by Steve Finbow
A hemisphere of pain stretches to the horizon. According to legend, the hospital’s foundations are at Epidaurus in Greece, others insist that it was first built in the jungles of Ceylon. Buried in its confines, you might find dream theatres where, wielding spectral scalpels, fugue-state surgeons remove organs, splint limbs and suture skin. You have visited here before, millennia ago, when a sculpture of Asclepius stood above the entrance. You came as someone else and left as another. Your body, a Theseus’ ship of replaced parts—even your eyes have changed colour, from the deepest blue to a stormy grey with golden forays of cumulonimbus—is near collapse, the bones brittle, the muscles rebellious, the blood murderous. Coincidentally, you are here on a Thesean matter, to penetrate the labyrinthine hospital with its endless wards and countless departments to find the one person who can help you with your ailments, with your illnesses, with your dis-ease. The most serious ailment you have—whether or not it is psychosomatic or hypochondrial—is that you are shrinking, your skin is tighter, your hair is falling out. Although you have lived for thousands of years, the aging process retarded itself when you were in your mid-fifties, give or take, and since that point in time, apart from the brain shunts, the heart bypasses, the liver and lung and kidney transplants, the removal of gall bladder and spleen and appendix, the replacement hips and knees and shoulders and elbows, the plastic surgery on face and chest and buttocks, the hair weaves, the Botox, the iris implants, the prosthetics, you always thought that something was not quite right, something was indeed seriously wrong. And you have come here today, walked across the earth on your shrivelling feet, because you feel the process accelerating, you are less than half the size you were two months ago, the height of a four-year-old, and your skin is pink and healthy, your hair—what’s left of it—pale and fine, your teeth white and tiny and your memory is fading, your language with it. And so you head on in, push open the heavy rubber doors with their cloudy plastic windows and stride up to the reception desk, pulling your trousers up as you go, and you stand and stare at a young woman who is, in turn, staring at a screen until she turns and smiles and you see gold fillings and white ones also and she asks if she can help you and in a voice you no longer recognise you ask if you could see the doctor and you can no longer remember the word “urgent”, so you say that you want to see the doctor very much and the woman types something and continues to smile. You look at the other patients waiting in the reception area and there are millions of them, billions, a mass of humanity, hunters with predator-raked chests, gladiators with severed limbs, Somali tribesman with spectacular and alien bubals, Nez Perce with gunshot wounds, powdered geishas with third-degree burns and you look at them and although you feel sympathy for these people, you also feel yourself shrinking further, faster. There’s a reduction in your body mass and your cerebral heft and a tooth falls out and then another and you feel as though you are swimming in your own clothes and you look up at the young woman receptionist who is still typing away, still smiling and you gulp and feel tears coming to your eyes and a throbbing, insistent need to scream. Without looking at you, possibly noticing your diminishing form, or disgusted by the snot that is gathering around your nostrils, she pushes a concertinaed piece of paper towards you. You take it and unpleat the pages, it is a map of the hospital and its myriad spaces. She then places a plastic ring on the table and you pick it up and notice that the glass it confines magnifies things and you hold it to the map and see the tiny blue lines that delineate the wards and the departments and the theatres and the intensive care units and the nurses stations and the waiting rooms and the cafeterias and the chapels and musallahs and the pujas and the zendos and the toilets and the bathrooms. The drawing is minuscule and you notice that the rooms radiate out of a centre, an omphalos, and the lines could be the fine thread of a capture spiral or an auxiliary spiral, the omphalos the hub of a giant web, the corridors the radii. You unravel the map further and you have to spread it on the floor because it is too large and unwieldy to hold and you clear chairs to the side and the pages open and open and still there’s not enough room, yet there appears to be thousands of pages and you notice that the blue lines are growing more definite, becoming thicker, you can see the wards and departments becoming larger and sub-dividing. You stop unfurling the pages because a large red arrow has appeared and you put your finger on it, all stubby and pink, the nail tiny, and you step out of the puddling clothes and naked crawl along the length of the red arrow, your knees fat, your chubby thighs trembling, the returning blue of your eyes sparkling, a line of drool from your toothless mouth forming a trail behind you. The floor is cool and smells of bleach, each tile in the floor is a captured universe of spots and dashes, galaxies and nebulae, the odd supernova. The map now unfolds itself and there are walls appearing and doors within them and on the doors there are signs that mean nothing to you, just squiggles and pins, and the arrow stretches on and turns corners and turns corners and turns corners. All the walls and doors and ceilings look the same and all the people look different and although you do not know this, cannot know this, do not care, there are Polish miners coughing, Zulu warriors without limbs, New York office workers wearing ace masks, Armenian peasants so thin they might snap. There are Napoleonic cavalrymen walking, English archers shuffling, Indian sappers trailing IV stands, Patagonian-Welsh farmers in wheelchairs, Chinese court bureaucrats on gurneys. You are barely able to crawl now, you can no longer reason the arrow’s direction and something or someone, the person for whom you were searching, raises you from the floor and carries you to the very tip of the arrow into a room with bright lights and green walls and your vision blurs and your fingers furl and you are covered in a waxy fat streaked with blood. And hands thrust you cowl first toward a warm dark space, the cage of her wetness, a place you know and do not know, and then there is nothing but subtraction and then nothing more than a remote and isolate dot.
Steve Finbow’s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands (Future Fiction London 2009), Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom (Grievous Jones Press 2011), Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press 2012). His biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His latest works are Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books 2014) and Down Among the Dead (Number Thirteen Press 2014). He is writing a non-fiction analysis of physical illness and creativity, Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books), and a novel, White Gardens, both to be published in 2016.