I arrived to my appointment with the Dark Doctor about five minutes late, having had some difficulty negotiating the niceties of the traffic flow rules around the Thames area; apparently they are all anti-motorbike. I was ushered by the impossibly well-bred receptionist into the Doctor's consultant room before I was even out of my helmet. The effect was one of a society woman throwing a mongrel dog into the cupboard just before the guests arrive for the hors d'œuvres.
The curtains were drawn but for an inch between them, allowing only a finger of the strong June sunlight to illuminate the room. There was a rich, musky smell of old leather, expensive dust and some kind of spicy oil; here and there smooth or malleable or polished things gleamed like the coins on the eyes of a corpse. I could have been on the inside of a golden sarcophagus with only a cigarette lighter to see by.
"What seems to be the problem?" came a voice from somewhere in the hot shadows.
Startled by the voice, and its rather bored, professional air, I sat down abruptly on whatever was behind me. (It was probably a chair. It might have been a stuffed bear in sitting position with its arms raised so it took on the shape of a chair. I never found out.)
"I, ah, I, for six months now, I, um, have had an unusual growth. And it, er, won't go away."
Strange rustling in the darkness. The Dark Doctor was moving, but not with a sound that I associated with the movement of humans wearing cloth. Then the sound of paper - he had open my file.
"Oh yes, the cardiac tumour. May I see?"
Reluctantly, I held out my left arm, which was bound in a silk scarf. I unwrapped the scarf, and the clean white bandages underneath, to show the Dark Doctor the gently pulsing growth on my wrist. It was surprisingly small, I could fit my other hand around it. The finger of light just touched it. The surface was dry but fleshy, like a rose petal. One could see each ventricle and atrium quite clearly defined, and the veins that grew into my hand and arm that kept the thing bound in me. This was a good day - sometimes the growth would palpitate wildly, or bleed.
More rustling. "Your notes tell me that the place in your chest where it should be has a perfectly cut cavity." I nodded. I had seen the photos the various hospitals had taken inside of me. The cavity was so beautifully defined I could have been a jigsaw for young medical students. "And that it has not affected your health in any way?"
"Not at all," I said mournfully.
"The operation was... unsuccessful?"
Now that was one way of putting it. About a month after the wretched thing had appeared, I was booked into a private hospital on the outskirts of London to have the growth cut away and moved back to my chest. The growth didn't even put up a fight, it just allowed itself to be severed, the tendrils of veins curling back like the legs of a dying spider, whilst I lay with tape over my eyes, lost to the world, blood circulated by a clever machine. The growth was put where it belonged, tied down to the correct arteries, and left overnight to feel ashamed of itself. The next morning it was right back on my wrist, apparently unfazed, pumping away as merrily as anything.
"Yes. It was a failure."
"Do you feel any... discomfort?"
This was the question I had been dreading, and the same one I was asked by every doctor. I had formulated quite a decent little speech to describe exactly how I felt, which, in the beginning, I used to deliver with a certain Shakespearian flair and pathos. These days I was more brisk than the Dark Doctor's receptionist.
"The sensation is akin to the emptiness one gets after having a good long vomit after drinking too much the previous night. It's not exactly pleasant but it cures the hangover and leaves the stomach feeling much lighter and less nauseous. However, I was not aware of my - of that part of me being 'hungover' until the growth appeared on my wrist. Moreover, though I am less 'nauseous', one tends to find that, after vomiting, one cannot eat. I cannot eat. I do not know what it is that I want to 'eat', but I am hungry for it."
The Dark Doctor moved again. What was that sound? At first it sounded like feathers, and I had thought: wings. Now it sounded like snakeskin. I couldn't see who, or what, the Dark Doctor was at all.
"How did this happen?"
"It just happened."
"What happened directly before then?" His voice was deadpan.
"I'd split up with my lo- my partner, and moved in with my colleague, my friend I should say."
"You were going to say lover, not partner. Why did you choose the word partner?"
"It sounds less frivolous."
"Was the relationship frivolous?"
I paused. Eventually I replied, "Some might say so. I wouldn't."
"Tell me about him. Anything."
I was, in the dark hot room, quietly astonished and a little affronted. Still, the University was paying this man (or whatever he was) sixty pounds an hour to fix me, so I had better do as he asked.
This, stripped of 'um's and 'ah's and diversions and backtracks and chronology confusions, is what I told him.
My lover was a very pale man whose name, conveniently, was White. He was so astonishingly pale the casual observer would notice little else; blinded by his skin, they would remember him as skinny and small and a little nervous in his actions, because they would assume someone so pale must be anaemic and neurotic. Only after meeting him three or four times would they see that he was tall, rather broad-shouldered and radiating calm like a small, placid sun, with the same heated potential of destructive supernova. His entire body was covered in a fine white-blond down, coarsening to golden hairs on his head, lashes, brows, chest, stomach and pubis. Naked, this gave the impression of his being a man who was once made of honey-coloured cashmere, who had been put in the wash with bleach.
I had met him through the friend and colleague I had mentioned to the Dark Doctor, himself a recently graduated doctor. I was a research assistant at the University, falling back on my degree in molecular biology after I had failed to become a great playwright, actress and mystic. We were at a party held by the Wellcome Trust in honour of some professor who had poisoned himself with his own cultured bacteria and died a particularly horrible death. I was drinking my second glass of red wine beside my friend, a manic depressive MD who was on his fifth and who suddenly exclaimed,
"You son of a whore, you still owe me money, and a girl."
This not said in the typical aggressive bantering voice of a lad-about-town who has just recognised one of his kind, but rather in my friend's usual aggrieved modulated moan which suggests he might start a fight or burst into tears.
"I don't have the cash on me," said a pleasant voice to my left, "but I'll swap you my date for yours."
I have been blind in my left eye since birth, the iris an unpleasant milky grey and staring off to the side of my head, regardless of where I look, and I wear an eyepatch to cover it and to give my deformity an air of debonair grace. As a result I could not see the owner of the voice, and I was damned if I was going to look round for someone whose opening gambit in conversation was to pay me a compliment by rendering me passive. I fixed my jaw and stared straight ahead.
"My good God," muttered my friend, "this creature isn't my date, and you're welcome to her if you can get her to unbend. Where's your piece of skirt? This is White, by the way," he added to me, as if introducing the Great Plague. "White's a spy."
I had to look round, for formality's sake, and up into the cool face. I was struck dumb by the sheer alabaster of his skin. I was completely unaware of the chubby, pretty female presence beside him, and of my friend swooping down on her like a carrion crow and grumbling, "Aren't you a beautiful unappreciated creature, have a drink with me," or her welcoming, soothingly stupid giggle, which White undoubtedly picked her for. Nor was I aware of the mouthed, 'thanks' that White gave to my friend, the recognition of a pre-planned circumstance coming to fruition. I was only able to put this all together afterwards, realise my friend (the bastard) had set me up. All I could think was, This man is terribly pale.
White gazed down at me. "I've heard a lot about you," he said, in his quiet friendly voice. "None of it good." And that was how I met White.
Whether White was a spy or not I was never sure. He spoke excellent Russian and sometimes would vanish for days on end, and was on speaking terms with certain of the physicists, demonologists and engineers whose acquaintance would have alarmed me, had I given a flying toss about how he earned his bread. He did carry around a small, battered pack of Tarot cards - just the Major Arcana - which he was exceptionally adept with, but only ever used these for little tricks to amuse me. I think he kept it out of sentimental reasons; the cards had been given to him by his mother shortly before her emigration to Australia.
I went home with him the night I met him, more out of astonishment than anything else. He moved in me like interfering moonlight and brushed out my hair with his fingers for a long time afterwards. His face and penis were both flushed a lovely coral pink.
This was the same time as the worst of the winter thunderstorms. When I awoke the next morning, it had started to rain so heavily when I glanced out of the window, I saw a sheet of glimmering grey and nothing else. We got up, ate, showered, had sex again. By this time the rain had changed to hail and howling winds. White lived in Soho, three floors above the Dog and Duck (that elegant haunt for the intellectual and the sadomasochistic), so we slipped down the staircases to drink all afternoon and watch the impromptu theatre of the pub. By the time evening fell - not that you could tell - the hail had switched to strange black snow. Later, at about ten o'clock in the evening, it started to rain creatures of the night; spiders, moths, worms, surprised owls, stunned bats, snakes, rats, even one or two teenage goths who dropped from the sky and landed, mysteriously unhurt. (Some were amused, some were offended, all declined interview.)
In this midst of this portentous storm, White gave me a Tarot reading.
"Pick a card," he said, "any card."
I picked a card. "It's Judgement," I said.
"When I studied, it was called the Angel," he replied, his skin celestial cream. "Pick me one more."
I did. "The Hanged Man," I said, and laughed.
"I was taught to call it the Traitor." He put the rest of the deck away and put a hand on each one. Under his palms, they began to glow gently. When he lifted his palms away, two little translucent figures hovered above them, one an angel such as a child would imagine it, with a halo, wings, a nightshirt and a whimsical expression, the other as a grown person would, naked and scarred and powerfully built and endlessly, endlessly sad. As I watched, they turned towards each other and began to dance an intricate, miserable waltz.
"You're terribly good," I told White, who was frowning with concentration. "I've never had such a clear reading. Oh my," I added, because although neither figure had genitals and neither appeared to be penetrating the other, they had obviously begun to make love.
Are you suffering? White asked me.
Was I suffering? He always asked me that way, never 'does that hurt' or 'do you feel sad.' Now I think of it, he never asked me if I was happy, either.