Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Visiting Day

Miranda turned up a little early dressed from head to toe in what she described as goat couture. From the jaunty Gatsby right down to the soft and sensible ballerina loafers, the jacket and the shirt, the tiny skirt (and everything else besides, I soon discovered) were fashioned from the soft, delicate hide of the finest Anglo Nubian. Even her shoulder bag, to my connoisseur's eye, was unmistakably of shaggy English Bagot. It was, of course, only a dream, but I woke nonetheless in unusually high spirits and was only slightly disappointed when she actually arrived in somewhat more conventional attire, though I’m still unsure of the correct form of dress when paying a visit to one’s uncle who is incarcerated in a lunatic asylum.

It was a glorious morning and we walked the mile or so beneath blue skies in spring sunshine, crossing the common by the pond, admiring the daffodils in the prime of their short lives, and winding our way at the leisurely pace of young lovers through the maze of little back streets in the Old Town until we turned a corner and came suddenly face to face with the towering and forbidding iron gates of the Clapham Lunatic Asylum.

Set into a high wall of austere dark brickwork, one can’t look at those black gates without one’s mind filling with terrible images of poor Victorian wretches being dragged screaming from their hearths and taken to spend the rest of their days in abject misery, forever locked away from their loved ones in dank, rat-infested dungeons. Even today, if one stands in the right place at dead of night, one can sometimes hear the faint sound of hopeless wailing wafting up through the drains, the sounds of torment and utter despair, cries of the unimaginable grief and anguish of the lost, the forlorn, the bereft of hope, like the tortured souls of the damned calling from the very fires of hell itself. Take my word, it’s well worth a listen.

As we passed the main gates I felt Miranda shudder and then stiffen at my side, tightening her grip upon my arm, and we quickened our step as a solitary dark cloud blotted out the sun and an ominous chill seemed suddenly to permeate the air. We made our way hurriedly along the empty street until we came upon an ancient wooden door set into the wall, almost hidden behind the abundant wild buddleia which covers the lower half of the entire perimeter. I knocked four times with the large cast iron ring and waited a full minute before I heard the sound of heavy bolts being drawn on the inside, and then with a deep, foreboding creak the door opened slightly to reveal the striking, unlined features of Sister Joseph. She studied me for a few moments, her face a mask of suspicion and hostility, and then the light of recognition dawned in her pale blue eyes and her lips spread widely in a beatific smile of pleasure and welcome, and I wondered momentarily if she’d mistaken me for the Lord himself come to take her away from all this.

And then she noticed my companion and bristled like a Tasmanian Devil with toothache, emitting a strange hissing sound from the back of her throat, and I thought she was going to strike, but then she took control of herself and her expression began to soften, lapsing by stages into one of strained neutrality before mutating gradually into something cunning and sinister, covetous, proprietorial, and I knew I had to get Miranda away from that awful place immediately, back to the world of flowers and sunshine, but Sister Joseph had already ushered us briskly inside and closed the door behind us, turning an enormous key with a clunking, resolute finality, and sliding the bolts across with a series of harsh metallic cracks which echoed in the darkness like the rattling reports of a firing squad.

Holding a paraffin lantern before her, the tall nun set off without a word at a furious pace, leading us through a labyrinth of narrow, low-ceilinged tunnels which twisted and turned this way and that without apparent reason and appeared to descend gradually until I felt we must be thirty or forty feet beneath ground level, and I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that we were processing directly to some terrible place from which no one ever returns.

Eventually we came to an iron gate and Sister Joseph produced a huge bunch of keys from beneath the folds of her rough brown habit and took us through. She unlocked a barred wooden door and there he was - Sir Leslie Pitt-Tinny, MP, OBE, erstwhile chairman of the Clapham Ambulance, struck dumb and rendered insane by a stupid practical joke which had backfired disastrously and caused the gruesome demise, while under his aegis, of the Queen of England.

He was lying curled in a foetal position on the damp stone floor, a thumb stuck in his mouth, his limbs protruding like thin white sticks from the ragged remnants of his once fine Henry Poole suit, his sparse hair now long and unkempt, a grey beard obscuring most of his face. He looked up vacantly without interest and Miranda rushed over to him.

“Oh, Uncle Leslie,” she gasped, horrified at his condition, kneeling beside him and cradling his sore-covered, lice-ridden head to her breast. “What have they done to you? Oh, Uncle, Uncle!” And then she released him with a moue of faint disgust and came and stood imploringly before me and uttered a variant of those fateful words that one should never say to an ambulanceman without first having addressed the most careful consideration to the full range of their implications.

“Is there nothing that can be done?” she beseeched me, whereupon I stepped smartly forward as though an automaton under the control of unseen forces, taking a yellow bag from my hip pocket, wanting only to please her and do her bidding. Focused on my task, I became vaguely aware of some sort of commotion occurring behind me, but I could not allow myself to be distracted from the important work of the ambulanceman.

When I removed the bag, Sir Leslie was smiling, probably for the first time in several months, his mouth fixed in an expression of gratitude, serene happiness and eternal peace. Almost frenzied with excitement, I turned, filled with pride and a magnificent sense of achievement to share this wonderful moment with the woman who meant so much to me and with whom I now knew with unwavering certainty that I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

A perfect future filled my imagination in an instant: a cottage in the hills, a couple of rough acres, a small mixed herd; Saanen and Alpine, Toggenburg, Golden Guernsey. Together we could have it all and there was absolutely nothing and no one to stand in our way.

Miranda was lying on her back at the feet of the big nun, unmoving, her lean, muscular limbs spread carelessly, her lovely grey eyes filled with blood and bulging grotesquely from their sockets, her full, sensuous lips now drawn in a hideous rictus of terror, her delicate pink tongue horribly swollen and purple, a length of grey hemp, which I'd last seen fastened around the nun’s narrow waist, cutting obscenely into the soft flesh of her pale, slender neck.

I gazed at her lying there, trying to stay calm, trying to control my breathing. Deep breaths now.

In . . . hold it . . . and out. That's it. Just waiting for the sound of the alarm clock.

Come on now, don't panic.

In . . . hold . . . and out.

Keep it together, just wait patiently for the old dull, workaday reality.

Come on now, it's time to wake up.

It's okay. Everything's okay.

In . . . and out. Wake up now.

You know it's not real, it's just another of the dreams.

I'm only dreaming.

In . . . hold it . . . and out.

It's just a terrible dream, just another of the dreams.

In . . . hold it together . . . come on now, wake up.