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Mantissa, Page 2

John Fowles

  “I haven’t been in an accident?”

  She looked grave. “I’m afraid so. You’ve been turned into a toad.” Slowly, by something in her eyes, he realized he was being joked out of too much self-alarm. He managed a wan smile. She said, “That’s better.”

  “Do you know who… what I was?”




  He waited for her to go on. But she watched him in silence: another test.

  “You’re not going to tell me.”

  “You’re going to tell me. One day soon.”

  He was silent for a moment or two.

  “I suppose you’re a…”

  “A what?”

  “Couches. You know.”


  “That’s it.”

  “Neurologist. Abnormal brain function. My special field is mnemonology.”

  “What’s that?”

  “How memory works.”

  “Or doesn’t.”

  “Sometimes. Temporarily.”

  Her hair was tied at the nape by a wisp of scarf, the only feminine touch about her clothes. The ends showed an alternate pattern of tiny printed roses and detached elliptical leaves, black on white.

  “I don’t know your name.”

  She turned towards him on the edge of the bed and slipped her thumb under the left lapel of the tunic. There was a small plastic name-tag: DR. A. DELFIE. But then, as if revealing even this tiny bureaucratic detail about herself was unclinical, she stood.

  “Oh where is that nurse.”

  She went to the door and looked out; in vain, since she returned once more beside the bed and pressed the bell, long and insistently this time. She glanced down, her mouth wryly pressed, exonerating him from any blame over her impatience.

  “How long have I been here?”

  “Just a few pages.”


  She had folded her arms, and yet again there was the ghost of a quiz in her watching eyes. “What should I have said?”


  She smiled more openly. “Good.”

  “Why did you say ‘pages’?”

  “You’ve mislaid your identity, Mr. Green. What I have to work on is your basic sense of reality. And that seems in good shape.”

  “It’s like losing all one’s luggage.”

  “Better luggage than limbs. As they say.”

  He stared at the ceiling, struggling to reconquer a past, a place, a purpose.

  “I must be running away from something.”

  “Perhaps. That’s what we’re here for. To help you dig back.” She touched his bare shoulder. “But the thing now is not to worry. Just relax.”

  She moved once more to the door. It was strangely dark beyond, he could see nothing. He stared at the domed and quilted ceiling, its forest of little hanging pods, each with its end-button. For all their greyness they were breastlike, line after line of schoolgirls’ breasts, a canopy of nippled buds. He felt like pointing this out to the doctor, but she remained waiting in the open door; and then an instinct told him it was not something he could say to a woman physician. It was too personal, too whimsical, and might offend her.

  At last the doctor turned. Someone came quickly in behind her: a young West Indian nurse, white cap and brown face over a starched blue-and-white uniform. In one hand she carried a coiled red cylinder of rubber sheeting. She rolled her eyes at the doctor.

  “Sister on the warpath. For a change.”

  The doctor gave a resigned nod, then spoke down to him.

  “This is Nurse Cory.”

  “Nice to have you with us, Mr. Green.”

  He made a sheepish grimace up at the nurse.


  She raised a mock-stern finger; a flash of brown eyes, a rich Antillean voice.

  “Now no sorry. Else you get smacked.”

  A pretty girl, a humor, a jolly bossiness. By some rare coincidence in what otherwise must have been very different racial genes, her eyes were exactly the same color as the doctor’s.

  “Close the door, nurse, would you? I want to do the primaries.”


  Once again Dr. Delfie had her arms folded, in what was evidently a favorite pose. Her gaze down at him seemed for a moment to be curiously speculative, as if she had not yet fully made up her mind what his treatment should be; as if she saw him as less a person than a problem. But then she gave a small smile.

  “They won’t hurt. Many patients find them pleasantly relaxing.” She glanced across at the nurse, who had returned to the other side of the bed. “Okay?”

  They stooped and with a familiar expertise eased up the mattress first on one side, then on the other. The bedclothes were released and in a quick series of folds stowed away to the end of the bed. He tried to sit. But the two were at once back beside him, forcing him firmly but gently down again.

  Dr. Delfie said, “Lie still. Just as you are.” Though quiet, her voice was markedly more brisk; and she read his embarrassment. “My dear man, I’m a doctor, this is a nurse. We see naked male bodies every day of our lives.”

  “Yes.” He added, “Sorry.”

  “Now we have to put a rubber sheet under you. Turn towards me.” He turned, and felt the sheet laid close along his back by the nurse. “Now the other way. Over the roll. That’s right. Good. On your back again.” He stared up at the quilted ceiling. The sheet was pulled taut beneath him. “Now raise your arms and put your hands under your head. Like so. Good. Now close your eyes. I want you to relax. You’re in the best hospital in Europe for your problem. We have a very high success rate. You’re not lost anymore, you’re on the way to recovery already. Just relax all your muscles. And your mind. Everything’s going to be fine.” There was a pause. “Now we’re going to test for certain nervous reactions. You must lie quite still.”


  He kept his eyes obediently closed. There were a few moments more of silence, only the ticking clock, then the doctor said quietly, “Right, nurse.”

  Two light hands touched the underside of the arms cocked back on the pillow, ran down to the armpits, then down his sides; stopped at the hip bones, pressed down on them.

  “My hands nice and warm, Mr. Green?”

  “Yes thank you.”

  The nurse removed her hands, but only momentarily. One of them deftly lifted his limp penis and laid it back and rested on it; while the fingers of the other hand encircled his scrotal sac and began to massage it slowly. His eyes opened in alarm. The doctor leaned over him.

  “The memory nerve-center in the brain is closely associated with the one controlling gonadic activity. We have to check that the latter is functioning normally. This is standard procedure. No reason to feel shy. Now please – close your eyes again.”

  In her eyes there was no longer any humor or dryness at all, only medical seriousness. He closed his own again. The scrotal massaging continued. The other hand began to stroke the exposed underside of the penis. Though he did not feel relaxed at all, the manipulation did seem merely clinical, a routine matter; and as if to confirm it, the doctor spoke across the bed and his body to the nurse.

  “Have they done anything about that sluice yet?”

  “You’re jokin’.”

  “I don’t know what it is about Maintenance. The more you complain, the longer it takes.”

  “All that lot do is play gin rummy in the boiler room. I seen ’em.”

  “I’ll try to get Mr. Peacock to chase them.”

  “Best of luck.”

  He guessed, from behind his closed eyes, that the doctor liked the young nurse’s sarcastic resignation; that they smiled at each other after that last remark. There was a silence. The gentle squeezing continued, and the stroking, with now and then a little rolling by the fingers. Yet something about the words they had spoken nagged at him. He seemed to recall that snatch of hospital talk, to have lived it before, even this before… yet how c
ould he have, and not remembered?

  The doctor murmured. “Reaction?”


  He felt the penis, still limp, lifted and allowed to fall; then the manipulation recommenced. Desperately now, through the fog, the cruel grey wall of amnesia, he tried to regain the lost structure of experience and knowledge. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, medicine, treatments… there was a movement on the doctor’s side of the bed.

  “Give me your right hand, Mr. Green.”

  Frozen, he did nothing, but the doctor took the hand from beneath his head and led it upwards. It touched a bare breast. Once more shocked and horrified, he opened his eyes. Dr. Delfie was leaning over him, with the white tunic open, staring at the wall above his head, as if she were doing no more than taking his pulse. His hand was led to the other breast.

  “What are you doing?”

  She did not look down. “Please don’t talk, Mr. Green. I want you to concentrate on tactile sensation.”

  His eyes wandered down the opening of the white coat, and then up again, in a third access of astonishment, to her still averted face. He had not taken literally the remark about wearing nothing.

  “I don’t know what you’re trying to do.”

  “I’ve just told you. We must test your reflexes.”

  “You mean…”

  She looked down with a distinct touch of impatience.

  “You must have had to produce specimens during past examinations. This is no different.”

  He pulled his hand away. “But I… you…”

  Her voice was suddenly strict and cold. “Look, Mr. Green, Nurse and I have many other patients to attend to. You do want to be cured, don’t you?”

  “Yes, of course, but –”

  “Then close your eyes. And for goodness’ sake try to be a little more erotic. We haven’t got all day.” She leaned across him, supporting herself on either side of the pillow. “Now both hands. Anywhere you like.”

  But he kept his hands where they were, back on the pillow.

  “I can’t. I don’t know you from Adam.”

  The doctor took a breath.

  “Mr. Green, the person I want you not to know me from is Eve. Or are you trying to tell me you’d rather have this treatment from a male nurse and doctor?”

  “I take exception to that.”

  She stared sternly down. “Do you find my body repellent?” Her voice and eyes were peremptory now, brooking no refusal. He glanced down from the face to the shadowed breasts, then turned his head aside.

  “I can’t see what this has got to do with –”

  “What you call ‘this’ happens to be the most up-to-date and approved method for your condition.”

  “I’ve never heard of it.”

  “A few minutes ago you’d never heard of your wife and children. You are suffering from severe memory-loss.”

  “I’d have remembered this.”

  “Can you remember your politics?” He said nothing. “Your religious beliefs? Your bank balance? Your profession?”

  “You know I can’t.”

  “Then you will kindly trust me to know what I’m doing. We don’t undergo long years of training in my particular specialism in order to have our professional judgment questioned – and above all on such silly grounds. You’re in perfectly good physical health. I examined you thoroughly yesterday. Your genitalia are quite normal. I’m not asking for the impossible.”

  He remained with his head turned away; then swallowed and spoke in a lower voice.

  “Couldn’t I… on my own?”

  “We’re not testing your ability to produce mere sperm, Mr. Green.”

  There was something he did not grasp about the contemptuous emphasis she gave “sperm,” as if it were synonymous with scum or froth.

  “It’s so embarrassing.”

  “You’re in a hospital, for heaven’s sake. There’s nothing personal in this. Nurse and I are simply carrying out standard practice. All we ask is a little cooperation. Nurse?”

  “Still negative, doctor.”

  “Now no more nonsense, Mr. Green. I have a perfectly ordinary female body. Shut your eyes and use it.”

  Her voice and look were like nothing so much as those of a nanny, of the old school, admonishing a dilatory infant to perform another natural process.

  “But why?”

  “And will you please stop asking these pointless questions.”

  She looked away at the wall behind the bed, forbidding any further discussion. In the end he closed his eyes and gingerly raised his hands to find the hanging breasts. He did not caress them, but merely held them. They were in themselves warm and firm, pleasant handfuls; and he became aware of a faint tarry fragrance, like that of myrtle flowers, no doubt from some antiseptic soap she used. But he was much less conscious of the doctor’s femininity than of an anger inside himself. At least he knew he must very recently have undergone a severe trauma, that his mind must be in a particularly delicate and fragile state – and here they were, not only taking gross advantage of his weakness, his still partly drugged condition, but (far worse) disregarding totally any moral feelings he might have.

  To his acute dismay, for Nurse Cory had not stopped her ministrations, he felt the beginning of an erection. Perhaps the nurse made some silent signal to the doctor, for she spoke in a slightly less carbolic voice; rather that of a Minister of Tourism addressing a delegation of foreign travel agents, and obedient to a hopeful text, composed by some civil servant who had never actually met a foreign travel agent in the flesh.

  “Now I suggest you explore other regions of my body.”

  It was too much. He let his hands fall back on the pillow, though he kept his eyes shut.

  “This is obscene.”

  Dr. Delfie was silent a moment, then, exhibiting a much less pleasant aspect of her socially and intellectually superior background, curtly and coldly incisive.

  “If you must know, Mr. Green, your memory-loss may well be partly caused by an unconscious desire to fondle unknown female bodies.”

  He opened his eyes in indignation.

  “That’s a totally unwarranted assumption!”

  “On the contrary, it has every warrant. Monogamy is a biological nonsense, a mere transient accident of history. Your true evolutionary function, as a male, is to introduce your spermatozoa, that is, your genes, into as many wombs as possible.” She waited, but he said nothing. She went on in a lower voice. “I repeat. Run your hands elsewhere.”

  He sought for something in her eyes: the faintest trace of humor, of irony, of humanity even. But there was none. She was implacably indifferent to his scruples, his modesty, his sense of decorum. In the end he shut his eyes and found the breasts again, then felt cautiously upwards to the delicate throat, to the angles where the neck joined the shoulders; then down to the breasts again, to the sides, the curved indent of the waist, with the light linen of the opened tunic on the backs of his hands. The doctor shifted, and raised a knee onto the side of the bed.

  “Anywhere you like.” His right hand moved inwards; stopped. “Come on, Mr. Green. You’ve touched the pubic area before. It won’t bite you.”

  He withdrew his hand.

  “That’s another thing. What about my wife?”

  “Mrs. Green is fully aware of the nature of this treatment. I explained it to her before you woke up. I have her signed consent in my office.”

  One ancient fact, a merciful ally, suddenly blew back into his consciousness. He opened his eyes again, and stared up accusingly into hers.

  “I thought there was a thing called the Hippocratic Oath.”

  “A doctor shall use all the means in his or her power to cure the patient in care. If I remember.”

  “Proper means.”

  “The proper means is the most efficacious means. Which is what you are getting.”

  The nurse’s invisible hands would give him no peace. He looked a moment longer into the doctor’s eyes, then found he could not bear t
heir now quite overt irritation and disapproval. He once more closed his own. After a moment Dr. Delfie crouched lower over him. A nipple touched his lips, then again, and the scent of the myrtle flowers was stronger, evoking in some lost recess of mind sunlit slopes above azure seas. He opened his eyes, in twilight now, tented beneath the sides of the tunic; once more he was invited to suckle the insistent breast. He twisted his head to one side.


  “Excellent. Anything that spurs your libido.”

  “You’re no doctor.”

  “Bonds. A whip. Black leather. Whatever you fancy.”

  “This is monstrous.”

  “Would you like Nurse to undress?”


  The doctor withdrew a little.

  “I do hope you’re not a racist, Mr. Green.”

  He kept his head averted. “I demand to see the doctor in charge.”

  “I am the doctor in charge.”

  “Not when I get out of here. I’ll have you struck off the register.”

  “I trust you’ve noticed that already you are searching far less for words. So perhaps there is –”

  “Go to hell. Piss off.”

  There was a silence. The doctor’s voice became even icier.

  “You may not be aware of this, Mr. Green. But all resorts to the imagery of defecation and urination are symptoms of culturally induced sexual guilt and repression.”

  “Bugger off.”

  There was yet another silence. Then the nurse spoke.

  “We lost it, doctor.”

  He heard an impatient outbreath from Dr. Delfie; a hesitation, then she took her knee from where it rested and stood by the bed.

  “Nurse, I’m afraid there’s nothing for it. We’ll have to do a PB.”

  There was a rustle of fabric. He gave a newly alarmed look from the pillow, to see the doctor, who had taken off her tunic and now stood quite naked, hand it across the bed to the nurse. She glanced down at him with an equally naked vexation.

  “You’re only getting this because you’re a private patient, Mr. Green. I can tell you now I wouldn’t tolerate your behavior if you were on the National Health. Not for a moment.” She folded her arms. “Quite apart from anything else there is a considerable waiting list for beds in this ward. We work under great pressure.”

  He summoned his strength and braved her eyes.