‘Night Dreaming’, Steven Pirie

Winner of the Black Swan competition.

Illustrations photographed by Djibril; © 2007 Hadrian York Holdings

 [ I am an island (photograph Djibril; original art © 2007 Hadrian York Holdings) ] Since the surgery, Mary sits in shadow, Night Dreaming. At least, she thinks she no longer feels the sun's awful heat upon her brow, so she must be in shadow. Perhaps she's been too close to the fire in the Day Room and Bob's pushed her away. Assuming Bob's still out there; that there's still a fire, a Day Room, and a sun in a sky to burn her skin.

'Are you a bit warm, Edith?' says Mary.

Mary listens to the sound of her own voice in her head. When she's Night Dreaming, Mary's an island. She gazes seaward from her rocky plinth, and words break like waves at her feet. Not that Edith answers any more. She hears Frank grunt and feels Bob scratching his backside, but Mary hasn't really heard from Edith since the surgery. If an answer comes, Mary's never quite sure if she's talking to herself.

'Not me,' says Edith, or Mary, or someone in Mary's head. 'I'm cool as can be. It must be one of your turns you're having. You'd best call Doctor Stevens, or Bob.'

Mary shivers. 'I'm not calling him.'

There's no room for Bob on Mary's island. She tries to call him but the words bounce around. Bob never comes. And Bob was all for her before the surgery, that's the hurtful thing. Mary was sure Bob, if anybody, would stick by her. Now, she's not sure about anything.

'I don't think he's coming,' says Edith. 'I'm not surprised.'

Mary recognises the tone. It's that twisted, knowing intonation that Edith's so good at. It's a told you so thing, all smug and self satisfied.

'You'd know all about that,' says Mary. 'You couldn't hold on to your Frank, now, could you? Left you for that floozy from number six, he did. Off like a rat up a pipe, he was.'

Waves roar and sea-eagles wheel. Mary ducks away. It's safer to do so whenever she insults Edith. Old Edith's fine right hook makes Mary's adenoids ache. Mary sighs; she doesn't really want to get on Edith's bad side, but sometimes, when Bob doesn't come and the Night Dreams are so real, it's hard not to. She's an argumentative old bint, Edith. Since the surgery, Mary's happy Edith is an island, too.

It's three-thirty. Bob always visits at three-thirty. Bob's a creature of habit, and not all of them good ones. Edith watches through the washy, soft-focus of her good eye as Bob shuffles in. He looks pale and wishy-washy himself, as if he's not really in the room. Edith grins; she could tell Mary a tale or two of Bob; of back in the old war days when Bob had hormones and needs. Then, Bob was a military policeman at the American base. Creases like knife edges, he had, as he stood wooing Edith with Nylons and chocolate and an erection that promised such intrigue and excitement. Not that Edith knew about such things; not like Mary who'd pounced on it like it was the last flagpole on VE Day. Always a bit loose, was Mary, always a bit too up-against-the-alley-wall ready.

'Hello Edith, love,' says Bob.

Edith grunts. Bob never brings flowers or grapes or holds her hand. Blast it that Mary has the mouth; damnation that Mary doesn't know what day it is; sad that all Edith can do is work the washy eye and thrash the limbs. Surely there can be no worse Hell than this.

Bob sits on the bed, fumbling with his fingers and staring about the room. Edith squints out at him. Bob looks anywhere but at Edith.

'It rained in the night,' Bob says, slowly. He pauses, as if expecting Edith should reply. 'Mrs Carlisle's cat's gone missing again, randy little bugger; the cat, not Mrs Carlisle. Mr Thompson has to have his leg off; gangrened, it is, all rotten and limp below the knee.'

In bed, Edith thrashes. She cries out to Mary, that together they might coordinate some rational thought and get something done, but her pleas are dulled, reflected back from where synapses lie wafting and severed. Since Mary has lost herself in this… Night Dreaming, she calls it, they'll not talk at all. Edith can see Mary a mere hemisphere apart, but she might as well be on the moon.

Mary hates it when she flails about the bed. It's as if her body has a mind of its own and refuses to be calm and serene and behaved. She's seen people thrashing like this in a film. Nuts, they were, all electrified and injected, and tied up in jackets with straps.

'Is that you mucking about, Edith?' Mary waits but only waves crash. 'Just stop it before someone gets hurt.'

In the darkness for the briefest of moments Mary thinks she smells Bob. Or is it Frank? It's hard to remember whether she'd loved Frank or Bob, or Larry from the ordinance factory. Had she loved the GI she'd met at the Grafton that balmy night in June, when the war had paused as he'd led her blushing and warm-eared around the back by the bins? Hung like a racehorse, Edith had said later, and keen like a beach donkey at home time; but she was like that, Edith, overly wise in sordid thoughts, not like Mary all innocent and doe-eyed.

Now, Mary isn't sure whether she's Mary or Edith or both. And what's become of the others since the surgeon's knife? Lorraine? Susan? Edward? And…?

It's lonely in her head since the others have parted. Such a mistake to try and rid herself of them; a grave error to go under the knife. At least when the others were around she had someone to talk to. Then Bob cared for her and Frank sang love songs while Edith danced all ribbons and swank. Sometimes it doesn't do to fix that which is broken.

 [ Angel restrained (photograph Djibril; original art © 2007 Hadrian York Holdings) ] Bob waits outside while Edith is restrained. Doctor Stevens says it's distressing to see a loved one held down and stabbed with a hypodermic. Bob knows the doctor hasn't quite mastered the placement of the paddles for the electro-convulsive therapy, and the smell of singed hair seeps under the ward door. Out in the corridor the light bulbs flicker.

Bob tarries at the ward door. It's quiet beyond and he knows Edith will sleep the entire night. He wonders does she dream Night Dreams locked away on her island, too? Does she yearn for release, for life or for death? And what of Mary gazing seaward?

Now there's a rickety bridge—it wasn't there before, but Bob's world is like that, full of things that appear and disappear at will. Perhaps his home lies in the bit of the mind where Night Dreams are born, pushed down into the Hippocampus when the surgeon invaded and parted the lobes? The bridge swings over oceans and war zones and the flap of severed synapse. Bob is an angel restrained.

'Hello, Mary,' says Bob.

'Bob? Is that really you? Have you come back for me?'

Bob glances towards Edith's sleeping form; a dark cloud; a threat of thunder on the horizon. It saddens Bob for Mary's sake that when the surgeon's blade cut tissue and separated them all Edith grew dominant in her higher cortex while the others withered supplicant before her. The problem with such oceans and war zones is that they're so hard to cross.

'For the moment, Mary love,' Bob says. 'Until Edith wakes I'm yours.'

'Will you love me, Bob, love me like you used to do?'

Bob grins. 'You know me, Mary, dearest; always.'

It's dark when Edith wakes. She senses Bob's been wandering. She smells Bob's aftershave; cheap and stinging, always leaving a rash on her thighs. Nothing moves in the ward. The night nurse snores in her cubicle. None of the patients snore. The sedated do nothing except lie already dead while alive, fed, watered, and evacuated by tubes, living extensions of wheezing ventilator machines at the bedsides.

Edith resists the urge to thrash. This body is a prison, and like all prisons escape is difficult. She forces a thought toward Mary, feeling the gap between their synapses as Bob's wooden bridge. The thought sticks like boots in mud.

'Mary,' she calls, 'Mary.'

A single connection waves and brushes against another, and a spark of neurotransmitter is passed between. Around it, a second synapse flails, and then a third, and then a thousand. Edith sees Mary stir. Edith grunts as she strains to push the thought through.

'Edith, is that you?' says Mary.

'We fought too much, Mary,' says Edith.

'It's always the way. I blame your Frank. He never got on with any of the others.'

'It doesn't matter who's the cause. If we're to live any life in here we need to get over our differences. Together we were some kind of fragmented whole. Together we stumbled along.'

'Bob won't like taking Frank back,' says Mary.

Edith glances at Bob restrained. 'Bob has no choice. When I tell you, I want you to think your way through the tangle to me.'

'But I can't, Edith.'

'Think, Mary, think.'

Next day, there's a gaggle of white-coated students around Edith's bed. Doctor Stevens shines a light into her good eye. The beam wanders like a search light in her head.

'Remarkable,' says Doctor Stevens. The students each make a note on their pads. 'The brain has an amazing capacity to repair itself, but never have I seen such extensive regeneration.'

'Can I go home?' says Edith. Her mouth's dry, her lips chapped, and she's all but forgotten how to speak. 'Frank will wonder where I am.'

'Oh, Lord, no,' says the doctor. 'We'll need to do tests. We'll need to know you've lost your multiple personalities before then.'

'There's just me,' Edith says. The others shun away from the doctor's probing light. 'Just me and the mice in here.'

Mary sits in shadow. At least, she thinks she sits in shadow; Mary's never quite sure what she's up to since Bob tore her world apart. Mary stares at the garden beyond the French windows. It's dark and stormy and gripped by winter, and Mary thinks perhaps summer will never come again.

 [ In her arms (photograph Djibril; original art © 2007 Hadrian York Holdings) ] Lightning flashes. It jolts Mary into a lucid moment. She wonders, did she really go under the knife? Did she endure the terrors of split-brain surgery? Was it a stroke she'd suffered, or a fall? Edith had often warned her about her ears. A good neighbour Edith: always was popping in for tea and a biscuit.

Or was it the shock of coming home and finding Bob in Edith's arms?

First Frank, and then Bob, it was no way for a good neighbour to behave. Neighbours didn't steal husbands, did they? They didn't nip in when your back was turned to leap between the sheets. And how could Bob inflict such hurt on her after all those years? Perhaps it happens all the time now, but not in Mary's day. It's enough to turn a woman to Night Dreaming.

Mary slips into the safety of her own head, back to her island plinth. It's a barren place, but at least from here all she can see is out. It's best to drag Edith and Bob and Frank inside with her. Inside she can keep them apart, an island apart, keep them from leaping at each other when her back's turned.

Mary feels the nurse lift her head. The pills are sharp against her tongue. She swallows and settles in her chair. She'll sleep soon, but that's not so hard. When she sleeps, they all sleep.

'I'm warning you, Edith,' she says. 'Don't be getting up to anything while I'm nodding off.'

Mary drifts away. She's not sure if she's in shadow. She's not sure she's still alive. Night Dreaming, for all she knows, may well be death's release.

© 2007 Steven Pirie

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