Swirled whisky around my tongue. Listened to the shrill see-saw cadence and frenzied excitement in his voice and the little gulps of silence. Poured myself another and became more relaxed.
He stood in front of me. Mopped at perspiration on his forehead, with a white hanky. ‘He won’t be long,’ he said. Could see that he was excited. He wanted to pace up and down whilst waiting for his friend and not sit with a lame-duck like me.
Bottle half finished, we leaned in. Sat snug, with our knees bumping together as we picked apart the bones of childhood memories. ‘Look Brian, I thought maybe you could help me. Maybe have a phone number of somebody in the Jehovah’s.’ Waved my hand about in front of his face to make him understand. ‘You know with all this team working religious leaders do in our communities now. You could phone their priest guy and get a progress report on Myra and see how she’s doing.’
He tapped my wrist. ‘Jehovah’s don’t really believe in hospitals. And they’d rather kill themselves than admit that suicide might be down to mental illness.’
‘Whit do they believe it’s down to then?’
‘Lack of belief. Possibly evil spirits.’
Stood up. Whacked him on the shoulder. ‘Well, Brian old boy, that’s where I came in and it’s really not much use to me. I need to go and find Myra. And all you’ve done is hold me back.’
Brian poured me another large one. ‘He’ll not be long. And what you’ve got to remember is the Royal College of Psychiatrists is like the Masonics. They all know each other. Paddy is quite high up in it. One phone call and he’ll be able to place Myra and tell you exactly how she is.’
Slumped into the chair beside him. Heard a knock on the backdoor and a shouted greeting. He paused near the door, dark eyes sweeping over us, thin hair receding back from his forehead in a monk’s crown, but I expected him to be wearing the regalia of the church, not the expensive suit and thick red silk tie of a successful businessman. He walked briskly across the tiled floor, holding his hand out for me to shake.
‘Paddy Greene,’ he said. His handshake solid enough. His eyes crinkling with small cushions of fat around his mouth when he smiled, but his voice, wasn’t sure if it was snobby or ever so slightly effeminate.
He slapped Brian on the shoulder. The crack filling the room and bringing grins and good cheer. Brian pointed at the bottle. ‘Want me to pour you a snifter?’
Paddy shook his head. ‘No. I’m driving.’ He worked his way round the table. We faced each other in a huddle. He licked his lips. ‘Look at me,’ he said, in a mocking we-re-all-boys-in-it-together tone. ‘I’m getting on in years, prone to depression and can get a bit defensive about it. It’s a brain thing. I know that, but you know it doesn’t help, in the same way that knowing you’ve been knocked down by a truck doesn’t help. You can use words like serotonin uptake, but you might as well talk about candyfloss uptake. Keeping busy helps. If the devil finds work for idle hands then I’m on his side of God and the angels. Whatever works, I can beg steal or borrow, that’ll do for me. Tell me about Myra.’ He paused to look across at Brian for confirmation. ‘And her daughter.’
Brian poured me a glass to help me talk. And he poured himself another glass to help him listen. We worked our way through the bottle.
‘Have you ever heard the term folie a deux?’ Paddy asked.
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘Pardon my French. It’s when two people are daft. Like when two people convince each other Rangers will win the European cup.’
‘Or Celtic,’ said Brian.
Paddy went to the cupboard and reached up to the top shelf for a glass. He pulled open the fridge and poured himself a cool glass of milk. ‘What I find interesting is hysteria of this kind usually involves woman.’ His voice rose and his hand gestures became more expansive.
‘Like Joan of Arc,’ said Brian, he slurred his words. ‘Or Bernadette Soubirous.’ His eyes were wide as an owl. He looked around and back at us as if surprised to see us still sitting at his table.
‘You’re quite right of course Brian. Religion muddies the waters somewhat. Incredible events like the sun spinning on its axis can be witnessed by thousands and bizarre believes can seem perfectly normal to hundreds of millions more. What makes it interesting is where those believes originate and why. Look at Our Lady of Fatima for example. She appeared to three young children half way through a First World War that was costing millions of lives. The narrative was quite a simple one. Unless more people prayed, took Holy Communion, and did penance, there would be other world wars—each more terrible than the last. But here’s the rub. She appears to two little boys and a girl. Shepherds with its potent symbolism. And like Bernadette Soubirous, and the coded message of The Immaculate Conception, the children do not have the intellectual apparatus to make sense of the message they were proclaiming. They were the equivalent of radio receivers picking up a message from out there. Translating it through their very limited experiences. Yet the message reaches millions. How did three children infect others with their hysteria? If that’s what it was, and how can we learn from such cases?
‘Any mair booze?’ I asked Brian.
‘There’s a bottle of cooking brandy in one of the soup pots on the bottom shelf of the cupboard,’ said Paddy, ‘where the housekeeper likes to hide it’.
‘You psychic?’ I said to Paddy.
‘Not quite.’ Paddy said. He exchanged a slobbery grin with Brian.
Held the brandy in my glass up to the light. Dark colour. Tasted revolting, but it was better than nothing. Breathed the fumes out of my mouth. It seemed to reset the clock in my head. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘Whit use is this to man nor beast? I want to know where Myra is and if she’s ok, not whit channels the Tellytubbies are on and who’s Laa-Laa.’
‘I’ve already checked,’ said Paddy. ‘She’s ok and back home.’
Chair scraped on the floor as I stood up. ‘You mean by herself?’ I looked from one to the other. ‘Why didn’t you tell me right away? Should she no’ be in the hospital? Brian shook his head. Whether from the taste of the brandy or what I was saying I wasn’t sure. ‘Should she no’ have a nurse or something with her at all times in case she does it again?’
Paddy sighed. ‘Technically, but care in the community is stretched so thin…’
‘They don’t care.’ Spit bubble came from Brian’s open mouth as he spoke. ‘Nobody fuckin’ cares.’
Paddy whispered, ‘I care. You care’. He peered across at me. ‘We care, but the problem is we don’t care enough.’
Met his eyes. ‘I do,’ I said. ‘I love her.’ Laughed. ‘Although I’m no’ really sure whit that means.’
‘It’s an enigma.’ Paddy sloshed milk around in his glass and puckered his lips as if he was about to say more. ‘I meant to ask you earlier, where there any unusual smells when met with Holly?’
Thought about it for a second. Took a nip of brandy, cheeks squeezed tight as a lemon. ‘Sex.’ Stumbled on. ‘Myra was no slouch.’ Corrected myself. ‘Is no slouch. But her daughter was so hot she would have given a dead man a poker dick. There’s no other way of puttin’ it.’
‘Interesting,’ said Paddy. ‘Over ninety percent of episodes of hysteria involve women, especially young women on the cusp of adulthood. Unspecified odours are often triggers. A way of saying this isn’t happening inside me, but is coming from outside. Studies of schizophrenics have shown that the neurons involved in seeing and hearing actually fire so for that person a visual or auditory hallucination is as real to him or her as you, Brian and me sitting here at this table. But odour comes from our far longer past in our evolutionary make-up and our response often takes place at both a conscious and subconscious way. Men find ovulating women, for example, far more attractive. Strippers at the height of their fecundity make thirty per cent more in tips. Pheromones affect us all.’
Brian held up his glass. ‘Don’t affect me. I’m a priest impervious to all temptation.’
‘Apart from booze,’ said Paddy.
‘Touché,’ said Brian.
Paddy turned back to me. ‘Did you experience nausea, vomiting, headaches?’ He studied my face.
Nodded my head that I hadn’t experience any of these.
‘Anything at all?’
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Got a rash and a bit itchy.’ Poured myself another. Clinked against Brian’s glass as I topped him up. Brandy was beginning to taste like something I could get used to.
‘I’m trying to work out a possible trigger.’ Paddy paused, his voice rising. ‘Some way of transmitting a signal between groups. Something you recognise, but don’t recognise, if you know what I mean?’ Looked across the table at me, but didn’t wait for a reply. ‘In Paisley, for example, just before the start of the nineteenth century, women began to collapse breathless at the looms they were working on. It spread from one mill to another until hundreds were involved. Eminent doctors were brought in from Glasgow and Edinburgh to examine the girls. The conclusion they reached was it was the girls’ overactive imagination. They had the moral authority to make such a diagnosis. The attacks ceased. They had in effect being exorcised.’
‘Reminds me a bit of Huxley’s study of The Devils of Loudon,’ said Brian. ‘Poor Father Grandier accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake.’
Paddy surprised me, acting as devil’s advocate. ‘What we know about closed institutions now he probably did have sex with the nuns and paid the price. The Salem Witch trials provides a classic case study. Abigail Williams’s fainting, twitching, and shaking, being taken up by other girls. Mass hysteria, young girls and the devil go hand in hand. Freud developed many of his theories, including that of hysteria, whilst observing the work of Charcot in the Saltpetre women’s asylum in Paris. Many of the women there exhibiting many of the behaviours shown by Grandier’s Ursuline nuns. For a small fee they could exhibit this behaviour at will. They were, in fact, exhibiting learned behaviour. If we look at modern reactions to when The Exorcist came out we see a rise in cases of people claiming to be possessed by a demonic entity and behaving in a stereotypical way. They’ve swallowed the script.’
Brian sighed. ‘Personally I thought The Omen was far scarier. Slept with a bible by my bedside every night.’
‘Do shut up Brian.’ Paddy said, in a wooden way, as if they'd rehearsed this routine many times.
I stood up. ‘Where’s the toilet?’
‘Along the hall to the left,’ said Paddy. ‘You’ll find it.’
Swayed. My feet felt as if I was wearing clown boots, catching in my own heels. Looked back at them sitting at the table. ‘I’m headin’. Need to go and see if Myra is ok.’
‘Better if you stayed the night here with us,’ said Paddy. ‘You’re in no state to help anybody. And I’d like to run a little experiment. What doesn’t kill us, cures us.’
‘Knock yourself out,’ I said. ‘But I’m goin’.’