Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'
I asked Sidney Wainwright once, had he ever seen a ghost? As usual, he did not give me a straight answer. What he did say was that he did not think all ghost stories were made up, but that also didn’t mean the power from which they came was a supernatural one.
“That is to say,” said Wainwright, “they come from the most dangerous power to which we are all subservient.” It was then he told me a story, for once, in someone else’s words. Doubtless there were a few embellishments of his own. What follows are the words of an orderly named Chandler, of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Monk’s Orchard, that most infamous, callous and cruel house for those diagnosed as insane.
“When I met Mr Chandler,” Sidney began, preparing to read to me the file that was in front of him, “the memories of the events in relation to one particular patient, were fresh in his mind. So, one evening in a pub, after a couple of pints, I documented his account. Much of this tale is in Chandler’s own words and naturally, I shall start at the beginning. Of the whole interview,” said Sidney, sitting back in his chair, “it is the final comment that Chandler made which I remember most vividly. He said…”
“Are we not haunted most by that which is within?”
Geoffrey Bell did not seem mad.
I had been one of the night attendants for three years at Bethlem Royal Hospital, Bedlam, known as the ‘madhouse’, ever since its relocation from St George’s Fields to Monk’s Orchard. The new Hospital certainly felt less ostentatious than our former palace, with its colonnades and dome. I could never get past the irony of the old South London hospital. For the most vulnerable and despised people of the land, not deemed fit for even the lowest society, to have so grand, beautiful and opulent a building was, in a peculiar way, of some comfort to me. Paradoxically, it helped the people outside to be thankful that they themselves were not being within its walls.
The problem is when they do remember the troubles of those within; they become blinded by fear and ignorance. It is human nature for most of us to want to avoid, to forget, to repress that which we find most scary. The fact that I worked with every day, that most cannot stomach, is the inner workings of us all, even the kindest, most prodigious and able minds of the human race, can very quickly and easily slip into the most disturbing states. They are places where we have no control at all, and no possible prediction of what we will do next.
Many people as such, in London at least, reduce ‘madness’ to being a fault in a person’s character because they don’t have or want any understanding of just how powerful the human mind can be. The Scots, at least in my experience, can be kinder, with the way they term those with mental incapacity, not as mad, but as ‘innocent’. The case of Mr Bell of High Wycombe, and his fall from as content a life as anyone could ever have, to a place ruled by the darkest depths of the human psyche, has certainly given me that respect which our modern society lacks.
Mr Bell had a chamber to himself for several weeks since he had been admitted, and it was in this quiet little wing of seven rooms where I had started doing supervisory night duty for a period. The corridor was tucked in one corner of the hospital through two pairs of heavy doors on great steel hinges which prevented any sound penetrating its sanctuary. The series of rooms contained patients whose conditions could be triggered or worsened by the slightest auditory disturbance of the wrong nature. Indeed, in Mr Bell’s case it was the sounds of the chimes of a clock that could see his mental faculties impaired. Since we had removed the old grandfather clock from the corridor by the supervisor’s desk, coupled with mild sedation at night, his condition had improved markedly.
You will be wondering what it was that induced Mr Bell to be deemed to have lost his sanity.
At the time of the following events, when I first came to meet him, all I could have told you was this. Mr Bell was an actor, who had indeed once been quite famous before the war performing as a stage magician, in music halls and in some lesser theatrical productions as a well-reviewed character actor. He broke free from chains in locked crates, walked through walls, performed vanishing acts, that sort of thing. On the boards of the theatres, he took on those grimaced, disfigured and misunderstood characters that gave colour to the performance and served as a perfect foil for the hero or heroine. Although he did not serve in the war himself, he had fallen on harder times since, and in recent years had been mostly between engagements.
Mr Bell didn’t have the looks to be a leading man in a moving picture, nor was he admitted to the ranks of great thespian protagonists in the likes of the Shakespearean scene. But he had a presence of character about him, that was so all-consuming, so complete that he could pass himself off as many a different colourful member of society with absolute certainty in the performance. Thus, as stage work dried up, he tried his hand at everything from being an entertainer at parties for young and old to working in circuses. I had even, out of interest when I first met Bell, read a review of one of his performances. It had said that never had the reviewer seen someone with more belief in who they were and, “like some sort of prophet”, the ability to draw in an audience.
As I recalled his story each night when I checked on him, I was reminded why it was one of the most tragic cases I had ever witnessed. Mr Bell, you see, had returned home one evening, on the stroke of midnight, to find his wife brutally murdered. The body was in a horrific state, or so the newspapers made out, but there was more. For Mr Bell had seen the killer out of the window as he made his escape. For a long moment, the wicked fellow had taunted him, and then vanished, into the night.
Mr Bell had not been the same since. The stroke of midnight would send him into a terrible fugue, where he would complain about seeing a man tormenting him, with many different faces, but who always had the same penetrating eyes. Every evening the same routine would play out, and he would be set off in fits of shaking, screaming and delusional incoherent speech. It had been that way for several nights until a doctor had the idea of removing the grandfather clock from the hallway, and providing Mr Bell with a sedative before the top of the hour.
It was the doctor’s thought that what Mr Bell was suffering could be likened to symptoms of shell shock suffered by soldiers, a paranoia brought on by exposure to extreme conditions. Upon his improvement, the doctor decided to include his case, under anonymity of course, in a small monograph of his experiences working with returned soldiers from Flanders in a private hospital after the war. By the time the paper had been published Mr Bell had come a long way. He had proved consistently calm, of rational disposition, and the doctor was within days of recommending his release.
Or so we thought. As I sat there on this particular night, at my little desk in that long corridor, lit only by the shaded electric lights along the wall which were softy warming the floor, I had no idea of the whirlwind I would soon see unleashed. It was eleven o’clock one evening in March. A stiff spring breeze rattled the sash windows. I caught its breath on the back of my neck as the great double doors swung silently open and closed again. I had a visitor. And his loud footsteps, sharp as tap shoes upon marble, I was hasty to silence.
“Quiet there, my good fellow!” I hissed. The man striding up the corridor was severe in every manner of the word, from his pointed brown boots to his pronounced, chiselled chin and the needle tip ends of his moustache. He was immaculately sharp, an ageing detective in a light grey three-piece, from an earlier era of gas lamps and Jack the Ripper. Only the black bowler hat seemed to provide some rounded relief to his features.
He introduced himself simply as “Tabram of the Yard”, confirmed who I was (even though he knew already), and did not take my hand as he set his hat on my desk. He was also carrying a small wooden box of an oddly long and flat shape that he placed next to it. While the police did come from time to time, a visit such as this, at this hour of the night, was unheard of. Yet such an appearance of an officer of the law was not as strange as what followed Inspector Tabram through the double doors. Two burly constables heaved and sweated as they hauled in the great grandfather clock and set it once again in its place in the corridor.
“My friend, you simply cannot bring that in here!” said I, with the curtest of whispers. “You may not understand what the patients in these rooms require, but the chimes of that clock are certainly not it!” The two constables left us, despite my annoyance, and returned down the corridor.
“I have come to see Geoffrey Bell,” said Tabram without missing a beat.
“And by what level of foolhardiness do you propose on doing that with the chimes of midnight soon to strike upon that poor fellow’s delicate—”
“My dear chap, that poor fellow is perhaps the most dangerous man you will ever meet.” Tabram let the words hang in midair, knowing they were without retort. He sized me up for a long moment and then continued. “Mr Chandler, I wish to see your patient, preferably whilst he is within one of his ‘episodes’ as you have described them in your notes. I have been investigating the murder of one Mrs Bell, and the actions of this man are very much the pivot upon which my whole theory turns.”
I recoiled in my chair, despondent that my patient’s treatment would be interrupted so harshly before he was ready, but equally feeling concerned that I might get in the way of a murder enquiry.
“So am I to understand it, er—”
“Detective Inspector Tabram, that you would like to question my patient as to the identity of the man he saw that evening he discovered his wife?” Tabram’s mouth twitched into a knowing smile. “You think he can identify the killer, don’t you!”
“In short. Sir, yes I do.” It was my turn to smile.
“Then, for the time being, I’m sorry to say you will not make much progress.”
“On the contrary, sir,” said Tabram boldly, as he drew out a cigarette from the leather case in his coat pocket, “I believe I will.” Tabram lit up and consulted the long hands on the grandfather clock, its inner workings echoing throughout the hallway and already adding to the tensions of my palpitating heart.
“But your men have been here before. They’ve questioned him exhaustively! As you should know, memory loss is a part of his condition, although we may hope with time and treatment they may return…”
“I cannot wait for such a moment, sir, because I do not believe it would ever come unless we force it to be so.”
“And what methods, what training, do you have for such an exercise? Have you treated the vulnerable, those cast in the darkness by our society, the men returning from war, men who have seen hell itself?”
“You may very well have studied men of war, sir, and all their minute faculties. I was one!”
Any hint of further argument was caught in my throat. By then the time was fast approaching midnight. Inspector Tabram puffed on several cigarettes in the minutes that followed, the veins on his face flushing purple as an undercurrent of a pale tiredness flowed through his features. I was merely set to wonder, in dread, of what I might be left with afterwards, of how exactly the officer expected to question a patient with such incoherent memory.
After a while I moved to take my syringes out of the draw, hoping there would be no argument to Mr Bell’s usual nightly sedation. One look from my companion, however, told me that it would not be allowed.
With five minutes to midnight registering on the grandfather clock, my compulsion for action got the better of me and I rose from my desk to open the viewing hatch to the door of Bell’s room. The fellow was lying on the bed in the otherwise featureless cell, curled up, but his eyes were open and fixed upon a vacant point on the opposite wall. Already he seemed to be losing the newly instilled sense of calm to which we had carefully guided him. Tabram merely puffed away and did not even bother joining me by the door.
“How exactly do you plan on getting through to him? I might at least have been consulted upon that, so as to advise you!”
“I am going to wait until he is alerted by what is, to him, the grim chimes of the zenith hour and then ask him a question, just one question.”
“Trust me, Mr Chandler, if I am wrong, there will be a pint for every man in this establishment who has to come in here and start his treatment from scratch. But I won’t be. The pieces of this puzzle are all falling into place nicely, there is just one component, right at the centre to complete it.” I glanced at the clock. One minute to go. “You see everyone overlooked one thing in this case.”
“Oh, and what pray is that?”
“The lights in the room were on.”
Without explanation, Tabram stamped out his cigarette and took the wooden case from my desk with him to the little window in the door. The shell of the man inside was about fifty years of age, but still with the reasonable tone to him of someone who kept to physical work, and his cropped black hair largely as thick and deep in colour as it had been for years. His eyes, however, were vacant and fixed that little bit too intently, the first indication to anyone that something was wrong with him. When I’d seen him after midnight, after those fits of agitation, he would stare at you, unblinking, for minutes at a time, a million hidden thoughts and voices running through his head.
We watched. We waited. The seconds ticked down. Then, from deep within the workings of the great clock came the first tune of midnight. The notes of the solemn tune played and then ceased. My heart skipped a beat. Then the chimes rang out.
One. Two. Three. The Inspector shifted his weight on the balls of his feet. Four. Five. Six. Bell curled up into a little ball. Seven. Eight. Nine. Tabram snatched the keys from my belt, sliding them into the lock of the door. Ten. Eleven. The lock clicked. Twelve. Silence.
The bed started shaking. Bell’s hands slid over his face to cover it. Then there was an almighty scream. It came from somewhere deep but emanated from the top of the poor fellow’s lungs. He leapt up, but remained on the bed and backed up against the wall.
Tabram seized open the door, flinging me backwards, and marched into Mr Bell’s room. There were five other occupied rooms in that corridor and almost immediately I could hear the disturbances that had now been set off in each of them. But, seeing Mr Bell and his visitor were my first priority, I rushed in after Tabram.
The sight that greeted me, I’m sad to say, did not surprise me. Bell now faced the wall and was muttering semi-coherent chatter of what he saw that night, much of which is too ghastly to repeat here.
“Mr Bell, sir, look at me.” Tabram stood tall and was unflinching, watching the poor man in front of him go through his vivid hallucination, a waking nightmare which I had hoped we had relegated to the past. “Look at me!” Bell was very slow to give any indication that he understood a stranger was in the room at all.
“Geoffrey,” said I, as casually as I could. “There is a gentleman here who would like to ask you a question.” Bell turned around, his eyes focused on me for a long moment, then shot to Tabram, who continued.
“Mr Bell, I want to take you back, to that night, when you returned home. The last night you returned home. It was midnight, wasn’t it?” Bell recoiled slightly but did not yet falter. “You found your wife in the hall, by the stairs, didn’t you? She had been murdered.”
Tears welled in Bell’s eyes but he did not sob, as for a moment the horror of the ghastly appearance of his wife’s body gave way to his sense of loss for her. “It was then that you looked out the window of the back room, the window that looks out upon the rear garden and alleyway.” Bell nodded. He sat down, gripping the bed. “You saw someone that night, someone outside. I have one question for you Mr Bell and it is this.” The inspector unclasped the wooden box and swung the lid open. “I wish for you to look at this, and tell me, what do you see?”
Bell’s eyes were focused on Tabram’s for a long while, then he took a deep breath and looked inside the box. His pupils widened, and then, like a cannonball, Bell shot back upon the bed. He screamed at the top of his lungs.
“It’s him! It’s him! HIM!” Bell scrambled across the sheets to back himself against the wall. By God, I thought, Tabram had shown him the killer, and he recognised him! In my time I have seen some horrid things, but never in all my years had I seen such an outburst from a patient.
Tabram, however, did not relent.
“This is who you saw that night, isn’t it? This is who murdered your Shirley!” Bell nodded, but still, Tabram did not relent. He charged at Bell, came right up to the bed, and continued to show the fellow the photograph. Bell had screwed his eyes tight shut but momentarily opened them again and was now transfixed by the picture. It was then he said something I did not at all expect.
“It was him! It was him!” said Bell, and he stared for a long moment, catching his breath and turning his head oddly, pivoting his neck like a see-saw. “It’s me!”
The very balance of my soul dropped like a stone. “It’s me, it’s me, oh God.”
“Indeed sir, it is you.” And with that, Tabram closed the box. He looked at me again, for the first time since the strokes of midnight, and motioned for us to leave.
Then something snapped in Bell. As we were about to swing the door shut, he changed. The shouting stopped, and all was quiet save the muffled noises from the other rooms. He turned around and was another man entirely.
“G’evnin’ to you fine gen’lemen’,” he said, in a complete trance-like change to a cockney footpad. Bell doffed a hat that was not there and had his eyes fixed upon the wooden box, as if it were a prize he’d cheat at cards to win. He had such twisted features and altered stance that were it not for the blue pyjamas and lack of any makeup, he could as well have completely changed his identity.
A moment later he was an upper-class toff, then after another few seconds a spice peddler. The power of his transformations was quite something to behold, but we did so from the safety of the porthole in the door, for we no longer cared to be in Bell’s room. This was a new side to him, one we in Bethlem had not seen. More than extreme agitation, or some crazed eccentricity, he was a new person, new people, as completely separate personalities emerged before us.
I could not believe what I was witnessing, in a man who up until now I had believed to be disturbed, but on the whole, healthy. When with the fifth transformation he became a railway ticket inspector and started bellowing “Tickets please!” we slammed the hatch shut.
I sat down at my desk, for a long moment to take in what had just happened.
“What did you show him, inspector? A picture of himself?” Tabram, for the first time since I had met him barely half an hour previous, smiled.
“Not at all, my good doctor.” The inspector opened the wooden box to reveal within, my own face staring back at me. It was a mirror.
“But, who then, did he see that night? For I am sure sir, that he did not lie upon the point of the terrible eyes, of the man through the window.”
“You forget one important point doctor, as I told you before.” I tried to think back, to what he said previously.
“The lights were on!”
“Indeed, it was dark in that street, very dark! Unless any foolish soul had pressed their face right up against that window, all Bell could see, all he could possibly have seen, was his own reflection.”
“He killed her then!”
“Undoubtedly sir. He murdered her, and brutally.”
“And to believe, we were about to have him released.”
“I know that Mr Chandler, which is the reason for my hasty intervention.”
I was glum, frozen with the thought I could not see a killer in those eyes before, that I could have let him kill again. “Do not fear my good man,” said the Inspector, his hand now on my shoulder. “For I believe it to be the very nature of his condition that one cannot tell his true nature. He had, up until now perhaps, absolutely no memory that he himself had committed the murder during those events. They were hidden, locked away by a mind at war with itself.”
“Some form of division of personality.”
“Indeed. In fact, I would go so far as to say there are many many different Geoffrey Bells. There is a dominant one that you see for most of the time, and there are unstable characters lurking within, but none of them really remembers what goes on for the others. This is why he is so dangerous. He is a killer, who honestly doesn’t know what he has done.” The Inspector collected his bowler hat, took a deep breath, and was off, as swiftly as he had arrived.
When Inspector Tabram was nearly at the double doors, though, he turned, and very deliberately said, “keep him good and tight in there, sir, and be careful.”
After that night I asked for a change in responsibilities. I never went back to that little corridor if I could avoid it. But the grandfather clock, it remained in place.