Short Story – Electric Laundry

The shabby red Victorian frontage of the Greentrees Psychiatric Hospital electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and laundry spur gradually enlarged in Dr Gold’s windscreen, like a little homecoming. The routine was now predictable, twice weekly on alternate weeks; it was far quieter and more controllable than the ward work on E block. This morning Gold had failed to dodge a face full of orange cordial, artfully applied by one of his many grateful patients.

The ECT ‘Suite’ – actually just a couple of rooms- usually had a parking space available outside. The ECT/laundry block was on the far fringes of Greentrees’ sprawling site. Dr Will Gold, Staff Grade Psychiatrist, could manage emergency on-call for the whole hospital from here fine. Gold was a 39 year-old serial monogamist of obscure ethnicity, someone nobody seemed to know much about. It was apparent he was wedded to his job at the hospital. He checked his brick of a radio was fastened properly to his belt. Gold imagined a patient on Block C could kick over the meds trolley at 1433 hrs, and with a quick hop in his cherry red VW Polo he could be on the scene writing up a syringe full of sedatives, attempting a genial conversation with him, trussed up on the floor under a scrum of nurses, by about 1447 hrs. Block C… Why not, thought Gold, the trendy bucolic names for wards like ‘Woodlands’ and ‘The Mews’? Greentrees was stuck in time. Nevertheless, he thought, it probably didn’t make them any nicer to live or work in.

The afternoon in the Suite promised to be fairly straight forward and it looked like four on the list. The staff were busying around as Gold stared out the window onto the central green. He was preoccupied. His Polo had just cut out on Streatham High Street that morning, no electrical activity at all, the engine apparently immobilised, before it came back to life again. He’d only just opened the bonnet, for just a moment, pretending to know what he was doing to save face with on-lookers. He thought this might be the Millennium Bug he’d heard so much about on the rolling news channel. Perhaps, he thought, his car’s antediluvian computer chip was 2 weeks ahead of itself. The New Year ahead offered the possibility the Suite was going to be downsized and allegedly exchanged for a mobile operation in any one of the nearby St.George’s Hospital operating theatres. The talk was that the Greentrees hospital management was looking to sell off 70% of the red brick real estate for premium apartments ‘in a quiet garden setting’. The doctor reflected that he would find it hard to sleep in a flat where the kitchen was situated where decades of brain-zapping had taken place, often without the slightest assent of the poor patients. The 1960s and 1970s were ECT’s hey days. There was subsequently the belated introduction of general anaesthesia to the protocols, and the use of muscle relaxants, which made it less traumatic psychologically and stopped the fractures of spine and limb which happened during the convulsions. Ouch. As if the patent wasn’t already ill enough thought Gold. It all might have been more justified if the ‘therapy’ was a sure-fire success, but, like every treatment in psychiatry, even at the dawn of the 21st century, effectiveness rates had always struggled to beat that of placebo, i.e. doing nothing. The famous study came to mind of ‘sham ECT’ where patients were given no electricity at all, just the anaesthesia – they fared no better than the normal control group.

Dr Gold came back in from his brief pre-session cigarette outside, pushing open the imposing outer blue doors, pitted by countless laundry trolleys. The block entrance was crowned with sandstone sculptured foliage, like vine leaves. This unnecessary Victorian pomp and the enamelled blood red façade reminded Gold of an old public swimming bath in Ripon, North Yorkshire. Back inside, the team were now more or less ready; the swimming pool analogy resonated again to him with the faint smell of chlorine used on the floor cleaning. It was especially weird along the corridor towards Laundry. The clanking sound of machines in the distance echoed around the over-polished corridors, the sickly yellow linoleum lit by flickering fluorescent strip lights emitting a cool medicated glow. His fat walkie-talkie squawked for no particular reason. It was a noisy silence, no shouts, no monotonous presentations, no flying furniture, or flying orange juice. Gold secretly liked this little sanctuary.

Back inside the Suite his eyes glanced once more at the list pinned to the wall – just names of patients and their ward location – a couple of the usual suspects Gold recognised instantly. Just in behind him and fashionably late as usual was the ultra laid back anaesthetist over from St.George’s. The two doctors nodded to each other. The show was about to start. Dr Jack, sleeves of his pink shirt rolled-up, no tie, open at the front, gas, monitors and drugs ready. The nurses gathered, the electrical equipment was switched on, tweaked by Dr Gold. The patient was wheeled in on a black padded table, almost as an after-thought. The ECT machine itself, with its wooden casing, minimalist dials and, small black LED window, looked something like the Volksradio, a Nazi wireless set very popular in Germany in the 1930s. Candidly simple in operation, there was just a button to send out a pulse of electric current, and a dial to set the percentage energy to be delivered. There was a simple protocol that took into account the patient’s age and weight to enable the electrical dose to be calculated. It was not rocket science, and certainly not brain surgery, but then Gold felt brain surgery actually remarkably crude. Two electrodes, like corded microphones with black plastic handles with a hilt and little pink sponges as the heads, dipped in an electrolyte solution for maximum conduction during delivery of the current to the patient’s skull.

The first one was cooperative; Dr Gold had expected she would be. Everyone knew old Mrs Mundy had been chronically depressed, in surging and receding tides, for as long as anyone could remember. So much for Community Care, as just as soon as a place was arranged for her in a home, or an apartment, she would be found collapsed on her floor calling out in panic about the end of the world, and her role in it, confessing complicity in a looming apocalypse, and not appearing to have eaten or drunk fluids for ages. She would repeatedly need to return to Greentrees to be kept alive.

“You OK Mary?” The nurse gently touched her sparrow-like shoulder on the table.

Mary just stared up at the grey tiled false ceiling, motionless.

“Don’t worry pet, you’ll get a nice cuppa tea after Recovery, maybe even a biscuit!” This kind of thing Gina would say to all the patients, that typical balance of compassion and cheery condescension that nurses are licensed to employ. Many patients would look forward to a tepid drink, having fasted for hours because of the anaesthetic.

Dr Gold had turned the dial down for Mary, wi her being well into her seventies, light as a feather. As he could recall she never failed to fit.

“OK she’s all yours Will” said Jack the anaesthetist, removing his hands from Mary’s airway, removing the mask, happy the muscle relaxant was in her system. She would not be breathing on her own for a short interval and he would be anxious to have the patient back in his care in under a minute, in order to keep the little sparrow-for-a-body alive.

“Thanks Jack”. Dr Gold moved alongside Mary’s face aside the table, placed one pink sponge on a stick on her left temple, the other opposite, and squeezed hard, pushing the electrodes towards each other onto the skull as hard as possible. Experience told him this was much of the trick, twisting a little, keeping that contact firm.

“Treat please Nurse”

Having waited for the signal, Gina pressed the red button on the Nazi radio and a pulse of current travelled the wires, across Mary’s brain, instantly causing a full body seizure. Despite the relaxant drug, Mary’s little body rose under the bed blankets in a sharp extension of her spine. Her face at the movement of treatment, as with all patients Gold wryly observed, contorted into much the same grimace that he often showed as he struggled to get the best electrode contact.

Gas Man Jack wheeled himself on his chair back next to Mary, replacing the oxygen mask, checking various parameters, whistling something by Dylan, if Gold wasn’t mistaken. A little on the arrogant side, but not any more than other anaesthetists or surgeons he’d met for that matter. The tanned Australian, with mop of blond hair and ruffled attire, seemed to think he was the only “real” doctor for miles. He looked pleased though with Gold’s work, there was nothing worse than having to try a second or third time, when no fit happened – there were the risks to the patient, and the whole list could be knocked out of kilter. Jack might not get time to complete his crossword puzzle.

In between patients, Gold reflected on ECT and its odd place in the armoury of modern treatments. A least the patients are better selected, he thought, than in the days when it was given to virtually anybody, no doubt at this hospital too. Doctors used the word ‘radical’ a lot about treatments then. There was even a small surgical theatre at Greentrees to do partial lobotomies, or ‘leucotomies’, where morels of brain were extracted via the back of the nose, for virtually any problem, as far as he’d gathered from now elderly eye witnesses doctors. Things were now different, Gold thought, just the severely depressed and some manic that come through the big blue doors now, and few are protesting, although much treatment is under Section, technical compulsion. Perhaps ECT could shake off its secret shame, thought Gold; it was now an efficient and non-toxic physical treatment, unrecognisable from its old reputation as a remnant of torture, a throwback to therapeutic blood-letting and the application of leaches. The awkward bit, he had to concede, was that no one was able to give a clear scientific explanation in how it actually worked, on occasions, in lifting the most severely depressed back to life again in no time at all.

There was also the memory problem, which Gold pondered was the worst thing. There were certain procedures and precautions which were a matter of debate aimed at alleviating this side-effect, which was spoken about in hushed tones with patients and family. Placing the electrodes in different spots and limiting the dose of electricity given had not in his experience made the slightest bit of difference. Patients were losing their memories. They didn’t lose all of it, but large chunks, usually of the period of treatment, the days of weeks of it, but also older memories were at risk. It seemed like a Faustian deal: to trade one’s memory for happiness.

*

Anyone who cared might have thought the doctor’s career had coasted a little with his long residence at Greentrees. He was soon to meet his fortieth birthday, he was still being stuck on more onerous on-call rotas alongside younger doctors in training, but he really seemed quite happy. Colleagues found him invariably cheerful, and if he had issues outside the hospital he never shared them on the job.

“He didn’t worry about stuff… He’d be the first to treat us to a round of drinks at the social club”, Dr Sachs remarked on reflection. “He had a motto about living for the moment – about not regretting the past and making the most of each day. He was a minor inspiration.”

A previous flat mate and fellow medic said one couldn’t always rely on Will to recall certain things, like names, or certain clinical bits about a patient. He kept a PDA (a portable data assistant) – a sort of an early smartphone without the phone. His PDA would be frequently consulted for lists of patients, that sort of thing. He was described as generally ‘jolly’.

*

Mary Mundy was wheeled out of the room, to Recovery next door, tended to by a nurse, and she was expected to wake soon, for her tea. The little train that the department was kept chugging along.

The next patient was a 37 year old City stock manager, his identity as some kind of banker drew muted discussion among the team. Michael Reid had endured some serious losses a glance at his personal history on file revealed. Divorce, loss of his business with a rogue partner walking away with half a million pounds, his troubles seemed to have multiplied, cancelling out his former success. Having lost so much it was difficult for anyone to resent his privileged background, his having become so ill. Looking over at humble Mary, daughter of a navvy, Gold thought how depression levels the class hierarchy. Mary was plagued by trauma too, and losses. She thought the world was going to end because everything she could recall of value to her had ended and come to loss. She remembered a murdered husband, and there was the trauma of a terrible ordeal of unlawful imprisonment pounding on her consciousness every day if not every hour. Mary was taken hostage with her husband by Palestinian terrorists twenty years previously; an Egyptian package holiday gone awfully wrong. That was on top of, Gold was able to recall reading, (his memory suddenly serving him well for a change) that she had been subject to abuse in her convent school by a series of Catholic priests, allegedly. This poor woman had, thanks to memory, to carry around all this with her like the proverbial millstone. Gold thought that it would be encouraging to see some signs of progress with Mary, with Mr Reid, with anybody going through the place for that matter. He usually struggled to recall details of a cohort like this. He reflected that, on agreeing with the Medical Director to cover ECT semi-permanently, he was going to be doing a lot of this over the next few months. He could get this lot on his PDA, could get some research published in a journal, then again, dream on.

*

There was a hiatus in the routine at the laundry block over New Year 2000, but the electricity was flowing freely by mid January. The bit of snow that graced Dr Gold’s path to the suite was the first he could remember seeing at Greentrees. He hoped the magical sensation of feeling snowflakes falling on his brow might lift his mood, which had seemed to lag since December, quite uncharacteristically. Perhaps it was the anti-climax of the whole Millennium thing. The trusty Polo never did suddenly give up on him – surely reason to take comfort?

Dear old Mary was looking to be pole position once more on the list, having just made it across the central snow field with her care assistant for the day, Aurelija. She was taking to the young Lithuanian outside the big blue doors, chomping on the falling snow like a child. Expecting that she was quietly telling the poor girl that the world was soon to end, that it was her fault, Gold stopped in his tracks. She was speaking to Aurelija.

“God bless you darling. I’m not bothered about that… no don’t worry dear… Yes, we’ll see, hope so… Now how old are you actually my love?…”

This was not the Mary Mundy he could recall. It is instinctive of a psychiatrist though to disbelieve his ears, and anything coming from the patient. It was trendy to point out in his circles the legendary research that had shown that some of the most suicidally depressed showed a little rally in mood right before they finished themselves off, buoyed up by the prospect of a plan coming to fruition, and perhaps a pragmatic show of compliance to put the dogs off the scent as it were.

“We’ll just see how much better she is”, he murmured, to no one in particular, as he bowed over the Bakelite dial of the Volksradio look-alike, leaning in, as if straining to hear the disembodied voice of Goebbels.

Mary was a dream on this occasion. A good 30 second seizure by his watch. They’re not all so easy, the thought. ‘Would be a shame to lose her off his list, he thought, tricky to have the trouble of trying to convince the even more cynical Consultant Dr Wallace that Mary was magically better, after the patient’s thirty-year career of treatment for psychotic depression.

Then one of the episodes started, that day 10th January 2000.

It was hard to put a finger on it, but Gold had a flash, a waking dream, only half a minute long, while he was tightening the screwed head of an electrode. It would return in various guises week after week for the winter and beyond. The temporal association with ECT sessions was not too clear at first. It happened at work, in the car, in startling dreams in his bed that woke him in pools of sweat. It was a memory, or sets of memories, that he could not rightly own.

This first time was straight after leaving Greentrees for an early lunch. He had stopped to pick up a sandwich in a service station on the high street. He was suddenly somewhere else in his mind, pyramids bound, on a tourist bus, and he could see three young men board, clutching Kalashnikov rifles. They were angrily separating out the Muslim Women from the ‘Kaffirs’, the undesirables, the male Europeans in particular taking rifle butt blows to their heads. He had an Irish family, entirely new to him. He was Mary. An emotion of deep motherly concern washed him as he sat upright holding his sandwich, leaning on a low wall as London streamed indifferently by in front of him. Then deep regret that the unworldly distant uncle, Father Timothy, might be the only equivalent the children were going to have for a true father, indeed parent…. Then there was just blood, and shouting, and then darkness…

Then it was gone. The day passed otherwise uneventfully.

Another day, then the morning again found Dr Gold in the Suite, rushing through another list.

He plopped the electrodes back into the pink electrolyte solution and turned towards the room, flicking his finger to Gina for the next patient.

“Come on! Time is money people”.

Jack seconded that, with a grunt, barely looking up from his beloved word puzzle.

Fred Tomkins from C Block wasn’t as easy as someone like Mary. Twice absolutely nothing happened after the beep and the facial contraction. Puzzled, Gold cranked up the energy level to 75% and, with Jack’s consent, went straight back in right away. Still no seizure. With Jack’s patience under strain at that stage, he bent over to ventilate Tomkins a little more with the bag & mask. Jack calmly pointed out in his inimitable way, that that soon enough the old chap would be wide awake and might even help the good doctor out himself with the electrodes. Gina, taking typical nurse relish in such situations, showing up her superiors, took an alcohol swab and rubbed Tomkins’ temples before gesturing Dr Gold. Tomkins, a retired prison officer dismissed amidst corruption allegations, took off from the table on the third attempt, like a large eagle straining to fly against his restraints, everybody rushing to hold down his large body and delinquent limbs, all for almost a minute before he sagged back down, a strangely blissful appearance on his face. Gold noted down on Tomkins file that next time 50% might suffice; ‘with adequate skin preparation’… like that was his own idea.

Former Officer Tomkins it was said had found himself to his horror to be the star of a Channel 4 documentary last year, picturing his considerable self on film pixilated, prancing around HMP Pentonville dispensing cannabis, heroin, and so-called ‘legal highs’ like an ice cream seller at an intermission. Obviously his antics did not go down well with his superiors. Tomkins had also suffered from serious drug dependence issues of his own over the years. He went into a mental breakdown in his new notoriety. He’d become suicidal, and had refused to eat or even drink fluids for periods of late, making him perfect ECT material.

Gold gazed out the window, thinking about getting to the hospital canteen in time for lunch before the fish got baked dry on the hot plate and contorted, much like his patients in full seizure. His heart sank a little more to see it was young Haifa next.

Hasema was often difficult to tempt onto the table. This 23 year old Palestinian, daughter of a shopkeeper in Penge, was a real handful. She, like Mary, was psychotically depressed. She was convinced that she was the cause of the whole Middle Eastern conflict, from well before she was born. Her brother had, as a matter of fact, died in a tunnel out of Gaza in 1994, at the hands of Israeli soldiers, and she had suffered a prolonged grief reaction. Hasema had gotten it into her head that the ECT Suite was a kind of execution department. She bizarrely berated the staff for allegedly only “teasing” her, as she would of course wake up after each procedure, feeling her same miserable guilt-filled self. After various tactics were employed to see her get up on the table and stay there, the latest had been to not entirely deny her delusion about the sinister purpose of the set up.

“You actually gonna do it this time or are you just jerking me around?!”

“Just settle down babe” Gina cooed.

“Come on why do I bother?”

“Let Jack do his work babe”

“Doctor”, looking at Gold, “You 100 per cent you’re up to it this time?”

“Maybe Hasema, we’ll see.”

The room gave a collective sigh of relief as Jack could move in and do his magic, and, awash with sedatives, Haifa sank into the table.

Electrodes on.

“Treat please Gina”

Bee……p

Her back arched. Gold’s stomach grumbled. The canteen fish came to mind.

*

Three months into the brave new millennium and no computer controlled aeroplanes had fallen out of the sky. Polo chugged on dutifully, magnolias were in bloom outside the old chapel, but no sign of spring could be found in Dr Gold’s heart. The prospect of well-earned leave offered him nothing but a dark abyss of meaningless existence with no one to share his ‘quality time’. On the matter of his partners, he had not really bounced back from Isabella at Christmas last. He was perplexed. His love life was a private joke. Did he have a special gift of uncovering a women’s latent lesbianism? It wasn’t the first time he’s presided over a partner’s flowering new sexual identity. ‘Difference was, he had fully gotten over Kate, and yes it was Kate, gotten over her fine. He had shamefully found himself in bed with Kate’s new girlfriend….. Oh yes now he saw why it was easier not to recall it. Lately though, he was remembering everything. Like a sickness.

He could give a detailed account of every single dull day January to March, every pathetic moment. He’d started mistrusting signs of success, seeing them rather as preludes to catastrophe. The work on the wards wasn’t all that bad, though he had grown a little bored of that recently, bored of its predictability. The ECT department was actually on a kind of high. There had been a statistically improbable run of successes, and consultants were referring more and more cases, the list swelling to a dozen twice a week.

Even ‘The End is Nigh’ Mary Mundy had made an unequivocal recovery. She had been chirping away with social workers about moving into a nice pensioner’s flat in Morden in May. On the ward she had started turning out nicely each day, and doing improbable things like collecting flowers to put into plastic vases about the place. “Old ward sure needs cheering up to be sure” she twittered proudly.

There was that memory thing with her though that hid behind her improvement. Strangely, Mary would bring in the flowers every day and then look perplexed as to who had seemingly beaten her to this act of charity, no recollection of her gesture the previous day. Tests were done, the consultant team had discussed it, and Mary’s deficiency was put down to all the ECT she’d had. But it was cleverly pointed out that gone too were the repeated visualisations of her traumatic past, gone was the rumination over her losses, the phantoms that had born her psychotic features aloft. So, good riddance to the lot. Twice-daily home visits from a Polish carer were affordable on her care programme.

Dr Wallace, Mary’s consultant, patted Gold on the back, suggesting there was a great case history to publish there. The prospect of minor medical fame did nothing for him in his condition. In his jaundiced imagination the old bird Mundy was somehow faking her recovery, or had been faking her illness from day one – yes, she was garnering sympathy first, and then glory.

*

Annual leave in April for Gold ended up in not relaxation, but self-destruction, alarmingly. He didn’t know where it came from, but he struggled with an urge to consume cannabis for the first time in his life, and also narcotics like heroin. His head was increasingly soaked with psychopathologies, compulsions and perversities, as if he’d sponged up this out of the sickly Greentrees milieu somehow. However having no particular connections in the way of illicit drugs, he spent three weeks with a dining room table full of little shiny packets of ‘legal highs’ he’d picked up on Brixton High Street. He mastered the ‘bong’ smoking apparatus. First the stuff just gave him shaky vision, but then he found himself transported to strange places. He began to hear noisy sounds, of metal on metal – auditory hallucinations – echoes and cursing and exaggerated laughter that were unmistakably from one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. But he’d never been in a prison in his life. I might end up in jail with all the drugs he thought, perhaps it was a premonition of his future. He felt he probably deserved it. He imagined going before a Tribunal, getting struck off the medical register. Then it was not a doctor’s tribunal but a Parliamentary Committee at Westminster, he was re-living another experience he’d never had. His throat dry, he was denying his firm’s misconduct before a red-faced chairman, his humiliation near complete.

More misappropriated emotion kept flowing through him – he was speaking to a wife he had never had, of betrayal, of a double life, of debts, of lawyers. Gold was far from his characteristic ‘living for the moment’; He was in grief for the past and in fear for the future. He was barely managing to eat, sleep, to go to the toilet. It felt like he was dragging an unbearable weight of the past. He put in for more leave from work – he found paying the bills to much effort let alone doctoring. It was hopeless. Weeks became months.

It turned June 2000 and Dr Gold had rarely opened the curtains of his South London apartment to let in the brilliant summer sunshine. He sat alone hatching a plan. He was a psychiatrist. He was not going to let the pathology he was a master of over overcome him. It was not too late. He had inside knowledge. He was working out an escape route. Either do this thing, or wait until all I can do is throw myself under a tube train. His last chance beckoned, like a tiny red light-emitting diode in the far distance.

*

A back-to-school excitement and anticipation took hold of Dr Gold. Or was it more like a homecoming? It had been a while. The endless red cloisters had remained, permanent as Arizona rock formations, staring him down as he crossed the central green. The grass was now scuffed and browned, having endured day after day of high summer heat. A slim young woman with dark hair and an olive complexion came galloping up to him like a gazelle, beaming happiness.

“You’ve come back doctor… uh… Dr Thingy!”

The woman, Hasema, who he’d instantly recognised, had never he thought had a problem giving him a name before. Sometimes it was ‘Gold’, or ‘Dr Death’ – which she meant in a kind of affectionate way. It had been almost a minute and so far there was nothing about her complicity in the Arab-Israeli wars either.

“Where have yoos been?”

“And what happened to your arm?”

Gold re-adjusted his arm sling a fraction. The slight pain confirmed he was not dreaming. His memory had in many ways eluded him of late in social settings, but he could still recollect Hasema’s previous countenance – emaciated, tortured – nothing like the bundle of exuberance now before him. He was almost lost for words.

“It was a nice long holiday Hasema. You look great by the way… how are you getting on?”

“Good, doctor, good. My father’s ready to have me back in… where? There I go… I forget. Yes, Penge, back in Penge.” The hatred for him seemed to have left her. “But he’s like ‘Where’s your headscarf Huffy? I’m not a father to a whore!’ blah blah…”

“What’s with your arm doc?”

The now healing fracture of his upper arm, under cast and sling, Gold suddenly realised was going to need a decent story. He had not taken a moment to think up a good one. Luckily it was just Hasema.

“Skiing accident… stupid really.”

This seemed enough for her. She frowned in an exaggerated fashion, like a clown, but not without some feeling Gold told himself. Thankfully it hadn’t occurred to her that August was a little implausible a time of year for winter sports. He might say it was a dry ski slope next time, somewhere in England. Hasema in any case ran off to spread the word of the doctor’s resurrection.

By the afternoon, news of the enigmatic Gold’s sudden reappearance, back from the wars, sporting his injury, was all over the hospital. In the time that had lapsed since his long absence, Dr Gold had taken on something of a legendary status, as the hero of the ECT department. The man who had led the team that brought a veritable handful of poor souls away from Death’s door, to jumping and singing reverse images of their former selves. Some had already been discharged from Greentrees. It had been particularly legendary in that conversely as soon as Gold left, the laundry block seemed to lose its therapeutic charm, the magic having gone on leave too it seemed. Courses of therapy were still completed, but improvements were generally short and ultimately disappointing, as they had always been in the past. Tragically, high hopes of the staff dashed, patients were pulled off treatment and returned back to their ward day-rooms, to face the walls, or the floors, to slowly rot on the inside.

Sitting on a central bench on the green that was missing one horizontal slat, enjoying a cigarette and the deadening three O’clock calm, Gold spotted a man he knew he wasn’t going to avoid this time. Sloping across the grass he came, a portly and balding man, sweating, in tweed waistcoat, shirt & tie. He was still acutely aware his memory was still on holiday, but there was still a familiarity triggered reflexively, after a delay – who was this man? It was only after an awkward handshake using his only functioning left hand, and a glance at his name badge that he remembered, of course it was ‘Toad’ – “DR TOD WATERMAN – MEDICAL DIRECTOR”. His boss. The man seemed to leap up and down, breathlessly begging him to start back on the ECT programme as soon as possible. Much of it went straight through Gold, his attention floating away with the dreamy afternoon heat. Toad talked of research grants, new equipment, government initiatives, Trust hospital status, much a mixture of the kind of stuff he bored his colleagues with every monthly medical staff meeting.

“If it’s remuneration you’re after old boy, I can see what we can do…”

Gold was blissfully elsewhere. Unusually elated. He needed to go and lie down in a dark cool place.

“…. And there’s the post of Assistant MD coming up Will too…”

Playing on his mind was an image of Toad springing up to him in a reptilian embrace, trying to force him into a slimy tongue kiss. The sequence had Gold quietly laughing out loud… The feeling he’d had all day was good, so far away from March’s waking nightmares of Israeli soldiers gunning down Arab boys in tunnels, all the blood, the thick darkness…

“You may well laugh Will.” Toad grinned ear to ear. “Give it a thought eh?”

Finally he thought, finally he might get the recognition he deserved in this old bin.

*

Gold’s heart gave forth an accustomed thrill at the scent of cotton and washing detergent wafting from the open upper window at the outside of the back of the laundry block. It was two am, as usual. No one bothered to see to the security gap. The department lacked any modern ventilation and a film of water droplets could still be seen clinging to the inside of the windows as he climbed inside.

Along the internal corridor, with the help of the general pass key, he slipped into the void of the ECT suite, which smelt mostly of floor polish. Gold opened up his kit bag – a now well-practiced routine – two static battery lamps, a pile of stretchy bungee cords, duct tape, and finally a mouth bit that looked a little like what he wore on the rugby field many years ago.

A recent preoccupation was his arms. It was easy enough to lash his legs and torso, reverse-Houdini style, but he needed an arm to press the button – that also needed restraint if it was going to avoid another break. A second ‘skiing’ accident in weeks wasn’t going to wash. Lacking the luxury of anaesthetic and muscle relaxants had turned out to be only a relative loss. A carefully practiced sequence of events culminated in the taping of the electrode heads to his temples with a generous wrapping – a Cyborg came to mind. He’d got used to being well-prepared. That lame gift of exfoiliant gel from Isabella last Christmas had finally come in handy in preparing his skin. The old ECT box, the device itself, was warmed-up again, the bit was in place, Gold’s left arm extended. He then pressed the button.

A strangely loud beep rang out, rattling around the half lit empty room. It was actually no worse, he consoled himself, than being hit in the head by a gloved fist. He could only guess at the comparison, not having done any boxing in his life. Within milliseconds Gold was knocked unconscious and then his body jerked, the table shuddered, his whole skeleton straining at the electric cords in a mad dance for a little over half a minute.

Silence descended. Time elapsed.

It was thirty minutes past three when he came to, according to his illuminated watch. He was woken from a vivid dream of stained bed sheets whirling around in the suds of a large hospital machine. He envisioned a psychic laundering process where week after week of deep-stained trauma and casual obscenity, stuff no one wanted to see – was all washed clean. He saw human lives as sheets rejoicing of resurrected lives, renewed purpose. He saw collective human experience – grief, mental injury, the whole history of human suffering – all lifted away, forgotten. He’s become the quiet embodiment of a promise, of a utopia where the weight of all the misery in the world would be dissolved and drained away.

He came fully awake. He had a job to get on with. As long as he could return each week, he knew things were going to be alright. His own grubby past, the horrors tarnishing his patient’s minds could be sent to ground. He’d become a mystical conduit for the misery of man and he was barely affected, as memory, Gold was sure, was a so much overrated thing after all.

HMP Littlehey
24th April 2015

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