Chapter 21 – See You Monday
Tom awoke on a hospital gurney, an antiseptic smell filling his nostrils. He cried out in pain—it felt as if someone was dripping hot wax on his eyeballs, especially the right side, where he usually applied… Metanox. A wave of existential despair consumed him as he realised he’d run out for good. He shut his eyes tightly and covered them with his hands. People clamoured around him, calling for help.
“Can you hear me?” a female voice asked. “Can you tell me your name?”
“M- Metanox,” Tom said with effort, the syllables slurred and malformed.
A hand gripped his arm. “Let me see your eyes, sweetheart.”
“No,” he shouted.
“We need to see them, sweetie.”
“No… It hurts like fuck.”
More hands clasped his lower arm, pulling his palm off his face.
“Open your eyes,” said the female voice. “We need a quick look.”
He opened them slowly, wincing. The bright lights stung like chlorine and he cried out in pain, The left side of his vision was a hazy blur, on his right a doctor in a white coat stood over him with a handheld instrument—a lamp. While the nurses held him down, the doctor shone a light into each eye.
“Fucking stop!” he yelled, wrestling free. He punched at the medical staff surrounding him.
“Diazepam,” ordered a voice. He felt a sharp, jabbing pain in his arm and then numbness spread throughout his entire body. He drifted into a deep sleep.
He awoke the next morning, on a hospital ward, with narrow vision. There was a patch over his right eye, where he usually applied Metanox. It felt like someone was gouging out his eyeball with a blunt screwdriver.
He called out to a nurse. “Help! My eye…It’s killing me!”
Other patients, sickly, bald men with gaping mouths, stirred from sleep.
Soon a consultant visited him, a petite Asian woman who looked about eighteen. She introduced herself as Dr Singh and told him he’d developed uveitis, an infectious disease of the eye. When they showed him his reflection in a mirror, the bloodshot mess next to his nose shocked him. He told the doctor he believed Metanox had eaten away at the inner parts of his eyeball and showed him the bottle. Dr Singh nodded and told him, in a patronising voice, that she’d ask one of her psychiatry colleagues to visit him for a chat.
“The infection was most likely caused by touching your eye with unwashed hands,” said Dr Singh. “You need to take good care of your hygiene, Mr Toombs. Your hands were covered in grime when you arrived.”
Tom stared at his hands. The medical staff had cleaned them. He remembered kicking and punching at the nurses and blushed with shame.
“The visual loss is serious but should improve. I’ll prescribe a course of antibiotics to treat the infection.”
The consultant gave him an eye patch and some eye drops. Eye drops!
Dr Singh returned later and told him his blood tests were normal, and they needed to perform a brain scan and an electroencephalogram to check for epilepsy. He declined. He needed Metanox, not scans and tests.
“I’m in so much pain,” he moaned. “Can you give me something?”
She frowned. “Where is the pain?”
“All over. Everything is too loud and too bright. My bones ache and my skin is on fire! These bloody sheets are like sandpaper! And my head…” He gripped his temples in agony.
“I’ll get you a paracetamol.”
“You’ve had a shock, Mr Toombs. Things will soon settle down with rest.”
“You think it’s all in my head, don’t you?”
“Try to rest. We’ll talk more later.”
The pain lasted hours, but by nightfall, the hypersensitivity and the burning skin sensation faded, and, after a quick nap, the headache waned. The Grandmaster had exaggerated the withdrawal symptoms—he’d suffered worse hangovers from red wine. He realised he could use Metanox repeatedly with only minor physical discomfort. If only he had more!
Tom rested—short, disturbed naps. He kept waking up, dripping with sweat. He drank some water and reached for his Metanox bottle, only to realise there was nothing left.
“Hello, Thomas,” said the Grandmaster.
“Did you think I was just going to disappear?”
“Don’t be rude, young man.”
“Just leave me the fuck alone,” Tom shouted. The guy in the bed opposite gave him a funny look.
“If you insist, I’ll go. Only…”
“If you like, I can help you score some more Metanox.”
“My dear Thomas, I speak only the truth. You spent all your time and energy fighting me. If you’d asked me, humbly, to help you out, I would have.”
“I nearly lost an eye. I’d be stupid to touch that stuff ever again.” He wanted some, but didn’t want to give in to the Grandmaster.
“Come now,” said the Grandmaster. “It’s a minor infection. It’ll heal in no time.”
He was suspicious, but as he weighed up the pros and cons, the possibility that the Grandmaster might actually deliver the goods intoxicated him with hope. He yearned for more. After all, he had nothing else in his life.
Even so, he decided not to burn his bridges at the hospital. The best option would be to sneak out, score some Metanox, then come back. The staff were duty-bound to find him some social housing rather than land him back on the street.
He watched and waited until the nurses left their station and then he climbed out of bed, still in his hospital gown, grabbed his belongings and crept into the corridor.
“If people see you like that,” said the Grandmaster, “they’ll think you’ve escaped from a mental asylum. Although they wouldn’t be far wrong.”
He couldn’t find his old clothes; the hospital staff had probably disposed of them. He wandered the grounds until he found a small shopping area with a charity shop. When the cashier wasn’t looking, he pilfered a pair of drainpipe jeans and a sports shirt from the bargain bin. He rushed out of the shop and the hospital before anyone could apprehend him. Outside, on a street corner, he slipped the clothes over the hospital gown. He looked ridiculous—the shirt was too big and the trousers too tight—but less conspicuous, at least.
“So, what’s the plan?”
“You already know what to do. But it’ll be different this time, I promise.”
He sauntered along Upper Maudlin Street to Park Row. He soon found himself outside the petrol station with the payphone where Isla had called Venom Empire in 1999. The petrol station had closed down, the boards covering the window sprayed with graffiti. Vandals had also smashed the payphone and cobweb-like cracks stretched over the glass panels. He picked up the handset, ignoring the rancid smell and the call girl card on the shelf. After inserting some change, he was pleased to hear a dial tone. He rang Venom Empire, having long since memorised the number. Following the instructions Isla gave him back in ’99, he waited for two rings, then replaced the receiver. Now it was a matter of waiting for the limo to arrive.
He sat down on a dilapidated wall by the filling station. The air was warm for once. Spring was finally here, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was in terminal decay. While he hankered for the past, the world had moved on, leaving him in the dust.
After an hour, he realised nobody was coming.
The sun rose at 5 A.M., stinging his eyes. Tom took out the empty bottle of Metanox and launched it across the forecourt. The glass exploded on impact. He found the Venom Empire flyer in his pocket. He’d kept it safe since that night, although it was very worn.
He examined the skull logo with the snake eating its tail. He looked up the meaning years ago. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks used the Ouroboros or ‘tail-devourer’ symbol. It signified rebirth, an eternal cycle of creation and destruction, and the conjoining of opposites. He wondered whether Venom Empire wished to taunt him. Laughing at his eternal descent while grasping for safety. The more Metanox he took, the more he destroyed himself. Now only hatred remained. Hatred for Venom Empire, Elixium, Dave, Watson and Reuben Fenwick, but most of all himself. He ripped the flyer into pieces and kicked it into the drain. Then he sat down, his back against the wall.
“Amateur dramatics will get you nowhere,” said the Grandmaster. “I’m not leaving. You fought me, but you lost. Admit it, you’re my slave.”
He’s right. I lost. “But you can’t give me what I need.”
“Hush now,” said the Grandmaster in a soothing tone he didn’t think possible. “Surrender.”
Tom closed his tearful eyes.
When he awoke, he could hear a mechanical digger from the nearby construction site clattering to life. The sun had risen, but the sky was cloudy. Tom felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. He looked up to see a white-haired man towering above him. In the empty forecourt, a black limousine waited, lights blazing.
Am I dreaming?
“This way please, sir,” said the chauffeur, inviting him to the limo.
Is this Venom Empire?
Tom rose to his feet and hurried towards the vehicle.
The chauffeur opened the limo’s rear door. Inside, clutching a flute of champagne in his right hand and his left arm draped across the leather seat, was Reuben Fenwick. He’d settled into his features over the years, the skin stretched taught around his cheekbones, probably after an expensive facelift. However, the wrinkled skin beneath his neck drooped like the wattle of a chicken. His hair was thick, but featured a wide streak of grey from front-to-back, as if a badger had curled up and died on his head.
“Well, well, well,” said Reuben with a smirk. “The prodigal son returns at last.”
Half-excited, half-afraid, Tom was about to get in the limo and join him, but Reuben cleared his throat. “I’ll give you what you want. But first, I remember telling you a long time ago that you’d beg for forgiveness on your hands and knees. I foretold this, didn’t I?”
“I’d like to see that now.”
The idea of capitulating to Reuben would have repulsed him years ago, but he’d submit for Metanox. He sank to his knees on the cold, oily floor. The degradations he’d suffered on the street were nothing compared to this.
“Please forgive me.”
Reuben launched a mouthful of spit and champagne in his face. “That’s for disobeying me. Now get in, before someone sees us together.”
Tom climbed into the limo and Reuben handed him a small stack of papers. “What’s this?”
“Your contract, but don’t get too excited. I know I offered you a management position at Elixium when we last spoke, but I’m afraid that ship sailed a long time ago.”
Reuben’s appraising glance lingered on him. Tom felt self-conscious of his messy, thinning hair, his unkempt beard and the eye patch.
“Your old job is also out of the question; we conduct all our clinical trials in developing countries now. Far cheaper and less regulation. No, I’m offering you employment as a domestic cleaner. The role meets the statutory minimum wage but there’s no pension, holiday pay or sick leave. It’ll be back-breaking work, on your hands and knees cleaning bathrooms. You’ll begin at the apex of the pyramid and work your way down, scrubbing floors, polishing mirrors and bleaching sinks. When you’re done, I expect all our restrooms to be gleaming like diamonds, no skid marks or pubic hairs in sight. Then, and only then, will I permit you to take Metanox.”
Tom stroked his parted lips.
“Yes, as part of your contract, I will give you a daily allowance. You start at 6 A.M. sharp on Monday morning.”
Relief and gratitude washed over Tom, and he immediately signed the contract.
“I won’t let you down, Reuben.”
Reuben leered at him. “Your behaviour is most extraordinary. You wrecked your life, sank to the deepest depths of depravity. All to keep hold of a feeling. I’m reminded of some early neuroscience research in the good old days before ethics committees. Did I ever tell you of Dr Huxley?”
Tom shook his head.
“Dr Huxley was a brilliant scientist who worked for my late father. During his university years, he studied the anatomical pathways of the rodent brain. Later, he carried out a series of experiments at Elixium with a rat he nicknamed Gerald. He induced pleasure in Gerald by applying electrical stimulation to one of the midbrain structures. It worked extremely well. Indeed, Huxley wrote in his diary that he could almost see religious rapture in Gerald’s little face. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Gerald would do anything for more stimulation. In one very enlightening experiment, Dr Huxley rigged up a pressure switch. If Gerald stood on the raised platform, a current flowed into the electrodes and granted pleasure, but otherwise, the stimulation ceased.” Reuben smirked and raised his eyebrow at Tom. “Given the choice, how long do you think the rat stayed on the platform?”
“Twenty-four hours a day!” Reuben clapped his hands. “No amount of food or water could dissuade the poor rat from climbing down. Quite extraordinary! Even when the switch was turned off, Gerald remained on the platform. He waited, night and day, aching for stimulation, with no interest in food or water. In the end, Dr Huxley euthanized the poor starving creature, so as not to be cruel.”
Tom’s eyes widened. What has he got planned for me?
“Don’t worry, old chap. Elixium Pharmaceuticals will always provide for you.”
“Here.” Reuben reached into his coat pocket and offered him a small sealed pipette containing liquid. “Metanox.”
Tom snatched the vial from Reuben, eager for the drug. A few moments later, his left eye was dripping with Elixium’s venom.
“One last thing before you go,” said Reuben. “I want you to tell me what fifty-seven times twenty-four is.”
Tom looked at Reuben blankly. Other than pricing up drinks, he hadn’t used his human calculator skills in a long time.
“A little rusty, perhaps. How about twenty-four times twelve?”
A bunch of numbers swirled around Tom’s mind, but they tasted as bland as cardboard, and he could not figure out how to mesh them together.
“Seven times eight? Three times seven? Come along, Thomas, even a schoolchild knows that.”
“I… I don’t know,” said Tom. The loss of his gift upset him, despite the Metanox high coming on.
Reuben sneered. “See you Monday.”
PART THREE: 2015—2017