Author: Helen Elizabeth Nathaniel
Helen Elizabeth Nathaniel settled in Scotland after travelling widely and living in Europe and Kenya. She taught English language in Germany, and English and European/African literature in Kenya. After joining a writer's workshop, she is writing and beginning to submit short stories. She is currently working on The Passenger,
her first collection.
The underpants and vest weíve been given to wear are grey, and some of their deeper seams of dirt crackle against bare skin. They smell of unclean bodies. They are frowsty, musty, dead menís scraps, with a blunt knife edge of stink. I have a lively imagination, and have to pause for a moment to banish an image of someone in a makeshift morgue, rubber gloved, removing them from marbling corpses. And when I have cleared my mind, I need to fight harder against the urge to scratch; there will be enough of that later if this sexless mating is successful. We are both wearing the tainted underclothes, the man who shares the lean-to bed and I. They are all we have, this seasonís shrouds.
You will find it hard to believe, I know, but we are here of our own free will, and we are fierce in pretending not to feel or smell or hear the presence of the other. Sometimes I can screen out everything except his noises, and I have never hated anything more than I hate the way he snores when sleep comes, the lucky swine. The gentle but persistent rhythms are punctuated now and then by shudders and snorts. He startles himself semi-awake, subsides, scratches his balls. His breath hangs in the methane air. I hate him, even though we have never spoken, will never speak. I make a vow that if ever his grubby fingers should stray to touch me in the dark or the daily punishment of dawn, I will beat him until he passes out.
If he sleeps, he must escape into dreams. What I have instead are tantalising memories of waking up alone. Stretching like a cat. Enjoying the cool silk feel of linen sheets and pillow cases, the soft of blankets and the satin puff of eiderdown. The simple joys of padding over carpet, shaving, drawing a bath. Relaxing into steam and soaping myself dreamily until clean. Clean! Then rinse, dry, glow, dress in fresh under- and outer clothes. Sit down to hot tea, to bacon for breakfast. Read my paper in solitary and perfect peace.
For a long time now itís been different. Here. In this secret place, the voluntary prison where we embrace our punishment for being different. Suddenly, my skin pricks and my guts stir. Jesus! Was that it? Has it happened at last? Itís been much harder than anyone anticipated. We did all we were told. We waited. Tried. Waited. Tried again. Then the repulsive creature next to me was one of the early successes, so they sent him to be near to me. He is unconscious of it now, an insensitive clod even in the full flood of infection, and still able to sleep.
The bastard is snuggling closer to me. Until now, I bore it for the good it might do. Suddenly I am sure it has happened. I can see in my mindís winking wet eye the horn fangs sinking, and imagine the greedy suck, the feeding frenzy. An unfair exchange, I think, taking my blood, and giving me ... what? If it is done, I need not tolerate him and I push him roughly away as a pregnant woman rejects a panting lover. He grunts, and a guard stirs. Before he can force me to accept the manís weight against me, I whisper my news. He looks doubtful but pleased. He whispers that he will check with one of the white coats, with one of our quiet and entirely passionless torturers.
My freedom will last a very short time even if I am right. I will be mercifully isolated, mercilessly tested, pricked, photographed and my blood will be drawn. They will observe me. Treat me. I will grit my teeth, as I am too proud to moan. I will dig my nails into my hands and I will not scratch. From some reserve, I will find the strength to remind myself I am alive. I will appreciate it. I will salvage what meaning I can from the days and nights, if not a single pleasure. Then I will become a host. Some man will hate me in turn. He will watch me obliquely and he will wait until he feels the stab of horns. He will know.
Now it is all as I imagined. It is very real. I never knew it was possible to itch like this. Itís a scarlet, bloody pain. More than any other desire I have ever felt, more than the need for food or water or warmth or woman, the pain drives away reason and free will, makes you want to scratch like a devil, tearing at skin with the sharpened and fiery tips of his fork. I have learned that if I look at the weals, the blisters, the ooze, I feel it more. So I close my eyes, endure the pains and the fevers somehow. I wait, even if I no longer know what Iím waiting for. All thatís left to me now are rags of pride to wrap my fragile dignity against the cold. And behind it all, there is the knowledge I could die. Itís like knowing someone lurks outside your door in the dark. You hear nothing, not even a breath. They donít knock, but youíre waiting for it. You canít see if they reach for the bell, if they are turning the handle or walking away. You can only wait for a creak, the click of a latch. You think your heart will give out whether you do or whether you donít.
Tonight and for many nights to come, I have to bear a younger man beside me. He cries himself into an exhausted nightmare sleep. He whimpers for his mother. He has a pidgin chest and knock knees. His teeth stick out. He wears glasses. He has a boil on his neck. I should pity him. I donít. He wanted to talk. I pretended I couldnít hear and turned my back. I can feel his hurt, but I donít care. Itís much easier to stay sane alone.
The guard stares down at me disapprovingly, and he makes a motion with his stick. I inch closer to the wet one, who cuddles into me like a child. I tense every muscle and forget even the itch as I force myself not to throw him off. I comfort myself his snail-penis that at least stays in its soft shell, and I suppose he has his pale eyelids firmly closed, too, imagining me through the pink screens to be his brother, father, friend. Iím not, of course. Iím his nemesis. I think Iíll be glad to gift the disease this time: Perhaps itíll make a man of him. I appreciate the grim irony of the thought, even as I try to fool the guard that I am asleep and moving away a little naturally from my bed mate. No reprimand comes, and I relish a small victory.
At last, the young, wet one is gone. For a short time I am free. I canít gauge time any more. I will try to enjoy being alone for as long as there is. No one knows how long the chaos outside the hospital will last. It could be months or years or decades or forever. The world is in flames and thousands are dying every day. The world has gone mad. We have refused to live in the asylum, and so they have put us in here. We were asked if we would not fight what we would agree to do. Some of the men chose to do medical or supply or war-work duties, and some of us who preferred not to support the slaughter in any way at all were prepared to take part in medical experiments. Poor people as well as soldiers get scabies, we reasoned. They itch, die needlessly. We should help find out how to cure or alleviate it, this infection. Weíll be guinea pigs on which to try out the ointments and new drugs. Even now, a white coat pretending not to see or feel or smell me is rubbing an ointment into my ruined skin so that it burns like the skin of RAF pilots frying in their planes, or civilian bodies consumed in a holocaust of bombs.
All of us shadow creatures that are here objected to war, when the only reality is violence. We refused to kill any man when all men set out to destroy each other. Accepted to die or rot before allowing ourselves to be forged into killing machines. We all hate our non-jailors and loathe each other. We are pathetic creatures, but we have discovered the awesome power of refusal. Weíre learning to fight without weapons, die every minute without being killed. We elect to stay and suffer so some men, women and children may sleep easier in bloodied and tangled sheets. We wait here, losing hope that the itch will STOP.