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, with cover design by Narmin Ismiyeva.
Fifteen years ago I lost Jazz. Fact is, I should have put my foot down when she suggested going to Sarajevo with me. I remember nursing a glass of whisky in the living room of our flat in Prague 7 and staring at the rug which was alive with elephants, tigers, dog-headed men and ibis – soumak I think it’s called. Anyway, it was stained like the parquet floor with spilt drinks, massage oil and candle wax. Across from where I was sitting was a grey-white marble topped cabinet. It was a kind of shrine of items being periodically added to by Jazz and me: incense sticks in slim wooden holders, a scattering of empty shell casings, three tarot card decks, a plaster statue of Athena, pots of African violets, a Buddha, a cassette covered in mud and blood, two small hip flasks of Cacharel and Anaïs Anaïs, Sarajevan cigarettes packaged in musical scores, and a string of press credentials. Behind this stash, Jazz’s eyes were staring down from the covers of Pozor magazine when it ran a feature on her and other Bosnians in Prague during the war. The winged mirrors caught her image either side – a green-tinted triptych with the reflected light of a lampshade decorated with Tibetan ideograms. I was staring at this, tired because of work and arguing with Jazz about the upcoming trip when I heard her in the bathroom pulling at the toilet roll. Which made me lean my head towards the bathroom door and wonder if she was crying. I heard the toilet flush. Relief. Then I heard her turn on the bathroom taps. She came back to the living room‘You wanna bath?’‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Go ahead. I’ll find that ledder.’
She broadcasted her anxieties by her raised inflection, making a question out of a statement of fact. I guess she’d picked up that habit off TV or American journalists. Also the way the ‘t’s morphed into ‘d’s.
‘You coming?’ I asked.
‘Sure, just give me a moment,’ she answered.
I picked up my glass, stood up, light-headed. As I passed Jazz en route to the bathroom she put her hand on my shoulder. She turned and pressed her cheek against it. From the yellow walls of the living room into the dark blue bathroom. There were puffer fish hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by wind chimes and two bulbs decorated with more paper lanterns. A poster-sized picture of a torn photograph of a small boy with wings stared up at the ceiling. Another Sarajevo memento. I had tried to track down the artist on a previous sortie; never could though.
The bath was huge and had made me wonder who used to live here. Circular and olive green – a scalloped oyster with a mirror ceiling. Certainly not your average tin ’n’ Formica state issue. It had probably belonged to some high class apparatchik before the revolution. Or, indeed still did. I tipped in bath salts and chlorinated water, lit some candles and felt relaxed-tired rather than wired or jumpy. I couldn’t have slept more than ten hours in the previous four days. I blocked the next flashforward that spun into view: too much like having my head pressed up against a tumble dryer full of hospital waste.
In the bath, the water barely covered my legs and I heard Iggy Pop coming through the door: “Here in the death car, we’re on fire”. I rested my head on the bath lip and stared at my reflection in the mirror when Jazz came through the door, allowing in a wide arc of light. She was wearing a grey mohair top and Chloë trousers. Around her wrist were several bracelets and red string, a copper band and a South American charm bracelet. The description ran through my mind like copy on the maroon screens of closed eyelids. As I logged this, I wondered how I made out all the detail. Maybe I was starting to remember makers’ marks. Ever since I’d told her of the dreams I’d been having about the faceless girl with the oddly detailed outfits, she’d latched onto the fact. She had joked about her jealousy for the dream girl. She said she’d have to beat the ghost at her own game. Said that Sarajevo was probably still the best dressed capital in Europe: that Prague people dressed worse than refugees.
She sat on the window ledge, lit a cigarette. She left it burning in an ashtray and started to undress. She reminded me of the figures on Čechův most. I mean, they’re gold, while she had this tan bought at The Atrium Hotel. My eyes focused on her hips. They were broad, her pubic hair, as usual, waxed to a landing strip. Above her fleur de lys tattoo on the right and a white scar that looked too big for an appendix operation though she insisted that was what it was.
It was at The Atrium she told me about the smell of cigarettes and chlorine. Quite why, she didn’t know, nor cared. No childhood memories of ‘I’ll show you mine’ at the local pool, no erotic first encounters. Sure, she had developed them when she realised the fact the combination turned her on. The Atrium was perfect with its top floor pool and bar. If there was no one smoking (and usually we had it to ourselves) I would order up a beer and light up. Jazz’s treat. We would swim in the pool with the main lights switched off; the pool had underwater lighting. The sauna was usually vacant too. And she always chose room 405. Our bodies still smelling of chlorine and fag smoke, we’d make love before eating at the hotel’s restaurant and returning for a second wind. On top of me she looked even more like the golden girls on the bridge.
But that night she barely looked at me. We’d already exhausted the argument about the trip. When she sat on the stool by the window with the soundtrack to ‘Arizona Dreams’ coming from the living room – it was a mix of… I dunno, melancholy and saudade. It always seemed that arousal reminded her of a place she’d rather be, a place revealed and then whipped away. Like a gameshow host revealing the star prize, the Bahamian beach hut holiday which you could have won if you’d played your cards right but instead you get the food mixer. Yes, that’s useful too. Practical. It’ll last longer than a spell in a paradise. And you know that something deep in you recognises that island. You know you’ve stretched out on that beach and you’re there for the memory and sadness of disappearing. Jazz frequently went through ‘le petit mort’ ahead of schedule. It was like the opposite of trauma. No, I’m wrong. It was the repetition of some event that had brought us together and that, whatever it was, was in the way. Like looking at Eden when you know you have no place being there. Some want the memory to erase that kind of shit. Not Jazz. She knew that the island was there but populated with all these fucking bodies: homunculi; lumpen golems; dead, bloated corpses.
She had this weird notion, see. How we came together and all that. She told me about it and I’d laughed it off but then she’d keep on. Bonkers, but anyway, as she mentioned in the Pozor article, one of the editors told her she looked like a Czech actress she had seen in a play by Karel Čapek, ‘The Makropulos Secret’. Anyway, point being, Jazz identified herself with this character, the ‘immortal’ girl, Katya Marty. At first I thought it was a joke, I mean, we all make similar kinds of alter egos, no?
This girl, Katya Marty, then went under a number of names and aliases as she kept trying to re-invent herself: Katerina, Kate, Catherine, Cathy, Kit. You get the picture.
‘It kind of helps that she’s a beauty,’ Jazz told me. ‘Čapek called her “beautiful enough to drive you mad but cold as a knife”. But the thing was that she always ends up bored, realizing that if you’re going to live that long you can’t really love, I mean of course, you’re going to continuously out-age any partner.
The girl was also terrified that her real face would appear. A four-hundred-year-old beauty with a dried-up heart. Some might make money out of it, get away from it all or go stay in an ashram. Some might take anti-psychotics and get sectioned every so often, when the person became a patient acting ‘out of character’. How the hell can you act out of character if you had a hundred excited personas banging on your skull to get out and take a walk? Where would you find a therapist capable enough?
For me it had to do with Bosnia or rather the whole Balkan region which goes through this endless cycle of war and attrition, a pause to rebuild for a generation or two, and then start it all up again.
In the same way she felt immune to what was going on down there, while I thought it was suicide teasing to want to go down with me. Then she complicated things by saying that she was going to stay with our Spanish friend Ren to ‘think things over’. When Jazz made a decision she ran with it. There was no reason contesting it. Ren was a good friend of ours. I wanted a fix then. I had waved goodbye to smack a while back. It had done its fair job of filling me with soothing warmth, and all the mockingbirds, hyenas and mosquitoes in my head had been put to sleep.
But now they were coming back and I knew it was something to do with the missing time in Bosnia. It was still not there. My last memory was of getting into an Armoured Personnel Carrier on the way to Sarajevo Airport via Sniper Alley. It must have been traumatic, but all I know is that I had never heard from or heard of Jazz since then.
I’ve had fifteen years of trying and not trying to remember the thing that had made Jazz disappear. Was she even alive? I had contacted her aunt and uncle in Sarajevo and they were as clueless as me. I checked the UN, the lawyers she’d worked with. I knew there was something ugly I had to confront, in my unconscious. Whatever it was, I guess it was time I faced that revelation, of what happened.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ I asked.
‘I just called for an ambulance,’ said my ex, Cyn.
‘Bitch! You promised you wouldn’t.’
‘When you weren’t eating glass, yes.’
‘I was not eating glass. I was carving a smile on my face,’
‘Joker? Huh? You’re bleeding all over your books.’’
‘Get away from me. They’re my books and I’ll bleed wherever I want. I want a glass of water.’
‘Chris, you just ate a glass of water!’
‘I didn’t have any other option, Chris. In any case you’ve got to get yourself stitched up.’
‘You’ve just stitched me up.’
‘Can you just keep yourself together for a bit?’
It was then my eyes caught sight of the knife on the table.
‘I’ll give the ambulance crew something to do,’ I said and dragged the knife across my belly and chest.
‘Oh! Christ Chris put that knife down. For god’s sake!’
‘Seppuku it’s called. They call it Seppuku. They want me to see it through. First the belly, then the head. Now, who’s going to be a nice girl and help me decapitate me. Go on, Sister Mercy. They’re all saying it’s the way to go!’
The voices were still wowing in and out and in and out.
‘Give me the knife. Chris, please give me the knife.’
None of the fucking pills were bringing me down. Through the window, I registered the flashing lights from the ambulance in the street. When the bell buzzed and Cyn went to answer, I was thinking of the bodies, the sounds of wood and metal on bone and flesh, the screams. I was thinking of the argument and hallucinations that had set this off. I also felt ashamed that so much time and effort was going into my selfish, barking mad scenario.
She picked up the entry-phone to let the paramedics in. I heard them come up the stairs and into the flat. I stepped into the living room and wondered why the paramedics were dressed in black. That was because they were not paramedics. They were cops. There were three of them. Prague’s finest in black commando uniforms. They were all over six foot, with their knife-proofvests, belts, bandoliers and pockets full of guns, radios, handcuffs and sprays. Framed in the tall double-doors of the flat from the hallway, I saw these guys. I was furious. With one sweep of my right arm, I cleared the coffee-table. In a trice, they were upon me. I suppose I must still have had the knife in my hand. One cop tripped me up. The other two pinned me to the floor with their hands and boots. I couldn’t talk as my chin was being ground into the parquet. I felt my stubble scratch into itself. I was trying to move my head under the rubber and leather.
Out from the roof of my eye, I saw the green and Day-Glo yellow uniforms of the paramedics. They were standing by, watching me prostrate on the ground as though I were some anonymous rioter. I was struggling to protest when the third copmanacled me.
‘Stop struggling,’ he told me, ‘or I’ll end up breaking your watch.’
I was led down the stairs in my socks, hoping none of my neighbours had come to peek at the sideshow bleeding all over their steps.
Kerrthump. Kerrthump. Kerrthump…
They sat me down in the ambulance, still handcuffed and wrapped up my belly in some kind of enormous plaster. I was joined by one police officer, two paramedics and Cyn.
We went first to A&E to stitch up the cuts on my lips and belly.
The next thing I knew was having two orderlies helping me out of a wheelchair to my feet and directing me towards a bed with leather straps.
‘This is bullshit. I said that…’
‘Please, Mr Mahler, just lie down.’
‘I won’t. No way.’
I saw a nurse filling a syringe with Elateanvil.
There were mute echoes in the ward. Nurses, orderlies and the moans and twittering of other patients but these all started to fade. My memory cut out again.
© Phillip O’Neil