Read The Lunatic's Curse Online

Authors: F. E. Higgins

The Lunatic's Curse (5 page)

by
Cecil Notwithstanding

Although there is little doubt that Opum Oppidulum is a lovely place to live, like most towns it is not without its problems. For some months now there has been growing unrest
about the rather large number of beggars on the streets. Although there is a certain amount of sympathy for these unfortunates, this does not take away from the fact that they are a nuisance and an
eyesore.

I am pleased to be able to report that the mayor has put together a committee to solve this problem. Cadmus Chapelizod, the superrintendent of Droprock Asylum, is to head the commitee. Among the
other esteemed members is Mrs Acantha Grammaticus, the wife of the renowned engineer Ambrose Grammaticus (unfortunately in the asylum at present owing to mental illness). Mrs Grammaticus is quoted
as saying:

‘Both Mr Chapelizod and I are committed to achieving a satisfactory resolution to this problem. We have much sympathy with both parties involved, beggar and citizen alike. Mr Chapelizod
and I fully intend to find a solution to ease their respective misery and if possible to put them out of it completely.’

 
6
The Great Escape Plan

Ambrose Oswald Grammaticus turned over slowly in his incredibly uncomfortable bed – if a pile of straw on the rocky floor of a cell not big enough to jump in could be
called a bed. He groaned as his bones creaked. On the wall beside him was a tally, sets of four parallel lines crossed with a diagonal; over a hundred days crossed off.

‘Here, Ambrose, have a bit of this,’ said a voice close to him. ‘You’ve got to eat, for when we get out, you’ll need energy.’

‘Get out?’ Ambrose managed a laugh. ‘Tell me, Hooper, how are we to do that? Are we not locked in all day and all night?’ He looked over at the cell door. Yes, as he
expected, the rusty iron-barred door was firmly closed as ever.

‘Don’t be like that,’ said the cheerful voice.

Ambrose had grown used to his companion’s unrelentingly sunny nature, but he still marvelled at the fellow’s ability to see the silver lining not just on some clouds, but on
every
cloud, no matter how black it might be. If it had been a century or so later the fellow would have been diagnosed with Felix Semper syndrome, a disease characterized by the sufferer
being in a permanent state of happiness, gullible and trusting to the extreme, and completely incapable of relating to the real world. But, ironically enough, being permanently happy, Hooper was
able to take his imprisonment in his stride.

‘And is that really such a bad thing?’ Ambrose often asked himself as he watched Hooper smiling day and night (not that he could tell the difference between the two in here). He
could not deny that this blithe fellow had kept him from giving up for a long time. But these last few days he had felt a change. He was ill. His whole body ached, his head throbbed and he was
growing weaker, racked with terrible cravings. He felt as if he had reached the end of his powers of endurance. He looked at Hooper. He was hardly any better off, not a pick of meat on his bones.
He laughed to himself. They truly were a revolting pair.

‘Ah, don’t be like that, Ambrose,’ cajoled Hooper softly. ‘Never say never! Eh? What would young Rex think if he knew that his father was about to give up?’

At the mention of his son’s name Ambrose made an effort and sat up. Hooper, a short, red-elbowed man with bushy eyebrows, was proffering a bowl of what could only be described as mud
soup.

‘What’s in it?’ he asked.

‘Who knows?’ laughed Hooper. ‘No meat, I’ll wager, but it don’t taste that bad.’

Meat! The very thought of it caused Ambrose to quiver violently. He cradled the bowl awkwardly with his left arm and took a spoonful, and resisted the urge to spit it out. Then he took another.
Revolting as it was, his starved body craved nourishment and he ate without stopping. A mouse crept out from the corner and looked at him but he kicked it away. Hooper grabbed it. ‘Something
for later,’ he said, and broke its neck.

Hooper then pulled from his pocket a piece of ragged paper-thin cloth, upon which was sketched a blurred but complicated diagram. ‘What about the escape plan?’ he said. ‘You
know, your Perambulating Submersible?’

My Perambulating Submersible, thought Ambrose with a smile. Hooper actually believed it was viable. Ah, well, he wasn’t going to disabuse him of the notion. The ‘idea’ was a
boat that walked underwater. Hooper, having been a competent draughtsman prior to being declared insane, had very carefully drawn it (guided every step of the way by Ambrose) using a fingernail he
had bitten to a point. Ambrose didn’t ask what Hooper had used for ink: he knew. His sensitive nose could smell the blood, old and dried as it was. To take his mind off it he scooped up
another large spoonful of the soup.

The underwater boat might be real but the escape was merely a fantasy – at least to Ambrose – to while away the hours. Hooper, however, had taken to it with such fervour that now he
really did believe it was possible and he pored over the design for hours every day suggesting changes and refinements. Ambrose secretly was really very pleased with it. In truth it was an idea he
and Rex had been working on long before his present misfortunes. But they had not pursued it – Acantha had put paid to that.

‘Ah, Rex,’ murmured Ambrose, ‘what a great invention it would have been! And you, you held the key!’

‘We’ll build it,’ said Hooper excitedly, ‘and cross the lake floor, like a giant crab, and then we will be free.’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Ambrose encouragingly; he didn’t have the heart to point out the many, many flaws in the great escape plan.

Ambrose finished his soup and lay back down. Hooper’s optimism was in direct contrast to his own crushing feelings of sadness and despair. He had only survived this long by eking out his
hope, but hope was not a limitless resource. Now he was resigned to never seeing Rex again. He thought of Acantha, although he didn’t want to, and spat with disgust on the floor. He lifted his
crippled left arm, looked at it with regret then let it fall. His heart became as rock. What a fool he had been, blinded by love, to trust her. He could see it now, her shy smiles and her fluttering
eyelashes, and all the while she was conniving against him, with that evil monster Cadmus Chapelizod. Ugh, the whole business made him feel sick. And the irony of it all was that at that moment he
really
was
mad – from love and, he suspected, something much more sinister.

Rex had been left in her care! Ambrose hardly dared to think what suffering the poor boy had endured since he had been sent to the island. His mind went wild with possibilities, each worse than
the last. He could only hope and pray that Stradigund might be able to help. But he had not even visited. In fact it was Alvar Stradigund who had introduced him to Acantha in the first place and
not for the first time Ambrose’s fevered brain wondered if that was significant. I am becoming paranoid, he berated himself. I suspect even those closest to me. The truth of it is I have
failed and Rex suffers on account of my failure.

As for Cadmus Chapelizod, he wasn’t fit to run a doghouse let alone an asylum. Was not an asylum supposed to be a place where troubled minds could be at ease, could even hope to
heal? ‘Chapelizod’ and ‘healing’ were as words from two different languages. The residents of Droprock Island all suffered in filthy cells, subjected to the cruelty and whims
of the warders, wondering if they were to be fed or not. And they all heard the screams from the cell down the end wherein the warders, and Chapelizod, performed their ‘cures’.
Chapelizod had taken great pleasure in taunting him about his misfortune, telling him that he would never be released and how he now kept Acantha company.

Ambrose closed his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to never wake up again. When he did wake some hours later he wished immediately that he hadn’t. He wrinkled his nose and opened his
eyes, only to be confronted by Hooper’s grinning toothless face. He was so close he could smell his foul breath but he could hardly complain; his own was no better. He looked around and
became aware that something was different: there was noise, unfamiliar noise, coming from outside the cell. And he could smell burning. But unusually it wasn’t flesh.

‘Look,’ said Hooper.

Ambrose turned his head to where Hooper pointed. It was a second or two before his dulled brain could take in what he was seeing. The cell door was open. He sat up quickly, a little too quickly,
and his head spun.

‘How did you do that?’ he asked in amazement, suspecting a trick or, even worse, merely a dream.

‘I didn’t. Someone came along and opened it a while back.’

‘Why didn’t you wake me?’

‘You looked like you needed the rest,’ said Hooper simply. ‘I’ve been up there – it’s mayhem I tell you. Fires and everything. I found this, though. I
thought it might be interesting. You like to read.’ He handed Ambrose a book.

Ambrose took it and tucked it into his trousers. He would have a look at it later. Then he staggered up awkwardly from the straw on stiff legs, regretting that he hadn’t eaten more. If
they really were to escape, and now it looked a distinct possibility, then he would need all his strength. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hooper, he would probably be dead already. Hooper had
forced him to eat even though the thought of food made him feel ill.

‘Come on,’ said Hooper, ‘we’ve got work to do.’ Waving the ragged diagram he hobbled out of the cell.

Ambrose peered cautiously out into the rocky underground corridor. He too had been taken down it on more than one occasion for his ‘cure’, and always in the presence of Cadmus
Chapelizod. ‘My special patient’, he had called him.

Hooper was already some distance ahead. ‘Wait,’ called Ambrose, limping after him.

And off they went, a shambolic pair hardly alive, down the dark tunnel. All around echoed the sounds of shouting and whooping, high-pitched laughter, some cheering even, and running footsteps
from above. As they went towards the stairs up into the asylum proper, they met a tall thin man going against the tide.

‘Come with me,’ said the man, ‘if you wish to stay alive.’

‘Why? What’s going on?’ asked Hooper.

‘It’s simple,’ replied the pale stranger. ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum.’

 
7
A Not So Great Escape

‘Spare a cripple some coins,’ cried Simon, brandishing the worn board whereupon were scrawled his mendacious claims. ‘Spare us a penny, a shilling. Whatever
yer have, I’ll take it.’

He sat not in a doorway but right in the middle of the pavement so people couldn’t help but see him. Despite the most inconvenient nature of his position, it was a constant surprise to him
how many people did
not
see him. They must be walking along with their head in the clouds, he thought. What was it they said – none so blind as those who can see? He didn’t quite
understand it but he sort of knew what it meant. These fellows could see all right but they just couldn’t see
him
.

Simon might not always have been a beggar but he had always been a lazy good-for-nothing. He had no family and could honestly say that he was truly alone in the world. What he could not state
with such veracity was that he was a cripple. The four-wheeled platform beneath his legs was a deceptive piece of work. Under the tatty blanket his legs dropped into a hollow. He had been scooting
around on it for so long now that it was second nature to him to do so. When he reached the end of the day and went back to his lodgings he sometimes didn’t even get out of the trolley. His
legs were happier in that position than any other and it actually hurt to try to straighten them out. To stand up was a near impossibility. His calves and thighs had withered from lack of use and
the reality was that he could probably have exposed them to the passers-by and they would have been equally generous with their donations. It would not be hard to be equally generous; their
donations on the whole were few and far between. Beggars were not looked upon kindly in Opum Oppidulum. He and his beggar friends had all heard there was a committee now to get rid of them. It was
in the
Hebdomadal
(a few sheets of which lined the seat of his trousers).

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