She’s never actually attempted
suicide herself, so she can’t fully relate to the others. But some years ago,
she started considering it and then never could shake the thoughts from her
head. Last night, for instance, as she brushed her long black hair exactly 100
times before bed (53, 54, 55, 56…), she’d hoped perhaps those deathly
visions would be yanked out with her hair, drop to the floor, get vacuumed up
by the Automatic Adjusters and disappear at last. But, as usual, it didn’t
When it first started, she imagined it every way possible. It was overwhelming; so, after a while, she settled on a few favourites: stepping in front of traffic, drowning in the bath, falling down a flight of stairs or onto a train track. No guns or hanging for her. The effort involved in buying a gun or tying up a noose was just too much – too complicated, too much energy. On the other hand, how easy it would be to step forward, to sink, or simply to fall….
It was the alarm clock softly and reassuringly repeating, ‘The alarm is set for 3:47,’ that finally lulled her to sleep. Today she wakes sluggishly, dragging herself into the shower, but at last is woken properly when the decontaminating steam blasts onto her skin. The sealed cubicle fills with unadulterated purification and her pores open in eagerness. When the air clears again, she turns on the normal shower and enjoys the rushing liquid until she can’t bear it any longer. She presses a button and the vacuum-sealed door pops open with a soft, satisfying ‘whoosh’ and she steps out, at last refreshed.
Getting dressed, it’s the same old, same old. Did I wear this same dress on Thursday last week? Will they think I have a set ‘Thursday’ outfit? Maybe I’ll try that blouse…except I think they only saw me in that on Friday, so there’s not been enough time to wear it again, really. How about that one? Yes, this is so much better. But if I’m going to wear a green shirt, I’d better make sure I put on the matching socks…oh and that green ring I bought the other day…and it’d go perfectly with the green necklace…but if I’m going to put on all that, I’ve got to have some green earrings…and I can’t wear a ring on one hand if there isn’t a bracelet on the other hand, to balance it out…I don’t think I have a green bracelet…now why have I never thought to buy one? That is such an oversight, I must be sure to buy one soon…and I guess that means the green shirt is out. Let’s see…the purple one, maybe?
At last, when she’s at least 20 minutes late in leaving for work, she manages to get into her car. After the stress of getting dressed, she can’t face the daily ordeal of only being able to make right turns, so she flicks on the automatic driver and dozes as it brings her safely to the office.
She looks up at the blinking clock.
(…55, 56, 57, 58, 59 – )
12:03. A long sigh. There is still so much time left before her lunch break. She tap-tap-tap-taps her fingers impatiently on the black enamel desktop – and catches sight of her long nails. The colour is already peeling from them and the edges are rough. She only had them done last evening; what does she pay those manicurists for, if they’re going to do such a shabby job? She’ll have to get them retouched at lunch…or she could wait until her next appointment, tomorrow…no, no – that will never do. Even just the thought of living with chipped nails for a whole day….
She looks at the clock again. 12:11. Only a minute has gone by? How can that be? And there are still eighteen minutes left to the hour – and three more hours before her lunch break –
‘You look tired, Marie,’ observes a bright-eyed Aaron, who sits beside her at their double-desk. ‘Didn’t you get enough sleep last night?’
‘No,’ she purses her pink lips and rolls her head slowly from shoulder to shoulder. ‘I couldn’t stop checking the alarm on my clock. Now I’m restless and my nails have chipped.’ She thrusts her left hand in his face for examination.‘I understand – believe me, I do,’ he sympathises. ‘You should get one of those fancy travel manicure kits they’re making now. My sister has one. It was expensive, but she says it’s definitely worth it.’
‘Maybe…. You’re lucky, Aaron. You don’t have to worry about these kinds of things, the way women do.’
‘Are you kidding?’ he looks incredulous. ‘Do you know how long I was held up ironing this suit?’
‘Such a slave to fashion,’ she grins.
‘Nah, just to my sense of decency.’ She nods and attempts to redirect her attention to her job, but Aaron still wants to talk. ‘Speaking of my sister, she called me yesterday and said she’s talking at the next AFA convention.’
‘AFA?’ She hardly looks up from the paper before her, and even almost simultaneously whispers, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5….’
‘Association of Fundamentalist Architects.’
‘I know – but I thought your sister wasn’t a fundamentalist.’ She drops her eyes to the next line of writing before her and counts again, ‘1, 2, 3….’
‘Then what’s she speaking on?’
‘Some new plan she’s designed, for blending the aesthetics of both Schools.’
Now Marie looks up at him, interested. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah – she’s been working on it for years; it’s been her dream ever since we were kids. So yesterday she calls me and says she’s figured it out, and she’s speaking on it at the convention.’
‘Wow,’ breathes Marie, and just that simple syllable carries the weight of a thousand unspoken words as she casts her gaze to the white-framed window next to her, staring out and surveying all the buildings outside. Some are simple, symmetrical shapes – sensible squares, towering rectangles, or even religious domes. Others are jagged and messy – asymmetrical dodecahedrons, or labyrinths tilted on their sides, shooting vainly up into the sky – calculated with Pure Mathematics. No one has ever been able to design a building both Pure and visually symmetrical. ‘If your sister is right, she’s gonna turn all of architecture upside down. They’d rebuild everything – the shops, the offices, the houses –’
‘No!’ Marie is shocked at the suggestion. ‘They couldn’t change those.’
‘Anna’s already talking about it.’
‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: your sister has the most beautiful name,’ muses Marie with a touch of jealousy scrambling from her throat. ‘It’s so….’
‘Pallindromic? I know, I’ve heard it all my life. In school everyone was always comparing me to her. The teachers would take one look at my name and say the same thing every year.’ He puts on a high-pitched ‘old woman’ voice: ‘“Why couldn’t your parents have given you a name like your sister’s? People grow into their names, you know.”’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘I don’t know…I guess Anna is more balanced than I am….’
‘So she really wants to redesign the temples?’ Marie remembers their original subject, and he gives her a somewhat quizzical glance.
‘Oh! Yes, that – she’s got all these plans for it. Says our current designs are an offence to the purpose of those buildings; restructure is the only option.’
‘I suppose she does have a point, there,’ Marie gazes down at her chipped nails. She runs a finger along the rough edges with disgust. Turning to the clock she sees a depressing 12:34. Only a few minutes have passed. Damn! How is that even possible?
Anxiously she tries looking away, but finds herself checking the clock, just in case another minute has gone by –
looks away –
back again – 12:34, and 31 seconds –
32 – 33 – 34 –
work, ignore it –
43 – 44 –
don’t look at it –
work, work –
58 – 59 –
12:35, and she can’t help but notice Aaron seems relieved the minute has finally changed, too.
‘Time is painful – oh, and not because of how it can pass so agonisingly slowly when you’re waiting for something, or so quickly when you wish it would stand still – not because you reach the end of life and wonder where all the years went, and fear the future because it’s terrifying to think of time really stopping – or, even worse, never ending.
‘No, time is, of course, painful because of the numbers. Imagine for a moment that you look at the clock and it says 12:15. That is an ugly time. Think of it mathematically: 1 + 2 + 1 = 4, not 5. And that’s just one possible permutation. Try multiplication, division or subtraction – you’ll never come out with 5. 12:14, though, is a beautiful number. 12:34 is too, because of the sequence. Or how about a personal favourite of mine: 7:43.
‘9s are also good. 9, in fact, truly is a magic number, as they commonly say. It was always my lucky number, ever since I was a child – which I like to think of as a sort of foresight on my part. Now that I’m older, it still holds wonder for me. My favourite time of day is 9:10 to 9:19, because of the perfection of the math:
9:10. 1 + 0 = 1, + 9 = 10.
9:11. 1 + 1 = 2, + 9 = 11.
9:12. 1 + 2 = 3, + 9 = 12.
And so on. No other time holds that sort of power.
‘This is what led to Pure Mathematics. Once time was re-established and re-calculated into 50 hours a day, and all clocks went digital to accommodate all those ugly numbers being removed from time altogether, all of math had to be reconsidered. After years of careful thought, it was finally decided all messy, ugly numbers should be removed from math-based work. Hence the question that spurned war between the two major Schools of architecture: should buildings be constructed following the new math, which leads to clumsy looking buildings? Or should numerical purity be sacrificed for the sake of perfect visual symmetry?’
‘Are you going anywhere special after work today?’ Aaron asks as he carefully straightens some papers he has just knocked out of alignment on his desk.
‘No,’ answers Marie, with the distinct impression he only asked so he could share his own plans. ‘How about you?’
Aaron’s face lights up in a way she’s not sure she has ever seen in him before. He leans in toward her as if about to divulge a great secret, his face almost too close to her for her liking. ‘I’m going to the Compulsion Factory today,’ he whispers, and even Marie is impressed.
‘Really?’ her eyes dilate feverishly like a child given the key to a forbidden room. ‘I’ve been wondering about that place ever since it opened, but I haven’t dared try it yet.’
‘Why not?’ he questions, drawing back from her.
‘I’m not sure. I guess I’m a little scared of it. What if it’s just…too real…?’
‘Well…but isn’t that the point?’ he smiles, raising his brows in poignancy.
Marie is forced to laugh at herself. ‘I guess you’re right. So…what are you doing, there?’
‘Oh, it’s a good one this time –’
‘Wait!’ she stays him, and she narrows her eyes at him in surprised question. ‘You mean you’ve done it before? You already know how it works?’
‘I do. And I’ll admit it is a little scary.’ Something about the way he says this gives her the impression it was more terrifying than scary. ‘I’ve heard that’s common when it’s your first time, though,’ he reassures her. ‘It gets easier after that. More natural.’
‘So what did you do the first time?’ she wonders, absentmindedly touching her nails again.
‘Oh, something really small. You have to start small, build your way up, you know? So I just smashed some glasses.’
‘They can make it that vivid?’
‘That’s just the beginning,’ grins Aaron in conspiracy. ‘Tonight, I’m going to put my hands on a lit stove.’
Marie almost cries out loud at these words. ‘Aren’t you frightened?’
‘Of course I am – but it’ll feel wonderful to do it, to get that out of my system. You have no idea how hard it is for me to cook dinner –’
‘Do they include the pain?’ she interrupts with impatience, images already dancing before her mind’s eyes.
‘Yes, definitely,’ he nods, now serious. ‘That’s a legal thing. If it weren’t painful, people would wonder about the real thing, and try it outside the Factory.’
‘But what about addiction, you know?’ Marie tries to collect herself. She didn’t realise it until now, but her heart is pounding. ‘People returning again and again to get out the same compulsion, because they doubt themselves, doubt their memories. Or what if people then still want to try it for real, to see how accurate the Factory is?’
Aaron shrugs. ‘I guess those are all valid points. But right now, I think this place is a Godsend.’
‘Everyone gets obsessions, urges to do something they know they shouldn’t. Everyone feels compelled to do certain things, almost against their will. You might not want to admit that, but it’s true. Maybe you want to scream in the middle of church – that’s a common one. Or perhaps you want to break something valuable – that’s also common.
‘Or maybe – just maybe – you want to hurt yourself – not because you’re masochistic, but simply because you want to see what would happen.
‘The Compulsion Factory recognises this common phenomenon and aims to provide a safe way for people to act on those inexplicable urges. Most people will understand compulsions to be a means of counteracting the obsessions, but the Factory has redefined this terminology: at the Factory, compulsions are the act carrying out these obsessions, in the confines of a padded cell.
‘Its employees interview you, for Health and Safety purposes, then ask you what obsession you would like to surrender to for twenty minutes. (It’s considered dangerous to go in for any longer.) They create the scenario, using virtual reality technology, and insert you into the scene. You physically interact with the situation, and gain what they promote as “release”.
‘The Factory is prepared for a vast range of compulsions. The bulk consists of small urges, as I have described. But every now and then someone will come along with a really daring urge. These urges are not unusual – people just typically prefer not to admit to them and are too frightened of them to act them out, even if it’s within the confines of a special helmet and has no lasting physical effects. These urges involve death. Some people secretly worry they want to commit murder, for instance. There was a man once who ordered a monthly simulation of the bludgeoning of his wife. After enough of these simulations, he started adding to them, moving on to the mourning process, simulating funerals and becoming hysterical as her body was put into the ground. Sometimes he even simulated his own court trial and imprisonment. People have debated the ethics of such a thing, but everyone was forced to admit he had one of the healthiest, happiest marriages ever known, outside the Factory.
‘Then there are others who feel like a part of them is desperate to die. They simulate shooting themselves, or throwing themselves under trains, or walking into traffic – or, as that same man eventually did, they enact their own various executions – all just to see what happens.
‘Of course, the latter is the most challenging and inaccurate scenario at the Factory. After all, no one knows for certain what actually happens when we die. Therefore, the most a simulation could ever hope to offer is a guess – and even just that runs the risk of lasting emotional trauma in the customer (waivers are signed before every compulsion manufactured).
‘But, in spite of all the risks, it’s a thriving business.’
13:36. Lunchtime at last. Relieved, Marie bounds out of her office building and into the glimmering outdoor shopping centre, in eager search of a manicurist who can fit her in at the last minute. In fact, she’s so eager, she forgets to keep her pace at the steady 3:4 rhythm she normally aims for. After such a mental lapse, though, she reaches the nail salon and enters to see a tall woman dressed in black and white from head to toe: shiny black shoes, pearl white socks, a simple black knee-length skirt, a white silk blouse, and black ribbons holding back her dark hair. Her name tag reads ‘Belle’. So close…, thinks Marie, examining the intrusive ‘B’.
‘Sit, sit,’ Belle hurries her to a cream-coloured chair and allows her a few minutes to adjust the seat until it feels right. ‘I have to get this done fast, to squeeze in my later appointments. So, what do you need done?’
‘Nothing huge. It’s just –’ Marie points to her jagged nails with their chipped varnish.
‘You poor thing. How long have you been dealing with this problem?’ asks Belle in surprise.
‘Since I arrived at work this morning.’
‘Honey, it’s probably bad for business to say this...but you really should look into one of those new personal kits. They’re expensive, but –’
‘Yeah, I know, I had it recommended earlier. I think I should, too.’
‘So, you want the same colour?’ she attends to the nails.
‘If possible,’ nods Marie. ‘I’ve worn that colour since Monday. I wouldn’t feel comfortable starting a new colour at the end of the week.’
‘Of course not,’ agrees Belle, already hard at work on removing all the current varnish from Marie’s nails and repainting them with professional care and speed. ‘What’s your job?’ she begins the usual salon small talk.
‘I’m a Page Layout Editor,’ Marie says as her eyes touch on the bottles of liquid colour sitting on a clean white shelf nearby. ‘I count the words in books, to make sure every printed line consists of exactly twelve words.’
‘You count them yourself? Couldn’t you get a computer to do that, or something?’
Excusing the pun, Marie can’t count the number of times she has been asked this question. She tries not to sound impatient when she answers. ‘Sure, technically we could…but how could you be certain the computer had counted correctly? Then we’d have to hire someone to check the computer’s work; it’d get ridiculous.’
The manicurist looks at her client’s nails, thoughtful. ‘Doesn’t it wear you out?’
‘Sometimes. But it’s an important task, so at least I get a lot of job satisfaction.’
‘Important?’ Belle looks up a moment.
Marie nearly doesn’t manage to suppress her frustrated sigh: how many times does she have to explain this to some people? How can anyone here still be so ignorant? ‘You have to look at the bigger picture,’ she begins the usual speech. ‘This is just the first step. There are already plans to institute syllable counting, and then, one day –’
‘You’ll find another Perfect Phrase?’ Belle finishes with sudden excitement. Marie smiles gently and nods. At last, the girl understands. ‘But wouldn’t that, like, change a lot?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well,’ Belle holds her customer’s hand in her own, waving her other hand over it to encourage the varnish to dry, ‘if there were more than one Perfect Phrase, wouldn’t that, like, make the current one seem not as special?’
‘Maybe. But just think,’ Marie almost whispers for dramatic effect, ‘if we could some day change all of language – every time we spoke, it could be perfect.’
‘Language. That’s another of those complicated, delicate issues. You see, that’s what all of this ultimately leads to.
‘Mathematics and language are the two fundamental bases for almost everything we do or make in this funny world of ours. They also happen to be so seemingly engraved in stone, as it were, that they present the greatest challenges.
‘But isn’t that what makes life interesting?’
‘Why exactly twelve words per line?’ asks the hard-working Belle.
‘It’s just the average number of words already printed in the old books, to accommodate the best fonts and sizes. You know, even before we began these checks, 87% of all printed lines already naturally adhered to these standards. I know, because I counted them every time I read a book. Sometimes there would be ten words on a line, when a publisher wanted to give the illusion that a story was longer than it really was – or fifteen words, but that was only in books with smaller fonts. We’ve done away with those, now – balanced out the whole industry.’
‘You sound so passionate about your work,’ Belles leans down and blows gently on fresh metallic blue nails with evenly rounded tips.
‘Like I said: it’s important.’
‘How is that important?’
‘Balance. Symmetry. Perfection. And don’t think numbers like twelve or fifteen are insignificant. Take any sign you pass in the street and count the number of words, or syllables. You will find noticeable patterns.
‘Most phrases will either consist of groups of three or four, and/or have a centre.
‘Example: “The Southern Service”. Five syllables, but it can also be thought of as four syllables divided around a centre. Or it can even be four syllables prefaced by a single introductory word. It’s all about the stresses. And most English sentences are formed of seven words, due to our grammatical structure. And just think about that for a moment: seven words make two groups of three, with a centre – and the centre is usually a preposition or a conjunction – some sort of connective word, but not the subject itself. Research is already being done in other languages. French appears to resemble English in its patterns – probably all Latinate languages do. A language like Russian proves more difficult – it’s a completely different concept of grammar from our own – and therefore we may be forced to eradicate the language altogether. Some people may at first object to such measures, but they’re necessary. It’s not an attempt to incite prejudice or destroy cultures, you see – merely, we need to even out all of life, blend all aspects to match the natural rhythms of the universe.’
‘If you think this way, though, mightn’t you simply be looking so hard for these patterns that you end up seeing them everywhere?’
‘No. No, I can’t believe that. These patterns have been spotted long before my own studies. There are certain ratios in astronomy, for instance, that follow the 3:4 pattern. Religions document it, too. Look at Christianity, for instance, and the concept of the Holy Trinity. After all, that’s why Dante wrote all of The Divine Comedy in three volumes, broken into thirty-three cantos, each made of thirty-three groups of thirty-three syllables divided across three lines each. Then there’s music – religious hymns must be written in 3:4 to mirror the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost – anything in “common time” is blasphemy. And anything not in 3 or 4 we find jarring, unnatural. Or think of the recurrence of the number 7 in the Bible – the seven deadly sins – and God is number 7! Look at science, at memory – the human brain can only remember things in groups of seven, plus or minus two. That’s why telephone numbers became so impossible to remember when mobile phones forced the area codes to grow. And all of this is only just beginning to scrape the surface! Isn’t it only natural, then, that language, or even the pace of our own footsteps, should mimic the rest of creation? If you ask me, we’re not spotting these patterns enough.’
‘Um…forgive me, here. I don’t mean to offend – but doesn’t all of this sound a bit…Nazi-esque?’
‘Well – no. No, no, no. No! You see? You already don’t understand me…but it’s strange you mention that, because I’m secretly convinced Hitler had this same condition. I’ve seen some of those documentaries the world is grimly obsessed with: he had to wake up at the same time each day – eat the same foods for the same number of meals at the same times – take walks with the same people on the same routes, at the same time every day – he would become upset if there were any amendment to the patterns. Everything he did followed a routine. He was an excessive creature of habit. Even the Holocaust must, in some way, have been part of it. Think about it: wanting a world where all people are exactly the same?
‘Everyone always wants to know how a nation could be swayed so darkly by one man, but we never stop to ask what made that man, to begin with. We’re satisfied with saying he was just evil – and I’m not going to argue with that. But things are never that black and white. As hard is it is to accept, he was a human being – which means there’s psychology at work. Everyone remembers him as a terrible powerful dictator, but I think he was one of the weakest creatures in the world – he had no power over himself. His “Final Solution” should more accurately be called the “Final Compulsion”, because the way I see it, it was the most extreme end to an anxiety ever enacted. And, if that’s true, maybe, in his own sick, twisted way, he was trying to fabricate the ridiculous illusion of a world where he wasn’t crazy.
‘Then again, you can’t take any of what I say entirely seriously; if you live long enough with a brain like mine, you end up with a morbid sense of humour – it’s a coping method, I guess –
‘although who I’m laughing at, I’m not even quite sure.’
‘I see you fixed your nail problem,’ Aaron greets her when she returns to the office.
‘Yes, she did a good job, didn’t she?’ Marie displays her hands for proper inspection, setting down a small bag. ‘And I got one of those kits you suggested, too. I’m going to keep it in my bag for emergencies.’
Aaron nods approval, looking back to a page he has been counting.
‘Um, listen, Aaron,’ she starts, standing in the doorway, hesitating with her words. ‘I know you’re busy there, but I wonder if I could ask you something.’
He holds up one finger to stay her and finishes the page. ‘…10, 11, 12, 13.’ He draws his head from the paper and stares at it for a moment. Then, in a burst of inspiration, he chooses a negligible word and scratches it out of the line. ‘12,’ he announces, happy. Looking up, he smiles invitingly. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Well, that Factory –’
‘Ah, I knew you weren’t as opposed to it as you made out,’ he laughs and leans back in his chair, arms crossed like he’s about to talk business.
‘Yeah, well….’ She strides over to her own seat at the desk and sits down, the black cushioning sinking beneath her light frame. ‘So…does it work for thoughts?’
‘Of course. Isn’t that the idea?’
‘No, I mean like…memories. Things I’ve been dwelling on for years. The kind of thing we’re meant to vent before we go to work. Can the Factory re-enact those memories, so it’s not just in my head?’
‘Aw, Marie, I’m sure they can,’ he unfolds his arms and touches her hand for a moment. ‘What kind of thoughts do you have in mind?’ he then grins.
‘Just thoughts. Listen, could I go with you, after work? To the Factory?’
‘Certainly! I’d love the company. To be honest, I’m still a little nervous there, myself.’ Again, he looks like this is an understatement.
Marie says nothing. She just stares back at him, right into his eyes so he has to look aside.
‘We all have certain memories we can’t relinquish. Some are beautiful and desired – holidays, romantic moments, our first child, nights out with friends, promotions, that sort of thing. We all enjoy returning to those moments in the only way we can.
‘Then there are really painful memories – deaths, accidents, fights, etc. No one wants to remember these sorts of things, normally. But they do hit us, and I find the best way around it is to let it overwhelm you. Give in to the sorrow. Even if you only feel a little sad, it’s best then to remember every other tragedy in your life – or maybe even in other people’s lives – and let the tears pour out. Then, after you’re purged, you don’t have those feelings again for a long time; whereas otherwise, if you continually deny the pain, it will only persist more strongly and inflict deep depression. That’s just my opinion, though.
‘Then there are the worst kinds of memories….’
‘When I was seventeen, one of my good friends visited me. He’d never seen this city before, so I was taking him to all the typical tourist places, just to give a general feel – although now I wonder why I didn’t take him somewhere else, but I guess I just didn’t know, at the time…. Look at me, I haven’t even got to the real story yet and I’m already doubting myself.
‘Anyway, everything was fine; we had a lot of fun – until my camera started acting funny. I’d used up almost a whole roll of film that day, and there we were in this museum of waxworks, and my camera just stopped working. I got impatient with it and decided to remove the film – I can’t even remember the reason. It was so idiotic, doing that – and of course it turned out the batteries were just running low. But the damage was already done: I accidentally exposed the film in my haste and lost all the pictures. And it wasn’t just my pictures, but some pictures at the start of the roll had been taken by my dad – pictures that were very important to him – and I lost them all.
‘And I know it’s such a small thing, but I’ve been feeling guilty over it, ever since. I remember it and just think: God, why am I so stupid and impatient? Why don’t I ever just stop and think first? And after enough of these thoughts, I end up hating myself.’
The Factory doctor nods in understanding. ‘That is a common pattern of human behaviour.’ He scribbles something in a little brown book. ‘So, what would you like us to do for you today?’
Marie takes a breath. ‘I want you to recreate that moment, so I can change it – multiple times, maybe, to make it sink in. Trick me into believing the new memory.’
‘Mm-hm….’ He scribbles a little more. ‘Okay, just a few more preliminary questions.’
‘How has your venting been?’
‘Fine. I do it quite often. Sometimes every day.’
‘Is it very involved?’ he asks.
‘Yes. Extremely. I keep a log of it. I think I typically cry for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half almost every day.’
‘Do you check the time frequently, when you cry, then?’
‘Do you ever see you’ve only been crying for, say, twenty minutes, then force yourself to think of more things to keep up the tears – to live up to the previous day’s record?’
Marie now looks a bit sheepish. ‘Possibly.’
‘It’s okay, that’s also common. It’s a chemical thing, to put it simply. You can get addicted to any kind of emotion. And the logging, well, that’s obvious.’ He says all this while scribbling quickly. ‘Okay, Miss Edwards, I think we can help you. I’m going to start you on a basic recreation of your memory, to get those initial feelings out of your system. But I’m writing a recommendation for more extensive, complicated versions of this simulation in future. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but there are other obsessions buried in that memory of yours. They’re a bit too heavy for a first time, though, so I’d like you to visit me further. Together, I’m hoping we can unlock some of those urges your psyche is dying to get out without you even realising it.’ He finally raises his head to look at her, and smiles broadly. Happy and thankful, Marie puts out her hand to shake, but the doctor waves it away. ‘You’ll have to excuse me. I never shake hands without protective gloves.’
‘Ah, yes, the infamous hand-washing. I should say now: that old stereotype is not entirely well-founded. Yes, it is a common compulsion, but a vast proportion of people never experience it. This condition, like any other, is far more complex than people are led to believe.
‘Put simply: look around you, at all the objects in the room, all the movements you make, all the places you go and things you have to do, all the things that make sense to you, all the thoughts you have – every little thing could potentially be your next obsession.’
She steps into a spacious empty room padded on all six blank surfaces with eye-pleasing blue foam – just in case things get too physical.
An attendant hands Marie a lightweight shiny black oval-shaped helmet. ‘Alright, any time you want to leave the programme before your time is up, just say the words.’
‘Right. Say, “I want to leave,”’ she recites.
‘And if there’s any trouble, just press the red button either on the side of your helmet, as you see – or here, on the wall – and someone will come right in. Apart from that, enjoy your compulsion,’ the attendant smiles and exits the room, closing the door heavily behind him.
Marie hesitates. She wants to do this – she has to do this – but she’s scared.
What if it doesn’t work?
Well, it can’t hurt to try, can it? The worst that could happen is it may change nothing at all….
Before she can dwell any more on the problem, she throws on the helmet, and in an instant the blue room is transformed into the virtual image of receding space. This is 3-D, though, and shockingly real.
‘Start,’ she commands.
‘Welcome to your compulsion,’ an artificial female voice coos. ‘Please remember at all times that what you are about to experience is not real. You are safe, in a controlled environment, and you have nothing to fear from what you are about to enact.
‘Are you ready to begin?’
She takes a deep breath, then answers, ‘Yes.’
With a jolting suddenness, the stars vanish and Marie is magically in a brightly lit museum.
The camera buzzes in a weak attempt to work, then shudders out of life and shuts off.
‘What’s wrong?’ a voice asks, presumably her friend, although no face is attached.
‘I can’t get my camera to work,’ she finds herself saying – then pauses and looks around her. It’s so real…. The wax bodies stand at all sides, watching in silence as she hits the camera a little, as though that will make it work. Wouldn’t it be strange if one of them suddenly started to move….
Slamming her hand against the camera again, she can already feel the frustration growing inside her. ‘This damn thing. I hate modern technology sometimes,’ she scowls under her breath and holds her hand over the item as she impulsively presses a button and exposes the film inside to the harsh light of the room. ‘Shit! What is the point of this fantasy if I can’t change what I’ve done?’ she shouts angrily. ‘Rewind!’ she commands the programme, and instantly –
‘What’s wrong?’ a voice asks, presumably her friend, although no face is attached.
‘I can’t get my camera to work,’ she finds herself saying – then pauses and looks around her. It’s so real…. The wax bodies stand at all sides, watching in silence as she hits the camera a little, as though that will make it work. Wouldn’t it be strange if one of them suddenly started to move….
She freezes until she is almost as still as those life-size dolls, her eyes large and anxious. It worked…I’m here again…I can do this, I can do this –
and without thinking, she slams her hand against the camera again, this time even accidentally releasing the door and exposing the film, and –
‘What’s wrong?’ a voice asks –
I’m going to do this. I need to do this, I can’t be dwelling on this one stupid thought for the rest of my life, the ridiculously disproportionate guilt I’ve been feeling all these years and just can’t shake –
‘What’s wrong?’ a voice asks –
Why can’t I just remember the batteries are dead – all I need to do is change the batteries, I don’t need to open this camera at all –
‘This damned thing,’ she whirls around bitterly. ‘I’m never going to get this memory to change. I should have known better. I’m so useless!’ – she hurls the camera across the room without looking, an act of pure frustration. It smashes against a pale face with green eyes and indents the right side so deeply the body rocks on its base and looks back at its attacker with a literally melting grimace.
Listening to the pained creaking sound of the figure as it struggles to re-establish its balance, she stares hard at its crumbling façade. For a long time, she doesn’t move; she hardly even breathes. And creeping in the back of her mind, another thought: this could be good, after all.
Approaching her waxwork victim, she tilts her head to one side, narrowing her eyes and measuring it up – then kicks it with all the strength she can gather (which is somehow much more than she could ever muster in reality), all the fury and tension that has been building with each impatient rewinding of the memory. The force is so strong, the torso leaps off the body and falls backward, the severed leg remaining alone on its base.
It breaks so easily, like porcelain, and Marie is not even sure if that makes sense, holds any plausibility, yet here it is, happening right now in this virtual reality of her own desire, her own deepest desire, a desire that can bring about absolutely anything; and right now that means she is going to destroy every waxwork in the room, if she can help it. That is what she frantically wants with all the passion she didn’t know a person could feel before but she feels now, feels for this one admittedly stupid thing. She hits and kicks in an orbit about the room, relishing the mangled faces of the dummies, the single remaining eyes looking back at her with wax tears imprinted on their smeared cheeks, and their arms outstretched on the floor as though grasping for help or remorse or some semblance of sense. But there is none to be found, not here, not in her mind –
the room, like it’s spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning out of control, spirals around her, not physically but mentally, circles in her vision, lost and wild –
she has forgotten all about the camera, the lost film, the pictures – right now the only picture in the world she would like to have is the one standing before her, the image of chaos and destruction breaking free for no other reason than for the pure sake of breaking free. Maybe they do postcards….
Marie smiles at the slaughtered valley of dolls, the beautiful half-faces and array of limbs that lie on the floor – their clothing torn, their make-up streaked and turning their ears green or blue or bright candy-apple red – how realistic they seemed, and almost still seem…like real people – she smiles. Then, ‘I could do better.’ Stronger, she commands, ‘Rewind,’ to the programme, and once again –
‘What’s wrong?’ a voice asks, presumably her friend, although no face is attached.
This time, the camera doesn’t even matter. She tosses it aside, forgetting her original motivation for being here in the first place, and kicks, and kicks, and kicks at the figures, and even at the walls now – marking the white paint with her shoe, cracking the plaster – if only this room had windows to smash – if only she could get to the ceiling – the whole building could come down and she wouldn’t care.
No, that’s a lie; she would care very much. She would love it. In fact, she almost needs –
‘Your time is up,’ the helmet’s voice chimes.
‘No,’ Marie protests. ‘No! It can’t be. It can’t be over, I only just got started.’
‘Thank you for allowing us to help on this occasion. We hope you have enjoyed your compulsion. Goodbye.’
‘You don’t understand; I need this!’
And as fast as it once began, it now ends – the museum vanishes, space draws away from her again until her vision blurs and all she can see is black.
Marie remains still a moment, in shock. ‘You bastards!’ she suddenly shouts, and kicks the wall as hard as she can. Her feet meet with the feeling of cushioning yielding to her impact. Now she strikes out with her fists, too, as though beating down a despised enemy – ‘You can’t do this to me! You can’t just cut me off like this! I thought you understood!’ – until even she has to admit she is exhausted. Panting, she falls to the floor, and already she can feel the tears spilling out over the edges of her resigned eyes. With weary acceptance, she finally removes her helmet and finds she is once more in the old blue padded room. The field of artificial corpses, the cracking building, her actions – it all truly was illusion.
And Marie is fine – perfectly fine.
Her face brightens faintly at this realisation – all that violence and yet she emerges unscathed.
There’s something seductive about that idea….
Flipping on the light, Marie enters her small flat in an exuberant state, cheeks flushed – or at least they would be if she were not so Mediterranean.
Turning, she considers the door. She did lock it, right? It appears shut and locked, but she could be wrong. Her memory could be faulty. Just to be safe, she pulls at the door and is satisfied to see it will not move. Stepping away before she gives in to that sweet temptation to check again, she removes her shoes and places them in an even line with her other shoes, flush against the white wall. She examines them briefly and decides to make adjustments. That’s the problem with owning trainers; the laces are always falling out of place.
She quickly moves into the kitchen to make the cup of coffee she has decided she needs. When she is finished, Marie unplugs the coffee maker and winds the lead into a circle on the counter to prevent any possible accidental fire. She grabs a sponge from the sink and wipes up some spilled drops of her drink, then replaces the sponge and moves to the lounge – its clean walls lined with bookcases, filled to breaking point with carefully organised books, folders stuffed with papers arranged according to date. A touch anxious, she pulls out a notebook and pen from a drawer to her right and flips to the first available page of a book neatly labelled ‘Volume 57’. It’s time to update her journal with all the events of the day. She likes to keep it as detailed and thorough as possible, including all conversation (in its exact wording) and description of things like seating orders, the colour of building walls, the precise time of day things happened, and so on. Once she has completed the entry, she will print the photos she took today with her digital camera and insert them into the book for extra pictorial evidence of the day.
‘Some people are collectors – “hoarders” as they are officially called. They can’t simply own one album from a band – they need the full discography. Same with films or books. Pretty soon they may be inspired to go on long, time-wasting journeys to find every rare, unpublished item from an artist of whatever kind. In short, it’s obsessive.
‘We see this behaviour everywhere, though. It’s nothing extraordinary. What we don’t always see is the kind of collecting people keep more hidden – things like memories. Many people suffer from amnesia-phobia. They are scared to death of ever forgetting a single thing. So they write everything down – everything. And they photograph everything – and date everything, from letters written to batteries put in the television remote control, so they can catalogue their lives like an important historical document. “What if you forgot you ever kept a journal?” someone might ask, and the next thing you know, the person is labelling the house with reminders.
‘It sounds crazy at first, but in a way these people are doing something of extreme significance; two thousand years from now, when the future generations are attempting to piece together the planet’s anthropological history, these are the people who will have provided the answers.’
As she makes her dinner, she places each item in a separate dish so the textures don’t blur together. There is nothing more revolting than bread soaking in sauce, or potatoes with nuts stuck to them. The only thing missing from the meal is a salad. She is eating more healthily these days, whenever possible. Yesterday she discovered she gained a pound. The scale’s little red needle hovered just a little bit to the right of the solid figure she was used to seeing. Why are things always so complicated, with lots of ands? Ten stone and one pound. It’s messy – ugly – unbalanced. She has to even it out again.
As she tears bits of lettuce, she spots a sesame seed on the floor. It must have dropped from the half a bagel she had at breakfast. She’ll have to pick it up when she’s done with the salad.
It was so strange, everything Aaron said today. Imagine rebuilding the temples! Anna is certainly one of those bright and beautiful types, indeed, but sometimes those kinds of people can come up with such odd ideas. Still, maybe they know best –
(that sesame seed –)
and, after all, Marie is not even so sure where she stands on the subject herself. In truth, Anna makes a good argument –
(just a minute – as soon as the salad’s done –)
if she really has found the new Perfect mathematics –
(stop looking at it – stop looking at it – stop –)
then it only makes sense to rebuild in order to pay proper tribute to –
Marie puts down the lettuce and marches over to the seed, picking it up and relocating it to the bin. She shakes her hair a little, like the survivor of a difficult task, then returns to the lettuce. When it’s finished, she moves on to a tomato, hesitantly taking a knife to it.
Knives are tricky. There’s always that underlying desire to turn them around and plunge them into your own chest – just to see what it’s like.
‘No one with such a condition thinks these things out of a real morbid desire to die or hurt. That’s why they feel so guilty and frightened about it. It’s not something one has a choice in, unfortunately. Perhaps the closest thing to a typical scientific explanation of the phenomenon – the sort of thing I’m sure you want to hear – would be as follows:
‘Much of life consists of rules, things you’re meant to do, and also meant not to do. In general, we understand the necessity for rules and adhere to them without much protest. In fact, usually we would adhere to rules without being instructed to, due to the nature of those rules. Most people would not murder another human being, for instance, because it goes against everything we’re made of. If we do hear of murder, we don’t say, “They’ve broken a rule!” We ask, “How could a person bring himself to do such a thing?” It’s instinct.
‘That’s why it’s so hard for people to admit they sometimes have the urge to commit one of those crimes against nature. Even just the thought feels like moral self-betrayal.
‘Thus people hide these secret urges (I won’t say “desires” – that’s not the right word for it), and they suffer for it. They mistakenly believe they are the only ones in the world with such thoughts and they must be twisted, awful people for it. In truth, though, they are suffering from something incredibly normal: the urge to break the rules, for the sake of it – the urge to do exactly what we have all been told repeatedly not to do.
‘We find this pattern in all aspects of life, all across the globe. Children brought up more sexually aware tend to remain virginal for longer because the curiosity factor is removed. On the flipside, someone raised in an oppressive situation may rebel, turn to delinquency, rage, self-harm, who knows – all because they were constantly told “no” by their families, or by society.
‘As I have said before, on a smaller scale we all have felt the urge, for instance, to scream out when told we must remain silent. The feeling permeates everything, affects everyone. It even applies to violence. After all, why are horror films so popular? Why do we watch these movies and literally laugh at death? Perhaps it’s a way of distancing ourselves from the concept, pretending it won’t happen to us. Or perhaps we are all angry people with pent-up aggression. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because we all naturally feel the urge towards violence ourselves, simply because we know we shouldn’t – and we would never dare act on this urge, so we need to feel that release in other ways.
‘I don’t believe it’s a sign that we are an evil species for having these thoughts, however. All animals kill. Humans just happen to be the only creatures capable of feeling it weigh on their consciences.
‘But all of that is just one side of it – it’s the sort of explanation given by someone who doesn’t really understand what I’m talking about. Something people always neglect to acknowledge is that this is an anxiety disorder, above all else. It’s about intense fear – the fear of probability and inevitability. If you’re cutting vegetables in the kitchen and the blade is very sharp, there’s always that dark thought in the back of your mind: wouldn’t it be awful if the knife slipped and I cut myself? You’re imagining an accident, nothing more – but that eventually turns into a natural worry. You develop a compulsion: you actively avoid cutting yourself. Thus the idea of cutting yourself becomes an obsession you dwell on. After enough time dwelling on this, you start to doubt yourself, to doubt your own precautions – you fear more and more that one day your hand will slip and you’ll hurt yourself – and then you make things worse by imagining deeper, bloodier wounds – you even start to see it in slow motion, you feel the blade slide down your finger, you see it in close-ups like a film – the skin pulling apart, the blood sneaking out – until finally you can’t stand the thoughts anymore, so much so that you’re tempted to cut yourself on purpose just to get rid of the images – and you’re honestly so scared of this possibility that you start avoiding knives altogether, because you don’t trust yourself.
‘Or how about this: I’ve always been terrified of telling anyone these things. Once, when I made the casual admission that I have this condition, the girl with me looked shocked and exclaimed, ‘How can you just come out and admit something like that?’ It was as if I’d told her I was into S&M – something people should supposedly be embarrassed about and keep secret. She never stopped to think maybe I’m just a normal person, with my quirks, just like everyone else in the world. That’s the reaction I’m used to getting, because people don’t understand – they don’t know.
‘So here I am, trying to tell you – and I’m scared to death of how you’re going to react. Maybe you’ll think I’m morbid – or crazy – disturbed – or maybe you’ll sympathise, or even relate to some of it – who knows? And this whole time, I’ve been imagining your response to it – the look on your face at each thing I plan on saying next. I even want this to be violent, I want it to be disturbing. I don’t think I’ve made it disturbing enough, I’ve probably failed at that, because so much of it is so commonplace, it permeates all the little mundane things you take for granted each day and don’t even think about. But I think about them all the time, because those little things are such consistent trials for me. And you see, it has to be disturbing, because it’s disturbing to me, to be inside my head. I want you to understand that, to know what it’s like, to lose all those preconceived notions you’ve been accumulating over the years and open your eyes to what it’s really like – to make you stop thinking of it all scientifically and realise there are real people dealing with this thing. I want to show you all the things you may even do yourself, without realising it – because everyone does these things, maybe not so excessively, but in some form everyone does. I want to show you the darker possibilities of yourself, by explaining who I am – but I’m afraid of what you’ll say to it. But above all, I’m compelled to tell you everything – just to see what happens.
‘It’s like when you made me start talking about Hitler. I was scared to admit I’d had those thoughts – not because there was anything wrong with them, but because I was scared you would take it the wrong way, misunderstand me like everyone always has. I was scared you would think I’m a bad person – but I don’t think I am. If I were, I wouldn’t worry about it all. That’s what I keep telling myself.
‘I can’t help thinking these awful things. I don’t want them in my head, but I can’t control it. Something else is inside me, making me think them. And the more I worry about it – the darker the thoughts become – the more I have to say. The more I fear your judgment, the more I have to confess to you. And I just keep hoping, if I explain it all to you, something will finally click – you’ll get it – you’ll finally understand that as much as my mind may scare you, I’m the one who has to live with it.
‘Just imagine how scared I am of myself.’
She checks the time. It’s 25:07. Time to get a few things together and run down the road.
Rising from her seat in the dining room, she takes the dishes into the kitchen and cleans them in a hurry. Then, deciding she has done her own sense of decency an injustice, she takes her time in rinsing the soap residue off more properly and arranges the dishes in groups according to type. Once she has finished, she hurries to vacuum the floor, then rushes into her bedroom to change into the black uniform for tonight. She then heads into the bathroom and covers a washcloth in liquid soap. She runs it under the sink tap until bubbles form and then strikes it across her bear arms and the top of her chest, to refresh herself. Now it’s time to hold the cloth under the running water and watch the soap glide across and form white crests at the edge of the fabric, slowly rolling from side to side, until all the soap has run out. She does this every night – she never just squeezes out the soap. One day she discovered the way the soap rolled along the brown terrycloth, and she was fascinated. It was so beautiful, that little moment – now she feels anxious if she doesn’t do it every day.
She replaces the clean cloth and reaches for her make-up bag. Looking in the mirror, she sees her eyeliner is not quite even after the day’s exertions. She pulls out a charcoal stick and adjusts the lines until her eyes are perfectly framed as they were in the morning. She runs her fingers across the lids to smooth out the light shadows she applied earlier, then pulls out the thick black band holding up her hair and brushes out her dark locks, sweeping it all back up into a fresh ponytail.
She grabs a bag hanging on the handle of her bedroom door – already packed in advance, specifically for this occasion (she has a different bag for each set event) – and in moments she is out of the house –
and checking –
and rechecking the front door.
It is now 25:52. She can’t waste time doubting herself about the door –
(but what if one of these days I have good reason to doubt myself, but I tell myself to ignore it, and it turns out the door really was unlocked and someone breaks in and –)
she is going to be late.
She rushes on down the road –
(did I remember to unplug everything?)
and hops on a tram heading east. She stands among a crowd of people all going the same place, in the same dress, like one solid uniform organism.
The journey is quite short and they reach their destination in no time. It is their nightly visit to their local temple.
Imagine, all of this may be knocked down and changed completely, Marie thinks as she looks up at the tall vertically rectangular monument of cement and smoked glass.
Following the congregation, she enters the solid walls into a large grey room filled with metal chairs arranged in precise rows before a stage. She takes her usual seat, one in from the aisle (she feels nervous when she’s only enclosed on one side, or if she’s too locked in by a wall).
‘Well, hello there,’ Aaron appears at her side, waiting for her to move aside so he too can avoid the aisle.
‘Hi,’ and she lets him sit.
‘I’ve been looking for you.’ He picks furiously at a speck of dust on his black jacket. ‘You ran off without me, at the Factory. I never got the chance to ask you how it went.’
‘I’m really sorry about that. I was just…in a strange state of mind after all that.’
Aaron grins in his typical fashion. ‘You loved it, didn’t you?’ he says in an almost sensual tone.
‘It’s hard to say if I loved it or not, actually. I was a bit confused. It was so intense – part of me was terrified afterward, and then….’
‘Another part wanted to go back, for bigger and better things.’ Marie stares back at him, lips pursed. ‘That’s how I feel about it, too,’ he says. ‘It gets worse – and better – every time. Today, after my compulsion, I got these ideas. I thought maybe next time I’d do something really crazy, like –’
Aaron frowns. ‘If you put it like that –’
‘No, it’s okay, because…well, I understand.’
Aaron can’t help but smile even more now, until his cheeks have elevated right up into his squinting eyes. ‘You do?’
‘Oh yeah,’ she assures him. ‘When I came out of that place, I got such an intense urge to –’
‘Please be silent,’ a voice interrupts through a loud PA system. ‘The service is about to begin.’
The congregation fall to an instant hush as a tall man dressed identically to them, with the addition of a gold emblem on his lapel, approaches a podium at the centre of the stage and speaks into a chrome microphone.
‘All rise for the Lord’s Prayer.’ They follow his instructions and rise to their feet, chanting in fervent unison:
‘O blessed Father, we thank You for the gift of Balance, without which we could not stand, could not think, could not even love. We offer praises to the Order You have bestowed upon all life. We beg to adore the Patterns and Symmetry of the Universe and regard them as tokens of Your All-Powerful Mind. And if ill luck should befall us, we shall understand it as necessity in Your All-Mighty Order for all of Creation.’
‘That’s a little scary,’ observes the doctor.
‘People always find it scary when they don’t understand something,’ she responds, and the doctor tries to take no notice of her meaningful tone.
‘What does this temple look like?’
In answer, she lifts her arm and points directly out the office window at a building opposite them.
‘The Royal Bank of Scotland?’ he says, bewildered and tapping his blue pen against his desk. ‘Are you particularly money-minded?’
‘I have no opinion about what that building is. It’s the name that’s important. Say it again: The Royal Bank of Scotland.’
The doctor frowns. ‘Let me see…it has five words, so that means it has a centre.’ She smiles at him in encouragement. He counts silently on his fingers, then continues, ‘Seven syllables – again, a centre…but…is that it?’
She shakes her head. ‘It’s so symmetrical, that phrase. On either side of the centre you have one tiny monosyllabic introductory word, followed by a grand two-syllable word – and each side is stressed the same way, when said aloud! The Roy-al Bank of Scot-land. It’s perfect – beautiful.’
‘Did you discover that during our sessions?’ he wonders now, a little surprised at her enthusiasm.
She nods. ‘About four months ago – and I’ve tried to find similar phrases all this time, but so far that is the only one of its kind.’
Dr Browning stops the video here.
‘Those were the last words she ever said?’ a colleague asks after a small moment of impressive silence.
‘Apart from “The Royal Bank of Scotland”, yes.’
‘I’m sorry – what do you mean?’
‘I mean,’ Dr Browning removes his wire-rim glasses in a practised scholarly manner, ‘she leads a semi-normal life. She eats, dresses, applies make-up, reads, goes out to the cinema, and so forth. For all appearances she is a perfectly ordinary twenty-six-year-old woman – not incapacitated in any way. But whenever you ask her something, all she says in response is, “The Royal Bank of Scotland.”
‘As a result, she can’t work. Her parents have been forced to take her back into their home, to support her, and it’s driving them apart. Her father thinks the whole thing is madness and refuses to encourage the behaviour. He believes she has complete control over what she’s doing and he is not impressed with what he perceives to be her own stubborn choice not to communicate.’
His colleagues all nod at this. ‘So, what is your diagnosis of this woman, precisely?’ one asks. Dr Browning rubs his glasses lenses with a small cloth, in continued routine, as he considers how to answer.
‘Above all, my patient feels misunderstood. She has related to me several childhood memories involving fellow students making up names for her and teasing her about her symptoms, while she knew too little about her own condition to defend herself. There was a time, for instance, when she was eleven and the other children used to laugh at her because she could not stand the sight of pencil marks on her desk and would erase them anxiously. She can’t seem to get over that, to this day. She feels, too, that stereotypes in the media make it impossible for anyone to know if they have her condition. She, herself, did not know until she was much older, instead suffering alone through the most significant years of a child’s development. She was convinced she was insane, that she was the only one and there was no reason for the things she did. Yet she also felt powerless over them, a victim.
‘Now that she is an adult and has done her own research on the subject, as well as consulted several doctors, she has reached her own conclusions about the disorder. She told me she feels like she’s been forced into hiding. She feels isolated, as though no one will ever understand her, and she wants this to change.
‘Thus she has created a fantasy world where she is in charge, and every aspect of society, culture, even architecture and time adheres to her own desires and rules. In this world, no one asks her to explain or justify her actions or thoughts. All the things we tell her she should do, the ways in which she should act, have been removed; in this world, she is “normal”.’
‘But no one feels entirely “normal”,’ observes one doctor. ‘Everyone in the world feels alone, from time to time. Everyone puts on their best clothes and walks out the door with an aim to impress, blend in. We all create our own images and hope no one will notice how nervous we actually are. No one is free of that. We may not all have OCD, but we’re all hiding some part of ourselves, out of a natural fear of rejection.’
‘A very good point,’ Dr Browning nods. ‘You see, I understand that, but I also understand the points she has expressed to me herself – and frankly, I’m not sure where I stand on the matter. That’s why I asked you all to review the case with me. In a sense, she has no control over the force driving her to be this way.’
‘Yes,’ someone – a Dr Engel – pipes in clinically. ‘But we’ve been studying anxiety disorders, including Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for years – and we know a patient can fight the urges – can train himself to deal with each new situation, ignore it, and eventually the anxiety will ease.’
‘True,’ Dr Browning agrees. ‘But you know, it’s very interesting: I said the same thing to her, before she stopped speaking normally. She told me she didn’t want to keep fighting.’
She sits on her neatly-made bed, a book in hand. In her mind, she counts each word, each syllable, searching for another Perfect Phrase to add to her daily speech. She does not just count the words in the book, but her thoughts too. Even these words you see before you now – 1, 2, 3, 4 – no, there’s not even a point to counting them, the lines have changed now – the counting doesn’t even match what’s written, the way the words are appearing on the page. Every number spoken becomes a new word to count, in itself; there’s no way to count it all. It’s like eternity, you can’t even explain it –
her thoughts must move more slowly now, wait their turn to be dissected, broken into letters and syllables and words and sentences and lines –
God, if only she could just read the story, without having to count and dissect every character on the pages, and without the headaches this uncontrollable counting gives her –
if only she weren’t so genuinely excited by the peculiar realisations and discoveries she has each day but cannot share with others because they would never see the beauty in them, would only wonder how a person could devote so much time to such “pointless” musings, look at her like she had lost her mind –
if only this world were not so oblivious to all the little struggles going on inside her, every waking moment of her life.
She hears her parents’ fights about her each day, and she knows her doctor’s hesitant stance on her condition. Lately she has put two and two together and fearfully decided as long as she gives in to these compulsions – as long as she chooses not to endure the endless internal battles she has with herself each day, the struggles just to have control over her own mind – as long as she does not speak, and prevents herself from ‘normal’ interactions, one day she’s going to end up in an asylum. That’s what they do with the people they can’t explain or ‘fix’. That’s how they describe it –
as if certain people have broken and need to be repaired like old cars –
(even if I pretend to be like the others, even if I blend in, I’ll always be alone inside…won’t I?)
never thinking maybe ‘health’ is a relative state. The only reason she needs ‘fixing’ is because not enough people realise how similar they are to her.
(But what about all the good things this condition does to me? After all, I never wake up late, my door is always locked and secure, I’m very safe and careful, my hair is always in place, my clothing is always neat, my nails are immaculate, I’m organised, I can always find what I’m looking for, I never forget anything –
where – who – would I be without my OCD?)
Yes, into the asylum she’ll go – if not a literal clinical asylum, then at least a self-made one.
Then enough time will pass that everyone will forget about her and shut the book on the girl who sits alone, withdrawn into a world where everyone knows her story, and understands it –
and doesn’t think of her need for balance and order as a ‘disorder’.