Chapter 1 - Oskar
I was fifteen when my father showed me his secret library: nineteen when the police came for him. It was my fault.
I was young and I was stupid, but I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone about the books my father concealed: the Swifts, the Dickens, the Orwells, and the Bernard Shaws. I was too young and gross to understand them, but not to understand the danger. My betrayal of him was not only accidental but also incidental.
That was a long time ago, of course, and my father is long dead. As I sit in this room, with neither windows nor a clock, missing the sun and the rain, I wonder if my father’s cell was like this.
‘Upsy daisy, Professor, rise and shine,’ James says.
When James touches me, hate fills my mouth like bile. It crushes my chest and churns my stomach like a stormy sea.
‘Come on grumpy, you’ll enjoy some brekkie and a chit-chat.’ He smiles like a beneficent uncle. ‘You’ll enjoy that.’
‘Is that an order?’
‘Aww, don’t be mean, Professor. You know it’s not like that. You’re my patient.’
I’d like to shove him against the wall and make him regret the touching and the baby talk, but violence isn’t in my nature.
‘You’re awful quiet, Professor,’ James says, sitting far too close beside me on the bed. ‘You feeling a bit down?’
‘I beg your pardon; I’ll begin a jig at the thought of more therapy.’
He wraps his arm around my back and rests his hand on my shoulder, clucking his tongue as I try to cringe away.
‘Relax; we’re buddies, you and me, two peas in a pod.’
‘Please don’t touch me.’
‘Gee, Professor, if you don’t like men touching you, then whatcha doing here?’
‘Trying to get better.’
James laughs a little at that and drops his hand to rub my back. ‘You finding that works for you?’
‘Not noticeably, yet.’
‘You don’t make big bucks at your university?’
‘Strangely enough, lecturing bored young men about genetics isn’t yet the fast lane to fame and fortune, no.’
James laughs and shakes his head as if I am far too amusing.
‘Lotta inverts with money go abroad. Guys like you mightn’t have the first clue how to meet shady elements. But I know some people.’
I pull away from him and move farther up the bed. ‘I’m ill and running away won’t make me magically better!’
Everyone knows that there are informers all around, but there’s no point in trying to entrap me in some snare. I’m not a rebel. I’m not my father.
James stands up and straightens his sleeves. ‘You got it, Professor.’ He ruffles my hair. ‘It’s lucky for me you’re too smart to risk reporting me to anyone.’
Breakfast must wait, as always, for the scheduled misery of a check-up.
'Is he eating? He still loses weight. Does he have emesis? His teeth still seeming strong.’ Doctor Mitford’s bloodshot eyes twitch as he pokes and pinches. ‘Is he listening?’
‘Yes, I’m eating and I always vomit after the emetics.’
James rolls his eyes, but I need Doctor Mitford’s goodwill too much to find his eccentricities amusing.
‘Disgusting creature! Pay more bloody attention.’
I am disgusting, but I resent being called so by a corpulent dipsomaniac with fragments of food littering his moustache.
‘Fit for treatment. The orderly needs to ensure he eats.’
James nods amiably.
‘I said the orderly needs to ensure he eats!’
‘Okay dokey, Doc. He’ll eat. Off to we brekkie we go.’
Breakfast is in the cafeteria, which is full of sad, shuffling wrecks shivering inside dressing gowns. Morning is the best time of the day here: the confusion has passed from the electroshock, or my stomach has settled after the emetic the day before. It’s the only time I have an appetite—for food, at least. It’s also the only time that we’re allowed to assemble in groups. The other gentlemen at my table are either staring blankly at their plates or pushing the food around and glowering in disgust.
A hand squeezes my shoulder. Warmth jolts down my veins and rattles my bones. James’s aftershave insinuates into my lungs like sweet poison.
‘You okay, Professor?’ he whispers.
There are only ever men here. It isn’t fair when I so want to be well. I didn’t choose to be this way. I don’t deserve the torment of an endless parade of handsome young men. The torment of being near James. If some bovine matron stinking of soap and face powder treated me, then I would be easier in my mind, and body.
‘You play nicely with the other boys, now,’ James says.
The sense memory of his hand clings long after he withdraws; the warmth of his skin penetrates my clothing and flesh alike.
A new patient sits down opposite me: an ugly man, not that any patient stays beautiful here long. You lose weight, your skin greys, and when you vomit, your stomach acid attacks your teeth. I should be thankful not to have the temptation of an attractive dining companion, but James’s presence behind me is impossible to forget.
The new patient wants to talk and perhaps he doesn’t realise the danger that we’re in. They rarely let us socialise and when we do, you may be sure that they monitor us closely. A listening device can make eloquent testimony.
New patients always want to talk about the therapy. The emetics are bad but the electroshock is worse. The confusion afterwards is the worst thing: not knowing anything except that I know nothing. Then there’s the weakness. It leaves me clinging to James as if I were drowning.
The first time I was here was when I was nineteen, desperate enough for help and naïve enough to think my problems were mine alone. The police interrogated my family, friends, and fellow students, demanding to know why none of them had reported my disease. They searched the house and found my father’s secret library. They took him away before they took me. I dream of him some nights; his heels scoring the floors as they dragged him away, screaming that he loved my mother and me. He knew it was my fault. He died knowing it. My mother never forgave me.
I’m not deranged. I know I’m ill. My desires and passions are unnatural and unhealthy. Wrong. I keep trying to be better. Every day I try. Every day I see James and I fail. He haunts me and I hate him.
The images on the film are obscene. Heaving, sweating bodies, moaning and groaning…
The taste of iron fills my mouth and nose…
Choking on vomit… In my mouth… In my nose…
James tipping up my head and wiping my face with a cloth.
Tired. So tired.
There are a few moments after a full session when the white blur of semi-consciousness swallows up the pain, distress, and misery. At that time, the orderly, if I am fortunate, will drag me into the adjourning room and hose me off. Then, when I am regretfully becoming aware of reality and the miseries it contains, they will dump me in a wheelchair and whisk me back to my cell to be abandoned with a couple of painkillers, a bottle of water, and an injunction not to fall while getting out of the chair.
James at least always put me in the bed, but, of late, he has eschewed the lazy ways of his brethren entirely. He has, it seems, decided to take a personal interest in my welfare. This is not so much a mixed blessing as it is a diverse curse. Instead of coming around a little under the blast of the hose, I’m vaguely aware of the gentle patter of the showerhead.
‘Waking up are we, Professor?’
‘Don’t try and chat to me yet.’
I can’t see him yet and I can’t move, although I’m probably twitching. Sometimes it takes hours for the twitching to stop, which makes it impossible to have post-session games of charades.
‘You’re just having a rinse off,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Then we’ll wheel you to your room for a proper bath. That’ll be nice, won’t it?’
I don’t want him bathing me! I don’t want him touching me. It’s bad enough he’s... I’m supposed to be getting better. I want to get well. All I want is to be well. It’s not fair.
‘Nearly done,’ he says, and now he’s patting me dry.
‘Now, now, Professor, I toldya not to try chatting just yet.’
His uniform top, dampened from the splashing of the shower, is clinging to his chest and stomach. His arms are very pale, covered with tiny blond hairs, and speckled with biscuit-coloured pinpricks of freckles. The collar of his top is v-shaped and shows a slice of pale skin, moistened with exertion. I imagine pressing my nose there and breathing in his subtle scent.
‘Okay, here we go, upsy daisy,’ he says easing me up. ‘Relax a bit, Professor, you’re as stiff as a board.’
He lifts me up into the wheelchair and as he does, my face is pressed against his neck. The warm, humid smell is intoxicating, dizzying. He chuckles and hate curdles in my stomach.
He wheels me past other patients and staff in the corridors. Staff members stroll along, consulting clipboards or chatting amongst themselves, while the patients drift desultorily. My orderly greets them all as if we were strolling in a park on a summer’s day.
James wheels me in to the room carefully and checks for listening devices before speaking.
‘We’re buddies, you and me. I’m gonna take good care of you.’
‘All right!’ he chortles. ‘All right, Professor. You were here quite a ways back, I think?’
‘Sixteen years.’ I’m so tired I just want to sleep, but my nose and throat are burning. It hurts to breathe and every breath is poisoned with the acrid stench of vomit.
‘You get assessed now,’ he says, wheeling me over to the bath. ‘To see if you’ve been cured.’ He puts a wad of tissue to my nose. ‘Blow!’
There’s a brief scream of pain and stench as I exhale but that clears quickly, leaving me breathing clean air again. He lets me sip some water then wipes my face dry with a cloth.
‘Please... no bath...’
‘Don’t be silly, Professor, you’ll feel miles better when you’ve had a good soak,’ he says, turning the taps on full. He sits on the side and folds his hands in his lap. ‘You best think how you’re going to deal with the assessment. You’ve already been through treatment before so you’re running out of options.’
‘What? I’m getting better,’ I protest, and he has the decency not to laugh in my face.
‘Aww, no, you’re not,’ he says, turning off the taps and checking the water with this elbow. He gets me out of the gown and checks that the waterproof dressings are still adhering and fully cover my wounds.
‘You know you’re not.’ He rolls his eyes. ‘Now don’t take on, Professor. Nobody gets better. Nobody gets cured. Don’t worry about that for now; just you have a nice soak.’
He pats my hand and then manoeuvres me out of the chair. ‘You’ll feel much better after a bath. Trust me; I know what I’m about. I think you’re probably ready for a nice, long relax, aren’t you?’
I try to move my arms or legs but only manage to exacerbate the twitching of my limbs as he lowers me into the water. It’s deep and I’m certain I’m going to slip under, certain I’m going to drown in warm water and James’s arms.
The warm water is faintly soporific as it laps about my body. James rubs a soapy sponge over my chest in slow circles. Despite myself, I am feeling better. The burning sensation is easing and it no longer hurts to breathe. My jaw hurts where I must have clamped down hard on the bit, but gradually my aches ease into the water and float away.
‘What do you mean, no one is ever cured?’
‘What I said: nobody gets cured, not as such. We get most of our patients back. D’you know that? The rest get by with subbies, or they hide real well, or they do the sensible thing.’
He stares at me for a long time, ‘They run away abroad someplace,’ he says gently. ‘Sure, some of them kill themselves. But I call that desperate, not sensible.’
‘What if I’m not cured?’
‘Question you gotta consider isn’t what if you’re not cured,’ he says. ‘It’s what if you don’t pass the assessment?’
It isn’t fair; no one told me the rules had changed. No one said…
‘Hey, hey,’ James says, ‘don’t carry on now. I’m not trying to freak you out.’
‘I can’t go to a re-education camp! Please, you have to help me, please…’
Begging and pleading. He did this. Reduced me to this blubbery, pathetic mess.
James catches my hand and squeezes it.
‘Damn, Professor, you’re gonna give yourself a panic attack,’ he says. ‘Course I’ll help you, whaddaya think I am?’
‘I don’t know.’
The sponge slips down between my legs and I feel my member becoming tumescent. It’s not fair! I want to be well. I chant it to myself in class as I look around the room at my students. It thunders in my mind as I see handsome men in magazines. I scream it late at night when I’m woken by the dreams. I want to be well.
James puts the sponge on the side of the bath and plunges his empty hand into the water between my legs.
‘Keep your voice down, Professor,’ he says quietly. ‘People’ll wonder what’s happening.’
‘Please don’t touch me,’ I beg, forcing myself to look into those blue eyes, ‘I’m trying to get well.’
James strokes my thigh with his fingers. My hand balls in to a fist, desperate to punch him, but instead I humiliate myself further by welling up.
‘Think of it like stress relief.’
‘I don’t want you to.’
He rests his arm on the side of the bath.
‘I know you like me, Professor.’
‘I hate you.’ The words slip past before I can stop them. Perhaps I wanted to tell him. To see if I could hurt him.
‘That right?’ James asks. ‘After you asked me to help you and all. You’re an odd bird, Professor.’
I shrug and the movement makes me slide down in the bath a little, but James pulls me back up again before I slip too far.
‘Haven’t I been humiliated sufficiently without your laughter?’
‘Never my plan to make fun of you, Professor, though you make it kind of easy.’
My hands manage to grip the side of the bath and I drag myself up a little. Then James ruins it by putting his hands under my armpits and sitting me up.
‘Are you going to punish me?’ I ask, as he slides the sponge over my legs.
‘You hate me as much as you think you gotta, Professor. Maybe it’ll make you feel better. Won’t stop you liking me.’
‘I don’t like you.’
I think he’s going to give me a lecture perhaps, or laugh at me again, but he just nods and rinses the soap from my skin.
‘Okay dokey, Professor.’
Did I pass the test? Did I do well? Am I a little closer to being better now?
James empties the bathwater then helps me stand and lean against the bath. He pats my skin dry with a towel as worn as I feel.
I wonder if my father felt this way, when the re-education camp failed. Did he go wearily to his death or wrapped in mistaken pride in his failure to conform? Would he be as disgusted with me as I am with myself?
‘Do you miss teaching?’ James asks.
‘What? Oh, I suppose so.’
‘Is it true that human beings are pretty much identical to monkeys? Genes and that.’
The ignorance of the general population never fails to amaze me.
‘Do you mean apes? We share something between 95 and 98 per cent of the same genes with chimpanzees. We also share fifty per cent of the same genes as bananas so make of that what you will.’
He chuckles and folds the towel up to take with him, leaving me naked and shivering.
‘Bananas, fancy.’ He dresses me in a fresh pair of pyjamas and wraps my dressing gown around me. ‘How about subbies?’
‘What?’ My stomach lurches. This is unpleasant and dangerous ground. ‘I don’t know what you mean. I’m tired. I want to sit down.’
James sits us both down, takes a box out of his pocket and taps a hand rolled cigarette out into his hand. He lights it, although I’m sure there shouldn’t be naked flames into the treatment centre.
‘Take a puff.’
‘You’re looking at maybe being sent to a re-education camp, and you’re worried about a fine?’ he laughs.
‘You said you’d help me,’ I say quietly.
‘I can’t help you none if you don’t trust me.’
I take the offered cigarette and gingerly try it. I feel sick and dizzy as the smoke fills my lungs. James passes me a glass of water and smiles when I hand him back the cigarette.
‘Give it a minute or two and you’ll start to feel the benefit.’
‘I’ve never understood the appeal.’
James takes a deep drag on the cigarette.
‘You didn’t answer my question about subbies,’ he says.
‘Subhumans have more in common with chimpanzees than they do with us.’
‘You think? That’s kinda strange, since they sell subbies for screwing but I’m pretty sure it’s a crime to screw a chimpanzee,’ he says.
Subhumans are a… distasteful subject at best and one that sensible men rarely discuss. In truth, the cold, hard fact of the matter is… well, there is no difference genetically. I mean, there must be a difference that we haven’t found yet. Scientific discovery is a work in progress.
I’m in no state to think about this. I’m in no state to think about anything, and that’s why he’s doing it, naturally.
‘I didn’t say chimpanzees were more like us than subhumans are,’ I mutter after a few confused seconds of thought. ‘You’re trying to trick me. That isn’t fair.’
James holds the cigarette to his lips, his softly curving lips, and draws the smoke in deeply. When he lets it out it curls in slow, leisurely coils up towards the ceiling.
‘Yeah, well, fair, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.’
He holds the cigarette out and taps the ash off it. The dark grey flecks barely drift through the air down to the floor. He leans back against the wall and looks me over in a way that makes me hot and uncomfortable.
The pleasant lightness is already wearing away. I wish I’d had more of the cigarette.
‘That stuff stops me thinking clearly,’ I complain, and he laughs at me.
He stands up and extinguishes the cigarette.
‘I’ll turn on the ventilation in here but it’ll take a while. This place is going to stink of pot and you with it. I’ll bring you some lunch.’
‘What about you?’
‘I’m an orderly. I got my ways,’ he says, and pushes the remains of the cigarette through the grill of the grid to wash into the huge, stinking sewers. ‘You be good.’
I don’t have many people who would want to visit me and fewer still who know where I am. It’s a surprise then when James takes me to the lounge for a visitor, and, for a moment, all sorts of odd, paranoid fantasies float through my mind, but it’s only Harry, naturally.
The visitor’s lounge is the public face of the therapy centre; it’s all soothing music and soft furniture. People plotting to drag in their unwilling loved ones like to feel that it’s a pleasant sort of place. It assuages the guilt. Those of us seeking treatment voluntarily are few and far between. Treatment mandated by the court is much more common, but once we’re here there’s no difference.
Harry hasn’t brought his subbie, which is a relief. When he first bought it, he used to visit me with the wretched thing and encourage me to use it. As if using another man’s male subhuman wasn’t disgusting. I haven’t sunk that low.
‘I hate this place,’ Harry hisses at me as I sit down opposite him. ‘How can you stand it?’
‘Hello to you too.’
‘You look terrible. Do you feel terrible?’
Illness makes us all ugly. Only the orderlies are beautiful.
‘I feel very tired and sore,’ I admit. ‘I’ve been in therapy.’
He shakes his head at me and stares around at the patients stumbling and staggering into the room. Gaunt and grey-faced they are, to a man, dressed in brightly coloured nightgowns over their standard issue pyjamas. They don’t allow you to keep your own clothes here it’s A Rule. There are many rules, starting with not wearing your own clothing, no books that aren’t from the library, and all the way up to no sexual activity of any kind. Not even on your own. For all the desire one feels after therapy they might as well make a rule against walking upside on the ceiling.
‘This looks more like a work camp,’ Harry mutters.
‘How would you know? You’ve never done a day’s labour in your life.’
He smiles at that and settles his aggravated hackles. As a member of the English department he ought to be a sworn enemy, but on a particularly bleak and desperate evening I ran into a meeting for reformed inverts and there he was. That vaguely recognised face, generally seen scowling over a mug of tea and ripping lines of red ink through essays, was in front of everyone talking about the difficulties of overcoming his perversions. Harry has more to talk about at the meetings than I do. I’m a coward, you see, and I entirely lack the courage of my perversions. I’ve never even kissed another man let alone befouled my body with one. Yet I think about it all the time.
‘How long do you think you’ll be in here?’ he asks, settling his hands in his lap. ‘Everyone at the group sends their best. They think you’re so brave.’ He clasps his hand to his chest as he speaks. ‘So brave.’
‘I’m not sure.’
There are too many other people around to speak freely, even if I was so minded. Harry and I have never been in the way of sharing deep confidences.
‘Well how long do they say?’
‘It was supposed to be six weeks, so another week, but… there’s an assessment.’ Just the word makes my stomach throb with nausea. ‘I have to prove that I’m cured.’
‘People tell the world they’re magically cured and then do you know what happens?’
‘They get caught.’
‘They get caught at a club or with someone!’ Harry hesitates for a moment. ‘Did I repeat myself?’
‘We have had this conversation before,’ I say quietly.
‘Well then, there you go,’ he says, as if this were added proof.
‘If I can’t pass the assessment…’
He waves a hand. ‘You need a nice male designated subbie. Problem solved.’
I wonder sometimes if he’s my friend despite not listening for more than thirty seconds or because he doesn’t.
James crosses the room, pulling my eye with him. He notices my gaze and winks.
Harry tuts and folds his hands on his knees. ‘Do you need anything?’
The knowledge that trusting James isn’t going to send me to a re-education camp would be nice.
‘No, nothing you can help me with.’