Original writing person’s note – I wrote this story (and it is a story, I’ve checked my diary) without having seen / being unaware of the basic premise of an apparently dead famous Hollywood film which stars rubber-faced comedian Jim Carey. That’s a shame because (a)effort expended can never be reclaimed, like smiles given to a (now) dead relative and (b)Jim Carey. Still, there’s only a similarity with the premise as opposed to the actual story and, since I had fun writing it and all art* is theft (i.e Jimmy Page stealing everything but the socks from old bluesmen) I present it to you anyway, mainly because the other story I wrote this week is too long for this site and I’m too fucking lazy to edit it right now. I hope you enjoy. If you don’t, imagine explosions. They’re cool.
Oh yeah, the title is from a husker du song, my favourite version of which is on the live record ‘the living end’.
*I said art. I didn’t quite mean it, but I said it nonetheless.
‘Welcome back.’ That’s the first voice I hear, the nurse’s.
I sit up, rubbing my eyes in the way that I probably haven’t done since I was a kid. ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘how long did that take?’
‘The standard amount of time, twenty four hours. That’s all it ever takes.’
‘I feel as though I’ve been asleep for a week.’ I look at her, seeing her properly for the first time. She is a beautiful woman, blonde and smooth, no rough edges, no inconvenient asymmetries. Suspiciously so, I think. Was she finished with a spirit level or something?
‘Welcome back to a world of love and possibility,’ she says, without drama. ‘Can I offer you a drink?’
‘Done.’ She passes me a plastic cup and I drink it as if it were my last.
‘Careful,’ she says. ‘You’ll drown.’
The door slides open and the Doctor walks in. He is a small man, but I don’t think that anybody ever notices, least of all him. ’How are you feeling?’ he asks.
‘Aside from that. How are you really feeling?’
For a moment I don’t understand the question, like I’ve forgotten why I am here in the first place, rising in instalments from that small bed in the hospital bedroom. ‘Oh,’ I say, running a series of rudimentary checks on my internal organs, checking for pains, fractures and splints, ‘yes, that.’ I physically check my heart, and my brain, massaging the area of my chest and then skull in a series of careful circular motions.
‘Is she still there?’ asks the Doctor.
‘I remember her, if that’s what you mean.’
‘It isn’t – we’re not engaged in the business of erasing an entire memory of a person, remember. I’m asking if you still love her.’
‘I don’t – I don’t quite know.’ I feel different, that’s for sure, as if I shed half a stone in my sleep.
‘I think you’re fine,’ he says, almost, I think, winking at me, ‘but we’ll run some tests to check. As you probably remember from our literature we guarantee a one hundred per cent success rate – if there’s been some kind of distortion or incomplete cycle then we’ll simply run the procedure again.’
The nurse is smiling at me, although not to the extent that I think she might be interested, her brown eyes flashing with little more than sympathy. ‘I can’t help feeling,’ I say to the Doctor after she leaves the room, ‘that the beautiful and not unkind woman being present at my bedside when I awoke was not some kind of coincidence. Do you keep similarly attractive males on the premises for clients of other persuasions?’
‘I couldn’t possibly comment on all of the features of our Platinum Package,’ says the Doctor, not meeting my eye, ’as my duties are strictly clinical – but yes, that does sound like a good idea – a likely scenario – to me. After all people come to us to be cured of what they feel is a debilitating heartbreak, the kind from which they feel they cannot otherwise move on, so it makes perfect sense to show them that there is reason to do precisely that. An immediate reason, in the case of Lorraine.’
‘Not the sexiest name, I concede,’ he says. ‘But in a way, that makes her even more disarming.’
‘This is the machine we’ll be using to scan your brain today,’ says the Doctor, showing me to my seat. ‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ I nod. ‘We call it Kevin,’ he says, ‘after …’ he checks himself. ‘I can’t quite remember who,’ he says. ‘Some fat guy, I think.’
I make myself comfortable and, with the help of a different nurse, this one several degrees less attractive than Lorraine (fat ankles, if I’m being honest) he pulls the scanning equipment over the top of my head, taking a moment or two to make sure that I look as ridiculous as is humanly possible while he hums some song under his breath, something in an odd time signature.
‘It looks like a bee hive,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘you’re not the first person to say that. In fact, you said it yourself just one week ago when we first gave you this test – the procedure you’ve just undergone plays havoc with short-term memory. Now, I’m going to show you several photographs and measure the responses of your brain to them – it’s as simple as that. The good news is that other than staying conscious there’s nothing else I can demand of you, so just relax.’
‘And what’s the bad news?’
‘There is no bad news,’ he says. ‘That’s the bad news. Now, let’s begin.’
The first picture is of a flower.
‘Flower,’ I say. ‘A … begonia, I think.’
‘You don’t have to say anything,’ he says, ‘I’m measuring your brain.’
‘Well – Is it okay if I talk?’
‘You can sing if you want, although quietly if you don’t mind. We’re on a ward after all, and some people less fortunate than us are asleep.’
‘Or worse. Hey, where did you get that picture of my dad?’ He has shown me the second picture.
‘You would have included it in your application pack, along with thousands of other images.’
‘Right. Are you measuring right now, in real time?’
‘Absolutely. All standard so far.’
‘And I just sit here?’
‘You just sit there.’
The third picture is of a tall woman who I do not recognise.
‘No idea,’ I say.
‘This isn’t a quiz. They’re aren’t any right or wrong answers. Please, just relax.’
The fourth picture is of her.
‘Now,’ I say, ‘I do know that one. That’s not a great picture to be honest, it makes her face look too shiny, like she’s bad at putting on make-up. Do you have any others?’
A fifth picture appears, and it is her again. Spectacular.
A sixth. Even better.
A seventh. Wait …
‘Well,’ he says, ‘I think we should stop right there.’ There is something about his tone I don’t like, as if he has just noticed a pile of dog shit on the floor and needs to talk to a man with a bucket, who he feels uncomfortable around, about cleaning it up.
‘Yes.’ He turns to the second nurse. ‘Get Lorraine,’ he says, and passes me a tissue for the blood which it turns out has leaked from my nose.
‘The Ventral Tegmental Area of your brain is showing some incredibly unusual activity,’ says the Doctor, doing his best, I think, not to look too concerned. ‘It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, frankly.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I’m not entirely sure. Also, there was the growling, which is a little out of left field.’
‘Yes. When I showed you the pictures of your ex – sorry, the subject of unengagement – you growled. Pretty loudly, too.’
‘No – I didn’t.’
‘Apparently you did,’ says Lorraine in her kind, reassuring voice. ‘Kath said you growled like a tiger.’
‘The … the other nurse.’
‘Fat ankles?’ I had no idea I was about to say that out loud. ‘Sorry.’
‘I’ve heard her called worse,’ says the Doctor, considering the floor. ‘Now, I really need to ask you about the nose-bleed. Do you get a lot of those?’
‘Only when I was little.’
‘How little, exactly?’
‘About 4 foot 2.’
He smiles, but not with his eyes. ‘This is not the time for joking around,’ he says. ‘There may be something seriously wrong with you.’ He stops smiling.
‘This is the level 3 scanner,’ he says. ‘We don’t use this one a lot – we don’t have to usually.’
‘What happened to the level 2 scanner?’
‘We skipped that step. We need a level 3 here, at least.’
‘At least? How far does it go?’
‘What have you got? We’re at an exciting time for this technology and new levels of access and analysis of the brain are opening up for us everyday. It costs more, sure, but your insurer will pay. They have to.’
The level 3 scanner looks just like the level 1 scanner, but has a slightly different finish, being glossier, although that may just be the light in the room.
‘You know the process by now,’ he says, pulling out the photographs, Lorraine lurking just behind his shoulder as if waiting for a bus.
The flower again. I do not speak, or bleed or – roar.
My dad. ‘Hi dad,’ I almost say, but do not, and continue to concentrate on the activity of my face.
The nameless, tall woman. She has good, strong legs, I notice. I wish – I wish I had legs like that.
‘All good,’ says the Doctor.
Now – there she is again, and this time I see more of the picture, rather than just the fact she is in it. Her hair is swept back – never my favourite look for her, as she could doubtless tell you – and her face still looks a little shiny, as if she had recently emerged from a dark tunnel. ‘Did I give you that photograph as well?’ I say, but do not receive an answer.
The second picture of her I remember being taken – although whether I took it myself or not I cannot recall – on a boat at a party about three years ago, as we held our champagne flutes hard against the pounding wind and did our best not to be shat on by seagulls, who were numerous and persistent. She looks great in it, I think, innocent yet worthy, someone who knows little of life but is not scared of it, prepared to see the best in every moment, even the boring ones.
We had a lot of those, I fear. A lot.
I wake up feeling groggy, like four hangovers decided to get together and form a supergroup. I am in another Brain Scanning Machine.
‘Which level is this?’ I say, although only barely.
‘You don’t want to know.’
‘Oh, I do,’ I whisper. ‘Hence the question.’
‘Twelve,’ he says, ‘level Twelve. You’ll have to give me a minute, actually, because we’ve never had to switch the Level 12 Machine on before. I need to check that it’s working okay.’
‘Was there more roaring? I don’t remember.’
’There was I’m afraid, and it was louder this time. You’ve got quite the pair of lungs on you, it would seem.’
’Thank you. Blood?’
‘We cleaned that up for you,’ he says, ‘what with you being unconscious and all.’
‘How much was there?’ I feel weak, so the question seems appropriate.
‘Enough to necessitate a small transfusion, nothing more.’
‘Don’t worry, your insurer will pay for it.’
‘I’m not worried about the price.’
‘Too right,’ says Lorraine, or at least, I assume it is her, my vision blurred and otherwise restricted as it is. ‘You concentrate on getting better. That’s all that matters at the moment.’
I am in a wheelchair being pushed down a street – my old street – by Lorraine, who looks so happy in her work that she may as well be at a celebratory family dinner or walking arm-in-arm with her childhood sweetheart through an autumnal park. She is a consummate professional this girl, and I hope they pay her well.
‘I think that this is a great idea. It’ll be really good for you, meeting up with her,’ she says.
‘Well, Doctor Carsley certainly seems to think so, and if anybody would know then it would be him.’
‘I never appreciated how badly maintained our pavements were until I was forced to use a wheelchair,’ I say, which I suppose might pass for flirting.
She laughs. It is delightful. ‘Perhaps you should go into politics?’ she says. Really, she is too much. I know I like her – and I mean really like her – because I have no idea how large her breasts are. That always happens to me, although I have no idea why.
‘I checked,’ she says, ‘and Bagley’s Cafe does have wheelchair access. Good news all round, then.’ Even the banal sounds like honey when it slips from her throat.
‘Great,’ I say. ‘I wouldn’t want to crawl inside or have you lift me.’ I feel perky today, almost, secretly, brilliant, as if every sentence contains a nugget of gold. ‘Besides, the kids around here would probably nick the wheelchair before you’d as much as ordered a panini.’
‘Kids,’ says Lorraine, sadly, in the same way that some people say ‘this country’ when they mean ‘everything is different now’.
Lorraine is sat a couple of booths behind us, pretending to read a copy of GQ.
‘Hello,’ says my wife again (it is the third time she has said it and previously I have chosen not to answer, but to simply stare straight ahead). We are not married, but I call her my wife – at least throughout my internal monologue – because it is simpler that way. We were together long enough, after all. House. Dog. Resentment. All of the things.
‘You look … a little weighty,’ I say and I know, I know I sound insensitive, rude even, but it is true, and the woman I know – or knew, whatever – would appreciate me being candid on such a topic.
‘Yes,’ she says, flashing a resentful look at some unknown memory. ‘Yes, I suppose that I do.’ She literally bites her lip.
‘And what’s with the mascara?’ Red. It doesn’t suit her, as any fool seeing those cheeks, those red apples, could tell her. It wouldn’t suit me, either.
‘As you know,’ she says, ‘I have a history of bad choices lined up behind me, waiting for their turn.’ That hurts I think, or is at least supposed to. She looks away. ‘How are you feeling?’ she says.
‘Fine. Better than ever.’
‘Like a new person entirely.
‘A new person, yes.’
‘This – operation you had.’
‘It wasn’t an operation, not really. More of a procedure.’
‘What did it involve?’
‘I was lucky enough to be unconscious, so I couldn’t tell you. Poking and probing around I would guess, fixing my messed up head with skill, I would hope, and not little precision.’
‘And you feel okay?’
‘I said I did, didn’t I? I feel fantastic. How about yourself?’
‘I lost my job,’ she said. ‘Cutbacks, the usual. And then Jon …’ Her new man is called Jon.
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘Jon is ill, I’m afraid. We’re waiting on the full prognosis, but it doesn’t look good.’
‘Ah,’ I say, my sympathy genuine but neutered, like I’m fighting back a yawn or speaking a foreign language or something, ‘it’ll probably get worse before it gets better.’
Just then Lorraine puts her hand on my shoulder. ‘We should go,’ she says, and I am delighted to hear her voice if not by the action that she suggests, which I find odd and confusing.
‘Why?’ I look at my wife and she is sat as far back in the booth as she can go, a look of pure astonishment written across her pretty face.
‘There was some roaring again,’ says Lorraine, making sure that her look pacifies as much as it condemns, presenting the wheelchair to me as she might a pudding, ‘and I’m afraid that it was much, much louder this time.’ I look about the cafe, and I notice that it is deserted.
‘Ah,’ I say, ‘so you had me wired up when I met with my wife.’
‘We felt it would be instructive,’ says the Doctor, peering at me over his glasses, which I haven’t noticed him wearing before.
‘Nice glasses,’ I say.
‘Thanks. They’re new. Some voucher my wife had.’
‘Ah, wives and their vouchers,’ I say.
‘I didn’t mean it like that, exactly. Men have access to vouchers too, of course. I didn’t mean to be …’
‘I know very little about men,’ I say. This is true, for obvious reasons.
‘I should expect that was the case,’ he says, threatening to continue the sentence for a moment then returning to his charts, the volume of which is hugely impressive to a layman like me. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘it looks as if we’ve run into a small problem. It seems as if the primary aim of the procedure was a success. You no longer love your wife, am I correct?’
‘Well, the actual procedure, in most cases at least, has two stages. Firstly, a series of precisely targeted electrostatic shocks are administered to the Ventral Tegmental Area, the dopamine mine of your whole operation, and then, after it has been made susceptible to the writing – and indeed, rewriting – of both new and deeply ingrained information, the patient is exposed to twenty-four hours of medicated hypnosis, during which time she is subjected to a barrage of hugely negative imagery and information on the subject of disengagement, everything from unflattering photos to bank statements, to analysis of excrement…’
‘How do you analyse excrement?’ I ask.
“How do you do anything?’ he says. ‘By doing it properly. Anyway, by the end of this process, the client is usually fully cured and able to move on with the rest of his or her life. No worries whatsoever.’
‘In most cases, you said. What went wrong with me, then?’
‘We have a feeling that the brainwashing took a little too well, with you, I’m afraid, which is why we set up the meeting with your wife. It looks as if we may have tapped into something primal in your system, something which causes you to lose control when you see her.’
‘It’s not love, I know that.’
‘We thought, in fact, that it may be the opposite,’ says the Doctor, ‘in fact – we’re pretty sure of it. Operatives were dispatched to your wife and over the couple of weeks – yes, you’ve been here for almost a month – leading up to your meeting she was encouraged to put on over eighteen pounds in weight and instructed in the dark arts of how precisely not to put on makeup and style her hair. It was quite a success for our team, that make-under, what with her beginning as a beautiful, willowy sort and ending it looking like a distraught fisherman.’
‘I did wonder about her weight,’ I say. ’She was always incredibly vain.’
‘I know,’ says the Doctor, not quite meeting my eye, ‘we have both a recording and transcript of the conversation. Did you … did you ever consider that perhaps one of the reasons she left you was because of the way you talked to her?’
‘I did,’ I say, not without sadness, ‘but it was also why she was there in the first place. Also, I know of no other ways to speak, despite my best efforts to learn some.’
‘Our theory – or rather, our hope – was that perhaps you’d feel sorry for her, especially when she informed you about her new partner’s health problems.’
‘Wait – was that all made up?’
‘I have no idea. I’d have to check the file.’
‘No,’ says Lorraine, who has just entered the room and is standing next to the Doctor. ‘That bit is true. They don’t expect him to last the year.’ God, she looks good that woman. Every minute that passes by she grows more in my estimation. I nod and smile at her and she smiles back, although differently, keeping a distance between us with the sharp focus of her deep brown eyes.
‘So this is goodbye,’ says the Doctor, shaking my hand. He has a gentle handshake for a man, but not so soft as to seem weak or creepy. I am stood on the street outside the clinic listening to the traffic, noting happily the contrast with my last journey around this area, strapped to that clumsy chair as Lorraine guided me about the obstacles of the world, the smell of her perfume stinging my eyes as we went.
‘I can’t believe that she agreed to move,’ I say.
‘I very much got the impression that she was over Britain altogether and the circumstances simply provided her with a pretext to make the change.’
‘And the insurers will pay for everything – the whole move to Australia?’
‘Every last penny, which is why we advise our clients to take out such a policy. When it was clear that no amount of targeted therapy would reverse the effects of the original procedure, it seemed the only way to go. We have to be careful, of course but at this stage – and we’ll be monitoring you extensively, as we’ve already discussed – it looks as if this primal, almost unconscious hatred of your wife was the only real, and very particular, side effect. Hopefully this provides everybody – including your wife – with an appropriate solution.’ I look at Lorraine, who as usual is standing just behind him, and I wonder if they are lovers, and I know that he is wrong, about the side effects at least.
‘The roaring and bleeding?’
‘Happens when exposed to images of your wife and at no other time,’ says the Doctor. ‘I’m happy to confirm that, and have done so under clinical conditions. You lost a lot of blood that time in the cafe, when you were in actual physical contact with her – I only thank God that there was nobody there to witness it.’
‘Yes,’ I say, remembering what Lorraine told me about the staff and the patrons picking up their bags and coats and running for the door when I began to roar, my head, according to her, tilted back, and my eyes wide with fury.
‘You should be fine,’ he says. ‘She’s in Brisbane now, you’re here, and neither of you has any desire to contact the other unless a bout of roaring and bleeding is on the agenda. It’s all worked out for the best, really, unless you’re the insurance company.’
‘And when can you say that?’ says Lorraine, who is genuinely excited to be be alive at the moment this thought occurs to her.
‘Goodbye then,’ I say, pulling my jacket about me and turning to head off down the street.
‘Goodbye Mary,’ says the Doctor, and he gives me a small wave, the kind he might give to a memory.