Positions Of Power
East river Lunatic Asylum
We stepped into a wide corridor not dissimilar to any other that I had encountered in the hospitals I had worked in. The floor was the usual white tile, the walls painted the familiar pale blue. Three gurneys lined the opposite wall end to end. But it was the little things that set it apart. The light fittings encased in wire mesh, restraining straps hanging loosely from the gurneys and the glass window of the dispensary office to my left was run through with reinforcing wire. The usual dispensing hatch replaced with a segmented carousel that prevented anyone from reaching inside, and the door to it sheeted in steel.
There were two men waiting for us, a security guard, in the now familiar dark blue uniform, who was twirling a Billy club by its leather wrist strap. The second man in short sleeved orderly whites watched me intently and I felt myself being summed up. He was average in height maybe five ten, but built like a bull, large neck muscles bulged and the shirt strained under his enormous chest, but it was his forearms, thick as most men’s calves that caught my attention. He smiled at me holding out a hand.
As I took it he said, “You must be Dr, Prendergast? I`m Trent, Do you mind if I call you doc; doc?” (sniff)
I demurred that he may.
His grip was more than equal to my own and in the way of men the world over there was a brief battle to see who would let go first and I can tell you now that I am unsure I could have bested him and was grateful when Penderton cleared his throat, “Trent,” he said, calling a halt to the contest.
The orderly smirked as he let go.
In the months ahead when I would get to know Trent more fully than I could ever have wanted to know anyone, there would be many things about that man that I would come to loath, but the thing I found the most irritating about him was his habit of sniffing at the completion of every sentence.
He turned to the director and said coldly, “You’re late doc?” (sniff)
Astonished at the man’s impertinent tone I glanced at the director expecting him to rebuke him for his insolence, but Penderton just made a face and said, “The ferry was running late,” it occurred to me then to wonder who was the power in this place, that a mere orderly could, without sanction, address the director in this way.
We four stood awkwardly, no-one had bothered to introduce the guard and I was beginning to seriously wonder about their truculence, although this one at least seemed to have a better disposition to the last two, smiling as he nonchalantly twirled his baton.
“Should we be going?” I asked, “I`m curious to see Jacob`s, I mean Dr Blount`s Laboratory.”
There was a wordless exchange between Penderton and the orderly, who shrugged and said, “The docs up on the second floor, he`s got a sweet set up I can tell ya,” (sniff)
As we set off I attempted to make conversation with the orderly, “I don’t mean to intrude Mr Trent but do you have a congestive problem, it`s just that I can recommend an excellent Otolaryngologist.”
“Hey doc I told ya it`s just Trent, even my old man wasn’t no mister and what`s a otora, otolal, whatever it was you said.” (sniff)
“An Otolaryngologist is a doctor that specialises in nose and throat conditions,” I replied.
He gave me a confused look, “And what would I want with one of them.” (sniff)
I looked at Penderton to see if the orderly was pulling my leg or perhaps was unaware of his condition, but the man had a disinterested look on his face and I wondered had he been working with Trent for so many years that his sniffing no longer registered with him.
Trent was still giving me an enquiring look, the guard was still twirling his club obliviously and I gave up, “I just thought perhaps you had a nasal congestion problem, but apparently I was mistaken.”
“Don’t worry doc,” (sniff) he said “we all make mistakes.” (sniff)
I remarked on how quiet it was.
Trent turned and looked at me rolling his eyes, “Yeah it is now that they`ve all had their meds,” (sniff), “But some days it can be pure bedlam,” (sniff)
“Hey doc do ya think that’s why they used ta call asylums bedlams?” (sniff)
He was smiling as he said it and I wondered how many times he`d said that to some visiting physician, playing up the, “Who me, I`m just a plain orderly, not a smart doc like you doc,” (sniff) routine.
To either side of us I noticed doors not unlike the one that guarded the dispensary, with the same riveted edges denoting the steel sheeting, but these had a peephole at head height and above that where I would have expected to find the name of the patient there was only a number in roman numerals.
Trent turned around walking backwards, the boyish grin on his face putting me in mind of a juvenile, though the man was at least nearing fifty.
His rubber soled shoes making Squeet, squeet, noises as they scuffed the floor, he said, “Hey doc how would you like ta meet one of your patients?” (sniff)
The man’s familiarity was beginning to grate and I glanced again at the director, but he seemed as ever unperturbed by the orderlies insubordination.
“I really feel we should be getting on,” I protested; but we had already, as If by some unknown signal come to a stop. To my left was a door with the numerals XI on it and it was to this that the orderly went.
“Better make sure there’s someone home huh doc?” (sniff) he said, going to the door and peering into the spyhole. “Here doc take a look,” (sniff) he beckoned me over, moving to one side to make room.
Curiosity piqued I looked through the portal and pulled my head away, “that’s a girl,” I said, looking at the still grinning orderly.
“Can’t put nothing past you huh doc,” (sniff)
I returned my gaze to the girl in the room, she was in her early twenties with long straight black hair that reached past her shoulders, she was sitting upright on the edge of the bed in a short hospital gown, her knees pressed together, hands resting on her thighs. Her skin was pale almost to grey, which I assumed was a result of lack of sunlight and her face was covered in scratches. Her mouth hung slack, half open; but it was the eyes that drew my attention, dull, unfocused, devoid of any life.
Engrossed as I was in my study of the poor wretch I failed to notice Trent relieve the guard of his club and he hammered the base of it against the door by my ear, causing me to jerk back in fear that there was someone other than the girl on the other side trying to escape.
Trent`s snickering was drowned out by the shriek that emanated from the room beyond. She didn’t begin to scream, instead it erupted from her as if she had been sitting there holding her breath, awaiting her cue. It came in one long piercing unmodulated monotonal shriek that put me in mind of the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.
“She`s a screamer,” (sniff) he said, his grin turning to a leer that made my skin crawl.
“Trent,” Penderton said and I turned, expecting finally for him to rebuke the man; but instead found him wearing a half apologetic smile, and when he caught the meaning of my look, gave me a boys will be boys shrug of the shoulders.
He sighed, “Trent please make her stop, there’s a good man.”
As if she had heard him the scream stopped, but it was only a brief respite as the girl continued just as soon as she had drawn a fresh breath.
The orderly, still smirking pulled a bunch of keys that were attached by wire to his belt loop by an ingenious spring loaded retractable device, he shuffled through them until he found the correct one, and after slipping it into the lock had to turn it three times before the door clicked open. As it swung back the volume of the girls scream increased threefold causing me to wince. She was still sitting there just as I had seen her only her mouth was now fully open.
A new thought struck me, another difference between this place and any other hospital in which I had worked revealed itself. No orderly, nurse or doctor had come running to see what all the commotion was about, not a single inquiring head had appeared around a distant doorway, here in this place this was not considered unusual.
The pounding on a door, the screaming of a patient were I could see now, part and parcel of the daily routine, what had the orderly said, that this place could at times be bedlam.
As Trent approached the girl she stopped once more, but again only to regain her breath and as he sat next to her she resumed her shrieking. With surprising tenderness he put one arm around her shoulder in what I can only describe as a fatherly way, in truth judging by the difference in their ages they could quite easily in any other circumstance pass for parent and child. But then he turned, winked at me, conspirator to co-conspirator, and cupping her left breast with his other hand, squeezed hard.
It was as if someone had thrown a switch; the girl went silent, her mouth was still wide open but not a sound now issued from it. Her eyes retained the same empty unfocused stare and then the unmistakable ammonia stench of urine wafted across the cell to me and I saw the quickly spreading dark stain at the crotch of her gown and I realised that all this had been for my benefit.
A lesson was being taught and I could almost hear the orderly’s voice in my head, “Scream all you want doc, (sniff) aint no-one gonna come, (sniff) aint no-one gonna care.” (sniff)
And with growing horror I realised too that apart from Jacob, no-one outside of this institution knew where I was, that somewhere in this building a cell could be waiting, a cell with no name, just a number on the door and for the first time ever I felt truly afraid for my life.
At some instinctive level I understood also that this was a test, that if I showed any compassion towards the girl things would surely go bad for me, and that someone was watching me.
So, affecting a bored look and with a casualness I did not feel, I turned straight into the directors gaze.
His grey eyes were hard as he examined my face for any sign of weakness.
I cannot tell you where I found the reserve to hold my disinterested look and with forced indifference I said, “Very instructive I`m sure, but can we get on, Jacob must be wondering what has become of me.” I held his gaze through all of this and after a moment his shoulders relaxed “Trent.” he said.
Behind me I heard the orderly say in an almost kindly tone, “Daddy will be back to tuck you in just as soon as he can pet.” (sniff)
And I was reminded of one of my father’s favourite dictum's: “To truly know the nature of a man give him dominion over another.”
And I resolved that before I ventured onto this island in the future, to ensure that at least one other person knew of my whereabouts.
The aerial bombardments continue through the night, although of course there is no night here at this time of year. The explosions barely register beyond the pounding noise, but it is the thick plumes of smoke that rise high into the sky that are most noticeable. I don't think we've properly seen the sun for a week.
All through the city, cafes and bars appear closed although if you know where to look, many continue to try to operate as normal in underground rooms. But there are huge risks. Last week a Chinese ground penetrating bomb sought out a crowded whisky bar. There were no survivors.
Food is running low for the oil workers trapped in the city. Oil production in Alaska is negligible since Prudhoe Bay fell to Russian forces, who are at this moment advancing southwards. Even if the field restarts production it will be with Russian not Western American workers.
We are all resigned to the fact that it will rest with the Chinese and Russians to resolve this war. What started as an American Civil War, and I think most would agree that this was a direct response to the start of America's self imposed isolation in 2019, has become a fight for America's oil. Neither Western nor Eastern America can muster the soldiers nor the technological muscle to play any significant part of the fight for control of Alaska. Indeed, since the 2023 San Francisco earthquake, Western America have been without a strategic base and seem at the mercy of whichever side has the confidence to invade.
Of course all the money is on China, who are believed to be preparing the largest ever army in the Pacific. If rumours are to be believed, this army consists predominantly of those men who have been unable to find partners, a pool that we estimate at 33 million, a consequence of the years of one child policy.
But we should never underestimate the ability of the Russian army to change the course of a war through strategic alliance and pure cunning. Although significantly smaller than the Chinese army, we may yet see Russia as the kingmaker in this war. And of course although neither side has used nuclear weapons yet, equally neither side will rule this out.
But it is the fight for Alaska that will shape the outcome of the war. What started as a Civil War has become a fight for possession of a country that no longer exists. Alaska is strategic only for the huge volume of oil that it produces. Once this has been resolved we fully expect the war to move to Texas. And satellite images of troop movements suggest that both Russia and China are preparing their invasions.
The consequences for Eastern America if Texas falls cannot be underestimated. Despite the rise of shale gas production, Texas is the single most important strategic producer of oil in the country. Eastern America's hold on Texas looks weaker and weaker as the days pass. Without the foreign currency that this oil brings, it will be hard for the leaders to maintain their hold on power. What secret deals are New York making as we speak?
On the other side of the border Canada maintains its neutral stance and vows to stay out of the war. Asked whether they would be able to work with a state next door controlled by China or Russia, the Canadian spokeswoman suggested that they had good relations with both countries and were in regular dialogue with the leaders. She reiterated that Canada would never allow troops from either country to pass through, and that Canada would vigorously defend its own sovereignty if necessary.
As I write this I have heard that we are now under siege. We will have to start to conserve our food. The water supply has been cut off.
He staggers back up the bridge ladder; gripping the handrail on both sides, head down bracing against the wind. If he makes it through the storm, he will return to the map. He will unfold the thin weather-worn paper and trace his journey through Kamchatka Peninsula. Tomorrow he will meet the Russian seaman Mikhail and his crew. Mikhail, a man of few words is happy to accompany him on his mission and he will be rewarded handsomely.
For Don nature was to be conquered, mastered, controlled. This journey will be no different. He feels a thrill when he imagines tracking down a pod of Orcas on their migration along the peninsula. His employers have offered him good money for a large female and he is eager to round up one of these imposing beasts. He anticipates the momentum of the capture and the power it will take. It feels like a prize to him, a prize he will earn through his skill and strength. He sips from his hip flask, clenching his teeth and sucking the fiery liquid down the back of his throat, he imagines the rush he will feel when he hauls in his catch.
On the morning of the capture, the water is eerily still, its glassy surface broken only by the dorsal fins of a female orca and her calf. The shiny black triangles cut through the water, a mere suggestion of the creatures beneath the surface. Don had been unprepared for the ease with which the animals approached his rusty trawler; they were inquisitive, playful even. The baby refused to leave the mother’s side. Mikhail was busy with the apparatus, debriefing his team, getting the herring ready. Don took a swig from his flask. As the purse seine net was lowered, a further two Orcas swam towards the boat, could this be an attempt to warn the mother and calf? Don wondered absently. He didn’t need more. He had to focus on the mother. It took surprisingly little time to haul the female onto the boat. The baby and the other two adults continued to circle the net, emitting noises that silenced Don and his men. The high-pitched squeals echoed around them, piercing their souls.
That night, Don left the bridge again, this time to walk down the steps into a night that was cold and still. It felt like the waves had been silenced and the sea was in mourning. The only sound Don could hear was the memory of the click and squeal of the baby whale pulsing in his temples. He approached the captured orca, now lying immobile on the ship’s deck in the inflatable sling. He ran his had along the hard smooth skin and bent down to look into the whale’s eye. The thin blue iris circled a pupil that seemed as big as a moon and as black as the night. He lay next to her and began to weep.