a short story by Christopher Evans
When Malcolm came down with the news, Neal had already been at work for two hours and had finally got his new novel moving again after a sticky patch. Malcolm sauntered into the room and said, in his offhand manner: "Claire's in hospital. Attempted suicide."
It was the kind of bad news he had almost expected.
"Is she all right? What did she try?"
"Pills. They've pumped her stomach and she'll be OK. The hospital says she doesn't want to see you."
His immediate reaction was one of annoyance that he'd have to suspend work on the book just when he had it moving again; but his irritation was quickly swamped by his concern for Claire.
"Can I take the car?"
"Feel free," Malcolm said.
It was a two hour drive from the lodge to central London. Neal would have liked company for the journey, but Malcolm was negotiating an import deal for Korean antiques and he hadn't wanted to impose further on him. He had been staying at the lodge for the past week, having fled there immediately after his latest bust-up with Claire to subsist on Malcolm's ever-generous hospitality. The basement room was hermetic and he'd produced some of his best work there. He and Claire had regular fallings-out and he felt greatly in debt to his wealthy patron. "Don't worry," Malcolm would insist whenever Neal showed up, as big-hearted as he was large of frame. "Stay as long as you want. You know how much I enjoy having you around". Malcolm would then tell him that the only way he could really repay him would be to abandon Claire and become his lover, a submission he was constitutionally incapable of making.
This was the third time Claire had attempted suicide. Doubtless, like the two previous occasions, it was more a dramatic gesture, a plea for attention, than any serious desire to end her life. Claire was a gifted poet, but highly emotional and unstable. At his meanest Neal would accuse her of having a Sylvia Plath complex. They had been living together, on and off, for six years--periods of blissful emotional and intellectual harmony interspersed with dreadful fights provoked by Claire's hysterical reaction to even the mildest of criticism. He had lost count of the number of times he had walked out on her in anger, only to relent days later under the pressure of her pleading, apologetic phonecalls. They were slowly tearing one another apart, locked in an insane, destructive passion for one another.
The poet and the novelist. Their liaison had enchanted the more upmarket gossip columnists with its glittering surfaces. In an age of few celebrities, with the arts teetering on the brink of sterility, suffocated by the palliatives of the Welfare State, their brilliant partnership had received close scrutiny from the news-starved media. They chronicled its vicissitudes with a tedious diligence, providing vicarious excitement for the vast majority of people who led quiet, well-tailored lives, content in their anonymity.
Well, no more. It had to end. He would be considerate to Claire, but firm. He would tell her that it was all over, really over this time, that the only way they could ever survive and lead tolerable existences was to ensure that they never saw one another again. It was the only way. It would be hard, for a while, but they would both get over it eventually and begin to flourish in their separate lives. Yes. Yes. Cheered by this sudden sureness, he slipped a mintranq between his teeth, putting the car on auto.
Neal reached the hospital just after noon. The young female doctor was courteous but adamant.
"She refuses to see you, and I think she's quite right. It's better that she's not exposed to any stressful situations at the present time."
"Can I come back tomorrow?"
"You can, but she'll be even less able to see you then. We're operating on her in the morning."
"Operating? I thought you pumped her stomach? It was pills, wasn't it? There are no complications?"
"She's scheduled for psychosurgery. No doubt she'll agree to see you when she's convalescing after the operation. Give it a few days."
Her tone was matter-of-fact, disinterested. As if it were a routine pronouncement.
"Psychosurgery? You wouldn't dare."
"It's not a question of daring. The idea was hers. We brought no pressure to bear whatsoever."
"I don't believe you. She'd never agree to it."
Now he had her full attention. She gave him a "let's-be-reasonable" look. "You know very well that we are ethically and legally bound against coercive measures with respect to psychosurgery. Claire asked for the operation."
"She wouldn't. She's always hated the idea."
"Well, she's finally come to her senses."
His anger didn't intimidate her in the slightest. She was good-looking in a scrubbed, professional way, not a hair out of place, as crisp and polished in manner as she was in appearance.
"No," he insisted. "She did it because she was distressed. It's just a product of her present state of mind. Surely you can see that?"
"Her present state of mind is a product of the fact that in the past she has refused psychosurgery. Now she's given us the opportunity to break the vicious circle."
Neal wanted to slap her. "I won't allow it."
"You have no say in the matter. She's already signed the consent form."
"I'll fight it. She was under sedation when she signed, wasn't she? Then she was acting when the balance of her mind was disturbed by drugs. I'll sue."
"The balance of her mind was disturbed before she decided to sign. Cases like this are commonplace; they make up perhaps a third of our patients. There are innumerable legal precedents. You'd lose."
"I can't believe that's what she really wants."
"She's at the end of her tether. It's what she wants."
"Not at all. We're not proposing to make a robot out of her, you know. We have a detailed biography and a complete psychoprofile culled from the unconscious memory. The diagnostic computers have already identified the recurrent areas of distress and have recommended the appropriate chemotherapy. The drugs are quite specific in their mode of action. All we intend to do is to eliminate the affective disorders of her personality, not alter her entire psychic structure. Claire's ill. We're going to make her well again."
"I have to see her."
"You can. After the operation."
He took a long walk through the tidy streets, where people sat contentedly at outdoor cafés and bars. Some even smiled at him as he went by. All was harmony in the world since the advent of psychosurgery; people hurried into operating theatres in times of stress as readily as they had once turned to pills or drink or violence. Crime was almost extinct, and there had not even been a minor war for the past two decades--among the developed nations, at least. But they were paying a big price. The birth rate was falling, and everyone was becoming complacent and mentally stagnant. He and Claire were perhaps the only serious artists still working in the country. The others produced pap for mass consumption, and declared that suffering and soul-searching were obsolete in life and therefore in art.
Neal had always rejected this utterly. He and Claire had fought a rearguard action against it all their working lives and had gained their notoriety as a result. But although they were both minor celebrities, their work did not sell well and Malcolm's patronage had been invaluable. Malcolm looked like a wrestler but had the soul of an aesthete. It was fortunate that there were still people like him who, while not artists themselves, nevertheless appreciated the value of the true creative spirit.
He walked on, inert to all gestures of fellowship. He hated the bland smiles and the engineered friendliness of these hollow people. They were spiritually dead, and wanted everyone else to be like them. Legislation was currently being framed to permit "correctional psychosurgery" for children and adolescents with their parents' consent. The next generation would come out of a mould like jigsaw pieces and would slot together to make one vast blank whole.
He and Claire were planning to write a book together denouncing this headlong rush to conformity. They had marshalled an impressive list of facts to support their case. Inspiration was dying not only in the arts but also in the sciences, where the output of original research papers had plummeted in recent years. Claire had also discovered that--
The book might never be written. He could not believe that she would have the operation. It would be a betrayal of everything they had stood for.
He entered St Paul's. The cathedral was silent, empty, and he took a seat under the dome. Everything seemed polished to a glittering sheen, and the sky-blue glass in the arched window stood out in resplendent glory, fired by the sun. An ecclesiastical museum; the religious instinct, once the prime mover of art, was dead.
A secular priest came by and sat down beside him. He wore a black suit and a small oval badge bearing the maroon letters PC on a white field. A Psycounsellor, holding a higher degree in clinical psychology and religious philosophy. One of the new breed of domestic missionaries whose job it was to bring mental heathens to the altar of orthodox sanity.
"Can you talk about it?" the priest asked softly.
"No," Neal said emphatically, striding out of the cathedral.
Their three-roomed apartment was in Berwick Street. The place was in disarray, with soiled clothing, empty food cartons, bottles, cutlery and crockery lying everywhere. Claire was a hopeless housekeeper, and it had always fallen to him to keep the place tidy.
At the desk beside the slanting window Neal found her notepad. Inside was a draft of an unfinished poem. It was barely decipherable, being defaced with vigorous crossings-out, scrawled insertions and amendments. It began:
In the morning I awake,
The next few lines were irrevocably scratched out. And then:
But memories intrude
Several more lines had been erased with venom, as though Claire despised herself for committing them to paper in the first place. Two more had been rewritten:
No answers; only consequences
Another emphatic deletion before:
As I sit at the breakfast table, alone.
There was no more. He tore the page from the pad and put it in his pocket. Then he phoned Malcolm on his mobile number. And got straight through.
"Malcolm? It's Neal. They're going to operate on Claire."
"Operate? I thought she was all right."
"It's psychosurgery. She's signed the consent form."
A pause and a muffled sound. "Well, well. I never thought she had it in her."
"I don't think she has. I think it's a spur-of-the-moment thing that she'll regret. How can we stop it?"
There was another pause. It was obvious Malcolm was in a meeting.
"Have you talked to the doctors?" he said.
"Yes. Legally they have an air-tight case. They won't budge."
"You aren't suggesting we break in there and spirit Claire away?"
"No, of course not. But maybe they've overlooked some loophole in the law which we could invoke to get the operation delayed."
"Hmm, it's possible, I suppose. I'll get in touch with Bardon. He's been sitting idle for the past year, anyway. It's about time he got his legal teeth into something juicy."
"Malcolm, thanks. I don't know how I'll ever repay you."
"In the present circumstances it would be indiscreet of me even to drop a hint."
He sat waiting all afternoon, drinking Bombay Sapphires with lemonade, the only drink in the place. The big photograph of himself and Claire on holiday in Tanzania still hung over the mantelpiece. Taken three years before on Claire's twenty-first birthday, it showed her, russet-haired in a calico dress, exuberantly posing arms flung wide while he, lean and dark and intense, held her around the waist as if she might otherwise fly away.
At six-thirty Malcolm phoned back. They had no levers. The operation would go ahead.
Malcolm sounded paternally concerned. "What are you going to do now?"
"Get stoned," Neal told him.
He drank himself into a stupor, and when he woke the following morning he went out and bought more booze and began drinking again. Reporters started ringing, leaving urgent messages on the answerphone, wanting to know what was happening. The doorbell rang several times during the day but Neal didn't answer it until he recognized Malcolm's particular staccato.
Malcolm, as burly as any bouncer, pushed his way in through a small pack of reporters, forcing the door shut behind him. Reassured by his presence, Neal passed out on the bed, and then it was dawn and he was rising out of a night of turbulent dreams into the first new day of Claire's transmogrified existence.
He phoned the hospital and was told that she was still under sedation. They advised him to call again tomorrow. Perhaps she'd see him then.
Malcolm, genial and affable, cajoled him into going out that evening to watch the City Players do "Macbeth" at the New Criterion in Jermyn Street. He found the play tedious in the extreme, the cast incapable of breathing fire into the Master's exquisite lines. Malcolm shared his disillusionment, remarking that they "behaved like a herd of cows, masticating lines as if they were fodder."
Neal laughed, though it sounded like the cry of an endangered species.
"It's to be expected, though," he said. "We're breeding a world of manicured people who function perfectly but are thoroughly devoid of creativity."
Malcolm dabbed his lips with a paper napkin (they were in a restaurant).
"I must admit we do appear to be heading that way," he agreed.
"Claire's a fool. She'll regret the operation." He wanted Malcolm to agree with him.
Malcolm steepled his fingers under his chin.
"It's a little different with Claire, Neal," he said. "I hesitate to judge her because I don't know her too well, but it seems to be that she's been in need of some form of treatment for a long time."
"Maybe. But not this drastic."
"Wouldn't you call attempted suicide rather drastic, too?"
"It's a performance. She never intends to kill herself."
"She might succeed one day by accident."
He shook his head. "I'm surprised at you, Malcolm. I thought you disapproved of any manipulation of the personality."
Malcolm did not respond to this.
"I'm not saying that people with psychotic illness like schizophrenia shouldn't benefit from surgical intervention," Neal felt compelled to explain. "God knows they need help. But Claire simply feels some things more intensely than most. That's what makes her an artist."
Malcolm poured more wine for them.
"When I was sixteen," he said, "I was in a similar state to Claire--a confused suicidal mess. I had psychiatric treatment which enabled me to see that I was a social misfit not because of my feelings but because I was denying them. My therapist brought about a change in my mental state which was beneficial to me."
"Yes, but he didn't tamper directly with your brain."
"Actually, it was a she, but no matter. Her tools were psychological rather than chemical, it's true, but her aim was the same as that of the psychosurgeons--to modify the individual consciousness."
"But you did it out of your own volition, through a process of self-enlightenment. Psychosurgery is so mechanistic. It's a denial of free will."
"How so? Claire made the decision to undergo the operation freely. It's just that the process of self-enlightenment, if you want to call it that, is now achieved through extraneous action, though objective rather than subjective processes. Personality restructuring is a far more exact science these days. Older methods were far more random and uncontrolled--and much less effective."
He stared at Malcolm, saying nothing. Malcolm studied his wine glass. "I'm not saying that psychosurgery is necessarily a good thing. But this much is clear: if you have grave mental problems which are interfering with your life--by which I mean endangering your very existence or that of other people--if this is the case, then I think that psychosurgery is often the only possible solution. What I object to is the gratuitous modifications which people with no deep-rooted emotional problems undertake."
"So you think Claire has done the right thing?"
"I'm afraid so, Neal."
He rang the hospital again the following morning. Claire would see him at noon. Had there been any complications? None, she was fine. As he replaced the receiver he felt the anger and frustration of the past two days melt away, leaving a core of apprehension.
Malcolm was due to return home that afternoon but he agreed to accompany Neal to the hospital. They arrived fifteen minutes early, Neal a little groggy from the mintranqs he had been sucking all morning.
Claire was ensconced in a private room at the end of a long corridor. The doctor--a different one from the woman he had spoken to--talked about the operation, explaining how it was all accomplished with hypodermics and short-wave radiation, how there were no incisions and therefore no scars.
Neal and Malcolm sat down on the leather bench outside the door while the doctor entered Claire's room to announce their arrival. Neal felt giddy, weak with anxiety. Malcolm talked soothingly, telling him a frivolous story about one of his holidays, but he could not concentrate on the tale.
The doctor emerged and said to Malcolm: "She'd like to see you for a few moments first."
Neal sat squirming in his seat, wondering why Claire had insisted on seeing Malcolm, for whom she had always expressed a mild dislike. He felt abandoned, snubbed, at a complete loss to know how he would handle his own meeting with her. Past experiences might not help him at all now that she had undergone psychosurgery.
Malcolm emerged within minutes, age-long minutes for him. He smiled faintly and said, "Go on in." Neal pushed past, afraid even to look at him.
Claire was sitting up in bed, three pillows at her back, a padded white skullcap covering her shaven head. He'd been prepared for this, having been told that pinpoint accuracy was required in the insertion of the hypodermics. But the cap, and the white hospital gown, gave her an institutionalized look. She appeared perfectly alert, though, her hazel eyes regarding him calmly as he took a seat beside the bed.
"You look well," he said immediately. "I was expecting a bolt through your temples."
It was a feeble, ungracious attempt at humour, but she smiled. In the past she might have been offended by the comment.
"I'm fine," she said. "A little dizzy if I move my head too fast, but the doctor says that'll pass in a few days. Otherwise, I feel good."
She looked healthy, somehow more robust now that the anxious wildness was gone from her eyes. She'd always been an especially beautiful woman in repose: at nights, when things were good, he would sometimes wake and just lie there, watching her sleeping.
"How did it feel?" he asked. "The operation, I mean."
"Nothing special. I was anaesthetized and I woke, I think it was eleven hours later. I don't remember anything." Then, as though realizing what he wanted to know, she added: "Waking up was the nicest part. It was like coming out of a beautiful relaxing sleep. I just lay there, drifting, no pressures, no horrible thoughts. It was like being a little girl again. Carefree."
"No, not dramatic at all. Quite the reverse, in fact. I wasn't really making any comparisons at the time. I wasn't aware of thinking about anything in particular because there didn't seem to be anything to be that concerned about immediately."
He imagined the molecules of the psycosmetic drugs as solid entities, travelling along the neural network of her brain like safari hunters blasting away at the unruly native life. Here a spark of rebellion. Bang. There an over-emotional tendency. Zap.
"Are you happy now?"
"Happiness is something you can only register after the fact," she said, echoing one of their many conversations on the subject. At least she remembered. "I'm contented. I'm not worried or depressed or confused. I'm just OK. And you?"
"I've missed you," he said, reaching out and taking her hand. She did not reject or encourage him. "I tried to see you. I didn't want you to have the operation."
"I know. That's why I had to make sure you didn't."
"I was afraid they'd turn you into a zombie."
"Well, you can see they haven't. I'm really all right."
His hand was trembling. She took it between hers and held it still.
"I've brought you something," he said, fumbling in his pocket and producing the page from her notepad.
She took it from him, unfolded it and scanned what she had written. Without any expression whatsoever.
"It'll be a good poem when you finish it," he said, though he knew that the fragments were far from her best work.
"No," she replied. "I don't think so. I really couldn't do any more with it."
He wondered if she simply meant she was abandoning it as an inferior poem.
"Are you going to continue to write?"
"I don't know." Her exhalation was like a sigh. "Oh, I expect so. I think the urge is still there. Only it's more of a mild desire than a compulsion."
"You can't just let it slip away."
"A lot of my poetry came from the part of me that was sick, Neal. It was cathartic art." She smiled: this had been another perennial dialogue of theirs. "I don't know whether I need to do that any more."
"When you come home you'll get back into it just like before."
The page lay discarded on the bed. "I won't be coming home, Neal. I'm going away."
The words came out like gobbets of glue. Glop. Glop.
"To my aunt on the West Coast. She's agreed to put me up for a couple of months. I need a change and a rest."
"But you'll be back?"
"I don't know. I haven't decided."
"You have to come back. We have to pick it up."
Something that might have been pity crossed her face. "I'm sorry, Neal. There isn't going to be any going back."
"What do you mean? Why not?"
"Since the operation I see things in a different light. You must realize that. I couldn't go back to living with you."
"Why not?" he repeated. Frantic.
"The good times we had were really good, and I'll always remember you with affection for them. But the bad times were equally bad, and I couldn't go through it all again."
"But it'll be different now you've had the operation."
He waited, but the silence was too much. "What is it?"
"I just don't feel the same way about you any more."
The anxiety and sense of hopelessness which had been mounting in him ever since he had sat down at the bedside suddenly gave way to a rush of anger.
"You mean you don't need me any more," he said with venom. "You don't need me to play your neurotic games with. You don't need me as your crutch, to come running whenever you scream for help."
"Neal, there's no need for this."
"You've used me all along and now you're dropping me like a toy."
"It's not like that."
"You always were a bitch, Claire. A bloody selfish bitch."
She did not start throwing things. Instead, she was staring at him quite calmly.
"I wasn't all my fault," she said quietly. "You've always had a vicious tongue and a violent temper. That why I used to get so distraught."
"You were over-sensitive."
"Perhaps. But you were too thick-skinned. You would never admit that our quarrels were as much your fault as mine. They were, Neal. When the doctors were analysing my psychoprofile they discovered a lot about you by default. Our relationship was a classic neurotic bind."
"Are you trying to tell me that I'm as sick as you?" He could not bring himself to add the "were" which he knew the end of the sentence demanded.
"I'm saying that we fed off one another's bad habits. Whereas I inflicted pain on myself, you inflicted it on others. Me, mostly. Your psychoprofile shows definite aberrant traits."
"Aberrant? You really have become one of the faceless masses, haven't you? The Claire I knew rejoiced in her individuality, but now you're just a mouthpiece for the mind-benders."
"The Claire you knew showed manic-depressive tendencies and was barely able to cope with life. That's what all our conversations were ultimately about, Neal--the quality of life. We talked the subject to death, but we were really trying to rationalize our own insecurity. I've found a solution now."
A sudden weariness came over him, a weariness composed of defeat and resignation. He no longer wanted to argue.
He stood up, his legs a little wobbly. "You're right, Claire, there really would be no point in attempting to pick up the pieces. I don't know you. They killed off the person I knew two days ago."
She wore an expression of implacable calmness. "I asked Malcolm if he'd look after you for a while. Until things calm down a little."
"I don't need your charity," he said, and strode out of the room.
Malcolm fussed around him, showing concern and not a little embarrassment. He had obviously been aware of the likely outcome of his meeting with Claire but was nevertheless uncertain how to react. The doctor, lingering close by, kept his distance. Malcolm led Neal over to the bench and sat him down.
"I'm all right," he said, though he felt like hell. "It's just the shock of seeing her so ... so bloody pompous. It was like meeting a stranger."
"No," Malcolm said gently. "You recognized enough in her to realize that you still love her."
His thoughts came into focus. Well, did he? What, really, was the essence of his attraction for her? Was he in love with her personality? Her body? Her mind? All three? Why had he been so afraid of her having the operation? Because he recognized the possibility that it would change her feelings towards him? Were all his objections merely a cover for the fear that he might lose her admiration and affection, as, indeed, he had done? Was love, then, simply the need to be loved?
"Claire's worried about you," Malcolm said. "She doesn't want you to do anything foolish. She still cares a lot about you."
"But not enough."
"I don't know. Perhaps she's just afraid of repeating the same mistakes. There could be a way out."
He already knew. "If I undergo psychosurgery."
"You might get her back that way," Malcolm said. "I want to stress, though, that I'm completely neutral in this matter. The decision is entirely up to you."
"It really need only be minor modifications to your existing mental structure, you know."
The doctor was standing over him, smiling pleasantly, holding out a yellow form.
Neal took it from him and read it through. It was a provisional consent form subject to further tests, but it had been printed out in his name, and most of the relevant details of his personality profile and the recommended modifications had been made. Aggression tempering. Reduction in obsessive-compulsive thought patterns and behaviour. World-view more strongly based on facts rather than prejudices.
The assessment had been based on tests he'd had as an adolescent and on the additional information on his adult behaviour from public records and Claire's psychoprofile. He was surprised at the comprehensiveness and the bland sinister accuracy of much of it.
Malcolm's face was unreadable. Had Claire set it up? Was she offering this last, surreptitious chance to repair their relationship? Perhaps she had felt unable to make the suggestion directly and saw Malcolm as the perfect intermediary. Which, if it was true, meant that she did still care for him.
He looked up at the doctor.
"Would you like a pen?" the doctor asked.
© Christopher Evans 1980, 1997
This story first appeared in Extro No 3 Vol 2, 1980. This version slightly revised from the original.
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