This is one I wrote a few years ago. I was reading a lot about the T-4 extermination program.
There was a time…
People didn’t think.
We took a lot of time considering our conjunctions, and our grammar, but we didn’t think. Like automatons, caught in the wilderness with only basic instinct left to guide us home, we found it easier to be dumb.
But in those times, in that absence of thought and that dullness of mind, I found the purest and most beautiful sense of control. It was as though we, who had no minds, were finally alive, and could rely on our automatic processes to guide us wherever we wished to go. The power, the freedom, it was excessive.
It was exhausting. I remember one day, I walked outside and met a friend of mine, and he just looked right through me. I asked him what the matter was, and he told me that he was tired. That’s all he said. He was tired. I didn’t see him for a long time after that, and when I did, he looked pale and wan, eyes half-closed as if he was sleeping while awake. We all were asleep, but none of us could bear to dream.
It took some time for the realisation to sink in that this was not real, that we were not Gods among automatic processes. We suffered the violence of coming down to earth, and looked about us for the sanctuary of routine and normality. A true artist can never bear to be outside the machine of day to day life, or they would die. Too much pressure, too much friction inside ones head creates a storm, and the storm will tear everything down unless it is tightly controlled, allowed to strike only in bursts, and otherwise subdued by method, by routine, by calm.
Those days, of complete silence of thought, were the most perfect days of my life. It is only now that I realise they belonged to another me, another world, and that now, trapped inside my head, all I can do is remember when I was gifted enough to be mindless.
Martin is in the bed opposite mine. Martin talks to his father all the time. He talks about his childhood, and he talks about his dreams. He remembers the Kaiser. Martin is thirty.
“Dad, do you remember when we went to Italy when I was a boy? And I had ice cream all the time, gelato? It was great, Dad. How about the year after when we went to the Black Sea? Do you remember when you taught me how to box?” Martin is, of course, talking to himself. He lies in the bed, sometimes stretched out with his hands gripping the edges of the bed, his knuckles white, his teeth clenched together in a manic smile, but still talking through his rictus grin. Sometimes he curls up on his side, in a foetal position, and talks as if to the empty bed next to him.
From time to time Martin’s father visits, but Martin does not know who he is, does not recognise him. And, of course, his father starts to cry. He is an old man, small and frail, with the last remnants of grey hair clinging to his scalp. He looks a kindly man, a gentle soul. And I feel for him, sitting and crying by his son’s bed, as his son’s bemused smile turns to tears also, and he apologises because he does not know who this man is. Martin cries from guilt, from shame, from confusion. He is frightened that he does not know who this weeping old man is. It is painful to watch, and yet there is something of the observer in me that cannot tear myself away from catching glimpses of this spectacle, repeated every week on visiting day.
Martin, I think, was married at one time. He used to wear a wedding band when he was first admitted, which was shortly after myself. Soon, however, after, he seemed to catch sight of it as if for the first time. He stared at it, opening and closing his mouth and with an ape-like frown, he developed a rage, a low growl. He leaned down and wrenched the ring, with some difficulty, from his finger with his teeth, picking it out from his mouth and hurling it out of the window. We are on the third floor, and I don’t know if the ring was found, but the nurse was quite put out. She was muttering to herself in the afternoon when she made the beds, and told Martin off. He kept growling, weeping, grinding his teeth. He was heavily sedated for days after that incident.
I look at Martin often as he lies on his bed speaking to his father. I feel a mix of sadness and envy. I assume I feel sad, because of nostalgia, but also because of the tragedy of a man such as Martin being laid so low by whatever it was that has destroyed his mind. And yet, I envy his ability to escape into his memories, at least for much of the time. I have nothing into which I can escape, no talisman and no prayer. I have never spoken much to Martin, because he barely speaks to anybody but his father, or rather the spectre of his father. Martin is a child again.
The floor is grey linoleum. It reminds me of the café where my Grandfather used to go to meet with his friends when I was a child. He was blind and lived alone, and I would sometimes take him to the café if I were not at school. It was only a very short walk. The atmosphere was strange, full of elderly humour, stale tobacco and cheap tea. If a mental image, a perception, could be saved and transplanted onto a postcard, it would be one of indelible light-grey, edged messily in a sulphuric coloured yellow, and the murky shade of brown that still, for me, is conjured up at the smell of tea. It was an atmosphere that, for me, reeked of denial. These elderly people were making light of their predicament, laughing and joking and making petty, useless conversation as they struggled to come to terms with the fact that their lives were inexorably, irresistibly, drawing to a close.
I think that this is part of my condition – the littlest things can remind me of different times in my life, different places, different emotions. It does sometimes throw me, and if something happens to remind me of the key events which have gone before, I take a turn for the worse.
From time to time the nurse walks into the ward, sometimes with the two burly male attendants, just to check up on us. We are, by and large, a quiet ward. We are a ward for non-violent patients. The attendants look at us sometimes blankly, but sometimes with a quiet smile, as if grateful for the fact that we are so unlikely to cause trouble. They are straightforward men, but they are good men. One certainly hopes that they are good men.
I can never remember the nurse’s name. In my better moments I feel faintly aggrieved that she is not attractive, young and sympathetic. In my darkest moments I do not see her. I do not see anything that is there with me.
The nurse is not a bad sort. She is very thin, with a skeletal face. She is proprietary and has incredibly short hair. She has calloused hands, amateurishly manicured. She mutters to herself. She fusses and tuts. She has a perpetual frown of concentration. When she is performing a particularly demanding task, she pouts, one of her very few concessions to femininity. I think she is, perhaps, fifty. Maybe her name begins with an “H”. I cannot recall.
Today is Tuesday, or so I believe. The days roll into one. I think that today is Tuesday because when the attendants brought the lunch to us, it was pickled cabbage and mashed potato. It is always pickled cabbage and mashed potato on a Tuesday. Or maybe it is Thursday.
The food is not so bad. I can taste very little. I have not had a cigarette or tasted coffee since I arrived here, and so now I believe I have inherited the inability to taste, from the better days when my so-called youthful bad habits, which were of course among my few pleasures, replaced the need for food.
The texture of the food is inoffensive. I can feel the mashed potato as I eat it, squashing it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue. It is never smooth, but it is not overly lumpy. Sometimes I feel faintly sickened by the texture of the food, by the process of eating. Sometimes I am hungry, ravenous, and although I eat slowly, it takes all my self-control not to gorge myself and beg for more of this un-tasteable mush.
The windows are barred but they can be opened by little more than a crack, in order to keep the room temperate. There are radiators which work only intermittently, but we have no air conditioning apart from two large, dusty fans screwed into the ceiling. In the summertime they rotate slowly and I am transfixed. I have been known to pass whole days without moving, dully hypnotised by the blades on their slow, graceful circuit. If one concentrates hard enough, one can almost hear the blades gently whooshing through the stale air. The sound, the very sound, seems to cool me though the movement of the blades itself does little. To call them “blades” seems a disservice. They are rounded, thick. No man could cut bread with these, let alone another man.
I suppose I should try to explain to you why I am in this building, where the ward is my home. You have all the relevant records, but I understand that you would like to hear me talk about the circumstances. You would like to hear my point of view. I will tell you later in the day, Doctor.
I recall the other nurse, a younger girl with a smile for everyone, but a sadness in that smile. She held Martin’s hand during his more frantic moments. She had a gentle touch that calmed patients who needed sedation – if she administered the injection, there was no need for the ward toughs to hold the fitting patient to the bed by the arms and legs. She could almost calm a raving man with the mere gentleness of her presence – the exuberance that comes with youth, tempered by her almost maternal inner sadness. I have the impression, and it may or may not be correct, for I am no longer able to say what is correct, that she had a younger brother to whom she was incredibly close, and he was killed in the trenches during the war. She was a vision, she was a comfort, and yet I hardly ever spoke with her. I did not feel quite comfortable speaking to her, as though my voice, my thoughts, would frighten her, pollute her in some way. I did not feel quite entitled to speak with her.
After a time, she disappeared. She had fallen in love with a much older man at the other end of the ward, and whenever he saw her, he would weep. I always assumed that he wept, because his condition meant that it was unlikely that he could ever leave the hospital and live with her, or maybe because it made him feel inferior. Perhaps I assume too much. They used to meet in the nurse’s office when she was working the night shift, and they would make love with little fear of being disturbed. I do not know why he had been committed, but I know that he spent a lot of time sitting bolt upright in his bed, twirling the ends of his moustache and staring at the walls, at the ceilings.
We could hear them making love, those of us who were awake or light sleepers. The walls are thin. At the end of their lovemaking, all would be silent, except for a gentle sob, murmured words of comfort. It was not always the patient who was sobbing. Their sadness drew them together. A couple of months after this began (or a couple of weeks, or years?), she disappeared from the hospital and the man, whose name I believe was Dieter, or Detmar, was moved into another ward.
I do not do a great deal here. I am generally left to sedate reverie, and I observe what goes on around me. I try not to judge people, not to think too much. I find this place distasteful, but I know that I am not able to live anywhere else, that I am not stable enough to return to the outside world as I am, and it is unlikely that I ever shall. I am not entirely sure that I have fully accepted this fact.
I used to cry often, but I always endeavoured to cry quietly and people did not tend to notice. These days I eat little and so I rarely vomit. I remember the stage, early in my time here, where I was unable to keep food down for days, and the doctors feared that I may die. I learned, relatively quickly, to keep myself, generally, calm. Moreover, I learned to stop thinking about anything outside of this ward. Even in the darkest moments, when life seems a bland and minor inconvenience, or a throbbing, pulsating fire attacking from all angles, even at these moments, the human instinct is to survive. Sometimes I fail to keep calm, to isolate my thoughts, and these are the times when I, too, need sedation.
There are no visitors for me. I have forbidden visitors because they remind me of the outside world. Even the sight of my oldest friends, my closest family, would send me into fits of shaking and crying and vomiting, even through the strongest sedation. I do not know what is happening with the people who were in my life, as I destroy all of my post before I read it. I cannot even bear to read the writing on the envelopes. Any hint of a memory is too much for me, which is why I have to exercise a strong mental discipline, blinkers of steel. My visor needs to weld itself to my face for my sanity’s sake. The outside world cannot exist, it has to have been a dream if I am to retain any semblance of calm, if I am to digest food, if I am to sleep.
I did briefly have a friend on the ward. I use the term “friend”. We used to exchange smiles, sometimes if he was passing by me, as he often did – he was a ‘pacer’ – he would sit by my bed and we would chatter about nothings. The food, the weather, the nurse. He was Jewish, though, and eventually he was moved because of it, which saddened me. I do not recall his name, but I know that he was from Rostock. He once told me that he had been a fishmonger. I looked at his hands and tried to imagine them gutting cold, dead-eyed fish with a deft movement, laying the newest catches out in baskets or on trays, working in the sun, in the rain, to make enough money to get by. Another time, he told me he had owned a dancehall. Or maybe my memory tricks me. I apologise.
The smells on the ward are peculiar. There is always a faint background stench of bleach. Medicine and polish, also. The nurse’s strange perfume, when she is around. An ancient, musty odour. Note, I do not consider it musk, rather, it is must. The smell of old classrooms, of damp. And, of course, the very particular smell of twenty insane men who spent the vast majority of their time in bed. There are two men on the ward who have little control over their bladders. I am fortunate, in some way, to be far from their beds. One of them, apparently, has a recurring nightmare that he is on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed, and that the bed is collapsing and his companion, a massively obese man, is falling onto him. He speaks and shrieks through this nightmare, which invariably ends in him emptying his bladder, and sometimes more, into his bed. Someone will send for the nurse or the attendant. They will, depending on who is on duty, be either irritated or sympathetic. We lunatics are invariably unimpressed, but do not voice our thoughts. By losing our minds, we forfeit the right to make comment.
Would it be reasonable to assume that you would now like to know why I am in here, Doctor? Would you like my Case History? I had assumed that you would have it in that file, but if you would like to hear it from me, then that is perfectly acceptable. In fact yes, did you not say that you wanted to hear it from me? Maybe you did not.
I am twenty-three years old. I do not know quite how I have reached this age.
The reason I am in here is because I had a breakdown, of sorts, last year. I shook, I cried, I threw up for weeks, talking to myself. My vision was affected, I broke out with dry skin. I could not sleep and dark circles, hypnotising in their depth and blackness, formed under my eyes. I attempted to take my own life with my father’s old service revolver, after much thought, but the firing mechanism was broken and the gun would not fire. At this point, I fell into a mania and I was brought here. My recollections are difficult, my memory, as you may have noticed, has not fared well in this place.
It was a long time before I could eat without throwing up. My chest and stomach ached mercilessly from the effort of regurgitation. My head throbbed. I shook, I cried so much that this, of itself, made me sick again. I was catatonic for a time due to exhaustion, both nervous and physical. I lived in one fever dream that never ended, and I was unsure, am still unsure, what was real.
The reasons for this breakdown are twofold. Prior to the event, my lover and I, we had been due to marry, parted. I was not a sufficiently worthy prospect for marriage, according to her family. I had no profession. I was, at the time, a struggling painter. I painted for days at a stretch, perfecting works of art each one of which, I was convinced, would make my name famous. I was so proud, so stunned by my own ability, that each rejection from the galleries and art schools destroyed me a little further, and I sunk further into depression. Because of this, my lover herself was unhappy, as I was, or so she believed, a reluctant companion and my mind was always somewhere else, in what she believed to be a painted world that would never exist. She said when I was with her, it was like I was trying to paint the air with a dry brush – I lacked substance. Her family threatened to denounce me as an antisocial. Her father was making a name for himself in the local SA, I would see him in his brown shirt, in his kepi, marching past on parade days at the head of his unit.
So we parted ways. Oh, but I loved her, I loved her! There is nothing I can say more than that. And I still do love her, she is my tormentor and my saviour at once. The memory of her… and you can see now, talking about her I am shaking. My voice feels like it may break at any moment. Doctor, I need some water, if you please.
I wish now, more than anything, that I had not let her go. We had been together for a relatively short time, I was still young, I still could have taken a profession. I can feel my teeth clenching, grinding. I apologise that my speech may become indistinct, Doctor, the clenching of the teeth is no longer within my control. Why didn’t I take a profession, Doctor? I could have taken a job, I could have taken any job.
Secondly, yes secondly, shortly after we had parted, and my failures in oil and acrylic were cluttering my parents’ small house and even parts of my father’s grocery shop, I took more and more to remaining at home, brooding. I walked the streets, I did not get a job. My parents were finding it hard to survive, and I should really have shaken my adolescent qualms and taken to work, but the blackness was already so strong, so oppressive, that it was a tangible presence to me. I could see it in front of my tired eyes and I could touch it. When I should have become a man, taken a job, and helped to support my family, I could not bear to shake off the desperate oppression of my own thoughts, my own mind. I had, already, become a prisoner within my thoughts.
My father and I had never been close. He had fought in France during the war, and had not been close to anyone since, I believe. He had always been strict but quiet. I had no qualms with him, but no particular affection. On a Tuesday morning, I walked into the bathroom and I found my father, face down, in a bath full of water. He wore a heavy pack on his back, so heavy it took three men to lift him from the water later in the morning.
He had left a note. He said that his death would mean one less mouth to feed, so that my mother could run the shop, and I would not be forced to take work, and could continue with my art if I so desired. He apologised to my mother for choosing this way out, but explained that he felt that it would be better for us. My mother and father had met when they were teenagers, before the war. I had been conceived during a period of leave from the front, and I had been born while he was away fighting. My father’s note also mentioned that he knew how I felt, he knew how it felt to feel listless, and to feel that nothing would ever be right and good, and that he did not want me to be forced to work to live, he wanted me to paint and hide and not have to go out into the world. He said that I was not to feel guilty. He said that people may call me young, people may say that I should grow up, but that he was only twenty-one when he came back from France, and nobody had said that to him. He signed the note “your father”, and it was the truest title I have ever felt him hold, There was a long and separate note to my mother, the contents of which are unknown to me.
I do not quite remember my reaction to my father’s death. I know that my suicide was attempted about a fortnight afterward.
Beyond that, my memories of the time are blessedly few.
I understand that you are new to this place, Doctor. I understand that. And I know how cruel it can be to leave the land of the living and enter a place like this. I do not know what will happen to us, but I know that I am here for my own good, for the good of my sanity and for the good of my health. I understand that, Doctor, you see? I can understand these things.
Doctor, I want to confess something to you. I want you to know that I still wish that I were dead. I am sedated now, these days, and I am weak. I lack courage. I fear the future, Doctor. Being gone would be silence, would be nothing, which is better than this. There is no pleasure here, everything is stale. The very air chokes me with its staleness. I will never return to real life, and I am happy with that. I know that I cannot, I know that I would be the same quivering, dying wreck as before and I would only try again to end my life out there. And yet Doctor, this is surely purgatory. If the world outside is my hell, this is no heaven.
Doctor, please, be reasonable. I feel that there is no reason to live, beyond fear of the act of dying. I am isolated from the world, nobody is in touch with me, for all they know, I could already be dead, I may as well be. I destroy the letters I receive before I read them, but oh, Doctor… I caught sight of the writing on one of those letters, and I know it was hers. I know it belonged to the woman I love. And I tore it up and hurled it away, I needed sedation so badly that day, Doctor. Even as I twitched and grunted and grit my teeth, even as I howled in my misery, I felt the needle pierce my skin and I was pitifully, helplessly grateful amidst the haze.
Think, Doctor, I beg of you, for one moment. I am a young man, think how long I still have to suffer. Is it so wrong to want to cut that misery short? This suffering, this endlessness, please, Doctor, it would be such an act of kindness.
You have kind eyes. You have the look of a kind man. Please, Doctor, I beg of you, I have to cease. I cannot go on, I feel as if all the discipline, all the sedation, is a pair of hands, fingers wide-spread, trying desperately to hold the madness inside my head, rather than letting it overspill and poison the oxygen, and get into my blood, and send me insane again. You are a reasonable man. You have seen terrible things, imagine fighting a constant battle to stop them breaking out and running riot around the inside of your head, that most sacred of temples? Be reasonable, Doctor, please. You are young too, you must feel terror when you look into my eyes and wonder, however implausibly, what you would do in my position? I guarantee you, you would ask what I ask. You would, respectfully, grovelling if necessary, demand compassion, reason, kindness.
I know that another war is coming, Doctor. I know that soon so many people will be dead, that one more will make no difference. I have seen to it that the outside world would not miss me. The outside world no longer exists, Doctor. It is just you, and I, and this hospital, and the ward, and twenty men who cry a lot at night, and the nurse, and the assistants, and sometimes the Priest. The windows do not show the outside world, they show images. There is no outside world.
If only you could help me, I am sorry for grasping your hands but you must see how desperately I need you to be kind.
There is a commotion outside.
There is rustling, banging. It sounds as though a brace of vans have pulled up outside, maybe three. Heavy engines. There is shouting, male shouting. Martin pauses in talking to his father, scrabbles to the window, and hunkers back down. He is talking more quickly now. He is hurried.
Two or three patients are looking out of the window. Rocking, back and forward. There is growing panic. I can smell the panic as strongly as the bleach. This is not well. All is not well.
I am lying still. I am moving my eyes. My head is propped up on a pillow, vertically laid up against the metal rails of the head of the bed.
One of the men on the ward, an older man named Hermann, is shouting and running up and down the floor.
He is shouting that there are soldiers coming, and they are armed. One of the vans is large, white, blank.
I am calm. Whatever is going to happen, I can seek comfort in my madness again. If I am wrested from my bed I will go insane and I will no longer know anything.
The twin doors to the ward move almost imperceptibly, and I know this is because the outer doors are open, and a touch of wind has impacted upon the entrance to our inner sanctum. Inevitably, seconds later, two soldiers walk in, rifles slung over their shoulders. They are young. They look very smart. I do not know what time of year it is, and I am trying to wonder if the soldiers must be too hot or too cold inside our asylum. I find that feeling compassionate towards a stranger, can often make them feel less strange, less intimidating. It is a selfish compassion. I do not feel comfortable with the look in the eyes of the soldiers.
Following the soldiers, comes a young gentleman in a doctor’s white coat worn over an SS uniform. It has been sometime since I have seen soldiers or SS in the streets, and the sight sends a tremor through me – it reminds me of the outside.
The young man has walked a little way in and he is looking around us. He has short hair. I think I see flecks of dandruff on the uniform of one of the soldiers. The sky outside is bright.
He speaks briefly, and I suppose nobody takes in exactly what he says, We are being moved, however, that much is clear.
The soldiers are immobile. The ward attendants and nurse come in, quickly, clicking their heels on the polished floor in a clattering lack of rhythm that somehow irritates me. There are more of them than I have ever seen in one place at one time. They click, they clatter, they mutter, they fuss.
One of the bedwetters starts to panic and jumps out of his bed, only to stand on one spot, rocking back and forth. A tell-tale stain works its way down his leg and ends in a puddle on the floor.
He is grabbed by a ward attendant who seems almost compassionate, who touches his arm and speaks to him. The words have no effect, but I seem to lose track of the pair. I do not know how or why this may have happened. There are people in front of me, an attendant is standing by me, touching my arm. He looks sad. He is a strongly-built man with cropped dark hair. He looks older than I am. He is unattractive and has two prominent warts on his face. I find myself wondering what he does in his spare time, who are his friends? What are his hopes and dreams? Surely not helping invalids out of bed under the eyes of the young SS Doctor.
We slowly begin to be helped into our dressing gowns. I turn to pack my small bag of belongings and the nurse, who is passing, stops me. Her eyes scare me. They are impossible. I cannot describe them. She is a harsh change from the kindly attendant, who seems to have gone.
She tells me something but I do not take it in. She grabs my arm with an impossible iron grip for such a slight woman. I am to leave my belongings behind, maybe they will follow. Hilda. Her name is Hilda. I remember now.
I am walking outside. My father killed himself in such a strange manner. I have never known anybody drown themselves in the bath in such a way. He had packed his old kit-bag full of stones and bricks, so heavy that he could not get up from his face-down slumber. I wonder how he had dragged himself into the bath with such a heavy weight. Maybe the weight was symbolic. I am thinking clearly for what seems like the first time in my life.
The sun feels strange on my face, it is not like the caress of a woman, as some writers may describe it. It is something altogether different. The heat makes me feel unwell. My feet are touching the ground, the organic ground, the grass and mud.
The doctor, our doctor, not the new man, not the young, hard-faced SS man, is behind us, I can hear his voice. He is shouting at the soldiers. I turn, the attendant walking behind me motions for me to look ahead again, even as he himself turns around also. One of the soldiers grabs the doctor’s shoulder. The SS man is walking towards him.
There are benches in the back of the lorry, and it is whitewashed. It is clean. I do not think the doctor is coming with us.
And, as I take my seat, helped up by a ward assistant – they are not coming with us either – I realise I am sitting opposite Martin. For the first time in a long while, he is silent. He looks up as calmly as anything I can ever imagine, and the look he gives me is withering. Suddenly Martin looks threatening, dangerous. I know in this second, that he hates me.
The heat is prickling my face. I cannot remember the face of the woman I was going to marry. I remember so little. I wonder what my name is. I have forgotten it.
As a child, my father would sit, motionless, in the armchair in the evenings. He would say nothing, except every night, he would thank my mother for the meal. If I looked at him, he would smile at me, but it would be false, forced.
The wooden seats feel rough. They are clean, but they are rough.
The doors are closed, and it is black in here.
I can hear the engine starting, and yet at this moment, I know we are going nowhere.
I wonder how long I can maintain my dignity.
I am closing my eyes.