A Story of Our Time
He ran fast, so fast his lungs were seared. He ran blindly. He ran like a stag hunted by wolves. Night drew him on, tugging him with urgent hands, beckoning him. He tripped on a root, stumbled, fell, heard the shouts, rose, then stumbled again. The ceiling of the sky sparkled as it watched him and the bright, full moon swept his panicked path with a searchlight’s brilliant beam.
The shouts faded, then grew in crescendo as he weaved in and out of the grasping trees. His heart raced, slowed, faltered, then steadied as he drove his body forward to freedom, to kindness, to the distant promise of the woman in white. His arms reached out to embrace her but she vanished with the shattering shout.
‘Prisoner 4538!’ The rattle of keys in the heavy steel door battered his eardrums like sharp shards of thunder as he buried his head under the single wool blanket that covered his body and the thin grey tunic that covered that.
‘Stand up, Prisoner 4538!’ A boot kicked him hard and he collapsed onto the concrete floor.
‘Please, leave me alone. Please…’
The two men standing over him stared down like two schoolboys planning to the tear the wings off a fly, the vicious smiles, the eager eyes.
Strong arms reached down and pulled him up. The floor was cold. His feet were bare.
‘Who are you? Why won’t you tell me?’
In answer they shoved him in the back, down a long grey corridor, half-stumbling, half running, trying to keep ahead of the men who tormented him, his eyes blinded by the arc lights that lit the way.
The three stopped at a closed door with the single word “Interrogations” stencilled in black on the grey paint. One of the men knocked. He heard a muffled but sharp voice. The man who knocked reached for the doorknob, turned it, opened the door wide. The second guard, hustled him into the room. He was shoved forward and made to stand before a man, in a dark grey suit, white shirt and black tie, seated at a desk. The man received the salute of the two guards with a nod of his head. He then sat in silence as he observed the prisoner.
He waved his hand at a single wooden chair placed in front of the desk. The guards pressed the prisoner’s shoulders, forcing him down onto the chair, then took several steps back and stood with legs apart, arms behind their backs.
The prisoner tried to sit upright in the chair but the seat was oiled, slippery and he kept slipping down to the floor. He tried to grip the armrests but they were oiled too. He gave up and rested in a state of imbalance while the man across from him continued to sit in silence, watching him squirm.
‘Do you know why you are here, 4538?’
The prisoner did not answer, but looked around the room that was bare except for the desk and two chairs. He replied, ‘Why don’t you tell me?’
‘To confess. That is all. Are you ready to confess?”
“I’ve done nothing. How can I confess?”
‘I’m sure you can think of something. Everyone is guilty of something.’
‘I’ve lived my life, that’s all.’
‘A good life?’ The interrogator leaned forward. ‘What do you say?’
‘I worked, I loved, I survived, what am I supposed to say? Who are you?’
‘You. I’m your mirror. Are you afraid to look?’
‘You’re talking in riddles.’
He slipped in his chair again, tried to sit back up, but only slipped further down. ‘I want to go home.’
‘You can’t go home until you confess. The new order requires it. Everyone must confess. Everyone has to begin again. A clean slate.’
‘You sound like a priest.’
‘No, not a priest, you’re friend. I don’t offer salvation, only awareness.’
‘I have nothing to confess.’
The man stood up from the desk and motioned the guards to step back. He walked up to the prisoner, stood behind him. Then he leaned down. He whispered in his ear. ‘Do you want to know where you are? Can’t you guess?’
Prisoner 4538 moved his head away from the voice but it followed him,
‘Can’t you guess?’
The interrogator moved away from the prisoner, ‘Take him away, he is useless until he knows where he is. Take him back to his dream.’
The guards pulled Prisoner 4538 roughly to his feet and dragged him back to his cell. The hallway seemed to stretch out in front of them forever, the end lost beyond the vanishing point, beyond the endless doors on either side until they came to the door with his number on it, already opened.
He was thrown back onto the floor of the cell beside his collapsed cot. They slammed the door shut. He lay still. He listened to their steps moving away, to the silence of the space around him. He lifted his head, looked around. The cell was bare except for the single weak bulb that cast macabre shadows on the walls, the the pile of sticks that was his bed, a bucket in one corner. He lay back on the floor, began to sob, feeling desperate, afraid. But after the tears had washed his eyes, he lay quiet, began to drift, and saw again the woman in white with open arms waiting for him, as he ran faster and breathed harder as he ran, ever on, away from the shouts, the baying dogs, ever on to the pure light in front of him. He was almost there. He knew he could do it. He ran and ran and ran as hard as he could until he disappeared into the nights dark womb and the shouts became distant and confused.
The doctor put his pipe to his lips and slowly inhaled, then blew out a ring of blue smoke. He walked over to the window as he thought about the question. The leaves on the trees on the hospital grounds were turning; the reds and golds glittered in the autumn sun. The flowers still blossomed, squirrels still played in the branches, nurses walked patients along the paths, enjoying the warm golden light. The doctor paused as he reflected on what he was about to say. The he turned to the group seated in his office, the senior resident, the junior, the psychiatric nurse, all looking at him, waiting for him to speak.
‘You asked my opinion about this patient. I have examined him a number of times. It is clear he has suffered a psychotic break.
‘Patient 4538 is still suffering the delusion that he is a prisoner here. His delusion even extends to dreaming that he is escaping from the prison but then wakes up to be taken for interrogation. He thinks his dream is reality. But without any identity it is going to be difficult to treat him. We have no history.’
The junior nodded. ‘Just found by the police a few days ago wandering the streets, ‘looking for the good life”, they said. Totally disoriented. Said he had to keep running until he found it.’
The doctor looked out the window for a few moments as he drew on his pipe then, as he sat down in his leather chair, replied, ‘a sad case, thinking he can find the good life by running after it,
escaping everything, by refusing to examine himself. His delusion could be permanent. It exists in many people, perhaps most, but I have never seen anyone who has broken with reality like him. He will never recover I fear, unless we can find out who he is.’ He took another puff on his pipe as the others looked on in quiet agreement.
The telephone on his desk buzzed. The doctor reached calmly for the receiver, put it to his ear. “Yes?” There was a pause as he listened. Then his mouth opened. His pipe dropped from his hand. His back stiffened. He listened further, then said ‘all right, you’d better call the police.’
He put the receiver back. For long seconds he said nothing, then turned to the others and said, ‘He’s gone. The door to his room was locked but he’s gone. Just disappeared. Like he never existed. Well, I’ll be damned.’
And, as the doctor sat back in wonderment, Prisoner 4538 kept running, stumbling, falling, towards the gentle arms of the lady in white.