You will see it, if you care to look, the sign over the broken wrought iron gate to his mind and marrow, that reads, Madness will Set You Free. He didn’t put it there. It just appeared one day, and it’s never gone away. Sometimes he looks up at it, as the crows fly by, listening to the whispered song of his dear choir, the voices holding their glorious, prolonged note that he has heard forever, and he wonders if the sign is true.
The bright white 2×2 metre isolation room had a telephone booth florescent ceiling light, and a yellow tile floor with a drain in the centre. In contrast, he wore a blue hospital gown, smeared with his own blood, and nothing else. They’d probably already burned his clothes, stinking like creation, of shit and sweat, as if he were his own primal season. But they hadn’t yet attended to his cut lip, or the scabbed over blows to his head. Earlier, as they restrained him, as they held him down with a mattress, someone had shone a penlight into each of his eyes, and had said, calmly, everydayishly, no contusion.
No contusion? The cops had tried and failed.
It was a tall, obese male nurse, with another standing behind him. Either one would be difficult to move; escape was impossible. The nurse was calling him by his alias, the one he had thought up when he arrived cuffed, in a cop hammerlock — Mr Virtue.
“We need to draw some blood and take your blood pressure, Mr Virtue,” the fat nurse said.
“No more sedation,” Virtue replied, sitting up. “No more goons holding me down.”
“Just try to trust us, and maybe there won’t be any need.”
Trust was a greasy sloping floor he’d skidded down before.
“Fuck you,” he said, spitting up a brown metallic tasting substance, which might have been blood or half-digested Pentecostal soup.
The BP cuff went round his bicep, and was unpleasantly inflated.
“You had no ID when you arrived,” the nurse said. “Where do you live?”
Virtue only shook his head.
“Do you take street drugs?”
“No, but I need a drink. I need a fucking cigarette.”
“Do you have allergies?”
“People,” he said, fists clenching and banging his thighs. “People give me spots, man. I swell up and itch. Sometimes I can’t breathe when they’re around. I go anaphylactic. Especially cops and nurses. Just give me a pill for people.”
“Is there anyone we can contact?”
“No,” he said. “Everyone’s here.” And he knew as the words dissolved into the florescent air, that he’d said the wrong thing.
He looked around the room, and all were present. The bus driver who told him to get off of the bus, even when he wasn’t on the bus; Natasha, who said she loved him, and who had laid her soul upon his cutting board, but who remained untouchable; Raymond, with whom he enjoyed shouting obscenities in public library; Chico, with his bleeding eyes peeking out from between the elastic bands wound tightly round his face, who Virtue had loud quarrels with, who brought his rubber band face so close to his own that Virtue swung his fists wildly at what no one else could see. And the choir, whose members were harder to observe, fading in and out. Infants who never aged and the foul smelling spirits with their backward faces. They never stopped singing their endless note — Ahhhhhhhh — in E-flat major — for forty-five years, never stopping once to take a breath.
“They’re all here, baby,” he said to no one. “I don’t know how they all fit, but they’re here.”
Shut the fuck up — Chico said — You always tell them too much.
“Kiss my ass,” Virtue yelled, and swung his fists.
The nurses stepped back.
“Have you ever been on medication, Mr Virtue?”
It was a new voice. He stopped swinging and focussed on the door, listening very carefully.
It was a woman’s voice this time. She was a tall one, too. He knew before he even saw her. The tall ones’ voices were as lofty as ceiling beams. He had to look up to see their spoken words melt like lemon drops. She walked into the isolation room, the nurses exiting, but standing nearby.
“Are you in charge round here?” Virtue said.
“My name is Dr Elizabeth Chang,” she said. “I’m a psychiatrist.”
“You say that like it’s Christmas,” Virtue said, running his tongue over his cut lip, “like I’m gonna get presents.”
“What about it?” she said. “Have you ever been on medication? For the voices, the hallucinations, I mean.”
“Hallucinations?” he said, looking round him.
Shit! Fuck! Motherfucker! Shit! Shit! Fuck! — Raymond screamed.
Virtue covered his ears with his too tight fists.
“Mr Virtue…?” Chang said.
“Yeah,” he hollered, banging his ears, gasping, clenching his entire body. Then, quieter, rocking a bit, he said, “Sure, they gave me pills once. Little white and blue things. They crawled around in my mouth like bugs, like beetles with switchblade feet and napalm in their bellies. Like drones looking for a Pakistani wedding party. I spit ‘em out, and the goons put us all in a room just like this.”
“Us? Who is us?”
“Me and the gang,” he said, looking round him. “We played cribbage for three days.” He saw Natasha smile. Maybe she remembered. “They slid my food under the door. I never won a single game. Chico cheats.”
You’re a fucking whiner — Chico said.
“How long ago was that?”
“Well medications have improved since then.” Dr Chang said. “Would you like to try something now? Something that would calm you, take the voices away?”
He frowned at the idea. Was it sloppy disdain in her voice?
Get off the bus — said the bus driver.
“I paid my fare,” Virtue said.
Get off my goddam bus!
“Mr Virtue…?” said Chang.
The choir sang louder.
“Who else have I got?” he said. “If they go away…?”
You’re a pussy — said Chico, bringing his bleeding eyes close, closing them hard so that the blood dripped off of his chin. Virtue could see the outline of a smile beneath the elastic bands around his mouth.
“The police want to take you to the Forensic Unit,” Chang said. “They’ll force you to take medication there, and you’ll be placed in with some very dangerous people. If you consent to treatment here, you’ll be certified, and I can keep you in relative comfort, get you cleaned up, let you stay on the P5 ward.”
“Psyche ward,” Virtue said, repulsed.
“Yes,” said Chang.
“It’s a petting zoo.”
“Will you let a doctor look at your cuts and bruises?”
“You want to kill them with pills,” Virtue said. “Would you take a pill to kill your friends, your family?”
Don’t let her put me in the morgue — cried Natasha.
“They’re obviously causing you distress, Mr Virtue,” Chang said.
“And your family doesn’t cause you distress,” Virtue said. “Occasionally?”
“Yes,” Chang smiled, “of course. But I can take time away from them, when I want to.”
“Ha! No you can’t,” Virtue pounded the floor. “You can’t take time away from them, at all. They’re always in your head, aren’t they? The anxieties they cause, and their smothering conditional love? Don’t lie to me. All of what they’ve said to you, done to you. The passive aggressive acquiescence. The religion. Their platitudes and bizarre poisonous illogic. False memories. The counterfeit Christmases. The viral dysfunction. Their dissatisfaction and mock appreciation. Their doubts, your doubts. Fear for their safety. Your fear of death, of abandonment, of watching them age and perish before your very eyes. The madness children will bring with them out of the womb. How the wealth of generations is redistributed. All of that’s pulsing through you, right now.”
“No, Mr Virtue,” Chang said. She’d hesitated — barely perceptive uncertainty. He’d hit a chord.
Go for it — Chico yelled.
“Oh, I can hear it like a siren,” Virtue said, smiling for the first time since his arrival. “Like someone scratching at the door to a cell she’s wanted to escape from since the moment she first felt the hands grab her round the throat and squeeze. You feel those hands squeezing right now, don’t you! You see their mute faces and their unblinking eyes. Don’t tell me you can take time away from that, and I won’t tell you that it’s easy for me.”
Virtue struggled now, to get to his feet. He’d aimed a communication beam right into the psychiatrist’s brain, and poured on the power. He would draw her in. He would introduce her to Chico. Chico would thank him. Chico was lonely.
A nurse stepped in to hold him down.
“Word salad,” Chang said to the nurse. “Olanzapine, 20 mg intramuscular injection. I’ll draw up the order.”
“Twenty milligrams?” said the nurse. “Are you sure?”
“I’ll be at the desk,” she said, “writing it up. Restraints if necessary. Prepare him, and I’ll arrange for transport to Forensics.” She walked away.
“Sorry, dude,” the nurse said to Virtue. “Things are about to get nasty for you.”
Your body’s a fire, Virtue — Chico said — Let ’em send you into hell.
Virtue looked up and saw the crows fly by. He saw the sign over the broken wrought iron gate, and said, “I’ll burn the whole fucking place down.”