A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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A Rational Day In The Country

A Rational Day In The Country

1. “No one’s calling the police. We’ll be sorting you out ourselves.”

The first light of dawn is breaking through the window – the faintest blue slither on the horizon. Otherwise, the pane makes a perfect mirror with a fascinating view. Two sunken eyes stare blankly back at me, set above hollow cheeks and encased in sallow skin.

God, I must have made a night of it.

“Is this meant to be you?”

A big woman dressed in black surgical scrubs is holding out my driving licence at arm’s length. I peer at the confident, smiling face in the photograph and see why she might have her doubts.

I nod and she continues noting things down on a clipboard.

On a zinc table between us gapes an open wallet, gutted of plastic cards and bank notes. My spare underwear lies there on immodest display. My trainers are missing from my feet. Stained with mud and still drying, they glisten under the cold glow of a halogen strip light.

“This your current address?” asks the big woman, still studying the driving licence.

I nod again, feeling incapable of speech.

“I’ll need proof of that. You’ll have to show me two recent utility bills.”

With an involuntary groan I fetch my knapsack from the table and peer into the bottom of it.

“I must have left them at home,” I say, apologetically. “I think they’re in my sock drawer.”

“You’re having a laugh,” snaps the big woman. “What are they doing nestling up cosy with your socks when they’re wanted in here?”

She snatches the knapsack from me and dumps it back on the table with a clatter. A stabbing pain shoots through the index finger of my left hand and up through my arm.

It jogs vague memories of the night before: a kaleidoscope of people in uniforms of various colours barking harsh warnings and holding me firmly by the arm to give me an injection.

”Can anyone look at my finger?” I ask, holding it up for inspection. “I think I hurt it.”

“No one’s going anywhere near your finger,” snaps the big woman, pointedly ignoring it. “Not until you’re processed. After that, it’s up to the system to decide whether we hold you here and give you the treatment. Otherwise we’ll be tossing you out.”

“Can I take Option Two, the tossing you out one?” I ask, alarmed by her choice of words and seized by an urge to escape.

“Nope,” snaps the big woman, rising abruptly and looming over me, “Now you’re in here, you don’t get any options.”

“Did I do something wrong last night?”

“I don’t know. Did you?”

“I can’t remember. But I think they gave me a sedative shot, and now you’re taking away my money and my things.”

The big woman shrugs her shoulders.

“That’s standard practice when you come in here. But no one’s calling the police. We’ll be sorting you out ourselves.”

“What do you mean, sorting me out?”

The big woman points towards the door.

“Once you’ve got us your documents, we’ll be taking you into that room opposite with the bright lights. Then, we’ll knock you out cold and give you what you’ve been asking for.”

I turn my head to the window so the big woman cannot see the tears of self-pity welling in my eyes. The dawn light, now all reds and pinks, illuminates a cathedral spire rising through the gap between two lows hills. Had my misadventures brought me to such an end? Getting worked over by persons unknown in an obscure building in the wilds of Wiltshire?

With a broad sweep of her arm, the big woman shovels my things into the bin liner, attaches her clipboard to her belt and hefts her load towards the door.

“Think hard about how you’ll get your paperwork. We’ll be needing them before we start in on you.”

“Who are you, exactly?” I blurt out, as she crosses the room to leave. “Who needs to see a load of paperwork just to hand out a beating?”

The big woman turns and rolls her eyes in exasperation.

“Who wants to hand out a beating? We just want to put you under anaesthetic so we can fix that finger of yours without you screaming the place down, like you did last night. But first we’ll be needing those bills so we know who we’re dealing with.”

Relief flows from my head to my shoeless feet. I am not in the clutches of the Wiltshire underworld; I am not in some rogue prison system. I am in the NHS.

“I tell you what,” I say, brightly. “I’ll just nip back home and get the paperwork. Then your admissions procedure will just fly by.”

“Can’t do that,” says the big woman, tartly. “I’d have to discharge you first. And I can’t process your discharge form if I never had enough paperwork to admit you, can I?

“Your flight’s grounded, my lovely. Till those bills turn up, you can sit here and await further announcements.”

She lingers at the door.

“Do you have any allergies? We’ll be asking you that a lot, especially when we’re wanting to give you injections.”

Without waiting for my answer, she leaves.

2. “Put it in the incinerator, along with the rest.”

For a little over two hours, I gazed out of the window at the brittle winter sunshine unfolding across water meadows and chalk downs.

I wondered how to spring myself from administrative limbo. How could I persuade those utility bills of mine, nestling in my sock drawer in Willesden, to fly across the North Circular and the intervening countryside of greens and gold into this bare, linoleum-floored room in Wiltshire?

Slowly, my mind re-assembled the details of my downfall. Yesterday, I had taken a high-speed tumble off a slippery wooden bridge into an innocently babbling brook, had dislocated a finger and had crossed miles of Salisbury Plain in pain, seeking medical attention.

What had possessed me to set out, so blithely, on a jogging tour of Southern England -- a few days before I was due to renew the lease on my flat?

It was on an impulse. I wanted a romp, I suppose, to celebrate early retirement and to show myself that although jobless and recently single, my life might still be an exciting journey. However, unless my journey ended here and now, nothing would be nestling in the place I called home – not me, nor my socks, nor my utility bills. All of us would be on the street.

I was just considering the prospect of living indefinitely in this room and putting up some posters on to make it jollier when the door swung open and a young woman appeared, entering backwards and turning at the same time.

She looked as though she were a Filipina, and a painfully thin one at that. She was dressed in brown scrubs and she carried a nickel plate with a tin foil cover.

“Hi, sweetie. Why so blue?” she said, sashaying towards me with a demure smile.

Tenderly, she laid the plate on the table. She took a fork from a pocket in her slacks, snared the foil and tore it open.

“Food reveal!” she chirped.

I peered down through the wide gash in the foil onto a miniature landscape of uniform grey: gritty hillocks of suet ran down into gelatinous marshlands with, here and there, murky ponds of gruel.

“Do you have you any allergies?” the woman asked.

“Only to mildew,” I answered. “It seems that’s the main ingredient in your dish.

Tell me something. Did you go about the building collecting all the mildew you could find and boiling it down in a saucepan?”

“They’re bean curd meatballs,” she said, reproachfully. Then, as quick as a fencer, she flashed the prongs of the fork to a spot an inch or so from the underside of my chin. Her pout transformed into a tempting leer.

“Try,” she purred.

Cautiously I took the fork, dipped it as lightly as possible into her concoction and lifted it to my lips.

“Fusion cooking,” she said, crossing her arms proudly.

On the tongue, I made out allspice and angostura, lemon and liquorice, tarragon, tamarinds, summer savoury and soy sauce. At the top of my mouth, they fused into a taste like battery acid.

“Water, for God’s sake!” I gasped, dropping the fork in shock.

“No water, Goddamn you!”

Clasping her bird-claw hands in front of her like an emaciated bouncer, the Filipina barred my way to the door – anticipating that I might make a break for a tap somewhere in the building.

Behind her, the door slowly opened.

“That’s enough, Gloria,” came a man’s voice, in soothing tones. “Put it in the incinerator, along with the rest.”

“Insipid savage!” spat Gloria. “No taste!”

She snatched up the plate and left the room with petulant stamps, kicking the fork forward as she went. The door closed behind her, leaving me alone with my third visitor of the morning.

3. “I hope you will be very happy here.”

“Any allergies?” said the man behind the voice, staring at a clipboard.

“Yes, a very important one.” I said. “I’ll never be able to eat again.”

I tried to work up some saliva in my mouth to douse my burning palate.

“Everyone says that. Poor Gloria. She deludes herself that she is a domestic goddess – a Nigella Lawson of the Pacific. But within her meagre frame beats the fiery heart of a Gordon Ramsay. The two personas cannot peacefully co-exist. Consequently, her cooking is a witch’s brew.”

“So why does she cook for you?”

“She doesn’t. In fact, she’s barred from cooking for anyone – even herself. I have no idea how she got her food in here.”

“I think the big woman in the black scrubs ordered me breakfast. I must have irritated her.”

“On the contrary,“ said the man, removing his steel-framed glasses to clean them on the sleeve of his white coat. “She’s very keen on you. She told me she wants to take things further. For example: she’s reported you for being on the run.”

“I was on a run.”

“Nice we cleared that up,” said the man, making a note. Then, abruptly, he removed all the sheets of papers from the clipboard, flipped the top of a bin marked ‘clinical waste’ and tossed them in.

“Even so,” he continued, eying me over the top of his spectacles, ”I’d say it was extremely reckless of you.”

“My running? I know. I want to give it up. It’s a bad habit.”

“I meant, talking to her. That nurse has a psychotic hatred of the injured and afflicted and takes every opportunity to kick them when they’re down. ‘Admissions procedure’ is one of her favourite games. She uses it as a way to mark out her victims.”

“What do you mean, victims?” I squeaked.

“Willing ones, like you. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have got fed up with her senseless bureaucracy within the first two minutes, grabbed his stuff and stormed out. But you looked like you wanted to play along with her.”

He shook his head remorsefully.

“I diagnose Munchausen’s Disease. Munchausen’s Disease by proxy. The proxy in this case being you, dear boy. Good luck. That’s all I can say.”

“Why do you employ people like that?”

“No one employs her, any more than we employ Gloria to be our chef.”

The man consulted his now blank clipboard.

“I have reviewed your case,” he said, “and I see no point in keeping you here any longer. In fact, you must leave immediately.”

“But I came in here for a dislocated finger,” I said, holding it up for him to see.

He lifted my wrist and with an indelible marker pen he carefully drew an arrow on it, pointing down to the finger in question. Then he sat down on a blue plastic chair, thought hard, and presently sprang to his feet.

“I suppose it’s like putting my old Austin Allegro in reverse. Lift the gear stick and ease it across. Any allergies?”

“I’m not saying. That’s your cue for giving me an injection.”

He gave me a sharp kick in the shins.

“There’s your anaesthetic, then.”

While I was bent double in pain, he tugged my index finger upwards and deftly slid the bone back into its socket. There were several seconds of pure agony and then the constant, vile aching of the past few hours lifted as quickly as the passing of a tropical storm. Outside the window, I heard a linnet sing.

“Thank you,” I said, rubbing my hand in relief. “A trick you picked up in medical school, no doubt?”

“Medical school?”

“Yes. I guessed from your white coat and the stethoscope around your neck that you might be some sort of medical man.”

The man looked down at his stethoscope.

“Oh yes,” he said, cheerfully. “I haven’t used this yet. Do you want to be stethoscoped?”

I looked closer. It was a toy one. I caught sight of a name badge alongside it. It announced him as Prince Charles.

I felt hairs prickle on the back of my neck.

“Where am I?” I whimpered.

“Now don’t get frightened; don’t over-react,” said the man, lowering his voice. “But the fact is, you’re in the South Wiltshire Mental Health Unit.”

He beamed an affable smile.

“We are all fellow patients who’ve been taking it in turns to get you settled in. The staff are a bit busy, you see.”

He grabbed my hand and shook it.

“I hope you will be very happy here.”

I recoiled from his grasp and backed away to the wall.

“But this used to be a normal hospital,” I spluttered. “It was normal when I was born here and it stayed normal all the time I was growing up round here. Yesterday I injured myself nearby, and it was naturally the place I returned to.”

“Like a salmon,” said the mental patient, pensively.

“Not like a salmon. What have salmon got to do with it? I didn’t come back here to spawn. I came to get treated. Then I was stripped of my possessions by a bogus nurse, poisoned by a bogus cook and kicked in the shins by a bogus doctor who thinks he’s the heir to the throne - all of you lunatics seem to have taken over the asylum.”

The patient ignored the slight and looked at me with arms folded and head cocked to one side.

“Not been living around here recently?” he asked.

“No. I moved away thirty years ago. I’m back on a running visit.”

“Well, it was re-designated,” said the inmate, stoutly. “Ten years ago. It used to be a general hospital; now it’s a mental one. But when you came in here last night babbling about how you wanted to end it all, the orderlies were understandably alarmed and admitted you straight away. They thought you’d fit right in here. We all did.”

“I was talking about ending my running habit -- putting an end to it. It’s harmful for me.”

The patient shook his head.

“It may be better for you than you think,” replied the patient, walking around me in a circle. “You have no idea what that bogus nurse is planning for you. As your bogus doctor, I advise you to escape with all speed.”

He scoured the room with his eyes.

“I say,” he said, brightly, “do you remember that film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? How Chief flees the asylum by hurling an enormous fridge through the window and climbing out after it?”

I looked around for a fridge. There was none.

“Let’s try this nice blue chair.”

He picked it up and weighed it for a moment in his hands.

“Here we go: right through the window. Let’s really try and hurt it.”

He flung the chair. It bounced off the pane and clattered to the floor. He gazed quizzically at the un-cracked glass.

“I suppose we could just open it,” he said.

He lifted the latch and swung the window ajar.

“The security at this place is unbelievably lax. I’ve had to speak to them about it before.”

He grinned.

“I’ve got your stuff,” he said.

He opened the door, glanced both ways along the corridor, reached round the wall and retrieved the bin liner. He started to unpack it.

“Running shoes? Get them on, quick. And you’ll need some analgesics after that operation on your hand. Smoke?”

He reached into a pocket of his white coat and drew out a packet of twenty.

“They’ll grow on you,” he said and dropped it into my knapsack. Then, on reflection, he tossed me a Zippo. It bore an inscription: You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it’s helping.

“Buckle up,” he said urgently, thrusting my knapsack into my arms. “Climb onto the sill. Outside the window, to the left, there’s a fire ladder. It’s red and metal – you can’t miss it. Well, you daren’t, really, can you? Now, when I say ‘jump!’ don’t hang about on the ledge saying ‘what, now?’ or ‘seriously, bro?’ You jump.”

At that moment, the big woman burst through the door. Her face was pinched up in hate-fuelled resolve and in her hand was a syringe of the size that vets use to tranquilise horses.

“Any allergies?” she barked.

“Jump!” shouted the bogus doctor. I flung myself out towards the ladder just as I heard the ‘thwock’ of the needle burying itself deep in the window frame.

I grasped a strut of the ladder with my left hand and, just as my fingers were losing their grip, I managed to grasp the other strut with my right hand. I slipped and slithered to the ground, holding my feet and my knees to the rungs to act as brakes. Gathering myself at the bottom, I heard a manic cackle.

“The game’s afoot!” yelled the bogus doctor, leaning far out of the window.

I set off at a hobbling gallop across the car park, clambered over a five-bar gate and stumbled across some cow pastures. A mile away from the hospital I squeezed through a hedge and onto a bridleway. I stopped to light one of the bogus doctor’s Lucky Strikes and then cantered into the cover of the woods along the Avon Valley.

Inhale/exhale/inhale/exhale. Breathe it all deep into the diaphragm.

I was running for my life, and I was feeling good doing it. The habit I had vowed to kick had me firmly back in harness.

4. “For a tenner, I could set you on fire.”

Keep running, I told myself. Keep looking back as you run. Pause for a single breath and it might be your last. Keep off the roads; the assassin may be pursuing you in a car. A drive-by jabbing? The horror!

At Britford, I found the towpath up the river to Salisbury. I played Frogger in the rush hour traffic on the Southampton Road and, zig-zagging through back alleys and side streets, I arrived in Salisbury market place.

I had a vague plan in mind to lose myself among the stalls and shoppers or find some empty apple barrel in which to curl up until nightfall.

“Kale juice,” yelled a voice from one of the stalls. “Get yer kale detox here.”

“Pesto!” cried another. “Slap it on yer wholemeal penne. Lovely-jubbly!”

I jostled through the crowd – a sea of Fair Isle jumpers, green Wellington boots, Barbour jackets and Hermes scarves.

“Kelp! Couscous! Quinoa!” bellowed a stallholder. “Superfoods at super prices.”

“Quinoa?” I asked myself, out loud. In my youth, Salisbury market used to sell spuds and small items of jewellery that had fallen off the back of a lorry in Stepney.

“Quinoa, quinoa everywhere,” came a bass voice to my right.

I turned to see a portly, black-bearded man who stood out from the country set. He wore a black overcoat and had a type of white shawl over his shoulders. Around the neck of his purple button-less shirt he had a priest’s collar. A skullcap of sorts was perched on his head. A cheroot hovered at chin-level between his fingers.

“I was just thinking,” I ventured, “that this place should be re-named Salisbury Up-Market.”

The portly man pouted his lips as he considered my remark.

“That was almost funny,” he said, and he rolled his cigar luxuriantly in his mouth. Acrid plumes writhed snake-like out of his carp-like lips. They mesmerised me. I badly wanted one of those cigars myself. The bogus doctor’s Luckies suddenly didn’t seem to be strong enough for my needs.

“Could I give you a quid for a smoke?” I asked.

“Why stop there?” said the man, with an amused snuffle. “For a tenner, I could set you on fire.”

From his overcoat pocket he produced a box of cheroots.

“Keep them all,” he said. “Chicken soup for the nerves, I always say.”

“That’s awfully nice of you,” I gushed, lighting one with the lunatic’s Zippo and stashing the remainder in my knapsack.

“‘Awfully nice’ is my day job. Ever since I got the call.”

He handed me a card. ‘Bishop Elijah Stearns’ it declared, and underneath was written the legend: Goys ‘R’ Us.

“I used to be a rabbi,” said the bishop, “but then I re-aligned. I criss-cross the country nowadays, seeking new converts for the Holy Church. My life, you could say,” (and here he broke into a snuffling chuckle again) “is an ever-changing see. Plus: we’ve got a promotion on.”

He took back his card and showed me the reverse side.

“’You Pay, We Pray,’” I read out loud.

“Why not?” replied His Grace with a shrug. “For a monthly fee I could prepare your soul for heaven.”

“I always thought I could say prayers for nothing.”

“He thinks he could say prayers for nothing,” echoed the bishop, casting his eyes to heaven.

“Addressing the Almighty is no joke, my son. Think about it: one word out of place, a slip of the tongue, something He takes the wrong way and you’d wish you’d never started.”

He tapped the side of his nose.

“Do yourself a favour: use someone on the approved list. Someone who’s done some nice business with the Almighty before.”

“But once I’ve signed up, you’ll be praying for me for the rest of my life,” I said, “and I’ll have to keep on paying. It just seems a bit of a long-term commitment.”

“Long term?” asked the bishop, eyebrows raised. “It doesn’t have to be. I could have you at heaven’s gate in a year. Six months, if you’re in a hurry. Discount offer. It depends on how squeamish you are about assisted euthanasia. Komm, Moshe! Higher!”

This last remark was addressed over my shoulder. I turned to see a line of six men on the edge of the square. All were dressed in a similar fashion to Bishop Elijah. They were jumping up and down on the spot, and out of synch.

“My acolytes,” he said. “Come and meet them.”

He tugged me forwards by the sleeve.

“There’s a place in the life to come for the likes of them.”

“Why? What do they do? I asked.

“We are merrymakers,” said one of the jumpers, coming to a standstill and touching the front of the biretta he was wearing. “When we see someone who is downcast, we cheer him up.”

“And besides, they draw a crowd, Moshe and the others,” said the bishop, shrugging apologetically. “When you launch a promotion, you need stunts.”

He tapped the card.

“I can get you to heaven in three months flat, and that’s my final offer. Because if it’s speedy salvation you’re after…”

He paused. Something behind me had caught his eye.

“… you’d better move fast.”

He gave me a sudden push.

“God in heaven, move!”

I staggered backwards just as a syringe tipped with a four-inch hypodermic needle shot past my ear and speared through the hat of Moshe the Merrymaker.

“Any allergies?” came a rasping voice behind me.

I turned to see a familiar, mountainous woman in black moving closer, her eyes glinting with unquenched, murderous intent. She reached into a pouch strapped across her shoulder and produced more ammunition.

I fled blindly through the market stalls, upsetting displays of fritatas and ciabatta. On the outskirts of the city I scrambled up an embankment and through a hole in a wire-mesh fence. I drew breath – safe and sound – alongside a railway line. An express whistled past me, travelling in the direction of London.

“He took a syringe for me,” I thought.

Lighting one of the bishop’s cheroot to ease my nerves, I made tracks after the receding train towards Porton.

5. “Do you think they’d like a bit of a gallop?”

I trotted through the gorse and ferns of Porton Down in the weak sunshine of a late winter’s morning. On the brow of a bare hill, about a quarter of a mile away, was the figure of a man. Jogging closer, I saw he was apparently scanning the scenery through a pair of binoculars. Then I recognised him. It was Bingo.

A decade ago, Bingo and I worked in the cluster of white, breezeblock buildings that I had just run past.

I was a Laboratory Assistant (Grade 3), and my duties had included sticking labels written in Russian onto phials of a lively new substance called novichok. Eventually I left because it got on my nerves; and also because of an untimely death in Bingo’s household for which blamed me.

Bingo was an Old Etonian who rented a cottage in the village. I lodged with him for a while.

He was a shop steward for the union that championed Porton Down’s toilers – the masses huddled in labs churning out sarin gas and anthrax. It was called The Federation of Industrialised Killers.

Bingo was a devout Communist and he kept two guinea pigs – retirees from Porton Down’s cages. He called them Trotsky and Castro.

One spring evening, as we sat drinking beer and watching the pair frolicking in their cage, he asked:

“Do you think they’d like a bit of a gallop?”

We invented a game called the Guinea Pig Derby. It was as callous as it was diverting.

We would starve Trotsky and Castro for three days and then place a dish of grated carrots at one end of the landing. We would hold the pair in line at the other end and, on the count if three, release them. They would scuttle ravenously for the food. The first guinea pig to get his snout in the trough was the winner.

After some fine summer weather, with the going good to firm, I won August’s Squeakarewitch by a whisker – putting Bingo and me head-to-head for the season’s finale: the 1,000 Guinea Pig Stakes.

Bingo said it should be a steeplechase. We made hurdles from matchboxes and starved Trotsky and Castro for an entire week. On the big day, suitably attired in toppers and tails, we flung open the stalls.

At one-hundredth of a furlong Castro was leading for me by a nose, but at the fourth jump he took a fall and broke a front fetlock. Tearfully, Bingo laid the lamed racer in a shoebox lined with straw and repaired to his study, armed with an air pistol and a large glass of Scotch.

That evening, Bingo was inconsolable. He said he wanted nothing more than to be alone in his grief and that I should quit the cottage immediately. I left at midnight as Bingo hammered out a mournful rendition of the Internationale on his un-tuned piano.

But all that was so much water under the bridge, I thought, as I puffed up the slope.

“Hello, Bingo. What are you doing?” I asked, brightly.

“I’m cantering Trotsky,” he replied languidly, not bothering to lower his binoculars.

Then, raising his sights to a hill across the valley, he said.

“I say, did you ever see a tree walk?”

On the top of that hill, which is called Cockey Down, is a dark clump of beech trees. As a schoolchild in Salisbury, I used to peer out of the window at them during Latin lessons.

I imagined them to be a race of giants who were slowly bearing down on the school to wreck havoc on the buildings and devour us pupils.

Now, my childhood nightmare was becoming a reality. Taking Bingo’s binoculars I saw that a thick-trunked, stunted tree -- measuring some six feet in height -- had detached itself from the clump and was moving, at speed, down the slope. Two branches on either side of its trunk were pumping back and forth.

“Whatever that is doesn’t bode well, old boy,” cried Bingo and scuttled down into the valley to retrieve Trotsky.

I knew perfectly well what it was. I had a head start of a mile. Below me, the Bourne snaked north and east through open meadows. I could cross the water, so my pursuer would lose my scent.

I scampered down to the Bourne, forded it, and staggered in wet tracksuit bottoms along its northern bank until I reached the source – a spring in lonely pastureland. I stopped there to draw breath.

The earth’s womb

Had broken waters

And brought a stream to life.

It chuckled, gurgled -

ran ungainly -

seeking some steady course.

And every gush

from this spring’s labours

marked new birth; life afresh.

In empty meadows

I knelt to witness

a river born, and born again.

Perpetual nativity, flowing into

an endless future, and back

to the childhood of the world.

I sipped some water from the spring to charge my cup for the run to Bulford and then down the dead-straight miles of the Roman road across the border into Hampshire.

6. “Someone has to complete their education.”

“Now children,” I heard a familiar voice sing out, “for three years, the walls of this palace had proved impregnable. To breach it, Cromwell brought down from Hull a sixty-four pound cannon – the largest in England – that the soldiers named Hotlips after a famous local prostitute.

“Now, can anyone tell me why that prostitute might have been named ‘Hotlips’? Anyone? Anyone?”

At Basing House the bogus doctor was doing his best to blow life into history, but the job was proving hard. The schoolboys, dressed in caps and blazers, gazed at him blankly.

“Get on with you, you little toads. Everyone assemble at Signboard Eight, next to the private quarters, and I’ll tell you about Queen Henrietta Maria and the big surprise she got on her wedding night.”

“I don’t think you should have told them about Hotlips, ” I murmured, sidling up to him after the kids had shuffled off. “Tender minds, and all that.”

“Well, someone has to complete their education,” said the bogus doctor, staring at a clipboard.

“So you’re a bogus teacher now?”

“It’s a prep school, old boy. No such thing as a bogus teacher at a prep school. You don’t need any qualifications at all to teach at one of those. We’re all bogus, so none of us is.”

“When did you get out of the mental health unit?”

“Straight after you. Been planning it for months. Got my CV sent out, ordered this gown and mortar board from a fancy dress shop, then I slipped down the fire ladder and I was over the river and into the trees.”

“You made good time from Salisbury,” I said.

“Yes,” said the bogus teacher. “The Plain just flew by. Tell me: is that Munchausen’s case still coming after you?”

“Yes, but I dodged the needle again. I must be leading a charmed life.”

”Well, the charm could wear off pretty quick, old boy. She’s been stockpiling nerve agents, you know. She has an inexhaustible supply.”

An ominous grin came over his face as he strode across to his group.

“Now boys,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Who can tell me how many budgies you can fit under a Scotsman’s kilt?”

Outside the entrance to the Basing House, a food van had parked up. ‘Mildew-Like’ read a sign over the serving hatch. A painfully thin woman was dishing up meals of monochrome grey.

Around and about, diners were doubled up -- clearly the victims of acid reflux. Others were hammering their heads against the side of the van to relieve their agonies while more besides were diving into bags for bottled water, nail polish remover or any other liquid that could extinguish the flames within their throats.

The thin lady caught sight of me and glared.

“Scram, savage!” she snapped with distaste. Then she peered at a point past my shoulder and screeched in alarm: “Scram!”

Behind me, a familiar vice rang out: “Any allergies?”

I leapt sideways just as a four-inch hypodermic needle, followed by a huge syringe, rent the air and lanced through a mound of bean curd meatballs on the van’s serving counter.

I sprinted through Old Basing and across the M3 to the Basingstoke Canal and then hid myself under the arch of a bridge. I lit a cheroot to soothe my nerves and eventually I summoned up the courage to peer out at my surroundings.

In a glade within a copse of ash trees I made out five figures, dressed in black coats and hats jumping up and down, out of time. “The merrymakers”, I thought. But where was their leader?

From the canal bank, I heard the sound of heavy, laboured slurping.

“Go ahead. Poison me. Break my mother’s heart,” a voice moaned in between the slurps. I heard more water being gulped down and crept up to observe the rear end of the suffering Bishop Elijah.

Nearby, a box from Mildew-Like lay discarded, its slate-grey contents half un-eaten.

“Kosher, that was not,” groaned the bishop. Then he gasped out a type of prayer:

“Suffer me not to be separated …”

Any further words from His Grace were lost as he emptied the contents of his stomach into the canal. Then there was silence.

“So that’s how experts address the Almighty,” I thought, and set off along the towpath towards Farnham.

It was lonely and soothing. Branches and tree trunks had fallen across the disused canal. An old brick bridge, no longer carrying any road across it, stood in a forest of silver birches like a triumphal arch erected in celebration of some long-forgotten victory.

The canal’s wooden embankments had mostly rotted to nothing, or had been eaten away by ants. A natural riverbank had taken its place. Grebes dabbled in duck grass growing in between the ferns and bull rushes on its verge. In the branches of a hawthorn tree, a small colony of goldcrests fluttered and quarrelled.

Suddenly – fleetingly – my life on the run seemed almost worth living.

Near Greywell, I sensed myself brushing past some presence. I stopped up and peered back.

“Father Moshe?” I asked, after a pause.

“Shalom be with you, my child,” answered the spirit.

I paused, unsure how to continue the conversation.

“You’re … dead,” I stammered, eventually.

“Thank you for pointing that out. I was wondering what was wrong with me.”

”And I’m still alive.”

Mazel tov.”

“It’s just … that shot was meant for me. I’m sorry it got you instead.”

“That’s life,” the ghost replied philosophically, with what I sensed was a shrug. “Over-rated, as it turned out.”

“What are you still doing down here?”

The spirit sighed.

“Doomed, I am, for a certain time to walk the earth – on account of missing paperwork.”

“I thought you got a free pass to heaven, you merrymakers?”

“No such thing as a free pass. You want to make it through to the life to come? You need ID.

“‘It’s an old trick amongst the damned,’ an angel with a clipboard told me outside the Pearly Gates, ‘trying to sneak in here saying you left your documents at home. Now get out of the queue. Go and wait in limbo till we settle your case. We’re quite busy around here, if you hadn’t noticed’.

“’It’s documents you want?’ I said to her. ‘I’ve got utility bills. I’ve got payslips. What’ya want? I’ll just nip back down there and fetch them.’

“’Don’t even think about it’, she replied. ‘No resurrections. No returns. The last one we allowed to go back alive was 2,000 years ago and it was a special case because He was the Boss’ kid.’”

“What’s it like up there?” I asked.

“In purgatory? Not so shabby. You get a blue plastic chair to sit on while you stare across the pretty cirro-stratus and wait for the Choir Celestial to sing out your name. But until that paperwork of mine appears, I’m just an apparition.”

I heard the sound of a palm beating a forehead.

“My life,” muttered the spectre, and then it faded.

I thought, as I ran on, of Father Moshe’s unquiet soul and Bishop Elijah’s unquiet stomach. Then I thought of someone much dearer to me than either of those two who I dearly wish had attained the life to come.

The memory of her caused a prayer of sorts to well up inside me:

“Spirit of the river, Spirit of sea,

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.”

7. “It’s a madhouse, so it is. I’ve just got out.”

Somewhere around Aldershot I left the Basingstoke Canal and climbed onto the South Downs. Reaching the summit of a high hill in the warm glow of the late afternoon, I gazed down in admiration on Loseley House.

There was a rustle in the grass a few yards to my left. It was a hare.

“Hare, don’t you know?” came a voice to my right.

“I know,” I said.

The creature twitched its nose.

“No. Hare. Here. I’m Hare. I’m right here. Jimmy Hare, at your service.”

I turned to clock a fellow dressed in a tricorn hat, gold-braided frockcoat and a horsehair wig. He sported a beauty spot on his right cheek and carried a dandy’s cane.

“Are you a guide at the House or something?” I asked.

He grimaced and shook his head.

“I’ll give you a guide to that house. It’s a madhouse, so it is. I’ve just got out.”

“Not another one of you,” I groaned.

“The ladies’ behaviour in there is a sight to behold,” continued Mr Hare. “I’ll tell you that, for nothing. I’ll tell you,” he said, taking a seat on a rock, “of that weird world and all the strange folk in it.”

I sat down on a tuft of grass opposite him to listen.

The Ladies rise (he began) from one o’clock to two and breakfast in their own rooms for the convenience of having their hair combed while they drink their tea. Cold meat is brought for the Dogs at the same time.

They send messages or (if Time permits) write notes to each other, just to say, “Dearest one, how do oo do?” The usual answer is “As oo do, so does poor little I, by itself . . . I.”

This delicate complaint of solitude sets the whole house in motion. All the Ladies run from one room to another till they have mustered a sufficient force to venture among the men.

If by this time it is grown nearly dark and snows and freezes pretty hard, walking is usually proposed. They chuse lighter drapery before they venture out - such as gauze or muslin shawls, thin silk sandals, which with the help of a long Pole with a spike in the end of it (to throw over their shoulders or stick into any gentleman’s foot who has the honour of accompanying them) form the walking apparatus.

The reflection of the snow in the glimmering of the Moon through the trees, if it is a clear night, enables them to find their way round the pleasure ground very tolerably.

The moment that supper is brought in, everybody hastens to begin the day’s amusements and repairs to whist, chess, backgammon, billiards, according to their fancies’ direction. In the course of a few hours, the supper being sufficiently cooled, the Duke invites his friends to partake of the genial Board; every one presses eagerly for a place, especially those who do not sup.

The Ladies sip by turns cowslip wine, punch, or cherry syrup, take their leave, and spend the remainder of the night in confidential discourse, dividing into small parties of two and three for this purpose, and then leaving the supper room, and separating for the night, as the Housemaids begin to twirl their mops and open the shutters to the sunshine.

“Extraordinary,” I said after a pause, when Mr Hare had finished.

“Grotesque,” he answered.

“They should all be forming a queue at their nearest mental health unit with utility bills to hand.”

“It’s a day in the country, all in all,” sighed Mr Hare. “As rational as they come.”

He rose, and I did likewise. He stretched out his hand to bid farewell but something behind my shoulder caught his eye.

“I’m after thinking you’ll want to jog on.”

Then, in earnest he cried: “Jog on!”

No sooner had I taken my first step than a huge syringe tipped with its deadly hypodermic needle scorched past my shin and ricocheted off the rock on which Mr Hare had been sitting. It speared a cuff of his gold-braided frockcoat and sliced into the underside of his wrist.

I sprinted for cover behind an alder and looking back, I saw the great satirist toppling to the ground, twisting as he fell – his eyes taking in, I guess, their final sideways view on life.

Behind his prostrate body I saw the figure of a mountainous woman dressed in black. She punched one hand with the other, mouthed the word ‘curses’ and trudged down the slope into the late afternoon sunlight.

8. “See for yourself the losses we’ve taken.”

I ran fast towards Guildford and found the river. The way to London lay along the Wey.

I could lose myself in the bustle of the metropolis, I thought, or barricade myself inside my flat in Willesden - living for as long as my collection of canned food lasted me.

On Epsom Downs, I looked back on the fading colours of the countryside. I craved night to shroud me and lend me a few hours’ respite from the big woman and her syringes. My life revolved around a single question: who would tire first? She of her will to kill me; or me of my will to live? Currently, the two hung in fine balance.

“Get out of time, Shaul,” came a familiar voice through the gloaming. “Don’t follow their lead. God in heaven, if only I could jump.”

Silhouetted on the summit of a nearby hill I made out a row of four bobbing men and a portly figure waddling to and fro in front of them.

“Look who’s come crawling back,” said Bishop Stearns as I, now thoroughly footsore, hobbled up the slope to greet the merrymakers.

“See for yourself the losses we’ve taken,” he said glumly, nodding to his depleted troupe.

“Moshe, you know about. But Leaping Eliezah? Oy vey iz mir!”

“Landed head first at Upper Wallop,” came a mournful voice from the line. “Never came round from his concussion.”

“And as for my prayer promotion,” said the bishop, disconsolately discarding his cheroot. “Go, ahead: ask me how business is.”

“How’s business?”

“Don’t ask.”

Bitterly, he ground the butt of his cheroot underfoot.

“Nothing. Zilch. Duck!”

“You mean, like out for a duck?”

“I mean: duck!”

I threw myself to the ground and heard the familiar whine of a passing syringe, armed with its lethal warhead. There was a scream from somewhere in the line of performers, and then an eery silence.

“It’s Shaul,” said a voice in the gloaming. “Right through his saturno it went.”

Head bowed, Bishop Stearns trudged up the rise to the prostrate figure and knelt over it. He removed his white prayer shawl and tenderly laid it over the body that had, until very recently, contained the soul of the man named Shaul.

Then, like a kindly doctor of old, he closed the corpse’s terminally surprised eyes.

“Calm and distressed,” he murmured. “Torn and most whole.”

He rose with a grunt as the remainder of the troupers heaved their fallen comrade onto their shoulders and lugged him down the hill, bobbing - out of synch – as they went.

The bishop retrieved one of his cheroots from my knapsack, lit it and puffed smoke gravely into the night sky.

“I’m sorry about Shaul,” I said. “And Moshe.”

“Why be sorry? They’re with the angels, now. Bossy types with clipboards, Moshe tells me. But I believe things get better once you’ve got through the admissions stage.”

“I’ve been stalked all day by an assassin with a stockpile of nerve agent in syringes,” I said. “I shouldn’t have got within throwing distance of anyone.”

Bishop Elijah took another puff of his cheroot. The cinders on its tip glowed deep orange, illuminating for a few seconds his dog collar and white-flecked beard.

“Tell me one thing. What have you been doing careering around the countryside, dodging assassins and their syringes?”

“I escaped from a lunatic asylum.”

“Why am I not surprised?” said the bishop dryly, removing a flake of tobacco from his lower lip. “Maybe you should seek asylum again.”

Asylum: a place of safety; a place of belonging. That is what I had been searching for, all along. To be reunited. But with what?

After my aborted summer job as a student at Porton Down I had taken a degree in pharmacology and started my lifelong career in cancer research. I got married to a fellow researcher.

No matter how hard we worked, diving into cancer cells to analyse their DNA, their genomes and their proteins, we could never bend them to our will. All the while, cancer was growing like a spore inside my wife’s body. Our 9 to 5 job became a personal race against time. Still, we made no breakthroughs. There was so much stuff packed into a single cell that could not be unravelled and rewoven.

But Nature was weaving itself its binds around her being, squeezing it and sucking from it and finally delivering its coup de grace.

And what had been my response, after her death? To run; to lose myself. But that had been no escape. Something was wrapping itself around my life, as well.

“Your days seem numbered,” observed His Grace, studying the glowing ash on his cheroot.

“Luckily for you, I’ve just unveiled my rapid redemption offer. One week and you’re at heaven’s door. You can’t get asylum quicker than that. Crash-course prayers. Cash up front for this one, I’m afraid.”

“I don’t know,” I said. I’ll give it a thought.”

“That’s the trouble with this gig,” replied the bishop, pouting his lips. “Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to take the ride.”

With that, he waddled down the hill into the night.

“We’re jumping in Tooting tomorrow morning and at Aldwych in the afternoon,” he called out over his shoulder. “I’m telling you so you can give us a wide berth.”

I climbed into the bough of a tree to sleep and reviewed the misadventures of the day: three lunatics escaped from their Wiltshire lock-up; two merrymakers venomously despatched to meet their Maker; one murdered satirist, who had uttered his last word and his final wisdom.

And still in circulation was the Right Reverend Elijah Stearns, peddling his modern version of medieval indulgences.

I thought of the route I had run that day. Everywhere I had stopped, I had had to run for my life again. It seemed I belonged nowhere. Yet, looking across the darkened contours of the countryside, it seemed I belonged within it all.

I heard footsteps below and, looking down, saw the huge outline of a familiar figure prowling below.”

“Any allergies?” asked the figure.

“Tomorrow,” I answered. “We’ll play this again tomorrow. Please, just give me until then.”

“Suit yourself,” she muttered and shambled off into the gloom.

Tomorrow, the land around would erupt again into greens and gold - sweet interchange of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains.

Tomorrow would bring out again those twin aspects of nature conjoined since creation: enchanting beauty and the imminence of death.

Tomorrow, I would run up against them both in another day.

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