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Colin O'Sullivan

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Kanashibari
By Colin O'Sullivan
Monday, February 11, 2008

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Weird goings-on in a hospital provoke the solitary janitor into action, which he just might regret.


Kanashibari

It is this again. I cannot move. I feel the morning light break through the curtain and sting my eyes, but I cannot move. I do not know if I am awake, or if sleep is yet to finish, but my body is tight and will not budge at my mindís request. When the door opens, my eyeballs twist to their corners. I cannot move my neck to see fully, but I believe they approachÖ

She is a romantic, violent nurse and he a most unfortunate victim. It didnít start out that way though. In fact, it started out seemingly innocuous, by ďdrama therapyĒ, a new concept at St. Peterís Hospital, in which a nurse or doctor would take seriously catatonic patients through drama or role-play routines, perhaps to get them to tap into their subconscious or lose their sense of self, in short - as my understanding has it - to get out of their shit for a while. I donít know which institution or new age journal came up with this madcap idea. Iím just the janitor. But I have been secretly watching the sessions since their inception, in the evenings, and have been intrigued by the events, the acting and the threat therein.

Nurse Williams does not think I watch the sessions. She does, no doubt, catch a glimpse of me sidling up the corridors, outside the window, mop in hand, plunging it into the rank water and slopping up the piss and vomit and the sticky spilled drinks that swamp the halls on an evening. But she does not see me, behind her back, looking with avid interest at the proceedings. Itís how Iíve always been, behind things, never at the forefront. That is why one ends up a caretaker, I suppose, and not say, a musician or the owner of a business. Thatís whyÖbut this is not my story; this is the story of Williams and her patients, and one in particular. Let me tell you about her. Williams is one of those women that doesnít turn your head in the street, doesnít set your tongue lolling or your palm sweating, but when you do notice her you find yourself slowly, continually, drawn back to her. Her eyes are several shades of green, depending on the light of the day, and her hair, neat under her uniform headpiece, is long, dark and thick. I see her shake it all out some evenings as she prepares for home (when I am behind her, again, and she does not notice me). She is hard, severe, with an attractive edge. But maybe I think about her too much, have too much time on my own, pacing the halls, pondering, drawing obscene conclusions. The first time I saw her she was chatting to one of the head doctors and he was explaining to her the concept of ďdrama therapyĒ:
ďIím sending you on the course. So many of our patients are in such dire need of help, well, this could be a way of alleviating even a fraction of the mental pain. It could help with so much of our analysis as well as give some of us a break here and there. It could give them a break from themselves which would be a real success. Itís been tried in other countries. I think we should give it a go. Even if it seems a little far-fetched.Ē
ďWhen do I go on this course? Do I do this alone?Ē asked Nurse Williams.
ďIt starts in two months time. Itís only you. I will have to book your place on it. Letís see it as further professional development.Ē
Nurse Williams turned and went about her duties. I watched her from behind, her soft shoes hardly making
a noise at all.

Iíve never had an opportunity to talk to her. She arrived almost twenty years ago but remains an elusive soul. Some evenings she passes me in the corridor and nods politely. Sheís said ďhelloĒ once or twice. Sheís never ignored me, and I am grateful for that. Her colleagues often speak badly of her. Once I heard a young nurse say that she had an evil streak in her, and one of the receptionists chipped in with sheís such a bitch if she does not get her way. These are the scraps I pick up, and I piece people and lives together, like a mad old Doctor Frankenstein, deep in my cellar, trying to ignite a fable with the rags and sinews that surround me. Nurse Williams doesnít have a history; someone must have robbed a few graves and stuck her together. As far as Iím aware she has no partner. She is a shadowy figure because no one asks her about her life. I have more in common with her than she probably would expect.

When she came back from the course she was brimful of alacrity and exuded ideas with sparkle. The rest of the staff looked at her with scepticism. We are all used to the humdrum, the smells, the bells, the coughs and the moans. We do not expect the radical; we do not expect anything really. Nurse Williams told them all about role-play, music and short intense bursts of drama that would enrich the patientsí lives and give many of the hopeless hope, however minimal. The other nurses tittered at her eagerness then and I just continued to drag my bucket along the hall, hearing nothing, hearing everything. Iíve eavesdropped on quite a few proposals, initiatives and medical ďadvancesĒ over the years; another idea would do no harm. Not that I have any say, mind, in anything. Act away, I thought to myself, act away girlie, you canít do much more damage to these dreadful creatures, most are so far gone. They left her go it alone.

As I say, it started rather harmlessly. Williams started with a bunch of desperate cases, about five of them, gathered a few nights a week in a back room on the top floor and they all sat around her. She started telling them stories, mostly fairytale type things, childish stuff, and the patients, some of them, were able to respond with simple nods and grunts. They were given little nametags, plastic cards, pictures, realia, and anything that would spark off some reaction. It seemed to be failing miserably. Nurse Williams deployed everything that she had picked up on this course and did her best to exhume something from those buried lives. Not much was happening; the nods and grunts remained that, until very recently. Over the last few weeks there has been a slight change, a curious turn. One of the patients, John Drew, a middle aged man who has barely spoken for years, a guy that for no apparent reason would lapse into a state of catalepsy for hours on end, started to remember lines of script and repeat them, dramatically, back to her. I am no expert in things theatrical, (though I tread the boards in my younger days), but when I saw, after a few sessions, old Drew sitting upright in his wheelchair, looking deep into her eyes and saying his lines, well, I tell you, I could have stuck my head in the bucket to see if I was dreaming. Weíve all seen them films, when a patient we all thought was a no-hoper suddenly blinks into life and seems cured, as if touched by God himself. But thatís not the story here, although that in itself is interesting; the real thing is what Williams is doing with her role-play, and her patient, and the dreadful consequences that may come about.

Working here is not easy. You have to put up with a lot of sorrow. People you see everyday, bound up in their beds for years perhaps, may be taken off in a bag the next day, having coughed up their final disappointment. But Iím never really used to it. Iíve been here thirty years now and it never gets any easier. I live in a little room at the far end of the hospital. There I sit and watch movies on my video recorder or read some books. No one bothers me. That is the way it has always been. Some of the other workers have their own quarters too. Itís convenient. But I rarely socialise with them. There may be a lot of contagion here, I donít know all the medical details of stuff, but I do know I have my plight. I suffer from a condition known in Japan as Kanashibari. Itís where I canít, physically, rise out of bed in the morning. I feel strapped down, unable to move, as if bound by metal cuffs on wrists and ankles. Although my brain wants me to get up and go about my day, I canít. This condition seems to be unique to the Japanese; I donít know why they should suffer it and the rest of the world gets off, perhaps they have only the term for it, but anyway, I seem to have acquired it. Itís no joke, I can tell you. I asked one of the doctors about it once and he gave me a book that has all the information I am telling you now. I would not have been able to put a name on it otherwise. The book says it is usually, mostly, psychosomatic, and that it usually goes away, but thatís easily said. It may have been brought on by some childhood trauma. They always say that. Perhaps I need some drama therapy myself. Perhaps I should sit with NurseÖbut this is not my story; itís Williamsí and Drewís, and what they are getting up to.

After weeks of the role-play therapy, in the little room, amidst plastic cards and toy props, Williams realised that the sessions were only having an effect on John Drew and none of the others. She was right. I saw it myself. The rest would remain slumped in their chairs while Drew would be waving his hands frantically and matching her in whatever dialogue they happened to be in. St. Augustine was right; miracles are not contrary to nature, only to what we know about nature. Their dialogue is never clear to me, the door is always shut and the glass too thick, and I am only thus allowed in on the visuals. Drew is the only one she has left stay, he is her success, the rest are back in their rooms, where theyíve always been, staring at the walls, counting the seconds of life with stuttering breaths. Iím not sure Drew reads much text but when she tells him his lines he is able to remember and never seems stuck for a reply. Maybe he improvises, but I donít know how. Then I noticed the movements starting. Their bodies, as nights went by, seemed to get closer and what sounded outside like melodramatic exclamations of lustful joy started to appear that way inside too. Something demonic has taken over the green in her eyes, and something has lit the flame in his. One evening, recently, as I polished up the door handles of the upstairs corridor I peeped in the window to find Williams sitting on his lap, her arms hung around his shoulders, her fingers interlaced at the back of his neck and both staring intently at each other. This was no longer a nurse and patient relationship, the drama therapy had put an end to that. This was something deeper, something more. They did not see me of course. I stay hidden. That is my life. But I watched them that particular evening, as their mouths moved solemnly, and their lips brushed lightly against each other. Drew looked alive, a different man, not the zombie they have been spooning over a bib for years, and I glared on, a gaping fish, unable to grasp it all. Now, Iíve seen a few things in these halls. Iíve seen young men climb the walls petrified for fear that some housefly would devour them, and Iíve seen women pull thick chunks of hair from their heads, bellowing, clutching their bellies for fear of being raped by the cruel world they donít comprehend. And now, well, I donít know what to do about all of this, all of this that is happening before my eyes in a back room on the top floor of St. Peterís. The two of them, their eyes locked like that! Sitting on him! I donít know if any of this is right and proper, or if any of this is even my business, or why I tell you now. I could urge the management to install CCTV up in that room; itís in a lot of the other rooms, why not there? Is it my own fault if Iím peeping into the affairs of others? But I think I must go to see them again, to keep an eye on the proceedings, to record, report, in case things get out of hand.


Itís late now and I sit alone in my room. Soon I will go to do my duty. Iíve run the same course for years and never change routine. I start at the bottom floor, work my way up to the top and at the end smoke a cigarette out the top window and watch the night world go by. Out there is another world, where healthy people live, where normal lives go on, things I have never been a part of, at least not for a long time. Itís funny, when you live so long with the sick and the lame, the trapped, the disturbed, you find there is no other way, and you want no other way. Tonight feels heavy; I feel my routine could take a different direction. I picture Drew being wheeled in his chair, taken by elevator to the top floor, and into the little room where Nurse Williams will be waiting, scripts in hand, props in a box by her feet, perhaps even costumes, ready for the nightís activities. What will it be? Something Greek and tragic? Something horrific? I look out my window as the faint sun begins its demise. The sky this evening has the pinched face of a spoiled child frustrated at being unable to play piano on the second lesson, wailing for a new pursuit. I think the whole world will collapse this evening, as I slip on my overalls and gather my rags.

The corridors are quiet now. Everyone seems to have dropped off to sleep. In the evenings the doctors that remain on duty seem to slow down their movements. There is less urgency. I like it that way. All nod and smile from their stations. The receptionists answer the calls and make notes on pieces of paper, but voices are meek and hushed, not daring to wake the sleepers. You take the quiet as a blessing whenever you can get it. I gather the things from the cupboard, fill my bucket with water and suds and begin, at the bottom. My mind itches with the thoughts of what drama unfolds tonight and with a bit more haste I start to get my job done. I get around quicker than usual. Although no longer a young man, my curiosity and fear have me moving with an extra edge. When I get to the top floor I peer down the corridor and see no one move, and no voice utters or groans. I donít know if thatís a good thing or not. At the end of the corridor the door of the little room remains shut. She is there with him now, no doubt, and poor Drew must be moving to her like the mad puppet he is. I make my way towards the room, still slopping the sopping grey hair of the mop around on the tiles, still cleaning up after each dayís inevitable mess. The door is firmly shut, as expected, and I can hear mumbles inside. I wonder for a moment how she got the sessions to occur at night, and not daytime when there are more people around. She has a way of fixing things. You only have to get caught in her eyes. Nurse Williams and Drew are talking, perhaps it is the latest scene, whatever that entails. I lay down the mop gently on the floor trying to breathe easily. I peep into the square panel of glass that sits head high on the door. The players do not see me. Williams has her back turned and Drew stares only into her eyes. She swirls around him, sliding her palm across his arm; she bends towards him and speaks, in what seems like a whisper. Drew speaks back to her, right on cue. He lifts his head and speaks right back. His eyes are fixed, are orbs from somewhere else, somewhere distant. It is both amazing and frightening. I take another peek down the corridor and am relieved that nobody appears. My mind becomes frantic; I see ropes pulling up the curtains on the sides of this stage. I see the lighting crew laughing and a stage manager putting his finger to his mouth asking me to hush up. Shush! Ushers in tuxedos and little flashlights move latecomers swiftly to their seats. What is this? What place have I come to? My body is paralysed again; I do not think I can move, I do not think I can think. What is it when you do not think you can think? How can that be? There are shouts inside that take me from myself. I peer in again, my eyes the most active part of me, the only part that will work. I can witness all of this. The therapy. At first hand. Perhaps for report. I must record and report! I am important, I am important. I am not always behind. I can go forward. Things inside have started to move at a faster pace. Williams sits on his lap, I have seen this before, and she carries his hand to her head. In a quick pull he, they, pull off her uniform hat and her thick hair falls around her shoulders. I have seenÖI have seenÖDrew is still speaking. I nearly fall down into my dirty water. My own dirty water. Mine. This is me. This is my water, in St. Peterís. Life in a bucket. My mouth goes terribly dry. Her thick hair swings about her and I know, I know Iíve seen this scene before too, back then, when she came, and her hair fell, and I stood behind her and she did not see me, at first. I wanted to reach out then I wanted toÖ Now it is Drew, this time it is he. I try to compose myself. My limbs are still strangely tense but I am careful not to make a noise. Sounds get louder, from inside. She has opened his gown and is thrashing his chest with her hair. Her hair. She is mounted and rocking. A rodeo. I gasp; I can control myself no longer. All these nights alone. Thirty years! Her hair spins and whorls; she is a screaming Medusa and he shouts back at her. The scene is a violent masterpiece, great artistry, I know it, this is why we do, why we create and wish to become andÖ accidentally, my foot slips, crashing against the bucket (mine!) and water spills around my frozen feet and under their door. Nurse Williams looks out that little square of glass. She finds me and fixes her green eyes to mine. There is an unexpected calmness to her. Her hair subsides; it is no longer a torrent of snakes, it is a gentle wave, punt on an easy breeze. There is serenity about her lips and an eyebrow raised, as if to say, well, why are you here? And why are you interrupting our play? As if both players are waiting for me to be ushered down the aisle and led out of the theatre, as if I am a mild disruption in a scene of great importance, as if all actors face this annoyance at one time or another. Many faces glare from their seats, the stage manager stares at me, a wanton look this time and I want to say Iím sorry, Iím sorry, Iím sorry, I try not to get in the way!

I hurry back to my room and I lay awake all night. Every sound makes me pop my head from the pillow and I fear, I donít know, I just fear. I do manage to get up in the morning, my sprightliness a welcome surprise and urgently I call on a senior doctor to explain of the goings-on on the top floor. He listens intently to my story. His eyes, several shades of green, look me over, from my feet up to the last strands on my head. He looks with suspicion. Sure, he thinks it odd that the sessions were only requested for nighttime, and sure it is a little strange that Drew is on his own with her, and all the rest have been, abandoned. But Nurse Williams is a ďconsummate professionalĒ. She is well respected if not completely liked. I should continue to go about my business, with my bucket, and not care about other peopleís business. I should do what I do. I should not be a busybody. Keep out of peopleís way. I have work to do. I have a job and a significant role to play in St Peterís. Perhaps nothing is wrong; perhaps it is ok for the patient to put this much trust in his nurse. I should go back to my room. Drew is better, better than before. Isnít he? He moves. He speaks. He is not alone.

I try to ignore the sessions but I cannot resist. I go back there, evenings, and peep in the window, just to keep check, to keep an eye, to record, report. They still move towards each other. They still scream and thrash their bodies about. I know these scenes, I have seen. I too have learnedÖand I cannot stop myself from wanting to be. To beÖinstead of him. I stand behind the door, behind her. Again I watch her hair fall out from her under her hat. I do not know if this is yesterday or today. I can control myself no longer. I couldnít then. Before. When I stood behind her. When she was a younger woman and I a younger man and I reached, from behind her. And they all came down so heavy. Tons and tons of bricks. Every hard red brick of St. Peterís. But he is nothing; let him go about his business. Donít charge him. Let him go. When Nurse Williams looks out that little square of glass she finds me and fixes her green eyes to mine. She has seen me before. And she says hello when she sees me in the corridor and for that I am grateful. There is a calmness about her. There was even then, twenty years ago. As if she expected things to happen, expects things to happen. These people can improvise. When they forget the lines they make more up. Itís easy, for them. But I canít. I canít forget. I canít do, I canít move, so many things I canít and I canít and whatever the reason I canít forget. There is serenity about her lips and an eyebrow raised, as if to say, well, why are you here again? And why are you interrupting our play? And whose story are you telling? Yours or mine? The same face when she turned and said no, that it was never going to be me, and that I should never ever try again, and I should never ever do that again!

It is this once more. I cannot move. I feel the morning light break through the curtain and sting my eyes, but I cannot move. I do not know if I am awake, or if sleep is yet to finish, but my body is tight and will not move at my mindís request. When the door opens my eyeballs twist to their corners. I cannot move my neck to see fully but I believe they approach, two figures, one tall, and standing over me, and my body still will not budge one inch, my eyeballs hurt. The other person is seated, lowerÖtell him his lines...she stands tall, speakingÖtell himÖ and her hair, her hair falling over my bodyÖbut Iím unable to moveÖwho is the unfortunate victim, and who violentÖbut this is not my storyÖthis is not my story.







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