Dangling man

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Part 1

Chapter 1

Paul started, gasped, took a deep gulp of air and was suddenly wide awake. It was as though he’d been in a deep sleep and something had woken him up. A loud noise or a movement, he couldn’t make it out. He lifted his head and listened intently for a few moments, straining his ears into the gloom but he couldn’t hear a sound. There was total silence. He slumped back contentedly. The last time he’d experienced that wonderful absence of noise was a long time ago when they’d stayed at the lighthouse keeper’s cottage in Cornwall with the warm sun glinting off the sea and the birds wheeling overhead in the deep blue sky. When you first got out of the car, after the long journey with the constant hum of the engine, the silence hit you like a physical force and was a momentary shock to the brain, a wake up call to your consciousness as though it had taken a deep breath. It was as if you’d lost your sense of hearing but had gained a deeper sense of awareness of your surroundings. It was a contradiction but you could almost hear the silence in your ears, a very dull and distant hum, the sound of your body, the blood coursing through the veins. Everyone stopped, seeming to experience at the same moment, that deep stillness but it wasn’t long before the background cacophony of sound began again. A car door slamming; a seagull screeching; Carole saying ‘Just listen to that,’ or the children being freed from their restraints, tearing off to the field whooping and yelling with a natural, uncontrollable feeling of joy. In those early years when they’d first bought the house down there, they used to stay for two weeks at a time in the summer but the intensity of that initial recognition of the silence never returned after that first moment as though the brain had noted it, filed it away and could now forget it.

Those were happier times when they used to go to Cornwall regularly, often just for the weekend, before they’d got properly into a hum-drum routine and into the dehumanising world of work. Of course they were younger and still very much in love perhaps even more than they’d ever been after the birth of their third child, the girl that they’d wanted to complete their family. At that time he hadn’t been able to get enough of Carole always pestering her, she was so beautiful but with three demanding young children and him it must have driven her to distraction. He wondered if that was the beginning of the distance that had grown between them, her being too tired, too spent on loving the children to spare any for him. He should have been more understanding, more mature, could have helped more, he knew that now. He’d come to the unfortunate conclusion that men were like children always wanting and expecting instant gratification and if they couldn’t get it then they’d go elsewhere. It was a part of the brain that was hard to control, fuelled by aggression and the desire to dominate, until age and wisdom eventually kicked in, if they ever did. Still it wasn’t him that had strayed first.

He half sat up leaning on his elbows and slowly looked around. It was a very strange place, dark, misty and eerie. It wouldn’t have been his choice in décor that was for sure; it was ghastly that was the exact word for it and oddly there wasn’t a stick of furniture apart for the bed he was lying on. This was taking minimalism to the extreme. He must have been at a theme party and these were the decorations or they’d trashed the place, burnt all the furniture in the garden, a proper house warming; he chuckled involuntarily to himself.

He hadn’t been to a good party for a while; the parties he went to now were usually quite dull affairs, mainly with work colleagues where you couldn’t let yourself go, as you were constantly being watched and had to set an example to the junior members of staff who from what he could make out were a dull enough lot requiring no further illustrations of how not to live your life. With age came responsibility and respectability like a noose tightening around the neck.

He was early forties, handsome, tall and quite athletic although with the beginning of a paunch which was one of the many things he intended to tackle. He was, as he often told himself as a rallying call, in the prime of his life. He was vain like all men but perhaps with good reason as women did find him attractive. The little bit of grey in his brown hair and the few lines on his face supplied some gravitas to his young, boyish looking features.

He worked for a large company that manufactured weapons and had reached the dizzy heights of a senior sales manager for one of the smaller divisions. He had been reasonably successful in his career with rapid advancement but he seemed to have gone as far as he could now. He was well paid and well thought of but he’d noticed one or two younger than him had got directorships recently and he was beginning to think that he ought to move on before he was moved on. However some of the desire or indeed much of the desire had gone out of his working life. He wanted to try something else. Twenty years in the same job was enough and maybe something in his demeanour showed it, that’s why he’d not been given one of the bigger divisions to manage. It was past time to face up to it but like so many he was stagnant but comfortable and just carried on unfulfilled, with a mild nagging in the back of his mind that time was running out. To the outside world he looked the successful businessman and the envy of many; nice car, big house, holidays twice a year but his internal landscape was like many others in the working world, seething with boredom and discontent.

The incessant silence was still there and was now beginning to worry him. He wondered perhaps whether he had gone deaf from the loud music but there was no accompanying ringing noise in his ears or that sweaty feeling indicating that his body had been pummelled by sound. It must have been quite a rave though, he concluded irrationally, because he couldn’t bring to mind a thing about it, where he was exactly or even how he’d got there.

He lay back down, and the feeling of being extraordinarily relaxed came over him again, despite the circumstance, as though he had nowhere to go, not a care in the world and with no urgency to get up and do anything. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d got into this amnesic state and then smiled at the idiotic contradiction. No hangover either, well none so far, just a peculiar but pleasant, light-headed feeling as though he were floating. He could just detect a dull throb at the back of his head if he thought hard enough about it but it was not the full on frontal lobe assault that was the usual aftermath of heavy drinking sessions.

He tried to force his mind to remember some details about the night before so that at least he could determine where he was and how to get home; he must have some flicker of a memory. He thought long and hard but the harder he thought the less certain everything became and not a single memory of going out came to mind. His short term memory seemed to have been erased and even his long term memories were proving to lack concrete definition. He had intense fleeting memories which evoked strong sensations but they kept on drifting in and out of his consciousness without him being able to control them. In this way he drifted back to memories of early home life, of parents and siblings, of happier times, of travelling, of making love to different women and to his wife. It was like scenes from a film but with no connecting plot, no continuity, apart from him as the central character. He was enjoying the kaleidoscope immensely but it was not helping him to come up with any answers.

He concluded when he briefly managed to escape from the clutches of the fleeting memories of his life, although he wasn’t entirely sure if they all belonged to him, that it must have been a normal humdrum day, another wasted day, well at least the going to work part. Then home, children, food, a few drinks too many, Carole nagging him, TV and bed; a day like so many other days that just merged into one. That was the usual weekday pattern if it was a weekday but disturbingly he couldn’t be sure if it was or that all that had happened yesterday or the day before or any day and if it had happened then it didn’t explain what he was doing here. His head was beginning to hurt now, not with the expected hangover but with forcing himself to think and the throbbing at the back of his head was becoming amplified.

“I put it to you Paul Sumner that on the evening of the something of May 2111,” he said aloud, shockingly breaking the unremitting silence. His voice sounded foreign, almost disembodied like someone else speaking and the date didn’t sound right either. “You did with persons unknown,” he pressed on regardless, “cavort around the town in a debauched manner which resulted in you becoming severely inebriated,” he paused again; there was a most disconcerting echo coming jarringly back to him, “and thus eventually,” he said louder testing the echo and smiling at the result, “became unconscious in these depraved surroundings. How do you plead?” He paused dramatically, “Guilty m’lud,” he said finishing on a very loud note which echoed round and round.

‘Guilty, guilty, guilty’ echoed back. With a sudden pang of paranoia he wondered what he’d done and whether he’d made a fool of himself, if he had a job or a life to go back to at all. A little doom laden voice in his head sparked by that word made him suddenly panic and took him to the edge of the great void of imagined disasters as intense as the pleasant memories he’d been experiencing previously. He could feel the beads of sweat starting up on his forehead. It was always a problem when chunks of your life were erased by drinking, the mind quickly filled the gaps with ruinous events; it was a side effect of alcohol or drugs, a chemical reaction in the brain, the effect of coming back down to earth with a thump. It always turned out to be something and nothing in the end; something no doubt had happened otherwise he wouldn’t be wherever he was but nothing really catastrophic ever happened in his monotonous life despite the mental drama being played out that could win his imagination an Oscar.

When he next saw his friends, they would take great pleasure in filling him in on his embarrassing misdemeanours, exaggerating and distorting the truth. It suddenly occurred to him that he may have hit on the explanation; that he must have gone out with his colleagues from the office. A night out that was it, but to celebrate what? A birthday? His birthday? They must have spiked his drinks and made a fool of him. That would put paid to any lingering expectation of a promotion, of a directorship, not that he had had much hope. This time he would move on anyway, get out of his paralysing comfort zone, there was no going back. How many times had he said that? The thoughts seemed to spill out of him as though they came from a very old record which no longer had the power to move him.

He knew he had to get moving, to shake off the drugs or the drink. He turned his attention to his surroundings; if he could find the exit he’d make for it even if he had to crawl. The place was dimly lit and almost smoky although he couldn’t smell anything burning; a little mustiness perhaps or was that incense he could detect. It was like being in a brothel surrounded by a red hazy mist and with red billowing, diaphanous hangings beyond which he could only see more of the same, distorting into the distance. He couldn’t make out any objects distinctly in the red swirl and the more he looked the thicker the mist seemed to envelop the surroundings as if it were rising from the ground. There was no door or window to be seen.

He’d heard there was a brothel up at Mount Pleasant and an aptly named place to have one. His friends must have brought him there after spiking his drink. Some bloody joke, if his wife found out that would be the end, she just wouldn’t understand, she would not believe that he hadn’t gone there voluntarily. No woman would under the circumstance and ninety-nine times out of hundred they’d be right; there’d be no use in pleading innocence. If he was caught in this situation, there would be no way back for them this time. He seemed to recall that they’d been living separate lives or had been and that not everything was perfect in their marriage. He might not even be living at home, he couldn’t be sure. There was another man on the scene, he was convinced. Someone he must really hate, judging by the sudden, intense, violent burst of feeling he underwent. He clenched his fists and ground his teeth at the same time.

The thought of Carole in the end made him calm down; of those early years when they used to go to Cornwall, when they were madly in love and couldn’t get enough of each other. They were inseparable always kissing and touching even sleeping tightly wrapped in each others arms. She was beautiful. His first and only real love, she’d torn the veil in his mind that separated him from her. He’d had relationships with other women before he’d met Carole but they were just rehearsals, they never meant very much to him; Carole was the real thing.

They had no money at first and used to go camping. Carole wasn’t too keen on the outdoor life, the lack of facilities and privacy, the insects and dirtiness, the ever present tell-tale smell of being campers but their love conquered all that. It was side-splittingly funny most of the time trying to cope in a small tent in a field in the mud and the rain although when you were in the thick of it you didn’t always see it like that. He wondered why they did it, giving up a perfectly good home to live in extraordinarily cramped conditions under a piece of cloth. It was illogical but somehow invigorating and life affirming.

After their first child Max was born and they were financially better off, they’d found an almost derelict lighthouse keeper’s cottage, with a good piece of land, near St Ives. They’d both fallen in love with the house and the location; set on its own, in beautiful countryside, with uninterrupted views of the Atlantic, just a few minutes walk to the sea with an almost private beach. It was perfect. Too remote for most people and in need of lots of loving care and a fair amount of money for renovations, for all that it was being sold at a very reasonable price. It was just before the start of the relentless rise in house prices in that corner of England. He’d enjoyed going down at weekends and doing hard physical work, after a week of sitting bored in an office. It was their bolt hole, away from the world, a place of peace and quiet, with an extremely relaxed pace of life after the intensity of London. It was a proper escape, another world, like travelling back in time, to those imagined glory days of old England.

He felt close to tears thinking of those wonderful, perfect days which were gone forever. He gently rocked back and forward with a feeling of despair. He discovered as he rocked that he was lying on what seemed to be a soft bed that almost felt like he was afloat, drifting on a sea of tranquillity, the memories of his life wafting over him.

Chapter 2

He came back to the present again with a start. He’d caught a glimmer of white against the red but it didn’t fully register in his brain. Time was passing extremely slowly; the stillness and mistiness around him making it seem eternal. It must be early in the morning, he thought and everyone must be fast asleep not lying awake going over their life history.

He tried looking at his watch but he had difficulty focussing. His arm seemed very distant and strangely disconnected but his watch definitely wasn’t there. He felt up and down both arms; he sat up on his elbows and looked around the room but couldn’t see it. The fact that there wasn’t any furniture helped, it made searching much easier but the mist was certainly a hindrance.

He came to the conclusion that someone must have stolen the watch as he rarely took it off for long. He felt sad and depressed. It was a present from his dad, not particularly expensive but it had sentimental value. He’d been very close to his father and loved him dearly. A strong, upright, decent man from another time, a better time for human beings and humanity; a man who had valued learning for its own sake and was always trying to improve himself and the world around him. His father’s world had been rapidly eroded by the individualism, greed and anti-intellectualism of the modern era with money and possessions dominating people’s lives, including Paul’s own.

His poor dad, he’d not had much of a life towards the end with the onset of dementia. Life was cruel to the old and weak. He’d tried to visit him as often as he could but distance and other commitments; there was always an excuse. He’d become adept at making excuses and had even started believing them himself which helped to placate his conscience. He treasured the memories of how his father was when he was full of life not how he was at the end. That last year his father hadn’t recognised him at all. He wondered then whether it had been worth going to visit him, whether it was worth the state keeping him alive, there had been no quality of life. No doubt his children would be the same when he was old and in a home; it was to be expected. In fact he hoped someone would slip him a few pills to end it all before he got into that state and have to put any of his family through the obligation of visiting a human life form with no memories. Better they remembered him as he was now in the prime of his life.

He dragged his mind back to his current dilemma, the missing watch could explain a great deal. He must have been mugged and got a nasty crack on the head, hence the red mist and the dull ache. If he was looking for a credible story to explain his strange predicament then a mugging would make a lot of sense. He must be semi-conscious lying on the pavement somewhere, people walking around him, because they think that, “I’m a drunk”, he inadvertently said out loud with ‘drunk, drunk, drunk’ echoing back to him.

“Where’s the Good Samaritan when you needed one?” he said accusingly into the void. He, Paul, wouldn’t walk by if he saw someone lying in the street, he was convinced of it. No-one was going to get hurt by helping him; he might be a little sick on them but that was all.

“Sure, I like a drink but I’m not a drunk,” he said aloud, belligerently, slurring his words a little, to the passers-by who he couldn’t see because of the mist but he was convinced he could hear.

He drifted off again. A picture of a well-endowed woman came into his mind that was not his wife. He couldn’t quite place her, something to do with work, he thought. Jane, that was it. He began thinking things about her that he shouldn’t in view of his current marital circumstances but he suddenly had an intense feeling that she was somehow mixed up in his present predicament. He felt a little guilty about his lascivious desires with regard to her. It was out of character for him especially as he really loved his wife. He didn’t consider himself a sexist but then most men don’t, the most chauvinistic being the ones that proclaim their support for women the loudest.

He became defensive; what was wrong with admiring a well endowed woman? After all he was a red blooded male. It was only natural instinct to be attracted by the opposite sex but having to pretend you’re only attracted to their mind not their body that was unnatural, that was entering into the twilight zone, into the realm of the thought police. He reasoned that if women wore low-cut blouses, short skirts and had a good pair of legs in black stockings; it was very hard not to look. When you talked to an attractive woman, or any woman, your eyes strayed, you couldn’t help it. They knew exactly what they were doing when they dressed like that and knew exactly what you eyes were focussing on. They loved being the centre of male attention or why would they put on the six inch stiletto heels to totter around on? Who were they dressing up for if it wasn’t for the benefit of the male species? It wasn’t disrespect on your part, it was admiration and animal desire; naturally you wanted to have sex with them. Procreation, there was nothing wrong with that, there would be no human race without it and if not for multiplying then at least for holding on for warmth and companionship. The world was a lonely place and offices were dull, work was tedious, you needed something to liven it up and a shapely figure or any reasonable female form in a pair of boots, well that was dreaming in style.

He realised he was rambling again and this line of thought wasn’t getting him home although he couldn’t deny that it was most enjoyable. He made a huge effort to get up but found he couldn’t or at least he could move his head and shoulders, prop himself up on his elbows, move his arms and torso around but the rest of him seemed stuck. He thrashed around trying to free himself but to no avail. It was disturbing but if he was in a brothel there were all sorts of possibilities including his friends paying for him to be tied up or handcuffed or in his case leg cuffed. He laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it, it tickled him but he then felt a slight sexual stirring at the thought.

Dismissing the idea of being bound as being too far-fetched, he struggled again vigorously to get free, resting for a moment, then trying again to catch out whatever had hold of him. His method was to lie still for a minute then make a sudden jerking movement involving his whole body but only the top half of his body moved. He looked down to where his legs should have been; they appeared to be covered up under a dark blanket. He put his hand out but instead of soft material his hand touched something hard encasing his lower limbs. He rapped on it and it was solid. He felt the fear of the unknown and a creeping dread began to infect him. The peace and serenity he had been experiencing had become extremely alarming.

There had to be a rational explanation. He began to think about other possibilities that this was a dream; it had to be and not as pleasant as he’d first thought. There was nothing like this in his whole experience to relate to and that in itself was quite frightening. The worst up until then had been that same dream of the wardrobe always falling on him or was that on Carole, he couldn’t remember, accompanied by blood curdling screams. There was no furniture in this dream, not a stick; they’d burnt it all in the garden for the house warming even that bloody wardrobe. Fear was overwhelming his mind, he couldn’t focus. His memories seemed to be blurring into each other, becoming less definite like sand castles eroded by the tide or at times like quicksand engulfing and overwhelming him. Were some memories more memorable than others; was there a hierarchy? Of course there was. Did the wardrobe matter? Probably not at the moment, in the scale of things it was insignificant as it floated in and out of his mind sometimes falling, sometimes on fire, sometimes sinking into the sand.

What he needed to do was pinch himself to wake himself up, that’s what they say in the dreamer’s guide book or was it to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. He couldn’t remember. He’d never pinched himself in a dream or when he was awake for that matter, usually his wife nudged him hard in the ribs but that was only when he was snoring, not when he was dreaming unless he’d been snoring and dreaming together. He seemed to remember the jabs in the ribs. Now were they important? Again, probably not.

He had to get the facts right, perhaps if he started snoring, because pinching wasn’t working, the situation would resolve itself as normal. He tried a snort, a loud grunt and a continuous snoring sound and braced himself for the inevitable jab to the kidney. He waited, patiently, expecting the pain any minute, the tension almost unbearable, hoping for the pain and shock to come and hoping it wouldn’t be too hard; but nothing. It didn’t make sense. If he was lying on his back he ought to be snoring by now without even trying, especially after a night out.

“Ok so I’m stuck in this bloody dream but I’ll wake up eventually,” Paul began talking quietly and a little desperately to himself, “just close my eyes, go back to sleep and it will be morning before I know it. It will all be forgotten during another tedious day doing work that no-one wants and no-one benefits from apart from the owners and shareholders who get fat off the sweat of my labour. Sure it’s an unfulfilled life but it pays the mortgage. It’s tedious, repetitive, monotonous and undignified to the extent of being inhuman but the bulk of the human race has always been enslaved and now we’re just wage slaves. What’s the alternative? Communism, that’s what they always say. Keep propping up the rich and their Capitalist system or the Communists dressed in black will come marching down the street. It’s black and white, there is no grey. It’s one or the other, so be careful what you say. Mammon and Capitalism are the new religion and it’s heresy to speak out against them.”

He closed his eyes or thought he had but he could see the same red mistiness as if they were wide open. The unrelieved redness must have been burnt into his retina. Even for a nightmare this was mighty strange. He could have had a breakdown, this could be what it’s like, a mid life crisis, a panic attack, triggered by his failure as a man; a total blackout or ‘red out’ in his case from all responsibility. Had life got that bad recently? He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t having a mid-life crisis despite what his wife said. Middle aged, yes, crisis no. So he liked younger women; that was natural. He liked older women too like Jane; in fact he liked all women. And why shouldn’t he get a sports car, the kids were growing up; he deserved a bit of self-indulgence some reward for the drudgery. He’d gone without for long enough for his kids. Not a mid-life crisis, just the normal progression of the adult male.

He calmed down. He was comfortable, not in pain, just a little disorientated as anyone would be that woke up in a red misty room with no furniture in the middle of the night or dreamt that they had woken up in a red misty room with no furniture in the middle of the night. Sure his memory was troublesome; he’d had too much to drink. It affects your memory, makes it selective or some bastard, thinking they were clever, had slipped him a Mickey Finn.

“Hello, anyone out there,” he said loudly and listened hard, straining into the twilight for the slightest sound. Only the echo came back ‘there, there’.

“Hey, can you hear me!” He tried repeating a few more times even louder. Still there was nothing, just the echo coming back. No one came and no sharp pain winding him in the kidney area much to his disappointment.

“Think you bastard”, he swore at himself angrily as a way to bring himself back to reality, to focus.

“Let’s recount the situation in a calm and orderly fashion and discount all this rambling about dreaming and drugs,” he muttered to himself.

“I’ve been to the pub had a few pints and been mugged on the way home. I’m injured, been hit on the head, red mist, blood in my eyes and the wardrobe has fallen on top. No, not the wardrobe, scratch that. I’m semi naked, no, semi conscious, lying in the street; the swine have had my watch, wallet, phone, shoes, socks and trousers of course. My colleagues have found me lying unconscious on the pavement and being good Samaritans have taken me to a brothel, photographed me doing God knows what with Jane, but I can deny that or plead incapacity which is true, although Carole will take a hell of a lot of convincing.” Paul stopped and stared at a flickering white object that disappeared as soon as he’d focused on it.

“I’ve been injected with a cocktail of drugs without my consent but I’m quite enjoying them apart from the red mist. Finally, I’m in a pretty bad way but I’ll soldier on and go to work with a bandaged head despite my mid-life crisis. As soon as the drugs have worn off I’ll be able to get up and go home. Mount Pleasant is not too far, 3 miles at the most, I’ll have to walk but should make that in an hour,” he said while staring at his wrist where he thought his watch should be.

He felt calmer now having worked out a rational explanation and a plan of action. It occurred to him there would be other consequences; he’d have to stop all his credit cards; get a new phone and key on all his numbers; new locks for the door, new trousers, shoes. It was all aggravation.

“I would have given them all my money and whatever else I had. Maybe not the watch or the trousers, I could have appealed to their better nature, decency and sentimental value. No need to hit me over the head. This is a result of modern society’s penchant for gratuitous violence.”

As Paul considered what he would say to the police doubts over his story began to surface. He had to get his story straight or no-one would believe him and especially not the police, they’d see through it straight away. There were too many loose ends and he was a poor liar, if they caught him out the game would be up and he’d confess, he’d blab like a baby or was it cry, maybe sing, he wasn’t sure. They’d be merciless in their interrogation techniques, playing good cop and bad cop, offering him vile coffee and cigarettes one minute, even though he didn’t smoke, then knocking the hot coffee over his bare legs and screwing the cigarettes up in his face. They’d laugh at his story and he’d be bound to crack. He didn’t like violence or confrontation; he’d got mentally and physically flabby with middle age.

Consistency in a story was what mattered, any gaps in the fabric and the game was up. For instance how had he got to the brothel, who had he been with, what did she look like or even what was he doing in the pub? Having a drink, that was easy. Which pub was it, when had he arrived when left, what had he been drinking; how many drinks did he have? There was much to consider.

Paul could see the headline now in the paper; ‘Paul Sumner a local man who was mugged recently was subsequently caught with his trousers down and his legs cuffed in the Red Rose Brothel, Mount Pleasant. He was taken in flagrante delicto with Jane a Sexual Gratification Project Co-ordinator from Skipton.’ The shame of it would be unbearable.

The white object amongst the shades of red suddenly became more distinct and registered in his mind. A feeling of great relief came over him. He felt like crying, he was saved. He kept his gaze fixed on it. He couldn’t quite tell if it was coming towards him or moving away but it certainly appeared to be a human figure.

“White, all white,” Paul said. It meant something he was sure but he didn’t quite know what. White was a definitely a significant colour. He broke into a big grin and then laughed out loud. It came closer; he could make out the features of a man with a small beard dressed in white who seemed to be floating, hovering at a distance, but certainly approaching if only slowly.

“Please help! Over here! Hey, Hey!” he shouted loudly while waving his arms.

This was a new beginning, white could change everything. There’d been something not quite right about the story of where he was and how he’d got there; something that kept nagging at him, a small voice that made him uneasy, unable to fully relax. Now if he changed the brothel to a Hospital for instance then the story made much more sense because why would his colleagues take him to a brothel if he was injured? There was definitely something wrong with his reasoning ability since he’d woken up which had led him into the brothel in the first place. If he could just put the facts together again, it would lead him out of the brothel and into the Hospital where he was sure he belonged. At least he’d be able to explain himself to the doctor coherently which would be a start.

He’d been to a party. No, that wasn’t right. He’d argued with his wife about sex or money or was it money for sex, stormed out of the house, in a bad temper and gone to the local pub for a few drinks to calm down. He’d had one or two too many but he wasn’t drunk although that was not the consensus. On the way home he’d been mugged by someone from the pub who’d seen him there and realised that he was too intoxicated to defend himself. His watch, wallet and phone had been stolen by this low-life thug. He’d been hit over the head; had a nasty bruise, a big lump and a broken leg or perhaps two broken legs. Why did he do that? He had his wallet, watch and phone already, no need to break his legs. Obviously to stop him running after him or from phoning the police but he couldn’t have phoned the police without his phone. He must have known that.

His friends had found him lying in the street, removed his trousers, taken photos, no, no photos, well he hoped not and taken him where? That was it, not to the brothel, which was the crucial point, but to the Hospital, that was the essential missing component he had to hang on to. At last it was falling into place. He felt overwhelmed by a sense of euphoria.

To continue; the charming doctor in his white coat and beard, who seems very distant, is treating me for the bump on the head and the broken legs. There is no pain and it all appears red because the kind, bearded, doctor has administered drugs; Morphine probably. Now numbed and high on drugs, the mind is no longer able to focus and has started to ramble, distorting the memory. He paused, the wardrobe floated back into his mind and Jane. He’d missed them out. He thought it best not to mention them to the doctor or the police, not now anyway.

Chapter 3

A man in a white coat was standing next to his bed with his hands in his pockets, rocking gently backwards and forwards. He was whistling quietly and staring ahead at nothing in particular. It made Paul jump as he seemed to have materialised from nowhere on the opposite side of the bed to where Paul had been waiting for him. The man was tall, thin with an angular face, brown hair and a small, goatee type beard with sideburns. He looked quite content in a world of his own. It was the man he’d seen in the distance. Paul guessed him to be mid thirties with the look of a junior doctor. When he caught Paul’s eye looking at him he stopped whistling and put on a professional demeanour. He picked up what looked like a clip board from the bottom of the bed and started to scan through it while stroking his beard.

“You’re the one that’s been making all the noise; we don’t like noise here,” he said matter of fact in a sing song welsh accent then continued. “Martin Pavlovic, you are very welcome here and I know you’re going to enjoy your stay with us.”

He looked at Paul with startling blue eyes and gave him a big beaming smile. It was as though Paul had just come in for a burger with fries and not to be treated for a serious injury.

“Hi Dr Pavlovic. You don’t know how glad I am to see you. I’ve been a little worried lying here, not knowing where I was. The things I’ve been imagining or should I say hallucinating. Anyway what’s the prognosis?”

Paul finished trying to sound upbeat as though he were in the best of health but only managing to convey his anxiety. His voice didn’t help as it sounded distant and disembodied, not like his at all. He couldn’t inject it with its usual confident personality but at least his speech sounded clear to him, no slurring of words. He was starting to feel a little better and calmer in himself now the Doctor had come and his eyes were able to focus on someone. It was the same when he went to see his own doctor; he always made a miraculous recovery the moment he was sitting down in front of him and felt a fool for wasting the doctor’s time.

“No, no Mr Pavlovic that won’t do at all; you’re Martin Pavlovic. You’re not going to be difficult now. I’ve had a very bad day already with five overdue.” He gave Paul an ill-tempered look while pulling his beard then added under his breath, “I always get the tricky little shits.”

“I’m not Martin Pavlovic, I’m Paul Sumner,” Paul said feebly, rather taken aback by the doctor’s rudeness but not sure if he’d heard him correctly. “Paul,” the man repeated loudly looking at his clipboard again and scratching his beard.

“Sumner. I’ve been lying here quite a while doctor and I’ve been getting a little worried not knowing where I was or how I got here. There’s been no-one to see me, to put me straight. Those drugs you’ve given me certainly make me feel strange, like I’m floating and with the bump on the head, the broken legs, the redness, not being able to move, you know doc. It’s all been very disorientating. If I could just…..”

Paul trailed off as the doctor had dropped the clipboard to his side and was looking fiercely at him.

“Oh for the love of Jesus! Drugs, bump on the head, broken legs what are you talking about? You’re not making any sense man; you’re rambling. Do you understand? Just listen to me. Your – name - is - Martin – Pavlovic - comprendo?” the doctor said very slowly and loudly as if talking to an idiot.

“No, - it – bloody - well - isn’t,” Paul replied equally as slowly and loudly the heat rising. “I should know my own name,” but then he added more meekly not wanting to upset the doctor, “Shouldn’t I?”

The doctor took a step back and looked at him carefully, sizing him up, pulling at his little beard again.

“Well I suppose you should,” he said finally shrugging his shoulders and putting the clipboard down.

“Most do,” he continued coming closer again and leaning over Paul with his arms folded. “There are the odd ones who are totally confused which is understandable and of course some lie outright. It wouldn’t be the first time a mistakes been made, I grant you that. It’s not a perfect system. They could have cocked it up again, I don’t deny it. Sometimes the process does go wrong; well quite a lot really, we’re always sorting out one mess or another.”

He moved his head a little closer to Paul and lowered his voice, “I shouldn’t really be telling you all this, seeing as you’ve just arrived. It’s the higher circles they don’t know how to manage, promoted beyond their ability. That’s a curious fact you will be surprised to hear. Here of all places with you know who watching or so they say. Every other week we get someone in the wrong slot and we’re just one crew of many. I can tell you, it can be a big job for us to sort out the muddle. It takes a lot of my time, everyone’s time, hence the backlog. In some cases it can take weeks or even months. There again there are so many of you now, we can hardly cope; so we do make mistakes. Sanjeer!” The doctor shouted out suddenly looking around and making Paul jump. He wandered to the edge of the room and looked out before calling out again.

“I understand, it’s an easy mistake to make, there’s no harm done,” Paul called obligingly after him, wrong-footed by the Doctor’s own ramblings but not wanting him to go. He wondered if they’d given him the wrong drugs or operated on him when they shouldn’t have. Was the doctor trying to cover it up by making excuses? This doctor didn’t exactly inspire him with confidence but he was better than being alone in the silence, in the red mist. They could have amputated a leg or both legs perhaps that’s why he couldn’t move and couldn’t find his legs. He was in non alcohol induced legless state. He laughed out loud at the thought, despite the potential seriousness of his situation. The doctor turned round from the edge of the room where he was still stationed and looked at him suspiciously.

Paul decided that the scenario wasn’t very likely, the wrong leg yes, but both legs, no, he’d never heard of that being done before. That would be an absurd mistake even for the NHS.

“You think this is funny?” the doctor said coming back and looking menacing. “This wouldn’t be some kind of joke would it? You haven’t been put up to this because you are fooling with the wrong person if you have. I can put you on report and make your time here very difficult. I’m not to be fooled with see. I’m far too busy for any of this sort of nonsense. We have targets to meet you know and we are far behind already for this period. It’s irresponsible and I’m not falling for it this time. Tell me was it that bastard Sanjeer; what did he promise you, extra credits? You can forget that because I’m telling you, he never pays up. You’ll never see him again after this.”

“I don’t know what you talking about. I’ve just woken up here and I’m not feeling too good,” Paul said alarmed at the doctor’s behaviour and with his head starting to hurt again.

“You’d better be telling me the truth,” the doctor said calming down and stroking his beard again.

“I am as best I can, I’m not sure I know what the truth is anymore,” Paul muttered to himself.

“You are English or at least English speaking so you are in the right section,” the doctor said, picking up the clipboard and flipping through it again with an ill-tempered look on his face.

“Yes, I am English, what does that matter?”

“And you’ve not changed your name ever, because that can confuse the system; it’s not kept up to date you see, it’s another backlog we have.” Paul shook his head, the doctor looked disappointed.

“Let’s look who signed you in,” the doctor said going to another page on the clipboard.

“That’s most peculiar;” he said flipping backwards and forwards through several pages of his clipboard, “there’s no signature against this cot. How did you get in here?”

“I don’t know, someone must have found me and brought me in. I think I was lying in the street, I wasn’t drunk though, just a few drinks. I think I was mugged, hit on the head,” Paul explained helpfully.

“That’s very odd indeed,” the doctor said continuing to look through his sheets, not really listening to what Paul was saying.

“Everyone is assessed and signed for, before being deposited; you have to go through the main portal to get here or you can’t get in. This is a novel set of circumstances; we appear to be degenerating at a faster pace than I thought. Sanjeer!” The doctor shouted again.

“He’s never here when you want him. I’m forever having to track him down,” he said irritably going to the edge of the room to look, shouting the name and coming back.

“I’ll tell you something funny, you’ll like this, it always cheers me up no end,” the doctor said getting closer to Paul and looking round conspiratorially to make sure no-one was listening.

“He’s a Buddhist or says he is, but he’s as Welsh as I am, born in the valleys. What do you think of that?” he said in a half whisper looking significantly at Paul who just blinked not making much of it at all.

“You’ll see what I mean when he gets here. He told me he always wanted to be a Buddhist and he got his opportunity when he was living just outside Pontypridd in a hippy commune. He changed his name when he got there from Barry to Sanjeer; fancy that a good name like Barry, his parents wouldn’t have liked that. It’s disrespectful. Now he’s always meditating, bit like those Muslims always praying though why they need to do it here God only knows. Excuse me father,” the doctor said looking up and crossing himself. Paul’s mouth had started to gape.

“If you ask me it’s just an excuse to bunk off work, I don’t think he likes this job or any job for that matter. It comes from smoking too much marijuana, makes you lethargic,” the doctor continued hardly stopping to catch his breath.

“Me, I’m a Christian with a small ‘c’ that is, born a Christian, believe in Christian principles and in behaving like a Christian but can’t be doing with all that praying, too time consuming. It’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo. Now tell me who really wants to spend their Sunday morning in a freezing, half empty, church listening to some rambling vicar giving a half-baked sermon while you could be at home in bed or having a Sunday fry up? I know it’s supposed to be good for the soul and a comfort for mankind’s loneliness but I’ve had it on very good authority, two wings no less, that they’re not watching, they’re far too busy, enjoying themselves I reckon, so it’s a real waste of time when you’re down there. I’ve seen them praying in packed rows, like jack in the boxes, it doesn’t get them anywhere, I tell them straight but they carry on thinking they’ll get some reward out of it, some promotion to a higher level with more spiritual satisfaction. I tried all that in the beginning to make up for my materialistic, non spiritual life but I’m still here and between you and me,” the doctor said leaning really close to Paul’s ear and whispering, “I’m not sure it exists at all but don’t say I told you.” He ended with a wink. Paul coughed and tried to move back a little as the doctor looked at him expecting a reply.

“Yes, I know what you mean, I’m an agnostic or is it atheist, I can never remember which one I’ve decided on,” Paul said feeling awkward and a bit dazed but thinking he’d better humour him as it crossed his mind he might have escaped from the mental patients’ ward. He doubted the man was a doctor as this was certainly not the way to carry out a diagnosis and he seemed to be making no effort to treat him.

“I’m pretty certain, I decided, I’m definitely an agnostic,” Paul said stuttering uncomfortably, endeavouring to continue the conversation as the Doctor appeared to be losing interest and looked like he might disappear at any minute. Paul wanted the company even if he did seem to have a screw lose, it was better than being alone again in this God forsaken place.

“Agnostic, that’s the best of both worlds if only I could have your blind faith to sit on the fence I’d be a happier man. You know you’re not on the list at all. I’ve checked all the upper sectors and most of the lower, just the two special I need to ask about but I can’t see that you belong in either of them. You’re not a hermaphrodite or recently had a sex change?”

Paul shook his head feeling a little offended and wondering this time what his sexuality or gender had to do with his being treated. Had they adopted new rules recently that he hadn’t heard about; the government was always fiddling with the NHS or perhaps this was a Catholic hospital and only those the church considered to be ‘straight’ people could be treated?

“Of course we don’t handle everyone in this department so you needn’t worry unduly. It’s because you newcomers are all spread out now; there are so many of you but we’ll find you. You must have been brought here for a good reason and it must have been by one of us. Usually they just put them in the wrong bay but that’s easily rectified. You know two down and one across and not five down and three across; but there again your name would still be on the list,” the doctor said looking baffled again.

“You make me sound like part of a crossword puzzle,” Paul laughed nervously.

“Puzzle you are indeed. You’ll have to excuse us we are a little more chaotic than usual. A lot have come in this week and we haven’t cleared the backlog from last week yet. We seem to have mislaid a few as well but they usually turn up none the worse for their adventure. Wars, floods, earthquakes, pestilence, starvation, AIDS, terrorism, it’s just one disaster after another and it all adds to our workload. Between you and me” the doctor said lowering his voice and coming closer again, “we are at melt down really; we can’t cope with the population explosion. You know how it is or you probably don’t yet.” He added seeing the look of confusion on Paul’s face. He moved away then continued in his normal voice.

“I just need to check my list with our tardy friend Sanjeer, he’ll have the full list of all the new entrants and the special cases, the one I have here is a few hours old. Listen, I’ll be back very shortly so there’s no need for any more shouting. It doesn’t reflect at all well on this department. You’ve already got me into trouble. Remember happy neophytes mean credits for us.”

The doctor went off shouting Sanjeer’s name and Paul watched him in amazement as he disappeared into the red haze.

He was alone again and the all embracing quiet returned as if all sound was being enveloped by the red mist. He thought about what the doctor had been saying and wondered whether he should have been telling him about the Hospital’s shortcomings. It didn’t reflect at all well, not being able to cope and losing patients. That surely would bring the Hospital down to a one star if the media ever got hold of it and they’d be threatened with closure. He knew the hospitals were under pressure, being starved of funding, being forced to be more efficient and business-like but they should still be able to do the basics as in keeping a tab on their patients. Hospitals were in the business of treating the sick and not in the business of making money from the sick that was certain although he hadn’t had any experience of being treated as yet. Treating the sick and making money didn’t sit well together the two ideas seemed diametrically opposed, but they couldn’t treat the sick without money so they needed to modernise especially if they were losing patients as seemed to be the case here.

This was undoubtedly a strange doctor if he was one. He didn’t behave like any doctor Paul had known, not that he’d known many, being on the whole very healthy but he was convinced a doctor should behave more professionally. Then what had he meant about wars, earthquakes, pestilence and the rest; that wasn’t England or Wales for that matter .Was it an ‘in’ medical joke about the pressure they were under. He was a very odd Welshman and Paul didn’t like his bedside manner or his beard but for the moment he was all he had, his only link with the outside world. He’d make a complaint once he got out and getting out was what he had to do before they did remove a part of his body that they shouldn’t. He’d always tried to avoid doctors and Hospitals and if this one was anything to go by he was right to do so.

“Sanjeer will be along in a minute; just as I thought he was at his meditation again. I have the latest list,” the doctor said suddenly reappearing from nowhere, dragging a chair behind him and sitting down. Paul felt now was the time to make a bid for freedom, to get out as quickly as he could before Sanjeer appeared. One mad Welshman was sufficient.

“Does my wife know I’m here? Has anyone rung her?” Paul asked as calmly as he could, breaking into the man’s concentration as he was methodically going through his paperwork.

“I’m sure she knows or she will when she wakes up,” the man said distractedly.

“Wakes up? No you don’t understand I don’t live with her, well I do, what I mean is we sleep in separate rooms, not because anything is wrong, we have busy lives and don’t like to disturb each other but she will be concerned. You see, I can’t remember exactly but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to look after the children today; it’s my turn and I don’t want to let her down, so I have to get back, you know how it is.”

“No, I never had children,” the man said obtusely not looking up from his list.

“Of course, I bet no-one has made any calls to my friends or family because you don’t know who I am; I’ve got no ID. As I told you, I’ve been robbed, wallet, trousers, watch, phone, everything. I can give you the number or could I use your mobile doctor?”

The man looked up, his beard twitching and stared at Paul with a look of stupefaction suffusing his face.

“Look doc, I can see you’re a very busy man. If whatever I’ve got isn’t serious could you just get me a taxi and I’ll go. I don’t want to clutter up the wards of our overstretched Health Service. I’ll sign any waiver you want me to, I feel absolutely fine now,” Paul said with forced jollity. If they didn’t let him go he’d just leave anyway once he could get on his legs. They couldn’t keep him there. This was England after all.

“It’s starting to make some sense now; I can see that no-one has told you. You really should have been told when you were brought in, that’s what normally happens and we just take it from there,” the man said as he stroked his goatee beard distractedly. Paul watched him fearing that he was in a much more serious condition than he’d thought, that he was drugged up to ease the pain and that he could be in Hospital for a long time or he might only be leaving in a box. He felt afraid to ask.

“I’ve never known anyone to slip through before; I’d say it was near impossible. It’s a most peculiar case,” the man continued arguing quietly with himself and gesticulating as an aid to his discussion. “We must be more short-staffed at the gateway than I thought or someone’s slipped you in but why would they do that? When you reach the gate that’s when you’re told and assigned if you are on the list or you’re sent back there and then. That’s the rule but then if you’re not on the list no-one would have been assigned to tell you but you should have been sent back, then what are you doing here so there we go round in circles and I’m left with the problem,” the doctor said going over his list again mumbling irritably to himself.

“Told me what Doc? Is it serious, have I lost my legs? Is that why I can’t move them?” Paul finally plucked up the courage to ask; not being able to follow the Doctor’s soliloquy.

“No, it’s nothing like that, your legs are fine. Don’t distress yourself, and where’s that bloody Sanjeer,” the doctor said shouting the name belligerently.

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