CLINICAL (SHORT STORY)
After lunch I went back to my living quarters and drew a triangle. Between each corner of the triangle I wrote our names out.
I was at the top of the triangle. On the bottom two corners I wrote Rosie and Kenneth.
Rosie and Kenneth hated each other. I liked Rosie but I didn’t like Kenneth. Kenneth liked me but hated Rosie. The words hate were written at the bottom of the triangle. The words hate rang out in my mind. Hate being such a stronger word than like. Like, at the same time, being so timid in comparison to hate. Love was too extreme for two people I had known for two weeks. But like was so tame next to hate that it almost didn’t belong.
Lunch was preceded by a jab in the arm. A new trial vaccination. We don’t even know what the vaccination is for. And any time we ask the question the answers are so dense and conflated that we wish we’d never asked.
I share my living quarters with Rosie and Kenneth. Now that a triangle of like and hate has formed there’s a bipolar atmosphere of intense melancholia.
But we all agreed on one thing – hating the staff at the facility.
The facility was reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; think twenty Nurse Ratcheds in a small test centre. All of us lot walking around in white gowns like fucking morons.
At the same time, nobody was insane. Nobody had been committed and we were all here on our own volition.
I look back at the paper and hand-drawn wonky triangle that I made.
I write on a line beneath the words hate.
HATE IS A MIRROR ONTO OURSELVES.
I hate Kenneth because he reminds me of all the things that I hate about myself. He’s loud, he’s greedy, he’s selfish, he’s a narcissist and he’s obnoxious.
On the next line I write – FUCK YOUR TEN THOUSAND POUNDS.
I look long and hard at my chaotic ramblings.
Then I screw up the piece of paper and eat it. The paper’s jagged edges hit against the back of my throat. The paper slides down my esophagus covered in a digestive ooze.
At dinner Kenneth has a chessboard lined up next to his plate. He wants to play. I barely know the rules. Kenneth slaps my hand every time I try to leapfrog another piece the way you do in checkers, this irritates me no end.
Kenneth gets more and more frustrated at trying to teach me how to play the game until he eventually loses his rag and throws his queen against the floor. The queen bounces back up against the hard floor.
I eat my hamburger. The nurses stare at us enthusiastically. Urging us to eat up. I felt like I was in an orphanage.
Nurse Wilmslow approaches with a ready prepared syringe, she stares down at Kenneth.
“Time for your jab.” She said
She pokes Kenneth in the arm and dabs at the piercing with damp cotton.
Kenneth has calmed down after his jab; the game of chess is no longer bothering him.
Seeing Kenneth’s dopey insolent post-jabbed face in a calming fog winds me up more than when he’s his usual obnoxious loud-mouthed pea brained self.
“Fuck your jab.” I said and I slam my plate against the table and storm back to our room.
I’ve been irritated all day today. The last thing I want is a post-dinner jab.
An hour later Nurse Peacock is sat at the foot of my bed.
“Now Jimmy. You know that if you refuse a single jab then you don’t get paid for any of this. It makes all the previous jabs a waste of your time.” Nurse Peacock said.
Ten thousand pound is a lot to walk away from. I remind myself why I’m doing this stupid trial.
“We can discharge you today if you would like, and we can write you a cheque for your travel expenses.” Nurse Peacock said.
I pull my sleeve up and offer my arm. She puts the jab between the eyes of the tiger tattoo that I got when I was seventeen. She dabs it with cotton gently. I like the cold feel of wet cotton.
The arm has been jabbed so many times now, that there’s big pockmarks forming, making the tattooed tiger resemble a Hindu God.
I can never get a good night’s rest here and my dreams are more vivid and hallucinatory than I’d ever remembered having in my life.
Last night I dreamed that I was the Queen Bee in a thriving hive. Other bees would swarm around me and drip nectar down my bee throat until I fattened up to the point of combustion. When I finally burst open, about a million tiny scorpions sprawled out from my bee-like innards. The scorpions then descended upon and ate my army of servile bees. It was a massacre. Anything bee-like had been devoured and devastated.
When I awoke, I pulled the sheets back and half expected my legs to be a mesh of scorpion bites and bee stings.
When I was a child just starting secondary, one of the local kids from my area took a live kitten between his palms and crushed its skull for all our benefit. Blood and brain matter oozed out of the cat’s earhole. It was the most disgusting sight I’d ever seen. The boy went to a juvenile centre for animal cruelty. I think he’s dead now. I forget his name.
The image of this is now haunting me inside my own head. This happened twenty something years ago. I’d barely thought about it since it happened. But the amount of inactivity at the facility has caused my brain to regress into an obsessive thought process. I can’t stop thinking about the dead cat. The squeeze and pop of its skull and the brain seeping out from its earhole.
I tell Kenneth about my dream and he just stares at me in a blank, dozy gaze, which pisses me off.
I tell him the cat story. He shrugs it off, raises his two fat bushy eyebrows quickly and then goes back to his game of Mah-Jong Solitaire.
He then tells me that he’s slept with over hundred women and that two weeks without sex is giving him blue balls.
We’re just not on the same page.
Rosie fulfils my emotional needs. She listens to me.
I tell her about my dreams. I tell her about the cat’s skull and its brain seeping out of the cat’s ear.
She gives me the acknowledgment I desperately craved, at least by listening alone.
“They’re giving us psychotropics. The things you’re describing are visions.” Rosie said.
“They’re making me sick.” I said.
“If you’re feeling so disturbed right now then you should just leave.” Rosie said.
“I can’t. I need the money.” I said.
“Do you need the money that much?” She said.
“I need to buy a house.” I said.
I haven’t asked her why she’s doing the clinical trials. I tell her that I’d do almost anything right now for a house. Anything, besides hard work, dedication, responsibility and financial frugality – which means, a clinical trial. She laughs.
The ignition in her eye between laughs remind me of why I like Rosie.
I show her my pockmarked arm – the results of the constant jabs.
“You shouldn’t worry about your arm.” Rosie said.
“Why?” I said.
“The hallucinogens aren’t in the injection going into your arm… they’re in the food.” Rosie said.
Rosie lifts up her shirt and proceeds to tell me that she’s lost twelve pounds just this week.
“The jabs are a placebo – it’s in the food.” She said.
Her rib cage is trying to force its way out of her stomach, the shape of it reminds me of the scorpions bursting through the stomach of the Queen Bee.
I was the Queen Bee.
Nurse Peacock has started watching me with intent and shrewd eyes. She’s noticed me cutting down drastically on the food they serve.
She noticed when I passed three quarters of my plate to Kenneth. Kenneth on the other hand cannot stop eating. A gluttonous parasite has forced its way into Kenneth.
As he eats my burger, the corners of Kenneth’s mouth are dripping with cow fat and mayonnaise. He doesn’t wipe his mouth. He’s sat there for fifteen minutes with goo running down the corners of his mouth. The repulsion staves off my hunger at least.
I look across the canteen. Through the crowds of white gowned trialists scoffing on their burgers, dipping their chips in ketchup.
I focus on Nurse Peacock.
Her eyes narrow to the size of two miniaturised demonic pearls.
Her eyes frighten me.
“Why are they giving us LSD?” I ask Rosie.
“Who said it was LSD?” Rosie said.
“What’s the point of all this?” I ask.
Rosie tells me that we’re in some kind of a Milgram experiment. The aim isn’t to vaccinate or create drugs, like the advert said, the aim is to see how low the depths of our human psyche can go with forced intoxication and an ugly atmosphere.
As Rosie tells me this, there’s a ferocity and pain within her eyes. I really think she needs to eat.
‘You said to me about discharging. Why don’t you?’ I said.
‘I asked.’ She said.
They tell me that I need a double dose that evening. Kenneth is playing poker by himself, raising bets and throwing down poker chips. Trying to out bluff himself.
Rosie lies on the bed. She’s semi-catatonic. A paperback book is sprawled on her stomach, but she can barely muster the energy to pick it up. Let alone read it.
Her eyes are closed. But her breath has the nimble spright of being awake. She’s succumbed to that half dream half-awake dead zone.
Nurse Flynn rolls up my sleeve and pricks me twice with the same needle. She doesn’t sterilize before, after or during the jabs.
I’m asleep within about two minutes of the jabs.
This time I dreamed that I was stood at the shoreline holding an egg. A rusty brown, corroded spoon is in my hand. I crack the top of the egg and peer inside. The inside of the egg contains an eye. An all seeing, pervasive, haunting human eye.
The waves rise up and crash into the shore. The sea takes me, the egg and the eye with it into the sea.
I awake to see Kenneth sitting at the end of the bed. He’s banging a ping pong bat against a ball tied to a string.
“It’s time for group therapy.” Kenneth said.
Dr. Yergin sits facing out towards us three.
Me, Rosie and Kenneth sit in a semi-circle encompassing him.
Rosie is drained of all colour and vibrancy. I remember that day I first saw her. Her hair was in bangs, she walked with a confident beatnik flair. Now, she’s sickly white. She’s skinny and gaunt. She’s dry. Her skin makes me thirsty just by looking at the cracked dehydration.
Kenneth and I had to carry her into the therapy suite and throw her down on the chair.
Kenneth is the opposite to Rosie. He’s fattened up, plump and ripe. His cheeks are bright red and he’s breaking out into damp sweats.
I imagine I must be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Kenneth is working on a Rubik’s cube, that is until Dr. Yergin gave a low delicate cough, a small plea for Kenneth’s attention.
Kenneth looks up at Dr. Yergin.
“This is merely a formality of the experimentation to see how your living arrangements are going and to see how you are responding to the treatment. We tick the boxes, keep the insurance companies happy.” Dr. Yergin said.
Rosie’s head slumps onto her own shoulder and a line of saliva from her lip to the shoulder descends and drops. Dr. Yergin didn’t even react to it. He’s got a clipboard and a pen behind his ear. Yergin is a purebred stereotype of a doctor.
Kenneth starts. He makes it all about him again. He blathers on for ten minutes, telling Dr. Yergin about the isolation he feels from the group and that me and Rosie are purposely shunning him like we’re on an Amish farm.
One look at the half-dead Rosie and you realise there isn’t much of a group to be isolated from. He compares the isolation to his experiences in secondary school and by the end of his monologue he’s weeping into his hands and bemoaning about how he’s never been taken seriously his entire life. His eyes are red and he’s smearing his palm into his eyeballs to wipe away the tears mixing it with the sweat. Before Dr. Yergin can turn to me to ask me if I have any rebuttal or response to Kenneth’s biographic tragedy, Kenneth is interrupting again and again. Dr. Yergin can barely get a flow going, so he just gives up.
Kenneth tells me and Dr. Yergin (and Rosie for what it’s worth) that this isn’t worth the ten grand and that the whole clinical trial is just one in a long line of poor choices and mistakes.
We finish up with Dr. Yergin quickly asking me about how I am feeling at the moment.
“That fucking nurse keeps watching me.” I said.
Rosie’s head lolls over and her body follows, she falls off her chair and lands face down onto the carpet.
I tried not eating but I just can’t do it… the grotesque images and imaginings were weaker when I stopped eating but my empty stomach was rotting away, and the hunger pains would cascade throughout my entire body right up into my fingertips. So, I ate. Not with the gusto I had when I first arrived here. I ate in small delicate increments. Just enough to keep me alive. And once I ate, the images and sights came back immediately.
I now started dreaming about Nurse Peacock’s eyes. Her eyes shining, a strobe light pulsing in vulgar flashes of green and blue. Piercing through me at every turn and every junction within this clinic.
Those eyes pervaded my dreams. Shining through the distorted static of my television screen as I was back in my London flat.
I’d wake in the night and through the glassed windows of the bedroom door, I’d see Nurse Peacock in the hallway peering into my room.
Those eyes fill me with torment and terror. When I close my own eyes, I saw the brains of that cat seeping out of its ear.
I’m haunted by images of gore and permeation.
Kenneth and I return to our room after dinner and Rosie is laid out across the bed with a drip feed next to her. Nurse Peacock is standing over Rosie and toying around with the wires and entry ports. She flicks one of the tubes with a delicate middle finger in a gesture of pure cinematic cliché.
Nurse Fallon barges past me carting another IVF and tutting to herself. She pulls the wires out from the IVF stand and looks bemused as to where to even begin. Nurse Peacock grabs the IVFs from her immediately.
Poor thing, poor thing, poor thing. Nurse Fallon is muttering.
I walk up to the side of Rosie and gently touch her hand. She turns to me and with a fear and revulsion deep in her eyes, she can barely say the words, but she manages: You can’t discharge….
It’s clear to me that her death is imminent.
Nurse Peacock walks over to me and shoos me away.
“Come on. Away from here. Let her be.” Nurse Peacock said.
“It’s just a clinical trial. This shouldn’t be happening.” I said.
“It’s nothing to do with the trial. The girl isn’t eating. That’s her choice. Now get the hell away.” Nurse Peacock said.
Her eyes narrow and the amulets beam a vicious purple.
I back off and walk over to my bunk. Kenneth is sat on my bed, clumsily flinging a yo-yo back and forth in ugly strides.
“Anything happens to Rosie; we can all sue for witnessing it. It’ll be emotional trauma. Can get more than just that ten thousand. I know a lawyer. If she dies, let’s sue the clinic.” Kenneth said.
The ten thousand. That fucking ten thousand.
I spotted the advertisement for the clinical trials online, on Gumtree. My girlfriend had just left me. I’m thirty-eight and we were still renting a squalor of a flat in East London – we’d been renting that place for sixteen years, I’d worked the same job for twelve years, on the same wage for nine years. She got sick of my lack of backbone.
I knew that if I got the deposit for a mortgage, I could win her back and finally have a place that I can call my own. It was supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be one month of testing out a vaccination for ten thousand pounds. Now I was witnessing one of my roommates dying. I was plagued with bad dreams and the nurses were watching my every fucking move.
I awoke in the night and crawl over to Rosie’s bed.
“Why can’t you discharge from here?” I said.
The thought of her saying this was keeping me awake.
She doesn’t respond.
I lift up her arm. I look into her face. Her mouth is open. Her eyes are open. She’s dead. Rosie is dead…. She’s starved herself to death…
I crawl back into bed and pull the covers back over myself.
I don’t call for help. I can’t call for help.
Ten thousand pounds.
Nurse Peacock stands over me, my eyes are shuttering open slowly into wakefulness. Peacock’s eyes immediately perforate into my inner sanctimony.
First fucking thing, I see are those eyes. Last thing at night and first thing in the morning.
Nurse Peacock is smiling. She has an ugly and crooked smile.
“I’m afraid to say that we have had to discharge that lovely young lady you share the room with. The clinical trials just weren’t for her I’m afraid and she wasn’t feeling well. She will of course not get paid now.” She said.
I have nothing to say to Nurse Peacock. Nor does she expect me to, she just walks away. She knows that I know that Rosie’s dead. I don’t think I have the courage to even challenge her.
Nurse Peacock walks out the room. Kenneth doesn’t seem too perturbed. He hated Rosie anyway. Kenneth’s fingers are stuck in a Chinese finger trap and he’s finding ways to escape. He brings his fingers together – apart – together – apart again. He starts talking about lawyers again.
I pull out another piece of paper. I draw another triangle. At the top edge I write Nurse Peacock. Under the bottom two edges I write Kenneth and Jimmy. I frantically write HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE all over the page.
“What’s that there?” Kenneth asks.
I screw the paper up, chuck it in my mouth and swallow it. Kenneth’s curiosity dies and he goes back to his Chinese finger trap.
I stare over at the doorway. Two purple eyes hover around it. I see nothing else but the invading eyes of Nurse Peacock.
The visions are accumulating and layering on top of one another. I can’t fight my compulsion to eat but I’m trying to eat as little as possible of the food served here. The day has been a continual replay of the cat’s brains seeping out its ear, the bees being devoured by a holocaustic army of scorpions and Nurse Peacock's technicoloured eyes and of course, Rosie’s dead body, mouth agape, finished off in that hospital bed.
The images relay in my head and overlap in a loop.
I take a shower that evening and as I slip off my hospital whites and hang them up, I notice the hellfire red of my arm. The pockmarks are now bulbous blisters and the tiger tattoo has been completely mutilated. An ugly whirl of black on orange is splattered across my arm.
The bright strobe of those two eyes were shining green through the shower’s glass door. Nurse Peacock is standing outside of the communal showers, peering at me from the hallway.
I’ve planned my escape. I won’t discharge from this place. I’m going to flee. They can keep their ten thousand pounds. I’ve seen enough.
I’ll sneak out in the middle of the night. I’ve already calculated where the fire doors are and that they can be pushed open, I saw Dr. Yergin do it – he walked out onto the roof for a cigarette. On the roof there’s an emergency fire point with a ladder for the fire marshal access. From the roof I can lower myself back on to the street and make my way home. I remember the ladder from the first day’s fire safety training.
I’ve made a point of not sleeping all night. I’ve stayed awake by drinking copious amounts of the free coffee and avoiding eating dinner. I had a couple of theatrical bites for the sake of Nurse Peacock. My empty stomach will ensure I stay up easily enough.
If I slept through the night and didn’t wake up, then I’d miss my opportunity. If the heavy lucid dreams conquered me then I wouldn’t wake up at the perfect time and I’d have to stay here longer. I don’t know how much the flashing eyes have seen or sensed already about my impending escape. I don’t suspect I’d last another day here.
I look at Kenneth, fast asleep, his eyes are so tightly closed it looks like he’s straining to keep them closed against an ecliptic sunrise; almost like he’s trying to stave off blindness. His fat gut pokes through his gown. His bedsheets and quilt are soaked through and cling against his body. He looks so much worse than the first day I saw him… We all do.
I decide to give him a chance to escape.
I pull back Kenneth’s sheets from over him, I feel the wet soak against my palm. He resists and pulls the sheets back towards him, but my grip is too strong on them - he’s half asleep and straining to keep hold of this soggy quilt.
I tell him I’m leaving, I plead with him to come with me. I warn him about this place. About the dreams. About the food. About Rosie. He kicks me away with his feet and pulls the sheet back over him. He’ll probably think this is a dream in the morning. I don’t care about Kenneth enough to argue or fight to save his life. I tried.
I put my backpack on and change out of the whites I had been condemned to for three weeks. Wearing jeans for the first time felt like a fresh release from the drabness of uniformity that I’d not been subjected to since secondary school. The jeans and T-shirt changed something within me, a freedom, a return to humanity.
I’m out in the hallway and quietly walking towards the staircase. As I glide myself to within touching distance of the fire exit, I feel a gentle tug on my arm just as I am going to push the emergency bar. It’s Nurse Filmore.
“Shh. You’ll set the fire alarms off.” She said.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I’m on night shift and you’re escaping.” She said.
“Escaping? I’m a volunteer.” I said
“You’re escaping.” She said.
I don’t want to be in this loony bin anymore.” I said.
“This fire door is alarmed. If you open it, you’ll wake up the entire clinic.” She said.
“Well, I’ll just open it and go out of It anyway. Let the alarm sound.” I said.
“And then you’re in for it.” She said.
“I cannot believe this. I’m thirty minutes from my fucking house, in a voluntary clinic and you’re telling me I cannot leave.” I said.
“It’s not just you.” She said.
“I want to leave.” I said.
“Nobody leaves.” She said.
“This isn’t legal.” I said.
“This is The Clinic. You don’t leave.” She said. Her voice baritone.
“How do I get out of here?” I said.
“You can escape, and I can help you.” She said and she extends an arm towards me.
I’m following Nurse Filmore down the staircase in the pitch black. She tells me that the best route of escape is through the basement. I try to ask her about this place, what she knows, why she’s helping me, how it came to be but she’s frantic and too cautious of noise to better explain. She’s pacing in a near sprint and despite her fifty extra pounds, her additional age and lack of mobility – I’m struggling to keep up.
When I leave this place, I’m writing to every newspaper in the country. I am finding out exactly what goes on.
“Down here.” She said. She’s standing by a doorway.
It’s a caretaker’s closet or maybe a basement entrance. The door being older and more worn out and of different colouring to every other door we passed.
I’ve ran through every STAFF ONLY sign in the clinic and I’m right down into parts of the clinic I didn’t expect to ever witness. She stands before the basement door. This fifty something year old woman flaming with the theatrics, really putting on a show of suspense for me.
She puts her finger to her lips and throws the door open.
Nurse Filmore steps forward… I step behind her.
I’m not where I should be. The domicile of my soul is strapped down on one side of the room and I am on the other side. I’m watching though, I see every detail, I’ve never seen so clearly before in all my life.
I can see the viscera of my remains; I can see the flesh peeled off and thrown into chunks onto the floor. I see a cadaver placed strategically next to me. All different body parts mashed together on top – a poorly made casserole of meat and flesh.
I see myself upright and strapped into a hospital stretcher. I can see the contents of my stomach dripping onto the hardwood floor and a small tray laid out to collect the blood and doing a shit job of it.
I can see the swarm of bees being devoured by the army of scorpions and it is all taking place from within myself. I am housing the massacre once again.
I see Rosie in the far corner. Her scrappy remains are piled on top of one another like a bag of bones. I see Kenneth. His brain is seeping out of his ear and his skull is crushed and crinkled up, looking like a discarded crisp packet. I just barely make out his fat mouth and beady eyes.
I see the beige wood rotting on the walls surrounding us. The smell of damp mold in this darkened decaying basement.
I see the Nurses. All of them. There’s Wilmslow, Fallon, Flynn, Filmore and Peacock and about eighteen others whose names I never got. I see Dr. Yergin with his clipboard and pen.
Nurse Peacock stands tallest. Her eyes are now glowing a shade of blood red. And she’s walking towards me. But not the me that’s all carved up in the corner being eaten by insects. She’s approaching the me that’s narrating this – the me that you’re speaking to now.
Nurse Peacock confidently struts over in long catwalk strides. She raises her palm and extends her hand out towards me generously, she’s waiting for me accept, except that I can’t accept… because I don’t have palms or hands – they’re on the cadaver or their strapped in with the rest of me.
She smiles and her eyes glow all the lovely shades of orange and red you’d expect to see from an orange grove. The strobes have dimmed out now.
She points to the mutilated and savaged remains that she’s no doubt enjoyed slicing. She mouths the words ten thousand pounds in mocking revulsion and then she…