13 July 2013

Doomsday Device


His name was Robert and he had a twin brother Richard who, he explained, was on another ward because they could read each other’s minds.

“Together we are too formidable for the nurses to tackle.”

He was a tall, slender, carrot top of about twenty eight years. When he spoke his hands fluttered in his lap like birds trapped in a cage.

“My father was a minister in The Church Of Scotland. He resented our gift. There was a massive power struggle and he locked us in a time capsule for the sake of science.”

He looked around furtively.

“We don’t belong here, but they had the idea we were building a doomsday device, so they locked us in here. No vision you see. No vision.”

He stalked off with a loping gait when he saw one of the nurses coming into the ward. He had some complaint or other; he had many quite fanciful complaints.

The wards were named after Scottish islands; we were on Islay and Robert’s brother Richard was on the neighbouring island of Jura. It seemed appropriate to me that the wards were named for islands, because each of them seemed just like a little island separated from the mainland of everyday life. The building that housed these islands was a vast rambling Gothic Victorian asylum, a bedlam as they were once called. Locally its name, Bellsdyke, was synonymous with lunacy.

I was placed there as a voluntary patient under the understanding that if I had not volunteered I would have been ‘sectioned’ under the mental health act as a danger to myself or others. It was a Hobson’s choice - volunteer or we will make you. I would be detained there under observation for thirty days until it was determined what would be done with me. I had come to hospital a fractured personality with certain delusions and suicidal tendencies. I was a manic depressive, but did not know this at the time.

During the first few days I kept myself to myself. I felt I did not belong there anymore than Robert felt that he belonged there. I was deeply depressed and withdrawn. The nurses tried to coax me into interaction with my fellow inmates, but I would not be drawn. Gradually though I began to acclimatise to my surrounding, at least during the daylight hours. At night I found the hospital a weird and frightening place. All night I could hear people sobbing or crying out in distress. I could hear doors slam and footfalls echoing down long empty corridors. The boy in the bed next to me would not stop crying, I didn’t blame him I wanted to cry myself.

It was several days before I encountered Richard. He was identical to Robert in every way, except that he wore a three piece tweed suit. He was standing in the recreation room of Islay ward watching a joiner replace the sashes in one of the old wooden windows. He turned and walked to the rec room table, which was festooned with books and pamphlets and picked up a notepad. He approached the joiner and flicking through the pad informed him that he had the wrong window.

“It’s this window that needs fixed.”

The joiner nodded and dutifully undid his work and proceeded to the next window. He was nearly finished when the sister arrived and informed him that he had replaced the sashes in the wrong window.

“But the doctor”, he said, indicating Richard, “told me it was this window.”

The sister smiled forbearingly,

“He is a patient.”

Richard quickly about faced and skulked off like a guilty schoolboy.

That night, after his parents had left, the boy in the bed next to me was distraught and he sobbed for hours. I despaired of ever getting to sleep, but the nurses gave him a shot and he was soon out cold. I woke up in the early hours with the lights flashing on and off. Robert was at the light switch.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked groggily.

“Morse code,” replied Robert.

“Why?” I asked.

He just gave me an indulgent smile, stupid question.

“Who are you signalling?”

“That’s a secret.”

“Please stop it,” I implored, “I’m trying to sleep.”

Just then we heard footsteps approach the door and Robert jumped into his bed. “What’s going on?” enquired the nurse.

“He won’t stop talking,” said Robert pointing an accusing finger in my direction, but averting his gaze.

“Get to sleep Robert,” said the nurse and closed the door.

Robert had an aversion to television. Most of the other patients were avid viewers during the hours of seven till ten when we were allowed to watch. He believed television would steal your thoughts. However, he did not leave the television room while it was on. He paced about behind our chairs making cryptic comments while averting his eyes. One evening he became particularly animated while we were watching Top of the Pops.

“It’s propaganda!” he exclaimed. “Turn it off,”

he made a grab for the switch, but was intercepted.

“It’ll melt your brain!” he insisted.

Then after many attempts to distract us he said in a sly voice, “I’ll detonate the device.”

We ignored him. He began a countdown “10, 9, 8...” When he reached zero he slammed his hand into the fire alarm and all hell broke loose. There were bells ringing everywhere. The nurses arrived from their station to see what was going on and to evacuate us from the building.

“It was just Robert,” we protested, but regulations are regulations.

The whole hospital was evacuated and we all, many of us in pyjamas, stood outside in the snow while we were counted and the fire brigade did a search of the building. I was standing next to Robert and he turned to me and said, “BOOM”.

The next time I saw him he was being dragged away by two orderlies screaming for help.

“John! John! Help me!”

It was two days before he arrived back on the ward. He was a shambling shadow of his former self. The ‘chemical cosh’ the other patients called it; a drug called largactil, a common treatment for schizophrenia. I seemed like a punishment to me, punishment for unleashing the doomsday device.



  1. Robert McColley13 July 2013 at 04:51

    Love it, great flow and use of words and characters. Very enjoyable John Jack!

    1. Thank you Robert - the story I've told quite often - but the writing it took a little effort

  2. A riveting read, John! It must have been a bit of a catharsis to start to write about it.

    1. Yes I think it has been Ray - even though these events took place about 25 years ago - I've never related my experiences in that place with any but my closest confidants before.

  3. Thanks to all my Facebook friends who commented on this piece - much appreciated.

    Incidentally the picture above is of the derelict shell of the hospital where my wee story was set.