The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams


  The large, serious-looking van turned and started to reverse towards a rear entrance to the hospital. Whatever it was that the van usually carried, Kate thought, it was about either to pick it up or deliver it. She moved on.

  A few moments later Standish arrived at a door, knocked at it gently and looked enquiringly into the room within. He then beckoned to Kate to follow him in.

  This was a room of an altogether different sort. Immediately within the door was an anteroom with a very large window through which the main room could be seen. The two rooms were clearly sound-proofed from each other, because the anteroom was decked out with monitoring equipment and computers, not one of which but didn't hum loudly to itself, and the main room contained a woman lying in bed, asleep.

  "Mrs Elspeth May," said Standish, and clearly felt that he was introducing the top of the bill. Her room was obviously a very good one--spacious and furnished comfortably and expensively. Fresh flowers stood on every surface, and the bedside table on which Mrs May's knitting lay was of mahogany.

  She herself was a comfortably shaped, silver-haired lady of late middle age, and she was lying asleep half propped up in bed on a pile of pillows, wearing a pink woolly cardigan. After a moment it became clear to Kate that though she was asleep she was by no means inactive. Her head lay back peacefully with her eyes closed, but her right hand was clutching a pen which was scribbling away furiously on a large pad of paper which lay beside her. The hand, like the wheelchair girl's mouth, seemed to lead an independent and feverishly busy existence. Some small pinkish electrodes were taped to Mrs May's forehead just below her hairline, and Kate assumed that these were providing some of the readings which danced across the computer screens in the anteroom in which she and Standish stood. Two whitecoated men and a woman sat monitoring the equipment, and a nurse stood watching through the window. Standish exchanged a couple of brief words with them on the current state of the patient, which was universally agreed to be excellent.

  Kate could not escape the impression that she ought to know who Mrs May was, but she didn't and was forced to ask.

  "She is a medium," said Standish a little crossly, "as I assumed you would know. A medium of prodigious powers. She is currently in a trance and engaged in automatic writing. She is taking dictation. Virtually every piece of dictation she receives is of inestimable value. You have not heard of her?"

  Kate admitted that she had not.

  "Well, you are no doubt familiar with the lady who claimed that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were dictating music to her?"

  "Yes, I did hear about that. There was a lot of stuff in colour supplements about her a few years ago."

  "Her claims were, well, interesting, if that's the sort of thing you're interested in. The music was certainly more consistent with what might be produced by each of those gentlemen quickly and before breakfast, than it was with what you would expect from a musically unskilled middle-aged housewife."

  Kate could not let this pomposity pass.

  "That's a rather sexist viewpoint," she said, "George Eliot was a middle-aged housewife."

  "Yes, yes," said Standish testily, "but she wasn't taking musical dictation from the deceased Wolfgang Amadeus. That's the point I'm making. Please try and follow the logic of this argument and do not introduce irrelevancies. If I felt for a moment that the example of George Eliot could shed any light on our present problem, you could rely on me to introduce it myself.

  "Where was I?"

  "I don't know."

  "Mabel. Doris? Was that her name? Let us call her Mabel. The point is that the easiest way of dealing with the Doris problem was simply to ignore it. Nothing very important hinged on it at all. A few concerts. Second rate material. But here, here we have something of an altogether different nature."

  He said this last in hushed tones and turned to study a TV monitor which stood among the bank of computer screens. It showed a close-up of Mrs May's hand scuttling across her pad of paper. Her hand largely obscured what she had written, but it appeared to be mathematics of some kind.

  "Mrs May is, or so she claims, taking dictation from some of the greatest physicists. From Einstein and from Heisenberg and Planck. And it is very hard to dispute her claims, because the information being produced here, by automatic writing, by this . . . untutored lady, is in fact physics of a very profound order.

  "From the late Einstein we are getting more and more refinements to our picture of how time and space work at a macroscopic level, and from the late Heisenberg and Planck we are increasing our understanding of the fundamental structures of matter at a quantum level. And there is absolutely no doubt that this information is edging us closer and closer towards the elusive goal of a Grand Unified Field Theory of Everything.

  "Now this produces a very interesting, not to say somewhat embarrassing situation for scientists because the means by which the information is reaching us seems to be completely contrary to the meaning of the information."

  "It's like Uncle Henry," said Kate, suddenly.

  Standish looked at her blankly.

  "Uncle Henry thinks he's a chicken," Kate explained.

  Standish looked at her blankly again.

  "You must have heard it," said Kate. "'We're terribly worried about Uncle Henry. He thinks he's a chicken.' 'Well, why don't you send him to the doctor?' 'Well, we would only we need the eggs.'".

  Standish stared at her as if a small but perfectly formed elderberry tree had suddenly sprung unbidden from the bridge of her nose.

  "Say that again," he said in a small, shocked voice.

  "What, all of it?"

  "All of it."

  Kate stuck her fist on her hip and said it again, doing the voices with a bit more dash and Southern accents this time.

  "'That's brilliant," Standish breathed when she had done.

  "You must have heard it before," she said, a little surprised by this response. "It's an old joke."

  "No," he said, "I have not. We need the eggs. We need the eggs. We need the eggs. 'We can't send him to the doctor because we need the eggs.' An astounding insight into the central paradoxes of the human condition and of our indefatigable facility for constructing adaptive rationales to account for it. Good God."

  Kate shrugged.

  "And you say this is a joke?" demanded Standish incredulously.

  "Yes. It's very old, really."

  "And are they all like that? I never realised."

  "Well--"

  "I'm astounded," said Standish, "utterly astounded. I thought that jokes were things that fat people said on television and I never listened to them. I feel that people have been keeping something from me. Nurse!"

  The nurse who had been keeping watch on Mrs May through the window jumped at being barked at unexpectedly like this.

  "Er, yes, Mr Standish?" she said. He clearly made her nervous.

  "Why have you never told me any jokes?"

  The nurse stared at him, and quivered at the impossibility of even knowing how to think about answering such a question.

  "Er, well . . . "

  "Make a note of it will you? In future I will require you and all the other staff in this hospital to tell me all the jokes you have at your disposal, is that understood?"

  "Er, yes, Mr Standish--"

  Standish looked at her with doubt and suspicion.

  "You do know some jokes do you, nurse?" he challenged her.

  "Er, yes, Mr Standish, I think, yes I do."

  "Tell me one."

  "What, er, now, Mr Standish?"

  "This instant."

  "Er, well, um--there's one which is that a patient wakes up after having, well, that is, he's been to, er, to surgery, and he wakes up and, it's not very good, but anyway, he's been to surgery and he says to the doctor when he wakes up, 'Doctor, doctor, what's wrong with me, I can't feel my legs.' And the doctor says, 'Yes, I'm afraid we've had to amputate both your arms.' And that's it really. Er, that's why he couldn't feel his legs, you see."

&nbs
p; Mr Standish looked at her levelly for a moment or two.

  "You're on report, nurse," he said.

  "Yes, Mr Standish."

  He turned to Kate.

  "Isn't there one about a chicken crossing a road or some such thing?"

  "Er, yes," said Kate, doubtfully. She felt she was caught in a bit of a situation here.

  "And how does that go?"

  "Well," said Kate, "it goes 'Why did the chicken cross the road?'"

  "Yes? And?"

  "And the answer is 'To get to the other side'."

  "I see." Standish considered things for a moment. "And what does this chicken do when it arrives at the other side of the road?"

  "History does not relate," replied Kate promptly. "I think that falls outside the scope of the joke, which really only concerns itself with the journey of the chicken across the road and the chicken's reasons for making it. It's a little like a Japanese haiku in that respect."

  Kate suddenly found she was enjoying herself. She managed a surreptitious wink at the nurse, who had no idea what to make of anything at all.

  "I see," said Standish once again, and frowned. "And do these, er, jokes require the preparatory use of any form of artificial stimulant?"

  "Depends on the joke, depends on who it's being told to."

  "Hmm, well I must say, you've certainly opened up a rich furrow for me, Miss, er. It seems to me that the whole field of humour could benefit from close and immediate scrutiny. Clearly we need to sort out the jokes which have any kind of genuine psychological value from those which merely encourage drug abuse and should be stopped. Good."

  He turned to address the whitecoated researcher who was studying the TV monitor on which Mrs May's scribblings were being tracked.

  "Anything fresh of value from Mr Einstein?" he asked.

  The researcher did not move his eyes from the screen. He replied, "It says 'How would you like your eggs? Poached or boiled?'"

  Again, Standish paused.

  "Interesting," he said, "very interesting. Continue to make at careful note of everything she writes. Come." This last he said to Kate, and made his way out of the room.

  "Very strange people, physicists," he said as soon as they were outside again. "In my experience the ones who aren't actually dead are in some way very ill. Well, the afternoon presses on and I'm sure that you are keen to get away and write your article, Miss, er. I certainly have things urgently awaiting my attention and patients awaiting my care. So, if you have no more questions--"

  "There is just one thing, Mr Standish." Kate decided, to hell with it. "We need to emphasise that it's up to the minute. Perhaps if you could spare a couple more minutes we could go and see whoever is your most recent admission."

  "I think that would be a little tricky. Our last admission was about a month ago and she died of pneumonia two weeks after admission."

  "Oh, ah. Well, perhaps that isn't so thrilling. So. No new admissions in the last couple of days. No admissions of anyone particularly large or blond or Nordic, with a fur coat or a sledgehammer perhaps. I mean, just for instance." An inspiration struck her. "A re-admission perhaps?"

  Standish regarded her with deepening suspicion.

  "Miss, er--"

  "Schechter."

  "Miss Schechter, I begin to get the impression that your interests in the hospital are not--"

  He was interrupted at that moment by the swing-doors just behind them in the corridor being pushed open. He looked up to see who it was, and as he did so his manner changed.

  He motioned Kate sharply to stand aside while a large trolley bed was wheeled through the doors by an orderly. A sister and another nurse followed in attendance, and gave the impression that they were the entourage in a procession rather than merely nurses about their normal business.

  The occupant of the trolley was a delicately frail old man with skin like finely veined parchment.

  The rear section of the trolley was inclined upwards at a very slight angle so that the old man could survey the world as it passed him, and he surveyed it with a kind of quiet, benevolent horror. His mouth hung gently open and his head lolled very slightly, so that every slightest bump in the progress of the trolley caused it to roll a little to one side or the other. Yet in spite of his fragile listlessness, the air he emanated was that of very quietly, very gently, owning everything.

  It was the one eye which conveyed this. Each thing it rested on, whether it was the view through a window, or the nurse who was holding back the door so that the trolley could move through it without impediment, or whether it was on Mr Standish, who suddenly was all obsequious charm and obeisance, all seemed instantly gathered up into the domain ruled by that eye.

  Kate wondered for a moment how it was that eyes conveyed such an immense amount of information about their owners. They were, after all, merely spheres of white gristle. They hardly changed as they got older, apart from getting a bit redder and a bit runnier. The iris opened and closed a bit, but that was all. Where did all this flood of information come from? Particularly in the case of a man with only one of them and only a sealed up flap of skin in place of the other.

  She was interrupted in this line of thought by the fact that at that instant the eye in question moved on from Standish and settled on her. The grip it exerted was so startling that she almost yelped.

  With the frailest of faint motions the old man signalled to the orderly who was pushing the trolley to pause. The trolley drew to a halt and when the noise of its rolling wheels was stilled there was, for a moment, no other noise to be heard other than the distant hum of an elevator.

  Then the elevator stopped.

  Kate returned his look with a little smiling frown as if to say, "Sorry, do I know you?" and then wondered to herself if in fact she did. There was some fleeting familiarity about his face, but she couldn't quite catch it. She was impressed to notice that though this was only a trolley bed he was in, the bed linen that his hands lay on was real linen, freshly laundered and ironed.

  Mr Standish coughed slightly and said, "Miss, er, this is one of our most valued and, er, cherished patients, Mr--"

  "Are you quite comfortable, Mr Odwin?" interrupted the Sister helpfully. But there was no need. This was one patient whose name Standish most certainly knew.

  Odin quieted her with the slightest of gestures.

  "Mr Odwin," said Standish, "this is Miss, er--"

  Kate was about to introduce herself once more when she was suddenly taken completely by surprise.

  "I know exactly who she is," said Odin in a quiet but distinct voice, and there was in his eye for a moment the sense of an aerosol looking meaningfully at a wasp.

  She tried to be very formal and English.

  "I'm afraid," she said stiffly, "that you have the advantage of me."

  "Yes," said Odin.

  He gestured to the orderly, and together they resumed their leisurely passage down the corridor. Glances were exchanged between Standish and the Sister, and then Kate was startled to notice that there was someone else standing in the corridor there with them.

  He had not, presumably, appeared there by magic. He had merely stood still when the trolley moved on, and his height, or rather his lack of it, was such that he had simply hitherto been hidden behind it.

  Things had been much better when he had been hidden.

  There are some people you like immediately, some whom you think you might learn to like in the fullness of time, and some that you simply want to push away from you with a sharp stick. It was instantly apparent into which category, for Kat e, the person of Toe Rag fell. He grinned and stared at her, or rather, appeared to stare at some invisible fly darting round her head.

  He ran up, and before she could prevent him, grabbed hold of her right hand in his and shook it wildly up and down.

  "I, too, have the advantage of you, Miss Schechter," he said, and gleefully skipped away up the corridor.

  12

  * * *

  The large, serious-
looking grey van moved smoothly down the driveway, emerged through the stone gates and dipped sedately as it turned off the gravel and on to the asphalt of the public road. The road was a windy country lane lined with the wintry silhouettes of leafless oaks and dead elms. Grey clouds were piled high as pillows in the sky. The van made its stately progress away down the lane and soon was lost among its further twists and turns.

  A few minutes later the yellow Citroen made its less stately appearance between the gates. It turned its splayed wheels up on to the camber of the lane and set off at a slow but difficult rate in the same direction.

  Kate was rattled.

  The last few minutes had been rather unpleasant. Standish was clearly an oddly behaved man at the best of times, but after their encounter with the patient named Odwin, he had turned unequivocally hostile. It was the frightening hostility of one who was himself frightened--of what, Kate did not know.

  Who was she? he had demanded to know. How had she wheedled a reference out of Alan Franklin, a respected man in the profession? What was she after? What--and this seemed to be the big one--had she done to arouse the disapprobation of Mr Odwin?

  She held the car grimly to the road as it negotiated the bends with considerable difficulty and the straight sections with only slightly less. The car had landed her in court on one occasion when one of its front wheels had sailed off on a little expedition of its own and nearly caused an accident. The police witness in court had referred to her beloved Citroen as "the alleged car" and the name had subsequently stuck. She was particularly fond of the alleged car for many reasons. If one of its doors, for instance, fell off she could put it back on herself, which is more than you could say for a BMW.

  She wondered if she looked as pale and wan as she felt, but the rear-view mirror was rattling around under the seat so she was spared the knowledge.

 
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