The Rat Talks Back
The automatic sliding doors open as you walk towards them, As they slip together, they separate the worlds. You are now entering alien territory, a place of other rules, routines, rituals.
Okay, so this is level 1. There are 4 booths with drones in uniforms; no windows, no natural light anywhere; drinks and eats dispensing machines around the walls, a long snake of chairs doubling back on itself. Lots of odd beings and odder noises emerge from a variety of seen and unseen sources; pings and sighs, whirlings and chuffings atop a babble of voices.
Stand in queue at Booth 1. The drone takes your name, looks you up on the computer, ping, you have a ticket. Your number will be called. Not worth sitting down; best to look at the floor.
Number called. Go to Booth 2, another uniformed drone.
“You go upstairs”
“No, I start downstairs”
“They have your notes upstairs.”
“No they don’t. The office upstairs is shut.”
But you’re dealing with a drone. You’re dealing with an alien bureaucracy. There’s no point in arguing.
You run upstairs. Office shut. Opens 1.30. appointment downstairs 1.15. Go back downstairs. What now? No point in going back to the booths.
You go through the door to the second area on level 1. Here there are doors, lots of doors all of them identical. So that if you could be in this place entirely alone, in silence, you could imagine all the different worlds that could be behind each of these doors like in Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’.
Here are the colour coded chairs. Here are the flapping bits of A4 paper with letters on them beside the doors. There is no booth here. You go to the office.
“Hi. I’ve an appointment here 1.15.”
“What’s your name?”
“That’s it there.”
Point at the schedule. That’s lucky. It’s in the tray within view. You’re not supposed to look but at least you’ve established that you are meant to be here.
“I can’t get them to accept on the desk that I’ve to go here first. The office upstairs is shut. I see them next. They don’t have my notes. I don’t know where my notes are.”
Get another ticket.
Go to the second booth. Explain that you are on the list here and that they have the notes.
Yours are the yellow chairs. Sit on a yellow chair. Sit on a yellow chair for a long time.
Puts the patch over your eye. There’s the buzzer. Look at the orange light straight ahead.
“When we turn the machine on, there’ll be white flashing lights. Press the buzzer when you see something.”
Fine. Only right eye, you don’t see anything. So, gung-ho, press the buzzer randomly, let’s mess up the aliens’ experiment. They never explain anything anyway and never say “Hey, these results make no sense”.
Upstairs. Level 2. Sarah. Shiny Sarah. Sarah with the laugh that is still free. Sarah all ripe for conspiracy. How about next time you come upstairs first and Sarah has the notes because the system can’t cope with the reversal, with people going downstairs first.
“Look at the bird. When does it go double?
Is it double here?
Eyes tired. Sore.
“Okay so what’s the lowest line you can read?”
It’s got two ys in it. That’s not right. You check out the computer. Not meant to look. Breaking the rules. No ‘y’s at all. Just shows you.
No glasses. Just you. Just U.
“Does it move?
Into the room of the cone. Another buzzer. Another light. White this time.
“Track the light. When you can’t any more, press the buzzer.
Don’t move your head.
Don’t speak because that moves your head.”
Here’s Tom. Takes you downstairs.
Want blood this time. It’s Diane.
Up two floors, level 3. Helen’s turn.
‘Better or worse?
Better or worse?”
Let me measure you with my instruments. Now we go in the other room. The one with the large contraption in it. Time for eye drops.
“This will sting.
Put your chin here.
Look at my right ear.
Look at my left ear.
Look to the right as far as you can.
Look to the left as far as you can.”
Return to the interview room.
“Have your eyes been more light sensitive, less light sensitive or the same?”
This is not a question you can answer. It depends on how sunny it is. It depends on how much they’re streaming today. It depends on how well you slept. It varies day-to-day. It varies within a day. It just depends. That doesn’t fit the questionnaire. That isn’t what she wants to hear.
Helen’s rattling dumb, unanswerable, meaningless questions at you like she spends every Thursday rattling these same dumb, unanswerable, meaningless questions at different people. It’s just her and you in this bleak, sad, characterless, little room. She’s sitting at the tiny white formica-topped desk. The walls are blank, white, non-descript. There’s an X in black marker behind her where you look for one of the tests. You are facing the small window. This potential source of natural light in this neutral cubby-hole is glazed with cloudy glass. Why? What would a ray of sunlight do, that it must be forever excluded? This is the church of the artificial, the angular, the blank,
the clinical, the efficient, the clean.
A wave of despair for this alien world. What is the point of the rituals we’ve enacted this afternoon? What in fact do we think we’re doing?
There, at last. The doors slide open like a smile and here is the world outside. Forget about it for another while.
So this time Caroline is with me. That makes it different. This time is different because there are decisions to be taken. I’m no longer working on the computer because my left eye now ‘pops’ out of the socket and there are occasions when I can’t get it back in. I don’t know what’s going to happen but something is.
This time is different and I hold that knowing as a knot in my gut. The others were just the rituals of measurement that the culture calls for, an exercise in generating paper. A strange game these people play that I play along with.
We go through the Booth 1, Booth 2, sit on the colour coded chairs ritual, only this time our chairs are blue. And we watch together as people glance at me and move in and out of rooms. We spend our time identifying the characters in the plot. That’s Helen. That’s Richard. That must be Mr. Potts.
And now we’re in the room and Helen is examining my eyes. And my left eye pops. It’s not just the pain of it that throws me, it’s the disappointment. Helen abandons the examination when my eye pops for the second time.
“If it was up to me, that would mean high dose intravenous steroids and a course of radiation treatment” Helen said.
I’m glad she warned me.
And suddenly this little room is full of people. People and noise. What I should have now is a piece of card to hold with ‘Exhibit A’ written on it, so that way we’re all clear exactly what I’m doing here. Ten people in the room: Caroline, me, and eight consultants.. Eight experts all examining; eight consultants, all talking; eight people, all atwitter. See, there’s the scans from last year and these are the ones from three weeks ago.
Roll up, roll up. Thyroid eye disease like you’ve never seen it before. Make your way to Mr. Potts room for a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, genuine subluxation of the eyeball.
I’m angry. You asked me to do things. I complied when I should have refused. I should have said, “No I can’t look up. It hurts too much.”
“No, I can’t focus on the stupid light in your stupid instrument. My eye lid is twitching. It’s a sign my eye’s about to pop.”
Why do I go along with this? Why did I just sit there?
Why do I stay in my designated place, engaging in the rituals of this foreign faith? Their sacrificial victim in the new civilised form, the one experimented on.
“Intravenous steroids. She should start now.”
“Where does she live?”
“We’ll have to take her in. Check there’s a bed.”
You just don’t get it. You just don’t get it.
Thing is I’ve got to realise I’m the alien here. This is a convocation of the high priesthood of scientific positivism. They believe in the existence of a single knowable reality despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The practitioners of positivism don’t call it a religion but it shares characteristics with other monotheistic religions – bigotry and dismissal of other viewpoints, a limited range of information accepted as ‘real’, a blindness to the unconscious assumptions they don’t want to face and an absolute conviction of their rightness.
How can they know?
“Dr Charm, Dr. Charm,
Do you ever question your paradigm?
Or do you think that asking
‘Better or worse? Better or worse?’
yields useful information
about a meaningful universe?”
When did you last read the list of ‘common side-effects’ that comes with the tablets you now suggest that I take – on top of the steroids, in addition to the radiation?
Infections (in patients with bowel inflammation), certain types of cancer (lymphomas, cancer of the cervix, vulva and skin, lesions on skin or inside the body, fever, blood system disorders, thrombocytopenia, anaemia and leucopoenia, pancreatitis and liver disease. Nice eh?
Why do two intelligent women meet in that odd little room to go through that peculiar little ritual in honour of the false gods of number and measurement?
When does the rat get to talk back?
Go on then Mrs. Rat, say your piece. It’s not as if anyone is going to listen anyhow so you can just get on with it.
Let’s be having you. Yes you! Dr. Charm, please step forward. Ah, like the business suit, like the slick-smart image you’ve adopted. You sit here. I think perhaps I’d like to tie you to the chair. Just so you can get the flavour. So I can tell you how it is.
I have ping-pong eyeballs laced with red like the straw-blown ink patterns children make on paper. I look like an alien. I could be an extra on Dr. Who if I wanted to. I would really love not to look so peculiar but that’s not what drove me into your world. Pain pushes me through those doors. The inflammation of the muscles behind my eyes pushes my eyeballs forward so I look permanently startled, in a state of shock. My eyes seep silent tears that leave little deposits of salt on my cheekbones.
How many times have you said that how I look doesn’t really matter? God does that make me mad. Who told you it doesn’t matter? Okay so I’ve had years to get used to looking odd but that doesn’t mean that I like it. It is I who live with the crushed vanity of once having had eyes of exceptional beauty.
This is my journey. This is my body you’ve persuaded me to pump full of dolly-mixture drugs, with all the ones for dealing with the damage the other ones do. Here in my physical body I am living with the consequences of the fragmentation that your mechanistic mindset creates. You treat my eyes but at what cost?
You act as if there is no meaning to what happens. But to me it is the story of my life written on my body. The permanent startle of my eyes reflects the suffering I was called to witness in this world. The silently seeping salt, like some living version of a weeping statue of Mary, is grief dissolving.
Each day I place an ice pack on my eyes and I lie down to visualise those enflamed cauliflowers behind my eyes that I saw on the screen in the room where you all talked over me, being washed with refreshing blue cool and soothed. And then I imagine my eyes moving back into their sockets and settling happily in their natural position now there’s room for them.
I wish you could be my ally, that you would work with me on my healing journey.
Dr Charm. I hope your voodoo works. I find it difficult to trust. It comes from such an alien culture. I think you mean well for all it seems strange that the best you can come up with seems to do about as much damage as good. I play along because for all my reservations, I have no better suggestions.
But we live on different planets, we come from different worlds. There is no single objective knowable reality. There is a dance between the potential and the manifest that shatters the framework of your world. In the clash of the paradigms that is occurring, yours is the dinosaur.
Yet I imagine that I could break the spell, free you from the mindset that holds you in thrall. Speak the magic words, speak truth and you would see how your beliefs block your understanding; see how attachment to the rituals of scientific experimental procedure sets crippling limitations on the adventure of curious enquiry; see that true communication is only possible between equals; see that you cannot separate a condition from the person who has it; see why ultimately what you do does not work.
I wish I could work out how to do this. I wish the rat could talk back.