by Nick Wood – As published in Interzone 187 © Nick Wood 2003.
Michael knew exactly how to irritate me.
Even when I controlled myself pretending I'm cool, he knew I wasn't. And the bloody amazing thing was — he could even anticipate the evolution of new pet-hates of mine. From dirty socks in the bath to toilet seat in the up position to concerned talks from teachers whom I agonisingly hoped would never ask what I do for a living.
I needed to remind myself that I'm the psychologist.
And Michael was just my fourteen-year-old son.
Today, he threw his school bag across the room as he came into the kitchen. Buckled and zipped, the bag scraped over my newly laid perfect wooden-floor. It felt as if it had scraped my skin. I grimaced, back turned to him, trying to control the harsh words struggling to burst out. Behavioural extinction was needed. A dead calm lack of response.
"Stop doing that, Mike!" I snapped as I turned.
He'd already slouched on a kitchen stool, face dark and sullen, heavy bodied. My response made him smile slightly.
Bugger. He'd won the opening salvo.
"What, mum?" His feigned innocence was designed to rub it in even further. This time, I managed not to rise to the bait.
"Never mind," I felt tired and dispirited, "How was your day at school?"
"Fine…" I don't know why I still persisted with that hoary opening line, except that I really did want to know.
He worried me with his silences and air of detachment. I opened my mouth to try and raise a discussion. Anything. Any words that might bring us closer.
There were so few words at the end of my day. There was so little to make sense of my life anymore. Why did I always feel so cold, even with the heating turned way up?
The phone rang. I sighed.
Upstairs, I knew Jack was probably reading the paper, with no intention of talking to us, let alone responding to the outside world. I could feel his silence leaking down the stairs as I made my way into the hallway.
"Hello," I said, "Dr. Brandon."
"Dr. Brandon? It's Major Stone." The voice was big and absolute. Great, it's The Major. I still had to smile every time he used his first name, though.
"Yes, well, Eva, we have another case for you to urgently look at."
His voice sounded different suddenly, strangely tight and anxious. "We need you to section a policeman who says he's been given God."
I was aware Michael has come into the corridor and hovered behind me, breathing heavily.
"I'm sorry, Tom." I was sure of this one, "Religious belief is beyond my clinical jurisdiction." Not another evening call-out, please!
"I don't think you understand, Dr. Brandon. He claims to have found God. We've got both of them locked up."
I startled a bit, uncertain as to whether I had heard right. "Uh – what exactly are you saying, Major? You've got God there as well and you want me to section them as both insane?"
He gave off a deep chuckle – most unusual for him. "No, Doctor, just the policeman will do and -" His tone hardened. "You must report to the Institute straight away to do this – we are afraid of a serious evangelical epidemic."
I turned to look at Michael. He hadn't heard anything, but he knew.
"I'll make my own dinner."
I felt a pang. He looked so resigned and distant.
The Institute – Bayford Military (B.M.I.) – was not that far.
It was based in a large old mansion house – screened by trees. The B.M.I. had been established as an army research lab – one of about twenty throughout Britain after the Terror Wars – to document the human and military fall-out from the war.
My job was to assess the human side. I generally had to evaluate what mental and neuropsychological damage was manifest in the military, and occasionally civilian, population. One of the perks of employment was that I was paid extra to be 'conservative' with disability assessments involving compensation suits from soldiers following the Wars.
I guess that's why I was still in a 2 bed-roomed terrace on the outskirts of London. It could be worse, I thought, sweeping up the long dark driveway to the grey-stone building; at least it's close enough to my other lecturing job at the Uni.
Major Tom (smile) Stone was a tough Military man, but a damned fine scientist too, specialising in neurobiology. (He liked his science hard too.)
He had a lot of clout at the Institute and was the liaison person for neuropsychological assessments. Me, I was just one of several external consultants they pulled in. They had offered me a full-time permanent post once, but I'd turned it down, for fear of seeing the Major every day.
Not that he was bad looking. He was a smallish man with a tight handshake, and razored grey hair on top of his sharp, finely featured face.
But over the years I'd wanted to see him less and less, only trapped by my need for work.
Deep down, he scared the shit out of me, to be frank.
"Certify God?!" I deadpanned to him, after I'd tried to squeeze his hand and my terror as hard as I could.
He waved me to a chair. I could see an open blue file on the desk.
He'd come around his desk to sit opposite me: no physical barriers in this session then. No apparent need for the file, all the details internalised in that steel-trap brain of his. I could feel the skin chill on my face.
"Well, the copper thinks so. And we've taken possession of – uh, It. God. Whatever."
"What he calls God – a meteorite from space we guess. But it's a bloody unusual one."
He shrugged, taking out a box of cigarettes.
What an archaic and disgusting habit for a man so bright…I shook my head.
He glared at me briefly, hesitating, and then slowly smiled, lighting up. The smoke puffs he sent out were angled and not quite close enough to my face for an official complaint. "Well," he said, drawing in for a third time and finally looking at me again: "Geologically it's a unique specimen. We're still trying to analyse data, but it looks like there might also be a strange organic compound encased within. We're concerned about contamination and radiation, so we have it securely locked in quarantine."
"So it's a funny rock with stuff in it – perhaps a relic from the Terror Wars? It's a huge leap from that to God."
He smiled wryly: "The policeman's word, not mine. The copper says that's what the person before him said too."
"We haven't been able to trace her yet. Some young woman brought the rock in to the station when the PC was on desk duty one night, claiming to have found it in a field, but saying by rights it belonged to the whole world…because it was God."
"The copper laughed at her and told her to piss off. Then he touched it."
"He's agreed with her now – suddenly and whole heartedly. When he told the Station Commander, they sealed the Station, suspecting terror contamination, and shipped the stone off to us. Well shielded. The rock arrived in the same van as the copper, PC Pridom."
"So you haven't found this woman or the field where she says she found the stone?"
"No, she's gone, as if she's fallen off the face of the earth." He moved uncomfortably in his chair. He stubbed his cigarette out and flicked it into the bin next to him.
"Or as if she's ascended to heaven," I suggested.
He wrinkled his nose. "Fun-nee! She may well have had outside help disappearing, leaving us with a potentially lethal mind-altering hot potato."
"Nothing. The policeman's been through an extensive quarantine. There are no signs of any disease, contamination or illness in him. We haven't a clue yet as to possible pathogenic vectors, so we've sealed the bloody thing in a vacuumed anti-radiation box."
"So it's safe to talk to him — PC Pridom?"
"Surely," he said. "That's if he'll talk to you." He got up and walked over to the door, hesitating for a moment to light up again. I tensed, waiting for something. Sure enough, he turned to me with raised right eye-brow and a direct stream of smoke from his mouth.
"And you'd better bloody deliver! I would have gotten Watts or Browning in if they'd been available."
Sure, I thought, men!
Standing quietly behind the door, blinking, stood a large man with a greying square head. He was dressed in brown med-military overalls.
"Peter Pridom, meet Dr. Eva Brandon." The Major waved the policeman inside with a sweep of smoke from his right hand and left, closing the door behind him.
"Pleased to meet you, Doctor." The policeman stood quietly, thick arms dangling limply by his side.
I picked up his file which the Major had left on the desk. They hadn't put the policeman on any meds as yet, it seemed. He was thirty-five and single. It was a bit late for the onset of psychosis, but perhaps he was vulnerable with a lack of social supports?
I gestured him to sit, but he continued to stand. "I don't want to waste your time," he said.
"You're not wasting it." I said, "They're paying me for this."
"It's still a waste." he said. "I can see you don't believe me. Your mind has ruled out God, right from the start."
" Well…" I was hoping to tap into his delusional system, "Perhaps you can persuade me?"
"Sorry," he smiled slightly; "I don't think so. What are words worth to a mind not open to them? And –" he pointed at the file in my hands: "You've got me all in there anyhow."
It's not what I expected a policeman to say. I closed the file and put it back down on the desk.
He continued to stand quietly, eyes watching me closely, with a soft smile on his lips.
"Tell me what convinced you this – object – was God?"
"Not the woman's words when she brought it in," he said, "I thought she was a homeless nutter at first. It was first her touch – I could see she meant it – but mostly it was the touch of the Stone."
"So you touched it?"
"Yes," he looked down, "But there's no way anyone's going to touch It now. They'll see to that – especially the Major."
I think he must have been listening somehow. (He bugged his room himself no doubt.)
The door opened and the Major stood there, as if on cue. A helmeted soldier was with him, an escort for PC Pridom, to take him back to his quarantined quarters.
But I wasn't finished yet: "Why did the stone come to you, Peter?"
I waited for the reply. Would it be because he was the son of God, or perhaps just His special prophet?
He gave a small shrug and turned to leave: "I was just lucky I guess."
Just lucky! I smiled, even though I was alone with the Major again.
The door closed hard and brutally behind him.
"Gave you a hard time, did he?" The Major asked, with a small hint of satisfaction.
I didn't even bother to reply. "I need to see the stone, Tom."
He frowned: "You work with people – or so I thought! Or do you think you'll get more from a stone than you got from the copper? You're not a psycho-geologist, you know."
What an irritating chuckle.
"Let me just have a look, Tom." It was late and I was tired. I wanted to see the stone. And I needed to get home to Michael. "I'm a scientist, whatever you may think. I need primary – not secondary – data."
"Your job is to certify him. How is seeing the stone going to help with that decision?"
I looked at him. His jaw was jutting belligerently. It would be so easy to not fight, but just go home and call it a night.
But I knew it would be a quiet night, empty and cold. Michael may be asleep by now — and Jack would have no words for me.
That policeman had felt…euthymic, not manic or dysphoric.
Euthymic – just pleasantly happy. There was no psychotic edge I could sense to his brief mental state evaluation.
And I needed to see why.
"Show me Tom," I said, tensing myself, "or else I can't sign anything."
His look was cold and long, the silence threatening. "Fine," he said at last, "But then you sign his sectioning papers and we finish this whole bloody thing."
I don't know what I had expected.
The stone was held in a small grey steel room with an armed guard outside. It was sitting alone in a translucent box of indeterminate substance – approximately a yard cubed – surrounded by blinking sensors and computers. The stone itself was contrastingly black and absorbent, showing no flicker in response to the array of light around it.
It was just a few inches in diameter.
I wondered whether it had a history of being thrown through people's windows. It looked like it was just the right size and shape for the palm.
"So," said the Major, turning to look at me, "what…"
He had no time to finish the question. I'd stepped forward and touched the box. It felt like hard fibreglass. Except it was warm — wonderfully warm.
He grabbed me back.
In slow motion?
Like a bloody movie.
And I think, yes, you're such a good scientist, why do you have to be such a shitty man? And what do I need to do to get Mike and Jack together and talking again? And how can I make my work and life meaningful like it used to be when I was younger?
And I had the sense that all these questions could be answered if I only trusted myself and the world around me just a little bit more.
Somehow, perhaps, just a little.
"Stupid!" The Major's face was twisted and hard, furious.
His hand was tight on my arm. It hurt, so I stepped on his instep as hard as I could. With my high heels, he shouted and let go.
He's just a bully! No clever psychodynamic formulations flowed to mind. He just likes to push his weight around.
And then I realised I was no flyweight myself.
My fear had gone.
He scowled sidelong at me as we headed back to his office, gesturing abruptly at a chair when we entered.
This time he sat behind his desk. Hugely solid and strong, it created a gap between us.
"What the hell was that all about?" he snarled.
"Primary data." I paused. I had the feeling that things were tying together somehow, that there was a pattern here: I was not just exposed to loosely random events, over which I had no control.
"So?" He spat the word.
I didn't even hesitate. "I think Pridom may be right."
He barked, throwing his head back in threatening laughter. "Are you so impressionable? Listen, Eva – I touched that bloody thing too – really touched it, not just when it was sealed, like you. It's just a weird rock."
"Then why are you so frightened?" I asked.
He stopped and looked at me with that look that usually made me feel frightened and dries my words. But this time I didn't feel a shred of fear. I stared back at him.
"Come on Tom," I said, "We're scientists. We've got to leave a little room for uncertainty."
"Your field is a lot more uncertain than mine," he said, "and your scientific objectivity has been compromised."
I think I knew a little more why the policeman had said so little to me. But I tried again.
"Science doesn't always have to explain everything."
"It's done pretty well so far," he shot back. "To call the unexplainable 'god', is to work with an ever-shrinking god of the gaps."
"Perhaps that's why God has come to earth? Squeezed out of the heavens by a rampant science?"
"Listen to yourself, shrink, " The word was used contemptuously, and I knew a line had been crossed. "You're saying this stone is like some bloody broken off piece of Kubrick's 2001 monolith that was floating through space. That's pure fucking science fantasy, let alone science fiction!"
"Clarke," I said.
"It was Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 Odyssey first."
He stood up. "I don't give a toss. Please sign these forms. You will be well compensated for this."
He threw the yellow certification forms across the desk at me, and they slipped onto my lap. I picked them up and looked.
He'd already filled them out in carbon triplicate. The diagnosis was 'paranoid schizophrenia'. There was a little cross where I should sign at the bottom, as if I'd never done this before!
So, it all came down to this: writing my name. That was all I had to do and I knew I would not have to worry about whether the bits and pieces I got from lecturing would be enough. Just a little scratch on paper and I could order a new couch set to match my wooden floors in the lounge.
But who would sit on them?
I looked at the Major, hovering angrily over the desk, and crumpled the papers up, slowly and deliberately. I dropped them into the bin next to me.
He shook his head and held out his hand: "I'm sad it's come to this."
I knew it was the final handshake. This time I didn't bother to squeeze hard. It didn't matter. "Goodbye, Eva. We no longer have need of your services."
If I'd taken the permanent post he couldn't do this to me. Perhaps I should step back from the brink? Jack will never go back to work to help me and we need the money.
No, a label is for life. Ethically there is no choice.
He opened the door. "Do you know what you've done, Dr. Brandon? There are some neuro-chemists here who are looking for ways to market this rock. What the hell am I supposed to do with world peace, hey?"
Ah, so there was the rub.
It was about three months after Bayford had fired me that I arrived home from the University, exhausted after the latest RAE – Research Assessment Exercise – visit. There was a parcel on the kitchen table. Jack must have signed for it.
It was squarely wrapped in brown paper, with my name hand-written in neat penmanship. Featureless brown, the parcel rattled slightly when I shook it. The postmark was London. I didn't remember ordering anything from London.
Shredding the wrapping, my fingers were tingling as I exposed a small grey box, stamped with a company name. Theologica Pharmaceuticals.
Ah! A drug company. And we psychologists were still awaiting the new bill for basic prescribing rights, in the face of the fading few psychiatrists left in the National Health Service. A pre-emptive strike it seemed, by an alert company, into a pending new market.
Except, when I look at the accompanying letter attached to the box, I realised I was just a potential customer.
Dear Doctor Brandon,
We are a new subsidiary of Bayford Military. We believe you are already familiar with the elements of God that have fallen from the sky and are therefore conducting an initial survey on the confidential and limited list of 'people-in-the-know'. We have confirmed after extensive tests that there are no harmful effects and that there may be some veracity to the claims that God is somehow organically resident in this element. Out of our Company's extensive civic duty we have diluted this compound into tablet form, as a means to spreading the joy of the existence of God. This is the first stage of market research.
Please take this pill with our compliments and give us independent feedback as to the relative blissfulness of your experience. (Form enclosed.)
This will be invaluable when it comes to allocating a fair price if and when full publicity and marketing becomes possible.
Please note that the Military currently retain ownership and any (even singular) negative experience will result in Bayford destroying all remaining batches.
C.E.O. Theologica Pharmaceuticals/Bayford Military Institute
I looked at the box. It was white and plainly marked in black Gothic print: 'God-Pill.'
There were brief instructions on the outside of the Box: 'Please take one every 24 hours in the event of nihilistic feelings or if in prolonged existential crisis. Possible side effects: Excessive euphoria.'
It took me a while to open the box. The damned thing seemed designed not to be opened, as if reluctant to reveal its contents. Then I noticed my hands were shaking.
It was a small green pill – green as in life, organic-like. Black pills don't market well?
And I could sense whispers of something through my fingers. I cupped the pill in my right palm. It was small, almost lost in the lines and folds of my palm.
Small, yet potent, and promising much. Imagine the experience if I took it into my stomach – what would be the impact on my nervous system? They must have already found out, if it has reached this stage.
I wondered where the human guinea-pigs were now. What were they doing?
But then an inkling of doubt, a vague sense of paranoia, crept into my thoughts. Are they perhaps trying to get rid of me?
I sniffed the Pill.
The Company was small. It receded from my mind. Even the Military was faltering. I sensed the Major wanted this destroyed, but it was clambering out of its box too fast. Too many people have felt It. God?
Or was it Pandora's Box?
I sniffed again.
No. I didn't think so. It smelt like the end of War. Where was the evil in that?
But the Major would try and destroy the batches. 'Any singular negative experience…' And experiences could be created.
I knew suddenly and certainly, he would let nothing of the stone or its organic compound survive.
And there would be nothing but rolling the Sisyphus stone of work and family up the hill every day.
If I took this pill, perhaps I could save It. Save everything?
No. What a messianic joke! I couldn't change it all on my own… But at least for some hours perhaps I could feel as if I had touched the Face of God?
I raised the pill and opened my mouth.
I saw my black fillings and gold tooth coyly hidden in the back of my mouth.
Startled, I realised I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. How on earth did I get here? The last I remembered I was in the kitchen with the parcel.
I must have walked up the stairs without thinking, just as I often drive down a well-known route, suddenly conscious of the arrival place with no clear memory of the journey.
My face looked old in the mirror, wrinkling fast these past few years, but at least my eyes were still bright.
I grow old; I grow old. Faint poetic memories… I have no trousers to roll?
And the toilet was open. Seat up yet again — bloody men!
The toilet was open. Like my mouth. Calling.
I hesitated, desperately wanting to feel that connection with God again, that sense my life was meaningful and worthwhile and had a plan leading it forward to some lasting purpose and joy. I just needed to swallow that little green God-Pill.
But I suddenly realised why the toilet seat was calling.
My arm and hand shook with the agony of the decision. It's bloody madness to throw it all away. It's not as if my life is steeped in ongoing transcendental experiences of the divine.
But somehow – I hoped – it had to be the right thing to do. I didn't want tiny dosed pieces of God. I wanted more – the whole shebang. That was why the woman had brought 'It' to the police-station in the first place. She wanted to share God with everyone.
It didn't seem right for me to take a piece alone, like a sliver of acid, to fly for a while only to come down again, with God gone.
Most of all I dreaded the sense of being left with nothing.
So it felt like I was flushing my own soul away as I leaned on the toilet lever and watched the green pill get swallowed up in a pool of suctioning bubbles, the pan draining to leave…
I peered forward, hoping against hopes; the pill was too small to have gone.
It was gone. The toilet was empty.
I couldn't believe I'd just flushed God down the loo.
Michael found me still sitting there, on the edge of the bath, peering in to the toilet.
"Eh-? What you looking for, Mum? What you dropped in the bog?"
I looked at him. He didn't seem to notice I'd been crying. "Nothing, Michael. Nothing."
"Oh!" He stood in the doorway, momentarily undecided, bag hanging over his shoulder. Then, taking the plunge, he turned and threw his bag along the wooden hallway. I heard the bag scuffing and banging along the passage, thumping suddenly against a closed door.
I opened my mouth to scream blue murder at him.
And shut it again.
He looked like he always did. Face dark and sullen, heavy bodied.
Except that I sensed some sadness from the day in his thoughts too. It was as if he had trailed them in behind him. Just wishing he could hurl them over my neatly new wooden floors like his bag.
"You've had a bad day, son?" I asked.
He startled slightly, looking at me hard suddenly: "Eh –what's that, Mum?"
"You've had a bad day, haven't you?"
I think it's my knowing assertion that hit him. His eyes misted just a fraction until he hardened them desperately. Tough boy.
"Yeah, actually, it was a bitch of a day."
I stopped the urge to chastise his language and dealt instead with the pain of the message.
He looked at me suspiciously, aware we were on new and unfamiliar territory for his age. He used to talk so freely when he was a little boy.
But he was bigger now — a lot bigger.
"Um – nothing, it's like just a girl."
I thought to myself that it's never just anything.
"Do you want to tell me more, son?"
He turned his head away a little: "Um, not right now."
No matter, I thought, it's a start. I didn't need to pressurise him for anything more.
He seemed to sense this and looked down at me directly, seemingly perplexed. "Mother, what are you on?"
I looked him in the eyes. "Nothing – and I swear I haven't touched that stash hidden under your bed either."
He looked shocked. "Er – er, I'm just keeping that for a friend, like…"
I waved his words away. My bum was sore and so I stood up. I still looked up at him, even with my high heels on.
"It doesn't matter, Michael, as long as you have a handle on it."
He relaxed visibly, suddenly staring hard at my face, noticing things. "Are you okay mum? It looks like you've been…"
"I'm okay," I said.
I could almost hear him think: 'Tough old bat.'
I knew I should actually model more self-disclosure. But in this case, I didn't know what the hell to say.
"Oh." He closed the topic with a relieved and disbelieving shake of his head, but picked up quickly on my earlier statement: "Yeah, I guess a little weed doesn't matter. It's obviously not as bad as scratching wooden floors."
I looked at him. He looked at me, slightly scared, as if he was afraid he'd overstepped the mark.
God, what an idiot I've been. But then I smiled.
I stepped past him into the hallway.
He turned to watch me. His bag was lying crumpled against the firmly-shut study door, where Jack no doubt lurked, with his reading and computer stuff.
I dragged the spiky heel of my shoe in a scratch along a pristine, polished maple board.
Mike looked down in horrified disbelief at the floor. We could both see a large six-inch gouge in the woodwork.
"I should have done that a while ago," I said.
He looked up at my face, agog, with rising laughter: "Jesus, mom, you're barking mad, you know that!"
"Woof! Woof! What do you expect?" I said, "After all, I'm a …"
I left it unsaid. I couldn't actually say it, because I was laughing.
And so was Mike. Big belly guffaws. I'd forgotten how infectious his laugh could be. It was only a matter of time before we both needed to find a chair to sit on, down in the lounge, to ease the bellyache of laughing so wildly.
Even Jack came down to see what it was all about.
It's a long time since we were all in the lounge together.
And it was then that I remembered what happens to toilet waste.
I was thirsty and hot from laughing so much, but I realised there was nothing I wanted from the fridge. Still, it felt as if it was probably too early to have a drink of water from the tap. I doubted they'd recycled our toilet waste yet, even though we fed into one of London's largest and most efficient sewerage recycling reservoirs.
I wondered how London would react to a homeopathic dose of God.