The doctor gave me the results today. In his sterile room, in his sterile voice. I’m afraid the tests came back positive. You haven’t long left. Just try to make the most of the time you have, and remember not to panic. That’ll only make it worse.
Don’t panic. Don’t. Panic. But they’re just words my body doesn’t understand. How am I supposed to not panic?
He called it lingualethalitis. It’s a degenerative condition, of the brain. Over time, it loses the ability to process images. As a sort of reflex-reaction to its own decay, it transmutes them into words instead, so the mind can still comprehend. But the mind wasn’t designed to work like that; not with the huge amount of information it intakes. It can’t cope. And as a result, it begins to crack, lapsing into bouts of hysteria, and eventually, insanity.
I can feel it even now, as I walk down the hospital, creeping up my spine and into my skull. Can feel the eyes watching me: the nurses’, the doctors’, the patients’. Everyone.
But there’s a part of me, the tiny, dwindling, rational part, that knows they’re not. No-one’s out to get me. It’s the disease. Toying with my mind, playing its tricks. The fear-driven blood racing out of my chest round my body, the cold sweat on my brow: they reveal the truth. I’m panicking.
But it’s so hard, when I can actually see the questions. My questions, about what I’m going to do, the people’s, about why I look so terrified. ? hanging in the air, like large hooks, waiting, ready to gouge me apart from head to heart, and tear the remnants to ribbon. The doctor shouldn’t have even let me go. He was going to make some phone calls, arrangements for the necessary care. But I lied to him. On the tests. I don’t want to be looked after, till I become so comfortable I forget to deal with the things that matter. The disease is further along than he thinks; much further. But I just need a bit of time. It’ll be okay.
It keeps mounting, though, like an avalanche. And the ? loom, enticed by the quickening drum beat of my heart. At least the exit’s near. I can get out of here. Away from prying eyes. Away from deadly ?.
I reach the door. My grandfather had a maxim: ‘There are two types of Hell: the one you escape from, and the one you learn to live with.’ I can’t live with this. But I can escape it. On my own terms.
I’m on the subway, cramped between a knot of people. I feel calmer, though. No-one cares about you on the subway. Everyone just keeps to themselves, waiting for their journey to end. You become anonymous, and right now, that suits me.
Four bodies press against mine, two men and two women. Their bodies add to the swelter, and the air tastes stale, regurgitated. I glance around, for any form of distraction.
My eyes alight on a subway map, plastered in one of the many niches that line the walls. Its coloured bands twine across the white, overlapping, each one informing travellers of how to reach their destination. How easy life would be if it came with a map.
The map sparks a recollection. I’m sitting on the tube, my Dad on one side, my younger brother the other. We would take it home every Sunday, after we’d been to the park and had a game of football. I was about six, and Dan was four. The football was great, but the return trip was boring. Me and Dan were desperate to get home. Our favourite show, Only Fools and Horses, was on at six fifteen. So we used to moan and whinge about the length of the journey, every journey, driving Dad mad.
Then one day, in the middle of the trip, Dad stood up, looking worried. ‘Oh no, lads,’ he said, staring at the subway map. ‘I think I’ve taken a wrong turn. We’re off to Mexico.’
‘No no,’ we protested, bolt upright. ‘What about our show? Dad, we don’t want to go to Mexico. Turn it around.’
‘Sorry boys,’ Dad responded, with a grimace of mock-helplessness. ‘Can’t. Guess we’ve got no choice.’
Me and Dan pleaded, frantic, while Dad settled back into his seat, a resigned look on his face. Then, when our consternation reached its crescendo, the doors opened, and he said, ‘Oops, my mistake. Here we are.’ And we’d have no choice but to follow, filled to the brim with anxiety we didn’t know what to do with. But we were so happy to be back, we didn’t complain. Years later, I asked Dad why he did it.
‘Well, made the journey go by quicker, didn’t it?’
Funny guy. I wonder if I should tell him, or Mum or Dan, or anyone about the disease. I don’t think I will. I don’t think I have the courage. Besides, they’ve all been so good to me. It would feel cruel if the last thing I did for them was break their hearts.
I still remember vividly the day Dad brought me the painting. I wasn’t very old (younger than in the subway story). He came into the living room, a big smile on his lips, a wrapped package in his hand. ‘Here, son. This is for you,’ he’d said, handing it over. It wasn’t my birthday, and it wasn’t Christmas. He’d got me it just because. I ripped the wrapping off with glee.
Beneath, in an ornate brass frame, was an illustration from Peter Pan. In black and white, it depicted a wondrous fairytale landscape which has been etched in my adult mind: a cherubic Peter Pan, lying on top of a grassy outcrop, playing a flute which drew man and animal alike towards him up a winding path, while two eager squirrels crouched at his feet; a ship with its sails down floating on a still lake, its large captain resting against masts of thick timbre, its pure twin rippling underneath; three slender trees, heads decorated with fresh spring leaves, bearing colourful fruit in which lay the seeds of Summer; a hut huddled at the base of distant, colossal mountains, whose snow-capped peaks sat in the sky; and at these summits, dragons flew, their expansive wings threshing against huge billows that blew with the wind.
My child mind had gazed at that picture in awe. At the bottom of the frame was an intaglio which read:
Don’t stop dreaming,
It was an amazing gift. The illustration itself had been done by a neighbour, Mr. Peterson, but imitated an original by Arthur Rackham. I never cared that it was a copy. Every day since I was given that painting, it’s smiled at me in the morning, and watched over me at night. And, when I leave, I want it smiling over me then as well.
‘Sorry,’ a voice said. It was one of the women next to me. She had blonde hair, and a small red handbag was slung over her coat. ‘Um, could you tell me which tube I should get next if I want to get to
‘Yeah, sure. You get the tube at-’ I faltered. I’d spied a word, for a second, in her eyes: Distract. I glanced down, keeping my head upright. Her hand was drifting to my wallet pocket. I twisted my own hand free of the crush, and shielded my wallet. Her hand touched mine. Her eyes flicked to the impediment, and then she stared at me, intense, and I stared back, my whole body frozen and deadlocked.
The tension glared, and its touch flushed my skin. Oh please, don’t do anything…
Then I sensed it. I glimpsed it in my peripheral vision. … hovering in the air, boulders ready to tumble and pound me into oblivion. Not yet. I’m not ready yet.
My heart was raging against my chest. The … teetered, as if they clung to a precipice. No. No no no no…
The weight of gravity pressed down on me, trying to squash me like an insect. No…
Then there was the sound of sliding, and people pushing me aside as they made their way forward. I snapped back to reality. I scanned the whole carriage. The … … gone. I looked back toward the door. So too was the woman.
I slumped in one of the seats, my breaths long and deep, and waited for my stop.
About twenty minutes later, I emerged from the underground. Sharp wind clawed at my face, and I raised the collar of my coat for protection. Overhead, a shroud of black cloud crowed the coming storm.
I advanced through the mostly deserted streets under a blanket of shop awnings, the soft luminescence from the windows redolent of a midnight lamp glowing by my side. For the most part, I was alone; any fellow travellers hurried by, often with an umbrella in tow.
I was only a couple of minutes from my house when something in the distance caught my eye. As I neared, I recognised it as a small flame, which appeared to burn in mid-air. Intrigued, I stepped up my pace, making my way toward the light.
As I reached the flame’s source, it became apparent that my first impression had been wrong: the flame did not hang upon the air like a spectre, but was bound to the lip of a long, thick stick, which must have been durable, as it seemed to defy the flame’s intense hunger. And, holding the flame aloft, a black man with his legs crossed, his back resting against a pane of glass.
‘Would you like to see a trick?’ the stranger enquired. I noticed a small open case at his feet, littered with bronze and silver coins, which gleamed and darkened in rhythm with the flame’s dance.
‘Yeah. Why not.’
The stranger smiled, tipped his head back, and raised the flame to his lips. The flame burned bright in the night, illuminating his face and igniting his dark eyes. It reminded me of when I peered into the heart of a fire, on those family camping trips in Dorset, when we huddled round crackling logs for warmth, roasting marshmallows and telling stories in hushed voices. That was when I realised I wanted to tell stories for a living, no matter the hours or pay.
The flame disappeared, swallowed down the stranger’s throat. He closed his mouth round the stick, and gave a gentle blow. All was silent. Then he started to extend his arm, withdrawing the flame, up and up, until it seemed to glide out of his mouth, and settle back onto the cold air. It guttered, as if weakened by the voyage into the private and unknown. But soon it appeared to reacquaint itself with its identity, and fanned and blazed, stretching its lustful arms out into the dead night.
And in that instant, the fire also proffered a truth: that things could survive the deep, and come out the other side, pure and incandescent. It was as if a fresh, rising breeze of hope suffused my mind, which swept away the smoke and detritus that had clogged my thoughts. What I had to do hadn’t changed, but perhaps it wouldn’t be the last thing I’d do.
‘You like?’ the stranger interjected into my epiphany. He nodded toward the open case.
‘Yeah. I liked.’ I took the leather wallet from my pocket that had nearly been stolen from me half an hour before, and tossed it into the case. The stranger looked down, then up at me, then down, then back up. His face had slackened somewhat.
He whispered: ‘Thank you.’
I waved his gratitude away, and headed back to my house, leaving the stranger to goggle at his reward. The clouds rumbled above, ready to break under their burden.
Streaks of rain pelted my head as I dashed through the galvanic downpour, my coat to my skin sodden and weighing me down. But it wasn’t the rain I was desperate to escape. It was what the disease had made it.
Millions of ! descended upon and around me, sheet after sheet, hemming me in, building a wall that touched the Heavens. It was relentless. !!!!!!!!!!!!. And even though I knew it wasn’t real, that it was all in my head, the claustrophobia wouldn’t be assuaged; its grip tightened round my throat like a cigar cutter. There were too many words; too much information. It felt like my heart was trapped inside my brain, pounding against its soft tissue. My body felt unnaturally light, and bizarrely numb, so that I had to keep checking it was doing as I ordered.
Just get in the house…
I stumbled to the door, fumbled for the keys, dropped them, picked them up, shoved them in the lock, twisted, and threw the door open. I flung myself through its frame and slammed it shut behind me.
The hallway was pitch-black. All the lights were out, and there were no windows in the vicinity. Even if there had been, it would have made little difference: the sun and stars had been barred from this region.
The darkness brought a nothing. And with that nothing came a reprieve from the bombardment of information. The ! were gone, at least for now. I exhaled a breath I didn’t even know I’d been holding, and let my lungs rediscover there cadence. My heart still hammered against my chest, but the strength of its blows was waning, like a worker who had overexerted himself. I decided to push on, the sky responding with thunderclaps of approval.
I groped for the wall to my left and, finding it, made my way with unsteady steps down the corridor. As my feet seemed to drag me onward, I realised I had been confined to the position of a hostage: blind, and unsure of what was going to happen next. My breathing mimicked their shallow intakes as they trembled, waiting for the gun to go click.
I entered the living room, where the painting hung above the mantelpiece. My hand found the light switch, and hovered above it. It felt like a constricting shudder squeezed my muscles, rendering them inert.
But I’ve chosen this path. Which means I’m not a hostage; I’m in control.
My hand moved down and I, flick, cast the blindfold aside.
The room that came into being wasn’t my room. It was broken. Words were everywhere, dangerous words, splitting the walls, supplanting possessions, and smothering the air. They deteriorated reality, and were taking with them all tangible evidence of my existence. The painting…
Was gone. Lost in letters and words, in a tangle of lines and meaning. Words. Just words. But…
Beautiful words. Beautiful. More beautiful than anything I’d ever dreamed of writing, or dreamed was possible of writing. I was wrong when I assumed they were a random tangle of shapes; they were a map, to the lands of the imagination. My painting, my stories, my dreams, were being told in perfect truth.
I felt lips break free into beatific smile. Spurred by adrenaline, heart galloping, hooves of chariot racing cross desert to new destination. I sense ?...! mustering, ……………
Droplet slides cheek.