Here’s the first part of ABYSSINIA from THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS for anyone who can’t make tonight’s Vanguard Reading in Oval.
‘Pulsing eggs floated in the striplights. The shrieking came from inside the eggs. He swung his legs over the edge of a trolley and laughed. The trolley was curtained off. He was naked beneath a crisp green gown, his clothes piled on an orange plastic chair. On top of his sweater lay his glasses. One arm was bent at a hundred and eighty degrees to the lenses, an arrangement that reminded him of the work of a Scottish sculptor he’d once seen in Brussels. He could picture the gallery but not the name on the banner. He knew he had written a review of that exhibition, though, one admired by at least three colleagues. You don’t get any points for doing that nowadays. Before he’d surfaced here, he remembered, he was laid out on a patch of gravel. The trunks of black trees merged into a starless night. Strangers whispered above him. He’d been anxious about his glasses. He had found them now. Joy throbbed in his veins. A grey yolk twitched at the heart of each egg. What had they devised up there? Why were they shrieking? They had shrieked in his dreams.
The curtains around the trolley did not meet. Girls swayed in the gap. Girls in matching T-shirts stamped with unreadable slogans. Girls with plastic balls chained to their ankles. It was not the brood in the striplights who shrieked. The girls were shrieking, out there, in some sort of waiting room or holding area.
It was possible that he knew the girls. This could make things worse or even more joyous. A slender brunette was standing with her hands pressed together in front of her face, reminding him of the pose of a Victorian statue he’d once walked seven miles to see in a cemetery near Birmingham. He still couldn’t read the words on her T-shirt. Another girl appeared and hugged the brunette. On his feet now, he felt clear-headed, no aftereffects. He was invincible, a colossus. He must know what was written on those T-shirts. When the larval creatures in the tubes arrived the wording on the shirts could be used as an icebreaker. He found his glasses and carefully worked the arm into its rightful position. As he dithered about whether to first get dressed or sort out the matter of the slogans something rolled over him.
Roland Coburn’s party.
On the floor.
The parquet slick.
Mussolini holding her hand.
A tango-orange man with a cuboid head flapped through the curtains.
‘Awight, mate, back for more, you glutton for punishment, you chippy rascal?’
Doctor Baz dropped a shoulder and jabbed his finger and thumb. His voice was easily the worst thing that had happened during the last twenty four hours, even worse than Roland’s party or the conspiracy against nature gestating on the ceiling. He decided not to listen to Doctor Baz and wondered when doctors became so chummy. There was no doubt a manual – Chumminess for Medical Professionals – and role-play and tick box exercises, and a ‘narrative therapy’ course where medical professionals try to empathize with lovelorn characters in Dostoevsky novels. He would end up teaching those courses. He would then have impact.
‘So, Doctor Mellis,’ said Doctor Baz, ‘you were found getting some zeds on the old frog and toad. And this time you wet yourself.’
Mellis didn’t say anything.
‘You’re a lucky chappie. You hit your bonce on a lion-headed pilaster and wound up in someone’s front garden. You’re fortunate they came home. It’s minus four tonight, very chilly around the willy.’
‘These hippy shoes,’ said Mellis. ‘Inadequate grip.’
‘Get real, matey, you’re supposed to be a smart geezer. This is the fourth time we’ve met like this. How much did you drink?’
‘You know I can’t drink anymore,’ said Mellis. During their last encounter Doctor Baz had given him a card. It led to the Reverend Blither’s recovery group, where that other charlatan droned on about taking this day and that day one at a time. The others there knew, though. The others understood.
‘Chop chop,’ said Doctor Baz. ‘How much you chuck down your gullet?’
Mellis conjured a figure. He halved it and when he offered it for approval Doctor Baz gasped like he’d rested his hand on a hotplate.
‘That’s far, far too much, especially at your age.’
‘What’s in the tubes, you box-ticking monster?’
‘I’m keeping you in under observation. You’ve had a blow to the old nut. Complications are a possibility.’
Mellis put his hand to his head. Three barbs poked out from a strip of gauze over his left eye. He was sure they had not been there when he’d woken up.
‘There’s things growing up there,’ said Mellis. ‘And they know something, those girls.’
‘Lie down, maestro,’ said Doctor Baz. ‘I’ll be back in a few hours.’
The girls were shrieking. The curtain flapped.
‘Ladies,’ Doctor Baz exclaimed as if launching himself at the audience of the Hammersmith Apollo.
The shrieking stopped.
Mellis lay back on the trolley. The yolks were definitely spreading; each nucleus was darker now. Doctor Baz must be growing a legion of insectoid fascist super soldiers. He was certain of it. Blood swirled in his ears.
Mussolini had been holding her hand.
He must get dressed and discharge himself. Doctor Baz couldn’t tell the difference between a head injury and a hangover, and Mellis didn’t even have a hangover, not even the ghost of one. He could still save her.
Beyond the curtains, out in the waiting area he finally managed to decipher the slogans on the hen-night girls’ T-shirts. ‘Karen 4 Dave’ was lined across each chest and arranged vertically down the backs:
He must have taken a wrong turn out of A&E. He wandered past the doors of hospital departments that he didn’t recognize – Histopathy and Cytology, Prosthodontics – laboratories where Doctor Baz was using taxpayers’ money to genetically-engineer fascist super soldiers. Doctor Baz had grown the Reverend Blither in there as well, splicing the genes of a nanny goat and a higher form of moss (a fact he would conceal from the Blither’s group so as not to disillusion them). Confronting Doctor Baz about the things in the tubes now seemed like an artistic statement, a blow to the gut of popular credulity. Doctor Baz was the saddest twat he’d ever met. In Doctor Baz’s house hung that painting of the waiter serving idiots on a beach. He owned the complete boxed set of Lost and had watched all the extras (twice!). He’d read all the Stieg Larsson ‘thrillers’ and went to ‘boutique festivals’ in the summer and clapped haggard middle-of-the-road has-beens and shoutybollocks performance poets and toss comedians and he played the mandolin for an hour before bed and drank probiotic yoghurts and owned a composter that he revered like a Hindu shrine and attended ecological barbeques in his special yoga sandals and his wife had never articulated a vaguely engaging thought of her own but she was all for the smoking ban because she and Dr Moreau could now nip into The Gatling Gun Arms after badminton on Sundays and stand at the bar in their nice, matching Slazenger tank tops and sip a bitter lemon without reeking like ashtrays afterwards.
Mellis found himself squatting in a deserted stretch of white light, tearful and saturated as he waited for all of this mess to spurt through his pores.’