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OBSESSION
By Mary Daniels

Pip stopped his sweeping to gaze out of the window. It had been snowing and the paved yard outside was covered in a thin, dusty white layer, discoloured here and there by small pyramids of horse dung. A shiver passed from his bowels to the tips of his fingers and he blew on his hairy red hands to try to inject a little feeling into them. If his employer had been a kind man he might have made sure that he had access to a fire at least for a few moments throughout the day, but Mr. Jenkins, while far from being brutal, was nonetheless not the sort of person to consider that Pip might be capable of feeling the cold. Sadly very few people worried about his welfare, or indeed gave him any thought at all. He often reflected rather bitterly that if he were to take himself off somewhere for a month he would only be missed when dust turned the long wooden corridors grey or odorous stains marred the stone surfaces of the dissecting room. Life, thought Pip, was generally an unpleasant business. It would perhaps be more bearable if he could live it entirely independently, but the unfortunate fact was that he could not escape being with other people, and other people meant humiliation and suffering.

He sighed heavily and continued to sweep the cold floor. From what he could hear, Mr. Packer's anatomy class was showing signs of restlessness, which probably meant that the young gentlemen would soon be leaving. Mr. Packer's voice rose in pitch and trembled slightly, which meant that things were getting out of hand. His voice rose higher, turning into a pleading wail and the young gentlemen began to laugh and stamp their feet. A scraping of chairs against the hard surface of the floor denoted another battle lost in the ongoing war between lecturer and inattentive pupils. Most of Packer's classes seemed to end in this way.

The door into the lobby where Pip was sweeping opened wearily and a tousled head containing wild, dispirited eyes glanced briefly around the room. "Ah, Hatch, clean up in here before you go, would you? It's a bit of a mess but you're used to that".

Pip nodded casually, anxious not to appear too eager in his movements. He stared at a piece of grit on the floor with studied nonchalance and waited until he heard the latch click. Then he threw down his broom and ran into the dissecting room, tripping over a pile of text books and scattering them across the middle of the floor. His left toe throbbed with pain, which he did his best to ignore.

The room was lit only by a small tallow candle, which spluttered and was then extinguished by the draught caused by Pip's sudden entrance. Luckily the night was clear and a metallic moon shone through the casement window, revealing a series of dirty benches and a large central marble table. On this table was what had once been a man, but was now merely a grotesque fleshy mass of dismembered limbs. For some reason the head appeared to be missing. Pip followed the moon's rays across the floor until he noticed something in a wicker basket under one of the benches. The young gentlemen had been playing football again no doubt, hence the commotion earlier on. Eagerly Pip grasped the bloody sphere between both hands and gave a shriek of joy. There in the right socket glinted the white of an untouched eye. He was not always this lucky - most of the time the students would make use of both eyes and he would be left with a blank face to clear up, or a "visage with no soul" as he called it. He would go home with a heavy, despairing heart on such nights and climb straight into bed, not bothering with supper.

But tonight Pip had struck gold. He took out his pocket knife and, careful not to damage the eye, scooped it neatly from its surrounding tissue and popped it gently into the centre of a clean handkerchief, which he replaced in his jacket. With a light heart he swept the remains of the body into a sack, tied it firmly with string and dragged it into the mouth of a metal chute. He heard the soft thud of the sack hitting the basement floor and turned to scrub down the surface of the marble table. The lack of conventional light did not trouble him - this was a job with which he was so familiar he could have completed it with no light at all.
Half an hour later he was threading his way through crowds on his way home. This part of London was full of life and light, with children dodging out of the shadows to throw snowballs at each other and groups of young women flirting with soldiers on leave from the war. He stood for a moment to watch a pretty little girl run squealing from her older brother who had threatened to tickle her. In her excitement she collided with Pip and laughingly looked into his face. Her merriment instantly turned into horror, and she ran to her brother as fast as she could, screaming and choking with sobs. Pip also turned away, bitterly regretting he had come this way home. He turned down the next dark alley and half ran alongside the canal. Few people would trouble him here, and those who saw him would be so weighed down by their own troubles that they would notice nothing.

The wind bit into his body, forcing the air from his lungs and causing him to stop and get his breath. The icy blast momentarily took hold of him and he was gripped by a violent spasm of shivering, during which the wretched thinness of his coarse grey jacket offered him no comfort. Accustomed to such seizures he allowed the spasm to take its coarse, resting his head meekly against the wall of an old outhouse until it was over. Then, his fingers caressing the soft shape in his pocket, he continued his journey, encouraged.

His house lay at the end of a squalid terrace, its windows shuttered against rain, air and sun, its plaster cracked, its timbers rotting, its floor leaking. No one came there. This was not because of its grim appearance, for it looked much the same as any of the other houses in that unfortunate road. The fact was that no one came there because Pip had no friends and no family.

He pushed open the door whistling "Drink to me only" through his teeth. "I think I'll have a nice bottle of stout tonight, that'll go down handsomely with bread and cheese. First things first, though..."

He lit a candle and went upstairs to the bedroom, breathing heavily and wiping a bead of perspiration from his forehead, despite the cold inside the house. The cracked piece of mirror which he kept on the dresser reflected the candle's intense shimmering point of light. Gingerly he fumbled in his pocket for the eye. He took it out to examine - moonlight had been the wrong sort of light in which to detect colour, but here in the golden glow he could see, miracle of miracles, that it was green. He felt faint for a moment and had to steady himself by clinging onto the dresser. Then, taking it between trembling thumb and forefinger he placed it into the yearning expectant socket where his right eye had once been. He strained to see the effect, then blinked and the eye fell out. It was too small.

With a roar Pip flung the candle to the floor and tore at his remaining eye, as if in a gesture of masochism to blind himself completely. He rocked his body to and fro, cursing the day he was born and shivering with impotent rage. Saliva began to flow from the corners of his mouth and he spat at the God who had once given him two, beautiful eyes the colour of moss, only to allow him to have one of them gouged out in a drunken brawl. Little flames licked round his heels where the discarded candle had met with wooden floorboard, and he did a sort of wretchedly manic, humourless dance round the bed onto which he eventually collapsed, sobbing and spitting.

"Hell's teeth I'll get drunk - I'll drink until I can't feel any more and maybe I won't wake up". And he sprang from his bed with desperate resolution, stumbling down the stairs to the parlour where from years of habit his fingers automatically found the candle box. Underneath the stairs lay his store of stout. He was normally an abstemious man, and only drank on the rare occasions he had something to celebrate. But with a bitter heart he opened the first bottle, virtually downing its contents in one gulp. He belched defiantly and looked around him. Everything he had that was worth having was in this room: his store of money which lay under a secret floorboard, his stout, the china vase his adored mother had given him, his eyes. If he'd had an heir the eyes would have been entrusted to his safekeeping. As it was, Pip would be taking them to the grave with him. He'd write a note on his deathbed stipulating that whoever found him would have to bury them alongside him. He opened the palm of his hand and stared at it. A socketless orb stared back at him. Sadly he took down the nearest jar from the shelf and gently placed the jade treasure inside it. This jar was not so full, and the eye bobbed up and down gently in its comforting sea of formaldehyde before settling next to its nine discarded cousins. No, this jar was not so full because green eyes were rarer than blue, grey or brown.

When he'd first started working at the hospital he'd vowed only to take green ones, but since he was rather doomed to disappointment owing to their rare colour he began to find a certain comfort in collecting other sorts. He always tried them, of course. He'd met a man with one brown eye, one blue why should it look preposterous for him to have one green eye, one blue? Or brown? Or grey?

But they were always too large or too small, too staring or too timid, too judgmental or too weak. He wanted a match not only of colour but of character - an exact match - and he decided as he finished his third bottle he'd go to any lengths to get it. Any lengths at all . Even murder.

He gazed affectionately at the other sixteen jars. Row upon row of eyes gazed affectionately back. He had names for all of them - over there was Piebald, and that grey one was Lucifer. Next to him was Harry, and above Harry, Rover (because it roved more than the others). Pip had hoped Rover would be the eye for him because it was an eye that might prove popular with the ladies, but alas, Rover was too big, and gave him the appearance of being permanently startled.

"Oh well, that's the way of things" sighed Pip contentedly as he started on his fourth bottle. By the end of it the parlour appeared to have changed, and for the better. The cracking plaster which had formerly depressed him now glimmered interestingly in the candlelight, the black beetles which fell from the rafters danced skittishly on the floorboards so that he felt as if he were a spectator at a circus, and the mildew rising up all four walls sparkled like seams of bluejohn in some gigantic cave. After the sixth bottle the entire house was spinning pleasantly, and his neighbours, not accustomed to hearing his voice at all, were treated to an hour and a half of lusty singing.

In the morning Pip awoke to find himself stretched out on his parlour floor. The early morning sun shone painfully into his face and as he staggered to his feet he realised he'd drunk a little too much. The pain in his head resembled the pain he'd felt after the brawl which had cost him his eye, and he retched at the memory. His stomach ached, his head ached and he had to go to work. To add to his misery more snow had fallen in the night and as he hurried along the dense maze of little streets he slipped on a patch of ice and fell heavily on his rump. He swore loudly and was tempted to abandon himself on his bed of snow and ice and so pass the day miserably, but an approaching rag and bone cart shattered his dreams and he got to his feet, dusting the snow from his clothes as best he could. The wind had died down but Pip's delicate state of health had made him more susceptible to the cold and he shuffled quickly across the white ground, thrusting his hoary hands into the pockets of his jacket as far as they would to, only exposing them to blow harshly on the tips of his fingers. It was with some relief that he reached the hospital and its relative warmth.

As he was still stamping the snow from his boots, to his surprise Mr. Jenkins walked into the lobby with a sandy gentleman who was a complete stranger to him..

"This is Hatch, he sweeps floors and cleans work surfaces and is generally useful about the place. (By the by, pay no attention to that hideous socket - you'll get used to it pretty quickly)".

Then Mr. Jenkins turned to Pip, addressing him loudly and slowly, as if he were a child.

"This is our new lecturer, Mr Paul - he's replacing Mr. Packer at the end of the week and I hope you'll be obliging to him"

Pip turned to look at the sandy gentleman and then stood motionless, mouth open as if struck dumb. Mr. Paul smiled kindly and started to say something but Pip heard nothing - he was transfixed by the moss green gaze of the man's eyes - eyes which exactly matched his own.

 

copyright, Mary Daniels, 1998

 

 

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