Sunhill Asylum, November 13, 1963

Hardy scowls and wags his winger:

‘I warned you not to touch him.’

‘He touched me,’ retorts Maria.

‘Get too close, and you fall under his spell. Magnetism. Remember?’

‘I know. But he was desperate; he was terrified; he wanted me to save him.’

‘Save him?’

‘From doctor Pontius.’

‘Ah well, its too late for that.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Never mind.’

‘Everything was going fine until Pontius showed up. I had established a good clinical relationship with Vallis. He trusted me. Now I feel like I’ve betrayed that trust.’

‘Don’t be too harsh on yourself. ECT is standard treatment nowadays. There’s nothing you can do about it.’

‘I could, given half the chance. But Pontius doesn’t approve of my methods.’

‘Methods?’

‘Jungian therapy. Pontius is a Freudian through and through. Can’t you say something to change his mind? Try and persuade him?’

‘Persuade Pontius? You must be joking. He has little respect for me. Besides, I’m due to leave this afternoon. You caught me at a bad time – clearing out my desk. Just look at all these notes. I can’t even read my own handwriting. What use is that?’

He hands her a piece of paper:

‘Can you read this Maria? What does it say?’

‘Er, it says: “Periodic recurring abnormal sexual impulses.” And… “Must buy more shoelaces.”…’

‘Does it? Oh dear. How awful. Fancy writing that in a patient’s file. Must buy more shoelaces. What would Freud think? Well, I’ve been very distracted of late. Which reminds me, I must visit the chemist before I go. I need a new hot water bottle. My last one perished and sprung a leak. Hot water bottle: a vital necessity for a good night’s sleep. Many a mania has been cured by the remedy of a good night’s sleep.’

He ducks beneath his desk, rummages in a draw, then emerges with a crumpled bag of sweets:

‘I wondered where these had gone. Mint Imperials. Would you like one?’

‘No thank you.’

‘Can’t say I blame you. They must be over six years old.’

He puts one in his mouth and winces:

‘They’ve gone all soft. Just like me. Soft in the head.’

She smiles:

‘I’ll miss you Robert.’

‘You’ve hardly known me a month. Less. Two weeks in fact.’

‘Even so, you’re the only friend I’ve got in this place.’

‘You got off to bad start with Pontius, that’s all. Don’t take it to heart. His bravado is just compensation for a deeply rooted insecurity complex. He was hoping for an ally. But you undermined his authority instead.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Sorry? Don’t be. Good for you, that’s what I say. It’s about time someone stood up to Pontius. Gave him a dose of his own medicine. He thinks he can do exactly as he pleases, and procedure be damned. Things will settle down soon enough, you’ll see. So, tell me now, what’s your opinion of Jack Vallis?’

Maria taps her ring against her teeth, then says:

‘There’s something very odd about him. I don’t mean his psychosis. Or his clairvoyance. I mean something else. Something I can’t pin down…’

Hardy nods:

‘Have you noticed his eyes?’

‘Yes. They flick back and forth all the time. I find it quite unnerving.’

‘Indeed. I once saw the same thing in a pianist: whenever she began to play, her eyes would start flitting about. The music transported her to another place. Doesn’t that remind you of anything?’

‘No, what?’

Rapid Eye Movement. REM is a trait of the dream state. Most people dream for two hours a night, during which time the body is paralysed except for the eyes. The somnambulist condition results when the motor cortex activates during sleep; then the dreamer acts out his dreams in real life; he climbs out of bed and walks about the house; he might even raid the kitchen or make a cup of tea; some even talk and answer questions. I knew a somnambulist who got in her car and drove fifty miles. She was fast asleep during the entire journey. She dreamt she had gone shopping and bought several new gowns. But she awoke in a field in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cows. The farmer was furious: he thought she was drunk – until I was called upon to explain the situation.’

‘Fifty miles? It’s a wonder she didn’t go off the road – or kill somebody.’

‘Not really. You see, her mind was functioning in two separate compartments: one part was driving with meticulous attention, much like a robot – whilst the other was choosing ball gowns. Have you never driven when your mind wondered off? You suddenly find you’ve gone sixty miles without even thinking. You’ve lost an hour on the clock and have no memory of the trip. You were day-dreaming. Well the somnambulist condition is very similar. And Jack Vallis is a somnambulist par excellence. During his waking hours he presents as a fully conscious and articulate individual. But he is in fact asleep. His EEG is identical for both states – dreaming or awake. His brainwaves never change but always show the characteristic traits of REM.’

‘I failed to find that observation in his file.’

‘It’s not in his file. You see, Vallis wasn’t always like that. They changed him.’

‘They?’

‘There was a trial in this hospital a couple of years back. I’m not party to the details, but it was overseen by Pontius. He did something to Vallis, I’m quite sure of that.’

‘Psycho-surgery?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Vallis has no cranial scars, at least none that I can find. I’ve been over his scalp with a fine tooth-comb, and apart from the ECT burns on his temples, the skin is unmarked.’

‘So what did they do to him?’

‘Whatever it was, it changed Vallis for the worse. He became a true demoniac. Vallis is stuck in a living nightmare. In dreams we might fly about on broomsticks, or walk through walls. Such feats seem perfectly normal when immersed in the dream world; but when awake, we know they are quite impossible. But Jack Vallis is dreaming all the time – even when awake. That’s why he believes he’s a witch with magical powers. Our reality is a nothing but a dream to him: you, me, this entire asylum.

‘You make it sound like we only exist inside his head.’

‘I’ve often asked myself the very same question. Well, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Take lucid dreaming for example. Is it conscious or unconscious? The dreamer consciously determines that he’s unconsciously dreaming, and directs the course of his dream for his own amusement. But what about the other way round? I mean, if you can examine your situation, and determine that you’re awake – even when you’re asleep – then what criterion can we use to determine consciousness?’

‘Yes, it’s quite a rabbit hole.’

‘Indeed.’

‘You said that Vallis has a magnetic personality.’

‘Certainly.’

‘What if that magnetism extends to changing the brainwaves of others? Perhaps he can induce REM simply by touch. Like a fakir, he can bring about altered states. Lucid dream states.’

‘Are you asking me, or telling me?’

‘I believe that’s what he did to me. He made me see things – places I remember – but only from dreams.’

Hardy looks nervous and fumbles with his earlobes:

‘Now where did I put my cigars? I’m sure I had an old box lying around here somewhere…’

She casts a suspicious eye on him:

‘Have you been straight with me doctor Hardy?’

‘Hmm? What?’

‘About Vallis.’

‘Vallis is mystery. A lunatic yes, but a mystery all the same.’

‘But his powers are real, aren’t they?’

‘I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might incriminate me.’

‘The fifth amendment? Since when was that part of the Hippocratic oath?’

‘You’re absolutely right of course. You felt it, didn’t you? His power. When he touched you.’

‘Yes. And he knew all about me: my past; my birthmarks; my digs – even the tenants across the stairs.’

‘It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it? Of course, medical materialism cannot explain these things. Pontius refuses point blank to acknowledge the clairvoyant phenomenon. But as for walking through walls, that’s another matter entirely. That’s witchcraft, you understand.’

He grabs a tin of snuff and hurls it in the bin:

‘Look at that: a hole in one. I haven’t done that in years. Things must be looking up.’

‘I wish you were staying Robert. There’s so much I want to ask you.’

‘About Vallis?’

‘About everything.’

‘I’m sure we’ll meet again, albeit under different circumstance. Sunhill has many secrets Maria. All I ask, is that whatever you may hear, do not judge me too harshly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a train to catch.’

She walks round the desk and hugs him affectionately:

‘Take care Robert. I know one thing: the patients of Sunhill have been very lucky to have you. And you’ll be sorely missed.’

He looks touched and his eyes mist with tears:

‘Ah well, yes, thank you my dear. Although I’ve been of little use these past few years. You know what they say: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now you’d better run along and get to work: after all, you’ve got a patient to save.’

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2017