The day was to turn very strange indeed by its end, but like many surprising days, it was cunning enough to start off perfectly predictable and ordinary. It was Friday, and for Dr Wakeling this meant the weekly ward round. At half past ten, coated and clipboarded, he was standing in front of a pair of heavy iron doors, wiggling his eyebrows through the little window at the people inside. They were ignoring him, despite the fact that he was leaning on the buzzer. Eventually someone stood up and opened the door a crack: the buxom ward sister, Esther, warm of heart, non-sufferer of fools, and possessed of no imagination whatsoever. “Ah, Doctor, do please come in.” She beamed at him with a white crescent of teeth. “I was just doing some knitting.”
“Jolly good,” said the Doctor. He was watching a woman pacing slowly along the ward corridor. Her face was serene, her hair on fire; a tower of flame rose up from her head, crackling and coughing sparks. She walked carefully as though the fire were an African jar of water to be borne safely home from the well. Esther followed the Doctor’s gaze and spread her hands with a sigh. “The alter-proofing’s still not been fixed,” she said.
He marshalled his thoughts as they started to walk. “Any changes since last week?” he asked. “Not many,” Esther said. “All the usual suspects are still here. But Mr McCall’s disappeared.”
The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “Oh, that’s a shame. How ever did he get out? We didn’t hear anything about that.”
“Not that sort of disappeared,” Esther said impatiently.
“Ah. How long has he been so?”
“Since last week. He’s bound to snap out of it soon.”
The Doctor walked among his patients, with Esther in his wake. He laid a hand on the head of a boy who was crouched on his bed, rocking and staring. A woman with bloodshot eyes demanded that he tell her where her castle had gone; he declined to answer. He checked up on the medication of Ewan Black, who was in for an overnight stay and a scan. Ewan had a way of locking his eyes on yours while he talked, holding them and staring into them without blink or break, without a flicker. It was one of his symptoms. “You know, Doc, I think if I could just take some pictures I might be okay,” he said, his gaze a solid thing, an elastic tie between their faces.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the Doctor told him, “we can’t let you have a camera in here. Think of the fright other patients might get, with lights flashing in their faces. Terribly sorry.” Ewan sighed, dropping his eyes at last.
Finally there was the row of cells at the end of the ward. They were proofed as well as funding would allow, but a window let you see what was currently being believed to be real inside. One was empty, unfurnished, stripped down to plaster; the name on the door was, unsurprisingly, “McCall, Trevor”. The next showed a steaming rainforest, and a rope bridge across a chasm, and inside a woman stood, naked and smeared with greenish mud, a dryad with her arms raised skyward. Proofing compound had recently been daubed over cracks in the cell’s wall. As the Doctor walked on, he caught a thin whiff of plant and humidity, made a mental note to tell the proofers that it hadn’t been fully fixed, and promptly lost it as they arrived at the next cell. Inside, a woman lay on a metal slab, held down by manacles that bruised her flesh.
“Alterer with paranoid delusions,” Esther said. “She’s new.”
The Doctor frowned. “She isn’t actually being restrained to the bicycle, is she?” Esther turned and stared at him. “The what?” He re-ran the sentence in his mind. “Pardon me. To the guitar. No, that’s not right either, is it?” He gave a light laugh. Chilly sweat broke out across his forehead. “Don’t mind me,” he told Esther, “I’m just having a senior moment.” Esther chuckled: “Don’t we all?”
He was glad when the ward round was over and he could retreat to his office and have a cuppa. Time to catch up on some team memos. Item 1: good news - the NHS Funding Authority have just sent word that it expects full alter-proofing funding to come through for St Random’s in four years’ time. Item 2: Exterminators have been booked to deal with the plague of frogs in Neurosurgery; for now, can everyone please continue to sit on their desks. Item 3: management request that you STOP sending party invitations around to all staff via the tube mice. It makes their little legs tired. Thank you.
The new Mental Acuity Test for dementia patients sat on his desk, a squat little green book. He was supposed to be reviewing it, the revised version, with Dr Woodman today. Over-enthusiastic young fellow, Woodman, the old version was fine. More to the point, he had known the old version by heart. He thought there was a smug look about the little book, as if it were telling him to come and have a go if he thought he was hard enough. Well, book, he thought, I might as well know my enemy. There was a slight tremor in his hand as he picked it up.
What year was it? 2010, that was easy. Then he realised he could see it on the desk calendar in the corner of his eye; no need to get overconfident yet. Where was he? St Random’s Hospital, Larkin Square, London, of course. What floor of the building was this? He paused. Upstairs, downstairs, in my lady’s chamber... ah, the second floor. Steady as she goes. Now name these common objects...
He was relieved to get both the bicycle and the guitar, and the bed. But what on earth was this round, pointy thing? It seemed to have jewels on it. He stared at it, his heart beginning to flutter. Something to do with heads, but he couldn’t say what. Some sort of insulation? An aerial for communication with the gods, as the Blackfoot people wore their hair in a spike so God could come and catch their spirits up to the sky - This was not good, not good at all. But at least he knew the next one, a tall, arch-necked, humped beast; that was the platypus. There. He was perfectly sound of mind.
Draw two interlocking pentagons as shown, the little book sneered at him. The shapes were squirming and wriggling on the page. He stretched out a hand and clutched a pen, awkwardly, never taking his eyes off the book in case it transformed into something even more dangerous when he wasn’t looking. There was a knock on the door. He jumped and dropped the book. “Yes?”
The curly head of the temp appeared round the door. The Doctor smiled. “Ah, it’s you. Do come in. Sit down.” Lovely girl. What was her name again? She sidled into the room, avoiding teetering piles of medical journals. “I just got this weird phonecall,” she said.
“Weird in what way, dear?”
“Some guy from a firm called Lewis Grimshaw. He wanted to know where you worked before coming to this hospital.” The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “And I couldn’t tell him - I said I’d just started working here. But he got quite nasty about it, as if I knew and wasn’t telling him.”
The Doctor floundered in a fuzzy sea of memories. Lewis Grimshaw? “Never heard of them. Did you ask why they wanted to know?”
“He wouldn’t say. He said he’d try someone else. Then he hung up.” She held out a piece of paper. “Here’s their number, in case you want to tell them yourself.”
There was something very ominous about all this, something he couldn’t put his finger on. Reluctantly, as if it would administer an electric charge, he took the message slip. “Lewis Grimshaw,” he muttered. Still no bells rang. He rested his eyes on Zoe - that was her name! - and was distracted by the transparent young man, dark of face with smooth wings of black hair, who stood at her side crying silently, and the tilted half-moon that hung above her head.
“It seems to me that you have quite a story behind you,” he told her. Her eyes widened and she gave a little gasp. “My story?” she said, a trifle hastily, “it’s not that interesting.”
“Oh, come now, everyone has a story of some sort.” A train of thought beckoned him away. “The real trouble happens when you combine alterers and stories, of course. This is what I’ve studied for many years. There are stories which are innate, which will always express themselves given the chance.” Zoe was looking relieved. Leaning against a pile of journals, she appeared to be settling in for a lecture. Well, lecture he would give her. “Take, for example, Campbell’s distillation of the hero-myth. No matter what the circumstances of the story, the hero will always set out in search of his fortune or his truth, and arrive at a dark gateway at which he is tested; should he pass the gate, which can take myriad forms, he finds himself in an underworld where an ordeal or apotheosis of some sort awaits him - “
Another knock. The Doctor sighed; he’d been building up to something there. “Come,” he called. Dr Woodman entered; the Doctor gave a little jump, his eyes darting to the squat green book, but the younger man merely said “If you have a minute, we could really use some help up in the MRI lab.”
“What’s the matter?”
“One of your patients is having a scan. A Mr Black. The machine’s giving some... very strange results. I think you should take a look.”
“Very well,” the Doctor humphed, moving towards the door. To Zoe he said, “Well, what are you standing there for? Come along. Hurry up.” Looking baffled, she followed.
Two nurses were talking in the antechamber of the scanning room as they went through. “Scary bloke, that Mr Black,” one said. “Yeah, he told me I was dead,” the other replied. “Dead flesh, he said.” “It’s not just you,” said the first, “he says that to everyone. And he stares so hard when he does it.”
Inside, the scanner was flickering like a mad computer from a Star Trek episode. The printer hooked up to it was ratcheting its ink cartridge back and forth, spitting out printouts at unaccustomed speed. Inside the machine Patient Black appeared to be unconscious. The Doctor hurried over to the printer and picked up some of its output. “What the dickens is that?” he burst out. Instead of the usual pictures of the patient’s brain, there were other images, done in the same bright, splotchy infrared colours. A bike. A tree. A smiling woman. The other staff clustered around him. “It’s been doing this for twenty minutes,” a nurse explained.
“Look at this one,” another said, as the glossy paper emerged from the printer. It showed the smiling woman, sitting on vivid green grass, having a picnic with a small boy. And one more, a picture of a dog. The glow from its hot centre; tail and ears cooler blue. In the bottom corner, in the scanner’s angular, spiky script, the word REGRET. The printer fell silent.
Ewan Black blinked, rubbed his eyes, sat up. “What happened? That felt strange.” He looked around the room. There was something different about him. “I... feel better now, though,” he said. His eyes rested on the Doctor’s face for an instant and he smiled, joyfully, then looked away again.
“You’re smiling,” the Doctor said. “And you’re not staring.”
“I am,” marvelled Ewan, grinning even more widely. “I feel... I feel fine. What does my scan look like?” He hopped down from the bench, walked over to the printer and snatched up the picture of the woman and the small boy.
Colour fled his face in an instant. He stood motionless for a moment, eyes and mouth agape, then the picture fell from his limp hand and fluttered to the floor as he began to scream.