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CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: WarZone 2008 (excerpt from MENTAL SHRAPNEL, by Phillip O’Neil)

Chris Mahler was a top psychologist, but that was before the war in Bosnia. Something happened to him during that war – it left him too traumatised to remember. Jasmina was the love of his life. She was killed in the siege of Sarajevo and his ability to live and love again died with her. Or so he believes.

Now a shell-shocked survivor, he is the patient, strapped to a bed under the care of the mysterious Dr Steinfelder. To Mahler, the war meant losing the love of his life and his sanity. To Dr Steinfelder, it meant developing a radical new psychotherapy – a treatment so extreme that even the UN has declared it ‘Above Top Secret’. Mahler’s trauma and amnesia can be cured. But what will he remember if it is? Is Mahler the perfect Guinea Pig the doctors have been hoping to find? Or is it a case of kill or cure? Mahler wants to uncover all that lies hidden in his brain. Powerful men want it to stay buried.

The Orwellian tyrant known as ‘The Censor’ has his secrets too, but what does he want from Mahler? Once colleagues, Steinfelder and ‘The Censor’ are now arch-enemies. Mahler must go to war once more and this time the stakes are higher than ever before, discovering that in the twenty-first century, psychiatry is the newest and deadliest weapon of war.

MENTAL SHRAPNEL is forthcoming in 2020.


WarZone 2008

So, Catharsis East was where I was heading for. My press credentials allowed me to pass by tram into the WarZone capital. Imagine a game of chess where every move has to be audited, cross-checked, examined by juries, opened up to a referendum and then on to a supreme court who meet in camera once every four years. Or it was simply kiddies hopscotch: squares with paper thin flagstones over wells of acid, venomous snakes, shattered windshields coated with venom and typhus, liquid ancestor shit, the calling cards of play.

I could smell Central Station two storeys away. There was an updraft of memories too, the same pungent scent of rubber, sweat, bleach and onions. I had to get out. Sensitivity to body-odours was flagging my states of mind. I was getting to have a dog’s nose.

A dog smells fear, cancer, epilepsy and PTSD. I honed in on personality disorders and skin irritations. Dermatology and mental imbalance go hand in hand. Like you can tell a former heroin addict by his or her jowls. You learn to read them like passport photos. You start to smell the skin the moment you hit on the sunken eyes, sleeplack kohl orbits, the tic-blinkers’ morse-code, the sore-eyed with their non-functioning tear ducts advertising the temporally lobotomised, the maced look of the leaking pent-up distempered.

Like all face-reading, like all anything, it’s as much about intuition as about rifling through a mental portfolio of the police-artist. The translucent and papery sexual deviant with pale blue eyes, the bumfluff of a face knocking on the split personality door, those imperious females of a certain age who pass by, leaving on the wind their coffee and lipstick breath and the kind of steely gaze makes you feel small, cold and guilty inside. People dress into themselves, so they smell into the soapstone sculpted by some kind of highjacked jinxed youth.

In Central Station there was a miasmic cloud of indigence. A train commute, strummed to by buskers: the same journey day-in-day-out becomes intolerable and suffocating to those inert to the crowded rhythms. But I’d been away so long that the smell took me back, body and soul, to when this was a routine. If you smell of the pack, you don’t pick up. If the pack sniffs you, they disengage. At least they do with me around. They always knew I’m here to do exactly that – sniff around, trying to block out the colognes, perfumes, eau de toilettes. The alcoholic who’s still managing his addiction with vodka breakfasts is less obvious than the guy or girl starting up and still looking rattled from last night’s razzle. Alert and still self-conscious of the newer bruises and grazes. The trail to Ms Mortsel was not an attar of roses deal. Think medieval physician with nowt but a couple of dead goats dunked in Holy Water to protect him from The Plague.

I stared down the escalator. There were matches, gum and sweet wrappers crushed in the slats. I was getting used to the burning sensation in my nostrils. Its armpit tang was organic. If you think you’ll hike right out of there, you’ll find none of the escalators are going back up.

I turned left into a hall the size of a bus terminal. It was serving no visible purpose. It looked like prime real estate, as the new blue-glass blocks attested, but not even a taxi-rank or connection was at the end of this entrance. You could house a 747 in there. It had been built to serve a purpose forgotten in construction. Or maybe it was just waiting for its signal event to show up.

I came at the station from this entrance for the first time. They had been building on such a scale around there that I would never be able to find my way back into town. I could only hope to stumble into it. But it was not a shortcut or scenic diversion to impress a visitor. I would get embarrassed or improvise a café stop as a once favourite haunt.

I heard some Maghreb kids messing around with a deflated football before I saw them. They were being watched by a dreadlocked wino. There was a giant green larva suffering from stomach cramps next to him. Then I saw it was a sleeping bag. He had a tube of Gambrinus held between his thumb and index finger: swinging it, a beer pendulum, a perpetual pendulum. The can was all but finished and I could taste the dregs. He had probably given up drumming up the energy to beg for another. Hey! I could taste minds. Taste and smell – they were the guns in my armoury down here.

I looked out and up. Through the glass, one of the blue-glass skyscraper’s roof lights fanned up through the smog, the ghost of a crane perched like a Norwegian flag against the orange city sky.

On one side was one of those pensions that appear on invisible networks used by: backpackers, people traffickers, down-on-luck businessmen, unspecified AWOLS and bail and ball breakers. There was a group of Africans operating out of the cheap bar: Nigerians at a guess. Dogtooth blazers and purple suits on their upper bodies, worked out so hard they had turned into fleshy catapults negotiating, shouting and laughing between mobile phones and posse.

It seemed bizarre to me. By which I mean there was a ceasefire, not a truce or an end to a potentially perpetual war. There was something going on. Maybe it was a brokered deal that had not been made public? But why? Could it really just be down to the disagreement over the name of the phoenix arisen? Back to the United States of Dependent Memory? Was it all over a name or a condition?

I saw the boys still hanging out the other side of the vast glass wall. A lanky youth, fourteen maybe, came up to the glass, like he was in a restaurant aquarium, checking out the clientele. He rapped on the glass to the guy in front of me, bringing his fingers to his mouth eliciting a light or a cigarette. The man hesitated and the fingers offered him more. The guy probably thought the kid was making vomiting gestures. No trade.

Maybe I was a little offended when he took one look at me and walked back to his mates, squatting like Inca mummies against one of the portico pillars. Then I saw what my third eye had been telling me all along.

‘Hey kid!’ I said. ‘C’mere!’

He gave me the nod and I leant against a pillar, lit a cigarette and waited for him to come round.

‘An image made this pale man pale’, I thought. So this time he’s hanging around North station.

‘What you doing around here at this time?’

He looked at me like I didn’t know. He jerked his head up, looking at my cigarette and asked me for one.

‘Don’t you think you’re a bit young?’

I offered him one. So many tips looking like an albino rocket launcher. I grimaced and told him he reminded me of someone and looks again like I’m hard at Polari I’ve learned from a phrasebook.

‘Christopher Mahler eh?’

‘Thassright,’ I said. ‘What have I got, a strip across my face.’

‘Cath told me you’d need some help. Getting into the WarZone. She mobiled me your picture.’

‘Well, she does work in mysterious ways.’

‘She wasn’t sure you’d take the job.’

‘What? Take the money and run?’

‘Something like that. Thought you’d lose your nerve. What with your time back there and all,’

‘Dame Cathar seems to know a lot about me,’

‘She’s like that. She’s very…’


‘No, thorough.’

‘So, what’s your name?’


‘Funky parents eh?’

‘It’s what people call me.’

‘Well, Spoiler, what makes her think I need help getting into Catharsis centre?’

‘They’re looking out for you. Things have got much tighter there. You’ll need me to help you through. It’s what I do,’

‘And I thought that you were part of the service industry.’

‘You want my help or not?

‘Look I really don’t think…’

‘So, you’ve got accreditation, yeah?

‘What do you know…?’

‘And permits from The United States of Dependent Memory?’

‘Look …’

‘Well, you’ve got the map?’

‘You know it doesn’t exactly sound like the ‘map’ was exactly a hard thing to come by.’

‘It isn’t.’

‘So why all the covert stuff?’

‘It was not just about getting hold of the map. It was what you do with it. It’s fuck-all use to most people.’

‘I don’t understand…’

‘No time to explain right now. Wrong place. It’s crawling with undercovers. We’ll go to The Holiday Inn. Tomorrow.’

Another blind alley. I knew it.

‘Well, kid thanks for your time and all…’

‘It was true isn’t it? You don’t really want to go at all. Most hotels in the zones are Holiday Inns. They’ve got a monopoly. Apart from the canals.’

‘Monopoly or not they might call them different names. You know, to avoid confusion.

‘They do have different names Holiday Inn Number One, Two all the way up to 34.’

‘Alright, alright. I get the point. How come you know all of this?’

He raised his eyebrows like I had asked the colour of the sky.

‘Okay, okay,’ I said, ‘I get the picture. Come along with me.’

© Phillip O’Neil

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


One thought on “CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: WarZone 2008 (excerpt from MENTAL SHRAPNEL, by Phillip O’Neil)

  1. Every phrase, crafted with indulgent care; each a story in their own right.

    Posted by David O'Neil | May 14, 2020, 1:53 pm

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June 2020
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