Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Grossminger Conspiracy

When an ambulanceman in the course of his work, or indeed outside of it, suffers a particularly traumatic experience, it is customary these days for him to be extended via his employer the offer of advice, guidance and consolation from a professional independent counselling service with a view to minimizing the harmful long-term effects that such incidents can have, and ensure as far as is reasonably possible that the poor fellow is in some way able to come to terms with the horror of what he has undergone. If the circumstances are deemed to warrant it, it is now the inalienable human right of all ambulancemen to be offered such assistance, and invariably the unwavering reaction of all ambulancemen, with an amused if slightly belligerent air of affronted masculinity, is to decline such nonsense. Thus are the ways of men.

But something happened to me a while ago which transcended by a wide margin all of my previous horrific experiences put together, and in a moment of weakness I defied all the traditional proprieties by asking Nobby Harris, our much loved and well respected station officer, if he would arrange trauma counselling for me. Astonishingly, he refused point blank and suggested I should see my G.P. who, he said, would direct me towards the care pathway most appropriate to my particular needs. Then he tapped the side of his head slowly three times with a forefinger, and bid me good day with an impatient gesture of dismissal.

Though disappointed and a little bemused, I duly went to see Dr. Medson who asked me in his usual theatrical fashion to take it from the top, maestro, so I told him, with a naive lack of circumspection, a tale of intrigue and deceit, of terror and madness, and of the bizarre goings-on in some of England's top-secret, government-funded institutes of scientific research. He listened with apparent patience, his chin resting on steepled fingers, and then he said he would refer me to a colleague of his, a specialist, but first he must give me an injection.

I have a friend, you see, who works in the notorious Laboratory No. 9. Well, maybe not a friend exactly, not quite, but certainly more than an acquaintance. A kind of close associate, you might say, for want of a better term. We, this person and I, have a sort of informal arrangement, nothing in writing, you understand, whereby I supply hard-to-obtain raw materials, if you know what I mean, and she in return uses her not inconsiderable resources to help me purge myself of the demons which invade and infest my soul during each week spent at the cutting-edge of twentieth century pre-hospital emergency care. Quid pro quo, you know how it is.

Dr. Laura Bunsen – you might remember her, she was in the news a few years back – famously gained a double first in biochemistry at the age of twelve, and a year later a PhD with a thesis so mind-bogglingly esoteric that only a handful of people in the world even knew what its title referred to, let alone understood a word of its content. Born of the Clapham uber intelligentsia, it has been estimated that she is possessed of an IQ which even the likes of Jocky Wilson at the top of his game would have struggled to match with four darts. No dour, hatchet-faced blue-stocking either, she is blessed with an irrepressibly good-humoured disposition and an athletic and delicately contoured physique, upon the shoulders of which sits a fine and noble head which is the most astoundingly adroit and incessantly productive piece of human equipment I have ever encountered, and the prodigiously accomplished Dr. Bunsen, 22, is never happier than when making vigorous use of it.

Perhaps I should explain here for those of you who do not care to read the newspapers, or suffer with short-term whatsname, that Laboratory No. 9 achieved notoriety recently for conducting a series of disastrously ill-judged and fatal procedures on a dozen or so live human subjects in the interests of national security. It is situated within the Longhead Institute of Experimental Biology, formerly the National Centre for Germ Warfare, which concerns itself chiefly with matters utterly beyond the comprehension of regular folk, and, as the tourist pamphlet makes abundantly clear, what goes on behind its barbed-wire perimeter fence is really none of our business.

Obviously I’d like to reveal a lot more about its fascinating research into the whys and wherefores of this and that, and its pioneering work in the field of bacteriological weapons of mass destruction and so forth, but I am bound by honour and discretion, not to mention the Official Secrets Act, and, more importantly, a profound and innate inability to grasp the scientific intricacies of anything more complicated than a basic, friction-levered derailleur system.

The kind doctor, however, has persevered with admirable patience attempting, albeit with limited success, to school me in the fundamentals of particle physics, infra-modal kinetics, theoretical nuclear chemistry, and things like that, to enable me to relate adequately for you the following tale, which I shall endeavour to do right now without further delay, my scientifc ignorance notwithstanding.

"That piece of cloth you gave me," Dr. Bunsen said quite casually one Sunday afternoon a few months ago, and apropos of nothing we'd been discussing. My mind was on other matters at the time, but I knew she was referring to the small fragment I had managed to retrieve from the aftermath of the royal visit, a tiny scrap, barely more than a few fibres, which had somehow escaped the flames, and which I had spirited away in my tobacco tin and presented to my close associate solely in the interests of national security and with absolutely no regard to selfish thoughts of reciprocal favours whatsoever.

"Hmmnnhh?" The week’s accumulated demons were on the verge of exiting the mortal portion of my being, and really, couldn't this wait? "Please, I . . ."

"We-ll," she drawled tantalizingly, ignoring my muttered protestations. "Guess what?" Exercising, exorcising, exhorting, expostulating, explicating, extrapolating, Dr. Bunsen is simply incapable of doing just one thing at a time.


"It's alive."

"Hmnhaa!" I shot, flabbergasted, bolt upright, and the icy claw of fear gripped my bowels. At least I think that's what it was. I thought back and clearly remembered stepping towards those underpants as they smothered the life from our glorious monarch, and being unable to save her, driven back as I was by the overpowering stench which struck me as forcefully as a cricket bat across the bridge of the nose. But there had been something more, something I had not yet acknowledged even to myself. Like the dog growling through bared teeth, its hackles raised, or the cat hissing with arched back, there had emanated from the undergarment a quite palpable hostility at my approach, a malevolence which, though silent, had as good as screamed at me to get back or suffer the consequences, as if those pants had indeed been alive and sentient. And now this.

"Yes, and not just alive," she continued animatedly, warming to her subject as she washed her hands. "But apparently - what’s the word – cognizant. And growing at a . . . er . . . phenomenal rate. You ought to see it. It's really quite . . . um . . . phenomenal." For all her enormous brainpower, Dr. Bunsen's vocabulary strikes one at times as disconsonantly exiguous.

"Let's go!" I took her hand and we raced outside to the street.

Within an hour we had reached the bleak marshlands of Dungeness and were pulling up with much screeching of tyres outside the guardhouse of the Longhead Institute. Recognizing her sunglasses, headscarf, and white Sunbeam Alpine, old George the gate keeper lifted the pole and waved us through with a perfect blend of cheerfulness and subservience before returning gratefully to his cup of tea, newspaper, and packet of Player’s Navy Cut. Once inside the building, we made our way along labyrinthine corridors and through numerous coded security doors, until we entered the infamous Lab Nine. So this was it. At the far end of the cavernous laboratory was a room within a room made of thickened glass, and it was apparently in there that the thing was being studied. As we approached the door, Dr. Bunsen gasped. In truth, I think she might have reeled.

"Oh, my God!" She stared in disbelief at the room's interior, clutching the doorframe as if to keep herself from falling. “It’s gone!”

“Let’s go!” I took her hand and we raced outside to the car.

We found old George the gate keeper slumped across the table in his hut, the Sunday Pictorial beneath his ashen face, a mug of tea still warm beside him, a filterless cigarette burning away in an ashtray. He was dead, which could mean only one thing: we’d have to raise the pole ourselves.

On a hunch I directed Dr. Bunsen back to town and straight to the Carcinoma Estate, and by the time we arrived and parked the car dusk was swiftly falling. As we approached Leukaemia House, home of the infamous Otto Grossminger, we saw that a large crowd had gathered around it and were chanting for Otto to come down and surrender. Like something from an old Gothic horror film, there were flaming torches in abundance, and the mood was one of righteous outrage mixed with more than a soupcon of trepidation. I half expected to see the local innkeeper bearing in his arms the pale, lifeless body of his young daughter, presenting it to the mob as exhibit 'A'.

High up at the top of the tower block, a massively obese face had appeared at a window, and was looking down at the murderous multitude with fear and puzzlement, an innocent fool surrounded by a baying rabble eager for his blood. And then something flew from the window and fluttered down towards the crowd.

It started with the single scream of a lank-haired young woman in a beige overcoat, and within five seconds a stampeding panic had siezed the crowd as what appeared to be an enormous pair of filthy jockey shorts descended slowly on a spiralling trajectory, appearing to hover on the still evening air, rotating this way and that as if scanning the faces of the terrified crowd below, as though searching for someone in particular. And as I stood unmoving, looking upwards, it was as if our eyes met in a sudden moment of recognition, and the shorts seemed subtly to change course and head directly for me. I turned to run, though I knew it was hopeless, and the last thing I remember is something unfeasibly smelly wrapping itself around my face and then everything went black.

I woke in the Jack Russell Unit, a locked ward in Block X at St. Bernard’s, with a tube in my arm and Laura Bunsen standing over me dressed in a nurse's uniform. I looked at her name badge which read ‘RMN Renata Toggenburg’, but I knew that this was just a ruse, all part of the big cover-up. I looked up and grinned at her, then winked meaningfully, just to let her know that I was no fool, that I knew exactly what was happening, that I too was in on the great charade of the Grossminger conspiracy. She smiled weakly and, fine actor that she is, raised her eyes to the ceiling, and then turned and walked away without a word as if we'd never even met before.