The Chemical People
Sister Mary Calder padded over to the single caged grave in the churchyard. A dozen bars were stretched over it. Underneath was a tablet, she read it: BETHANY WRETCH. DIED FEBRUARY 2ND, 1846. AGED 16 YEARS & 6 MONTHS. The old lady shuddered, turning to her psychologist unloading the equipment. An ugly-looking man in his forties. A fellow Scot – esteemed psycho-scientist at the University of Edinburgh – and the force behind their visit.
When he telephoned her the evening before, he said it would be him who’d return her to St Marks’, not her majesty’s pleasure. Sister Mary put the receiver down and screamed, but she had no say. She started having the nightmares again, mixing incidents in the church with her time in the war. She began to “see” the chemical people again. The drive to St Marks’ took them three and a half hours, deep into the heart of the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire. It was the biggest and most infamous moor after Saddleworth. Sister Mary didn’t say anything to him in the car. He helped her out of it and let her wobble over to the grave, leaving him to his equipment. The fog was running down the hills and towards the church when Sister Mary felt something start to come over her.
‘We shouldnae come here, Mr. Cross.’
‘Doctor Cross,’ he said. ‘How many are here now?’
Her feet remained rooted. At the church door, stood Father Jenkins. Over by the fence, goodness me, Sister Mary Lazarus, cold bitch that one, and is that… no… it can’t be – Kenneth Young? That cheeky wee bastard.
‘Mary,’ Cross repeated.
‘Uh,’ she said, looking. ‘Three of ‘em,’
‘That’s not so bad, so what’s startled you?’
‘It’s not them I’m worried aboot, it’s her!’
Cross left his equipment and joined her at the grave. ‘Is this Bethany?’
‘She one of the chemical people?’ he asked.
‘No, she’s very much real.’
‘Did she come with us on the drive here too?’ he said.
No, she didn’t. It was a couple who sat in the back. Mr. and Mrs. Eric King, holding hands. The Kings were from a chemical imbalance in the medication, she thought. As soon as they upped the dosage, she’d be fine. But they didn’t want to anymore. She knew the couple in the backseat weren’t real, but what were they doing in the car? Why only when they got onto the country roads and why now, forty-odd years on? Haven’t seen them in years. The drive north east from Edinburgh, through Perth and Dundee was a nightmare for her when she was awake. Cross noticed her eyes checking the mirrors but said nothing. He was taking her to the place where it started, to see what brought them on.
He would run a series of tests, monitoring blood and temperature at all times. These would be thorough and followed by a polygraph Q&A. In the polygraph, Cross would ask questions from an advanced schizophrenic test composed by the NHS. He didn’t believe that Sister Mary was schizophrenic. Rather, a hereditary neurological condition of sorts. With age, she had started to bury the traumatic events of her life. But she was diagnosed in 2007 with dementia. The hole, as he once referred to it, from where the “chemical people” came from, was located somewhere within the syndrome. With declining memory loss and the slurring of speech, she became more like her old nihilistic self. In short, the declining brain functions stemmed from birth and started as a young woman. But it would be some time before he could prove or disprove his theory, Cross struggled to fix up the equipment alone.
It was getting late. The chilly breath of the afternoon had turned to evening gales. No stars – just fog. Nocturnal creatures hid in the rise and fall of the moaning winds. They steered away from the tent and the spotlights the Doctor had erected. Sister Mary was well away with her thoughts. When his hand tapped her on the shoulder, it scared her.
‘Can we please go? I don’t wanna do this,’ she said.
‘Mary, I’m saving your life. Do you want them to…’ he poked her forehead. ‘Fix you?’
Sister Mary didn’t look him in the eye. Her attentions were fixed on Becky Salter, playing Diablo in the tent’s corner. There were bruises and finger-marks around her scrawny little neck. She was dribbling salty marsh water through her lips.
‘Are you O.K.?’ Doctor Cross asked.
Becky Salter had gone.
‘Then I’ll start,’ he said, ruffling his papers.
He had rolled graph paper – rigged pulse clips – replaced the ink and fixed the appropriate dials. She was already in the chair. The Doctor fixed the blood pressure cuff too and read the measurement produced by the left dial. 100/80 – normal status.
‘Reet, is your name Sister Mary Calder?’
‘Yes,’ she said. The needle bumped – flat-lined. Normal signs.
‘Who are the chemical people, Mary?’
‘My victims.’ Flat-line.
‘Do you remember killing them?’
Sister Mary refused to comment, Cross pressed on.
‘And what about that girl, Bethany, is she real?’
‘No,’ The needle dipped two inches – a white lie.
‘So, she is real? Does she scare you?’
‘No,’ The needle dipped eight inches. Then, by its own, corrected itself.
Doctor Cross saw it. He pushed the bridge of his spectacles to the top of his nose, now concerned. What was happening? ‘Does she pose a threat?’
‘No,’ – flat-line.
‘And how about us?’ he asked.
‘No, my dear.’
The needle dipped eight inches and remained, steadfast.
‘What the fuck?’ Doctor Cross said, loudly.
She walked across the tent and grabbed him by the throat. They toppled to the floor and Cross was taken aback by the immense strength of this old woman. He struggled for some time and before long, was lying sprawled out on the tarpaulin he’d used to cover the grass. Sister Mary stood back, waiting, it was extraordinary. She waited four or five seconds there.
Then with derision, she turned her back on the body, lifting his legs and marched him out into the cold. There had been rain, a chilling mist had descended on the church and lay low across the marsh. She marched the body through the interspersed graves and stopped again at the caged one.
The bars had been bent.
‘Is that yooh?’
Sister Mary saw the dark outline riding on the horizon of the mist.
‘It’s me,’ she replied.
‘What are yooh doing back here?’
Ms. Wretch’s eyes were sunken into her head. Their darkness matched her black dress. The thinnest layer of flesh was stretched over her face. She appeared to be gaunt with disease. The wind whistled around her, kicking up the muddy locks of hair.
‘Came to see you,’ she lied.
‘How’s your granny?’ Ms. Wretch said.
‘Dead and buried,’
‘That makes me sad… go on – you’ll catch yourself a cold oot in this. I’ll take care of him. Like I always do.’
Sister Marry kissed the blackish cheek, the skin came off on her lips. She marched over to the Audi, slotted the keys in the ignition and headed for the Highlands. Doctor Cross sat in the passenger seat, rubbing antiseptic cream over the finger-marks.