Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Big Nun

Charles Peterson woke from the worst nightmare of his life to find it wasn't a dream at all. He was lying on the cold stone floor of a dark, dank cell heavily redolent of compost, which lent the appalling impression of having been buried alive. A barely discernible light came from beneath a door, causing the floor to glisten slightly in the gloom. It felt slippery and wet, thinly carpeted with a foul-smelling gelatinous moss which somehow managed to thrive in almost total darkness.

As his eyes grew more accustomed to the meagre light, he was able to take in his surroundings. The room, which was about eight feet square with walls of huge stone blocks and a ceiling too high too see, contained nothing but himself. Even his clothes, he realized, had been removed. And then he saw something move quickly across the strip of light, scurrying from one dark corner to another; the size of a cat but shaped like a rat. So he wasn't alone after all.

Involuntarily, he let out a scream, and as screams go, this was of the more articulate variety. It began as an expression of startled disgust, moving quickly on through anger and frustration to a fierce hatred, then through a rapid building of fear to panicked, sweating terror, before eventually finding and settling to its true pitch; a long, low wail of wretched despair.

A minute later he heard footsteps approaching and held his breath, suddenly hopeful that this diabolical misunderstanding might be resolved. He had no idea of the time or how long he'd been here. He remembered a big nun in a coarse brown habit knocking him to the ground after the men in white coats had dragged him from the ambulance. She'd asked his name and he'd told her truthfully that he was Charles Peterson, an architect, and no, honestly, he was not Patrick Aloyisius O'Garrity, it was all a terrible error, a simple case of mistaken identity. And then the nun had landed three punches to the centre of his abdomen, the speed and ferocity of which he couldn't believe, followed by a knee in the face, a stout kick to the side of the head, and then nothing until this waking hell.

He realized suddenly that he was unbearably thirsty. He hadn't had a drink since my God, not since the twins' birthday dinner. But how long ago was that? His throat was so dry and seemed to be closing. How long can a man go without water? He licked the mossy floor but it tasted sharp and tangy, like the urine of a disease-ridden rodent, and he retched and coughed and spat and spluttered. He surrendered then to despair and his whole body shook as he sobbed, alone and helpless, forgotten and dying in the dungeon of a lunatic asylum. How had it happened? How could it end like this?

The door rattled open and he looked up to see the big nun filling the doorway; Sister Joseph, he remembered. She stood there, a sinister silhouette, tall, broad-shouldered, a piece of rough hemp tied tightly around her surprisingly narrow waist, her feet spread widely in heavy working boots; a vision of implacable cruelty, yet absurdly carrying a tray, a parlourmaid in the service of Beelzebub.

"Name?" Her voice was deep and even, devoid of emotion, her shadowed face unlined and expressionless. He crawled slowly to her, prostrating himself naked at her feet, his parched, cracked lips gently brushing her boots.

"Please," he croaked, barely able to speak. "Please, Sister, my name is Peterson, please help me."

She reacted instantly to this grovelling supplication, this pathetic entreaty to an imagined sense of pity, by turning and beginning to close the door. He could smell the food, almost taste the sweet, life-saving water.

"No, Sister, please. Okay," he managed a low whisper. "My name is O'Garrity."