I arrive before work, walk past the bandaged faces, the consulting room where crisps and cartons of grapes are laid out on the examination bed – presumably a team building exercise— and rap twice on the door. Long gone are the moments of discomfort when I sat next to a fellow skin sufferer and slyly stole a look at their face and tried to work out how bad their condition was. Girls in headscarves, macho East European builders, nervy young men all stared hard at the Thank you cards. A young lady amazingly made up picks at her bag. She will soon learn the first rule of light therapy. No creams, no moisturizers, no perfumed products. No cover ups. It is hard to be exposed to this level of absolute reality without making some adjustments.
Henrietta opens the door and in the curtained space I strip naked apart from a black sock which I pull over my genitals. That can be quite tricky. The sock may fall off and yet, I can’t quite admit to myself, that what I really need is a child’s sock. Buying a child’s sock for that purpose seems a bit unsavoury—my cock is intruding on childhood and having a 13 month old daughter I steer well clear of spoiling even my own dream of childhood.
Henrietta comes in with her clipboard, the perfect game show hostess, smiles, assesses my body (which I enjoy) and the male mind eating itself tells me she must be turned on by my tanned and peeling skin, my bicycling biceps, the baby porridge stuck to my beard. Surely we can fling ourselves on the used laundry pile while the tannoy reiterates: Please gel your hands. I know it’s improbable, impossible even—she has my medical history, my case notes: ‘Mr. Jeffreys became aggressive when asked about his sexual history and sub-Saharan Africans…’
She asks me the question: ‘have you been exposed to any unauthorized light sources?’ I love the idea of contraband light, accidentally getting a blast of a mobile’s message screen, a rogue fridge light in a second hand book, sunlight trapped in a bicycle bell. A dose of illegal light may affect patient outcome. I answer no and then I head into the dystopian future. Clothed in just a sock and helmet with blue visor like some unsexy cybernaut (and beneath the visor I wear goggles) I step into the pod, a teleport booth with rails to cling to, and breathe in the scent of sweat and smoked pork from an earlier session. And yet again my anchorite yearnings are answered. The door clicks shut and the timer is set. Has this been used in a James Bond? The Chinese assassin padlocking the UV booth and giving 007 a lethal ultra tan. Thoughts tick away.
I am stuck in silence in a moment of enforced stillness as the tubes power up and the white light buzzes. You are advised not to move in the booth. Slowly the office chit-chat and the bravado of other sufferers slips away and I am sealed off with an ultraviolet kiss. We are all here because we have been searching the world for the right light spectrum, the perfect balance of clear UV rays screening out more harmful wave lengths to promote hidden healing. I have seen men naked on a rooftop in Israel holding up their scrotums to the sun, hoping to cure psoriasis, a weird cult of scrotal sun worshipers—horrible to behold. I have turned into a tourist of light.
Light is the epiphany and I remember the silver light of the plateau in Madrid and in Sicily, the light in Cochin and Kerala, a light where you disappeared and deliquesce into total atomic obscurity. The bars and restraints and tiredness fade, thoughts drift lighter than confetti and the mind opens into a dreamlike state where images turn three-dimensional: huge heads revolve on an antique plinth; a vision of a walled garden and rain spattering on a greenhouse; a child’s duffel coat; strange hybrid faces of celebrities and friends. Soon I’m taken back to another container, all varnished and lined with oyster silk and think I can step from this booth into that and reverse the process by lifting the lid.
Only 36 and found dead in a hotel room in York, Paul diagnosed with terminal cancer and killed by a brain hemorrhage. Paul with swinging arms and rapid hands, explosive laughter, weaving between tables carrying pints of lager, the infectious intensity of people who know they will soon die, throwing himself into last minute love affairs, sitting on the pod in dark blue paisley shirts, listening while our posh clientele moan on and on about a 25p fine while time is running out –his own inbuilt overdue notice— hopelessly in love with a woman in IT with a double barrel name. Wanting to know the office gossip with an obsessive interest, the mind buoying itself up, clinging to every crumb of trivia, his hope that by simply hanging on to these things we can will the world into continued existence.
I can’t get out of my head his panic, a panic I understand, and the loss of all his knowledge about London architecture and street names, the ghost story and secret societies. Sitting in the archives, unlit, I will him into existence, waiting for him to materialize by the shelves of red-bound books, knowing his love of practical jokes but nothing stirs in the book dust. Surely the archives are the perfect place for an apprentice ghost to manifest itself? Does it take too much energy? Has he let go of all the unhappiness already and is floating freer than an inert gas over Galicia?
I’m bogged in the bad bits—the body horrors and that last trek to Canada Water where rats ran along the rope railing in that wannabe futuristic city reflected in the dead, standing water. The little room where his coffin lies open and his mother is crying and shaking hands. They will fly him back to Spain. He is in his favourite blue paisley shirt and his face forced into an unnatural and alien smile, a smug expression of bogus understanding—a smile that never appeared in his lifetime. The head, swollen, is the texture of varnished wood and the black skull cap covers what they did, picking their way through the blue threads of his brain. Lying in state with lilies and all the pomp of a deceased dictator. How could they put on that tiny tie? A tie with a blue paisley shirt, scrunching up around his neck. It is not him, he is hardened and bloated. What they did to his body makes my eyes sting. The mother keeps shaking hands and there’s a delivery outside and I can hear the courier banging on about his back problems and then we are all sitting on a vinyl sofa under a portrait of the firm’s founding father, beneath a plaque announcing how he worked to build the place up, years of hard graft and integrity and East End spirit and now he’s got a chiller unit stuffed with stiffs. They preserved him in the boardroom. His own glass column with goldfish. The lid closes.
Back here too the tubes are powering down, throbbing with one last pulse of white light before the booth starts beeping and I stagger with my visor down to pull on my pants. To sit on that pod and argue with people loaded with money about 25p, to hear their excuses and to hate them all. There are ways to retaliate, to not listen. There are ways back into this booth. I have a very warm sock on my right foot.