My name is Gus Harper, and I am diseased.
I'm shitting blood again this morning...the third time this week. My skin is inflamed and sore. My boils itch. Walking is all but impossible on these legs, if you can describe them as such.
At one time all this would have scared me witless. Not any more. I've seen too much; gone through too much.
And the memories are still alive, trapped in what's left of my mind. But how long they'll remain in there now is anyone's guess.
I can remember the morning it came on vividly: a Saturday in late January. And I remember the dream, mainly because I'm still having it after all this time, the same one over and over. (Maybe this is all a dream, or should I say nightmare?) In it I can see a blueness, so bright it almost blinds me. I head towards it, desperate to make contact. Just before I get there I always wake up. Then reality hits me as the pain kicks in once more. But I'm getting ahead of myself, sorry.
On that particular morning I woke up next to Rachel. For a good five minutes I watched her sleeping. The way her soft mouth opened and closed, her chest rising and falling, her hair splayed out on the pillow like a partially folded fan. The way her eyelids fluttered as she dreamed her own private dreams.
I suppose she must have sensed me looking at her, perhaps on some subconscious level, because she opened her eyes then and grinned. Though we'd been together for a year and a half she still had the power to jump start me, sending tingles all through my body...Was it her or the disease? I'm not sure now.
Anyway, we made love bathed in the rays of golden morning sunlight. I would be hard pushed to do that now, seeing as those parts of my body no longer exist. If it's truly possible for two people to become one, then I think we came pretty close to it that Saturday morning. And as I held her, I knew that nothing would ever be as perfect as this again.
I was right, of course.
Afterwards I fell asleep once more, dozing lightly. When I woke up Rachel was gone. I was on my side, my left hand wedged between the pillow and mattress. I'd stuck it under there to raise my head up a bit. It was numb at first, and as I tried to pull it out I felt the familiar onset of pins and needles - which was fair enough, I suppose. Except the cramps felt weird.
Then the pain announced itself. I'm at a loss to describe how much it hurt the first time. The nearest comparison I can make is that it felt like someone was crushing my hand in a vice. I let out an almighty howl. God knows what Rachel must have thought, probably that I was being attacked by a chainsaw-wielding maniac hell bent on disembowelling me. To tell you the truth at that moment in time I would have preferred it.
She was up the stairs and at the bedroom door in seconds.
'For God's sake, Gus. What's going on?' I must have looked a sight, gripping my wrist and crawling around on the duvet.
'I don't know,' I cried back. 'My hand...'
'Let me have a look.'
Rachel took hold of the hand on either side, turning it round. The agony almost caused me to pass out. She let go immediately, frightened that she might have made it worse.
Tears were streaming from my screwed-up eyes, flowing down my cheeks and into my mouth. I barely noticed the salty taste.
Then as quickly as it came upon me, the pain just vanished. My hand went limp, the spasms subsided. All I could feel was a slight throbbing.
'I think you should have it looked at, Gus.' Rachel was worried. I could hardly blame her. 'Your hand wouldn't start hurting like that for no reason.'
I knew she was right. I'd never experienced pain like that before, and certain possibilities sprang to mind: that I'd sprained it somehow while I was asleep, or maybe even at work the day before; that there could well be a fracture somewhere in the hand; and the last, the most likely option...arthritis.
I was only in my early thirties but it wasn't unheard of; I'd seen a documentary once where a kid of three or four had it! And the other thing was my father had suffered for years with the terrible curse in his bones. Granted, he didn't start until he was about fifty, but I always have been an early developer - I hit puberty ages before anyone else in my class at school...
Yet even in the face of all this, I did what most men in my position would have done. I chose to bury my head in the sand, to ignore the problem and hope the pains never returned.
'It's easing up now. I-I think it'll be alright so long as I don't knock it or anything.' Rachel took some convincing but finally relented.
'Okay,' she said. 'Have it your way. Just promise me that if it comes back you'll see a doctor.' Rachel looked me in the eyes. I could hardly say no. 'Promise?'
It was easy to keep that promise for a week or so because nothing else happened. I won't say I forgot all about it; the worries were always there at the back of my mind. But you know how it is. Other things crop up and in the end you prioritise. My life returned to normal. I went to work, losing myself in the daily grind at the factory, I had lunch in the canteen with the lads at dinnertime and I went back home for nights in front of the TV with Rachel in the evening, catching up with the state of the world. The usual stuff: devastation, the growing tensions abroad, murder, chemical pollutants...
I think it was about midway through the second week that it came back. I was inspecting a procession of metal casings as they travelled down the production line when that prickling visited my left hand again. No warning, no strange numbness this time. Just whack! And before I knew it the agony was shooting up my arm as well. I collapsed on the floor. Heads appeared above me, leaning over, attracted by the unusual drama.
Mercifully I did lose consciousness the second time, blue spots leapfrogging across my field of vision, turning to black the further I sank.
When I awoke I was in what Grimwald's laughingly call their infirmary. A room about twice the size of a closet with a hard leather examining table in the middle and a few shelves with bottles of coloured liquid on top for effect. I hadn't had cause to visit since their annual medical the previous July. Clean bill of health I got, too. What a joke!
My hand and arm felt peculiar, but at least the aching had stopped. I looked down to see that my skin was reddening nicely.
The door opened and in came Dr Jenkins, a sweaty physician with thick round glasses. He always freaked me out, this guy, but he gave the impression that he knew what he was doing.
'It's Gus, isn't it?' said Jenkins, thumbing through a personnel file. 'Gus Harper?'
'You had a bit of a turn out there, I gather. What seems to be the problem?'
'It's my hand. I've been having some pain in it lately. But it, it seems to be moving up my arm now.'
Jenkins ran a magnified eye over the offending areas, drawing in breath when he saw the inflammation. 'Has your own GP had a look at this?'
'No, not really. My girlfriend wanted me to go but-'
'But you don't care for doctors, right? Who does?'
His flippancy was a ruse, I could tell that straight away. He was concerned, probably more about the company than my well-being. I can imagine what he was thinking: What if it's down to something we've done? What if the poor bastard croaks on us? There'll be an outcry! But his anxiety was infectious.
'Listen, Gus. How would you feel about taking a little trip to The General?' This being our local hospital
'Why? Is it arthritis?'
Jenkins declined to comment. He wouldn't even look me in the eye, which was ten times more frightening than his evasiveness. 'I don't know, Gus. They'll probably want to run some tests, take a few X-rays.'
These would be the first of many.
I was a rush job. In the space of a day I was poked and prodded by every kind of doctor in that hospital, although I noticed that the orthopaedic specialists were always hanging around. Especially a man called Dr Fillis, who treated me like I was an animal in a circus. Freak show might be more appropriate now. My flaccid hand was a source of constant fascination for him.
'Please hold still, Mr Harper. You are not helping.'
X-rays confirmed that it wasn't broken, but more tests were needed to 'give an accurate picture' of what was happening.
Rachel came to collect me at around half five, straight from work. I didn't see the sense in bothering her before then. She was full of questions on the ride home, mind. Questions I couldn't answer. All I could tell her was what they'd told me: that they would know more in a few days when the test results came back. Meanwhile I was stuck wearing a sling and on the sick.
Fillis had prescribed some anti-inflammatories and painkillers to see me through any more bouts. Over the course of the next forty-eight hours I relied on them more and more. I began vomiting a couple of times a day...I thought back then that it was a side affect of the drugs, but now I'm not so sure. The yellow bile would cling to the toilet pan, shrugging off all attempts to flush it away. Hanging there. My offspring.
'Oh Gus,' Rachel would sigh. The smell was pretty rotten all told. I didn't need no doctor to tell me I had something bad inside. And it was spreading.
By the time The General contacted me I was experiencing stiffness in my shoulders and back, too. I prayed to God they knew what was going on and, more importantly, how to stop it.
'Mr Harper,' said Fillis when I met him in his plush office, 'I'm afraid I have some rather perplexing news.'
I swallowed, the aftertaste of that bile still present in my mouth. 'What is it?'
'There's no easy way to say this...We simply don't know what's wrong with you.'
Anger, confusion, fear. Adverse emotions which swirled around in my guts, preventing me from speaking. Why didn't they know? They were the doctors for Heaven's sake.
Everything he said after that went over my head. Something about it definitely not being arthritis and that my fatty tissue was reacting with the bone, absorbing it - or words to that effect. It was a long stream of bullshit and I was in no fit state to take any of it in.
In the time it took him to finish explaining I found my voice again. 'But you must have some idea-'
'Oh we have ideas, don't misunderstand me. It's just that none of them are conclusive. We simply don't have the resources at this facility to identify your disease.' That's what he called it, a disease. Only according to him it wasn't something you could catch like a cold. As I'd already suspected, this was attacking me from within.
'It might be a variant of that flesh-eating bug the papers were so interested in a while ago, or perhaps genetic - your mother and father may have passed this on to you. I really wouldn't like to speculate at this juncture.' Oh yes, he knew how to put his patients at their ease did Fillis. The jerk. 'To be perfectly frank I've never seen anything quite like it. I think it's probably best if you visit my colleagues down south. I'm sure they'll be able to sort you out.' Sort me out! Like I was bringing back a faulty video or something.
More tests, more waiting. I can't honestly say I relished the idea.
But Rachel was insistent. 'You're going,' she said, point blank. No arguments. 'If not for your own sake then for mine. I haven't slept in a week.'
She took some time off to come with me, probably to make sure I actually went through with it. All our expenses were paid for and my "treatment" was free. I was, after all, a special case. Someone was even going to write a paper on me. Yeah, fucking Harper's disease. Roll up, roll up! I didn't care so long as they got to the bottom of it and I could be normal again.
As for the institute I was sent to, it was like something from the future. Equipment, gizmos, more men in white coats and glasses. So many all their faces blurred into one, their names an incomprehensible mishmash. Suffice to say I was there longer than one day. And if I thought the doctors at home were thorough, I was in for a shock. These men did everything bar turn me inside out - and I reckon a few of them would've done just that if I'd signed the right consent forms. Biopsies were taken, samples galore...urine, stools, skin, blood...even semen... as well as photographs for posterity, recording the onslaught.
Rachel was incredibly supportive those first few weeks. I don't know how I would've come through it without her, especially when the fits became more frequent. The pain was now entering my lower half. Sometimes I swear you could even see the flesh bubbling like soup on a stove.
Two months passed. Nothing. No results. No explanations. No cure. Only excuses. If anything, by May the disease was speeding up. And there was nothing anybody could do to stop it. One thing I did learn at the institute, though - by accident, you understand: I wasn't the only sufferer. Apparently a few other minor cases had been reported elsewhere. When I asked for more information, they just clammed up and said they couldn't discuss it. If not with me, then who? That's what I wanted to know.
Rachel had already returned home by this time, but I stayed on a while longer. I was more than a little scared of what she'd say when she saw me again. I didn't recognise myself in the mirror anymore. The irritation had journeyed up to my face, goitre-like lumps were appearing on my neck. And angry boils festered away on the skin of my left arm - the obscene meat a ripe breeding ground for bacteria, in spite of the anti-biotics I was taking. It was a work of art trying to hide these with dressings and bandages. Also, I needed a stick to get about. The pain in my legs was growing so severe that not even the strongest medication could combat it.
On my arrival back at the house Rachel's reaction was only to be expected, a combination of horror and pity.
'They still don't know...?' Her hand was covering her mouth, that soft mouth I longed to kiss again.
'I don't think they ever will, Rachel. And even if they do find out, it won't be much use to me soon.' I meant what I said. Oh sure, they had their theories same as before...a genetic disorder which had lain dormant for years, like a heart defect waiting for something to trigger it; some kind of mutated cancer; a reversal of the inexplicable F.O.P, which has been around since the seventeenth century and turns your muscles into bone - it was the exact opposite with me!; GM food, yeah that old favourite; one boffin even thought it might be something I'd picked up on holiday years ago...But all this was cold comfort for me. Another way of saying they didn't have a clue.
Rachel surprised me then by putting her arms around me. I winced, fighting back the anguish for as long as I could. Ignoring the distress she was causing me just so I could be near her.
I remember thinking that this must be what it was like for the first person who'd developed TB, Polio...Aids. The knowledge that nothing can be done for you, that no one even knows what you've got, is hard to take in. But I had no illusions. I knew the end might come at any time. And still I dreamed of the blue.
There was some good news for a while. The disease appeared to go into remission. Maybe it had run its course, I told myself. And like a fool I started to believe in miracles again...
The progress halted very suddenly one week. No aches or queasiness, nor fresh boils. This respite lasted the whole of summer, though it couldn't have been down to the sunlight. I didn't go out much anymore, as you can probably appreciate.
It's funny, but the dreams went away at the same time. I never connected that before. A coincidence? I doubt it very much. In fact the more I think about this, the more I reckon they're another symptom of the illness. If I could stop dreaming altogether, then perhaps...
I have no problem recalling the day it returned, either. It was the day that war was announced overseas. As I watched our troops loading up on helicopters, battleships, trucks, it struck me again with a renewed ferocity. The build up to both events was swift. An overwhelming shock wave rippled through my entire body, and I lay convulsing on the living room carpet, unable even to call out for help. The TV images flashed on and off in my mind and I found myself having these wild thoughts. What if our enemies had used a kind of nerve gas or chemical weapon on us? Was my disease the result of one of their experiments? If so, then why me? I wasn't a military man or a politician. Just an ordinary bloke trying to earn a living. The link was too farfetched and I dismissed it almost immediately.
Rachel found me there some time later. Her despair was evident. The "disorder" was here again and its effects were worsening. I couldn't expect her to look after me this time, and I didn't want her visiting me in some hospice. I made my decision. I had to go.
So the very next week - the beginning of September - I waited for Rachel to go out on the Monday, then left myself. For good.
I believed I was freeing her from all responsibility. I'd been a burden long enough. She loved me and I was thankful - not many women in her position would have done - but to stay would only cause her more heartache. She would get over it, be better off without me. I said as much in my letter: Please don't try to find me. I'll always love you. Gus.
In reality I didn't know what I was doing. I was so terrified of losing her, of being without her. But at the same time I was scared to be with her. Every day there were more changes, new ghastly revelations for me to discover. How could I share them with anyone? Especially somebody I'd been so...
Perhaps I was being selfish, I don't know. All I did know was I couldn't be the man she needed me to be. Rachel deserved so much more.
I took the train, managing to climb on with a great deal of difficulty. I knew exactly where I was going: east, to my parents' old holiday cottage. A safe place from my youth, from summers that never used to end (following the call?).
Fellow travellers stared at me on the journey, including a little girl who held her mother's hand so tightly it left white fingermarks on the woman's skin. People backed away from me when I got off. I felt more and more like a monster with each passing second.
The village was quiet, just off the coast. It suited my needs perfectly. The tourist season was virtually over, leaving the place as empty and sad as a card stall after Christmas.
I was home.
I recognised the cottage as soon as my taxi climbed over the hill. It was just as I remembered it. A little more run down, sure, but that wasn't important. It was near the sea and I would be left alone.
So I stocked up on provisions, delivered to my door, of course, and I settled in to wait.
My portable radio brought me news about the trials of warfare. Some analysts argued it was the only way, others said that the end of the world was right around the corner and the Horsemen were already saddling up.
Then, tucked away in the middle of some insignificant programme one day, I heard a piece about the disease. My disease! Apparently more cases had been documented in the last few months, from all over the globe. Doctors were starting to sit up and take notice, but they assured the general public that there was nothing to worry about, that the chances of catching it were minimal; reading between the lines you could detect more than a hint of panic in their assurances. The fire in my legs reminded me of just how "lucky" I'd been to acquire such a rare affliction.
It wasn't long after that I lost the use of those legs entirely. Navigating my way around the house was exhausting, using my one good arm to drag myself along. Eating was a bitch, too, what with my face the way it was; the lumps now inside my mouth as well as outside - pushing against the gums, dislodging my teeth.
Some days I'd simply refuse to get up at all. Why should I? What had I got to look forward to? So I'd lay in the bed, wallowing in a pit of my own dirt, and writhing as more of the pustules broke through.
I'd smashed all the mirrors in that cottage on arrival - how much more bad luck could it bring me? - but every now and again the windows worked against me - showing me my reflection. Or the glass panelling on the door would cruelly remind me of what I'd been missing.
The temperature was dropping rapidly day by day outside, yet I was boiling hot. I ran a fever, the stagnant sweat gushing out, slickening my already moist body. I slept (hibernated?) a lot. And when I was awake I saw visions. Delirious, I recognised old familiar faces: Fillis, Jenkins, my dead parents...dad with his lumpy hands...and Rachel.
Except that the last one was real. Rachel had found this address at home and tracked me down. She touched what was left of my face, bathed it with a cold flannel. But her hands, they were...
I think I screamed at that point.
It's towards the end of the year now, but time has lost all meaning. Rachel told me that the war was over. No one gives a shit about fighting anymore. They're all too preoccupied with other problems. Millions are coming down with the disease. The plague is uncontrollable, unpredictable. Unstoppable.
It happened much more quickly for Rachel than for me. The pain infinitely more intense - if that's at all possible. I could do nothing but be there for her, as she had been for me. Soon she became used to the contortions, just like I had.
Oddly enough, our pain is the only thing that reminds us we are alive. I don't understand how we can still be alive. I haven't taken solids for God knows how long. We both resemble something out of a sick horror movie. Nevertheless, our love remains strong. As does our vision...our dreams of the blue.
It will take us some time to get there in our present condition, making our way down the path, sliding over steps, onto the sand - each grain sparkling in the moonlight.
But we are far from alone. This seaside village is no longer deserted.
It has called out to everyone. The beach is full of quivering shapes that used to be human, and even, yes even those who have not yet undergone the transformation by this late stage. Their bloodcurdling cries can be heard for miles around. In my imagination I can see scenes like these occurring all over the country. All around the world...
We've talked it over many times and we think we know why now. Why we are returning to what we once were.
And as Rachel and I join again, gliding over the tide, lapping on the surface of the sea, our suspicions are confirmed. We are the disease.
All of us.
It has taken some doing, but after many failed attempts our planet has at last found a cure - some might say just in time! Its antibodies have been attacking us invisibly in the air, in our food, in the water...assaulting our collective consciousness, provoking the changes. Reversing what millions of years of evolution has achieved.
Hard to think clearly...but...there is no reason to fight it now. This isn't so bad. We're becoming one with the liquid, with each other. No worries, no anxiety, no hardship. No war. Just existence, and the promise of eternity.
At least for now.
At least for-
Text (C) Paul Kane 2000
Photography (C) Paul Kane 1999
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.