I am delighted to present once again one of my stories illustrated by my good friend Susanne Rempt. With her noirish, expressionistic illustrations that, for this story, border on the hallucinatory, Ms. Rempt contributes to the blackly comic atmosphere I was seeking to convey in this horror phantasmagoria.
For further artwork by Ms. Rempt visit her pages at Saatchi Art and Instagram. For other stories illustrated by Ms. Rempt they can be viewed at An Illustrated Promise of Paradise, Illustrated Proof and The Illustrated Unmade Again.
Anna felt nervous about today. She was determined to make a good impression. O.K it was only a P.A’s position, but the pay was excellent, and it would take away some of the pressure. Without the constant worry about money she could concentrate on her real calling. True to recent form however, things had gone wrong from the moment she woke late after being up most of night rehearsing the upcoming interview. Filled with heavy dread she rushed around cramped studio trying to make up for time lost, but of course wasted hours could never be got back and her frantic efforts threw her into more of a panic. Indeed, things went from bad to worse as she bolted towards the front door, taking final swig of coffee to keep her focused and it spilt over best suit she’d picked up from dry cleaners only yesterday, at considerable expense given finances at present time. She had nothing else suitable to wear, the only thing remotely business-like was a white cotton suit set, jacket and blouse, but it was the nearly the end of November. There was nothing for it now apart from making do. She searched around for an umbrella before remembering that she’d left it in a taxi a couple of nights ago, but at least she had a raincoat, Thank God for small blessings.
Outside it wasn’t just raining, no this was different, a new angle on the ever-present rain, every drop left a yellow smear on her white clothes. This must have been the dirty rain she’d vaguely heard them forecasting on the news. Something about sand from the Sahara being absorbed by storm clouds, pushed across the Atlantic by an ominous low front before letting loose over London. Or something like that she wasn’t entirely sure because she hadn’t really listened but whatever else it was, it was nasty. There were no taxis anywhere to be had, she waited and waited, soon saturated to the skin. Being an attractive girl, she usually had no problem flagging down a cab but today every taxi was filled with their shadows and ghosts being carried forward to their nebulous destinations, so when a bus came she hopped on even though she never caught buses
As the bus slithered slowly though the sparsely haunted streets she remembered why she never caught buses. They were always so slow, taking too long. And how would she get from the bus stop to where her appointment was? She knew that the bus stopped at High Street Kensington and that the address for Reynolds Corporation was in W8, but where exactly? The 86 Fascination Street couldn’t be that hard to find however. Maybe she would have better luck getting a taxi in Kensington, if worst came to worst she could always go into a shop and buy a street atlas, another unwanted expense to be sure, but she had saved on taxi fare. One good thing you can say about the buses, at least they’re cheap.
Finally, the bus stopped at a sodden High Street Kensington. She got off and looked around for a taxi, but it was a total no go. Unfortunately, she would have to walk, her clothes were half way ruined by now, but surely they would understand about the rain. Why hadn’t she got better directions? Why did she expect everything to fall in her lap? She knew that she mustn’t think about her run of misfortune right this minute, must concentrate on what had to be done. Namely getting to the interview so that she could get work so that she might be finally able to get some organisation in her life. Then she would not have to think of all the things that set her apart.
She wandered around for a little while but very quickly she realised it was of no use, there was no way she would ever find Reynolds Corporation in this manner, so she went into Waterstones to buy a street atlas. First sensible idea I’ve had for a long time she thought. Inside the bookstore it was quite crowded with people sheltering from the rain, all standing hunched up over their paperbacks, little pools of heavy rain congealing around their ankles. Soon they would be immobilized, set fast.
She knew that she had to act quickly, time was running out, somewhere along the way she had lost her watch (where, when?) but she knew that the interview was due soon if she wasn’t actually already late, and who knew what other obstacles she would met today? After all it was a Wednesday. Street maps and atlases were supposed to be on the second floor according to the flashing neon finder board but the icy assistant, offended that she was being asked about atlases and not Kafka told her that they were on the third floor. This was odd as the building seemed to be only two storeys’ high but in unspoken answer to her unstated question the frigid intellectual pointed to the far-left corner where there was a rickety, unbanistered staircase. She nodded her head and climbed the wooden steps, counting as she went up as she always did for superstitions sake, one hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two and would it ever end and where was this decrepit staircase leading her? One hundred and seven, one hundred and eight, nearly there now surely. Are we yer vet, are we yer vet, she whispered to herself like a child been ferried to god knows where by sullen, silently seething parents, their holiday so carefully planned and longed for already turned into a domestic Stalingrad. No, not yet, but we‟re nearly there now. One hundred and ten, one hundred and eleven, as last, and the third floor lay before her, vast vistas of aisles and shelving stretching onwards towards a terrible infinity of nothing but books, books, books as far as the eye could see. A labyrinth of books where you would forget everything about yourself and your existence, a maze of books where you would lose yourself in other peoples lives and other people’s words, a prison of books from whence you could never escape from the dream of others and from the tyranny of your own consciousness. She turned and fled down the one hundred and eleven steps.
She didn’t slow down until the first floor, hadn’t wanted to see the icy assistant who had misdirected her so cruelly again, or the petrified browsers, but she still needed a street map, searched on the first floor but there was none, descended to the ground floor and there, right by the cash till saw a fold-out map entitled, “The Impractical Girl’s Guide to Kensington’s Streets and Byways” surely the very thing for her. She took a copy and gave it to the old crone at the counter and handed over the money. Then she left right quick.
The vile rain had intensified, drowning the streets in filth and stalling the traffic in its tracks. She stood under the doorway of an electrical goods shop and unfolded the map, which proved tricky as it was much bigger than was practical, obviously trying to live up to its title.
Before her eyes, on the map at least, was presented a Kensington transfigured, no longer Church Street and Abingdon Road, instead there was Desolation Row and Dreamside, Paradise Heights and Easy Street, Nightmare Alley and Morningstar Crescent. Fascination Street she found easily enough, on the corner of Glimmer Road, which ran adjacent to the High Street, which thankfully was still represented otherwise it would have been completely hopeless.
She ran from shop awning to shop awning the length of High Street Kensington trying not to get any wetter, but it was coming down in torrents and as there were few shops on Glimmer Road she gave over and started walking an even pace.
She found Fascination Street and was looking out for a stainless-steel tower or the suchlike but was surprised to see that it was a quiet residential street of rather grand late Victorian mansions. Nothing looked remotely like the European headquarters of a large multi-national publishing company. Just the secluded homes of London’s more moneyed inhabitants. Be that as it may be, 86 must be here somewhere, there can’t be another Fascination Street in Kensington can there? Out of the question and Reynolds was definitely on Fascination Street. It was difficult to see what the house numbers of the houses were as they were each well set off the pavement, so she opened the gate of one and went to the colonnaded entrance. She was in luck, for the first time she thought, about time too, it was no. 86, but the brass nameplate said “Dr. Dee’s Institute for the Perpetually Perplexed and Terminally Twitchy” she knew it must be some mistake, so she pressed down the buzzer. Reynolds Corporation must be a very secretive organisation to hide its presence so rigorously, really I mean, she almost laughed to herself.
She heard heels clicking on the presumably marble floor, they were that loud, and the door was opened by a nurse in stiff starched uniform. The nurse’s depth-less agate eyes gave her a searching once over and a knowing smile hovered on her red tainted lips.
“Hello I’m…” she began.
“Miss Anna Ferguson, I know. You’re late; Doctor Dee has been waiting for you. We couldn’t begin until you arrived.” the nurse interrupted.
“I’m awfully sorry, what with the rain and everything there were no taxis to be had.” she replied.
“No need to apologise Miss Ferguson, please do not concern yourself with such trivialities, the doctor certainly doesn’t. If you would kindly follow me.”
The nurse spoke perfect English but the phrasing of her sentences and her oddly precise pronunciation, vaguely American like she’d learnt English from the telly and movies, suggested that she was of Scandinavian or maybe Germanic origin, a suggestion borne out by her glacial blondness and her full, fleshy, heavy boned figure. She certainly had a strong grip, and long sharp nails. As she had stepped over the threshold of Dr Dee’s establishment the nurse had encircled her left wrist with her right hand, she had no choice but to follow. Not that she had any inclination not to. Everything was so off kilter that she had decided to adopt a policy of complete passivity in the face of whatever occurred from here on out. Certainly, questions kept plying her mind, as she didn’t have answers she tried to dismiss them, but she couldn’t but help thinking. Was this the right place? The address was right, but it certainly wasn’t like what she was expecting. Maybe she had mixed up the details and she was interviewing for the position of medical secretary. And who was this Dr. Dee? Maybe this was some new bizarre interview process, she had heard of the bigger companies using unconventional techniques to screen out applicants, but this seemed too idiosyncratic even by today’s corporate standards.
Where was the nurse leading her? Across hallways with intricate Italian marbling, past many mirrors, down stairwells and though empty offices.
The nurse finally let go of her wrists to open large double doors.
“Here we are Miss Ferguson,” the nurse said at the entrance at what appeared to be an auditorium from the tiered stage, podium, and seating, “I hope you will enjoy the lecture. Dr. Dee is such a wonderful speaker. Unfortunately, I have some work to do now, however I will join you later. Dr. Dee and I are so much looking forward to talking to you. That is, of course, if you will join us afterwards.”
“Lecture? I’m here for the position, Nurse…?”
“Nurse Woods. I do realise that Miss Ferguson. Do not concern yourself with details, the merest formalities. The process will commence in its own time. In the meanwhile,” she gestured towards the seats with a vague wave, “I suggest you find a place for yourself.”
What did this have to do with the position she was applying for? Nurse Woods was staring at her, no not at all kindly either but rather with a detached anticipation. A subdued but distinct murmur of expectancy rose from the unseen audience. She was decidedly uneasy but the feeling of passivity that had taken hold upon entering the building was even stronger now, overwhelming her into a resigned acceptance of whatever fate may have in store.
She entered the auditorium, after she had advanced in the dim ambient lighting sufficiently she heard the stab of Nurse Woods’s stilettos receding down the hallway from where they had entered.
Only two seats were empty out of about fifty, next to each other at the end of the third row, all others taken by an audience comprised entirely of women and girls, not a man to be seen. She felt wildly inconspicuous in her white clothes, as all the others were wearing impeachable black. Obviously, the new black was black for the fashionably insane and the insanely fashionable.
She hesitated for what seemed an inordinately long time before sitting down on the second to last seat. She was obviously an object of considerable attention. The middle-aged lady seated next to her turned and smiled, if a permanent rictus can be called a smile. Indeed, her face, sculpted away by excessive dieting, botox injections and the surgeons knife was no longer a face, it was a skull precariously perched on top of an elongated skeletal structure fashioned by Giacometti in his later anorexic period. She was a triumph of a morbidly decadent science over a barely breathing nature. She didn’t smile back, hugged her damp coat tight over her chest and watched the stage for any signs of the lecturer.
She didn’t have to wait long; soon the hubbub of sophisticated chitter-chatter gave way to a low, admiring “ohhhh’s and ahhhh’s” as the Doctor made his grand entrance. She knew now why the audience was made up entirely of neurotic ladies and hysterical girls, the good Doctor was obviously a bit of a lady-killer, a suave silver fox.
“Welcome ladies, I see many familiar faces today and a newcomer.” he was obviously referring to herself because he stared right through her, his cruel, sensual, thick lips curving into an asymmetrical, she could only call it wicked, smile. She shivered; this was a man who could make her come just by looking at her. “For the benefit of all those who do not know me and are unacquainted with my work here, I am Dr John Dee resident psychologist at the Home. My methods and theories are in their early stages and, I will be the first to admit, shall we say of a somewhat experimental nature but not without their successes.” He paused to let the fact of his modesty sink in. The ladies obviously found it charming. “Today I’m going to discuss, not about the why, but the how. The methodology, if you like, the methodology of suicide. As an act, suicide is redolent with symbolism, obviously as it is the grand, ultimate gesture of narcissism. Consider, for instance a particularly masculine form of self-dispatch, shooting oneself. Brutal, but instantaneous. Quite unladylike. This form of deliverance is much favoured by military and civilian police personnel, who eat their service issue revolvers; those who live by the gun must die by the gun, one way or another. Hanging is a different matter altogether, the favoured form of execution of criminals for centuries it clearly reveals a strong strain of self-loathing, the only thing to be said in it’s defence is that it is quick and apparently painless, but who would want to be found dead like that, with your tongue lolling out idiotically. A blatant and very unsubtle approach may be found in the people who choose to kill themselves by jumping in front of tube trains on the Circle and District line, a gesture that screams the fact that London kills.
“Suicides of artists and writers are of particular interest in this matter, as artists are egotistical in an extreme degree and are also highly aware of the symbolic importance of all thoughts and actions, and suicide is a rare instance of the unity of decision and deed. By definition not one suicide is an accident, but neither are there spontaneous or surprising suicides, all are pre-meditated and signified.
“My first example would be Sylvia Plath. Imagine the scene, unwashed dishes in the sink, the unattended children crawling around in soiled nappies, her head in the oven. Of course, her husband is out seducing any lady willing. Given this, the content of her death is glaringly manifest. Her appalling husband, a representative of the patriarchal society that reduces women to little more than indentured servants, subjected her to the indignities of childrearing and keeping house, killing her with neglect and his desire to impose his overwhelmingly masculine personality upon her. Let us not forget her dear Nazi Daddy either, with his jackboots and concentration camps and gas ovens… If I may inject a word of warnings here ladies, it would be this; try not to marry your fathers. The oven is hugely significant, just as a soldier in dishonor turns his own gun on himself; it was only fitting, no, more than fitting…it was the only possible means for her end, the symbolic importance of which could escape no interested party, ensuring in the elimination of her own life that a legend would be born.
“For my next example the symbolism is rather more convoluted, indeed torturous, rather like his writings. I’m referring to the highly public death of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. His death by ritual seppuku, physically appalling as it involves self-disembowelment and then de-capitation was supposedly motivated as a protest at the westernisation of Japan, but you cannot seriously buy that for a moment. His suicide has an intentional iconographic quality, not surprising as he was much given to Saint Sebastian. In this final scripted and staged moment of his life, a death that he had foretold and rehearsed many times beforehand, Mishima managed to satisfy his many contrary impulses and desires. His love of death, his aesthetic masochism, his mania for self-promotion and his militaristic fantasies were fused together and gratified in the act of seppuku, where he also hoped to gain a kind of immortality by notoriety, as he was probably cognisant of the fact that then current source of his fame, his novels and plays, would not stand the test of time.
“However, one must be on one’s guard against over-generalisation. Every suicide is a uniquely personal drama; no amount of statistics or analysis could reach the root cause. Why exactly did Van Gogh choose to blow his brains out? Weapons had played no part in his life thus far, apart from the ear-slicing knife. I like to think that he was releasing the demons that had tormented him for so long from within the confines of his skull. Or perhaps…”
So engrossed was she with the bizarre lecture and by the low, sonorous voice of the macabre doctor she failed to notice that Nurse Woods was sitting next to her until her knee touched her leg. She turned around, considerably startled.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you; I can see that you find the lecture fascinating.” Nurse Woods voiced buzzed in her ear.
“No need to apologise, I just didn’t hear you join me is all.” Anna answered nervously.
“You are quite jumpy, do not worry, the Doctor is nearing the climax of his lesson. Listen,” she nodded towards the stage and her fleshy hand gripped Anna’s arm lying on the armrest.
“Well, my words are all very fine and good, but as they always say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, let me give you illustrated examples.”
The pressure of the nurse’s hand against her hand was opening up new areas of anxiety and unease. The audience of the sophisticated ladies and what she had earlier taken to be their daughter‟s but now she wasn‟t sure seemed to be alternatively concentrating on the stage where a slide projector had been brought out and herself.
The doctor stepped aside near to the wings.
Images were projected on the screen. At first, she couldn’t make them out; they seemed to be highly conceptualised pictures of imaginary events. Only after the third still did she recognise herself.
Her mutilated body the star of an atrocity exhibition to sate the jaded tastes of these sinister strangers who clapped appreciatively after every new still of her death at her own hand.
How many times could one person die?
In a bathtub full of blood; hanging from a tree, black tongue between blue lips; face down on a table, gun in limp hand, her blood and brains a tachist explosion on the dulled yellowed walls; in a disturbed bed flecks of foam on her mouth; in the compacted driver’s seat of a car involved in a head-on collision; in a nightclub toilet empty syringe on the floor, an exclamation point to a life!
She couldn’t avert her eyes even though she felt sick to death. She moved to throw up, but she was restrained from all sides. Nurse Woods and the death’s head lady gripped her wrists tighter, hurting her. They didn’t say anything, not that they had to by this stage. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and hoped that they, her persecutors, would disappear.
But, of course they didn’t.
Instead Nurse Woods was tightening her grip. “The Doctor is coming to see you now, Miss Ferguson, it’s not the time to fall asleep. First impressions are very important, wouldn’t you say?”
“I wasn’t going to sleep. I would appreciate it if you let go of me, please.”
“I think we had better leave that decision to the Doctor, don’t you, Miss Ferguson?”
Doctor Dee approached, descending the steps of the stage, right towards her. He towered over her, his penetrating eyes restlessly looking her over. She would have liked to kick him or do something to break the awful spell, but felt completely powerless beneath his stare.
“Anna, it is a pleasure to meet you, though the circumstances are hardly conducive,” he sighed. “So, few things are as we wish them to be. One can only hope that the next world is an improvement on this one. Though I, for one, hold little hope of that. Oh well, we just have to make do, really, don’t you agree?” he paused for her agreement, but none was forthcoming. “You have been under a strain, lately, I know, I know. Life can be hard, unfortunately, most unfortunate really. You are not the only one. However, the thing is… well we had better discuss that later. At the moment you are tired and wet, and I don’t doubt, just a little confused. Now is not the time to formally start the interview process, I realise, though of course everything is being taken into consideration, maybe after you have changed and rested for a while we can begin, but for now I think you need a little something to make you relax.”
Out of his pocket he pulled out a hypodermic needle, he tossed the cap onto the floor and tapped the needle a few times. Her restrainers held her down as she began to struggle. She kicked and thrashed her body trying to escape or at least avoid the oncoming needle, but no use. The needle sank into her vein and she desisted as she lost control of her muscles.
“Now now Anna, what was the good of resisting, you are a clever girl you should have realised it would get you nowhere. And of course, the authorities will have to be informed. I will try to put in a good word, but still…” he trailed off.
She was trying not to think, to escape to a point outside the confines of her body, to a distance away from the imprisoning dimensions of space and time. Who knew what fresh horror lay in store next. What additional twists and turns could this nightmare take?
“Well it is obvious to me that you can’t prepare for the interview in the present surroundings. Nurse Woods, if you would kindly show Miss Ferguson to her quarters and arrange for her a change of clothes, as you’ll catch your death in those damp ones, and I will look in on you soon. Then we can initiate the procedure. I look forward to seeing you soon, Miss Ferguson.”
Nurse Woods dragged her out of her chair. Her legs were gone, she knew that they were there, but she couldn’t feel them, and they were of no use to her. Her eyelids kept on drooping closed and her head felt imponderably heavy on her neck, every time she nodded off into half-unconscious she roused herself with an effort, she knew that she mustn’t fall asleep, no no she mustn’t, not here, in this place with that doctor and his nurse and those women licking their lips in anticipation of…what, fresh meat? No, she mustn’t, but the law of gravity was proving to be almost irresistible.
She was taken to a room bereft of furniture apart from an old rusted folding chair, like one she used to sit in and look out of the window at school and a coarse fibred blanket. They were no windows and the walls were painted a dingy cream color. The sole source of light was an unshaded bare light bulb. Nurse Woods let her fall onto the chair, picked her up as she sprawled onto the floor and proceeded to undress her with a sadistic methodicalness, she dimly suspected in drugged state that here was a woman who enjoyed her work. Was it really necessary to remove her bra and underwear so that she was totally naked? She tried to voice her concerns but only a feeble croak escaped her lips.
“I will be back with some clothes. Miss Ferguson, I suggest that you proceed to make yourself comfortable. I will return shortly, however a good attitude is vital within the interview context. Good luck, Miss Ferguson.”
How long ago did the nurse leave? She had no way of knowing, no clocks were on the walls, no light penetrated the room. However, her lucidity had returned, and she was aware of that she was shivering, and naked. She was reluctant to cover herself with the blanket, who knew where it had been? The cold of the chair was uncomfortable against her bottom but the floor was hardly inviting. She knew that the door was a dead-end it would be locked, and it would go against her later, she tried not to look at it too much, because she knew that they were watching, somewhere they were watching her. She scanned the room for peepholes or camera lens, apertures or mirrors. She hadn’t managed to find any yet, but she knew that they were there.
She just wanted her clothes back, but who knew when the nurse would return? When she did she would ask to leave, as she felt that she was, given the circumstances, unsuitable for the position offered