Life and War with Mikey Fatboy Delgado
Friday, April 29, 2016
Ten years on....
Today I’m as fragile as the sky. The newspaper says that prisoner planes are busy in the European
skies and I put the paper down. Reading about those planes has made me hot. I put too many t-shirts
on this morning. I’ve done so much wrong in my time that it can only be a matter of time before they
come for me and it’s making me sweat when I read about people being arrested and flown to places
to be tortured. The thought of having someone torture you just to see what it is that you are thinking
makes me sweat. I said as much to Straw. I told him that. You know what the crazy bastard said to
me? He said that you can’t beat a bit of red in photographs!
And he put three photographs down on the table. He’s torn them from some magazine or other. It’s just
like him to tear them out rather than cut them out. I said that to him. I said why do you tear them out? I
did. I asked him that. I said you’re such an impatient bastard, why didn’t you cut them out and
make them nice neat rectangles? He said all this, and he pointed to the ragged bits of magazine around
the edge of the photographs, all this gives a context that isn’t available to us otherwise. And around
the edges of these photographs there are bits of stories and exhortations and advertisements from
the magazine he’s ripped the pictures out of.
“Look at this for instance,” he says, and he shows me the edge of one photograph and there’s part of a
little column advert which says
Do you need money?
Your worries are over, just…
Straw is writing away in his notebook. I asked him what he’s writing and he says he’s writing down
proof. He says he’s writing about how taking part in the world is a game and that it has to be played.
It’s all been decided long ago. He says that things have to be remembered and things have to be
forgotten and that this remembering and forgetting is automatic in healthy people.
“That’s all mental health is,” he says.
He’s writing in his notebook that he knows the rules of remembering and forgetting but that
he just can’t do it properly and so he just looks foolish playing it. He says it’s for Doctor Wilson,
“Wilson wants me out of here. I know he does. He thinks I could take it out there. But I’m not fit.
What could I do out in the world but crumble? This place isn’t so much better but I know what happens.
I remember and forget better in here too. He thinks I’d survive out there but I won’t, I know I won’t”
I don’t like it when Straw talks like this. He wants to stay ill. That’s what I tell him. I tell him he’s afraid
of getting better. He tells me he’s the sanest person he knows. He says that Wilson is one of the craziest.
But having said that, he says, there’s not much in it anyway. For any of us.
“How do you like the photographs?” he asks.
I can hardly bear to look at them. I’m so fragile today that anything that fascinates Straw is probably
going to terrify me but I don’t say that. I change the subject. I tell him that I just don’t like Doctor
Wilson. I tell him that in my opinion it’s not about sane or crazy, it’s about nice or not nice and I don’t
think Wilson’s nice.
“People like that shouldn’t have any power over the lives of other people. They don’t know what it is
to be human. They only know what it is to be them,” I say.
Straw gathers the three photographs from the table. He rips two of them into shreds and puts the other
one back onto the table.
“I’ll just keep this one,” he says. “The red in this is the best. If you have three photographs you like
you should tear two of them up. You know Wilson’s trouble? When you watch people all day you
realise that someone is watching you too.”
He looks at me. “But you know that,” he says.
Doctor Wilson comes and sits alongside us. “Enjoying a nice cup of tea, chaps?” he asks.
Straw closes his notebook and pushes his cup away.
“It’s horrible tea here.”
“Why drink it then?” asks Wilson.
“Because it’s what they give us,” says Straw.
I can smell the antiseptic hand-wash that Wilson uses after he’s handled files. I wonder if he’s been
looking at mine.
Wilson talks about the trees…the ones over there, beyond the window…he says that he hadn’t
realised (jesus!) how many greens there are in them. I try to not let it show anywhere on my face
that I’m thinking how incredible it is that he should say that. This is a man who looks for clues as
to what ails us. He spends his life doing that. He’s the senior man here. When I first came here they
told me that Wilson is good at this job, very good, so it seemed odd to me that he should have said
that. It seemed odd that he could have sat here and drunk so much coffee every morning break and
every afternoon break, facing those trees over there, and it had only just occurred to him that a line
of trees can have so many greens in it.
Wilson turns and looks at me in that way that I don’t like. He looks at me and waits just that bit too
long before he says anything. It always feels as if he’s already listening to me before I’ve even said
anything out loud, as if he’s already got hold of me like some shell and has me held up to his ear. He
catches me off guard when he says, “Do you know what I’m thinking?” because that is exactly what
I’m thinking. I’m thinking does he know what I’m thinking?
“I’m thinking,” he says “that you and I will go to the ground floor and you can bring your camera and
take photographs. You take some interesting shots I hear. They tell me that it’s your hobby. I’d like to
see what it is that you see down there that seems important enough to you to document.”
They told me when I first came here that Wilson always want to take you down there, down to the
ground floor, to see how you do, but I never want to go there. I know I’ll feel ill there. I’ll get dizzy.
I won’t like the air. I’ll worry about the time. Or I’ll worry about whether it’s dark outside yet. I’ll be
thinking that when I finally get out of there everyone in the rest of the world will be gone and the
streets outside will be as empty as some of the corridors we see on the monitors in here late in the
evening. There are no clocks down there. They don’t want you to worry about what time it is. There
are no windows. They don’t want you to think that it’s time to be going. They don’t want you to think
of a view you know of, a place where at the time the clock may show there will be lights going on in
houses across the fields from where you could be standing if you weren’t here. They don’t want you to
know how much of the day has been lost.
They want you to think that all there is in the world are shops and cafés and escalators and crowds
and cameras and plastic cards and coins and impulses and the smells of people and the smells of
scents and chemists and papers and food. But there’s anxiety down there, I know there is, and in
enclosed spaces like that it’s infectious. And there is some portion of people down there with no
other thought than to do what they are encouraged to do and some portion of people with no other
thought than to steal. And there are one or two people in every corridor ready to explode. And these
one or two will have no idea that they are the ones who are dangerous today, and they will want to
explode next to me. They will want to take their faulty remembering and forgetting out on me and I
won’t know what to do.
“What do you think of that idea?” asks Wilson, and I don’t know if he means what do I think about
his suggestion or what do I think about what his suggestion has made me think.
I wish he’d said why are you here? instead. I could have said then that I was sent here and that I didn’t
have any choice. They don’t give you any choice. Some guy with a few O-levels looks at the paper in
front of him and sends you here and that’s it. But Doctor Wilson knows that and he doesn’t care about
that. Wilson doesn’t like whingers.
So I don’t say to him that I don’t know anything much about photography. I don’t. You probably
know more than I do. All I know is what looks mysterious to me and I know what makes me agitated
and I know what that French guy said about a photograph being invisible. But that’s it. Marsham, the
guy who ran away on his very first day here, after the breakfast break, seemed to have a point. He
said that morning, with a mouthful of croissant, that a photograph is a miniscule section of the world
and that’s all. But Doctor Wilson thinks that the pictures we take are all that’s important. He thinks they
tell him all he needs to know. At least I see what Straw means by context. Wilson doesn’t. But he
doesn’t have to. It’s not his job to consider that.
Wilson gets up. He looks at Straw. “I’m seeing you later, aren’t I?” he asks.
“The letter from the office says three o'clock,” says Straw. I can feel that Straw feels like a child who
wants to beg Mummy, no, please, no.
Wilson looks at him in something like the same way that he looks at me. He looks at him as if he’s looking
at his face so he can describe it later in very great detail, even how much it may measure from hairline to
chin, from ear to ear.
Doctor Wilson points to the table. “Bring that photo you’ve torn out of whatever it is you’ve torn it out
of. We can talk about it.”
He says that he’ll be back soon to take me downstairs. I feel sick. I feel as old as a chair and I feel like
a child who’s been told of a new punishment. I pick up the photograph that Straw wants me to look at.
I want to be in it, between the camera and the furthermost background, so I can take my mind off
how fearful I am. The sky is so white today, like the surface on the inside of an eggshell, that you can’t
help worrying about what is really on the other side of it.
Straw is excited. He likes it that I’m looking at the photograph. He thinks I’m showing an interest
in something that interests him about this world.
“Look at the red,” he says. I think his voice is quivering. “See what a difference it makes.”
He’s right. It does. The photograph becomes invisible. You enter it, and in it their hands claw the sky
and their heads wear red haloes against the sand. Their stilled eyes are staring at the blue sector of the
sky beyond the high clouds under which they lay. In the dust of a landscape like this memory grows
like knotweed. I look at their hands, their stiffened open fists surrendering. If you wanted to, after you
put Straw’s photograph down, you could remember their hands as babies’ hands, reaching for
assurance; delicate, tiny baby fingers curled around the finger of a man. If remembering and forgetting
were done differently their heads might not have red haloes against the sand. They might still be living.
They might instead be sipping coffee from cups as small as thimbles, and on the table there could be a
plant with red flowers, and mothers holding babies in their arms, wanting for nothing.
Wilson has steel tips on his heels. I can hear him coming. Straw takes the ragged paper with the
photograph on. As he folds it I catch a glimpse of the word orgasm in a sentence under the picture
of the dead Afghans.
“Listen to those shoes,” says Straw. “Even from that you can hear why they call him doctor. The
clinical bastard. He even sounds surgical, the way he walks.”
Wilson has my jacket. He hands it to me and I put it on as we leave the room which faces that line of trees.
I follow him to the stairs that lead down to the ground floor. The yellow fluorescence of his own jacket
and the glare of the ceiling lights colliding with the reflective strip across the back of it which says
Security makes me feel more ill. The steel tips on his shoes sound urgent against the empty stairs.
and the anthology here