Lawson sat and listened to everything that I told him. He was a big man in both
girth and height. Scottish, rugged, rather brash, but such an expert in his
field that finding anybody else to help with my condition would be utterly unthinkable.
After I’d finished speaking Dr Lawson sat for a moment in thoughtful silence, fingers steepled, elbows resting on his desk. He was nodding like one of those cheap plastic dogs you can buy for the parcel shelf of your car.
Finally he sighed and spread his large hands in a manner that suggested helplessness. My heart immediately sank into my belly.
‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘that there is very little I can do for you now, Mr Stark. From what you’ve told me today; it would seem that you’re entering the final stages of your condition. Och, of course, there are things we can do to help, but as for an absolute cure – well, at this moment in time we do not have one.’
‘But doctor, these hallucinations – ’
‘Yes, I know. They must be terrible. And maybe there is something I can do to help reduce their severity, but other than that; well, it’s just a case of trying to ignore them, I’m sorry to say.’
I looked back at Dr Lawson in bewilderment. Well, if I’m honest, I only half looked back at Dr Lawson, because the vision in my left eye is all but gone, and the macular degeneration in my right makes most things appear distorted and massively out of proportion. Dr Lawson’s office was small and brightly lit, with medical diagrams of the eye pinned to all of the walls. This guy is the best ophthalmologist in the district, and he was telling me there was nothing he could do for me?
It didn’t make sense.
Over to Dr Lawson’s left, near some of his complex-looking eye equipment was a clown. Dressed in a blue, red, and orange suit with black pom-pom buttons down the front, it stood there juggling bananas and apples. Its face was white and it wore a round nose and had black lipstick daubed on its grinning mouth. As it juggled it stared at me with an expression I could not decipher.
‘Are you ok, Mr Stark? I know it’s not what you wanted to hear. It must be very hard for you right now. But there are quite a few – ’
‘There’s a clown,’ I said, cutting him off. ‘Right there. Standing by your eye-testing gear. See him?’
Dr Lawson did glance over to where I was pointing, but he quickly looked back at me and smiled benignly. ‘Mr Stark, I think we ought to discuss one option that I have in mind for you. You’re now suffering from a secondary condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome. It’s quite common in people with macular degeneration. You see, as the eyesight fails the brain goes into ‘fight’ mode; and tries to make up for the loss of vision by sending out very random images. Alas, these visions quite often don’t make any sense whatsoever. In fact, they can be downright scary half the time. But let me just reassure you, you’re in no physical danger from them at all.’
I stared across at the clown and felt my spine run cold. It looked so real. Solid enough to touch, if I dared. But I didn’t dare. To actually reach out and try to touch that thing would possibly send me over the edge.
‘Tell that to the clown, Doc, because it looks like it wants to hurt me.’
Dr Lawson frowned. ‘Are these visions really so vivid? Hmn. It is truly enthralling.’ He rose to his feet and wandered around his desk. His bulk momentarily blocked my view of the clown, and when he moved it had vanished completely. ‘It does go to show, however, how powerful the human brain is. A remarkable organ; truly remarkable.’
I cleared my throat and massaged my thumping temples. To me, none of this condition was remarkable. ‘Look, you said there was something you could do – something to help reduce their severity? I’ll try anything, Doc. Anything at all.’
Dr Lawson wheeled a trolley over with a portable binocular slit-lamp on top. He dimmed the overhead lights and gestured for me to move forward and rest my head inside it. ‘I wish there was more research into this syndrome, Mr Stark. And I also wish I could give you a pill and tell you it would cure your whole condition. But I can’t. There is a drug; one we usually prescribe to people with anxiety disorders, but I worry about the side-effects.’ He waited while I positioned myself so that I was resting my chin and forehead on the support. I then watched as Dr Lawson removed a fine strip of paper stained with fluorescein dye (it’s amazing what you learn when you’re going blind, believe me) and gently touched it to my left eye, so that it would stain the tear-film on the surface, aiding the test.
He peered through the sights on his device. He was silent for a long moment as he re-adjusted his view of my eye, so that all I could hear was his steady breathing and all I could smell was his aftershave and stale coffee breath. It is true what they say – as you start to lose one sense the others make up for it.
‘However, there is a drug – one called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors – SSRIs for short, that perhaps we could try. Although I do need to restate, they are not a cure for macular degeneration.’ He was silent again for moment as he continued to stare into the back of my eye. ‘Hmn. Yes. As I feared, Mr Stark, the damage to your retina is worsening. And as I said earlier, Charles Bonnet Syndrome is quite common at this stage.’
I sat there with my head in the machine and suddenly felt so helpless and flat that I almost started to cry.
‘Och, please, do not upset yourself! It’s not the end of the world. There are many discussion groups that I can put you in touch with; people who are going through the same as you are.’
Discussion groups? What bloody good are they? I felt like shouting. But I didn’t, of course, because I liked and respected Dr Lawson; and yet the feeling of being set adrift on an endless and ferocious ocean engulfed me.
Dr Lawson wheeled the slit-lamp back over to where the clown had been juggling, and brightened the lights once more. He stood looking down at me with his hands resting on his hips and his tie slightly askew.
He sighed. ‘I wish the news were better, Mr Stark. I really do. But like I say, all is not lost. We will do everything we can to help you. . .’
I suddenly became aware of movement behind Dr Lawson. I tried to focus my attention on him as he spoke to me, knowing that whatever phantasm lurked there would eventually go away if I ignored it.
‘. . . can help you enormously if you allow them to . . .’ Dr Lawson was saying; still insisting that I contact a discussion group connected with macular degeneration.
I tried my hardest to listen; tried to fix my remaining vision on his lips, but the movement behind Dr Lawson became more frantic; as if it were trying to get my attention and would stop at nothing.
Finally, I tore my gaze away from Dr Lawson and blinked rapidly in an effort to focus on whatever stood behind him. With an eye condition like mine, it’s near impossible to look at something quickly and hope to see it first time. You have to blink a lot; rub your eyes, squint.
How I didn’t scream is something I will never know. I must have jerked sharply, because I was dimly aware of Dr Lawson saying, ‘Are you all right there, Mr Stark?’
But I didn’t answer; because I was too busy staring – maybe gawping is a better word – at the figure that stood next to the trolley with the slit-lamp on top. It wasn’t the clown, not this time. What I saw was sexless; a slender figure that gave me no hint whatsoever of its gender. It was dressed in torn garments that looked like soiled funeral gowns, each one ripped and tattered at the hems. They fluttered soundlessly in the air, as if being blown in a breeze that I couldn’t feel. Its face was scrunched up and so wrinkled it looked like an old prune. It had no eyes, only a deep trench of darkness beneath a heavy brow that jutted from the forehead like an overhang of granite rock. It had a Mr Punch nose threaded with livid red and purple veins and a yanked down mouth. It was speaking, but its lips were moving so fast it was like watching a film on fast-forward. But two things struck me as wrong; two things that made this thing different from all the other hallucinations I’ve ever had.
Firstly, it was pointing a long and wizened finger right at me. No other hallucination has ever done that. Secondly, I could hear its voice. Not in the room, but deep inside my head as if I had a furious wasp stuck in there.
Our time, the voice buzzed, our time now. We rise. We separate. We divide. We conquer. Our time now. We rise. We separate. We – ’
I stood up fast, so fast that I banged my left knee on Dr Lawson’s desk and made his angle-poise lamp and a photograph of his wife and kids wobble.
‘Mr Stark! What is it?’ Dr Lawson demanded. He didn’t look angry – just helpless. His face was tight with concern.
‘I need to go,’ I stammered. I turned towards the door and groped for the handle, needing to be away from this damn office. I yanked it open and stepped out, breathing deeply, trying to calm my racing heart.
‘Mr Stark, please. Is it another hallucination? We need to –’
I looked back at Dr Lawson and glanced over his shoulder, indifferent to his words. The figure was still there, but now it was grinning like it had just heard a vile and perverted joke. Wet teeth glistened in the overhead lights.
We are legion. We are plague. We are darkness and we are light. . .
Inside my head the voice buzzed and hummed so loud that I felt my skull rattle insanely. I staggered, felt weak; sick.
‘Mr Stark – ’ I felt Dr Lawson grab hold of my arm. ‘Mr Stark, you need to sit down! Your nose is bleeding!’
‘Can you see it?’ I tried to say, but right then I became so dizzy and so sick that I don’t think my words came out. I recall hearing feet running towards me as I slid to the floor; heard my daughter shout ‘Dad!’ and then everything went blessedly dark.