Intensive Care

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Photo courtesy of Robbert Helligers

 

A year ago today, my burgeoning career at the Brackenfield Foundry was cut short by a catastrophic industrial accident. I don’t want to dwell on the morbid details of that day (indeed, my scattergun memory often prevents me from doing so), but the impact of the accident speaks for itself. It was an explosion, that much I remember. An overheated valve, a build-up of pressure. The fallout from this resulted in significant burns to my shoulder, neck and arms, as well as the loss of my right leg at the knee.

From the black heat of the foundry I was carried, screaming, into daylight. Steeped in smoke and blood, that is my last memory before a blissful, white darkness swallowed me.

#

My mother and brother were watching me as I regained consciousness in the intensive care unit. At that point, I was aware only of a mild stinging sensation, similar to that which a wasp might inflict. This sting, however, enveloped my whole body, and seeped warmly through my veins. The only thought to emerge from my jumbled, shell-shocked brain was a sense of mild surprise at seeing my big brother Eddie, who must have made the three-hour journey especially. I wanted to voice my polite gratitude, but as my tongue rolled wetly over cracked lips, it dawned on me for the first time how feeble I was.

‘I think we’re losing him,’ said a voice from somewhere beside me. A hackneyed, television melodrama line, spoken with urgency by a thick, swampy voice I didn’t recognise. But that can’t be right, I thought. I’m not lost. I’m here. My eyes may be groggy but my thoughts are lucid. My body is burned, but I am still alive.

My voice was nothing more than a rheumatic wheeze, but somehow it got the message across to the assembled company.

‘Doctor!’ my mother shrieked, ‘He’s awake!’

‘Can he see us?’ Eddie asked in tremulous tones, as though he were a little boy again, fearful of capture by the neighbourhood bully.

The doctor, a paunched little Asian man with a moustache, rushed over to my side, clipboard in hand. He did not speak, just referred to his notes and watched me breathe.

#

The extent of my injuries was made known to me only gradually, over a period of about a week and a half. I was heavily drugged the whole time, but managed to get out a few words every now and then. Mainly greetings for mother and Eddie when they stopped by, which they did more or less every day. The stump of my right knee was examined regularly by specialists, and a cooling anti-bacterial gel was applied to the burns. These burns were most severely evident on my chest, and when the nurses reached them I would often close my eyes rather than risk a glance down at the seared, purplish flesh.

A few men from the foundry came to see me too, I think, but it was a bad day and I was barely awake for much of their visit. They must have left disappointed, for I never saw any of them again.

So extreme was the dosage of painkillers that I could barely move any part of my body for much of this time. Nurses fed me, bathed me, swathed me in fresh bandages, and kept me suicidally cheerful with their chatter. When Dr. Kasrani, the doctor to whom my mother had appealed on that first day, finally got around to telling me that my leg was gone, I was not angry or upset. I had been conditioned over the span of days to accept such news with quiet grace.

I think I said, ‘Thank you for letting me know,’ without the slightest hint of irony or bitterness in my voice.

#

My strength (such as it was) began to come back over the next month and a half. Dr. Kasrani proved himself a highly efficient specialist, and I was visited by a parade of physiotherapists whose job it was to prepare me for my new, modified lifestyle. The nurses kept me happy with talk of their boyfriends, cats and children. I tried to explain to one of them what my job at the foundry had been, but when I saw the way her smile fixed as I spoke, I realised what folly it is to try and be anything other than a patient to them.

I was in a small long-term convalescent ward with three other men, all of whom were in their own little spirals of pain and aggression. This was a dark time in all of our lives and, though no one wanted to admit it, there was something comforting in having another breathing soul in a bed six feet away.

Directly in front of me was a man with a whiteboard at the head of his bed bearing the hastily-scribbled name: ROBERT HAYERS. I couldn’t see him properly- the thick plastic oxygen mask mashed his mouth and nose- but I did not think much could be expected of him. His ghastly complexion and erratic breathing did little to instil you with confidence.

To the left of him was a shirtless old man whose name had been scrubbed out from the accompanying whiteboard. What a callous act, I thought. He stared directly at me with big, mad eyes, his whole body quivering silently.

I turned to the man in the bed next to mine. His name, the board told me, was MICHAEL RENNISON- ‘MIKE.’

‘Is he all right?’ I asked, nodding toward the topless old gent who shivered spasmodically at the other end of the ward.

‘I doubt it, son,’ Rennison said wryly, glancing up only briefly from his Daily Mail.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Nobody knows. Seems like they just found him wandering.’

I instantly regretted engaging with Mike Rennison. He was not the sort of man to let things go and, with me, he obviously felt that he had latched onto an ally. From then on he chatted away, read me funny letters from his newspaper, and tried to get me involved in the salacious banter he inflicted upon the younger, slimmer nurses. His sonorous bark filled the disinfected air, while Robert Hayers’s slow, comatose breaths kept a kind of curious rhythm. This was the soundtrack to my recovery.

No one came to claim the shirtless old man, who did not speak even once. Numerous attempts were made to dress him in hospital gowns, but as soon as the nurses turned their heads, he would be scrabbling out of it again, screwing it up beneath his pillow and glaring at me, daring me to tell.

Mike Rennison turned a blind eye to all this, having long ago given up his attempts to engage with the elderly vagrant. I was the sole object of his interest now. He was a fat, friendly boiled egg of a man in red and white striped pyjamas. Curiously, he was the only one of us not to have anything obviously wrong with him. Quite the reverse, in fact: he grew more robust and verbose with each passing day.

One morning in my fifth week, he levelled his beady gaze on me.

‘Psst!’ he said noisily. I turned my neck to face him, hoping the sudden burst of pain would be worth it. ‘Are you much of a reader, pal?’

‘Why?’ My voice came out sharp; he had startled me from my patient’s reverie.

‘Got this book here,’ he held up a slim, hard-backed volume. ‘Can’t make head or tail of it. Thought I might give someone else a chance. You like ghost stories?’

‘Not really,’ I said, but he was already out of bed and tiptoeing towards me. For one so rotund, he was surprisingly light on his feet.

‘They say he’s the best ghost story writer you’ve never heard of. You can make your own mind up about that one.’ He left the book on top of the small wooden cabinet by my bed, dismissing my protests with a jocular wave of his hand. ‘It’s yours pal. Don’t worry about it.’

I am always wary of acts of impromptu generosity, but in this instance I was powerless to resist. I suppose it was unavoidable, really. For a few hours, I let the book taunt me from my bedside, hovering ominously on the periphery of my vision. Even when I closed my eyes, I knew it was there. I was bound to pick it up eventually.

I waited till the other men were asleep, or in whatever drug-induced inertia passed for sleep here. Then I reached out for it. The book’s weight was oddly satisfying in my hand, as though I were holding a trophy; something I had won.

It was decades older than I had first thought; certainly pre-war, maybe even pre-Great War. The absence of a dustjacket gave nothing away, but it had that comfortable, lived-in smell that books acquire over long stretches of time, and which some people find charming. When it creaked open in my lap I caught my first glimpse of a faded frontispiece depicting a long, bleak stretch of beach. Little more than a smudge of grey and off-white. The title, though, generated a certain childish enthusiasm of which I’d not thought myself capable: The Chimes of Madness by F. Hanley Scrivens.

The stories within- eleven, in all- were not frightening, but rather disquieting. I read them in quick succession, and each had its own unique little surprise to offer. Every so often, phrases occurred which lodged in the imagination, evoking a slow unease that lingered in the air like cigarette smoke.

The first story concerned a traveller of antique lands, who chances upon a scarf of the finest silk in some Eastern bazaar. He purchases the item for his betrothed and, upon his return to England, presents her with it as a gift.

She wears the scarf with pride at a ball that evening, drawing many an admiring glance. The following morning, however, she is found in her quarters, quite dead, with the silk now knotted about her milk-white throat. The traveller is arrested and convicted of the crime, all the while vehemently pleading his innocence. His family, however, are influential, and manage to have his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. One morning, he awakens in his cell to find the scarf, the very same scarf, draped over his chest, as though placed there by phantom hands. The message of this act is clear, for the scarf has now been fashioned into that most portentous of symbols: a noose.

While this story was deftly told in Scrivens’s blunt-edged linguistic style, little phrases such as ‘whispering silk’ took on an almost perverse significance, beyond their representation on the page. It was not fear I was feeling, nor awe in the face of a magisterial literary genius. It was something I can’t describe.

I could see why my neighbour had not taken to the book. I imagined the efficacy of Scrivens’s words would be lost on the majority of his readers, past and present, with only a very select few possessing the necessary emotional and psychological make-up for the process to work. I wanted to look over at Mike Rennison, to thank him for introducing this book to me, but I couldn’t drag my gaze away from the yellowing pages.

The stories continued in a similar vein, like macabre little black jokes, though none of them were so tangibly divisible into sections such as ‘set-up’ and ‘punchline.’ Their mechanics were more complex, powerful enough to make it seem that nothing was happening at all.

When I reached the final story, which was entitled simply “The Chimes,” it was almost eleven in the evening. Soon, the nurses would be changing shifts, and the lights would go out. The other men, the previous owner of the book included, were still asleep. Snoring, murmuring and gurgling like children, as usual. But I was not listening to them. In my head, I was listening to the sea, and the sound of chimes.

This story differed somewhat from the others in the collection. Its tone was altogether darker, and it lacked the smattering of gallows humour which had enlivened the other entries. This was a strangeness so comprehensive and inexorable that I cannot bring myself to discuss it now. The plot of the story offers little to one who has not read the words themselves. Nevertheless, here it is.

“The Chimes” concerns a man who, while wandering on the beach, stumbles upon a small, cubic box, half-buried in the sand. There is a keyhole in the centre of the box but, though he scrabbles around for nearly an hour, the man can find no accompanying key. He takes the box back to his home, puzzling over it for days on end, turning it over and over in his hands, feeling the smoothness of the polished pine. It fascinates him. When he shakes it, the contents rattle.

In the end, his obsession becomes so overpowering that he flings the box across the room in an irrational rage. It splinters immediately, and he sees that it was once a clockwork music box. The miniature cogs and levers from within it now lie scattered across the floor of his study.

The night following his act of wanton destruction is greatly disturbed. He is awoken by a high, sweetly musical sound from somewhere in the house. A gentle ripple of notes that seems to be calling him. No matter how he tries, he cannot trace its source. When he has all but torn the place apart in his mad searching, it finally dawns on him that what he is hearing are the chimes of the shattered music box. Repeating endlessly, and always in the near distance, as though behind a door or thinly-plastered wall. He wanders from room to room, listening to the ghostly chimes, as the sun rises across the sea.

My eyelids were hovering by the time I reached the final line. As I closed the book, a wave of exhaustion washed over me that I did not have the strength to withstand.

#

I was woken in the night by harsh voices, thundering footsteps and the squeal of a curtain being drawn hurriedly around a bed. I sat up. The bed in question was Mike Rennison’s. There were four or five of them behind the curtain with him in the dark, male and female, whispering abrasively, in a state of panic. I heard a doctor’s authoritative tones silence the others with a few, curt words. Then, impossibly, came a voice I recognised as my mother’s. ‘I think we’re losing him,’ she said, as though possessed of some medical authority in the matter. But that can’t be right. The last vestiges of a dream, surely. The fading echo of the chimes. There was no way my mother could be here in the night, hovering in the shadows, murmuring ominously from behind the curtain.

‘Can he see us?’ came another, dreadfully familiar voice. Eddie. Caught in a peculiar limbo, I stared over at the curtain which shielded the old man’s bed. To whom was my brother referring? I was all set to scramble from my own bed to investigate, when I recognised Dr. Kasrani’s voice. ‘No.’

Then nothing. A monstrous, hulking silence that consumed everything, and seemed to sap the very oxygen from my lungs. I screwed shut my eyes, like the two men across the ward from me, and pretended to sleep.

They took Michael Rennison away the following morning. Wheeled him out without a word to any of us. I closed my eyes like a coward as the gurney squeaked past my bed, bearing its dreadful, shrouded cargo. For the death to occur so soon after I had read that bleak and terrible story was almost too much for my fragile constitution to withstand.

When he was gone, I glanced at the book on my bedside table. For better or worse, The Chimes of Madness was mine now. The dead man’s last bequest.

#

I left the hospital quite soon after that, limping along on a creaking prosthetic and two rusty crutches. I couldn’t stomach a return to the city, so I was entrusted to my brother Eddie’s care for the time being. His little house by the sea was deemed an ideal place to continue my convalescence. Not by me, of course; it was my mother’s idea.

I watched the two of them, she and Eddie, with something resembling suspicion as they helped me pack my bags. I had not forgotten the night that Mike Rennison died, and the voices I’d heard. Though it was of course the product of a waking dream, an uneasy sensation remained that I was the object of some dark conspiracy. For this reason, I did not let the Scrivens book out of my sight, all the way from the ward to Eddie’s waiting car.

The journey was long and humid, and Eddie’s conversation singularly uninspiring. It had never dawned on me until that point what a dull man my brother was, and is. The stump of my knee throbbed with constant, torturous irritation, but was almost matched by Eddie’s inescapable voice.

The house was visible for miles as we approached, a curious distension in the otherwise immaculate flatland. Though I had never visited the place before, it was exactly as I pictured. A rambling, ramshackle little place, much like its owner. Eddie had been teaching at the nearby village school for the past three years, and I imagined the walls of his home to be lined with precious books, the air thick with the musk of his bachelorhood.

I was told the attic room had been set aside for my use; nice and bright, apparently, with a decent view of the sea less than a quarter of a mile in the distance. The country road took us on a sweeping path along the water’s edge. I experienced a queasy rush of déjà vu as we drew nearer to the sea and glimpsed the thin stretch of beach. In the grey, midday light, the landscape had an unhealthy pallor, a familiar bleakness. From the bag in my lap, I produced The Chimes of Madness and a distinct little chill rolled through me. When we reached the house and traipsed up the wooden staircase to the airy, cavernous attic room, that chill returned as I realised that the view of the beach I would have from my bedroom window was identical to the one depicted on my book’s frontispiece.

#

At the end of the first week, I got Eddie to take me into town. There, a visit to the local museum (with adjoining library) yielded considerable insight. A gaunt, cardigan-wearing librarian named Henry was able to confirm what my instincts had already led me to suspect. F. Hanley Scrivens was born not three miles from Eddie’s house, at Hayborough, a stately home which had been razed to the ground in 1944. He was a local hero, a figure of regional repute.

An incidental note in a volume of local history told me what precious little there was to know of the writer. Born 1881; silenced by a sniper’s bullet in the fields of Verdun, 1916. In his short lifetime, he produced a clutch of ghostly tales which, in their day, made him the talk of the literary elite. These stories were published in two collections: The Unquiet Stones and The Chimes of Madness. Referring to the publication date in my copy of the latter volume confirmed that it was indeed a first edition. The only edition, for his popularity had lasted precious little longer than his own cruelly short existence.

My discovery taunted me that evening, as Eddie and I took our customary walk along the sands.

‘You know, F. Hanley Scrivens was born a couple of miles up the road from here,’ I murmured absent-mindedly, ‘He probably came this way for a visit.’

‘Who’s F. Hanley Scrivens?’ Eddie asked, in between theatrical inhalations of sea air, as though he were demonstrating to me how it should be done.

‘Just a writer,’ I said.

‘Didn’t know you were much of a reader.’

I shrugged, or tried to, though the crutches made it more of an effort than it was worth. ‘Got to do something,’ I said.

‘No, I think it’s great. What did he write?’

‘Nothing you’d have heard of, Eddie. Spooky stories.’

#

I read the whole book through three or four more times, in the sanctuary of my room at the top of Eddie’s crooked little house, discovering each time a fresh nuance to the long-dead writer’s work. A new source of fascination. Of course, I still had no idea of the book’s true purpose. That only became apparent to me in the sixth week of my stay by the sea. I had entered into a routine of exercising by day and reading by night – building up my physical strength and diminishing my emotional strength by slow degrees.

One night, after dinner, I’d retreated to my room with the intention of tackling a nasty little story called “The Incident at Watson Farm,” which nestled in the centre of the volume. As I sat at the desk, I happened to glance down at the book in my hands. It was then that I saw it. A part of the book itself. I had been so entranced by its content that I had never troubled to examine its exterior. Now, looking at it end-on, I could just make out a small lump in the binding. A narrow object, lodged in the gap between page and spine, held in place by globs of viscous glue. Seizing a freshly-sharpened pencil from the desk, I set about prising the object free, digging down and listening to the crackle as, bit by bit, the dried glue broke apart. Working very carefully, to prevent the pages from slipping out, it took maybe ten minutes to free the object.

It was a key. Looking at it on the desk – grubby, ancient brass – I got the impression that I was looking at hidden treasure. This secret had been wielded by The Chimes of Madness for almost a century, passing from unwitting owner to unwitting owner, until now it lay before me, denuded of all protection or pretence.

When Eddie knocked on the door to tell me my meal was ready, I instinctively slipped the key in a drawer. I think he sensed something in my face; we are brothers, after all. Maybe I was oddly flushed. His eyebrows twitched briefly, but he said nothing. I told him I would be down shortly.

Dinner that night was an illusory experience. The meal, and my brother’s conversation, passed by all but unacknowledged by either of us. My thoughts were consumed by the addictive mystery of a key without a lock. Of course, I was thinking about the doomed central character of “The Chimes,” whose search for just such a key ended in failure and, inevitably, madness. It was as though a strange link had been established between myself and F. Hanley Scrivens, as though the key were a gift from the dead writer himself. A clue to the century-old puzzle of his own devising. Did other copies of the book conceal a key, as some kind of curious publicity gimmick to bewilder and fascinate his readers?

Separated from his birthplace by a three-mile stretch of godless beach, which had been described with ferocious, almost obsessive accuracy in the pages of his story: it was all a little too precise, too meticulous, to be coincidence. Early the next morning, I took a walk along this beach, the key in my pocket. The cold air whipped against my face and must have given my long strands of greasy hair an even wilder aspect. My crutches sank inch-deep into the sand. I had left Eddie to his sleep. He wouldn’t have understood.

As I walked, I was seized by a sudden desire to rid myself of this key, to hurl it into the frothing white waves as they edged closer and closer with the morning tide. But I could not do it. I thought of Scrivens roaming this same stretch of sand all those years ago, watching the water as the story formed itself in his head. Then I thought of the character he had created in “The Chimes” who was on his own mad quest.

What was Scrivens telling me? What was the lesson of the story?

I was the only living soul upon that beach, scrabbling in the sand for the ghost of a dead man’s imaginings. The winter sun burned icily down.

The subsequent days dissolved into weeks; great chasms of lost time, and my search rolled on without end. As soon as Eddie went to work, I would set out, recording my progress with militaristic precision, dividing and subdividing the sand into manageable patches. I combed that beach from north to south, all the while painfully aware that my task was an irrational one, born of bad dreams and morbid preoccupations.

Maybe it was my accident and resultant incompleteness that had done it. Or maybe it was just the story. My reasons were unknown even to myself, but the task was clear. Impossible as it may sound, I knew then, as I know now, that the box is waiting for me somewhere in the dunes.

#

This morning, I came into the hall to find Eddie perched on a wooden dining chair, talking discreetly on the phone. I could tell from his face that it was mother on the other end of the line, and that he had not wanted me to know they were talking. I merely smiled, said good morning, and made my way past him to the kitchen. But as I did so, I caught my mother’s hushed, tinny voice coming from the receiver. ‘Can he see you?’

As I closed the kitchen door, I heard Eddie’s frantic, whispered response. ‘I think we’re losing him.’

Sitting down at the kitchen table, my fingers closed around the key in my pocket, caressing it, as though it were a lucky charm.

I know that Eddie is getting worried. He wants me to leave his house, but is too much of a gentleman to ask. I think he is a little afraid of the ashen, skeletal wreck that I’ve become. He doesn’t know what I will do when he finally broaches the subject. Of course, he has no cause for this unease. I won’t make a scene. When I have found the box, I’ll be more than happy to move back to the city, maybe even to resume duties at the foundry. Then we can live the rest of our lives in peaceful separation, as most brothers do.

But, until that day, he should enjoy the quiet while it lasts. Because when I hold the box in my hands for the first time, we will all hear its chimes.

Thomas Mead

About Tom Mead

Thomas Mead has been producing short stories for the past six years, and particular influences on his work at the moment include Robert Aickman and Joyce Carol Oates. In May 2014, he completed an undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing, and is now working on a Master’s. He lives in the UK.

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