled vaguely of high-end synthetic lubricant. He took up smoking once again, as if to soothe his nerves, but had to stop when he began to cough up blood: once he had done so he missed cigarettes terribly, and to stop the cravings he took to binge-eating. During this phase—in which he piled on weight, the flab sagging drear and listless from his wasting muscles—he lost his sense of taste, so that his saliva ran dry and what he crammed into his mouth thickened into a claggy paste.
Standing before a mirror, cleaning his teeth, he could not shake the feeling that he was, in fact, sleepwalking: the white foam he spat into the sink whirled hypnotically in the rush of water from the tap; he felt, watching it spiral down the drain, that something was being pulled out of him via his eyes.
A friend recommended Doctor Bermuda. Though he’d been at pains to shrink from social contact, she’d bumped into the patient man by chance at a small community centre, where they were both attending a workshop on “Five Mystical Tibetan Exercises.”
Dizzy from spinning, random jangles of pain spidering along the large muscles in his legs from contorting himself, he couldn’t drag himself off the gym mat and away before she recognised him. She pressed a card into his hand, conjured somehow from some secret pocket in her Lycra yoga gear.
“I just do this for shits and giggles,” she confided, concern and a kind of strained beatification lighting up her face (though that could just have been the three hours’ sweating, grunting and chanting they’d been subjected to). “I’m together now. When things were really bad, this was the bloke who sorted me.” She tapped the card with a fingernail. “He’s the boy. He really, like, understands.”
The Doctor had done little in their first two sessions but listen intently as the patient man explained his maladies, while Hans—when he wasn’t hiding beneath the pile of coats—skulked in and out of the narrow door in the far corner of the Doctor’s office, ferrying in cups of tea or aged Manila folders which he left on the desk, neither of which Doctor Bermuda seemed to notice or acknowledge. He never knocked, or seemed to show the slightest interest in his surroundings or what was transpiring in his employer’s office, and though at first disturbed by this shocking transgression of the physician-sufferer relationship the patient man soon enough began to find his sudden entrances and exits soothing: his scalp gleaming white through his thinning side-parting, drifts of dandruff shifting in slow-motion avalanches from his ill-fitting suit shoulders to tumble lazily in the diagonal shafts of sunlight that fell through the dirty windows and illuminated the worn brown carpet.
The mere effect of talking about his problems to the shabby little man behind the desk had, it seemed, been like lancing a boil. He’d begun to find the world brightening a little. Though still hamstrung by the physical manifestations of his condition, he got up earlier, showered occasionally. He began to feel himself again. He attended his next session at the Doctor’s, bright and early, to find that the Doctor had decided to advance his treatment to a new stage.
“Modern science! A miracle of same!”
The patient man, stripped to the waist, face-down upon a sort of long folding card table that Hans had set up for the occasion, twisted round to look over his shoulder at the physician. Something in his expression must have suggested reproof to that worthy, for he started in one of his unasked-for, expository soliloquies.
“Dear, dear boy,” crooned the Doctor, shabby tweed jacket dispensed with, yellowing shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, one hand in the jar of leeches. “As above, so below. As we discover more about the machinations of the universe—and our own place within it!—so this ever-expanding knowledge must be tempered with the realisation that not all of the practices of the Ancients were mere flummery.”
He closed his hand and brought forth a squirming, wriggling mass of bloated shapes. He held them above the patient man’s back. A spike of genuine alarm flared along the patient man’s spine, the first solid, identifiable emotion he’d felt in months. It was rather, he thought later, like the first time one takes a good, solid shit after endless days suffering from diarrhoea.
“Er, Doctor, I don’t wish to question your expertise—”
“Not just my expertise, dear boy! The accumulated wisdom of the Hippocratic Tradition. A long line unbroken, from Galen, through Averroes and Avicenna! I teeter on the shoulders of titans!”
The things in the Doctor’s hands—fat as a finger, the length of a gherkin—possessed a single row of what looked uncomfortably like human teeth, quite visible even from the patient man’s vantage point, and they shovelled at the air with gelatinous ferocity. As he watched, they seemed to reach and snap at the exposed flesh of the patient man’s back.
“But . . . They look a bit, er, lively? Are you quite certain you’ve, ah, you’ve got the same leeches people normally use for this, Doctor?”
Hans’s moon-like face hoved into view, peering around the Doctor’s shoulder in a manner that suggested he’d been sheltering behind him the entire time, flabby lips half-curled back from chipped and yellowed teeth. With creaking slowness, he carefully reached his stubby arm out as if to touch one of the ghastly creatures that twisted and dripped from the Doctor’s grasp. That worthy noticed and slapped him away with his free hand.
“Of course these aren’t the same leeches! After all, modern science does not stand still. What fools we’d be if we bled you using the same leeches the benighted savages of the Middle Ages used on their unfortunate victims!” He looked away a for a second, his beetling brows knitted together. “Though, of course, those particular leeches would all be dead by now, anyway.”
In the Doctor’s hand, the leeches pulled and strained like mad dogs on chains.
“Fear not, dear boy! The blind, questing mouths of these idiot annelids will draw out that which ails you! The hungry, hungry mouths—that gorge themselves on the very substance of life itself—also take with them the sources of our pain, our worry. A tyranny a half-million millennia old, Chordata’s old nemesis, subjugated! Drafted in to the Materia Medica of modern science! Forced to march along in quickstep with such marvels as the orgone machine and the iglodine douche.”
With this, he let go of the leeches, which landed with a soft plop on the patient man’s back. With a shudder of disgust the patient man turned his face away. Behind him there was the suggestion of sinuous, slimy movement, then a kind of distant enthusiastic rasping, a cold, not unpleasant sensation which was yet fairly horrifying in its animal intimacy. It was, the patient man reflected later, a bit like being licked intimately by a small, enthusiastic cat: you could get used to it, you felt, even as it revolted you.
Behind him, the Doctor muttered softly to himself, something that the patient didn’t quite catch; then he felt another cold squirming upon his back, and another rough itch. Then another, and then another.
“Doctor,” he managed, surprised by how steady his voice sounded, “how many, ah, how many, I mean—”
“Ach, the layman’s desire to poke about in the innards of the machinery! Resist! Resist the perfidious conditioning of society!”
“What’s that got to do with—”
The Doctor’s tone shifted from his normal warmly avuncular register, assumed a note of peevish exasperation.
“You have flown before?”
“Flown, dear boy. In an airliner, perhaps?”
“Well, yes but—”
“And did you refuse to get on the aircraft that bore you to your destination until you had precisely calculated the wing loading of the vehicle, to ensure that it would provide sufficient lift?”
“Did you, perhaps, undertake years of study of airflows and perform dozens of wind-tunnel experiments, before agreeing to entrust it to fly?”
“Of course not!”
“Very well then.”
“But . . . ”
“Resist this pernicious desire to peek behind the screen, dear boy. It is merely the conditioning of a tiresomely individualistic society, the over-valorisation of one’s subjective experience.”
Another tiny, soft wet slap. Then another. And again.
The Doctor moved around the patient, hunkered down in his line of vision. He scrunched his face up, better to rearrange his glasses upon the bridge of his nose. In one hand he clutched the jar; the other was held just at the edge of the patient’s vision, where an obscene mass squirmed and puckered.
“Then relax, dear boy. Merely relax, and let the good Doctor and his little helpers go about their work.”
The patient man, defeated, slumped back down on the table. There was silence in the little room, apart from Hans’s ragged breathing, and the perhaps-imagined sound of the leeches tunnelling their way through the patient man’s flesh.
A week later, the patient man voiced his fears that the treatments he had received were not yet herding him toward wellness.
“Ach so,” said the Doctor, leaning back in his chair and scratching his chin through his beard, an action that sent a soft rain of food crumbs fountaining up into the air and pattering down upon the surface of his desk. “In extreme cases—cases such as yours, dear boy—the literature indicates that the, ah, extreme methods employed by my colleagues in Vienna may be efficacious.”
He craned his head back, then pushed away from the desk and began to spin himself around gently in his chair, knees pulled up to his chest.
“But I am loath to unleash them upon you,” he said, in passing during his revolutions. “I am not sure a body in your delicate condition could withstand the rigours of the Bowen Technique, let alone spare enough blood or psychic capital for the ordeal of cupping, letting and astral travel which is prescribed in cases such as this.”
The patient man slumped, defeated.
“Tell me,” continued his physician, “something of your family history. Were any of your relatives inflicted with comparable maladies?”
“My maternal grandmother lived until she was a hundred and four. She smoked incessantly, drank a bottle of stout a day and swore by homeopathy. When my grandfather was dying, she refused to go and see him in the hospital, for she believed he was being poisoned.”
The Doctor stopped himself revolving so violently he almost fell off his chair.
“By the doctors?” he said, with what appeared to be a considerable effort to keep his voice level.
The patient man took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the dry comforting waft of dust, old leather and the unmistakable smell of brown hessian sacks. “No, well, not as such. By the, ah, the hospital itself, I suppose.”
“Ach?” An eavesdropper may have read many things into that syllable; the patient squirmed on the cracked leather of the ancient sofa. He paused, rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand, then went on. The Doctor resumed his slow spinning.
“She had a bit of a . . . Victorian mindset, I suppose you could say, when it came to medicine.”
The patient, seemingly provoked by this interjection, grew defensive. “Look, she grew up on her family’s tenant farm. She worked like a dog in the fields, got a scholarship, and became a schoolteacher. Her father never forgave her, though she lived in that house until she married. Three rooms. Freezing cold in winter, ice on the inside of the glass.” The patient man grinned. It was something that seldom happened, these days, and felt unfamiliar to the muscles of his face. “She graduated, though. Or whatever it was you had to do, in those days, in order to qualify as a teacher.” He stopped. “Matriculated. Er. If you had to qualify to be a teacher back then. Christ. I’ve never thought of that. I don’t even know what she had to do to qualify. Isn’t that funny? She taught at a one-room schoolhouse in the same village. A stove in the centre, puffing out smuts every time she opened the door. A coal stove, around which all the children would huddle. She taught there for fifty-five years.”
“We’d go down, I mean, my parents would take me down to see her, when we were kids. I remember her, in summer, in her veil.”
“You were present at her wedding? She married late?”
“No! No.” The patient waved a hand. “Bees. She kept bees.”
“Bees?” The Doctor once again stopped revolving. He squeaked open a drawer and began to rattle through its contents. “Extraordinary. Do go on.”
“Yes, bees. In those, ah, hives. The, you know, wooden ones. Like little rabbit hutches, with the racks inside? D’you know what I mean?”
“Yes, those. They didn’t have any property by then—her father never forgave her for becoming a teacher, and left the farm to her younger brother, who drank himself to death in 1979, I think out of spite. So, they—her and her husband—had a corner of this farmer’s field, near their cottage. And they paid him rent in honey and—”
The Doctor stopped rummaging in the drawer and sprang from his chair.
“Honey?!” His voice was agitated, bewildered; his eyes were huge behind his filthy glasses, which once more began their inexorable journey down the slope of his nose. He wrinkled and contorted his features, worked them back up his face by sheer force of will. He paced, agitated, upon his carpet. Small puffs of dust flew up as he tramped up and down. “This is more serious than I imagined. Hans! Hans! Where are you? Hans!”
From behind the chipped paint of the adjoining door came a sudden scuffling, as of something without hands trying to operate a latch: a large, playful dog, perhaps. This was followed immediately by a heavy thud, as if something had fallen heavily against the wood. The Doctor crossed the room and pressed his ear to the panel.
The patient stared after him, from his couch.
“Shall I continue?”
The door began to leap in its frame, resounding to the force of heavy blows from the adjoining room. The Doctor recoiled, made as if to run out of the office, then seemed to think better of it and sprinted back to stand in the doorway, as if to block whatever was attempting to come through.
The Doctor turned from the door, both palms still pressed against the wood, a pantomime of trying to hold it in its frame. “I prescribe a visit. Return to the place where these memories were formed. Only by facing our demons can we overcome them!”
“Return to whence you came! Save yourself!”
The patient remained doubtful, but he rose and left the office.
As he closed the door behind him, he heard a noise that—he thought—sounded like wood giving way, a muffled splintering crash, and the Doctor calling out, a howled imprecation about how he knew that the patient man had not touched the bottle the Doctor had given him: but he couldn’t be sure, and hurried down the dark dusty stairs leading to the street.
Late the next morning the patient man found himself sitting on a train, staring through the window as heavy clouds scudded across the sky. The storm relented as the train dragged itself to the edge of the suburbs, and by the time he alighted at the provincial station and caught a bus the light had thickened into molten gold. Standing outside the old cottage, he wondered if he should march up to the front door and announce his presence. He tried to remember to whom the farm had been sold, but there was nothing in his recollections apart from dark mutterings about property developers and the necessity of selling it off. Still, the old place seemed to be occupied: clean net curtains filled each high, narrow window, and the sheds and outbuildings seemed in good repair, if picturesquely ramshackle.
Azaleas and bougainvillea sprouted from beds either side of the front door, and the patient felt a stirring in his chest at the low susurrus coming from several lazily buzzing insects busy pollinating the delicate pink, white and purple flowers. All at once, he was aware both of his own thirst (he’d not had anything to drink since he’d bought a bottle of water on the train) and the weight of something in his inner jacket pocket. His fingers went to the bottle, and, on a whim, he unstopped it: he caught a whiff of something fragrant and pollen-y, waft of flowers and freshly-mown grass and he took a gulp greedily, giving a somewhat gluey laugh as he realised that the Doctor had given him a bottle of honey.
He smacked his sticky lips as he skirted the house and made his way down the drive between it and the sheds. As he went, he realised that the most obvious physical symptoms of his malady had receded: the gentle humming ache (rather like the aftershock of a blow on the edge of one’s elbow or knee) in his bones had faded. The jangling along the long branches of nerves down his thighs had subsided. The histamine-itching between his toes ceased; he felt the tendons in his shoulders creak as they relaxed, felt the bunched-up muscles along his spine unknot themselves and slide down his back like tarmac melting on a road at the height of summer.
A soft buzzing drifted through the afternoon air. The hives nestled beneath and amongst a half-dozen or so magnolia trees that dominated the backyard, all out in flower: huge soft petals, voluptuous and limpid, a riot of red and white and cream, a profusion of thick green velvet leaves, luxurious scent drugging the thick warm air. Around and about this immense abundance of colour, the bees: contentedly buzzing on their mazy paths, settling and crawling delicately amidst the stamens, then taking flight again.
A gentle warmth passed over him, from his scalp down, a sluggish all-pervading relaxation, almost the exact opposite of frenzy: not an inner calm but rather as if he had been plugged straight into some sort of external battery of frozen placidity, as if stillness were a quality that was being pumped into him rather than a mere cessation of the violent agitation that passes for organic life. Tranquillity as an alien other invading him, forcing questing tendrils deep inside, flowing along the veins and sprouting ivy-like around his sinews, a fine mesh net growing and sliding over the inside of the skin, a gauzy curtain of repose that slipped between subcutaneous fat and sheathed his muscles and nerves with the speed and remorselessness of a shadow falling.
The bees’ constant motion (that only a few minutes before he thought impossible to adequately catalogue, such was its intricate clockwork precision and the complexity of its totality) resolved itself, a trompe l’oeil viewed from a different aspect. Before his awe-struck eyes, the pattern the dark flecks made as they hovered and wheeled amidst the radiance of the flowers revealed itself as an intersecting pattern of hexagons, honeycombing out fractally, each tiny part composing and mirroring the whole. At the same time, their passage slowed, as if they flew through a substance far more viscous than mere air.
The afternoon light was dull umber fire and it ground to a crawl, falling past his eyes in molten plastic waves. A breeze stirred the magnolias, the air seeming to pile up around the petals and leaves and branches before breaking softly over them at the speed of honey oozing from a shattered comb. A single leaf fluttered free and toppled, end-over-end, toward the ground, as slowly as love entering your heart: by the time it landed—unnoticed! Un-marked!—amongst a myriad others, the patient man’s eyes had closed, and his breathing slowed, and slowed, and, finally, as—infinitely slowly—his last breath crawled out of him, he realised he’d found his cure.
The bees buzzed about the magnolias. From a stack of old farming implements below one of the lean-tos Hans emerged, tugging his cuffs down over his pale bony wrists, as if chilled even in the warm afternoon air. With infinite care, he reached down and plucked the now-empty bottle from the patient man’s fingers, and secreted it in an inside pocket of his ill-fitting jacket.