Her beauty was the first thing I saw. The only thing I saw. Her eyes captivated me, threatening to never release me. Irises blue and as fatal as the ocean, promising to hold me under her sea and drown me. She was much older than me, and though her features were worn and stiff, she was perfect.
‘Why am I here?’ I asked. At least, those were the words I attempted.
The woman raised an eyebrow at the muffled sound that rasped from my lips. ‘Now, now, my dear.’ Her voice was kind, gentle. Reassuring. ‘Nothing to fear. Not much longer to wait now. Soon you’ll be pure.’
‘Pure?’ I spluttered. My inane attempt at speech made even less sense than her statement. I wriggled… tried to wriggle, before I realised I was tied down. Or held down. Whatever the case, I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed. All I could do was watch. Watch and wait.
‘As a species, men are born into this world impure,’ the woman said, strolling up and down.
My eyes scanned the space, trying to make sense of my surroundings, but there was nothing to pick out. The walls were whitewashed. An empty room.
‘What are you on about?’
‘On the contrary,’ she continued as if I hadn’t spoken, twisting back around to face me. ‘Purity is earned.’ She creased into a smile. ‘But rejoice, my dear. Purity exists. It lies within your grasp. All you need do is reach out. Reach out and touch it. Reach out and grab it.’
She raised her arms high above her head, staring up at the ceiling. She was truly mad if she believed me capable of grabbing anything in my current predicament.
As she lowered her chin and met my gaze, I found myself hypnotised by her eyes. Those bright, gleaming pools of aquamarine. A violent stream about to burst from the dam and flood the realm. The realm of my sanity, what little remained.
I was her prisoner now, primed for torture. My punishment was her gaze.
‘Now, shall we return to the matter at hand?’ she snapped as if I’d interrupted her. ‘It’s quite possible… probable even, that you remember none of this, but you handed yourself over to us. Entered yourself into our care. A sort of… donation of the self.’ She blinked around the room. Her attention landed somewhere beyond my vision’s reach. ‘Oh… good morning, Doctor. I believe this one’s ready.’
‘Is that so?’
A new face appeared in front of me. A man with olive skin and mature, handsome features. He sniffed at me, sampling the air around me like a hungry hound. His eyes were invasive, caressing every inch of my prickling skin. He stretched into a smile. ‘Good morning, Mister Stone. My name is Doctor Tonali. We have met on several occasions, though I doubt you are able to recall any of that.’ He spoke so fast it was almost impossible to keep up. ‘In fact, I doubt you remember much at all. But rest assured, we know each other quite well, you and I. How are you feeling this morning? Well, I hope. I trust Sister Hanna has been attending to your every need?’
There was something about this Doctor Tonali that made me want to escape. To reach out and punch him, to turn his stupid face to mush… or to slap a little bit, at least. He wore a superior smile, as if he knew all there was to know about me and received tremendous pleasure from the realisation that I couldn’t even recall his face.
‘How do you think I’m doing, you fucking twit?’ I snarled, knowing full well I would emit only noise. If the woman with the beautiful eyes had not understood me, how would this doctor comprehend my babble?
‘Now, now, Mister Stone,’ Tonali said, wagging a playful finger at me. ‘There is no need for such language. Simply none.’ He folded his arms tight to his chest, frowning down at me as if I was his disobedient child. ‘Now, you must listen to me very carefully. Purity is not a thing we are born with. No, no, no. Far from it, in fact. Purity is earned.’ He narrowed his eyes at me, awaiting a response.
‘Why… why do you both keep blabbering on about purity?’ I looked past the doctor, searching for the woman with the beautiful eyes. She was gone. It was as if she’d never been there.
‘Indeed, Mister Stone,’ Tonali continued, ‘purity is the sole reason you are here. For it was purity you craved. You begged and pleaded to embrace a pure existence every single day that you lived out there in the cruel, wild world. The idea of purity… the very… very concept, so vague and intangible to the uncultured mind. The undeserving mind.’ And he raised a point-making finger. ‘But purity is everything, my friend. Everything.’
I blinked moronically at the man. It was the only thing I could do.
‘No, no. It is not the only thing you can do,’ Tonali said, as if he’d read my thoughts. ‘You are capable of great things now, Mister Stone. Tremendous things. Beautiful things.’
If only I was able to make sense of his bizarre, seemingly mindless words.
‘Now, now, Mister Stone. Are my words really all that mindless? Indeed, it is through the mind that we are now able to communicate. Look around you. You are the master of this world. For this world is a world of you.’ He shook his head, as if disappointed by my incomprehension. ‘There is no mind less valuable than that which is captive. And you are no captive, Mister Stone. Your restraints are restraints of the mind. Look around you. Take a long, hard look. I invite you. I implore you. Look around.’
I turned away from the doctor’s suffocating stare, and when I turned back, he’d vanished altogether.
All around me was blackness. An abyss. I had command of my body. I could walk. I could fly. I could swim through the sea of faces that had gathered around me. Watchful, curious. But they were gone in a flash.
Below me – for I was now looking down upon the world – was a sea of boiling lava, bubbling blackness, crackling fire and rising smoke. I was floating above the sun, within spitting distance of its immaculate surface. It was blindingly bright, and yet I felt no warmth. Nor cold. Nor anything between. I felt nothing. It occurred to me that I might be in hell; that I was dead and had been placed here to suffer for all eternity. That Doctor Tonali had been the Devil, the master of my demise, and the beautiful old nurse an ancient succubus, the mistress of my torment.
My lids grew heavy. I blinked. I was back inside the White Room. Doctor Tonali was nodding. The nurse was stood beside him, appearing concerned.
‘He’s not ready,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘At least, he doesn’t look ready.’
‘I am afraid you’re right,’ Tonali sighed, turning to the nurse. ‘My dear, would you…’ His words faded into silence.
When my eyes opened again, Doctor Tonali was watching over me. But we were not inside the White Room, nor was he dressed in his doctor’s garb. He wore a brown three-piece suit, brown shirt, brown tie. All the same shade as his eyes. Polished oak.
We were stood in a field. The merry ambience of birdsong filled my ears. Insects buzzed all around.
‘What is happening to me?’ I asked. I could hear my voice this time. I was able to speak. I looked down at my hands. They were there, I could see them. I had full control of my body. I pinched my fingers, ran the tips across my smooth arms.
I was alive.
‘I am sorry,’ Tonali said. He was smiling, but his eyes were wet with sorrow. ‘It was purity you sought when you came into my care. Sometimes, I wonder whether such a thing can ever be achieved. Purity we strive for, yes, yes. But can we ever truly attain it?’ He then pointed off into the distance, a twinkle of light shining in his eyes. ‘We shall see.’
I followed his outstretched finger, over the mint-green field, the blades swaying softly in the breeze. A lone tree stood atop a hill, its thick trunk and twisted branches the same shade as Tonali’s suit. Its blanket of leaves was a dark, autumnal red.
‘Man will never be contented,’ Tonali said mournfully, gazing at the tree as if it represented every patient he’d ever lost. ‘The goal of mankind is to dominate, to alter and tamper, to manage and perfect. But it is an aim that can never be fulfilled. Or so they thought.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, pleased just to hear my own voice again. ‘So who thought? And where are we?’
Tonali inhaled a deep sigh. ‘Mister Stone. Eleven months ago, you tried to take your own life. Tried to drown yourself in a hotel bathroom. But before you took action, something caught your eye. An advertisement in a magazine, its pages splayed open next to the toilet. Purity, it promised. Purity. Liberation from the insufferable disappointment of everyday existence. You see, Mister Stone, the human brain is a marvel of nature, but it is pitifully ineffective. It can also be deadly, weaponised, made to turn on itself. Some call this phenomenon depression.’ He offered a weak smile. ‘Purity sought to correct the brain’s shortcomings by fitting it with a simple chip. A mechanical supplement, if you will. The Purity Chip promised you absolution in the form of perfection.’
I scratched my head. I had no memory of Tonali’s claims. I remembered no hotel room, no attempted suicide. In fact, I remembered nothing at all; no life before waking up to that nurse’s beautiful eyes.
‘You were a good person,’ Tonali said, his smile warming. ‘You sought beauty in all things. You searched for the good in the bad. But the world you inhabited was a hideous place. Your primitive mind was doomed to fail from the moment you entered it.’
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘Mister Stone,’ Tonali said, chewing on my name as if he was unsure of its texture. ‘When you came into my care eleven months ago, your mind was beyond repair. It was broken. Torn and ruptured. We attempted the surgery, but… I am afraid to say… you did not make it.’ He gulped. ‘But I hope, with time, you will come to realise that there are benefits to death. The life you left behind was troubling, terrible and traumatic. But its dark memories cannot hurt you anymore. You are free. Liberated. You are pure. Your reality now is a world of opportunity. You can go anywhere, do anything. But…’ He chuckled, grinning up at the tree upon the hill. ‘I have a feeling you will stay here.’
I nodded along with him, still unsure as to where here was.
Tonali was fading away, I realised as I turned to face him. I could see through him; could probably pass my hand through him if I tried.
‘You’re… leaving me?’
Tonali frowned. ‘I am afraid that my attention if required elsewhere. But fear not, Mister Stone, this world is a world of your choosing. If you so desired, you could summon Doctor Tonali again.’
As I watched him disappear, I realised that somebody else was walking towards me, approaching me with some haste from the other side of the luscious field. As they neared, I realised it was Hanna from the White Room.
The nurse was shaking her head as she stopped in front of me. She was equipped with a syringe and a stern glare. ‘Now then, Mister Stone. It is time for your medicine. I’m afraid to inform you that you were in an accident. But don’t fret, now. This medicine will purify your ailment.’