I knew something was wrong when I spent ages staring at poultry in Waitrose. I kept rereading the advert: ‘a chicken that shares our values,’ and thinking does that chicken really believe in a free market, democracy, in being organically grown and then butchered? Butchered, what’s more, without the benefit of private health insurance.
No one else was bothered. The guy behind the meat counter went on wrapping steaks, a woman with dyed orange hair glided past with screwed up lips as if she’d been chewing wasps. A chicken that shares our values was clearly unremarkable but I was still transfixed.
When I woke up on the Avondale Ward a fortnight later, I thought the symbols might have come to an end. They shook their quicksilver chains and I followed. They drove me up scaffolding at night to puzzle over obscure blue plaques. I didn’t dare miss a single bulletin from any one of these dead artists. In all the confusion, they might offer a clue. Whether I should become a collector, a watercolourist, a diarist or failing all that just a lover of the arts like the plaque outside the old Kensington Spa with its list of artistic types in order of decreasing importance.
I’d always played it safe. I read the ingredients on jars of pickle, was careful with my E numbers. I checked the side effects on bottles of medication — the sleeping tablets that gave you wonderfully gory nightmares and that was secretly my reason for taking zopiclone. I stopped at roadsides and waited for the green man, walked further than I needed to or turned right if a filter light blinked on, thinking the symbols in themselves can carry me to other places. But then I worried about the frailty of road signs. One stormy night I watched the street signs ripple with light in the rain, the Borough of Kensington & Chelsea banged against the wall: here was our tiny demarcated area of life and sex and social housing and above was the swirling sky and thick black cloud. We might have been settlers, lunar colonists trying to regulate the irregularities of our time-wasting lives. The wind could destroy our chimneys and satellite dishes and our tiny temporary settlement.
The invisible boundaries that held the signs in place were inherently unstable. It was enforced by convention and good will. I tested people’s patience. I bought a joke bread roll that squeaked like a seagull and played with it for over two hours on the circle line crying with laughter.
Driving back from Suffolk I saw a juggernaut carrying sheep. It had crashed and was sprawling through the central reservation, the buckled metal harnessing the monster, the head — half hanging in our world of oncoming traffic — with lights ablaze. Sheep were huddled along the metal rail, shapeless sacks, bags used to shore up houses against floods. And weeks later I read the driver had reached into his glove compartment to unwrap a locket for a bad cough.
I painted a zebra crossing on the floor of my bedroom– it had more protective power than a pentagram–and then lay on it to sleep. But when I shut my eyes I heard engines revving, spoiler exhausts, accelerating mopeds. I believed I was marooned on a traffic island somewhere off the A40.
My sister was bending over me, ‘Why, Daniel… you promised me last time… you were going to stop all this…’’
‘Just a virus, ’ I said. I didn’t like the concern in her startled eyes or the key chain dangling from her bag, a studded sputnik for interstellar communication or a mace from a medieval tourney or something like something else…I had to stop.
The nurse was looking over, the one who called me Jeffrey and told me that, ‘I would never die.’ I had horrible thoughts about all the red resurrected dead, climbing through the earth with sinews popping. What was spoken became an image behind my eyes, swelling and tilting until there was no blackness just things sliding past on a conveyor belt.
‘Look, it’s up to you if you want to get out play their game. Stop talking such crazy stuff,’ and then she noticed the swelling under my eye, ‘How did that happen?’
‘I touched a woman doctor’s nose,’ I said, ‘and then a man came out of the wall. ‘ She was getting angry but I was already back under the ocean, the therapeutic sea, flapping past sharks and big business tycoons and pills, great effervescing pills sinking into the depths with their trail of silver bubbles.
I wanted to get well but I doubted there was anything within, nothing to renew all the black, exhausted earth and the fear in my legs and stomach. When Dr Bozovich talked of renewal I kept thinking of a crocus in a woodland glade and how long it would take for me to throw up one solitary shoot. ‘Step into the light.’ I kept repeating, chewing my bloodied lips—just the right sunbeam and a shot of vitamin D and my brain chemistry would fizz with bearable excitement. ‘Step into the light,’ I said and then it was lights out all over again.
Across the ward an old boy was having some sort of fit. I heard the groans and they came out of nowhere, the men in green. They pulled the screens tight around his bed and shone their lights. But it was less than discreet… his huge drowning chest leapt up and over the white screens, a scene from some Balinese shadow theatre, hands and fingernails weirdly elongated and the chest jumping to his dying gasps. When they left he called me over, kept whispering urgently and I got out of bed with drips in my arms and my bare ass sticking out of the paper gown. I leant by his bed, his huge grizzled head strong as a chunk of fallen marble and his lips cracked and broken. ‘Geoffrey, ‘he said, ‘was a good worker. One of the best.’