Authors: Stephen Curran
Visitor in Lunacy
Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Curran
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
For Bob and Bernie Curran
is working in his office on the top floor of the asylum, clicking a fresh wax cylinder into his phonograph and preparing to make a record of the day's events, when the Principal Attendant of Block 2 bursts in without warning. The evening's work has been progressing badly. His mind is muddled and preoccupied, dwelling too long on recent disappointments in his personal life. He has made a fool of himself. He asked his sweetheart for her hand in marriage only to be rejected in favour of one of his closest friends. Thinking of the incident now makes his stomach turn. How ridiculous he must have looked, pacing around the drawing room of her home, spilling out his rambling proposal, his nerves betraying themselves in his every gesture. Recalling the awful moment when he sat down and accidentally crushed his hat he pinches the bridge of his nose beneath his spectacles and groans, listening to the rain drum against the windows. Mr Simmons's abrupt arrival causes him to jolt in his seat and bang his knee on the underside of his desk.
“What the devil is it, man?”
“Renfield has met with an accident, sir. You must come at once.”
The journey from the Administration Block to the second floor takes only a few minutes, the two men hurrying through the gas lit, black-and-white tiled corridors and nodding at the night watchers who unlock the doors, allowing them to pass. When they reach Renfield's room Seward tries the handle and snaps open the observation hatch. Peering inside he sees rain slanting in through the open sash window and, on the floor near the bed, a crumpled bundle, something like a coal sack. A flash of lightening glances from the surface of a pool of sleek black liquid.
He bangs on the wood with the flat of his hand: “Open up!”
“I think he may have lodged something under the handle,” says Mr Simmons.
Together they charge forward, leading with their shoulders. On the third attempt the frame cracks and they break inside, sending a chair clattering across the floor. Light from the corridor reveals the coal sack to be the patient's unmoving body, curled up into a loose ball. Taking him by the shoulder Seward rolls him gently onto his back. His face is swollen and distorted, his hair matted with blood. Below his hairline a deep chunk has been gouged from his flesh: most likely the result of a heavy blow from a sharp object. He is smartly dressed, in his navy waistcoat and tie. His nightclothes remain neatly folded at the end of his bed.
Mr Simmons fidgets behind him: “I think, sir, his back is broken. See, both his right arm and leg and the whole side of his face are paralysed. I can't understand it. He could mark his face like that by beating his own head on the floor. I saw a young woman do it once at the Eversfield Asylum before anyone could lay hands on her. But I can't see how a man could break his own back. And if it was an accident why was the chair pushed up against the door? It doesn't make any sense.”
“Who has been in this room since you started your shift?”
“No-one, I swear it. I locked the door as usual at nine and haven't opened it since.”
“Did you leave your post?”
A sudden thunderclap coincides with a lightning strike, the storm passing directly above the madhouse. Catching a gust of wind the wooden window shutter whacks against the wall.
“Listen. I want you to go to Van Helsing and ask him to come here at once. I want him without an instant's delay, do you understand?”
Mr Simmons hurries out, ashen faced and perspiring. Seward carefully rearranges his patient's limbs, taking the pillow from the bed and slipping it under his head to make him more comfortable. Something falls from Renfield's trouser pocket: a pearl earring. Picking it up Seward balances the object in the centre of his palm, studying it with a confused frown before slipping it into his frock coat. Pressing two fingers against the patient's carotid artery he counts the faint throbs: “Poor man.”
When Van Helsing arrives his one hand is tucked inside the breast of his dressing gown while his other holds the umbrella that sheltered him on his short trip from the guest’s cottage in the grounds. Only his slippers and pyjama bottoms are wet. Mr Simmons follows, soaked to his skin.
“What do we have here then?” says the Dutchman, leaning over the body to give it a cursory visual examination. His uncombed red hair and the crease marks on his cheek betray that he has come straight from his bed. He sniffs decisively - “Allow me to fetch my things” - and leaves.
Crossing his path, Mr Simmons carries a gas lamp from the corridor. After placing it on the floor beside the patient he yanks down the sash window and fastens the shutter. Nothing in the room is out of place. The wardrobe is untouched, the bookshelves undisturbed. A leather-bound critical study of Coleridge's poems rests open on the bedside table.
“And you're certain nobody has been in here?”
“Unless they came in through the window.”
“Seems unlikely, no? We're on the second floor.” He looks around the room, stopping when he spots something. “Move the lamp closer to the bed, would you? See, there: on the corner.”
Mr Simmons casts the light over a thick clump of greyish pink matter, a deposit of concertinaed skin where Renfield's head struck the frame: “Christ Almighty.”
Events like this are to be expected in the life of a madhouse but the Superintendent has not yet lost the capacity to be shocked. He has been at Carfax for eight months, transferred from a smaller institution in Edinburgh, but is still overwhelmed by the size of the place: three wings, nine hundred inmates, thirty-five acres, like a small, walled town. Carefully, he picks a stray strand of hair from the gash on the patient's forehead. For all his wild misconceptions, Renfield is the most lucid of the inmates and one of the few he senses a kinship with. If this is an attempt at suicide, he should have seen it coming.
Van Helsing returns without his umbrella but bearing a surgical case, his movements unhurried and efficient. Kneeling by the patient he takes a few moments before making an assessment, the whisky he drank before bed still evident on his breath. Seward studies his former teacher from the corner of his eyes: the compressed line of his mouth, his sculptured forehead and the small tufts of red hair in his nostrils.
“The facial wounds are superficial,” he says. “Our real concern here is a depressed fracture of the skull. We must reduce the pressure of the swelling and get back to normal conditions, as far as can be. The whole motor area seems effected. The suffusion of the brain will increase quickly, so we must trephine at once or it may be too late.”
Two more men appear in the doorway, dripping wet: Doctor Godalming and Seward's American friend Quincey Morris. Godalming wears a greatcoat over his nightgown while his companion is fully dressed: “I heard your man call up Doctor Van Helsing and tell him of the incident. Is there anything we can do to help?”
After beckoning them inside Seward asks if they would close the door. A tiny reddish spider is lowering itself from the ceiling on an invisible thread. Godalming waves it away from his face.
“What happened?” asks Morris, his Texan drawl still strong after a decade in England. “Jesus.”
“He appears to have been attempting to bash his brains out using the bed frame,” replies Seward, “apparently with some success. I don't know. I can't see how his injuries could be self-inflicted.”
Van Helsing has removed the trephine from his case and is testing the mechanism, watching the circular saw rotate in the gas light: “There is no time to lose,” he says, although little urgency is relayed by his measured tone. “The haemorrhage is increasing. We will operate above the ear.”
On seeing the spike at the centre of the blade pierce Renfield's skin, Mr Simmons blanches: “Doctor Seward, sir, may I be allowed to leave the room?”
Morris leans against the wall and observes, pulling at the corners of his moustache. Godalming retrieves the fallen chair, the rain still shining on his bald head. Turning the trephine's handle Van Helsing slices a circle from the patient's swollen flesh, causing the clot to burst and spill forth, rushing over his ear and soaking the pillow cover. Immediately Renfield opens his eyes and blinks, struggling to comprehend his surroundings.
“What's wrong with my face?” His speech is imprecise, the words twisting clumsily from the left side of his mouth: “I have had an awful dream.”
“Try not to move.”
He recognises the accent, and it pleases him: “That is Doctor Van Helsing.”
“Tell us what your dream was about,” says the surgeon, hoping to focus the patient's mind and distract him from his injuries.
“Give me some water, my lips are dry.”
Seward asks Morris to run and fetch some brandy. Closing his eyes Renfield takes a breath and lifts his right hand to his face, using his fingertips to explore its altered contours. When he comes near the raw wound below his hairline he shivers in pain. Morris returns carrying a decanter of spirits, a carafe of water, and a glass.
Van Helsing wets Renfield's lips: “Your dream. Tell us about it.”
Using Seward's eyes as a focal point the patient struggles to gather his thoughts: “Seward.”
“I don't feel at all well. This is the end, isn't it?”
“We don't know that.”
“I wish I could have been more like you, Seward, more trusting and kindly. But I never had a chance. My path was set from the beginning. I have done unforgivable things. But I have tried to make amends. You must believe it.” He swallows dryly, thinking hard. “I have had an awful dream. No, I must not deceive myself... I have something to tell you, before it is too late.”
“We may save you yet, Renfield.”
“Please, let me continue. I heard dogs barking beyond the grounds...” Sleepily he begins to ramble, his voice growing ever weaker, his pronunciation ever more slurred. The fantasy he relates is dislocated and bizarre, of a woman obscured by a whirl of blossoms, of a fierce black hound spitting hot drool, of a man with feline teeth and shiny pebbles in place of eyes. Of dirt, trees and blood and a bloated figure tapping on the window.
Van Helsing dips his handkerchief into the carafe and wrings out the excess before running it gently over the patient's misshaped and tender face, giving him time to speak. The gas light flickers. Nobody is listening.
FIRST came the constant weariness, as if my sleep had been disturbed.
I seldom altered my nightly customs. At eleven the hallway clock would strike and I would rise from the bureau at which I carried out my duties as the editor of
to move my candle to the bedroom and disrobe by its light. Invariably my nightclothes would be where I left them the previous morning: my gown folded beneath my pillow along with a pair of thick woollen socks to keep my feet warm. Once undressed I would hang my suit in the wardrobe. I owned four in all, each identical, purchased over a period of years from the same Devonshire tailor, consisting of a braided navy blue frock coat, a high buttoned waistcoat, narrow cut trousers and a lilac speckled tie. My boots went by the door. Lastly I would perform my exercises and climb into bed, extinguishing my candle with a brass snuffer. I slept as I had since I was a child, as my uncle taught me: my arms by my sides and my palms down flat on the mattress. At five thirty I rose again, for many years a deep and dreamless sleeper.